How Often Is An Author’s First Novel Their Best?

Alison Morris -- October 6th, 2008

I love the intoxicating feeling of falling in love with a good book, and I love talking with others who’ve been just as captivated by the same reading experience. In the past few weeks I have had several gushing/bonding sessions with booksellers and librarians who, like me, have fallen under the spell of Graceling by Kristin Cashore. I know for a fact that I am not the only one who was COMPLETELY and utterly swept away by the fantastic adventure on this book’s pages and wonderfully, blissfully seduced by its romance.

It’s been a long time since I read a book in which the sexual tension between its two main characters was so deliriously exhilarating as it is in this one. It was a complete and utter delight watching Katsa, a headstrong girl "graced" with a talent for killing, fall for Po, a level-headed, kind-hearted guy who can crack wise in the best of spirits. So charmed was I by their witty, tension-filled banter that I was almost sorry to see them eventually give in to their passions and discover their love for one another. I say almost, because there was little time to feel disappointed. Mere pages after the story’s buoyant sexual tension takes a dip, the tensions in the story’s overarching plot take over and send readers barrelling their way to the finish, where plenty of surprises remain in store. 

I could go on and on about the reasons I loved this novel, but what I’d rather do here is ask you to ponder this: Based on the expectations set for us by other young adult authors, can we expect Kristin Cashore’s next novel (a companion to Graceling) to be just as good as this, her first?

I ask this question because soon after I’d first fallen under Graceling‘s spell I remarked to Gareth that, because the book is so good, I couldn’t believe it was Kristin Cashore’s first novel. He responded with the frequently made observation that an author’s first novel is often their best, at which point I looked at him askance, the wheels in my head spinning furiously. I don’t suppose I’d ever stopped to think about this "first book = best" notion in relation to children’s and young adult books before, but hearing it applied directly to a young adult novel I was enjoying got me thinking about all the others I’ve loved and how many of them were from first-time authors versus veterans. In the end I reached this conclusion: whether or not it’s often true that an "adult" author’s first novel tends to be their best, I DON’T think that’s the norm in the world of novels for young adults and children. It happens… but not often.

The matter of time invested in any writing project could have something to do with this. If you spend many years honing the language and pruning the plot of your one big novel, it stands to reason that you’re going to pour a lot of energy and expertise into the one investment — you’re going to grow as a writer over the course of those 800 pages, just as a children’s writer is going to grow after writing four books at 200 pages a pop. But many children’s and young adult authors take a long time to create their first work too, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to outshine their others later down the line.

Does anyone believe that the first novel written by M.T. Anderson (The Game of Sunken Places) exceeds the quality of his more recent works? I don’t doubt that Geraldine McCaughrean’s first few books paled in comparison to her award-winning The White Darkness, the brilliant Cyrano, or Peter Pan in Scarlet. Sharon Creech’s first novel was Absolutely Normal Chaos and Jerry Spinelli’s Space Station Seventh Grade. Their best? Not in my opinion.

I don’t diversify my adult reading enough these days to take a stab at the "first novel = best" rule and see if it still largely applies in the world of writing for adults. Maybe it’s time we scrapped the stereotype altogether?

Whatever the case on that end, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this one. Are you often wowed by a children’s or YA author’s debut novel then disappointed by those that follow, or do you think those novellists who start strong usually get even stronger? Could you please share some examples? And please also make a point of reading Graceling!

18 thoughts on “How Often Is An Author’s First Novel Their Best?

  1. Katie

    I put Graceling on my request list because of this review. I checked it out today, and started reading it when I got home. I just finished it. I absolutely loved it. I may just read it again this weekend. 🙂 I will also be book talking this for all I’m worth. What a FABULOUS book, and thank you so much for recommending it!!!

  2. skay

    I usually love the first book I read by an author the best, whether it is their first novel or not. I think the freshness of the voice plays a big part in that and that newness is only there once for each reader. I also believe the amount of time the second and later books have to marinate is a large part of the equation.

  3. Emily Noon

    I feel bad pointing this out, but as examples of 1st book-best book authors, I’d say: Edward Bloor (Tangerine), Gail Carson Levin (Ella Enchanged), An Na (A Step from Heaven), Libba Bray (I forget the title, but the 1st in her trilogy), Holly Black (Tithe; this is looking only at her YA novels and ignoring the Spiderwicks), Sharon Creech (I thought her first novel was “Walk Two Moons”??). And no doubt others. Many of these are favorite authors of mine, and I keep reading their later books hoping for a repeat of the one that made me a fan initially. I think this is sad; I’d like to think that experience makes one a better writer. Possibly the problem is the desire to build a career with a book-a-year output, so that quality gets lost in the pressure to publish?

  4. Anne L

    It may have to do with how long it takes an author to be published. Some are lucky from connections or flamboyance or finding the right editor or agent–and they get published right away; they have room to grow. Others have a harder row to hoe, and so it takes a knock-your-socks off book for them to catch anyone’s attention. That proves to be their best. All those lesser works are waiting in a drawer for them to get a “name.”

  5. Jane Healy

    It’s sometimes the case that the first book an author gets published is not the first one they have written. The first published book will have had the benefit of a more practiced author. If that is followed by publishing the author’s first-written book, the first published book may look very good in comparison.

  6. Kat B

    Yikes! I didn’t at all mean to imply that the author was at fault, or purposefully falling short, or that it was impossible for the author to improve! Just that the first book is the one that sells you, you write it because you want to and make it perfect because you have to. Then there’s the rush for the next, and the next… and those who survive that, who build a good relationship with their editor, who find a zen spot with their fear of success, they get to continually rediscover their love of the craft.

  7. Chris

    Also, please keep in mind that once an author has signed a multi-book contract, the time she’s given to complete the following books will likely not equal the amount of time she spent on her first.

  8. Four Story Mistake

    Well, in my experience with kids’ books, I definitely think the author improves with time (as a writer, I certainly hope so!). I can even think of several examples where, in my opinion, the writing got better even when it was a series (which seems a bit harder to do than single titles): Harry Potter, The Penderwicks, the Stravaganza series, Clementine, the Melendy books, any of Eleanor Estes’ series…

  9. Becky

    Whoa I just got such a jolt! My communications teacher gave me a book to read that I’m totally enthralled in, and as I began to read this post I glanced at the book sitting on the coffee table and started thinking about it. Then you mentioned it- The White Darkness- and I nearly jumped out of my skin! Of all the books in all the world, you happened to mention the one I was reading and thinking about at that exact moment! 🙂 I agree that first-time writers put more TLC into their first work. That is when they’re doing it because they love it, when they want it to be perfect so it has a fighting chance for publication, because they want to prove that they didn’t waste countless hours at the computer or with a red pen in their hand for nothing. Later on, it sometimes (not always, though) becomes too commercialized, too exploited. The love is gone or the time is lost. However, there are certain authors whose work improves over time. Markus Zusak, for example, struck gold with The Book Thief after having previously published several books.

  10. kayo

    The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a first book and took ten years to get published.But look where it is on the best seller lists. I am also remembering The Kite Runner as a first book but he was very successful with his follow up book.

  11. Mitali Perkins

    Might be the paralysis of success. Apparently David Almond refused to mention SKELLIG for two years, feeling oppressed by the success of his first novel. “In a kind of parallel to what is known in the pop music world as ‘second album syndrome’, the dramatic success of his first published book threatened for a time to set a standard he would struggle to match. But, happily, not for long: ‘Some of my later books have done even better, and so I don’t feel oppressed by it now,’ he says.” Terry Grimley of the Birmingham Post reports:

  12. Carin

    Not to mention, an author may find it difficult to live up to expectations after their first book. Worried that they might be the next Charles Frazier or Alice Sebold (to name a couple whose second novels crashed and burned), their self-confidence might be undermined, and they might be trying to write to their critics.

  13. Debby Garfinkle

    And also, once the first book is published, an author is busy promoting the book– blogging, doing school visits, going to book fairs, trying to get her name out there. Before I was published, all I had to worry about was craft. On my to-do list today are getting paperwork to my agent, asking my publisher again where my reimbursement check is for a conference I spoke at, updating my blog, sending out a poster to a school librarian who requested it, setting up a school visit, and hopefully finding a little time to write.

  14. brandi

    In many cases, I do find that the first book in a series can be the best – such as with the Twilight series (yes, I know, sacrelidge!) While the first book of a series embodies the passion of the writer who is typically writing more for themselves, the future books in that series are written more for the readers. I’ve seen this be true more often with YA books than adult authors; my hypothesis is that may be in part due to the fickleness of a youth audience.

  15. alvina

    I absolutely adored GRACELING as well. And I sincerely hope that more of the same or even better is to come! I don’t have more to add to this discussion except to say that Kat B makes and interesting point, but as an editor I’ll say that I very often “sweat over” an author’s second book more than the first–partially because of the reasons she states above (the first book comes in more polished, and the second book less so). But that just means that I have to spend more time with the author working on it. I’ve sometimes pushed out the publication date for second novels because they weren’t ready yet, although I guess this might not be an option in the case of a sequel or series–I guess I’m talking more about stand alone novels. Maybe this is why an author with a long publishing history will have later books better than the first, but more often than not it’s the first book in a series that is the best.

  16. Kat B

    Just a thought, and I’ll try to stay off my soapbox of how under-appreciated good editors are. The reason first books are so good is because they’ve been sweated over, polished, cried over, rewritten, critiqued, rewritten again, left in a drawer to grow, polished again, and thankfully, blissfully, blessed with publication. The second book doesn’t get as much tender loving care. It can even be rushed. And rarely is an editor given time to run through a really thorough edit of the book. The market is demanding another, so the dings which would have been buffed out are left under a glaring spotlight. So, yeah, I can see the connection of a first book is best.

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