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.

Finding a Reason to Write

Okay, here I am. The fourth day of My Novel Writing Month. I take a deep breath, trying to remember why I wanted to write, why I needed to.

Several years ago, when I couldn’t find the books I liked anymore — story and character driven novels that can’t be slotted easily into a genre — I decided to write my own. The one obvious flaw to this reasoning is that if publishers weren’t publishing non-genre novels written in a genre style (as opposed to a “literary” style), then how did I expect them to publish my books? But I did. And they didn’t. When I’d written (and rewritten) four novels, adding another didn’t seem compelling. Four unpublished novels were bad enough, but five seemed . . . pathetic.

Now that two of those novels are about to be published by a small press with looser definitions of genre than the multi-national publishers, I am down to two unpublished books. And all of a sudden, that seems too few. So now I have the need to write, and I have the itch, but I am out of the habit.

That’s what MyNoWriMo is supposed to give me — not the 50,000 words necessary to complete NaNoWriMo, but the habit of writing.

So here I sit, waiting for the words to come, and they do. But not the right ones.

I’m supposed to be getting my hero back to his neighborhood (after finally letting him stop running from the volcano), yet here I am, writing about writing rather than writing. Though I suppose it depends on one’s definition of writing, because technically, I am writing. Or am I blogging? Either way, I am not working on my novel.

So, I got the poor guy away from the volcano, let him drink his fill at an hour-old river, let him indulge in a bit of light-headed musing (after all, it’s been months since I fed the poor guy), and now he’s on his way home.

The shadows are lengthening, and in this strange new apocalyptic world, anything can happen . . .

Grubbing For Readers

I met a well-known novelist on Gather.com (if you can call a few written exchanges meeting someone). My first communication with a successful author, and he contacted me. So what if it was only a comment he left on one of my articles, he did contact me, and it left me feeling a little strange. I couldn’t figure out what I had done to draw his attention, and I couldn’t figure out why a writer such as he would have signed up for Gather where the newly published and the wannabes hang out.

His latest book is coming out in March, so perhaps that answers the question of what he’s doing there — publicity — but still, as the author of more than twenty published books, including a couple that have been made into movies, why would he need to do it on such a basic level?

Out of curiosity, I looked for his books in the library, and found only one, which had been published five years ago. What shocked me was that his name appeared below the title, and his picture was not on the back of the book jacket. (Big name and even not so big name authors are regularly featured above the title.) And the mystery of what he is doing on Gather became a little clearer.

No matter how successful writers are, if they aren’t among the elite who bring big bucks to the publishing houses, they have to grub for readers. It seems a sordid business, this grubbing, and I wonder how often it pays off. One author who is contstantly grubbing says her book, which has been out a year, is doing well. It sold between one hundred and one thousand copies.

For many years now, my dream has been to become a published author, but I’m no longer certain it makes any difference if I get there or not. Published authors have to spend a lot of time publicizing themselves and their books, and that time is subtracted from their writing time. And if they do reach the pinnacle, they become something completely different, not an author but a celebrity, which also takes them away from writing. (I am beginning to see why brand name authors often degenerate into mediocre writers: they do not have much time to write.)

In a perfect world, I would be a published author and make enough money to live on so I could devote my life to writing. But this is not a perfect world, and the publishing industry is not always the answer to a writer’s dream. I don’t think self-publishing is the answer either, at least not for me. It seems that self-publishing becomes a matter of eternal self-publicizing, and again, little time is left for actual writing.

I don’t know where my answer lies. I will, of course, continue pursuing publication, but more importantly, I will continue writing. That’s what I want to do — write — not spend my life trying to get my name known.

“Can I Be a Novelist?”

A reader stumbled on my blog with the search engine terms “Can I be a novelist?”

I don’t know if he or she found the answer to the question, but here it is, in plain words: Yes, you can be a novelist. Anyone can be a novelist. All you have to do is write a novel — get it out of your head and onto paper or into a computer. That’s it. End of story.

If you want to be a good novelist, however, it takes a lot more time and attention. You have to learn how to write well. You have to learn the elements of storytelling. You have to create interesting, non-generic characters (There never was a good generic character in all of literature.) And you have to rewrite your novel and keep rewriting it until its heart beats true.

But if you want to be a published novelist, that is an entirely different matter. Unless you plan to self-publish, or are the offspring of a famous novelist, or Oprah knows you, the probability of you getting published is not very great. Over five hundred thousand novels are written each year, and less than three hundred debut novels are published. (I’ve read that it’s less than one hundred, but I’m trying to be optimistic here.) Even if you don’t know math, you can see at a glance what your chances are.

But don’t give up. After all, debut novels do get published. Keep polishing your novel, and with a little luck and a lot of perseverance, you might become a published author.

As Calvin Coolidge said:

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

So, can you be a novelist? In the end, only you know the answer.

You can be a bestselling novelist, but do you really want to be one?

 I’ve been reading the works of a bestselling novelist, trying to pinpoint why she’s been so popular for the past two decades. It’s hard work. Her writing style is surprisingly amateurish, her characters are not well drawn, she tells and explains instead of showing, and she repeats herself as if she can’t remember from page to page what she’s already said.

So, why do people keep reading her books?

Passion. Her characters never like or dislike anything. They love and hate, but mostly love. “She ate a piece of cherry pie, and she loved it.” “They had sex, and they loved it.”

Identifiable characters. She gives her characters tags that readers can identify with (mother, prosecuting attorney, abused child, wronged wife) and lets the reader fill in the blanks.

Issues. She picks an issue people are passionate about, and wraps her story around that.

And most of all, she gives readers someone to love and someone to hate, and makes her character choose between them. And, brilliantly, the character chooses the one the reader doesn’t want.

Example: a prosecuting attorney, who adores her husband and their young daughter, gets breast cancer, has a mastectomy and chemotherapy. The husband can’t handle it, is mad at her for “pretending” that she’s sicker than she is, is totally unsupportive, and even worse has an affair.  A coworker supplies the support the husband refuses to give her, and she and the coworker fall in love and plan to get married when her divorce goes through. A year after being diagnosed, she is doing well, and the husband comes nosing around again. In the end, they get back together.

See? Passion. Identifiable characters. Issues. Someone to love and someone to hate. And the wrong ending.

Why is the wrong ending the right one? If the author went with the new love, who would remember? By having the character go back to her husband, the author is manipulating us into thinking about the story. Would we go back to a husband (or wife) who treated us like garbage just so we can uphold the sanctity of marriage?

As you can see, even though I hated the book, she got me. After all, I am blogging about it.