Some writers burst out of the gate with a brilliant debut novel that earns all the attention, awards, and (hopefully) sales—think Patrick Rothfuss (The Name of the Wind) or N.K. Jemisin (whose The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms earned her a Nebula nomination out of the gate). But some now very famous and successful authors didn’t have that experience—and not because their debuts aren’t worthy of acclaim. Sometimes, fate just doesn’t align to give them the start they deserve.
Happily, in books there’s always a chance the next chapter will be more exciting than the last—and that certainly has proven true for these six authors, all of whom put a rocky start (or mid-career rough patch) behind them and went on to create some of our favorite works.
The Near Witch, by Victoria Schwab
If you cast your mind back to the heady days of 2011, you’d be forgiven for not remembering it as the year Victoria Schwab published her debut novel, The Near Witch. Though it garnered good reviews and found a faithful following among those who read it, the book simply failed to get much traction—and, as Schwab detailed in a recent interview with B&N, her next two books didn’t meet her publisher’s sales expectations either (never mind that the publisher didn’t seem to know how to promote her work to the right audience). The young author was faced with a decision: would she give up on her lifelong dream, or recommit herself to her art? Thankfully for all who now adore her books—and there are legions of us—she chose the latter course, but changed what she was doing in one big way: she decided to write solely for herself, to create the messy, complex, and darkly beautiful books of her heart. Within short order, the results were Vicious and A Darker Shade of Magic; within a few years, sequel novels in both those series had landed on the bestseller lists and Schwab attracted the attention of Hollywood (and we’d put good money that one of her books will make it to the screen sooner rather than later). All in all: quite the career recovery.
The Armageddon Rag, by George R.R. Martin
George R.R. Martin has been writing since the 1960s and made his first professional fiction sale in 1971. Nowadays, he’s one of those authors who has become a celebrity—nearly as famous as the books he writes, which is saying something considering he’s the fountainhead of Game of Thrones, maybe the most successful TV show ever. He’s an accomplished writer of short stories, novels, and screenplays, and a respected editor… but that wasn’t always so. In 1983, he published his third solo novel, following the well-received space opera Dying of the Light and the fantastically atmospheric vampire tale Fevre Dream. The Armageddon Rag was an ambitious work, combining fantasy subtext with a murder mystery structure and plenty of ruminating on rock music and 1960s counter-culture. It was… not well-received, to say the least. Martin himself has described it in interviews as “a total commercial disaster” that “almost destroyed” his career. He shifted his focus from novels to comics and screenwriting, meeting with equal success and frustration in Hollywood, but he didn’t publish another novel for 13 years. The good news? That novel was A Game of Thrones, written both because reading Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy had shown Martin how much life remained in epic fantasy, and because, after years of working on failed TV pilots, he was ready to be in control of his own destiny once again. And there’s no need to feel too bad for The Armageddon Rag either: the novel has experienced something of a critical reassessment these days, and is now back in print and benefitting from the attention now granted to books with “George R.R. Martin” on the cover.
Duran Duran: The Book, by Neil Gaiman
No conversation about early career missteps is complete without bringing up the eternally fascinating fact that one of Neil Gaiman’s first professional credits is for a biography of the band Duran Duran. Gaiman was hired to write it when he was in his early 20s, and freely admits he took the path of least resistance to do so, limiting his research to press clippings from the BBC. He also admits he chose Duran Duran from a list of potential bands to feature because they had the shortest discography, meaning the book would be less work. The finished product was actually a success, of sorts—it sold well enough, but the publisher went out of business entirely shortly after publication. For years, Gaiman treated the book like a dark secret and made sure it stayed out of print. Well, it’s still out of print, there not being big demand for a surface-level pop bio of Duran Duran in 2019, but Gaiman has found his sense of humor about it by now. Probably the fact that his subsequent career involved writing a now-legendary comic series and penning novels that have been adapted for the screen one after another helped him find that perspective.
The Wind from Nowhere, by J.G. Ballard
If you’re under the impression that The Drowned World was J.G. Ballard’s first novel, you’re forgiven, for the man himself often said exactly that. Published when Ballard was 31, the author later described The Wind from Nowhere—a story about a steady westward wind that gains force until humanity is driven underground—as “hackwork” and chose to pretend it had never been published at all. He released The Drowned World the next year, launching a very successful career and establishing himself as one of the great British sci-fi writers of the 20th century—but if you can track down a copy of his actual first novel, you’ll understand how unlikely that once seemed.
The Haunted Storm, by Philip Pullman
Today we know Philip Pullman as the author of the His Dark Materials series, among many other lauded works. But Pullman’s first novel, The Haunted Storm, is aggressively out of print and likely to stay that way. What’s interesting about this one is the fact that the novel was relatively well-received, and even shared that year’s Young Writers Award, an honor bestowed upon it by the New English Library. No, it’s Pullman who is sufficiently embarrassed by the novel, published when he was 25 years old; he calls it a “not very good book” and has worked to ensure that no one can read it unless they’re willing to pay a huge premium to buy one of the rare copies still floating around on the secondary market. We’ll have to take him at his word that it’s not worth reading; the evidence put forth by his other books certainly would suggest otherwise.
Survivor, by Octavia Butler
Octavia Butler published Survivor as part of her Patternist series in 1978—it was the third novel in the saga, and Butler was already well on her way to being acknowledged as one of the best minds in SFF. But Butler herself considered the novel to be a failure, and not only completely disowned it but made certain it went out of print by the 1980s. Her explanation for why she took that course of action is fascinating; she says that growing up she was disgusted by the stock sci-fi premise of humans discovering alien life that more or less stand in as lesser “beings of color.” After publishing Survivor, she felt that this was exactly the story she herself had told—so she buried it. It’s safe to say Butler’s career wasn’t too badly affected by either the quality of this novel or her decision to quash it—her next book, Kindred, became her bestselling, and is now widely considered a classic.
What other inspiring career “second chapters” come to mind?
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