Thoughts on Writing
#03: You May Not Be A Novelist (and That's OK)
by Seanan McGuire
You are a person, and you have a right to the ball! Just make sure that it's the right ball before you really get attached. Committing to the wrong ball just makes everyone sad. The original thought:
fifty thousand words on paper does not make you a novelist. It means
you successfully put fifty thousand words on paper. You should be proud
of yourself for that, because dude, it's difficult to stick with a plot
and a concept and an idea and characters for that long, and I salute
you. At the same time, you're not a novelist. Sweating over those fifty
thousand words until you're confident that at least forty thousand of
them are good ones is what makes you a novelist. Good luck.
Wait A Second -- Are You Saying I'm Not A Writer?
not. Believe me, I realize that this is the easiest thought to
misinterpret, because it's totally possible to look at that and think
'wow, she's saying I'm not a real writer.' Remember that thing about
English being a monster? There it is again. If you do enough writing
that you think 'hey, I'm a writer,' then congratulations, you are.
'Writer' is a label that can be assigned or chosen. Now, I admit that I
have very little patience for people who say 'oh, I'm a writer' and
then go on to tell me that they've been thinking really hard about writing for years, but no one actually gets to be the final judge of whether or not someone is a writer.
enough, this also means that it's a label that can come from outside,
and is just as difficult to reject. If I say I'm not a writer, but you
read the things I write, and feel that I'm wrong, which one of us wins?
Odds are good that you do. Although you may not be able to make me
What I am saying is that it's entirely possible for someone to be a writer without being a novelist.
It's even possible to have finished a novel-length work without
becoming a novelist -- heaven knows I did. I put down the proverbial
pen on my very first 'book,' a piece of trite, trashy vampire fiction
called Cam that will never see the light of day while I'm
alive, and said, "I wrote a book!" This was true. "I'm a writer!" Also
true. "I'm a novelist!" So very, very false.
So What's The Difference, Mrs. Arrogant McLabelpants?
fifty thousand words is a novel-length work. If you write fifty
thousand words, you have written a book. Not a long book, but still, a
book. Be proud of yourself. I don't care if the fifty thousand
words are just 'I'll show them, I'll show them all' over and over
again; it takes time and dedication to do that. (Please note that this
statement does not apply to you if you use the cut and paste function.
I want you to actually write your fifty thousand words.) No one
can take that achievement away from you, and frankly, I think it's
something that everyone with any interest in writing should try to
accomplish at least once. At the end of the process, you may not have a
good book, you may not have a book that actually makes sense, but
you'll have a book.
For a lot of people, this is where
the work of writing a book ends, because for a lot of people, they're
done. Case closed, class dismissed, I wrote a book, and I can call it
good. Again, that's fine. For others, however, that's where the
work actually begins. Let's assume that one person in a thousand is
going to write a book in their lifetime. This may be generous, but hey,
I feel generous today. Now let's assume that one person out of every
thousand who actually writes a book looks at it -- this little stack of
pages that represents some uncounted number of hours, tears,
paper-cuts, and pain -- and thinks 'golly, I should really put myself
through a new form of hell trying to improve this.' That person has
decided to become a novelist. May all the gods have mercy on his soul.
writer writes. The novelist...revises. The novelist...edits. The
novelist struggles to make themselves as clear and comprehensible as
possible. It's sort of like the difference between being a cook and
being a chef. I can make a decent pot of spaghetti, if you allow 'make'
to mean 'boil pre-made noodles and base my sauce off a jar of Ragu.' GP
can make a decent pot of spaghetti too, and in his case, 'make' means
'homemade noodles and a sauce that causes angels to dive-bomb the
kitchen with spoons, stealing as much as they can carry.' I am an
amateur cook. I can feed myself. He's a chef. He can make the food sing.
that there are a million degrees of skill dividing the cooks and the
chefs; the world's best cook probably makes better food than the
world's worst chef, but the chef is probably putting a lot more thought
and effort into it. That's the dividing line, at least from where I'm
sitting: the effort. I can make tuna sandwiches that are astonishingly
tasty and good. They don't really require much in the way of thought.
My metaphor, although somewhat strained, has a lot of applicable
validity to it -- a chef is someone who looks at a tuna sandwich and
thinks 'I could make that better.' A novelist is the person who looks
at the pile of fifty thousand words and thinks the same thing.
So Can I Become A Novelist?
You get there just like you get to the (insert place where skillful
people of your choice are employed -- I'm going with 'CDC'): you
practice and you work and you struggle and you screw up and you cry and
you dance like an idiot and you generally make yourself crazy trying to
learn what you're doing. Practice is really the key word here. The
statement that art is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent
perspiration is a very wise one.
Here's what it means to be a novelist:
are never enough. Putting fifty thousand words on paper is never
enough. Intent is never enough. Working your ass off is what's going to
make it enough; polishing every one of those words until it manages,
through some strange alchemy, not to suck. You'll know when you get
there. Probably because you'll have the overwhelming urge to beat me to
death with your manuscript, but still. Work your ass off. It's worth it.
© 2008 Seanan McGuire
Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. Her first studio album, Stars Fall Home was released last year, and her fantasy novel Rosmary and Rue will be published by DAW in 2009.
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