As someone who would like to have a debut novel someday, I read the first book of several authors this year, and tried to read them as a writer. What was it about these books that first grabbed an agent’s attention, then a publisher’s attention? Was it possible I could do what they did someday? My last reading post for the old year highlights debut novels.
Dissension, by Stacey Berg
Stacey is an author I’ve followed for some time on Twitter: @slbscifi. (She followed me back, so I’m not a total stalker.) Berg is not only an author of speculative fiction YA books, but is also a medical researcher. As a chemical engineer who dabbles in speculative fiction, I look to her as a role model for how one might balance a left brain career and a right brain writing avocation.
I love YA fiction, so enjoyed diving into Dissension. It’s set in a post apocalyptic world where “the church” has taken over directing the survival of humanity. The main character, Echo, is responsible for protecting the church and the populous. Berg has created an engaging innovative world and Echo vacillates between being a heroine and an anti-heroine as the story unfolds. The story was engaging, so I also read Berg’s second book, Regeneration.
From Berg I’ve learned that if you are a science person, you do not have to write fiction in your non-writer area of expertise. Yes, there are medical aspects of Berg’s books that are important, but that is not what her story is about. However, her books have a scientific quality that I enjoy: they are organized and logical. Understanding that my background can influence my writing but doesn’t need to limit my writing is a valuable lesson from Berg’s works.
I found Berg through Mary C. Moore, an agent I paid to review the first 10 pages of my novel, because I’m not just stalking authors through this little experiment of mine, I’m also looking for an agent who represents books similar to mine.
Mrs. Kimbel, by Jennifer Haigh
Ah, this Jennifer Haigh lady. She taught me so much last year! She taught me to find my keystone works for my own books – books that write the way I want my story told. Then she taught me how she wrote her first book in a way she would never write a book again. Mrs. Kimbel is a story is of three women, all married to the same man. It was written as three discreet longish short stories that Haigh had to cram together into a novel: not a process she recommends. It’s an interesting book, but outside of my normal preferred genre and style. If you are a lover of interpersonal stories, I highly recommend it. If you normally read crazy sci fi, epic fantasy, and apocalyptic fiction, maybe skip it.
Because Haigh was so negative about her process creating this first book, I wasn’t sure what I would learn from it. But books never fail to inspire. Haigh is a single woman with no kids and no career other than writing. In her class I learned that she has eschewed a “traditional” life in favor of being a writer. Writing is her priority. So, I was surprised that her book about relationships and motherhood felt true. Whenever an author believably writes about an experience they have not had I feel permission to write prose outside of my own life experiences.
Agent to the Stars, by John Scalzi
I adore John Scalzi. I follow his blog. I read his tweets. I reply to his tweets. (He replied back once, again proving to me that I’m not a total online stalker.) I also love his books. They feel like stories that actually happen.
Agent to the Stars, Scalzi’s first novel, is a funny little book about a Hollywood agent who represents an alien. The book allows the reader to experience human first contact with a non-threatening new life-form. True to Scalzi’s other works, it’s funny and unexpected. The audiobook is a joy to listen to, read by Will Wheaton: one of my favorite readers.
From Scalzi’s first book, I learned about voice. People have told me that my writing has “a good voice.” I’ve read that agents are looking for works that are more than just technically accurate: they need a voice. But voice is one of those nebulous things like love or faith or parenthood that you have to experience to understand. Because I’ve read so much Scalzi has written I was able to sense his voice even in this first novel, and I think I understand the concept better now. All Scalzi’s works are irreverent, unexpected, and highlight details other authors might gloss over. Those details make his stories real, which I love. From his first novel, Scalzi had voice, and maybe now I understand mine a bit better.
I learned so many different things from my first-book experiment, so am continuing it in 2018. I just finished Point of Direction, a book by Rachel Weaver who is an instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop where I am a member. I wanted to read Weaver’s book because she’s someone I can take writing classes from, and even ask annoying questions in person: an invaluable resource for the aspiring novelist.
My second planned first-book for 2018 is Markswoman by Rati Mehrotra. (She’s a WordPress blogger too.) I also found Mehrotra through Mary C. Moore, who recommended Mehrotra’s author website as one of her favorites. Expecting some whiz-bang super-designed wonder, I was happy to see that Mehrotra’s site was well organized and easy to read, but not unobtainable. I also found her site to be a wonderful resource for potential publication journals and she’s taught me what it looks like to be a more grown-up writer than myself. Again, I follow Mehrotra on Twitter @Rati_Mehrotra – yes, she follows back – and have loved virtually celebrating the publication Markswoman. (It just came out this past Tuesday, but it’s been so exciting to watch the pre-publication build up.) I can’t wait to see what I’ll learn from this read.
That’s it. All my reading analysis for 2017: the good, the bad, and the debut. For 2018 I’m already 7 books in, and after Markswoman I’m going to dive into an Ursla K Le Guin story or two. Shockingly, as a lover of speculative fiction, I’ve never read anything by her, and her death this week revealed what an inspiration she was to authors I love. My bookstack is full, as always, with new stories to love and learn from. Let me know if there’s anything you’ve read that I should add to the stack.