It’s happening. I have set the wheels in motion. I have submitted a final manuscript. I have written the bio and the blurbs for the back cover and the inside flaps. I have submitted an author photo. I have enlisted an artist friend to design a cover. I have let my baby go. It’s happening.
It will be my first published novel but not the first novel I’ve written. I suppose, it could have happened in the exact same way, if I had gone the traditional route of agent and publishing house, that, querying two works simultaneously, the second novel might have found a home before the first; so I imagine that there’s really nothing strange about this at all. But somehow it feels strange all the same, as if I’ve sent the one baby off to school and abandoned the other one on someone’s doorstep. There’s a little bit of guilt about that.
Here’s the deal. If you’re a person, like me, juggling a bunch of important things in the air, a marriage, a child, a teaching career, a vocation as a musician, and fiction writing, and you’re trying not to drop any of these important things on the ground, it’s going to take a half a million years to write a book. It took me a half a million years to write my second novel, so, as it turns out, my first novel was conceived and composed a full million years ago–when I was a child! That’s not true. I was 30 when I started and maybe 37 when I finished. Okay, I’ll tell the truth: that was really “only” a decade ago. Thus, the decision to self-publish came also with this choice–do I publish my first novel, or do I publish my second novel first?
No brainer, you say? Publish the best one first, you ninny. Sure, that’s all easy enough to say. But there are problems.
I wrote my first novel in the comforting embrace and loving arms of an MFA program for writers. I had tons of readers, willing and otherwise. I received scads of feedback. I revised like a fiend while I was composing based on the response, facial expressions, and nervous ticks of my peers, thoughtful and wise criticism from faculty, the ubiquitous workshop experience, and the heady influence of master classes, lectures, and readings. That first novel may be a better novel, but it was written, I sometimes feel, by about a hundred people. That’s not true. I wrote the damn thing, but I wrote it, the whole thing, I think, seriously under the influence of others.
My second novel has been read in its entirety by two people, only one of which gave me a critical response, meaning feedback. And the novel has been read in part by another three or four people who also provided some critical readings, but early on in the process. So I feel, right or wrong, better or worse, that this second novel is truly mine, in the way that maybe the first novel was not.
But I might, if I read them both again back to back at a stretch, come to the conclusion after all, regardless of the argument above, that indeed the first novel is the stronger work. Another problem rears its head.
The guy who wrote that better book–I’m not sure that guy is me. I’m no longer him. Twelve years is ancient history. I had other concerns. I had issues. Different ones. I was not a father. I was wild. I was, philosophically speaking, immature, even in my 30’s I was unsettled and squirrelly, morally emerging, and ethically in training–and, I think, my first novel embodies all of that. Do I want to share that other guy with the world?
The answer has to be yes. Yes, but not yet. Not yet, mostly because the decision has already been made; it’s happening, remember. I’m publishing my second novel first because I like it, and it’s fresh, and it hasn’t been workshopped, and it represents me in the mostly Now, or, it represents several moments moving through me mostly in the Now.
But I will publish that other novel, that book that is me but not me, because, ultimately, it was a true book then, as true as fiction can be, it still resembles me in many significant ways, and may, in the way that novels can do, perhaps speak to someone now (or whenever it arrives) who is more like how I was then, or who remembers how it was to be like that, unsettled, squirrelly, morally emerging, ethically in training.
The poet William Stafford said once that there were many things in his poems that he wouldn’t stand by in life. I like that. It gives the work permission to exist on its own terms–and if it was good then, it will still be good now or later, and it doesn’t have to represent the author accurately to be a viable work of art. That baby has just as much right to see the world as that other baby does, this new kid. So, yes, that first novel will one day see the light of day, but not yet. For now, my debut novel is all about putting second things first.