Rachel McLean

– Thrillers That Make You Think

The Debut Novel: The Beginning of an Author’s Career, or The End?

Debut novels are funny things.

Publishers go mad for them.

Newspapers hoover them up.

And book groups love them.

But an author’s debut novel is just that: their first book. Hopefully the first in a long line of future books.

But for many authors, there’s so much pressure on the first novel. And these days publishers often put disproportionate amounts of support and effort into debut novels, while not following that up for subsequent novels.

I can imagine it’s very disheartening, getting all that attention for your big launch, and then just becoming one of many authors on the list when it comes to your subsequent books.

For me as an indie author, I see my first book (Thicker Than Water) very differently.

It wasn’t the first book I wrote. That was actually A House Divided, which I held off on publishing until the second and third books in the Division Bell trilogy were ready.

But it was the first book I finished and got ready for publication, and I learned a lot from the process.

Since first publishing Thicker Than Water in its original incarnation as Exile, I’ve learned so much about writing. Every book I write, I learn. I learn from the experience of planning and writing a novel. I learn from the comments and advice my editor gives me. And I learn from the feedback I receive from readers.

All of this means that every book I write means I become a better writer. I certainly hope I do – if I’m not learning, I’m standing still, and that’s not good enough.

So it feels unfair that there should be so much pressure on an author’s debut novel.

When you write your first novel, you’re inexperienced. You haven’t done it before. And you’re not going to write your best novel. Or at least, you aren’t going to write your best first draft. I believe that the debut novels that get the most attention have probably had plenty of input from editors at publishing houses, who are anxious to ensure the book lives up to the hype. When the author gets round to writing their next novel, they’re often subject to even more pressure but not given quite as much support. Which is why second novels can be disappointing.

Having written five books now, I’ve learned enough to know that the version of Thicker Than Water I published last year wasn’t my best work. But as the first of a series of novels, it needs to be. After all, if people don’t enjoy Thicker Than Water, they’re unlikely to buy Sea of Lies (not to mention the third book, which will be out in the summer).

So earlier this year, before publishing Sea of Lies, I made the decision to review Thicker Than Water.

I grabbed a paperback copy of the book and scrawled all over it. I tightened up the prose and I added more twists and reveals to the story. I did my level best to destroy my copy of the book, but it’s testament to the quality of Ingram’s printing that it didn’t even come close to falling apart!

After going through the hard copy in detail, I edited the manuscript. I then read it through again, checking that it was as good as it could be. I sent it to my proofreader. I even got a new cover design.

And now I’m really happy with it. I think it’s a better book than the original version, which is just a hazy blur in my memory now.

This isn’t something I plan to do again. I’m happy for my books to improve over the years, and I’m happy that the books I write now are good enough for them to make people want more (that’s what my reviews are saying, anyway).

But I’m glad that being an indie made it possible for me to republish my debut novel. And I’m even more glad that I won’t forever be judged as an author on the quality of that first published work.

I plan to write many more books, and I hope they get better and better. I love learning about writing and challenging myself to improve. And I’m glad to have had the space to do so without that pressure on my debut novel.

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