Analyzing past mistakes is a great way to learn. It’s important to note that I didn’t write my first book with the intent of publishing it. Maybe that makes it easier to dissect why it’s unmarketable. I wrote it as a personal goal. I had started a few other projects over the years that were way too personal and never finished, but in Spring of 2019 I decided I wanted to write a complete children’s book that was wholly unconnected to me and those around me. I finished it in December of 2019. After allowing a few very biased family members to read it, I even felt so good about it that I sent out a handful of queries. It wasn’t until I continued to write and actually study the craft of writing that I realized all the ways that first book sucks.
#1 A quiet, spineless protagonist. The story included a bullying theme (among many other things), and I intentionally wanted the protagonist to be neither the bully nor the bullied, but one of the many passive bystanders. That’s how it is in the real world, whether it’s a middle-school or an adult bullying scenario. The majority of us are passive bystanders, who don’t think we are the problem, but are too afraid to become the solution. We don’t make up the jokes; we just laugh at them. But a bully without a crowd of bystanders loses his power real fast. I wanted to reach that crowd. Of course my protagonist found his courage by the end of the book. That was part of his character arc. But who wants to identify with a very un-heroic protagonist until the last two chapters? It would take a better writer than me to pull that off.
#2 A weak conflict. It’s the classic portal fantasy of “Spencer fell down a tunnel and needs to get home.” There’s nothing in his home life that creates urgency to get home, nor is there anything particularly dangerous in the fantasy world.
#3 Speaking of the classic portal fantasy… I didn’t realize what a problem this was until I watched Sally Apokedak’s Udemy course (I think it was the one on plot; the course on voice is even better!) and she mentioned how grateful she was that her first book (“Nate fell down a tunnel”) was not published. Since getting on twitter, meeting other writers, and observing the #pitmad and other book-pitching madness, I realize that almost everyone seems to have a book like this. A trip down a rabbit-hole, where they meet elves, monsters, talking animals, etc, and need to get home. I bet if you searched #pitmad pitches and filtered out the ones comped to Alice in Wonderland, you’d eliminate a significant chunk. Of course there can be great new portal fantasies, but to succeed, your portal really needs something that makes it stand out. And you need to be able to convey that unique not-just-another-portal-fantasy element in a query letter.
#4 Query letters and first ten pages. Query letters are always hard, but… if you really, truly can’t make your book sound interesting, maybe there’s a reason. Most agents request ten pages. Some twenty. Some only five. My first book doesn’t get interesting until after the first ten pages. I think the most entertaining character appears around page twelve or so. Honestly, it doesn’t really pick up until you’re 20k words in. My mom says this isn’t fair, because my book is a really good book even though it starts slow, and agents should read more than just ten pages. But that’s just how it works. In a super competitive market, you don’t get 20k words to pull the reader in. (Unless it’s your Mom and she’ll be your cheerleader no matter what.) Now, I’ve gotten in the habit of writing a query letter and synopsis before I start a new project. It may not be exactly what I end up with, but it gives me an outline and guarantees that I will be able to pitch my project when it’s done. I also search for comp titles before I start, to make sure there isn’t anything too similar. (Although that makes listing comp titles in the query so much harder, when you’ve intentionally made sure there are no good comps.)
#5 It contained everything I had to say about any and every issue. I thought writing one complete book would be a huge achievement (it really is); I didn’t think I would ever write another one. Therefore, my first book contained all of my deepest philosophical thoughts about society and the world we live in (in kid-friendly terms, at least). The result is that it’s preachy and also thematically all-over-the-place. Kids read to be entertained, not lectured. While it’s good to have one important theme to help them navigate reality, it can’t come across preachy. And you definitely don’t want five. Trust me.
#6 The writing quality itself. Overall my writing quality improves with each project. That’s natural. I’ve also studied craft much more since then. I’m honestly a little afraid to look at this book again, but I’m sure it includes too much telling vs showing, too many adverbs, ‘suddenly’s, etc.
Despite all this, I don’t regret writing that book. It taught me so much; most importantly, that I could finish it. Writing the next book was so much easier. In fact, my second book was inspired by one element of the first book. That one element deserved to be fully fleshed out into its own story, set in an entirely different world with a different protagonist. Some of the craft books I’ve read almost insinuate that if you don’t follow their method and do it “right”, you will have wasted a lot of your time. I don’t ever want to approach writing as a waste of time if it isn’t published. Yes, it’s important to improve and learn successful plotting techniques if you do want to get an agent and be traditionally published. But there are so many other benefits to writing, even if nobody else ever reads it. I try to remember those benefits. None of my books were a waste of time. They engaged my mind and challenged my creativity. They made me think about my own worldview, and how to understand someone else’s worldview. Maybe someday I’ll pluck the good parts from that first book and use them for a new project. Either way, it was good practice for books two and three.