What Makes a Novelist?

All it takes to be a writer is to write, and going by the proliferation of blogs on the Internet, almost all of us are writers.

Being a novelist is something completely different. You need to be a writer, certainly, but you also need to know the elements of storytelling, how writingbto create characters that come alive, how to describe a scene without losing the momentum of the story. And then you need to put it all together into a cohesive whole that engages the reader’s attention.

But most of all, you need to actually write the novel, to put your idea into words and get it down on paper or into your word processor. That takes discipline. So does rewriting the same novel perhaps a dozen times until you get it right. Because, as we all know, there are no great writers, only great rewriters.

You do all that, and then one day your novel is finished. You’re proud of yourself for having accomplished something many people only dream about, then the terrible truth comes crashing into you with all the force of a linebacker’s tackle: no one cares. Perhaps your family and friends will care, but even from them you will hear the same self-absorbed comments you get from strangers.

You know the comments I mean:

  1. I could have written a book, but . . .
  2. I always thought my life would make a good book . . .
  3. I wrote a book: My diary.
  4. I’ve written a book; it’s all up here in my head, I just have to get it down on paper.
  5. So? I’ve written a hundred books; they’re all packed away in my closet.

Taking their lack of support in stride, you send out your opus to find you’ve reached another level of indifference. On this level, you are not the only person who had the discipline, the ability, perhaps even the talent to have written a good novel; you are one of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. And the agents and editorial assistants who have to plow through those mountains of words don’t care; they haven’t the energy.

If you are lucky, one day your manuscript will be on the right desk at the right time, or maybe you’ll decide to forget the traditional publishers and self-publish. And then you really hit that wall of indifference because in this new world of the published, every single person has written a book.

Being published does not make you a novelist. Even the most rudimentary novels can be published nowadays so there is no special accolade to being published, no special sign that you have passed into the realm of being a novelist. Nor does becoming a success make you a novelist since some of the most execrable fiction on the market — bad writing, paper-doll characters, and scenes that hang lifelessly in the background like dusty drapes — make their authors a fortune.

So what does make a novelist? Maybe caring about the craft. Maybe caring to get it right rather than just writing something and throwing it out there in the hopes that no one will notice the lack of skill. Maybe writing the story only you can write and not setting out to be a King/Koontz/Clancy clone.

Maybe just . . . writing.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

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6 Responses to “What Makes a Novelist?”

  1. rami ungar the writer Says:

    Up until that last statement, I thought you were having one of your cynical days.

  2. Juliet Waldron Says:

    Wise and wonderful, as always, Pat. Cynical is fine with me, but writing is writing is writing, and some of us are compelled to keep on doing it, even though no one will ever give us the Great NYC seal of approval. It’s a hopeless mission, but you’ve got to perform it.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Juliet, you’re absolutely right — it is a hopeless mission, since not only do we not the the Great NYC seal of approval, we don’t get one from the masses, either. (Normally, I don’t like using the term “masses” but when it comes to some of the major authors who sell books in the multiple millions, those really are the masses.)

  3. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    I have found the short story a good discipline and go back to it once in a while. With the short story you have limited space in which to work out your plot and your characters. Then when you do sit down to write a novel you can ask yourself whether it should really be a novel rather than a short story or novella. What is it about the story that, in your mind, justifies the length?

    Very few writers make really good editors of their own work. They may make very good editors of someone else’s writing but that’s different. So you edit your book as best you can after knocking it into shape and then hand it over to an editor you feel you can trust. Yes, there are books out and about right now that have not been properly edited. Mind tend to go through three editors. Yours truly, a professional novelist with 30 books under her belt, and then the publisher’s editor. Nothing precious about my writing until it is published. That can be hard to accept when you start out but when you do accept that you are going to end up with a much better product.

    I am proud of Disco Evil, Ghost Dance and Desk Job because they ring true as the best they could be at the time of writing, editing and publishing. I stand by them to this day. No short cuts in the process.

    Yes, I know people who think they can write a novel but will never get to it. They’d never consider a short story or an article for a magazine to test their abilities as writers. All forms of writing can be good and they all have lessons to teach us as writers. My thoughts at any rate.

  4. Vashti Quiroz-Vega Says:

    I loved the “comments”, I’ve heard some of those from family and friends. Great post!


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