The chatter dissipated as he waddled into the classroom. His cool eyes scanned over us, unimpressed by our reverent silence. I felt I could see everything he’d written in his gaze, although maybe that sage weariness was the exhaustion of air travel. Nothing more. He plopped into a chair and flicked out a fan decorated with a happy black cat. The casual way he produced the fan–ordinarily an object of feminine drama–instantly won my respect.
Our professor introduced Alexander Chee, this otherworldly figure fanning himself before us. I glanced down at his book How to Write an Autobiographical Novel and stared skeptically at his tiny portrait on the soft red cover. The smizing young man with a full head of hair didn’t match the writer before me. I had expected an aura of arrogance. But Chee seemed the kind of person who would laugh if I called him wise. My ex-military classmate with tattoos instead of skin asked the first question: “How do you know to end a piece of writing? How do you end it? Do you tie it up with a bow, or leave it unresolved?” Chee began his magical way of not answering the question we asked, but answering the question we needed the answer to. I emerged even more enamored with the writing life than before.
I think everyone has a novel dormant inside of them. The trick is to chisel away at the body, at the mask, until you peel back the last obstacle to a story that needs to be told. “If there’s a book you want to read, but hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” – Toni Morrison
But how? How do we find a story in need of a voice? How do we chip away at the flaws in our craft? Can we commit to a life of written creativity?
Here is what to expect if you’re an aspiring novelist.
The writing life
Simply put, a novelist writes novels. They create your favorite fictional characters and weave plots that glue your eyes to the page. They reveal vulnerable pieces of themselves in memoirs and autobiographies. A novelist builds rich stories only to rip them apart and make a new one from the skeletons of the old. They write. They revise and rewrite. A novelist submits their work to editors, to publishers, to literary journals. They get rejected, and they submit again. If slaving over sentence and plot structure at a desk for hours sounds like heaven, then consider writing a book. Keep in mind that after writing a book, you have to know how to pitch your work to editors, agents and publishing houses. A novelist’s work doesn’t stop with their written work; their job extends far beyond the creative act.
What it takes
1. Never stop writing.
Let rejection or success or a mixture of both motivate you. Avoid imposter syndrome. “I never caught the habit of reading growing up. I sort of goofed around with a couple of friends in high school. We would write these weird little stories that we would pass back and forth with each other just to make each other laugh. That’s how my writing started…I had imposter syndrome. I was getting more ambitious and I was getting better. But there were ‘real’ writers…I felt like my naivete was a blessing. I just did stuff and experimented,” editor of Future Tense Press Kevin Sampsell said. Just don’t stop writing. You could end up founding an indie press and publishing books with Harper Collins, like Samspell.
2. Consider completing a Bachelor’s Degree in English or Creative Writing.
Or both! You technically don’t need a degree to write. Some swear by Masters of Fine Arts degrees while others scorn them. “ I think MFA programs can be really useful in that they can provide you with time, structure, and support to work on a long-form project,” University of Minnesota M.F.A student Antonia Angress said. “That said, you shouldn’t go into debt for an MFA–I would only attend if the program is fully funded. My experience at UMN has been really wonderful. The program has given me the gift of time.” Take a look at the incredible programs across the U.S. offering full funding and stipends.
3. Travel. Explore. Find what interests you.
There is so much more out in the world and in you than you know. Live your stories by making mistakes, hoarding knowledge, finding new adventures…maybe even accidentally running into love. A life spent at a desk isn’t enough to feed the imagination. Pack up your books and start living. Writing without interest is already doomed.
4. Make time to read.
Read everything you see on the bookshelf. Many writers learn and hone their craft by reading the work of others. Hop on Twitter to catch all the writing community news and gossip. Know who is looking for pitches or submissions. Know who is writing and know what they’re writing. There’s a vast community of writers that flock to Twitter to hunt down great work and to promote their own. Encourage and learn from your peers!
5. Submit, submit, submit.
You’ve done the writing. Now it’s time to get your work out there! Make a goal to get 50 rejections from publishing companies and literary journals. The more you submit with the expectation that you’ll most likely be rejected, the more people will read your work, the less destroyed you’ll be when you’re rejected, and (most likely) the more acceptances you’ll receive. Make sure you learn how to write a pitch. Pitches allow you to know if the magazine or journal is interested in what you’re writing about. If you can pitch, you don’t have to write the work only to be rejected.
Submitting and hopping on the Twitter train fall under this category. If you’re rejected, send an email of thanks for their time (especially if they gave you good feedback). People remember kindness, professionalism and originality. Who knows? You might get something out of rejection, such as an agent or an editor. Maybe something as small as a recommendation for a literary journal that might swoon over your writing.
What you should know
1. Your writing matters.
Alexander Chee’s one piece of advice he wanted my class to take away from his visit was that people value what writers do. Instead of killing artists, capitalist society tells them their art doesn’t matter. But it does.
2. Be okay with little to no profit.
J.K. Rowling started writing Harry Potter on napkins, and now she’s a household name. But Rowling’s level of success is rare. If you can imagine yourself happy in another line of work, then explore that route before you commit to the challenge of writing.
3. Your work environment is your choice.
Write at a desk, at the beach, on the subway. Scribble in coffee shops or bookstores. Write while traveling. The choice is completely up to you.
4. Be prepared to have other jobs in order to support your writing.
Becoming a novelist takes time. And you need money to allow for that time.
1. Perseverance and resilience.
In order to find success in the writing business, you must submit as often as possible. More often then not people will reject your work. If you allow rejection to discourage you then a career as a novelist may not be in your future. Learn to expect rejection, but learn confidence in your craft. Writing is subjective, but there is a home for your work somewhere out there.
If you lack imagination then creating stories that grab people’s attention may prove a struggle. We want stories to surprise us. We need work that provokes thought. “Just keep going! When I speak to younger authors I want to see their brains working. I want to see their humanity on the page. Of course they can make up worlds and do whatever they want in terms of imagination. When writers are very clear in who they are it comes through in the manuscript…My favorite books have well rounded really specific characters. But they also have a story,” publisher of Forest Avenue Press Laura Stanfill said. More often than not, creativity stems from your experience of the world.
3. Critical thinking.
How can you improve your work without examining it critically? Writers need to be able to pinpoint what moves a story along and what bogs a story down. Critical thinking combined with imagination is the backbone of a novelist’s great art.