And Now for the Bad News

It seems NaNoWriMo is becoming a cultural tradition. Every November, hundreds of thousands of people apply seat of pants to seat of chair and write a full-length novel. It may be a less bolted-down tradition than the Christmas tree lot, but it seems to be settling in.

So this year you wrote a novel during National Novel Writing Month. Congratulations! You may have found it inspiring and fun, or it may have proved to be a bigger challenge than you expected. Either way, it’s bound to have been a learning experience. You probably learned something about both your passions and your work habits. You may have learned a bit about the painstaking process of crafting a sustained narrative.

Today, if all went well, you have a complete novel on your hard drive. And you’re quite rightly proud of and enthusiastic about your accomplishment. You’re starting to think, “Gee, maybe other people will enjoy reading this story as much as I enjoyed writing it. Maybe I should publish it.”

No need to be bashful. You know you’re thinking that! So it’s time for the crusty old curmudgeon on the internet to give you some wise and thoughtful advice:

Please don’t.

Please don’t self-publish your novel. Don’t even think about it. There are literally millions of self-published novels on the Web. Yours is certainly not as bad as some of them, but that’s the extent of the good news. The probability that yours is worth reading is close to nil. By publishing it, you will be degrading the taste and undermining the intellectual acuity of untold dozens of readers. Do you really want to take responsibility for having done that?

I have tried reading a bunch of self-published novels. Really, one feels compelled to quote from Allen Ginsberg at this point: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked….” With the caveat that the writers of self-published books are not actually the best minds of any generation. Not even close.

Most self-published fiction is appalling, dreadful stuff. Naturally, you feel sure your book is the exception! And maybe it is, but probably it isn’t. The Dead Sea of mistakes into which amateur writers wade and in which they then splash and thrash is wide and deep. And they don’t know they’re wading ever deeper. They think they’re walking on water.

Yes, you can spend a couple of thousand bucks hiring an editor. I can’t honestly recommend it, for two reasons. First, anybody can hang out a shingle and call themselves an editor. There are no licensing requirements. Some freelance editors are, I’m sure, quite good. But some will actively make your writing worse rather than better. And how will you know the difference? Second, in my experience aspiring writers quite generally ignore good advice when they hear it. Having poured heart and soul into their literary effort, they don’t want to be told that it’s in dire need of an overhaul (or a quick trip to the wastebasket). They tend to take any such observation as a personal attack.

Is there a solution? Sure. The solution is, don’t publish your novel. Not until you’ve learned how to write.

Want to learn how to write? Buy a bunch of how-to-write books. Read them. Underline salient passages. Work the suggested exercises. And learn to read the published work of other writers analytically. Pick up a few of your favorite novels and study how the scenes are constructed. Study how the characters are developed. Study the way sentences are nailed into paragraphs. Study how emotion is conveyed. Study conflict and theme.

And then, next November, or even sooner if you feel so inclined, write a better novel.

I’ve thought many times about writing a book called How NOT to Write a Novel. But there are two difficulties. First, somebody already wrote a book with that title. It isn’t very good, in that it doesn’t do what it ought to do. But it’s okay as a how-to-write book. Put it on your list. The second, and truly insurmountable, difficulty is that I would want to provide extended examples of bad writing drawn from actual self-published novels.

I would then get sued for copyright infringement, for libel, or both. Nobody would want to have their cherished work, the child of their soul, singled out for its awfulness, laid out on the dissecting table and sliced open for all to view in amazement its innumerable gruesome failures. But I don’t think I could produce the right book by trying to generalize about the problems in bad fiction. That would just be another how-to-write book. The point of studying bad fiction line by line is that every piece of bad fiction is unique. Every bad author finds new and awe-inspiring ways, in paragraph after paragraph, to go astray. It may not be true, to paraphrase Tolstoy, that all good fiction is alike but every work of bad fiction is bad in its own way. There are many ways to write good fiction! But the badness of bad fiction — being told what’s bad is one thing. Being shown what’s bad is a different thing entirely, and much more likely to be useful as a learning experience.

If you’d like to know more about what’s bad, send me an email. I’ll send you links to a couple of Look Inside novel openings on Amazon, and we can have a personal discussion, not for publication, about what exactly qualifies them as bad.

If you ask nicely, I might even do it for free.

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