I came to writing really late, which is weird because the signs were there for a long time – my father wrote non-fiction about nature and gardening (for several decades he wrote a weekly 3/4 page in the weekend supplement of a national newspaper on the appreciation of nature) and he used to work as an editor for a children’s publisher in the Netherlands (Ploegsma), so we had all the Ploegsma books. I was an avid and voracious reader, and a convincing storyteller, but my parents were abusive and neglectful of my talents and those of my three brothers, so we were not inspired and motivated to do something with them.
Having a passion for something, but no skills yet and several hindrances to acquire those skills makes for quite a challenge.
The easiest answer would be ‘find something else’, and there would be truth in it. Writing a novel (or even a short story) is an appealing ambition – I read somewhere that eighty percent of all adult Americans seriously entertain the notion of writing a novel, which is also why there’s a whole industry that facilitates burgeoning writers with creative writing courses and workshops and seminars, and enough books on the art & craft to fill several bookcases.
The reason writing a novel is so popular is because it’s an attainable goal (most arts require more than a pen and a piece of paper) and it carries prestige as good writers are revered, their works read both during and after their lifetime.
So what you have to decide for yourself is – do you really want to write a novel, or do you want to show people a shiny cover with your name on it and bask in the adulation? Because the first is hard, and the second is a pipe dream.
I’ve written five novels (published four) and four novellas, just as frame of reference to my answer – if you don’t want to let go of your dream, this is my advice:
Lower the pressure of writing a novel by not writing a novel.
What you will be writing instead, will be a Draft. A Rough Draft. An unreadable shitload of words, not intended to be read by anyone but yourself. That last part is extremely important! Nobody must read that Draft, because it’s not intended for public consumption yet.
The Draft is the Baby, the Novel is the Adult.
People don’t make adults, they make babies that shit and cry and demand food and attention and will keep you up at night. Have you heard writers referring to their novel as a baby? Yes? They’re not actual writers yet, because the draft is the baby, the novel should be an adult, capable of standing on its own legs and fending for itself. If their novel is still their baby, then they haven’t finished yet and they have published prematurely.
The Horror, the Horror…
Before a novel can stand on its own legs, it needs to be born first, which is a messy process. Thus, the Draft is a baby – a stinking smelly mess that will hijack all your attention and cause you to lay awake at night, worrying if it will ever be able to be independent. This is not the kind of baby that you show your family and friends – starting the Draft is not an accomplishment. So shut up about ‘writing your first novel’ and never ever talk about the plot and the characters and the theme. Screw all that. Talking about your creative work kills the spark. Just write and write. Is it garbage? Don’t second-guess yourself, you won’t be able to judge it now, you’re much too close. Nobody throws out their baby, no matter how much it smells. Just keep on writing. Don’t edit. You can’t edit a baby, it has to become an adolescent first.
Visit any writing forum and you’ll see the many many questions, that boil down to one single question ‘Is This Any Good?’. It’s the fear of failure, the angst of wasting time, and the need for validation. We have been programmed to desire approval – from parents, from teachers. You won’t get approval for the Draft. Don’t ask for it. Just write it all down.
‘How long is a chapter supposed to be?’, ‘How do I write a dynamite first chapter?’, ‘Should I use present tense or past tense?’, ‘Is writing in First Person easier than Third Person?’, ‘When do I Show, when do I Tell?’
If you visit writing forums, you’ll hear a lot of talk about rules, but those rules are not for drafts. Those rules are to clinically dissect a finished manuscript prior to publication. Do you have that? No, you haven’t. You have a smelly mess that isn’t nowhere near finished, so forget about all those rules. Because in the end there is only one rule – Engage The Reader. And your baby won’t need to engage the reader yet. It’s a draft, intended only for your eyes.
Anyone with a knife and a dead pig can butcher a pig, but that doesn’t make you a butcher. And it sure as hell doesn’t make you a veterinarian.
So you wrote an essay at school and the teacher gave you an A. Does that make a writer? No, but it’s a start. If you can read this, you can probably write. You can string words together, maybe in some pleasing way, but five hundred pages of words is not a book. A book is when the words disappear and your imagination shows you the film in your head. That’s the hardest part, and the most neglected part – writers want to write pretty words or show off their ostentatious vocabulary, but what you want to do is tell a story. Tell a story in such a way that the reader forgets about the book or the e-reader and is transported to another world – fictional, but just as ‘real’ as this one. And that requires not only a large vocabulary, but also a decisive mind to apply just the right word. And if you get that right, you won’t need the validation anymore, because there is no better feeling that getting a sentence just right, a paragraph that leaps off the page, and a chapter that you don’t want to end.
But before you get there, you have to put in the work. There’s a common ‘rule’ floating around that to become a professional at something requires putting in something like 10,000 hours. I never measured that, but I do know that I’d been writing for twenty years before Reprobate was published. And I’d been working on Reprobate and all its predecessors for most of that time. Learning the craft, honing my skills. Draft upon draft upon draft. For Reprobate, it was something like forty (!) drafts. Literally every paragraph was rewritten at least once. Edited and polished. That’s the education.
Don’t Do The Crime If You Can’t Do The Time.
My second novel, Peccadillo, was half finished when Reprobate came out. I finished Peccadillo in three months, spending a total of fifteen months on writing it. I wrote the novella Locked Room in three weeks. Microchip Murder took me less than two. And the novella that gets the highest praise, Fundamental Error, was written in eight days. Rogue, the third novel took less than 12 months. And Ghosting, the novel I’m working on now, clocks in at about eight months, despite my battles with kidney stones and glaucoma.
Every time you write, you will get better at telling the story. Writing this answer took me about an hour, with no rewrites or polishing necessary. And that’s because I’ve done the time.
So do the time. Stop fretting about whether you have something to say or who will read it. Write that draft first, the rest comes later. Let me know when you finished a draft, and then we’ll talk about how you can become a writer…
When asked, many people will say they want to write a novel, but do they? While there are many considerations to make before embarking on this fickle career, these are some of the basic considerations you might want to ponder:
- Can I tell the story in less than 10,000 words?
- Can I create multiple characters all equally able to be protagonists in their own stories?
- Can I suspend the disbelief of my readers?
- Do I have the stamina to create a 80,000 word novel?
- Do I have more than one novel in me?
- Can I handle making less than minimum wage while I work almost 24/7?
- Can I handle the ridicule and stupid remarks if I go public?
The reason you need to consider these questions:
- 10,000 words is a short story. Novels take up more words.
- A protagonist needs peers and antagonists, who need to be equal to the protagonist to make the story interesting.
- Readers want to be immersed in a story, they want to believe in your characters. So the desire is there. If you weave a story that makes believers out of readers, you can be a writer.
- Although everything over 60,000 words can be called a novel, most novels are between 80,000-100,000 words. If you write a 1000 usable words a day, that means about three solid months of writing.
- Most successful authors are prolific with at least 5+ novels to their name. There are exceptions, but don’t imagine yourself to be one of them.
- Do you know the author Philip K. Dick? People who are serious about storytelling are generally in awe of his storytelling ability. His novels and short stories form the basis of movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck and a host of others. Even in his best years, Dick rarely earned more than 12,000$ per year. In fact, most writers don’t earn more than 10,000$ per year and most earn considerably less. Even Stephen King had to support his family with his teaching job for the first decade of his career. And James Patterson made his money in advertising before he turned to writing fiction.
- I’m fortunate that most people don’t want to antagonize me (based on my size and my encyclopedic knowledge of murder), but even I get disparaging remarks, or questions how much I earn with my books, or people who think their ideas are sufficiently interesting that they can tell them to me and I ‘just write them down’. Not to mention the many many people who would love to write a book, if only they had the time. Of course, the idiocy gets balanced by people who are genuinely awed by a writer’s ability to create stories and characters ‘out of thin air’ and readers writing you about the character they like the most and ask if that character will be featured in the upcoming book. Still, a writer needs thick skin. If you’re sensitive and insecure about your own abilities, you might want to reconsider choosing writing fiction as a career.
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Writing is an outlet for me. I’ve always enjoyed telling stories, but there’s not always someone around who has the time and patience to listen, so I write my stories down, just to have something tangible. My first novel had been pretty much ready for a decade, before I published it last year.
The people who can be bothered to read my work are glad they did, and encourage me to write more books. Not that I need their encouragement, as I would write my stories even if I wouldn’t be able to publish them, just to have them in material form, instead of telling them to myself in my head. Still, I enjoy receiving accolades from reviewers and beta readers.
My sales are not impressive, but I’m not that interested in bestsellers and being a flavour of the week. I’m in the storytelling game for the long haul. By all accounts, my characters remain present in the minds of my readers after they close the books, which is exactly what I wanted. Before I published the Amsterdam Assassin Series, people would see me writing and ask me what I wrote about. Now, I can just send them a link to my blog, from where they can sample or buy my books. So, I guess I will keep publishing my books, and writing more books.
I know there are 350,000 books published annually, and getting noticed is hard, so it might take until the third or fourth book is published before my sales go into the triple digits, but I honestly don’t care too much about that aspect of being a writer. I’d be doing this anyway. My only expense is hiring a graphic artist to make the covers, since I suck at that. And I found a student who can make my covers look reasonably professional without breaking the bank.
Do I ever have moments that I’d quit? I’ve had slumps and I found I became harder to live with when I stopped writing, for whatever reason. So quitting isn’t an option if I want to stay reasonably sane. Or, at least, not get any weirder than I’m now. And writing also gives me excuses to indulge in research, which is great fun. At least, if you enjoy looking at corpses getting eviscerated, destroying a leather punching bag with a Bic Crystal ballpoint pen, following a tameshigiri seminar to learn how to decapitate a body in one cut of a Japanese sword, or slaughtering a pig with a tactical folding knife to check if it can really handle the abuse of a brutal killing.
So, I guess I’d be writing and publishing far into the foreseeable future. And I hope you join me.
Beginning writers have a tendency to over-write, producing bloated manuscripts with stories that feature redundant scenes, scenes that are shown instead of told (because they want to avoid the ‘show, don’t tell!’ admonition from their peers), and unnecessary storylines like excessively detailed mundane scenes in the lives of the characters.
So, beginning writers often get the advice to edit their work and bring down the wordcount to manageable numbers. While most manuscripts can lose 10% of their words without serious consequences, a writer can go overboard and edit out the parts that made the story shine, eliminating ‘scenes that do not forward the plot’ and robbing characters of the extra dimensions, reducing them to bland archetypes that fail to engage the reader.
The difficulty lies in the decision what to keep and what to weed out, and how to cull the dross from the scenes the writer wants to keep. In the area of what to keep and what to weed out, consider Elmore Leonard’s advice to ‘skip the boring parts’. Don’t write about going to bed or getting up, brushing teeth, doing the laundry, taking a bath, going to the toilet, are you eyes glazing over yet? What to keep? Keep descriptions succinct, trust the reader to fill in the unwritten parts. Describe only what is absolutely necessary for the reader to form a picture, but don’t embellish to fill in the reader’s ‘mind picture’ unnecessarily.
The ‘rule’ that scenes always have to ‘forward the plot’ is more a guideline [most writing rule are, but beginning writers tend to view ‘rules’ to be akin to ‘commandments’]. Scenes that help flesh out a character don’t need to ‘forward the plot’, as long as the writer doesn’t ramble too far from where the story is supposed to be going.
As an example from my own work–I received comments by an editor that my DEA characters weren’t as interesting as my protagonist. Although I could reiterate that it’s difficult for a DEA agent to be more interesting than a freelance assassin, the burden was on me to render a good girl as interesting as the bad girl. And I had. I had written a chapter and two follow up paragraphs where the DEA girl turns the tables on a mugger and the legal consequences of her righteous action versus Dutch law. Except that I had edited these scenes from the manuscript to reduce wordcount because ‘they didn’t forward the plot’. Well, yes, but they did flesh out the DEA character, which was important to get the reader to root for her also.
So, instead of wondering whether a scene ‘moves the plot forward’, analyze whether the scene brings a valuable contribution to the manuscript, so you won’t edit all the life from your manuscript in order to comply to a rule that might only be applicable to an action adventure with cardboard characters.
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