The comments we’ve gotten in response to our last post bring up some very important points, and we want to make some clarifications here. First, there’s a difference between practice novels and failed novels. Practice novels are those the writer intends as practice to improve his/her ability to craft a better book, with publication not even considered. Failed novels are those the writer couldn’t sell, so he/she wrote another book to try to see if that one would sell. The main difference is in writer motivation and intent. Remember, we're dealing with intangibles here, so hang in there.
We never said you have to mention the practice novels when you query an agent, but they can be included in your query with workshops, classes, degrees, and other preparation for writing for publication. Practice novels are for your education, not credits to persuade someone to represent you, and it’s all in how you present the information.
I’ve heard other agents make comments about getting queries with information about the six other novels the writer has written and how that makes a bad impression. And it does. If we get queries with descriptions of other novels because the writer is trying to sound prolific (based on an article that said agents don’t like representing writers with only one book) or trying to see if we’d like to see any other works in a variety of genres because they can write anything, then we consider that writer an amateur. However, if we get something wherein the writer states he/she wrote three practice novels and had them professionally edited and then re-wrote them for the experience of learning how to write a novel correctly, that’s different. This is one way a writer can learn the craft. The other might be to take workshops, take classes, get a degree, etc. The problem is most writers just sit down and write whatever comes out, and maybe they learn from the experience, but it isn’t really guided learning and in the end the motivation for writing those novels was usually to get them published, not learn from them.
We know, we know. Here we are, telling writers that they should plan to write at least—at least—a whole book to learn to write. Do we know how long that will take? Yep. Do we know how much work that is? Yep. But do you realize that most professions require some kind of certificate or degree or something that shows the person has engaged in learning and practicing the skills involved in that profession? Writing doesn’t require anything except that someone turn on a computer and start tippy-tap-tapping away. The strange thing about publishing is that you have people who have gone to school to be in the business, but yet if someone with no experience can produce a readable book during a time that genre is hot, he is automatically accepted into the fold. That’s not fair, is it? But it happens. Of course, those kinds of writers usually don’t last long because they have no idea what they’ve written and can’t reproduce it, or if they can, they don’t do it very well. And the worst thing is that their readers are cheated because the writer is learning as he goes.
What this all goes back to, and always will go back to, is what kind of writer do you want to be? We know—published! But that’s not what we mean. What are you willing to do to get there? Writing is hard, hard work. You might write ten novels before you get one that’s publishable. A hundred short stories. Five hundred poems. It is the journey that makes the writer, not whether he/she gets published. Ultimately, it is the journey that sells the work—maturity and skill gleaned from hard work and crafted into a fine story captivates a reader's subconscious.
A quote from Hemingway sums this all up: "Will work again on the novel today. Writing is a hard business Max but nothing makes you feel better." ...from Selections from Ernest Hemingway on Writing