Friday, December 31, 2010

Another Starving Writer


Not long ago, a friend I worked with many years ago decided to take a year off and write a novel. Then yesterday, an old high school pal asked me what it takes to write a novel. Since I have four published novels floating around in the ozone somewhere, I sent them this advice.

1) To write a novel, you must be a persistent self-starter with thick skin and high self-esteem. You need to work at it every day until your fingers lock up and your brain bleeds. Once you start, you can never quit.

2) You should have a unique premise or idea or twist for a novel. There’s no point writing something that’s already been written. It’s called a novel because there’s something novel about it.

3) Almost all novels have a distinct structure. There are three acts – a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning usually opens with an enticing (exciting or mysterious or bizarre or whatever) hook to compel the reader to continue past the first line and first paragraph and first page. Then something happens (plot point #1) to propel the narrative into act two, the main conflict. A second plot point eventually occurs to launch the story into the third act, the resolution. All scenes and dialogue should advance the plot line or help define the characters; if they don’t, they should probably be deleted.

4) It helps if the characters are three dimensional, rather than stereotypical or predictable.

5) It helps if the dialogue is authentic and unique to the characters, rather than stereotypical or predictable.

6) It’s best to throw the main characters into a situation and let the story evolve from there. Sometimes the story line will take an unexpected turn based on the “authentic” actions of the characters. This way the story becomes much more realistic because it’s driven by the reactions of the characters themselves.

7) Once you’ve finished writing the novel, you’ve only begun. You must rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until it flows in a fluid, poetic manner. And you must not hesitate to remove a favorite line or two if they don’t fit -- it may break your heart but the integrity of the final product is more important than the brilliance of a single moment within the text that doesn’t belong there. It takes a ton of work to get it just right. Just as a good actor doesn’t appear to be acting, good literature reads as though it wasn’t even written, much less rewritten.

8) You must know when to quit. Every time you read it you’ll find little things to change or fix. At some point you must pronounce it finished. This is very hard to do but you must be decisive.

9) You must strive for perfection. You can’t hand a manuscript to a publisher or a literary agent containing errors or coffee stains. When you spend a zillion hours attempting to create something worthy enough to present to the literary world, it must be presentable. A sloppy product suggests sloppy writing.

10) The finished product is only the end of phase one. Phase two is getting it published and phase three is stimulating sales. Getting it published isn’t easy. Only one out of about 200 novels submitted to publishers ever gets published. Your odds are somewhat better getting published if you sign with a literary agent but finding a good one who will represent you is just about as hard as finding a publisher. Self-publishing has become easier these days with print-on-demand technology but most people will spend more money than they will ever take in.

11) Even if you manage to get a novel published, only about one in twenty published novels makes enough money to break even for the publisher. Writers get a percentage of sales, based on retail price. A percentage of very little is less than very little. Only a small percentage of published writers actually makes a living at it and very few of them ever get rich. The true riches come from the self-satisfaction of accomplishment.

12) If it’s in your twisted mind to write a novel then do it and don’t quit until you get it done. Don’t worry about what others think of your stupid plans. You’re writing because you’re a writer and that’s what writers do. Let the rest of the world go about their boring nine-to-five business. You’re above such petty nonsense.

It is better to be a starving writer than wishing you were a starving writer.

Novels by Bret Burquest:
THE DOGMAN OF TOPANGA -- romantic suspense/thriller
A BAD RUN OF FATE -- psychological mystery
GOOMBA IN MONTANA -- coming-of-age suspense/thriller
THE ELEVENTH SAGE -- metaphysical mystery

Quote for the Day -- "It is better to fail in originality than to succeed it imitation." Herman Melville

Bret Burquest is an award-winning columnist and author of four novels. He lives in the Ozark Mountains with a dog named Buddy Lee and where starving writers dine on hickory bark. His blogs appear on several websites, including

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