Normally, when I’m working on a new story, I’m all about forging ahead, full steam if possible. But I realize that may not be the proper approach for everyone, especially if what they’re attempting to do isn’t what they’re ready to do. If, for instance, you decide you want to build a house, it might be a good idea to tackle something a little less involved first. The same is true of novel writing.
What you may truly want to write could be the literary equivalent of the Taj Mahal, and that’s certainly a noble goal. If, however, you’ve never actually written anything, I’d urge you to consider scaling back a bit and do the verbal edition of a deck, or maybe a doghouse — just as a warm-up, of course. It’s all about your skill set and knowing when you’re ready to attempt something as difficult as a novel.
Yes, there have been some incredibly successful one-hit wonders, but their fame is tied closely to their rarity. In all likelihood, you won’t pen the next To Kill A Mockingbird. I don’t say that to crush your spirit, but merely to help you manage your expectations.
So, how does one build a novel writer’s skill set? Trial and error may work well for lots of things, but neither writing nor brain surgery is among them. If you want to write a novel you need to do at least three things:
- Study the craft
- Write shorter pieces and put them on the market
- Connect with other writers
Very few things in life require little or no instruction, much of which is gained via observation and emulation. We see how friends and family operate in certain situations, and we learn from it. Some learn better than others. Parenting is a good example.
Writing, however, is a craft. It can’t be learned by watching someone else do it, and only the essential elements of it are taught in school — sentence structure, spelling, grammar, etc. Some emphasis is placed on theme and essay writing, but that’s about it. If you want to write something people will pay to read, you need to dive in deep and find out what works and what doesn’t. Take some classes, practice what you studied, and then do some reading, but not for entertainment. Do it for enlightenment. Study the writers whose work you most admire, and see how they put the pieces together.
The next step involves practice. And lots of it. Write short stories, essays, poetry, limericks, flash fiction, character sketches, experimental openings and anything else you can think of. All of it will help you build the skill set you need to produce good novels. But just writing them isn’t enough. If you’re serious, you need to take the extra step and submit them for publication.
Why would I suggest such a thing when I know only a minuscule fraction of fiction submissions are ever purchased? Aside from learning a solid lesson in humility, there’s a chance you’ll get feedback from editors, and that can have an extraordinary effect on your work. At one point in my early writing career, I maintained at least a dozen short stories in circulation. Of course, I developed a huge pile of rejection slips in the process, and it seemed like forever before I finally garnered my first sale. But during that time, I also received hand-written comments on some of the rejection slips, and as a result, I concentrated on those markets. And when my writing had improved enough, I sold to them.
The third thing I urge nascent novelists to do is to find other writers with whom they can share their work, their worries, their failures, and ultimately their successes. An active writers group can make a huge difference in one’s work. If you’re able to stifle your ego long enough to exchange honest critiques with your fellow writers, you’ll enhance your knowledge of the craft ten-fold.
There’s a very good reason why this is so. When it comes to our own work, most of us wear blinders. We can’t see our mistakes; our brains are hard-wired to overlook them if not to mentally correct them. Your fellow writers won’t have that problem. When they see that you’ve strayed, it’s their job to call you on it. Just as you will for them. Do this long enough, and eventually you will be able to see the boo-boos in your own work. More than likely, however, you’ll catch that stuff and fix it on the fly.
And that’s when you’ll really be ready to write a novel.