Someone asked in a forum the other day how he can write a novel. He has been unable to get a good story line or style and hopes to get some help. As usual, he received plenty of responses, not many of which applied to him. Here's what I wrote.
* * *
Well, bad novel-writer, congratulations. You have accomplished two things with one question. First, you admitted your weakness, and that's a definite plus. Second, you elicited a number of ridiculous responses from people who should know better. Lynda was the only one who hit the nail on the head. I'll take her advice of, If you're bad at writing novels, why try? and go one step further.
Huh? I can hear the naysayers and wannabe writers (and shoot-from-the-lip responders) castigating me already. How dare you? What gives you the right? Why would you say such a harsh and cruel thing? Why put down someone for simply asking a question?
To them I say, "Grow up and get a life."
The truth is, if you're BAD at writing novels, don't write novels. There are plenty of other things in the universe to write. Memoirs, Diaries. Book reviews. Articles. Short stories. Letters. Editorials. Get the picture? No, I'm betting not, so I'll elaborate.
If you're "bad" at writing novels because you can't "get a good story line or style" (an odd coupling here, since the two have nothing to do with one another, but what the hey!), the chances are really, really good that you're not ready to write novels. Period. That means you can't envision a long-form story from beginning to end. That is, you can't see in your mind a story that takes sixty or seventy thousand words or more to tell. And even if you can, you can't bring it to fruition. So, don't. Instead, try envisioning a story that takes six or seven hundred words to explain. Or three thousand. Or five thousand. Or ten. See where I'm going with this?
A lot of people have difficulty envisioning a story from beginning to end. Even fewer can envision it and summon the discipline and skills required to tell it without getting sidetracked or discouraged. As author of more than a couple dozen novels and ninety-some conventionally published books, I can attest to that fact. So, if you can't write a good story line of novelesque proportions, write a shorter one. You'll find that much easier to accomplish than writing a full-blown novel, the mere thought of which sends chills down the spine of less experienced writers.
Can you think of a story roughly as complex as the tale of the three little pigs? If so, you can think of a way to write it in a few thousand words or less. Will it be any good? Probably not. But maybe so. Who knows? Who can say? You won't know until you try.
My point is this. If you can't handle the big-boy lifting, try lifting something a little less weighty. In the process, you'll learn a lot about how to lift things without throwing out your back or bursting your spleen. (Give me a break, okay? I'm no doctor.) And, as you write, guess what. You'll be developing what we in Always-Always Land call a literary style. Will it be any good? Who knows? Will it be popular with your readers? Who can say? But the point is this: If you don't start small and build toward large, you'll never get started at all. Got it? If so, think back upon this advice when you sell your first novel to a major conventional publishers sometime down the line, and maybe send me a box of Macanudos or a bottle of Tullamore Dew or something.
In the meantime ...
Smoke if you've got 'em.
* * *
D. J. Herda is author of the new series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available in eBook, paperback, and hardcover formats at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his column, "The Author-Ethicist," which runs weekly at Substack. Well, almost weekly. Occasionally weekly. Sometimes weekly. (Hey, he's only human!)