You never get over your first novel.
What’s that? You think you did? Nope, you’re wrong. You can tell because I’m writing this personal essay, and I never got over the first novel I wrote, so by the transitive law of personal-essay-writing neither did any of you. First novel stays with you for life.
Mine was (is) called in move. Yeah, all lower case, because when you write your first novel you are definitely pretentious. Here’s my pitch: four teenage guys staring down the end of high school struggle to cope as their friendship starts to collapse. It’s about relationships under pressure, dodging the worst aspects of masculinity, and making a giant hash of things with the girl you like. There is sex and drugs and bad language, and a total absence of “coming of age”.
It has been with me a long time. First conceived when I was one of those teenage guys staring down the end of high school, daydreaming during some boring class (probably statistics). Basically in move is me imaginatively exploring all the stuff I refused to take part in during high school, as per the well-known principle “write what you no”. Every unlikely element of the book is pulled directly from real events.
And. Those four friends and their shifting relationships? I have not been able to shake it off. Getting close on two decades since I typed “end” on that first draft and rarely does a week go by without me thinking about their story. I’ve written plenty of other stuff since, created so many other characters, set up so many other plots, but none of them stick around like these ones do.
What is it about first novels that makes them live on in our heads with such tenacity? I have a theory.
Writing a first novel calls for a particularly large amount of imaginative work. We must hold a big long narrative in our heads, carrying it as we laboriously type out word after word after thousandfold word. This puts heavy demands on our imagination. We can’t shortcut – we don’t know how yet. We can only learn imaginative discipline by doing the thing, so first novels by definition have to be wild and free-roaming. As we try to find our way through, we conjure vivid sequences in our minds and strain to capture them on the page. The only way to do the work is to bring it to life, or near as, in our heads. The only way to put characters on a page is to sit with them, too close, as they struggle and fail and burn with shame. We have to imagine it in hardcore full-resolution zoomed-in maximum-emo mode.
That imaginative work sticks. We’re making memories. Fake memories, sure, but our brains are useless at figuring out which memories are real and which aren’t. It all feels the same. Actually, it’s more than that: these memories are being worked over so thoroughly, rehearsed and reviewed and captured, that they end up feeling even more real than most of what really happened to us.
With such potent memories, no wonder our we never get over our first novel. But that’s not all folks! These memories aren’t isolated moments of everyday life that don’t connect in obvious ways to anything else. They follow the rules of fiction. The context around most memories dilutes meaning – life is too random and obtuse for clear lessons. But the context around these first-novel memories makes them richer, lines them up with beginnings and middles and endings, sits within arcs that we can appreciate if not fully understand.
And even more – even more! – than that: when you write, you can’t answer every question. You have to leave spaces and uncertainty around every scene. Those uncertainties will nag at you, forever. When you’re a more experienced writer, not so much – you’re accustomed to uncertainty, you know the questions you need and the ones you can skip, you know the shapes of what is off-screen. First novel, nope, you gotta do it the hard way.
And even even even more: when you write your first novel, oh it is true, you aren’t quite good enough. Your choices won’t be perfect. Your plot won’t line up just right. Your metaphors will get confused in the face. All this is good – first novels have a raw energy to them that shines through all that imperfection! But it also means you won’t ever get to treat this novel as solved. Its the one you’ll always know you could have made better, if you knew now what you did then, or is that backward?
All of which gets us to this: vivid, intensely salient memories, positioned within the structures of a story, laced with unanswered questions and things you’d do differently if you could go again. What red-blooded human cognitive system could resist?
And that’s why you will never get over your first novel.
(…oh wait a second. Just remembered, in move wasn’t really the first novel i wrote. Huh. So I guess my premise is invalid? Shhh. Pretend you didn’t read this bit.)
in move is freely available online in various digital formats, here. I am really proud of it, even though it is (an awful mess) “full of things I’d do differently if I could go again”. Currently I’m enjoying thinking about adapting it into a full-cast audio production using binaural sound, because that’s the kind of thing you think about doing with your first novel that you can never entirely shake off.
I am Morgan Davie. Find my stuff about games, stories, psychology and interactivity at taleturn. None of my novels have been published but I do have some very nice rejection slips.