Over at Elegant Variation, Mark Sarvas speaks from his recent experience reading for first-novel contests, to point out all the things you should consider if you’re interested in avoiding the most common pitfalls of the debut novel.
The issues he cites, to be fair, do indeed seem to be problems common among novels in general–let alone first novels. But for my taste, too much of it seems indicative of a “golden mean” mentality that would seek to keep the writer more mindful of what he shouldn’t be doing, than what he should.
I don’t want to put words in Sarvas’s mouth–he’s not intending an exhaustive how-to (leave that to his hero James Wood); he’s merely drawing from his experience reading a shit ton of debut novels. But I must say I’d much rather read a first novel that seems bold or new in some intriguing way, than one about which it can not be said that the author “made no mistakes.”
The debut novel isn’t some tactical maneuver on the part of a writer staring down the long road of his or her career. It’s an expression of those themes and preoccupations which haunt or stir or in some way move the author to write, and which will likely become increasingly refined over time.
What do you look for in a debut novel? How willing are you to forgive the book’s (inevitable) flaws, if it heralds the arrival of a unique new imagination on the literary scene?