Are there prerequisites to becoming a good novelist?

Can anyone become good at writing simply on the strength of innate talent and a desire to do so? That’s a fair question, isn’t it, given that hundreds of people are self-publishing novels never having taken a writing class or even mastered the elements of grammar as taught in high school English. These writers seem to be operating on the belief that all it takes is desire. They see fame achieved by people who are not too dissimilar from themselves and say ‘if she can do it, why can’t I?’

It’s easy to find works created with this mindset. I get emails daily offering self-published books for $0.99 or even free. I’ve tried to read several. I say tried because it’s rare that I’m able to finish a self-published novel. The vast majority fail to come up to the base level standard of published writing much less qualify as “good.” What’s missing? Why so much imitative, unimaginative, and downright poor writing?

One of the factors that leads beginning writers astray is the social milieu in which products such as Fifty Shades of Grey are plucked out of ether and become financial bonanzas for their creators. Clearly it is not the quality of the writing, but rather their marketing (i.e., money-making) potential that distinguishes these stories. That such “successes” are rarer than diamonds in desert sands doesn’t seem to impress those who would be like her.

A second factor that misleads beginning writers is the cultural message that all stories matter. These writers aren’t deterred from publishing if their vampire story differs from the next person’s solely by minutiae such as the name of their protagonist or the story’s setting.

The truth is if all stories matter then, unlike lives, no stories matter. Not all stories offer unique and valuable insights into the world around us. Only a few enrich the reader because the authors bring something genuine to the table based on study, research, trial and error experience, perseverance, as well as innate talent.

I believe the best writing is done by people who started as great readers. It may not be obvious, but art is cumulative. Good musicians have listened to great music; good painters have studied Michelangelo and Picasso; and so must novelists know enough of the great works of literature as well as the best in their genre to be able to write something that is not imitative, trite, or boring.

There’s an easy way to determine if you’re ready to write novels for public consumption. Get a copy of Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. In it she discusses the evolution of the novel and lists 101 important works of fictive literature. I doubt there is a writer whose works have earned critical acclaim, even in genre fields, who is not familiar with more than a quarter of the books on that list.

While I might substitute Smiley’s post-World War II authors with some equally compelling contributors, the point is that writers need a learned sense of their craft just as those who make violins, design quilts, or compose dance routines.

My comments are not intended to censor anyone’s taste in writing or reading, but rather to help beginning writers take the long view. There’s nothing wrong with starting early if one gets feedback from sources who can be trusted and who are in touch with the big picture.

Thus, reviews on Amazon by friends and family don’t count as a measure of where you are as a writer. They can help with sales, but if you’re serious about your craft, you need feedback from trusted sources such as writing instructors, working or retired editors, literary agents, reviewers for established publications, and traditionally published writers. Of course, that’s a hard group to penetrate, as they are inundated with requests. I know because that’s where I am with my own writing.

I feel I’ve done the right things to learn and improve, although I had a firm foundation having done a lot of the things I recommend. I took literature courses in college, I continued to read widely over the past decades, I’ve taken writing courses, and I’ve “workshopped” chapters in critique groups and with critique partners. Although friends and family give me positive feedback, I know the ultimate test is acceptance by members of what I’m calling the trusted sources group.

Becoming a good writer does not happen overnight. In writing, as in so many other trades, perfection is impossible. One can approach it with a sentence, a paragraph, or perhaps even a chapter, but approaching and reaching can be very far apart. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying. Achieving a level where trusted others label you above average requires knowledge of what constitutes good writing and a willingness to work for it. Not everyone will get there, but that shouldn’t deter people from trying.

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