Thursday, November 03, 2011

Anybody Can Write a Novel, Can’t They?

I find it amusing how many people have said to me at some point, “I should/can write a novel some day.” To which I’ve usually responded, “Why don’t you?” After all, the average person has been taught how to write and has read at least one novel in school. That, or they think that their life “would make a good story.” The conversation could go further, but it rarely does. Perhaps for the reasons I’ll illustrate below.

“So do you have a plot in mind?”

“Well, no, but the story basically tells itself.”

“So are you going to write from your point of view, one of the participants’, or from an omniscient point of view?”

“I don’t know. I never really gave the matter much thought.”

“Okay, we can skip that for now. Who’s your protagonist?”

“Me, of course.”

“Ah! Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. Are you writing autobiography or autobiographical fiction?”

“The latter one, I guess.”

“Okay, then you’ll need an antagonist, maybe a mentor character, a love interest…”

“Hey, wait! My life doesn’t have any of that.”

“Ah. So you’ve lived a conflict-free, guidance free life with no romance?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say that…

“Which part is incorrect.”

“Well, I’ve had conflict, and I’ve had romance in my life.”

“Excellent! Is it more a man-versus-man conflict, man-vs.-society, or some sort of existential, man-vs.-self thing?”

“Look, I don’t know about all that; I just want to tell my story.”

“Okay. What do you consider the beginning—when your parents first met, when you were born, when you first became conscious, when you had your first conflict?”

“Jeez, I dunno. I suppose I’d focus on my time in high school.”

“Ah! Now we’re getting somewhere. You’re not telling your life story, you want to tell about your youth.”


“Is this story to be a tragedy or comedy?”

“Uh, somewhere in the middle?”

“Do you expect to have a happy ending or a sad one?”

“Happy, of course.”

“Comedy, then. Going back to a previous question, then: what’s your instigating action?”


“Where do you want your story to begin?”

“My first day of freshman year, I guess.”

“What happened that day?”

“Well, you know: met people, got registered and stuff.”

“What set off the conflict?”

“What? There wasn’t any.”

“It’s best to start by shifting from equilibrium to a state of disequilibrium. You need something to start off the action.”

“Are you sure all this is necessary?”

“Do you want people to read your story?”

“Of course.”

“Then you need to make it interesting. Conflict is interesting. It builds drama, excitement, an emotional hook. Let’s try this: what’s the first interesting thing that happened to you freshman year? Also, do you know an editor you can hire?”

“Don’t publishers have those?”

“Yeah, but you need to at least start out with a polished product.”

“Uh, look, I’ve have second thoughts. You’ve made this all sound like work. It’s supposed to be fun.”

“It is. But it’s also supposed to be fun for your reader. That takes work.”

“You know, I think I’ll skip the novel idea.”

“Good call.”

Also calls to mind a story I’ve heard, probably apocryphal, but worth repeating. A writer and a surgeon meet at a party, and one of them says, “Oh, you’re a writer? Funny you should mention that. I’ve often thought about trying to write a novel.”

“Good for you,” says the writer. “What do you do?”

“I’m a thoracic surgeon.”

“Really! Funny you should mention that. I’ve always thought about trying thoracic surgery.”

The point being that you should never underestimate your own professionalism or unique craft. Anyone who says they can write at the drop of a hat because they got educated in reading and writing in elementary and secondary school does not truly understand what a professional writer does. If “anyone” could do it, you wouldn’t be getting paid, would you?

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