ETA: PubRants has just posted about this same topic here.
After reading a blog post by a "writer" (note the quotes: this is none of you guys, trust me), it occurred to me the reason why Janet Reid and Editorial Anonymous make a point to say that one of the most important things for a new writer to do is prove s/he isn't a yahoo.
This "writer" had a long rant on why her first book should be published. How she'd done everything right--write it, "edit" it, paid for editors to "edit" it, kept the idea behind it super secret so no one could steal it, did all the best social networking sites to promote it before it was (inevitably) "picked up by a publisher." The expectation was that this "writer," who had only begun writing less than six months ago, would be published...soon. Very soon. As in, watch out world, her name is about to be lit up on the marquee, she's the next JK Rowling...you get the idea.
Now, in the past, this "writer" has made a big deal about how she wasn't classically trained, had never taken a writing class, and certainly wasn't a MFA, but how those kinds of degrees don't make a writer.
And I actually agree with her on that point.
I don't think a writer needs a degree to be a writer.
But what I do think a writer needs is...practice. (And a MFA can sometimes provide that practice.)
There's a reason why so many people box up their first manuscript. If you are a writer, you need PRACTICE. There is nothing wrong with writing a book and realizing that it isn't perfect, and that you can't fix it. Really. This isn't something writers talk about often--I think there's a certain amount of shame associated with boxing a book. There's an attitude that you're giving up on it.
But that's not the case. Writing is a skill--and it takes practice. The hours you spent working on a book that will never be published are not wasted. They were the hours you spent developing your skill. If you wanted to be an artist, you can't expect your first painting to be perfect, no matter how many times you touch it up. There comes a point where the canvas is ruined, and you just need to pack it away and start on a fresh canvas.
If you think about it, it's almost ridiculously preposterous to think that your first novel will be published, especially if you think it will be published successfully, especially if you spend more time working on social networking sites than seeking valuable criticism that could salvage the manuscript. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule. Natural talent and luck both play a big part in publication. But you can't assume you'll get luck, and you can never assume your natural talent is enough. Instead, compare your art to other art. Yes, writing a novel is an investment in time. Yes, it was an investment in work, skill, effort; blood, sweat, and tears. But it is art. And art requires skill. And just because you did it, doesn't mean you deserve a reward for it. Just because you spent time on it as a writer, doesn't mean it's worth me spending time on it as a reader.
Painters have to ruin canvasses with ill-proportioned pictures before they make a canvas worth their skill.
Photographers have to ruin rolls of film before they can find the right light.
Musicians have to practice years before they can even make an agreeable sound beyond "Chopsticks."
Why is writing any different? Writers have to practice writing novels before they can write a novel worthwhile. (1)
It seems that people think because of the time you spent working on a manuscript, it's too valuable to "give up on" and that you are a failure if you quit working on it. But the reality is, sometimes it's just time to move on. It doesn't matter that you wrote over 100k words, that you paid thousands of dollars for an editor to "edit" it, that you're on every social networking site there is.
It doesn't matter that this is your baby, that you want it published more than anything else.
It was practice. You may not have known it at the time, but that's what it was.
Part of being a writer is being able to separate the chaff from the wheat within your own writing. It's part of the process, part of the practice. Having a boxed manuscript isn't a thing of shame, but one of pride. It's part of your path, a more important part than a Facebook page or a paid editor.
1. Footnote: Does this mean I think you can't write a novel and be published? No, of course not. Like I said, there are exceptions to the rule. Does this mean that I think your first novel can't be published. Again, no. But I don't think your first novel is perfect, and I do think you need to revise and possibly re-write it, and I also think that, probably, your second one will be better than your first, and your third will be better than your second, and that with practice, you will continue to be better and better. And if you think that your first novel is done and perfect and you can't get an agent or a publisher, then just put it aside, call it practice, and move on. Your next book will be better. Trust me.