I wanted to be a writer for many years before I actually was a writer. I knew I wanted to tell stories but I didn't know any of the things I needed to know. At least I was self-aware enough to know I didn't know. ;) I took a creative writing class at a nearby university but all I learned from that experience was that the professor hated the publishing business and was bitter about the stack of rejections he had for his literary masterpiece. My short stories had the whiff of genre fiction so he never had much to say to me.
A few years later I felt on the verge of giving up. I had a manuscript I'd been struggling with for a long time but it was going nowhere. Ultimately I put it away. I didn't give up writing, though. I had a few ideas about a very different type of story than the one I'd been working on unsuccessfully for years. About a year later I had my first finished novel, a Young Adult paranormal that came in at a hundred thousand words.
What did I learn from the experience? Nothing about point of view, that's for sure. The thing was full of head-hopping. Didn't learn tight plotting either. The story meandered around like a wayward puppy with a bad case of "ooh shiny let's go over there! ooh shiny what about this over here?" It was littered with adverbs and egregious comma abuse and no telling how many other grammar offences. What I did learn was invaluable: I learned I could finish something.
There comes a point in every manuscript, sometimes several times, when it feels like it will never be finished. It will feel as if the story is falling apart and that it would be a merciful death to delete the document. When that happens, especially when it happens more than once, you will hate your book. You will hate it with the fire of a thousand suns and a whole lot of other overworked metaphors. You will want that book to DIE.
Unless you are insanely lucky, this will happen with every book. The way I deal with it is to think back on that first book and the lesson it taught me - that I can finish. Whether I get a second wind or a grudging determination from that thought, it helps me to fight my way through to the finish line on the current book.
It doesn't matter how bad that first book sucks or that no one will ever read it. What matters is that you did it, you finished it, and you can carry that knowledge through every book you write, through every dark period in the writing that makes you want to give up. That breakthrough experience of reaching THE END is one of the most valuable lessons a writer will ever learn. Whether it takes you a month or a year, it's a lesson you have to learn if you're serious about writing. Don't give up until you learn it.
Note: This post originally appeared on my first blog, which is no longer active, in 2011. I made a few minor changes but the bulk of the message is the same, because it's still true - the most important thing you can do with your first novel is to finish it! :)