Gus Sanchez is the author of the blog anthology “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run.” He is currently at work on his first novel. A native New Yorker, he now lives in Charlotte, NC with his wife and daughter. You can find him online at www.outwherethebusesdontrun.com
Some time ago, I was at a local writer’s critique group I attend every second Saturday of each month. For a writer’s group, it’s a pretty large one; on any given Saturday, when the group meets, we can expect up to thirty people to meet at one of the local branches of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library.
I felt one of the pieces being critiqued that Saturday needed a lot of work. I had the chance to read the submitted piece a few days before the writer’s group met. I found reading this one writer’s story somewhat frustrating. Too many run-on sentences, odd and sudden shifts in POV, and his story seemed to threaten to get away from him. Like a lot of young adult writers, his story is part of a multi-part story; his submitted short selection was the prologue and opening chapter to the first novel. A lively discussion was taking place after he’d read a few paragraphs of his story. The group agreed his story needed work, and we were here to help him.
My suggestion to him, one which I voiced loudly, was to make the story more ambitious. I felt he was restraining himself a bit too much. His story was a cross-genre attempt at both historical fiction and conspiracy thriller, in which the illegitimate daughter of the last Tsar of Russia…something…something…something. Regardless, I urged him to pursue this. Be ambitious, I told him, get it all out on paper. Allow your imagination to roam as free as possible, and don’t get in its way.
One participant argued otherwise. There’s an adage in the publishing world, she said, that both agents and publishers will repeat with writers: your first and second novels should play it safe. Save the really ambitious stuff for the third novel. Agents find it easier to sell novels that play it safe. A few participants in the group nodded their heads, although it was hard to say if they agreed, or were just nodding for the sheer hell of it all.
I let her commentary pass, without a comment of my own. After all, I’m not a published writer, so I have no frame of reference to retort with. There are rules every writer must abide by. The classic “show, don’t tell,” is probably the one cardinal rule no writer dare violate. The greatest lesson any writer should know is what the rules to writing actually are. Know the rules, and you’ll play the game correctly. Rules apply to just about anything, really. Understanding how the rules apply makes you more disciplined in what you do. It’s what makes a soccer player a better goal scorer by understanding the offside rule, if you’ll pardon the sports analogy. If that striker thinks he can simply ignore the most important offensive rule of the goal, then he’ll make for a terrible striker. Excellent strikers understand how and when the offside rule works. Excellent writers know the rules of writing. They know how and when the rules work.
With that being said, there’s something to be said about breaking the rules. The greatest art has often been created when the artist thumbs their nose at the rules, and creates a new set of rules. Actually, let’s take that one step down a bit. Good art, even if it’s not great, should make every attempt to break the rules. And this rule that your debut novel should be something you should play safe, as a writer, is one rule I think needs to be broken more frequently.
I’d be hard-pressed to tell you exactly how many debut novels I’ve read, but I find that while so many are well-written and possessing of a literary voice that’s clearly going places, often times that debut just seems unmemorable. Not to say it’s a bad book. Far from it. But I get a feeling sometimes that after I’ve read a debut novel, I’ll likely not think much about it ever again. Which leads me recently to wonder if someone, an agent, an editor, another writer, suggested to this writer that they play it safe with their debut novel? The better the chances to get their novel published, right? So be it, I suppose.
Then I finished reading Ready Player One by Ernest Cline recently, and was reminded again of what a debut novel should read like: an opening, forceful statement of intent from a new novelist, one that brims with so much promise, and whose debut novel is filled with the idea that “playing it safe” is a fool’s errand. Clearly, Ernest Cline skipped class the day that lesson was taught, and thank the gods for that, because had Ernest Cline played it safe, Ready Player One would simply be another run-of-the-mill sci-fi tale. By not playing it safe, Ernest Cline has weaved a hilarious, heart-racing, smile-inducing pop-culture thrill ride, a love letter to nerd culture and 80s-era nostalgia, and a game inside a story that’s hard to put down. If you’ve read this novel, then you know what I’m talking about. In other words, this is one hell of a debut novel because it goes for something far greater than the sum of its parts. It dares to be far more ambitious than it should be, and it works. Ready Player One isn’t perfect by any means. It relies way too much on backstory, which for the sake of this novel is a necessary evil, and relying on backstory can threaten to grind a novel down to a halt. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen in Ready Player One.
I thought of some of my favorite debut novels: Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk, White Teeth, by Zadie Smith, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, and Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. What if Chuck Palahniuk’s agent told him to play it safe, and lose the whole plot twist about Tyler Durden and the narrator being the same person? Certainly Palahniuk’s ruminations on commercialism, masculinity, and materialism wouldn’t have had the same heft and anarchic glee to them. What if Joseph Heller’s publisher told him, “Forget it, you need to make Yossarian less crazy and more likeable?” It’s possible these conversations took place. Clearly, if they did, these authors dug their heels.
I admit the comment the group member made about playing it safe later irked me to no end. I found it to be extremely discouraging advice, even if it was given under the best of intentions. I’m careful not to give advice that’s too lofty or unattainable; I got the sense that the writer of this Tsarist Russia YA conspiracy novel definitely had lofty ambitions in mind, but needed help shaping his vision. So why tell him to tone his ambition down? I don’t want to see him needlessly give up on something he’s been passionate about, something he’s clearly done a ton of research on, just because it’s not “marketable.” Let him decide that for himself.
Mind you, I’m not dumping on agents or editors or other writers for dispensing this advice. Sometimes an author not playing it safe is an author being self-indulgent, and a good agent needs to call bullshit sometimes. But sometimes this advice can be misguided. I’m not saying the rule of “playing it safe” is wrong, but it’s a rule worth breaking when writing your first novel.