When I was twenty I wrote a novel. No one has ever read it.
And there’s an excellent reason that I haven’t allowed anyone else to read the manuscript — it’s awful. Heck, it might even be a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Amnesty International could report me for depredations against basic human dignity if I posted it online.
Sure, it has a few moments of quality prose (I like to think that I had a little bit of talent back then) but anything worthwhile is suffocated by painfully misguided crap and unearned pretention. It makes my skin crawl to this day.
Of course, after writing this (very bad) novel, I was faced with a choice: Do I try to make it better, or do I start something new. This is, actually, a difficult decision. Writing a novel, even a bad novel, is a major undertaking. It is exhausting, and emotionally draining. Tossing it aside is not an easy thing for anyone to do.
Thankfully, I had the wit about me to notice that it was, in fact, not very good, and I didn’t waste my time sending it to agents or publishers. But I also had the good fortune to be taking a writing class from an established novelist at the time. And he let me in on a critical insight: books are not about authors, books are about readers.
In other words, while it may feel good to exorcise your demons by writing a book, what matters is whether someone else would want to read it. If you want to clear your mind, write a diary, or write a journal for yourself, and don’t worry about the craft. But writing for an audience is about performance. In the end, someone will need to care about what you have to say — they will either want to be entertained, emotionally involved, or informed by your prose. And if you can’t figure out a reason why anyone would want to read that thing you wrote, put it aside and write something new.
In other words, while it is important to please yourself with your work, all writers need to learn how to please others in order to find an audience. When I thought about that first novel, I realized that no one would find it interesting. It was nothing but an extended, surrealist whine. I could “improve” it, but that wouldn’t make it any more attractive to someone who wasn’t, say, me. So I put it in a drawer, and there it has remained as a reminder to me of what not to do when writing fiction.
And then I picked up my pen and started writing something new.