The Practice Novel

By J.D. Rhoades

I’m not sure where it
was—which blog or website—that I first saw the term “practice novel.” At first,
the phrase  kind of tickled me, because
it seemed like a sort of wry acknowledgement that the person’s first attempt at
a novel really wasn’t all that good, let
alone publishable, that its main value was in providing examples of what didn’t
work (or maybe as fire starters when the supply of pine knots gives out). But
then, when googling for more examples, I discovered that some people apparently
actually did write their first novel purely for practice, that they really
didn’t have any intention of trying to get it published. John Scalzi, for
example, whose brilliant Old Man’s War
is one of the best SF novels I read last year, had this to say: 

I decided to make it easy on myself. I decided first
that I wasn’t going to try to write something near and dear to my heart, just a
fun story. That way, if I screwed it up (which was a real possibility), it wasn’t
like I was screwing up the One Story That Mattered To Me. I decided also that
the goal of writing the novel was the actual writing of it — not the
of it, which is usually the goal of a novelist. I didn’t want to worry
about whether it was good enough to sell; I just wanted to have the experience
of writing a story over the length of a novel, and see what I thought about it.
Not every writer is a novelist; I wanted to see if I was. 

The result was a humorous
SF novel entitled Agent to the Stars, (now available online) which, as Scalzi predicted, didn’t
sell. But he credits the experience with making his “debut” novel (the
aforementioned Old Man’s War) not
only salable, but award-winning. And, he says,

between the writing of this novel and the
publication of that one, five other books slipped out of my brain, due in some
measure to my confidence that I
could write
book-length works, be they fiction or non-fiction. In a sense, this novel is
the midwife to every book since.

This idea fascinates me:
the idea that you’d write something as long and demanding as a novel with no
real idea that you were ever going to try to sell it or even have anyone else read it. Not because I believe, as
Dr. Johnson once said, that “no one but a blockhead ever wrote anything except
for money.” I’ve quoted that line before, in jest, but the truth is, the money’s never been that big a driving force for me (which is
fortunate, all things considered). Even if no one paid me for this, I’d
probably keep doing it (but for God’s sake don’t tell my publisher  I wrote that. Or my agent).

And I’m also not talking
about writing something just because it might pander to some imagined audience.
It wouldn’t be satisfying, at least to me, to write something that didn’t
please myself first. I can’t see myself spending that much time and skull-sweat and not writing the "One Story That Mattered To Me".  That’s one of the most terrifying things about this
business, though, isn’t it…putting something out there that you care about,
not knowing if anyone else is even going to read it, and even if they do,
appreciate it.

My own first attempt at a novel, a humorous mystery entitled Rebel Yell, never saw the light of day.  And now that I look back on it, I can see the mistakes I made as well as the things I think I did right. My other novels have benefited from the experience, I think, and, like Scalzi, I did find that yes, I could write to novel length, which gave me the courage to attempt The Devil’s Right Hand.

But I wrote Rebel Yell with the intention of seeing it in print. To start off not even caring whether the
book reached an audience, that you wouldn’t really care if no one but you ever
read it…well, you might as well be a tree falling alone in a forest. You’d make
a noise, or you might not, but who the
hell would care?

 How about you guys? Have
any of my fellow writers here ever written a “practice novel,” one where you
were just riffing, just playing around? Would any of you aspiring writers
consider doing such a thing? Why or why not? And would having the fixed  idea that no one was going to read a particular piece of work cause you to change the way you wrote it?

21 thoughts on “The Practice Novel

  1. Bryon Quertermous

    I wrote the first half of my first novel with every intention of selling it. I was convinced I would be one of the youngest authors published (at 24 which shows already how dellusional I was) and that everyone in New York would clamor for it. I was working at a publishing house and read so many crappy slush manuscripts that I convinced myself I could do better.

    But a funny thing happened toward the middle: it got HARD.

    From that point on, I did whatever it took to finish. It became a practice novel. I changed POV, characters, genres, and even plotlines all in the space of 150 pages just to see what would work. It was very freeing.

  2. Mark Terry


    Here’s the deal. I wrote my “just for fun” novel only recently, after an I-ain’t-tellin’ number of unpublished novels, and several published novels, including the one I’m trying to finish to round out my 4-book contract.

    I had an idea for a children’s fantasy novel. I thought I’d just tool around on the laptop in the evenings when I wasn’t actually working–I’m a fulltime freelance writer–and I did it mostly because I had an idea that I thought would be fun. I didn’t even known if my agent handled children’s fiction (she does, as it turns out). I got about 25 pages in and my oldest son started reading it and kept saying, “Okay, what’s next? You got to keep going.

    About that same time, I was corresponding with my agent and she asked me what I was working on. I told her I was working on the book I was actually contracted for, fooling around with a potential espionage novel, and, oh yeah, working on this kids’ novel. She said, “Send me what you’ve got on the kids’ book.” So I did. She loved the 25 pages and wanted to know how long I planned it to be and when I would finish it.

    I suddenly went from writing for fun to writing for publication and she’s marketing it now.

    The other day my son wanted to know, “When are you going to start on the next Peter Namaka novel?”

    I made the “professional writer” comment that I was waiting to see if I had a contract for the first one. He looked aghast. “Don’t you ever just write something for fun?”

    Hmmm. Well, let’s see, maybe it’s time to start Peter on his next adventure… just for fun.

  3. billie

    I sort of do my first drafts as practice novels – in that I write the way I want to, the way I like, in a very experimental organic manner which tends to be quirky and not conventional. I have a handful of first readers who like that style, but in subsequent drafts I shape more toward a traditional structure.

    And I often play around with POVs and chapter breaks (mostly not having them), etc. With the first novel I rewrote the entire thing in different points of view more than once. I often get off on tangents writing from the POV of a minor character just to get at the story from a different perspective.

    All of that is a way into the novel for me, but it’s also in some ways “practicing” just to see what happens.

    Fascinating post.

    (and LOL about the middle getting hard – I think I had a similar vision when I was 19 or so!)

  4. Louise Ure

    Forcing Amaryllis was my first novel. Hell, it was my first writing at all. Ever. Ever.

    But I can’t call it a practice novel, because my entire objective was simply to write it. I had no interest in publishing it.

    I started sending out query letters simply because my writers’ group was egging me on.

    I find it harder to write when you know that your agent, your editor, some reviewers and possibly some readers are going to see it. That’s a whole different head set.

  5. Brett Battles

    I think I’m like you, Dusty. I wrote that first book with the idea of selling it. But after over 50 query rejections, I put it on the shelf. Thank God. That book sucked! And it will never see the light of day again.

    BUT it was a terrific “practice novel.” Yes, it showed me what worked and what didn’t. But more than anything, it showed me I could finish a novel.

  6. simon

    my answer is yes and no. all my novels are practice novels–past present and future. i always try to do something new and i’m learning with everything i write. at the same time, i’ve never gone out of my way to write something that i didn’t want published. that also said, that’s the advantage of writing short stories. there is room for experimentation and it’s a great venue for learning how to write–and it doesn’t require the investment of a novel.

  7. Karen Olson

    I decided to write a mystery after spending years thinking I’d write the Great American Novel and never getting further than 20 pages. My “practice” novel dealt with the incredibly dull issue of groundwater pollution, but I had been covering a small town for a small daily newspaper and realized that people might actually kill over this. Needless to say, while I did send it to a friend of a friend of a friend at St. Martin’s, she was very gracious in telling me it sucked. But she also told me that I should try again. I’m glad she did.

  8. JT Ellison

    What a great topic!

    My practice novel was really a novella, and I absolutely intended for it to be published. It was 50,000 words, I knew exactly zero about story structure and character development, and I got 30 rejections and 1 acceptance. Of course, the acceptance was going to cost me about $300 so I decided maybe I’d try something else.

    It taught me what to do, what not to do, and how to accept rejection gracefully, which I think was vital to my growth as a writer. After I got turned down in so many places, I knew it wasn’t going to work, so I stole the opening paragraph and the characters and wrote a new book.

    If I had written simply to write, I don’t think I would have pushed myself to learn the craft. Looking back, though, I think it’s a great experiment for new writers. The pressure is off, you can test, play, suck, and no one will be the wiser.

  9. Alex Sokoloff

    Whoa! I agree with everyone above – what a great topic!!

    I wrote my first novel out of pure rage (writing a script for an A-list Hollywood director by day, working out my revenge fantasies in my one hour of novel writing a night…).

    Because I was spending at least 80% of my writing time on my day job, I had a lot of freedom in my night novel writing. It was such an emotional release that it kind of counts as a practice novel. It was only after I had a first draft that I realized I had something real and I had to get serious, and that’s when it all got scary.

    But there was a happy ending, if you can call any part of the writing life happy (!).

  10. Stephen Blackmoore

    Yep. My first novel was entirely just to prove that I could write a lot in one big chunk that might be, vaguely, cohesive. The worst piece of absolute crap I’ve ever put down. But it did prove to me that I could do it. That I could actually reach a point where I typed THE END.

  11. pari

    A slow learner . . . I had to write two practice novels before selling the third. Both of those first attempts were horrid and didn’t deserve publication, though I thought they did when I wrote and submitted them.

    That’s the funny thing — often we learn the most when we don’t realize we’re practicing. It’s kind of like those scenes in the KARATE KID — “Wax on. Wax Off.”

    I don’t think I would have completed either manuscript, written that much, if I didn’t think they *might* get published.

    Right now, I’m playing with a new series — having fun with it, finding the right voice, figuring out the problems and how to solve them. I’m writing it with an eye toward publication, but am trying very hard to shove my internal editor (and marketer) into one of those walk-in freezers with a giant lock until I get most of the first draft done.

  12. Gar Haywood

    JD:Like others have already said, you nailed this one—great topic.Technically speaking, ALL of an author’s novels should be practice novels, no? And by that I mean every book should be written for the express purpose of exciting the author, not its prospective audience. Does that mean all hope for selling the work has to go out the window? Not at all. In fact, like Pari mentioned, I don’t know how anybody can complete something as impossible to write as an 80,000 word manuscript without firmly believing they’ll get paid for it in the end. Writing intended strictly for oneself is what diaries are made for—and blog entries like this are as close as I’ve ever come to keeping a diary.

  13. toni mcgee causey

    I didn’t do a practice novel, but that’s probably more because I came out of screenwriting and had quite a few scripts behind me at that point. Plus, Bobbie Faye started as a script first and I knew I was sick of that business and didn’t want to hand it over to my then-agent. I decided it was going to be a novel when a friend asked me to write it as such.

    Screenwriting taught me story structure and a ton of other things (showing character through action, etc.) that I might not have learned except through a lot of attempts, novel-wise.

  14. Rob Gregory Browne

    I can’t even imagine writing a practice novel. I’m a lazy guy and that just seems like too much work.

    Whether I write a novel or a screenplay, I always write it with an eye toward publication or production. When I sat down to write KISS HER GOODBYE, I never even thought about it NOT getting published. That would just be too heartbreaking and probably would have stopped me in my tracks.

    I have, however, STARTED a lot of novels, gotten about thirty pages in and never bothered to go any farther. Probably because I instinctively knew they’d never get published even if I managed to finish — which, for a long time, was a dubious proposition.

  15. Laura Benedict

    Always late to the party….

    It took me almost eight years to write my first novel. A long eight years. I think I always knew it would never be published. Early on, I read Somerset Maugham’s autobiography in which he said a writer should put his first novel in a trunk and never think about it again. For me, it was great advice. (I still love the novel’s title though, and will use it again, and, no, I’m not telling!)

    Isabella Moon is technically my third novel. But it’s the one I wrote consciously for sale. For whatever reason, I thought I needed to hone my writing chops (is that a mixed metaphor?) on what I imagined was literary fiction first. Actually, I’m a sucky literary writer. Not nuanced enough–and I’m not enough of a poet to give a damn. I love plot, I love characters and with Isabella Moon I finally gave myself permission to have fun.

    Over the course of writing those first two books, I sold some non-fiction articles and essays and a few short stories. I also did a lot of copywriting. But, oh my, I do love my job now and I don’t regret a page of those two unpublished novels. (Though the bad guy in the second one is definitely getting his own book one day!)

  16. Daniel Hatadi

    My first novel was also a comedy/mystery, and I did it with the intention of selling and publishing an entire series of the things.

    But it wasn’t strong enough and I was man enough to admit that to myself and move on to something more serious and hopefully a lot stronger. It’s not finished yet, not even the first draft, but I don’t regret trashing the previous one.

    I also learned a helluva lot in the process, even if I never did submit it to anyone.

  17. G. T. Karber

    I wrote a novel last year called Murder Series, which was about six people who wake up in a hundred-room mansion with no doors or windows. Oh, also, there’s a dead body in the billiard room.

    Long story short, they start dropping, and it’s an action-adventure mystery that was a mix between And Then There Were None… and Battle Royale, except, oh yeah, it sucked.

    About thirty pages into it, I changed one of the characters’ personality and didn’t bother to go back and fix it. That’s for the rough draft, I cried. I made a note at the top to this effect.

    During the writing of the next seventy pages, I made two full typed pages of notes on things that I needed to change so that the story was actually coherent.

    When the story was done, the prospect was so daunting–and the ending so lame: three new characters had to be introduced in the last chapter for it to even make sense–that I never made it any further.

    I saved the manuscript. It’s in a random folder of my harddrive somewhere.

  18. spyscribbler

    I’m with Dr. Johnson on this one. My first short story was the only thing written for “fun.”

    But I hear that Diana Gabaldon’s first mammoth of a novel, Outlander, was a “practice novel.”


  19. Mike MacLean

    Okay, late to the party. Sorry.

    Tired of hearing how this is such a great topic? Too bad. Great topic.

    I have trouble wrapping my mind around the idea of a “practice novel.” I understand the notion of cutting yourself some slack, knowing your fist efforts might not be great. And I understand the idea of writing a novel without the expectation of a monetary return. But to write one with no intention of reaching an audience? I just couldn’t do it. Even if only 50% of my stories sell, I have to go into each one believing someone else will see it, hopefully enjoy it. I can’t imagine attempting 300 pages knowing no one will ever read a word. My heart just wouldn’t be into it. How do you keep going?


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