Part of a series of articles for the new writer
If you’re like most people, you believe you have at least one novel within you—characters who reside in your mind, just waiting to be given liberty, via the keyboard and the word processor.
Perhaps you’ve acted on that idea, and turned out a few paragraphs, a chapter, or maybe even an entire novel. And if you have, the all-important question occurs: Would someone be interested in publishing those words? It’s that question that I’m addressing today, in my role as The Grumpy Old Writing Coach, a position I play with enthusiasm and great skill—at least the grumpy part of the job. Hell, I have people who hate me all over the globe. Helps me sleep better.
So, do you have what it takes? Let’s look at the possibilities:
First, there’s the idea that the ability to write on a professional level is God-given, an inherent condition of birth, or a chance alignment of the planets that uniquely affects the chosen person. Lots of people believe that. But if they’re right, you’re well and truly screwed. You don’t have it and nothing you can do will change that.
But neither you nor I believe that, if for no other reason than that we’ve both proven too many people wrong, by doing what they said we couldn’t do. And the good news is that the people who sell novel after novel don’t believe it, either. Let’s look at a few who succeeded: On that subject Ernest Hemingway said, “It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.” Stephen King’s view is, “While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.” And, Larry Brown’s comment was, “There’s no such thing as a born writer. It’s a skill you’ve got to learn, just like learning how to be a bricklayer or a carpenter.”
So the good news is that you and I… or at least I, can learn the skills of the professional writer. I’m not too sure about you as yet, but we’ll work on it.
Next is the idea that we can take the writing skills we learn in high school, add a bit of practice and a story idea, and there we are, writing like a pro. I’m damn glad we don’t train brain surgeons and bridge designers that way.
“Just keep writing,” our friends tell us, “Do that and your writing muscles will get stronger with every word.” Yeah, sure, I believe that. We spent twelve years having teachers try to beat the techniques of office-writing into our heads without too much success, and we’re going to raise that to a professional level of fiction-writing by doing nothing more than writing exactly as we’ve been taught—over, and over, and over…
If you believe that one, then the successful authors I’ve quoted above are dead wrong on how to become a writer. And given that they seem to have had some success, just maybe they know something we don’t. In fact, my favorite quotation comes from Mark Twain, who observed, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
There’s also the school of thought that says to read, and read, and to analyze your favorite authors to see how they do it. Can that be done? Sure. It works at least as well as using Tarot cards to know when you have it right. It’s kind of like expecting to become a great chef by eating in a fine restaurant, then going home and reaching for your spatula. But what cook, good or bad, can call themselves a chef without having worked with one, or at least owning a set of cookbooks to act as guides? What engineer can design and complete a project without having learned the necessary engineering practices? Can a wanna-be doctor learn to take your blood pressure by wrapping the cuff around your neck and then pumping it up to see what happens? Hell no. In the words of Rosanne Cash, “Self-expression without craft is for toddlers.”
And finally, there’s the belief that you can turn to one of the many writing sites on the Internet and get good sound advice from others who’ve been unable to sell their work. After all, who better to commiserate with? Who understands your situation better? Who will never make you feel bad by telling you that the rejections you receive are anything but bad luck?
So, who’s right? Everyone is—at least a little. You do need a God given talent for telling a story. What good are all the skills without that golden voice to give it wings? But on the flip side, what good is that golden voice when using a media where the reader can neither see nor hear you? Craft is the horse your talent must ride. Given that, it makes more sense to capture and bridle Pegasus than plod onward on the back of the sturdy dray horse we’re issued in school.
These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.