Meet our new monthly columnist, award-winning author William Kowalski! This article is reprinted with permission from the book: WRITING FOR FIRST-TIME NOVELISTS, Practical Thoughts on the Creative Craft, by William Kowalski © 2014
BEFORE YOU START
Am I a good enough writer to write a book?
No. You’re not.
What? How dare I say that? Don’t I recognize that you’re as perfect as a snowflake?
Am I really so arrogant that I believe I can see through time and space and make such a
sweeping judgment about someone I’ve never even met?
No, I’m not being arrogant. Let me say it this way. If you’ve never written a book
before, then you’re not good enough yet to write one–but you will be.
Okay. That eases the sting a bit. So, when?
As soon as you’ve typed the last word of the last draft of your manuscript, you will be
good enough to have written it.
Why am I saying such a contradictory thing?
Because nothing quite like your story has ever existed before in the history of the world,
and nothing like it will ever be written again. That means the precise rules for telling it
only need to be invented once–but you cannot begin to know what they are until you
are fully immersed, and you won’t know all of them until you are finished.
It’s in the course of writing your story that you will pick up all the skills you need to
master telling it. Writing a book is not a clearly defined task. It’s not like building a
house, or weeding a garden, or some other job that has an obvious shape and a clear
end. It’s a life event, and like all life events, it’s not going to go the way you planned it.
You can know in a general way what it will need: time, patience, effort, a working
knowledge of language, and an artistic or engaging way of telling a story. But even if
you’re the ten thousandth person this year to write a novel about penguins, your book
about penguins is going to be different, because it’s yours. And only you can write A
Farewell To Penguins, or Penguin Lust on the High Seas, or whatever you’re going to
call it, in quite the way you can.
Yet here’s a contradiction, the first of many that I will present to you: just because this
story is yours doesn’t mean you are the master of it. The moment you think you own it,
it’s going to surprise you. It will take on a life of its own. It’s going to require more of
you than you realized, and it might even ask more of you than you think you have to
This story is in your life for a reason. Telling it is going to be transformational. It’s going
to scar you. Just like getting married, buying a house, having a child, getting a new job,
or saying goodbye to a loved one, writing a novel is a big deal. It’s going to give you
stretch marks. You’re going to walk with a limp afterwards. Regardless of what happens,
provided you stick with it, you will feel different. You will be different. You will have the
literary equivalent of a combat soldier’s thousand-yard stare.
But just how this is all going to happen is impossible to tell ahead of time. This is
another of the contradictions inherent in the writing life. You can’t really know what
you’re going to have to do until you’ve done it. And you’re not going to have mastered
all the skills you need to tell this story until you’ve told it–at which point, of course, your
skills will be redundant, because the book will be done, and it will be time to move on to
the next thing.
Welcome to the life of a writer.
Many parallels apply here. Let’s take parenting. Whether you have children or not, no
doubt you’ve heard new parents say that they often feel as if they’re flying blind, making
up the rules as they go along. I was the oldest of three children, so I got to hear my
parents say this a lot. Like all parents, they had no idea what they were doing at first.
No parent has ever known ahead of time what they were in for. If they had, chances are
they might not have become a parent at all.
But that didn’t stop them from doing it. Imagine if people didn’t have children because
they weren’t already experts in child-rearing! Humanity would cease to exist.
So, stop worrying about whether you’re good enough to write the novel you want to
write. The answer is clear: you’re not.
But–and this is the real point of this section, so remember this well, please–you will
become good enough along the way.
Which means you might as well get started.
What Is Talent?
My thoughts on talent have changed radically over the last twenty-five years. I used to
believe you were either born with talent, or you weren’t. Now I see what a simplistic
viewpoint that is. Like most attempts to force things neatly into one box or the other, it’s
wrong. It misses the entire point.
I feel almost the opposite about talent these days. With the rare exception, I don’t
believe that talent exists–or, if it does, its absence does not mean that a person can’t
become good at writing.
Talent, in other words, doesn’t matter.
I believe now that most people become good at things because they try very, very hard
to be good at them, and the reason they try hard is because it’s important to them, for
reasons they themselves may not even understand. These reasons are probably
unconscious, meaning the author doesn’t know why writing is so important to her. It just
is. Maybe years of therapy will help uncover the reason, but does it really matter? Just
accept it. You have a burning desire to write. That’s the way you are. Save that
therapist money and put it in a retirement fund instead, so that you don’t spend your
final years living in a cardboard box in the middle of Central Park.
If you insist on keeping the word talent in your lexicon, then think of it this way: What
you lack in talent, you can make up for with motivation and hard work.
Yes, some people do have a natural aptitude for certain things, and it could be argued
that this is talent. While still a child, Mozart could hear a musical piece once and then
play it back perfectly, without skipping a note. Newton invented calculus before he hit
puberty. There is a long list of people like this throughout history. But these are not
merely talented people. They are prodigies. They are the result of a perfect storm of
genetics, psychology, and environment. You cannot force a prodigy to come into being,
as a gardener can force roses to bloom by tricking them into thinking it’s summer. And
prodigies are rare enough that they are not worth discussing here.
From an early age, I worked very hard at writing, because I wanted people to say I was
good at it. I needed to hear that. It wasn’t just that I wanted to tell them stories they
liked. I never actually cared about that. I wanted their adulation. So I did everything I
could to ensure that I kept hearing praise. That meant writing obsessively. I wrote
stories while other kids were out being normal kids–playing sports, torturing younger
children, committing crimes, whatever. I felt socially awkward, so there were times I
preferred to write as an escape rather than deal with those feelings. And part of me
wanted to stand out the way other boys stood out for other qualities, such as prowess in
sports or academics, good looks, or owning the first video game system on the block. I
felt that writing was the only chance I had to distinguish myself from the herd. I once
believed this was true of me simply because that’s the way I was. I now believe it was
true because I decided it was true.
In other words, despite the early words of praise I received from my parents and
teachers, I don’t think I was naturally talented as a writer. Instead, at some early stage I
don’t even remember, I decided that being thought of as a good writer was the most
important thing in the world to me–and from that point forward, I devoted all my energy
to it. To the outside observer, it looked like talent. But really, it was the result of a strong
desire and a lot of hard work. In fact, it was an obsession.
I can see now that I needed praise like oxygen. Why? That’s a separate conversation.
But it really doesn’t matter. That’s just the way I was.
There are, I know, lots of people who are the same. More than anything, we want to
hear these words: You’re a great writer. And so, we write. We write our asses off,
because we know that’s the only way to get better at writing.
There is no shame in any of this. It could be a lot worse, after all. Some people are
motivated to do far worse things for unconscious reasons. Some people grow up to be
mass murderers. You’re lucky writing is your affliction. At least you won’t end up on trial
in The Hague for crimes against humanity.
This section exists only to encourage those who feel they don’t have the necessary
talent to pursue writing. Let me repeat something I said at the beginning: What you
lack in talent, you can make up for in hard work and motivation. If you’ve never heard
the words You’re a talented writer in your life, that doesn’t mean you can’t become a
competent writer, and maybe even a very good one. You can do it–if you want it badly
Talent is overrated. Don’t even worry about it. If you free yourself from this concern,
just as if you free yourself from all other mental traps, you will become a better writer for
Should I Major In Creative Writing To Become A Writer?
This is a tricky one. Let me first give an answer that appears to be unrelated. I tend to
divide writing into two general parts: story and style.
Story refers to the art of storytelling, which is not the same thing as the art of writing. It
also refers to something that cannot be taught in a classroom, but instead emerges from
the depth of a writer’s soul, or from the gut, if you prefer–something so personal and
elusive that it cannot be explained, packaged, or imparted the way the rules of grammar
can. Any writing instructor worth her salt will admit that this is the case. They can teach
you the rules of writing all day long, but they cannot make a writer of you. That part is
up to you.
Style refers to how you tell a story. Style can be heavily influenced by writing classes
and programs. Story, less so. I believe that storytelling is rarely, if ever, discussed in
writing programs. If it is brought up, it’s mentioned in such a poorly illuminated and
haphazard way that the student may only ever feel he’s failed to create something that
satisfies the highly arbitrary and uninformed tastes of his peers, and possibly his
instructor. Storytelling can be taught, but it often isn’t.
There’s more to the puzzle, though.
A writer isn’t just someone who understands how to string sentences together in a
coherent fashion. A writer sees the world in a certain way. He is often fascinated by the
mundane, seeking extra meaning in the commonplace, trying to express what is truest
about the most obvious things. More than that, a writer has as his natural habit the
practice of constantly mulling over and interpreting what he has seen and done in his
life. And more than that, he has a driving compulsion to distill these things and make
them the elements of a fictional story, which he then sets on paper, refines until they
cannot be honed any more, and then shares with total strangers. Often none of this is
by choice. He may simply feel that if he doesn’t do them, he will explode.
Of course, there are other kinds of writers besides the compulsive type I describe
above, just as there are other kinds of writers besides those who write novels. But this
is the kind I am most familiar with, because this is the kind I happen to be.
Do you need to flog yourself on a daily basis to be a good writer? Of course not. But
chances are that you’re not going to accomplish much, writing-wise, unless you have a
strong level of determination. And that, too, is something that cannot be imparted in a
classroom. Either you feel it or you don’t. No one can make you determined.
I believe that it’s a good idea for writers to receive formal instruction in the art of writing
from time to time, the way the Japanese pearl diving women of Okinawa must
occasionally come to the surface to breathe. College classes offer you the opportunity
to learn technique, to become exposed to the work of great writers, and to learn to
interpret and read critically. All of these are vital. You can also take workshops, attend
master classes, audit courses, and expose yourself in many other ways to what
professional writers and academics have to offer.
Because writing necessarily involves expertise with language, it is also essential that a
writer study words: how they are used, what they mean, how they sound. And because
the best writers don’t just use language, but have a level of mastery over it, the better
you are at this, the better your writing is going to be. It’s possible to learn mastery on
your own to some extent, but you will save yourself years if you can study with someone
who has already attained a level of mastery themselves, and is inclined to share it.
But–and this is very important–young people who are trying to decide what to do with
themselves should remember that majoring in a four-year program of Creative Writing
can close as many doors as it opens, in terms of future employment and life experience.
I firmly believe that every writer should also master a trade or profession that is
unrelated to writing. This is not just for practical, bill-paying reasons, but also for one’s
own personal development. The worst thing a writer can do is close himself off from the
working world, for this is where the workings of the world take place. You must feel
engaged with humanity, even–maybe even especially–if you are an extreme introvert;
and the best way to do this is to have something to offer. Not just beautifully-written
stories, but something else, too. You need to be able to do something or make
something that people need.
So, learn to cut hair, to repair an automobile, to build a house, to cut diamonds. Learn
to produce something people can’t get along without, something they will need again
and again. Become good at filling that need. It will provide you with a certain level of
satisfaction. You can fall back on it in hard times, and you can certainly use it as
material for your stories. It will even make them more interesting.
What about older people who didn’t have the chance to study writing in their youth, or
who feel the call late in life? They should not feel discouraged simply because they
didn’t begin sooner. One of my favorite sayings is, “The best time to plant a tree was
twenty years ago. The second-best time is now.”
So you’re thirty years old, or fifty, or seventy, or even older. Does that mean it’s too late
for you? Of course not. So you may not be thought of as your generation’s
Shakespeare. Big deal. You still have many years ahead of you to produce lots of
good, interesting work, and you could enjoy a lengthy second or third career as a
In my opinion, “being a writer” really means “being an observer and recorder of the
human experience, ideally for the advancement of all humanity.” This is something you
won’t often hear from agents or publishers, or even from other writers. And again, this
is not something that can be taught the way you can teach algebra or computer
programming. I happen to agree with The Iowa Writers’ Workshop in saying that writing
cannot be taught, but that writers can be encouraged. I’m not certain what they mean
when they say that, but I know what I mean: I can’t force you to see the world in a
certain way. I can only show you by example.
If you are in your late teens or early twenties, becoming a Creative Writing major would
mean that you spend some of the most formative years of your life studying technique,
while in my opinion–and this is only my opinion–you should instead be out having
experiences that in just a few short years will be impossible for you. Why? Because
you will shortly be a full-fledged adult, with all the responsibilities that entails; you will
quite possibly have a spouse or partner, a mortgage, a full-time job (or, more likely, two
or three part-time jobs, since that is the way our economy seems to be going), and
maybe children. You will not have the time, or the energy, to do that hiking trip across
Mexico, or spend a semester teaching English in Japan, or work as a barista all day and
write songs all night, or spend a summer meditating in a Buddhist monastery.
So, who cares? You can do these things at any age, right?
Sure, you can. But when you’re young, you are capable of experiencing life in a way
that will drastically affect the trajectory of your development, and the sooner you can
experience this freedom, the more benefit you will derive from it. It doesn’t mean you
will be less open-minded when you get older–it simply means that key parts of your
development will already have taken place. And I hate to think of people wasting that
special energy of youth sitting in a classroom just because they feel they have to. If
they want to do that, great. But if they think that’s the only way to succeed as a writer—
well, all I can say is I feel very strongly that this is not true.
On the other hand, there are some very good reasons for a hopeful writer to major in
Creative Writing. You may be exposed to writers who will shape you in wonderful ways,
and you will get to have discussions with them and about them. Your professors, many
of them novelists themselves, may take you under their wing and teach you a thing or
two. So: if you want to major in Creative Writing, if that’s the direction your passion
lies in, then go right ahead. Just be aware of the facts.
I am not interested in discouraging anyone from attending a creative writing program.
Rather, I am interested in encouraging those who have not attended one to believe that
they can still write, regardless.
How Do I Get Ready To Start?
I’m often asked by hopeful writers what they need to do to prepare to write a book.
Beyond making yourself a pot of tea and kicking the cat off your office chair, nothing.
The urge to write is a sacred call from the gods that must be heeded without fail. What
usually follows immediately afterward, the urge to prepare to write, is the first sign of
procrastination kicking in.
You may think, “But I need to make notes, or do research.” If you choose to do that,
fine. But we’re talking about fiction here, and you don’t need to do that in order to write
a work of fiction. The only thing you need to do in order to write fiction is to write fiction.
Everything else is… not writing.
This is why I am so little impressed by people who announce that they are writing
something. No, you’re not writing something, I want to point out. You’re standing here
telling me that you’re writing something. People love to talk about their writing because
it’s self-indulgent and it makes them sound important, and because it’s easier than
actually writing. I detest this kind of person. If you are a writer and you want to impress
me, quietly place a finished book in front of me with your name on it and then leave the
room. Then it’s unnecessary for you to declaim, with a cocktail in your hand, “Yas, I’m
doing a bit of writing myself, and it’s going very well, I must say.” If I feel the slightest
interest in your writing, I won’t want to hear about it. I’ll just want to read it.
Lest this sound unnecessarily drill-masterish, I should say that I spend a great deal of
my writing time not writing. I often stare at the wall for many minutes at a time, not
really thinking about anything. Sometimes I will not write for days, or even weeks, as I
work through a particularly difficult story situation, or as I try to get into the head of a
character who is so far removed from my own life that the journey there and back is
very long. Sometimes I even get sick of the book I’m working on. I have walked away
from works in progress for as long as six months. During that time, I would not write a
word. I have even been known to swear that I will never write again. I said that just a
few months ago, in fact. And now look at me!
I still claim this as writing time. A creative writer is not a machine. She cannot be
expected to produce a certain amount of product in a certain amount of time on a
regular basis. It may happen that way one day, or perhaps even for several days in a
row, but as soon as expectations of results creep in, the whole process changes, and
the assembly line comes screeching to a halt. This kind of corporate, production
oriented thinking is totally inappropriate for creative writers. In fact, it may be inappropriate
for human beings in general, but that’s a separate conversation.
Here’s another contradiction for you: because writing a novel is hard work, it should be
pursued on a regular and disciplined basis. The reason for this is simple. Writing a
book takes a long time, and like all long projects, you’re never going to finish it unless
you plug away at it. You don’t do it all at once. You do it little by little, learning and
growing as you go. It’s no different than stacking a huge pile of firewood, or walking a
long distance. Each day, as you gain a bit more writing experience, you are that much
closer to ‘mastering’ your craft. My old karate teacher, Dr. Jorge Aigla, used to say that
when you have thrown the same punch a thousand times, you have begun to learn how
to punch. When you’ve done it ten thousand times, you are an expert. And an expert,
he used to say, is nothing more than someone who fully understands the basics. That’s
how I write–practicing the basic techniques over and over, refining them in my endless
quest for mastery.
But what about research? Maybe some is necessary for your book. I can only talk
about my own experience here. When I was younger, I often made a great fuss over
research. Mainly, I interviewed people who had experience of the setting or the action
of my story. I thought of penetrating questions, and I delved deep into their psyches,
and in the end either I used none of it, or the material I gained was so minimal that it
really only formed a minor part of the background. It didn’t really make my stories any
better. It just made me feel important.
These days, the only kind of research I do is passive research. I simply read about the
things that interest me, and I talk to the people I happen to bump into. I allow my
natural intellectual curiosity to take me down this or that path of learning, for no other
reason than that it pleases me to do so. I am not making notes as I go, getting
everything lined up to write a book about it. Maybe if I was a non-fiction writer, that’s
what I would do. But I’m not. I’m a novelist. I’m a tourist in the world of reality.
My best fiction is rooted in my own experience. This is the source of the old adage,
“Write what you know.”
So, you don’t need to get ready to write. You can just start.
ABOUT WILLIAM KOWALSKI
William Kowalski was born in Cleveland, OH in 1970, grew up in Erie, PA, and now lives
in Nova Scotia, Canada with his wife and children. He is the author of ten works of
fiction, including five Rapid Reads for Reluctant Readers (published by Orca/Raven)
and five novels (published by HarperCollins and Dundurn in the US and Canada and
Transworld/Doubleday in the UK). He has won the Exclusive Books’ Ama Boeke Award
(South Africa, 2001), twice been nominated for the Ontario Library Association’s Golden
Oak Award, and has also been nominated for the 2014 Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic
Visit William on Facebook.
Reprinted with permission from the book:
WRITING FOR FIRST-TIME NOVELISTS
Practical Thoughts on the Creative Craft
by William Kowalski
© 2014 by William Kowalski
OTHER BOOKS BY WILLIAM KOWALSKI
Somewhere South of Here
The Adventures of Flash Jackson
The Good Neighbor
The Hundred Hearts
Rapid Reads for Reluctant Readers
The Barrio Kings
The Way It Works
The Innocence Device