The First Novel Vs. The Debut Novel: The Road to MODERN GIRLS

Many years ago, I read an article that scorned the idea of the “debut novel.” The article said (and I’m paraphrasing since I read the article in the days before the Internet), “Why the pretentious title? Why not simply call it what it is? A first novel.” And I, a young naïve writer, thought, “Yes! Exactly! When I publish my first novel, I will call it just that: a first novel!”

Let’s skip ahead, oh ten or fifteen years or so: I have a novel coming out. My first novel. Or rather, shall we say, my first published novel. And I suddenly know where the phrase “debut novel” comes from.

My first novel to be published, MODERN GIRLS, is being released on April 5, 2016, by NAL/Penguin. I am beyond myself with excitement and joy. But I cannot kid myself. This is not my first novel. It’s not even my second novel. In my proverbial bottom drawer, I have a graveyard of novels. MODERN GIRLS is my debut novel.

bodie-typewriterBack in the 1990s, I earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington. I was lucky enough to have Charles Johnson—winner of a MacArthur Fellowship and a National Book Award—as one of my professors. His classes were inspirational. The man taught me to outline, and for that alone, he will always be one of my most influential professors. But what has meant the most to me is something he said, long after I graduated, at the 2012 Modern Language Association conference. An interviewer said to Johnson, “You’ve written four novels,” at which point he interrupts her.

“I’ve written ten novels,” Johnson said. “I’ve published four.” This quote is printed in big fat letters and positioned in a place of honor over my writing desk.

Most of my novels have never seen the light of day. The one I wrote as my MFA thesis that was little more than loosely linked short stories, the one I wrote that was a mildly disguised version of my own life, the other one that was a mildly disguised version of my own life—those no one has read and no one will ever read. You could almost say those don’t count, except that they were valuable practice novels, the ones that taught me the skills I needed to convey emotion, build scenes, and create meaningful characters. My fourth novel I tentatively brought into the world, and it got me my wonderful agent, Laney Katz Becker. We labored on it for a couple of years, but alas, it didn’t sell.

Modern-Girls-by-Jennifer-S-BrownWhich leads me to MODERN GIRLS. Seems like every time I open Poets & Writers or Publishers Weekly, I read about an author who had an idea for a book, wrote it, and immediately got a three-book deal. More power to him. For me, though, it didn’t come easily. Writing is a labor of love, emphasis on labor. MODERN GIRLS took me three years to research and write and rewrite and rewrite some more, not counting all those years spent on the “practice” novels.

family-photo-krasnosteinThe inspiration for my novel came from my own family. Hearing stories about my parents, my grandparents, and my great-grandparents sparked my imagination. I’m a third-generation American; my great-grandparents all immigrated in the early 1900s from Eastern Europe. I always wondered what their day-to-day life was like, how they made their decisions, what fueled them. When I learned that my own great-grandmother had an unwanted pregnancy during the Depression, immediately I toyed with the idea. How did a woman deal with an unplanned pregnancy? What were the consequences? My great-grandmother was married; what would it be like for an unmarried woman? I pondered this as the story for MODERN GIRLS unfurled, and I will confess that I stole shamelessly from my family’s stories, unabashedly appropriating them and reshaping them in ways that made sense for my characters. My novel touches on issues that I am most passionate about: the immigrant experience, reproductive rights, friendship between women, Jewish life, mother-daughter relationships.

Writing for me is something I’ve always done. I’ve been fortunate to have been employed as a writer and editor, as well as published short stories and creative nonfiction essays in literary journals along the way. But the novel is what entices me, what excites me. MODERN GIRLS is my fifth novel. It will be my first published novel. It’s also my debut novel. And I couldn’t be more proud.

I look forward to sharing this year with you, my year as a debut novelist with all the adventures that entails, here at The Debutante Ball.

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Jennifer S. Brown is the author of MODERN GIRLS (NAL/Penguin). The novel, set in 1935 in the Lower East Side of New York, is about a Russian-born Jewish mother and her American-born unmarried daughter. Each discovers that she is expecting, although the pregnancies are unplanned and unwanted, in this story about women’s roles, standards, and choices, set against the backdrop of the impending war. Learn more at

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This article has 26 Comments

  1. Congrats on your ‘debut’ novel! I too correct people when they ask, “So is this your first book?” saying, “It’s my first published book. I have two practice books RIP on my hard drive.” 🙂 I think it’s important for people to know like anything, getting a novel on the shelf (at least for many of us) is a long process, fraught with loads of highs and lows and dust-gathering practice books.

  2. Jenny, what a great post! I’m so inspired by the work you have done, and I am DYING to read MODERN GIRLS! Where is my ARC??!!

  3. I love your persistence! That’s what it takes in this business — and people need to hear the stories like yours. Thanks for sharing and I can’t wait to read!

  4. Jennifer, I am so looking forward to reading your book! I love the era in which it’s set, and I love that it came from your own family history. And I’m always impressed by people who’ve written multiple novels, published or not. Writing just one was such a monumental task for me that my mind boggles at the thought of doing it again (though I certainly hope to!)

  5. Jennifer,

    I love the sound of Modern Girls ! I often think of my grandmother who probably should have gotten a divorce, and wonder what would have happened, how my life would have been different. Those times and stories of what women went through have always interested me. Good luck on your first novel. Can’t wait to read it!

  6. Lovely post, Jennifer! I, too, have a drawer full of novels…and outlines. And NaNoWriMo drafts. The first one will never see the light of day. Others, I hope to publish someday. I guess the issue is whether or not I still care about the protagonists. And with some I do. Even a decade later. Some are set in the 80s, is that really becoming a historical decade!!?!!! But I’m so in awe of folks who write real historicals like yours. Decades where you weren’t actually there. Can’t wait to read it!

  7. Hey, I’ve *read* your book, and I still can’t wait to hold it in my hands and read it FOR REALS!!! Great, insightful post – you are wise and brilliant (as always). I’m so proud to be pallies with a debutante!

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