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First Novels: The Weird, Thrilling Trip Through A Very Narrow Door

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To gauge the practicality of investing the long years of speculative writing that it takes to produce a first novel, I asked my agent, Kate Garrick of DeFiore & Company, to estimate the percentage of the first novels submitted to her she considers saleable. Her answer (like all these answers, via e-mail):

What this says to me is that writing a novel is neither a sound financial investment nor a reliable career move.

Yet, I did it. More than once. And last year, Dominic Smith (as he wrote in themillions.com) trolled available data and concluded that one million other Americans were currently working on novels, most of which will never be bought by a publisher.

So what about the 1%, the never-published novelists who fly in the face of reason and the odds, keep slogging away, and then – cue the thunderclap! – land an agent who sells their work. Is their writing process somehow less vexing in retrospect?

Author Chad Harbach worked on The Art of Fielding – a prize-winning first novel constructed around college baseball, which famously sold at auction for $665,000 – for, as he puts it, "Ten years, pretty much exactly."

So when (if?) he finished it, did Mr. Harbach expect The Art of Fielding to sell? Possibly, he says.

Tara Conklin is the author of The House Girl, a first novel that intertwines the story of an escaped slave in the pre–Civil War South with that of a strong-minded junior lawyer. Ms. Conklin worked on the novel a mere five years (the first three while working as a corporate lawyer). She says she loved her characters, but wasn't sure "anyone other than herself (and perhaps her immediate family)" would ever read it. However:

Ms. Conklin goes on to say that after The House Girl was bought by Kate Nintzel at William Morrow:

Lydia Netzer, whose debut Shine Shine Shine was a New York Times Notable Book, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist, a Publishers Weekly Best Book, and Library Journal Best Book describes her first novel this way.

When it was bought (Lydia and I both enjoyed editing by Hilary Teeman of St. Martin's Press, who bravely bought two first novels in successive years), Lydia says:

She adds:

About that madness. A lot of it, according to my own experience and the experience of other first novelists to whom I've spoken, involves social media. Says Ms. Netzer:

Mr. Harbach somewhat echoes this:

Of course all three of the writers interviewed for this post, having produced mega-successful first novels, were expected to get cracking on their second novels, right?

Chad Harbach, however, took a break from fiction, because, he says, he needed one.

Tara Conklin just sold her second novel The Last Romantics to the same editor and publisher that bought The House Girl.

Lydia Netzer's second novel How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky will be out July 1st. She, too, is working with the same editor and publisher.

Which, it seems to me, as a long-time member of the 99%, is the same voice that drives all us novelists, whether published or not.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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