The first book vs. the debut book

It’s pretty obvious that EMU’s Debuts is a blog for debut authors (heck, it’s right there in the name). And being “debut authors” means that we’re all getting a book we wrote published for the first time. But what may be less obvious is that for most of us, our debut book is not the same as our first book.

While I don’t have any hard facts in front of me, I’ve talked with plenty of writers and hung around on writerly forums enough to know that most writers have a book or four “in the drawer” (or, more likely these days, buried in a folder on a hard drive somewhere). These “practice” novels or picture books helped the writer learn his craft, but will probably never end up getting published.

For our young readers—and for many beginning writers—this fact can be mind-boggling. How could someone go through all the work of writing a whole book that no one else (except maybe for the writer’s mom) will ever read?

Well, for some of us, it’s not all that hard. We see that the book we wrote has serious flaws, we get all excited about a new story idea, and we move on.

But for others, it’s a lot harder, especially if that first book was a story that had real personal significance—if it was the “book of your heart.” YA author Beth Revis wrote an excellent blog post about this very topic last year, and it has stayed in my head ever since. A first book of this type can be very difficult to let go of if it doesn’t snag you an agent or a book deal. And some writers find this experience so disappointing that they never write another book.

Still, most of the published novelists I know wrote at least one book before they wrote the one that got them an agent, and for many the book that snagged their agent’s attention wasn’t the one that ended up getting published. And I imagine that most picture-book writers have even more books in the drawer than novelists do!

Of course, there are always exceptions to these kinds of rules–and on paper, I’m one of them. GLADYS GATSBY (final title still to be determined) is, technically, both my first novel and my debut.


It took me almost five years to write a first draft of the book, and then months of intensive rewrites to get it into agent-baiting shape. Then there was more intensive revision for my editor before she made an offer on the book, and let’s not even talk about the wringer the manuscript has been through over the last few months of the editing process. I recently took a look at the first chapters of that first draft of the book, and…shudder. They will be staying deep in the Drawer of Bad Writing (preferably under a protective layer of smelly socks).

The handful of other writers I know whose debuts and first books are the same all have similar stories–as many years of toil and rewriting on the same story as many other writers would put into two or three books. And I bet that most of them would agree that while their first book and their debut book may share the same title or storyline, they really aren’t the same book at all.

The bottom line is that there’s no one right way to reach the point in your writing career where your work is ready to debut; five authors will tell you five different stories of their paths to publication. But whether they rewrote the same book nine times or wrote nine practice novels (or, um, 90 picture books?), their paths are all almost guaranteed to have been long, challenging, and highly educational.

Put another way, here are the immortal words of Anne Lamott from her excellent book on writing, Bird by Bird:

“I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.”

Replace “first drafts” with “first books,” and you get my drift. 🙂


Readers, are you surprised to learn that an author’s debut book is often not their first?

Writers, care to share how many manuscripts you have in the drawer, or how long you wrote (and rewrote) your debut book if it was also your first?

Share in the comments!

TaraDairmanTara Dairman is a novelist, playwright, and recovering world traveler. Her debut middle-grade novel, THE DELICIOUS DOUBLE LIFE OF GLADYS GATSBY, will be published in 2014 by Putnam/Penguin.

Find her online at


Filed under Editing and Revising, Helpful or Otherwise, rejection and success, Writing, Writing and Life

12 responses to “The first book vs. the debut book

  1. This is an interesting post! I never really thought about the difference! 😀


  2. I began my “first” novel in 1996 and I’m still trying to get it right. My second novel took a couple of years to write and is in a file, never to see the light of monitor again. Radio Girl (2013) is my third novel (and there are two complete versions of that one, too). You’re right–the third could not have been written without practicing with the first two. Nothing’s wasted!


  3. Joshua McCune

    T25 was my 5th ‘serious’ book. The difference between 1 and 5 is noticeable at times, but not as large as I’d like.


  4. annbedichek

    Great post! The only tricky thing is that you have to really BELIEVE that the book you’re writing is The One as you’re writing it. Then, only after you finish it, should you start the slow (and chocolate-heavy) transition toward “Not The One” in your mind. (Though, as you said, there’s nothing like a Shiny New Idea to speed that process along. Less chocolate is required in that case.) 🙂


  5. Cynthia Levinson

    Good points, here, Tara, and ones that should be reassuring to other newbie writers. Although I had not written a NF book before WE’VE GOT A JOB, I had written dozens of NF articles for kids magazines. And, er um, there is that novel in the smelly-sock drawer.


  6. Ann is absolutely right – you must believe in THISBOOKRIGHTNOW with all your heart while you are writing it. The book I’m marketing now is my third completed novel, although my second novel has been reworked so many times and in such detail (like yours) it might as well have been several different books. The first one will never again see the light of day, poor fella.


  7. It is mind-boggling that we can be so stubborn, er, persistent, isn’t it? NERVE was my fifth manuscript. The thing is, even after we’re published, there’s no guarantee any of our future manuscripts or proposals will be picked up. So it’s a good idea to always write what you love.


  8. My first book was my first children’s ms, but I wrote a lot of short stories, poetry, and essays for adults first, many of which did not get published. Or deserve to, when I look back at them.


  9. My first picture book and my first MG novel are both “resting.” Both received warm responses from beta readers. One even won a contest. I hope to go back to them someday … someday.


  10. Pingback: The difference between a first novel and a debut novel | tara dairman

  11. Very good points, Tara! I think Beth Revis said that Across the Universe, her debut novel, was the 10th novel she’s written, and it hit the NYT Bestseller list. I’m currently at work on my 10th, hoping me and Beth have similar publication journeys (*go ahead and snort at the likelihood of that–I just did :)*)


  12. I had a book that was hard to let go of. (It was my second). But I’m so glad I finally let go of it. I have 3 books that will never see the light of day, but my fourth got my agent.


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