Aphelion Issue 279, Volume 26
December 2022/January 2023
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Thoughts on Writing

#03: You May Not Be A Novelist (and That's OK)

by Seanan McGuire

You are a person, and you have a right to the ball! Just make sure that it's the right ball before you really get attached. Committing to the wrong ball just makes everyone sad. The original thought:

Putting fifty thousand words on paper does not make you a novelist. It means you successfully put fifty thousand words on paper. You should be proud of yourself for that, because dude, it's difficult to stick with a plot and a concept and an idea and characters for that long, and I salute you. At the same time, you're not a novelist. Sweating over those fifty thousand words until you're confident that at least forty thousand of them are good ones is what makes you a novelist. Good luck.


Let's begin.

Wait A Second -- Are You Saying I'm Not A Writer?

Absolutely not. Believe me, I realize that this is the easiest thought to misinterpret, because it's totally possible to look at that and think 'wow, she's saying I'm not a real writer.' Remember that thing about English being a monster? There it is again. If you do enough writing that you think 'hey, I'm a writer,' then congratulations, you are. 'Writer' is a label that can be assigned or chosen. Now, I admit that I have very little patience for people who say 'oh, I'm a writer' and then go on to tell me that they've been thinking really hard about writing for years, but no one actually gets to be the final judge of whether or not someone is a writer.

(Interestingly enough, this also means that it's a label that can come from outside, and is just as difficult to reject. If I say I'm not a writer, but you read the things I write, and feel that I'm wrong, which one of us wins? Odds are good that you do. Although you may not be able to make me admit it.)

What I am saying is that it's entirely possible for someone to be a writer without being a novelist. It's even possible to have finished a novel-length work without becoming a novelist -- heaven knows I did. I put down the proverbial pen on my very first 'book,' a piece of trite, trashy vampire fiction called Cam that will never see the light of day while I'm alive, and said, "I wrote a book!" This was true. "I'm a writer!" Also true. "I'm a novelist!" So very, very false.

So What's The Difference, Mrs. Arrogant McLabelpants?

Look: fifty thousand words is a novel-length work. If you write fifty thousand words, you have written a book. Not a long book, but still, a book. Be proud of yourself. I don't care if the fifty thousand words are just 'I'll show them, I'll show them all' over and over again; it takes time and dedication to do that. (Please note that this statement does not apply to you if you use the cut and paste function. I want you to actually write your fifty thousand words.) No one can take that achievement away from you, and frankly, I think it's something that everyone with any interest in writing should try to accomplish at least once. At the end of the process, you may not have a good book, you may not have a book that actually makes sense, but you'll have a book.

For a lot of people, this is where the work of writing a book ends, because for a lot of people, they're done. Case closed, class dismissed, I wrote a book, and I can call it good. Again, that's fine. For others, however, that's where the work actually begins. Let's assume that one person in a thousand is going to write a book in their lifetime. This may be generous, but hey, I feel generous today. Now let's assume that one person out of every thousand who actually writes a book looks at it -- this little stack of pages that represents some uncounted number of hours, tears, paper-cuts, and pain -- and thinks 'golly, I should really put myself through a new form of hell trying to improve this.' That person has decided to become a novelist. May all the gods have mercy on his soul.

The writer writes. The novelist...revises. The novelist...edits. The novelist struggles to make themselves as clear and comprehensible as possible. It's sort of like the difference between being a cook and being a chef. I can make a decent pot of spaghetti, if you allow 'make' to mean 'boil pre-made noodles and base my sauce off a jar of Ragu.' GP can make a decent pot of spaghetti too, and in his case, 'make' means 'homemade noodles and a sauce that causes angels to dive-bomb the kitchen with spoons, stealing as much as they can carry.' I am an amateur cook. I can feed myself. He's a chef. He can make the food sing.

Note that there are a million degrees of skill dividing the cooks and the chefs; the world's best cook probably makes better food than the world's worst chef, but the chef is probably putting a lot more thought and effort into it. That's the dividing line, at least from where I'm sitting: the effort. I can make tuna sandwiches that are astonishingly tasty and good. They don't really require much in the way of thought. My metaphor, although somewhat strained, has a lot of applicable validity to it -- a chef is someone who looks at a tuna sandwich and thinks 'I could make that better.' A novelist is the person who looks at the pile of fifty thousand words and thinks the same thing.

So Can I Become A Novelist?

Absolutely. You get there just like you get to the (insert place where skillful people of your choice are employed -- I'm going with 'CDC'): you practice and you work and you struggle and you screw up and you cry and you dance like an idiot and you generally make yourself crazy trying to learn what you're doing. Practice is really the key word here. The statement that art is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration is a very wise one.

Here's what it means to be a novelist:

Ideas are never enough. Putting fifty thousand words on paper is never enough. Intent is never enough. Working your ass off is what's going to make it enough; polishing every one of those words until it manages, through some strange alchemy, not to suck. You'll know when you get there. Probably because you'll have the overwhelming urge to beat me to death with your manuscript, but still. Work your ass off. It's worth it.

© 2008 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. Her first studio album, Stars Fall Home was released last year, and her fantasy novel Rosmary and Rue will be published by DAW in 2009.

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