Every writer has novels in a drawer—even if it's a metaphorical drawer—which will never see publication (until we're dead, and they're dragged out as new releases). If you don't have any novels in the drawer yet, you're probably writing your first one now. Don't fret about it. These are the practice novels, the ones you write while you're still learning how to assemble a book's worth of story. (Some of us are still trying to figure that out, however many books later.) Writing a practice novel is important, and necessary; knowing you're writing one can even be liberating, freeing you to try things that, later, you may not attempt because you know all of the limitations of the form, or have developed enough experience to rule out.
My first practice novel was written shortly after high school. I was eighteen, I think, writing in my parents' basement and then, later, in my first apartment. I wasn't a prodigy, not by any stretch of the imagination. I wrote a novel of wish fulfillment: young guy writes a novel, is a huge success, etc. That it sucked never occurred to me. What it taught me was important: that I could finish a book. It gave me enough fuel to start the next one. Every first novel also is packed with groan-worthy regrets, and mine is this: each and every chapter opens with a lyric from a Counting Crows song.
When I finished writing that first novel, I printed it off—single-sided, so it would look as unwieldy as possible—and put it in a manuscript box. Over lunch one day, I pulled it out to show my family. I'm not sure what I expected. I recall their reaction as little more than a shrug. "Huh," they probably said. "Okay."
I remember two things about my second novel: spending hours upon hours in the stacks of the Anchorage public library, researching the 1960s, and spending hours upon hours in the bright winter light of a room in my new apartment, writing. I chose to follow the first novel's wish fulfillment theme with a much more mature, more serious theme, and even at the time, I knew I was striking out. The main character was an activist writer, a voice-of-his-generation type, and he killed himself. Why? I don't think I ever got around to that detail.
The third novel, in retrospect, is the one that began to firm up the ground beneath my feet. Don't mistake this for high praise: it's also not a very good book, but looking back on it, I can see how I'd improved as a writer. My prose was a little stronger; my plotting a little less haphazard. The entire premise of the story was ludicrous—radical teen journalist writes lies in school newspaper, someone dies, teen is driven out of town—but some of the individual scenes were not half-bad. And they were in the right order, mostly. This one was not-half-bad enough that I signed with an agent, and unsellable enough that the agent and I parted ways a few months later.
All three of those books are just files on a hard drive somewhere now. They're joined by all of the failed novels and stories that I never finished. With a bit of time under my belt, I'm able to look back on them as exactly what they were—training wheels—and be grateful to my younger self for sticking with them.
Don't get me wrong: none of that experience means anything I write now comes easily, or is effortless. It's all still work, and it's all still wrong for the first several drafts. But now I know I can do all of that work. I look forward to all of those drafts. Those early novels served exactly the purpose they needed to.