I wrote a novel when I was in graduate school. It is terrible. I would delete it from my computer’s hard drive and allow the memory of it to slowly fade away except for the fact that it functions very well as a permanent reminder of my flaws as a writer. It is the thorn in my side, my Rosebud, the skeleton in my literary closet awaiting some nightmarish transgression on my part to permit it to emerge as karmic retribution and humble me yet again. I must always remain meek. I must read other writers charitably. I must never allow anyone to read the novel that I have written.
I suspect that most successful writers have a hidden shame, an early over-written effort packed with dense alliteration about sunsets the golden tone of an orange languidly lavishing light on lonely souls longingly gazing into the vastness of infinite time and space. We all have to start somewhere and the first effort is commonly unsalvageable. Its existence is nevertheless necessary, a stepping stone to improvement. Writers seldom become accomplished without a lot of failure in the past (and if you are like me, in the present. Thank God for the delete key on the modern word processor). The best way to become a good writer is to write a lot. There are no shortcuts.
It is helpful, though, to have a roadmap marking out the destination and the turns necessary to achieve authorial goals. A chimp sitting at a typewriter will never, and I don’t care which scientists attempt to contradict me, will never, ever produce a Shakespeare play. In any case, we do not have an infinite number of apes who can toil infinitely on our masterwork. No, we must direct our efforts more strictly. Writers need certain working practices. We must train in the right ways, writing the correct sorts of things, and not waste time spinning our wheels.
After the disaster of my early novel, I had to take a hard look at myself: Do I have what it takes to write a good novel? The jury is still out on that one.
I do know I can read, at least (never a good fact to have to brag about). A novelist I love to read is Haruki Murakami. In his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, he lists the necessary qualities to become a productive writer. An aspiring novelist will want to take heed and cultivate these 4 habits. Consider them to be training instructions, a roadmap for how to successfully accomplish the journey from incipient idea to fully formed, readable novel.
Do you have what it takes to write a novel?
(I think you do!)
Murakami writes, “If you don’t have any fuel, even the best car won’t run.” There is no escaping the fact that some people have more natural talent than others. Murakami thinks of it as akin to inspiration – nice to have and in some sense necessary, but it comes and goes. A true novelist will write even when uninspired. As the Art of Manliness opines, inspiration is for amateurs.
Those with more talent have a natural advantage, but talent isn’t everything when it comes to writing, because…
“If you can focus effectively, you’ll be able to compensate for an erratic talent or even a shortage of it.” We all know people who are gifted at writing but never seem to complete anything. This is because they lack focus. Murakami says that each morning he forces himself to focus on his writing for a minimum of three hours regardless of whether the time seems productive or not, “I don’t see anything else, I don’t think about anything else.” Often in my own writing, I find that once I begin to work inspiration surprises me in a way it never would have if I’d waited. If we wait for the inspiration to strike before we focus and get to work, most of us will be waiting a long time and that novel will always remain half-finished.
The discipline required to focus for a sustained amount of time requires endurance. Murakami compares this to breathing, “If concentration is the process of just holding your breath, endurance is the art of slowly, quietly breathing at the same time you’re storing air in your lungs.” It is important to concentrate in a way that is sustainable. A novelist in general will be more successful with a calm, steady work habit than by staying up all night in a frenzy of writing. That one night may be wonderfully productive but the long term cost is probably not worth it. A novel potentially requires many years to complete and you don’t want to burn all your matches at the beginning.
Murakami says that, while talent may be beyond our control, focus and endurance can be developed. They are “acquired and sharpened through training.”
- Manual Labor
In order to focus and endure, we must train. No one simply sits down and begins writing for three hours each morning every single day for years and years. We must build ourselves up both mentally and physically.
The willingness to engage in manual labor is essential to finishing a novel. By manual labor, I don’t mean that we have to join a landscaping crew or anything like that; Murakami explains, “Writing itself is mental labor, but finishing an entire book is closer to manual labor. It doesn’t involve heavy lifting, running fast, or leaping high. Most people, though, only see the surface reality of writing and think of writers as involved in quiet, intellectual work done in their study. If you have the strength to lift a cup of coffee, they figure, you can write a novel.”
I still remember writing papers for college assignments and the drain on my physical stamina. My eyes hurt, my fingers hurt from typing, my thinking became cloudy. It was taxing physically and I wasn’t prepared for it. When I was in high school, typing a three page paper was difficult. In college, ten pages was my max. In grad school I was able to write twenty pages. Today I can sit all morning and happily type away even while sipping many cups of coffee!
Writing a novel is even more physical than a college research paper. This is because a novelist “puts on an outfit called narrative and thinks with his entire being; and for the novelist that process requires putting into play all your physical reserve, often to the point of overexertion.”
Writers, get ready to run. Train hard. Even if it isn’t good at first or you have to bury your first manuscript in the backyard so no one will ever, ever see it, keep working and you will undoubtedly improve. I look forward to reading your work.