The Devil’s in the Debut: Guest Post by Nicola Morgan

I am very excited this Wednesday morning and it’s not just because December, my favorite month of the year, starts tomorrow, or because I’ve ingested a not insignificant amount of caffeine this morning. It’s because the wonderful Nicola Morgan, the woman behind the most useful writing blog on the web, Help! I Need a Publisher, and two books that should be added to every writer’s library, Write to be Published and Tweet Right: The Sensible Person’s Guide to Twitter, is here as part of her blog tour for her YA novel, Mondays are Red. She’s here to tell us why debut novels have to have that extra special something for the author to succeed, to break out. Welcome to Catherine, Caffeinated, Nicola! 

Hello Catherine and thanks so much for letting me hang out on your esteemed blog today! I have brought coffee. 🙂

Since Mondays are Red was my debut, back in the dim and distant days of 2002 when I was young and unwrinkly, you’ve asked me to talk about debuts, and whether they have to be different from other novels.

Interesting question and one I wouldn’t have had a clue how to answer back then. I knew what I was doing, not what I was supposed to be doing! Since then, I’ve learnt a lot, not just about writing but about the industry and what agents and publishers need. And it boils down to selling. (And preferably, as far as most publishers are concerned, easy selling. Gah.)

So, a debut needs to stand out. It needs to mark the writer as “one to watch” because that writer has got to produce other books. It needs to showcase the writer’s skill and imagination – or whatever it is that this writer shines at. You have to wear a sparkly dress and really high heels.

Interesting Point 1: This is all new. Not so long ago, a writer was allowed to build a career – Ian Rankin and Jacqueline Wilson are examples of writers whose huge success came with later books. Writers now are not allowed that luxury: you have to leap onto the world with a big shout. If you haven’t made your mark with book two, that may be it. Marketing budgets suddenly vanish.

On the other hand, if you’re writing to fit into a clear genre with specific demands, the debut does not need to stand out, just to fit in. So, I guess what I’m saying is that your debut needs to be extreme: either extremely noticeable or extremely fitting in.

So, what elements in a novel give it debut quality? An unusual voice, an unusual anything, a shocking or otherwise remarkable theme, a high concept premise. That’s about it. Basically, a good debut has sit-up-and-take-notice factor.

Mondays are Red was my debut and it worked very well as one – though, as I say, I didn’t know that at the time. My second novel, Fleshmarket, would also have worked. Deathwatch wouldn’t. Wasted would. The one I’m writing now, Brutal Eyes, wouldn’t. The two novels I failed to get published before Mondays are Red were not debut material. I know that now. They were too safe. They weren’t original enough, though I thought they were. The plots were criticised as being traditional. But they also weren’t genre fiction so they would not fit there either.

Interesting Point 2: Not all first books are debuts. I’d had at least umpteen books published before Mondays are Red – home learning books, for example, and a Greek history book. I didn’t call them debuts because they weren’t. They were preparation.

Interesting Point 3: You might need to write another debut one day. I’m trying to write one now. When you move publishers or you want to take a new trajectory, be noticed again and perhaps for different reasons, you may have to write another book which will have the same sit-up-and-notice-me factor as a debut. You just don’t call it a debut. That would be weird; people would look at you and not in a good way.

So, remember: not all first books are debuts and not all debuts are first books. But a debut needs to pack a special punch.  It needs a special debutness about it. And an agent will know it when she sees it. That’s what they mean when they say (infuriatingly) that they “didn’t love it enough.” Gah. The devil’s in the debut.

Btw, I’m talking about Debut Ups and Downs on The View From My Garrett on 2nd Dec – and I’ll even mention the removal of clothes…

Thanks Nicola!

Mondays are Red was Nicola Morgan’s debut YA novel, published in 2002. Nicola is now delighted to be producing the ebook, with brand new extra material, including creative writing by school pupils inspired by the book. For details about how to buy (price c.£2.25 until the end of January), see here.

Mondays are Red is the story of Luke who, having awoken from a coma, discovers that his world is altered. Synaesthesia confuses his senses and a sinister creature called Dreeg inhabits his mind. Dreeg offers him limitless power – even the power to fly – and the temptations are huge, but the price is high. Who will pay? His mysteriously perfect girlfriend, with hair as long as the sound of honey? His detested sister, Laura, with the wasps in her hair? When Laura goes missing, Luke realizes the terrible truth about himself and his power. His decision is a matter of life and death, and he will have to run faster than fire.