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NaNoWriMo Notes 12: What Every Writer Needs

The biggest obstacle facing a first time writer is writing the damn novel. What did you think I was going to say? Getting it published. That's sort of like putting the cart before the horse don't you think? You got to have something written before a publisher is going to look at you. (Well, maybe if you're Steven King you can walk into someone's office and say "I have an idea for a story" and they'll open the vault and ask how much do you want?)

But we're talking about you and me, the person contemplating their first novel. I've been dicking around with writing for the last twenty or so years, maybe longer. Like most people, I started with poetry, and after writing a few poems, I decided that I was ready to write a novel.

Why is it that so many of us novices all figure that we are capable of writing a novel right from the get go? We never even consider the short story, like its some sort of inferior creation that is obviously beneath our abilities and us. Well whatever the reason I've got three or four beginnings of novels stashed around my apartment that have never gone beyond the opening chapters.

Probably a good thing too, I doubt whether any of them deserved to see the light of day. It's hard to fathom my conceit at the time to believe that I had any stories to tell or anything of significance to say at that young age. Some people age faster than others, but me I was slow in ripening and it wasn't until I reached my forties that I was evolved enough for thoughts to formulate into story form.

Getting beyond oneself is a key to fiction writing. Sure, you may draw upon life experiences for character development and verisimilitude, but when you write only about yourself, you limit your horizons to the known and stifle the potential of your imagination.

Writing is like any other creative art. It takes a combination of things to actually make something worth reading: imagination, talent, and dedication are all essential ingredients any potential novelist should possess. To my mind, the reasons behind each of those are obvious, but one thing I've learnt is that audiences can't be expected to be mind readers so you need to tell them what you're thinking.

Imagination, inspiration, the muse; whatever you want to call it, is the place your ideas come from. It could be anything from the classic What if… scenario to the fictionalization of historic events. You might even have an idea for a character around which you can plot a series of adventures, out of which other characters will appear.

But if you don't have an idea, that spark that makes you want to sit down at your keyboard, you'll find it pretty difficult to create anything that anyone would want to publish or read. If you don't have imagination, chances are what you will write is only an imitation of something that has been done before.

Even with imagination that's a problem first time writers will face on a regular basis. What you think is an original idea stands a good chance of having been done before. Your job, if you choose to accept it, is to usually find a new way of telling an older idea. Look how many damn books have been written about King Arthur in recent years, they all wouldn't have been published if they weren't taking a different tack. Not that I'm recommending that as subject matter, probably the only thing left that hasn't been written is the story from the point of view of his horse.

It may seem like pointing out the obvious to some people, but you're not going to get very far in writing a novel if you don't have a talent for it. A couple of clues to look for to see if you have the aptitude for creative writing are whether you like to read and what's the state of your vocabulary.

Chances are if you watch more television then you read you are not going to have the skill to write a good novel. Your brain is not going to be thinking in the right way. Novels don't work in short bursts of information that get neatly tied up at the end of two episodes or even a half hour. Novels are messy and vague with loose ends that have to be picked up five chapters latter and woven back into the main thread of the story seamlessly.

Anyway, if you don't like to read what the hell make you want to write a book in the first place. No offence, but I don't want to read a novel by someone who doesn't like to read them. That's sort of like asking a vegetarian to prepare your next cow barbecuing festivities.

Under the heading of talent, I suppose we have to bring up the nasty subject of grammar and spelling. I know it's true most word processing software programs come with some sort of grammar and spell check, but do you really want your novel to be written by Microsoft?

Anyway, that's not the point; grammar checks can only point out what's wrong with a sentence when it comes to word order and sentence structure. If you don't have the skill to make yourself understood with paper and pen, how are you going to write a novel?

Digression Alert If you want you can skip ahead a couple of paragraphs and I'll pick up where I left off, but I need to vent about something in which talent and skill play a large part. I'm sure you've read in other posts about the difficulties involved with getting a publisher's attention let alone getting them to publish your work.

Not overly long ago, within my recent memory even, the majority of publishers would accept unsolicited manuscripts from authors. If they didn't accept a whole manuscript right off the hop, they would at least accept a query letter and some sample chapters. The letter would introduce you, provide a brief synopsis of your proposal, and let them know what else you may have done.

But now it's almost impossible to get a publisher in the United States to even accept a letter unless it comes via an agent. Why? Internet Web blogs. Now before I start receiving death threats for that statement let me explain what I mean.

There's nothing wrong with blogs; to quote Ford Prefect, they're mostly harmless. People create their own little space on the Internet where they can publish their thoughts on whatever they like and talk about anything under the sun. Some of them are wonderful, a lot of them are silly, and a very few are dangerous.

In of themselves web blogs aren't the problem, it's the illusion it has created that is the problem. I can't find the exact quote anymore, but one publisher said something along the lines of, if he had to read one more "what I had for breakfast " manuscript he was going to scream.

All of a sudden, everybody thinks they are a writer and their lives are important enough to write about. It's part of what I call the Oprah syndrome, (so maybe the blame shouldn't all be put on blogs), the overwhelming compulsion to "share" your life with the world. Everybody has some tale of woe or other that they figure no one else can live without, and it's their ticket to renown.

A heart-warming tale of a housewife in Birmingham that overcame her addiction to cream puffs. Read about the agony of her withdrawal etc. etc. ad nausea. Just because one person leaves a comment on your blog telling you that you should write more about your experiences does not mean you need to write a book about them.

Note to the world: not everyone is creative or talented enough to write something that can sustain people's interest over 80-100,000 words. But, unfortunately, far too many people started to believe that and publishers in the United States could no longer deal with the volume of submissions they were receiving.

With no other way of screening mail before it came to their offices, they had to resort to utilizing agents. Even agents are staring to feel overwhelmed. You go to some agent's sites now and they not only tell you what genre's they accept, but are really blunt about not wanting "thinly disguised personal stories".

There are a number of sites on the Internet where people who are serious about writing polish and publish their work. There are also personal blogs that have very good, thoughtful, and well-articulated articles on them. But to write a novel takes a lot more than being able to write a couple of pages a day on one topic.

Blogging is far more akin to journalism than novel writing, and while some journalists have made the transition to novel writing, their numbers aren't as high as people would like to believe. What journalists have going for them is name recognition that gets them through a publisher's door, but that doesn't translate into having the skills to write a novel.

Well now that I've beaten that point into the ground lets get back to the post. The final qualification I had listed was dedication. Can you sit down and write a hundred thousand words? Then sit down and rewrite them, follow that up with editing them, and finally doing it all over again just to make sure.

After doing all that, can you then write individual letters to each of the publishers/agents that you would like to look at your work. Are you willing to research agents and publishers to find out which ones are appropriate for you?

In order to be a novelist you at least have to agree to all of the above and most likely more. I didn't even mention the tedium of sitting staring at a blank laptop monitor praying for words to appear on the screen, because you can't think of any. Or the fact that you have to sit by yourself without talking to anybody for huge chunks of time and that your social life will gradually disappear the more involved you get with your project.

Unless you are willing to let your writing become the thing your world revolves around, whether you are sitting at your keyboard or not, and make sacrifices to accomplish the work, it won't get done. If you're trying to write and have a full time job, like raising kids or going to work, it means getting up before the kids make demands on you, or the boss yells at you for daydreaming.

The end of the day when you're exhausted and brain dead is not the best of times to try writing, at least that's been my experience. Maybe you're a night person and will work better at the end of the day, it's up to you to figure out when you can grab the time you need.

I'm sure other people will be able to think of other things you'll need in order to succeed in writing your novel (a certain level of obsessive compulsiveness doesn't hurt) but for me imagination, talent, and dedication are the holy trinity. Not everyone has the right mixture of all three to make a go of it, I don't know if I do and I may not know for quite a while.

Just like not all of us are born to be doctors, or chefs, not all of us are born with the right mixture of things that will make a writer. There's a myth still making the rounds that has people saying that everyone's an artist. That's not true. Everyone may be creative, but to be any type of artist requires a certain mixture of characteristics that not everybody possesses. That just might be your hardest job, figuring out if you have that mixture.

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