How My First Novel Was Written

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Earlier today (as I write this), puppeteer, author, and audio book narrator Mary Robinette Kowal mentioned on Twitter that she’d found her first novel. She posted a picture of it, and asked everyone how their first novels were written. As you can see, hers was on legal pads that got transferred to 5-1/4-inch floppy disk.

If you are interested in the craft of writing, the responses that followed were fascinating. People listed how they wrote their first novels: on paper, on typewriters (with carbons!), on word processor machines, plus, the various computers, new and old. It was a wonderful peek behind the curtain to see the tools that writers used in the context of their first novel.

This put me in mind of a terrific book I finished toward the very end of 2021, Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing by Mattew G. Kirschenbaum. The book is exactly what its subtitle suggests: a look at the history of word processing through the writers who used them. Many of the writers mentioned were science fiction writers, perhaps because they tended toward technology and were willing early adopters. The writers mentioned in this book included my friend and colleague Robert J. Sawyer, as well as Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Frank Herbert. Stephen King was in the book. Amy Tan was there. The book examined the history of the word processor through a literary lens. As someone who has tried countless word processors over the last 40 years, I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Mary Robinette’s post was like a mini-version of that book: a look into how many writers wrote their first novels.

I mentioned that I wrote my first novel on an Apple IIe sometime in the mid-1980s, but that I couldn’t recall the software I’d used. Later on, it came to me: it was called AppleWorks.

The Apple IIe that I had came with dual 5-1/4″ floppy disk drives, side by side. You could have the software disk in one drive, and your data disk in the other drive. It reduced how often you had to swap the disks around. I remember almost nothing about AppleWorks, other than it was suite of applications that included a word processor and something that resembled a spreadsheet. I seem to recall it having a WYSIWYG display, which was new to me. I recall some reports I did for school that had all kinds of fancy fonts, and multiple column.

It was around this time that I wrote my first novel–well, half a novel. Or maybe it was a third of a novel. I’d guess that by the time I got tired of the thing, I’d written 30,000 words. They were all single-spaced and printed on that folded, perforated computer paper. I no longer even remember what the novel was about, except that the main character’s name was Steve. This was around 1986.

Fast forward to 2013. At this point, I’d been selling stories to the science fiction magazines for several years, and had just started selling non-fiction pieces as well to various magazines. All my writer friends had written novels in their youth. Some had written dozens of them. I had written exactly 1/3rd of a novel when I was 14 years old. I decided that it was time for me to write one.

I wrote the novel in Google Docs, tracking my writing every day with my Google Docs Writing Tracker that I’d coded together. I started on February 28, 2013, and I wrote the final words in the Arlington County Central Library on September 14, 2013. The manuscript came in at about 90,000 words. That’s not too bad for 6-1/2 months.

Nothing came of that novel. I never even considered submitting it somewhere. I didn’t even write a second draft. I did it to see if I could complete a novel-length story, and to get the practice. I disovered that, for me, writing a novel is much, much harder than writing short fiction. And writing short fiction is much harder than writing non-fiction. And of all the non-fiction articles I’ve written, by far the easiest are these essays I write here on the blog.

Maybe that explains why I am not a best-selling novelist. Instead of taking the hard road, I decided to take the easy one. I’m still glad things worked out this way.

Written on January 22, 2022

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One comment

  1. Love it. I wrote my first novel in college, on 6×9 steno pads. I typed it up in the campus computer labs. I didn’t have a laptop, so I’d take my collection of 3.5 disks (which I kept in a fancy orange plastic case) from lab to lab. I didn’t tell a soul what I was doing, and I was having the time of my life!


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