Tuesday, August 23, 2016

How much do you need to know to successfully write a novel?

by Rick Blechta

This past week, I had a very interesting (and stimulating) conversation with a young person about novel writing. Basically, it revolved around creating characters and how they seem to take on a life of their own. (I’ve blogged about this several times, as have others, right here on Type M.)

This conversation led me down another path over the next few days eventually leading me to question how much one actually needs to know in order to successfully write a novel. I have an idea this post is only going to serve to start the conversations since the topic is a big one — and will probably draw in others as it goes along.

So what is the most important thing/skill/idea to possess before you start down what will be a long and grueling path?

After a lot of cogitation, I tend to think it’s that you have to understand what a novel is and isn’t.

As others have said in the past, a novel tells a story, but the plot can’t be static (this happened then that happened, then this third thing happened). During the course of the story, something has to change. Usually, it’s one or more of the characters, although it can be a situation. It has to arrive at its conclusion with at least some sort of finality. Otherwise it’s not satisfying to the reader.

Over the years, I have read mss where it's clear the writer didn’t understand this very important fact. Bad grammar, sketchy character writing, dialogue, description can all be taught, slaved over and improved because, while requiring a certain amount of talent to excel at, these items are all mechanical sorts of things. I’ve a writer has a bit of flair and the will to work to improve, improvement will happen. If the writer didn’t understand this basic tenet of fiction writing, then more than likely, the ms will have to be completely rewritten — or scrapped altogether.

But if that basic storytelling flair isn’t present, I’m not sure how much any kind of tutelage will make someone a novelist.

Then there’s the idea for the story. It requires an initial interesting idea. What exactly is that? I can’t really tell you. It’s just something I seem to know when I begin writing a novel. This idea is interesting while the other thirty I considered while I was searching for the basic kernel of the next novel weren’t interesting. So far (eleven novels in), I haven't been wrong.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that a basic talent has to be present in order to begin. Certain abilities that can’t be taught have to be present, or the writer is not going to be all that successful. The rest can be worked on — if the writer is willing.

More on this topic next week. Please feel free to weigh in!

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