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?

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SHYA SCANLON is the Fiction Reviews Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. Scanlon's work has appeared in the Mississippi Review, Literary Review, New York Quarterly, Guernica Magazine, Opium Magazine, and others. His book of prose poetry, In This Alone Impulse, was published by Noemi Press in January, 2010. In 2009, his novel Forecast was serialized online across 42 journals and literary blogs as part of the Forecast 42 Project. Forecast will be published by Flatmancrooked in December, 2010. He received his MFA from Brown University, where he was awarded the John Hawkes Prize in Fiction. Please visit him at www.shyascanlon.com.

7 responses to “Avoiding a Deboo”

  1. Greg Olear says:

    The problem here is that the word “debut” is so fuzzy…most debut novels are debut in name only.

    By the time a “debut” novel comes out, it is a tactical maneuver, at least to some degree. By then, you’ve probably written a few, and you want to write something salable.

    But to answer the question, it’s all about voice. That’s why I like who I like. Stories, characters, the rest of it are all secondary. Jess Walter can write about screw threads and I’d be interested. Michael Lewis could write about cricket and I’d be hooked. Voice is king (or queen, if you prefer).

    • Shya Scanlon says:

      Yeah, I understand your point. But I’d be careful not to overstate it. The debut novel, however many novels the writer has actually penned, is still an early book, and as such most of what I said applies. The point, I think, is that from a reader’s standpoint, there’s this whole aura surrounding a new author–especially maybe one you’ve read about or who’s been recommended–and I think in most cases this really transcends a Do’s/Do not’s list. At the end of the day, I really kind of feel bad for Sarvas, who through having to read so many of them back to back, was essentially forced to see them in this kind of systematic rather than empathetic and romantic way. And this just after his own came out! He mentions this a little bit, but I bet he didn’t divulge the full extent to which reading so many debuts made him think about all the “mistakes” he’d made in his own (scare quotes, I guess, because I’m not convinced this is the most beneficial way of thinking about debut books).

    • James D. Irwin says:

      first of all, cricket is fucking awesome. If you ever get a chance to watch Twenty20 cricket you should, because it’s like watching everything good about cricket but in 4 days and 7 hours less time than a regular game…

      Cactus City Blues is a proper debut novel— it’s quite literally the first I’ve ever written. It’s by no means the greatest piece of fiction in the world, but I remain incredibly proud of the fact that I never once turned to a ‘How to Write…’ book or listened to lists of what to do/not do when writing a debut novel.

      I find Greg’s comment interesting, because I’ve just come from a class which is all about ‘voice.’ And I think I agree with him— when it comes to all my favourite writers, debut or otherwise, my affection is generally down to their voice. The main examples I would say are HST, Vonnegut and Adams… and probably Jerome K. Jerome too…

      • Shya Scanlon says:

        Funny thing about having friends read your work–they’ll often make comments about how it feels like they’ve been hanging out with you for long periods of time. Hopefully that’s a good thing.

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