Should a Debut Novel “Play it Safe?”

Before I kick off this post, first, an apology: you’ll pardon my lack of blog posts recently, as I’m slowly recovering from the GODDAMNED FLU. Jesus H. Christ on a shit-stained cracker, I never get sick! Suddenly, Friday night, I’m overcome with a thumping migrane and body aches. By Saturday morning, I’m in agony, so it’s off to the Urgent Care I go. A week’s worth of Tamiflu and Hydrocodone (which is quite delicious, by the way, and habit-forming…hmm…) notwithstanding, Saturday night was brutal. I was in the kind of physical discomfort that made resting absolutely impossible. Oh, and I got to hug the toilet, which is also a rarity. I’ve pounded booze until I’ve drunk myself sober, and hardly ever puked, but the flu make me do the barf dance.

Great. Nothing like puking in front of your daughter, who thinks this is HILARIOUS. That little shit. I reminded her later of when she got sick and spent the entire day puking. That shut her up.

So it’s now Thursday, I’ve exhausted my Tamiflu, but I still have some Hydrocodone left over. My head is stopped up, and I still feel sluggish. I haven’t had a chance to go for a 2-3 mile run lately, or to the gym, so I’m feeling doughy, but I don’t dare go to the gym feeling the way I feel. Worse yet, I don’t even feel like writing. Nothing. Not even a blog. Well, until right now, I suppose.

Ten days have passed, my throat is still scratchy, I finally made it to the gym this morning, only to wrestle furiously with an elliptical machine; I won, but barely.

In addition to the flu, I’ve reprised my role as a collegiate ringer. One of my wife’s classes involves her reading a rather horrible novel; essentially, it’s Socratic didactic disguised as a novel. Great. Nothing more I love than being lectured to. So I took it upon myself to read the novel over the weekend, only to work myself up into a teeth-gnashing frenzy over how fucking irresponsible and outright wrong the whole didactic was. But I finished her assignments for the week, with a few more coming in the following weeks.

Speaking of which, that novel, which I won’t reveal its title just yet, has now entered my list of my All-Time Top 5 Most Hated Novels Ever. A blog post on this to come very soon.

Oh, and J.J. Abrams will direct the new Star Wars film. I want to be all excited about this, but I’m withhold any expected frenzy until May 2015, when the seventh chapter comes to the screen.

Now, without further ado…


A few weeks ago, I was at a local writer’s critique group I attend every second Saturday of each month. A lively discussion took place regarding one of the participant’s submitted pieces. I felt his writing, though promising, needed a lot of work. Too many run-on sentences, and his story seemed to threaten to get away from him. Like a lot of young adult writers, his story is part of a multi-part story; his submitted short selection was the prologue and opening chapter to the first novel.

My suggestion to him, one which I voiced loudly, was to make the story more ambitious. I felt he was restraining himself a bit too much.

One participant argued otherwise. There’s an adage in the publishing world, she said, that both agents and publishers will repeat with writers: your first and second novels should play it safe. Save the really ambitious stuff for the third novel. Agents find it easier to sell novels that play it safe. A few participants in the group nodded their heads, although it was hard to say if they agreed, or were just nodding for the sheer hell of it all.

I let her commentary pass, without a comment of my own. After all, I’m not a published writer, so I have no frame of reference to retort with. There are rules every writer must abide by. The classic “show, don’t tell,” is probably the one cardinal rule no writer dare violate. The greatest lesson any writer should know is what the rules to writing actually are. Know the rules, and you’ll play the game correctly.

With that being said, there’s something to be said about breaking the rules. The greatest art has often been created when the artist thumbs their nose at the rules, and creates a new set of rules. Actually, let’s take that one step down a bit. Good art, even if it’s not great, should make every attempt to break the rules. And this rule that your debut novel should be something you should play safe, as a writer, is one rule I think needs to be broken more frequently.

I’d be hard-pressed to tell you exactly how many debut novels I’ve read, but I find that while so many are well-written and possessing of a literary voice that’s clearly going places, often times that debut just seems unmemorable. Not to say it’s a bad book. Far from it. But I get a feeling sometimes that after I’ve read a debut novel, I’ll likely not think much about it ever again. Which leads me recently to wonder if someone, an agent, an editor, another writer, suggested to this writer that they play it safe with their debut novel. The better the chances to get their novel published, right? So be it, I suppose.

Then I finished reading Ready Player One by Ernest Cline recently, and was reminded again of what a debut novel should read like: an opening, forceful statement of intent from a new novelist, one that brims with so much promise, and whose debut novel is filled with the idea that “playing it safe” is a fool’s errand. Clearly, Ernest Cline skipped class the day that lesson was taught, and thank the gods for that, because had Ernest Cline played it safe, Ready Player One would simply be another run-of-the-mill sci-fi tale. By not playing it safe, Ernest Cline has weaved a hilarious, heart-racing, smile-inducing pop-culture thrill ride, a love letter to nerd culture and 80s-era nostalgia, and a game inside a story that’s hard to put down. If you’ve read this novel, then you know what I’m talking about.

In other words, this is one hell of a debut novel because it goes for something far greater than the sum of its parts. It dares to be far more ambitious than it should be, and it works.

I thought of some of my favorite debut novels: Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk, White Teeth, by Zadie Smith, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, and Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. What if Chuck Palahniuk’s agent told him to play it safe, and lose the whole plot twist about Tyler Durden and the narrator being the same person? Certainly Palahniuk’s ruminations on commercialism, masculinity, and materialism wouldn’t have had the same heft and anarchic glee to them. What if Joseph Heller’s agent told him, “Forget it, you need to make Yossarian less crazy and more likeable?”

It’s possible these conversations took place. Clearly, if they did, these authors dug their heels.

Mind you, I’m not dumping on agents for dispensing this advice. Sometimes an author not playing it safe is an author being self-indulgent, and a good agent needs to call bullshit sometimes. But sometimes this advice can be misguided. I’m not saying the rule of “playing it safe” is wrong, but it’s a rule worth breaking when writing your first novel.


219 thoughts on “Should a Debut Novel “Play it Safe?”

  1. I have to agree. Chuck Palahnuik’s Fight Club broke the rules. It twisted and turned us around corners so dark and edgy yet refreshing it ended up laughing in the face of those rules. But, it takes a certain type of writer with a certain type of story to tell to achieve such a feat.

    I believe all writers aspire to do just that.

    I know I do.

    Nice post!

    Keep it up!

  2. I think the industry has become more risk averse in the face of the way it’s changing – specifically, the way the traditional publishing model is being undermined by e-books and self-publishing via Amazon. This has got the main publishing houses in a spin. It is not a question of the quality of a novice author’s work, so much as the non-risk-taking culture emerging in the main houses. Put it this way: even published authors whose work is actually very good are being dumped by mainstream publishers because they are focussing only on the A-listers instead. In such circumstance, I think a lot of potentially very great literature has every risk of never seeing the light of day. And if even mid-listers aren’t being published, what chance, then, does the edgy, innovative newbie have?

    • Good point, Matthew. This is where self-publishing, and the smaller, independent publishers come into play. Writers more willing to take chances have to find venues receptive to promote and foster such risk-taking. The big houses won’t do it unless a writer is already established, but then again, how the hell is a writer going to get established if he doesn’t…ah, screw it.

  3. I quite agree. Unfortunately it seems like too many publishers are driven by what sells rather than what’s good; cringingly seeking to appease mass markets rather than driving the market with bold commissions; churning out more of the same sado masochistic vampire porn that sold last year. We need more clever, brave people in charge of publishing. We need more clever, brave people in charge of everything.

    • Publishers will do what makes sense to them: if sado-masochistic vampire porn is what’s selling, then why stop churning it out? Next year, sado-masochistic zombie porn will be chic, so publishers will step all over themselves to find the next hot writer in that genre. It’s so cannibalistic, it’s depressing. We do need more daring publishers, and they are out there.

      • Are they(daring publishers) out there? I don’t think they are, and here’s why: Most will expect you to go through an agent due to the amount of wannabe writers and herein lies the problem. The agents are not looking for the new thing, they are looking for the current trend…the next sado-masochistic vampire porn that sold well last year… because they think that will still sell again. And this is where we get a real problem with the agent. Because the amount of time the agent introduces into the equation, by the time the book, if accepted by a publisher, get accepted, then the vogue that the premise was accepted upon is out of fashion.

        I think the only solution for the new out there novelist is to self-publish and produce the vogue yourself, and then hope you get straight to the publisher after sales success.

        I could also be totally wrong…I often am.

        • I don’t think you’re wrong. Agents go with what works, so why deviate from the formula?

          But there have to be agents out there willing and wanting to find and nurture something new. They’re out there, we just have to find them.

  4. No novel should ever play it safe. Writing should always come from passion, albeit it with cast iron editing. A first novel should be whatever the writer wants it to be. But note; IT MAY NOT GET PUBLISHED. We shouldn’t write with ‘get published’ in mind. Create the best stories you are capable of and then see whether it’s worthy of a public audience. If the first one isn’t, learn from it and write a better novel second time round and hope that, training done, you can nail the deal. Thus speaks a woman who has taken nearly three years to write her first novel, which is now out with trusted friends for the first read!

  5. After reading this post when it was FP’d (congrats!) I went back and re-read “Ready Player One.” The second read through was even better than the first, but because of your post, I paid a little more attention than usual to the particulars of his writing. A HUGE mistake that he makes again and again: breaking the ‘show don’t tell’ rule. He is constantly summing up bits of the past, telling us (not showing) what just happened. But somehow it is still a GREAT story. It’s greatness surpasses the ‘telling’ (and his constant use of the passive voice) because in the end, a great idea can survive not-so-great writer. (Of course, the opposite is true. A great writer can make a lame story into a prize wining book, i.e. dare I say it, Old Man and the Sea.)

    • Oh, I totally agree with that assessment; at first, a lot of the backstory was pretty bothersome, but ultimately in order for the story to make sense, it had to be told, so you as the reader had to sit through it. So, yes, Ernest Cline does break the “show, don’t tell” rule, but he does it within reason. I’m pretty sure a far more skilled writer would have found a way to bypass so much of that backstory, but I was far more impressed with the breadth and scope of his story than his actual skill. He’ll learn to write better, I hope.

  6. Unfortunately, this happens whenever art meets the commercial world! “Play it safe” novels are no different to uninspired pop pap in the music charts. Publishers and music companies will always try to maximize the appeal and sales of their product. This has always been the way of things until a brave soul steps forward and champions something risky but amazing!
    I am transported back to 1962 when mighty (at the time) Decca records and most other labels decided “Guitar bands were on the way out” and it was a small comedy-focused subdivision of EMI that took a gamble of 4 long haired Liverpudlians.
    It isn’t much comfort for budding authors, but you have to hope that for every “Decca” publisher – there is a “Parlophone” who wants to test out a novel with a difference.

    Great post – and yes I’m looking forward to ‘JJ does Star Wars’ too – shame about the wait!

    • Agree with you wholeheartedly about the Parlophone reference. The only thing was record companies after that were tripping over themselves hoping to sign the next Beatles. Publishers these days are now looking for the next “Fifty Shades of Gray,” heaven help us.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  7. I know I played really safe with my first novel completed last year. In looking at it in hindsight I have big plans to turn it on its ear and make it really risky. I don’t care whether people like it or not as long as I like it. I think it helps that I’m approaching my “million words.”

    Best wishes with your writing. Your blog indicates that you’re doing fine.

  8. I read ‘somewhere’ once that as long as a writer understands the basic mechanics and structure of a novel for the genre in which he writes, then he can afford to break and play with the rules a little – I quite like this idea. For me, I think following the industry rules and then breaking them just a little shows creativity, flair and freshness for a debut novel.

    • I think I read that same article. Amazing how many writers don’t know those rules, though.

      I also think knowing the rules and having a healthy respect for the rules makes breaking the rules all the more satisfying.

  9. The best writers took their debut novels and pushed the limits of their time like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, Doctor Zhivago and Gone with the Wind. Harry Potter might be the best example of the biggest risk, with the biggest reward…

    • I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when J.K. Rowling was plotting the entire Harry Potter series, because she knew damned well this was a gigantic risk she was taking, but the reward was going to be massive. She’s modest about it, but she must have know the whole thing was going to be HUGE.

  10. Playing it safe may be boring but if one wants to get published by a mainstream publisher there is often little choice. I think that is one reason indie publishing is becoming so popular and readers are going nuts over the new stories. Stories a publisher would (and in some cases has) turned their nose up at.

    • Considering what I’m writing, I know the indie or self publishing route is the way I’ll have to go. But I’m a stubborn bastard; I want to find an agent who’ll fall in love with my work and make it their life’s mission to find a home for my novel with one of the Big Publishers. All because I didn’t play it safe.

  11. I thought art, which writing is definitely a part of, was meant to challenge the equilibrium and not play by it? The fact that someone in your group means to play it safe is probably why they are in a group and not out signing in a bookshop for their latest work of genius! it is disappointing to hear such comments and if all of us played by those rules then yes, we would not have Fight Club and the like. I am an independent author, and I find it quite exciting to work out a way of making what you write different to what is out there at the moment. I entered a playwrighting competition a few years ago and wrote all of the piece in rhyme. This allowed it to stand out, because it was unique to everything else, and it reached the final of the competition. As a society we should not be breeding mediocrity, but pushing the envelope to excellence all of the time. After all, what if you play it safe and then realise that you have nothing else to say!
    PS, I too am holding on any judgements with Star Wars until I at least see a trailer, or the finished article!
    great blog.

    • I should clarify that the participant in the group that made that statement was simply reiterating some advice that had been given to her by an agent. Whether she took that advice to heart, I really don’t know; if she did, that would be a shame.

  12. I seriously don’t get it.
    Playing safe helps?
    How exactly?
    As a reader I want to read something NEW, NOT another twilight, fifty shades of grey, harry potter etc.
    Until and unless you’re taking risks and experimenting, you’re recycling because SO many books have been created that experimentation can only let you have a unique voice.

    • You don’t have to dilute your ideas. Ultimately, I don’t care if an agent or a publisher or a reader thinks my ideas are too difficult or not mainstream enough. I want my voice to be authentic, not a retread of boring ideas.

  13. Hello Gus,

    I review books for Random House India in my spare time and have seen a couple of really, really sucky debut novels lately. For instance, the last book i reviewed was a chick-flick written by a journalist with over 15 years of experience covering war zones and what-not. The plot isn’t a conventional one (although it’s darn silly), so i guess the author must have exercised some control over it; but a chick flick? By a journalist? That screams mass appeal to me. Of course publishing houses and agents have a strong opinion on what works and what doesn’t, but judging by what i read, i wonder if ‘safe’ is really the only thing that determines what novel becomes a book and what stays as just a manuscript.

    Still thinking about it. 🙂

    • Hi there, thanks for finding me. I’m floored by your example. This author has a wealth of experiences she can write about, and all she can muster up is some trite chick-lit retread?

      I have this bad feeling she was given this advice, so that her chances of getting published could be greatly improved. If so, how sad is that?

  14. I read this post and clicked with the sentiment of “no hold back, balls to the walls with creative aspirations”, the admiration for the various debut novels you brought up and the hate for what I later learned was Ishmael. I tried reading that when I was 14 and even then I could parse that it was pure monkey shit.
    I picked up Ready Player One the next day on the merit of your recommendation and man am I glad I did. Thank you Gus for suggestion! That book was amazing.

  15. Hi,

    Thanks for keeping my desires to seek for “something different” alive. I’ve always wanted to be a novelist but have yet to realize that dream. Your post certainly reinforced my aim – to come up with a story that’s different from the ordinary.

    Sometimes, I have these vague ideas that we rarely come across. Sadly, I lack novel-writing skills and have zero experience whatsoever. I’m pretty sure that I never get any draft done because I keep thinking of reasons why the publisher would reject the piece – such thing doesn’t exist in so-and-so community, the society will not blend in with such narration, bla bla bla.

    Your post keeps me reminded that it’s alright to want to be different. We need more of that, don’t we?


    • One thing to always remember: write for yourself. The one person you need to keep happy, as a writer, is you. So write those novels that are different and challenging. Go on and challenge yourself. You’ll find the readership soon enough.

      Good luck, and go on and write!

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  17. I think, whether it’s your first or fifteenth novel, that you have to go with your gut. Safe or way the hell out there, great writing gets noticed. Your criticism was probably spot-on in the critique group. Often, in groups like that, people are simply too nice. Honest critique yields the most helpful results to the writer. I’d rather hear “Your secondary characters were completely flat, and frankly left me with an overwhelming desire to floss my teeth.” than “I really loved your submission!”

    • I’m brutally honest in my critique group, but not mean about it. When I tell a writer that his writing needs a lot of work, I’ll tell him so, but I’ll also give a look of tips and recommendations. And, honestly, if the storyline bores me, I’ll say so.

      The good thing about the writer’s group I participate in is our feedback is honest. Some people don’t appreciate that feedback, but that’s their problem, not mine.

  18. Wasn’t High Fidelity Nick Horby’s debut? I think it was quite different from other books I knew, very original.

    I don’t know if I’m hitting the spot here, but I keep up with blogs of some publishers and they always say a book has to be original. I’ve never heard any of them saying anything about “playing it safe”. So I guess I’d nod for you.

    • Actually, I think it was “Fever Pitch,” wasn’t it?

      A lot of the small press publishers I’ve been reading have been emphasizing originality over content. It seems to me that agents are more interested in “safe” for the sake of being able to sell easier to publishers.

  19. Playing it safe… needs to mean, write something the agents know how to sell… not, write something dull and formulaic. So I’m with Gus there: if you want to break into a new market, you have to be saleable. But there are lots of ways to do that. These days one way is to have a popular blog (or Google Plus page, or facebook page, or better yet all of those things) so that you’ve got a market of a few thousad copies at the outset.

    If literary agents and publishers had their way we’d all be reading the same books so that they could have a smaller stock and make more profits.

    If you need to write something bland but competent, get it published in a magazine and move on with life – write first for readers, not for publishers or (worse) their agents.

    • I do like what you wrote in your last paragraph. Sometimes it helps to write something competent just to get yourself published, to get your name out there. A little food for thought, so thank you for that.

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  21. I set out deliberately to create a brand new mythology and a brand new world–no zombies, vampires, werewolves, faeries, none of the standard urban fantasy tropes. This might have been why I never did get an agent interested, but in the six months or so since I self-published Catskinner’s Book on Kindle I have received a lot of positive reviews and most of them have remarked on the fact that I didn’t play it safe. I dropped my readers into a world that they never seen before, and they thanked me for it.

    I think that there is a big market out there for truly original works. Are publishers looking for something just like what they already have? Maybe, but I don’t think readers are. The Harry Potter novels sold well, in part, because JKR created a new and interesting world–nowadays a host imitators are trying to be original by writing something “just like Harry Potter”. It doesn’t work like that–you can’t capture your readers sense of wonder by rehashing someone else’s work.

    • Your experience is exactly what I’m seeing a lot of here. There are definitely a lot of writers wanting to stretch themselves out, even at the risk of alienating readers and publishers. But you have to remain authentic to yourself, right?

      Thanks for your feedback. You’ve given me a lot of food for thought, and thanks for commenting!

  22. Loved this blog. “Good art, even if it’s not great, should make every attempt to break the rules,” sums it up perfectly. I’m easily bored by novels that play it safe.

  23. Just stumbled across this blog, and its proven a timely discovery, so thank you. I’m currently trying to finish my first novel. I think sometimes, knowing that you have to make an impact and that every word should leave a lasting impression means that you can write yourself into a corner. I spend so much time reviewing and editing copy that I often lose momentum with the narrative and find myself stuck with a lot of nicely constructed sentences riddled with weak characterisation and a holey plot. There is a real knack to writing something engaging and impactful- I’m beginning to think the secret is to stop trying so hard, stop thinking about it so much and try and relax a little….and I made a return to the short story- nothing like it for reminding you how to make every word count for something.

    • I know the feeling, going back and sweating over every single word and sentence. I’m still doing that, because I feel that because I’m in the process of finishing my first novel, it’s got to be done just right. But, yes, the trick is to realize that you’ve got to stop trying so hard, and let the story reveal itself, rather than force the story. Anyone who reads can tell when a story feels forced.

      Good luck to you, and thanks for reading! Come again!

      • If you don’t already have a publisher, remember that the publisher will probably want changes. For example, they may want you to make sure that every chapter (except the last) ends on a note of tension to keep the book moving, or their target demographics may require changes to the way particular characters or organizations are portrayed.

  24. Great post and some really interesting comments too. Hitting the follow button now! I’m definitely looking to self publish my first book.

    As mentioned elsewhere, it seems unless you want to churn out something that fits into the latest trend whether its mummy porn, or hormonal teenagers, then agents willing to take on an unknown are few and far between.

    I suppose another factor is what are you writing for? For me its about having my work out there and if people like it then great. Same as my music.

    Its for me its about putting something together that I’m proud of and money, fame and riches can come if and when or not at all

    • You’re right, agents looking to represent unknowns, especially ones wanting to take chances with their work, are few. Which is why they often dispense this kind of advice, well-intentioned as it may seem, but ultimately shortsighted.

  25. Ready Player One is one of my favorite debut novels. I recommend it to anyone I can.

    I’d also like to add Name of the Wind to the list. I can imagine the comments about that book being too long between Rothfuss and his editor. Can’t you shorten the beginning? How about cutting out some of the interesting stories that set this book apart from everyone else? Can you shorten your descriptions to make the world less rich and reduce the page count? We need to save on printing costs.

    However, I do want say that I agree you need to know the rules before you can break the rules. If you want to break the rules, then you should be able to defend your position. Editors do have a lot of experience and insight, so don’t dig your heels in on principle. Sometimes an edit can tighten the story into a well-oiled entertainment machine. But if the change would lessen the book, especially if the editor’s reason is to make the book more like A-lister examples, then you should fight for your story. That next book could be the start of a whole new genre!

    • Hi Tracy,

      I completely agree with your assessment about knowing the rules first. It’s the knowing of the rules that makes breaking them all the more enjoyable and sweeter, really. And, yes, one should always be prepared to fight for their story, no matter what. I went through that with an editor that wanted me to tack on some “happier” endings to a short story collection I worked on some years ago; I felt that by adding a happier ending, it would rob those stories of more of the poignancy and irony I was going for. She didn’t agree until I point out some examples in literature, especially ones that broke rules.

      Guess who won that argument?

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