Unknown first novels and the myth of the big debut

I was recently talking to a new writer in that scary, hopeful place of awaiting publication of their first book, and at some point in our conversation, they said to me:

“If you look at careers that crash and burn you can often trace it to a first book that failed to do well.”

And I was all, what? Umm, no.

Never mind the absolutism of “crash and burn” as the opposite of runaway success–I know at least as many prominent working writers whose first book wasn’t noticed much at all when it came out, maybe isn’t known even now. I mean, how many urban fantasy fans have heard of Nightseer? How many lovers of children’s books know Kenny’s Window? How many epic fantasy readers have read Dying of the Light? And how many of those of you who do know these books discovered them before you discovered these writers’ better known works and went looking to see what else they’d done?

Yet the myth of big-debut-or-nothing remains, and has grown alongside an increasing emphasis on first novels that can easily become one more tool writers at all stages of their careers use to beat themselves up with. So in the interest of providing a little balance, I’ve decided we need a list of little-known first works by now-bestselling and award-winning writers. Because it’s lovely when your first book comes out to great fanfare, but it’s not some sort of automatic death knell when it doesn’t.

Here’s the start of that my list. This is just a starting point, so I hope you’ll help me expand it by mentioning other first books by now-bestselling or award-winning writers either in comments here or under the hashtag #unknownfirsts on twitter.

The Big U, Neal Stephenson
Burgoo Stew, Susan Patron
Conan the Invincible, Robert Jordan (who also wrote The Fallon Blood a couple years earlier under a pseud)
Duran Duran: The First Four Years, Neil Gaiman
Dying of the Light, George R. R. Martin
Fire Proof (The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo #11), Suzanne Collins
First Light, Rebecca Stead
The Foolish Giant, Bruce Coville
The Gremlins, Roald Dahl
Just Morgan, Susan Beth Pfeffer
Kenny’s Window, Maurice Sendak (his work as an illustrator goes back further)
The Lightning Time, Gregory Maguire
Nightseer, Laurell K. Hamilton
Outlaws of Sherwood Forest (Choose Your Own Adventure #47), Ellen Kushner
Pilgrims and Other Stories, Elizabeth Gilbert
Pirates in Petticoats, Jane Yolen
Restoree, Anne McCaffrey
The Small Rain, Madeleine L’Engle

There are many, many ways to build a career, and having a bestseller or award-winner right out of the gate is only one of them.

There’s also the fact that one can have a viable career without ever publishing a high-profile book, not to mention the whole business how careers aren’t things that are unequivocally made and just as unequivocally kept in the first place–but that second, I think, is a whole other discussion. (If you need reminders that it’s true, though, the ongoing Writing for the Long Haul series is a good place to start.)

3 thoughts on “Unknown first novels and the myth of the big debut”

  1. This is such a great reality check. As a hopeful writer it’s so easy to be terrified of selling but still failing somehow and ruining all my chances. I really appreciate you putting this out there.

    1. You’re very welcome! We so often talk as if there’s just one chance, and as if failure is both clear-cut and absolute, when those things aren’t true at all … but it can definitely feel that way when faced with the pressures that go with any individual book!

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