Eleanor Brown: When Your First Book Is Not Your First

Weird Sisters author Eleanor Brown tells about the publication of her "first" novel - really her fifth! - on Meg Waite Clayton's First Books: Stories of How Writers Get Starte

I'm just thrilled this week to welcome Eleanor Brown, author of Weird Sisters, to 1st Books (and very excited we'll be participating in the Gaithersburg Book Festival together). If you haven't already heard about this wonderful novel, where have you been? It hit the New York Times Bestseller list in its first few weeks out. For good reason. As Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand author Helen Simonson says, “What a joy to read. What a VOICE. The Weird Sisters is family drama dissected by verbal scalpel. If wit and language could protect against growing old, these bewitching sisters might never have to grow up.” And you're going to love Eleanor's story about her "first" novel. - Meg

Every time something is written about The Weird Sisters that refers to it as my "first novel," I cringe.

Here's the thing: it's not my first novel.

It's my fifth.

And that's only counting the ones I managed to finish - there are pages and pages of notes and drafts of novels that never got past the first few chapters.

Maybe I'm a late bloomer, but it took me a long, long time to learn how to write a novel, and even longer to write one that was any good.

Part of this is definitely my fault - I spent a lot of time trying to write in genres I thought would sell, trying to write stories I thought would sell, instead of writing the story I wanted to tell in the style my heart wanted it told in. But I can't criticize myself too much for that - playing around with different voices and the rules of different genres was part of what helped me find my own voice.

Here was the hardest part of the whole process, though: recognizing they weren't any good, but getting back up to do it all over again anyway.

Writing is hard, you know? And I think there's a tendency, when we're done, to rush right out and share it with the world - friends, family, the internet, agents, editors - just because the darn thing is finally finished.

I did that with one of my manuscripts - I knew it wasn't as good as it could have been. I knew it had inconsistencies and plot holes big enough to drive a bus through and was in desperate need of a few months of lying fallow while I worked on something else and then came back to it with fresh eyes and an honest heart. But I had set some ridiculous deadline for myself, and I think I knew, deep down, that it was going to be hard, hard work to whip that baby into shape, and I just couldn't face it.Eleanor Brown Author Photo

I'm lucky that I only sent it to one person, and that one person rejected it (she would have been a fool not to), but took the time to read the entire thing, complimenting me on what I did right, and detailing what I did wrong.

It was a hugely embarrassing experience - I felt bad for having wasted her time, especially since she was so incredibly gracious about the whole thing.

But here's what I did:

I read her comments carefully.

I wrote her a note thanking her for her time.

I sat down and started writing again.

And that time, I wrote the book I really wanted to write. That time, I listened to my heart, and thought about the things in my life I wanted to understand, and I didn't think about whether or not the book would sell.

I just wrote.

And, ironically, that became The Weird Sisters - the novel that did sell.

I'm not alone in having my debut novel not being my first - it happens all the time, and there's no shame in it. No one expects someone who has only watched other people play the piano to sit right down and knock off a few sonatas. That's entertaining, but it's not impressive.

What is impressive is watching the concert pianist who has been practicing hours and hours, every day, for years, who has raged and cried and threatened to give it all up, who has played the same measures over and over and over again until they were exactly right. That's what makes a brilliant pianist.

That's what makes a wonderful writer. - Eleanor

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Comment by T A_A I on February 25, 2011 at 2:10am
Great story. So inspirational indeed.
Comment by Rebecca Rowan on February 22, 2011 at 8:01pm
I appreciate your analogy to the concert pianist - I've been playing piano since I was six (and that's almost 50 years now!) and that certainly helps me put my writing progress in a different perspective. I'm looking forward to reading your book - it's getting lots of great buzz in the book blogging world!
Comment by Miranda Koerner on February 22, 2011 at 4:27pm
So inspirational.  I can relate.  I wrote a novel my sr. year of college and took it to a conference and tried to submit it...oh, people were so nice!  It was so bad.  But, you keep writing and learn.
Comment by Emily Lackey on February 19, 2011 at 3:50pm

I love this:


"I read her comments carefully.

I wrote her a note thanking her for her time.

I sat down and started writing again."


May we all receive criticism so graciously and so productively. Congrats on your fifth novel, Eleanor!



Comment by Anjuelle Floyd on February 18, 2011 at 3:54pm

Thanks so much,  Meg for sharing this interview. What Eleanor says is so true. That she can admit her drive to attain publication superceded the responsibility to produce the best work possible demonstrates her strength and maturity.

We have all trod through this hard place.

Fortunately Eleanor lets us also know that we can grow beyond our short-sightedness of this period in our lives, and do so with success.


Peace and Blessings.


Comment by Jocelyn Eikenburg on February 18, 2011 at 3:12pm
So inspiring, Eleanor! I was struggling with my own manuscript in progress, and this was a good jolt of common sense, to remind me to stick to my instincts and write from the heart.
Comment by Colleen Friesen on February 18, 2011 at 2:35pm


Thank you for sharing these thoughts. It's SO encouraging.

I'm on my millionth attempt to tell my story and there are certainly times when I think, "Enough already..." but somehow and for some reason I start again. Thanks for providing encouragement. It's much appreciated.

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