10 Common Misconceptions of the Wannabe Novelist, #2

See Part 1.

Writing#2: I know how to tell a good story. I don’t need these novel-writing rules.

I’m always amazed when I hear that someone invested hundreds, if not thousands, of hours into writing a novel before studying how novels are written for today’s market. Yet it happens. Just ask agents and publishers.

But why? Is it because of arrogance or ignorance? Or maybe a little of both? In my last post I addressed the absurd notion that whatever comes from the heart must be untouchable. I think sometimes newbie authors can become too enamored with their own words. They reveal how thin-skinned they are by how quickly they bristle at the slightest negative remark about their work.

But constructive criticism is how all of us grow. It’s a true maxim that sometimes we can’t do something right until we learn what we’re doing wrong. In fact, it’s often by making mistakes that we learn the most important lessons. Based on experience, I believe that.

So let’s assume some newbies are simply ignorant, teachable, and need instruction. What advice can I impart?

It isn’t enough to simply be able to tell a good story. No, you can’t write like Dickens today (a master storyteller indeed) and expect the masses to eat up your books. The publishing world has expectations of what a modern novel is supposed to look like. “But I have natural storytelling ability,” you say. Maybe so. But getting that story from your head into a format today’s savvy readers will gobble up is something else.

You need education—and that’s not optional.

The Value of Reading

So how can you get educated? It’s true that by reading lots of novels like the ones you want to write, you can learn a great deal. But reading novels by itself doesn’t go far enough. The craft of writing good fiction doesn’t just happen by osmosis or by reading lots of novels because the novels don’t explain why the author did what he or she did. In short, they won’t explain the rules or proper technique behind good fiction writing.

“What? Rules!? But I hate rules.” Get used to them. You can’t even drive down the street without traffic rules. That’s life. And for the budding novelist, that’s why books about novel writing are indispensable. A few of my favorites include the following (nope, no commission here):

Or just head over to Writer’s Digest and check out some of their books (there’s not a dud among them).

What will these books teach? Here’s just a topic sampling:

  • Openings (grabbing your reader from the first page)
  • Flashbacks (yes, there’s a certain way to do these)
  • Chapter Hooks (to keep the reader turning pages)
  • Dramatic Beats
  • Characterization (how to populate your world)
  • Speech Tags (use a simple “said” 99 percent of the time, if you even need a tag)
  • Point of View (avoid scene head hopping)
  • Showing Versus Telling (this is a big one newbies struggle with)
  • Revising (first drafts stink)
  • Book Proposals (what agents expect)
  • Query Letters (how to knock on the door)
  • And the list goes on and on.

The Value of Advanced Education

The best way to show an agent or publisher you’re a clueless novice is to ignore the many great resources about fiction technique (and the craft they teach) and simply wing it from your heart. After all,  you’ve read every John Grisham novel there is at least three times. So you must have the techniques down by now, right?

Actually, writing in a way that emulates an author you like is a great way to get started, but again, it won’t go far enough until you understand the why of novel writing. Like I’ve said (forgive me for beating the dead horse), this requires education perhaps via writing blogs, books, and maybe even advanced education.

In 2003 I took a novel-writing class at Writer’s Digest School (wow, that was almost ten years ago). I enrolled in a correspondence course and snail-mailed lessons to my “coach” every week (I’m sure they use e-mail and online forums now). I can’t say enough good things about this class, since I wrote the first fifty pages and developed the characters and plot for Fatal Illusions, the Christian suspense novel Kregel later published.

If I hadn’t taken that class and found the encouragement—and yes, constructive criticism—I needed during that phase of my life, I have no idea where I’d be today. Probably still trying to write a novel and not getting anywhere.

Do I’ve got it all down? Not by a long shot. But I’m not afraid to learn. And neither should you.

Maybe you’re not ready for the financial or time commitment of an online class. No problem. Start with books or blogs on technique and study—don’t just read—the novels you want to write.

Accept that your storytelling ability is not enough.

Get educated. Expect to work hard.

And never, ever give up.

16 thoughts on “10 Common Misconceptions of the Wannabe Novelist, #2

  1. Adam Blumer

    Thanks for commenting. I get the impression sometimes that people think writing a novel is so easy, that basically anybody could do it. But there’s so much to learn and so much time and work to create one worthy of publication.

  2. Jeanne Marie Leach

    Excellent post, Adam. I once saw a man at a Christian writer’s conference stand up during the editors’ panel and shout at those representing big-name publishers. He asked them who they thought they were to expect his book to follow all these guidelines. He ranted for nearly 5 minutes. When he sat down, one editor asked for the microphone and she simply stated, “Please don’t bother sending anything to me if you don’t plan to learn how to write well or follow our submissions guidelines.” The rest of the editors followed suit.

    This blog was well-written and contains information new writers need to read. Good job!

  3. Kristen

    I find that often my instinctive reaction to even the best constructive criticism is indignation. How dare anyone try to tell me how to write my story. But with practice (doesn’t everything take practice) I’ve learned to let the indignation go so I can really examine the advice. Because until you look at it with an open mind, you can’t truly evaluate whether it’s the best advice for your story.

  4. Adam Blumer

    I so understand what you mean. I’ve had to learn to be thick-skinned over the years. The editors at Kregel, for example, asked me to do major changes to one of my subplots. It was tough to make those changes, I admit, but the final product was much stronger than what I had submitted. They knew their stuff, and I needed to learn to trust them.

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  9. Pamela King Cable

    Great blog post! You certainly can not have one with the other. You’ve got to know the craft, and you’ve got to be able to tell a great story. It takes both.

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