I suppose I’d have to pare this down to the essence of writing a novel: Can anyone tell a story? On this point, I’d have to say, “Yes, anyone can tell a story, but some will tell a mesmerizing story while others will put their listeners to sleep.”
So really, it’s a matter of teaching poor storytellers how to tell their stories better, and the further question is: Can poor storytellers be taught to tell their stories better? And again, I’d have to say, “Yes, of course! But they’re really going to have to work at it.”
So how do you teach someone who can barely explain how to boil an egg how to create a cast of exciting characters acting out their dynamic lives in a compelling world?
They Have to Change Their Life Style
First, they have to change their life style. In the decade plus that I’ve been teaching creative writing workshops, I’ve had a surprising number of students who didn’t seem to belong in a creative writing workshop. They weren’t necessarily shy or quiet spoken; they just didn’t generate much interest in what they had to say. Just gonna give you the facts, mam. They spoke with a flatness that left their words forgotten seconds after they were mouthed. This was just the way they talked and it carried over to the way they wrote (at least 99.99% of the time). It was the way they thought, the way they lived their lives. They lived on the left side (of the brain, that is) where everything is well-delineated shades of gray or simply black and white. The trick was to get them to use the right side of their brains on a daily basis…not once a week or two or three times a week, but every day of the week and, if possible, several times daily.
This one actually has an easily identifiable solution, but not so easy for the student to actually do. It doesn’t require a lot of effort…it can be done without any preparation and no follow-up is required. It’s a no-brainer, which is why I call it mindless writing.
I’m not going to get into a lot of detail on this technique. If you want more in-depth information, I suggest you buy Dorethea Brandte’s book On Becoming a Writer. The basic gist is:
- Set a time to write (5-10 minutes)
- Pick a topic (could just be the word banana)
- Write about it without stopping (no editing and no stopping to think)
- Stop when you reach the time you set
Done in the morning, this exercise primes the right side of the brain for creative thought throughout the day. Done several times a day, it helps break down the barrier to the right side of the brain that left-brainers put up because they’re not used to thinking that way, they’ve been taught not to think that way, or they believe deep down inside that they don’t have the ability to think that way.
Again, done several times a day, mindless writing can change the fundamental way a person views their life. I’ve seen it happen repeatedly over the years.
They Have to Read
They have to read. And read. I knew a man who wrote one of the longest novels I’d ever seen by a first time novelist. He boasted that he never read fiction and rarely read non-fiction, but he wanted to be a writer. He asked if I could take a look at his novel and I agreed. Just a few paragraphs into it, I could see that he really didn’t do a lot of reading, but I read the whole thing. It was painful. Descriptions were matter-of-fact with no emotional connotations, the characters were lifeless throwaway caricatures, modulation was replaced by a flat line of overly technical and inert action, and there was no real point in calling it a story because there wasn’t much of a storyline. He obviously didn’t know how to tell a story and I’m assuming it was because he just wasn’t familiar with the concept of story.
Writers earn their storytelling ability by reading stories, writing stories and reading more stories. What they do when the read, is listen to storytellers telling stories. And that’s a learning experience.
Maybe at some point in a writer’s life, if they’ve written a dozen novels and write every day and don’t have time to read because they’re writing…maybe these writers can get away with not reading, but I’d bet a week’s wages they read a lot before they wrote those dozen novels.
They Have to Write
Yep, they have to write, consistently, every day (whether mindlessly or otherwise). I’ve had many students who couldn’t write worth a damn when they started my Writing Hurts Like Hell workshop and they couldn’t write much better by the end of the workshop, but they followed up on what they learned in the workshop and kept writing on their own, every day, and it paid off. One of them even wrote a couple of plays that were produced and received great reviews.
Writing is a cumulative thing; the more you do it, the more you build on it and the better you become at it. It could be just five minutes of mindless writing in the morning. It could be five minutes on a scene written over lunch. The morning writing and the lunch writing might be bad writing, but they’re writing. Professional athletes have good days and bad days, but they perform consistently and that consistency makes them professional athletes.
There’s a deluge of exercises, processes, procedures, methodologies, approaches, techniques, and insider tricks and tips currently being pushed on the burgeoning market for would-be writers, especially in the explosion of baby boomers with lots of time to write and lots of storytelling to do. But they’ll need to change their life style, read more and write more before they finish that first novel.
Storytelling has never been for the privileged few, it’s always been for those who want to tell a story, and putting the story on paper or in cyberspace is just another way of telling the story. So, yes, anyone can write a novel.
(Visit me at biffmitchell.com)