You CAN Learn To Write A Novel, by Robyn Bavati
I’m delighted to be a main contributor to Writing Novels in Australia, and hope to share what I’ve learnt about the art and craft of writing novels. Some of what I know was gleaned from books or writing courses – much of it through trial and error.
When I finished high school in the seventies and enrolled in university, there wasn’t a single creative writing course available at tertiary level in Australia. The prevailing opinion at the time was that novel-writing wasn’t a teachable skill; rather, it was an innate talent – either you ‘had it’ or you didn’t.
Early attempts at teaching the craft often failed due to popular maxims such as ‘There are no rules’ and ‘It works or it doesn’t’. Such statements, while undoubtedly true, just aren’t helpful – especially when used to end the discussion.
Fortunately, the discussion needn’t end there. Instead, we can ask: ‘If there are no rules, what is there instead?’, ‘Why does this story work while that one doesn’t?’ and ‘If it’s not working now, how can we fix it?’ Indeed, these are the types of questions that are asked in the many truly helpful writing courses that now abound, for the truth is, with the right set of tools, you can learn to write a novel.
Aspiring writers often ask how and where they should begin, meaning: Should I start with an idea, a character, an image, a plot? Should I start with a particular world in mind, or perhaps a conflict? The answer is: It doesn’t matter where you start. Far more important is what you’ve achieved by the time you finish.
Successful novel-writing depends on the integration of six basic elements – character, plot, setting, structure, voice and theme. It’s that simple – and that complex. Most writers are strong on some of these elements but struggle with others. This was certainly the case with me.
I wrote my first novel back in the eighties, when I was still in my twenties. A fantasy novel for children, it was called The Search For Lost Property City. It was about a boy called Peter and a ‘gump’ (an imaginary creature who lived in a ‘gump balloon’ rather like a large purple helium balloon) who set off together to find a new gump balloon to replace the one Peter had inadvertently popped at a birthday party, not knowing it was someone’s home.
Roughly modelled on The Magic Faraway Tree, the story had a lot to recommend it. It was imaginative and fast-paced, and a couple of schoolteachers read it to their second-grade classes, who greatly enjoyed it.
I sent it to Penguin (among others), and received a letter in return – a whole two pages long. In it, the commissioning editor told me how much she had enjoyed the manuscript. She also explained at length just why they’d rejected it: the main character, Peter, lacked personality.
The truth is, I already knew this. I’d told myself that by not giving Peter a distinct personality, I was making him an ‘everyboy’ – if he lacked any distinguishing features, then anyone who read the story would be able to relate to him.
The editor understood my rationale but she wasn’t buying it. She said that distinctive characteristics and idiosyncrasies actually make characters more, not less, relatable, and that the protagonist must display deep and recognisable emotions to enable readers to identify.
Now, I had read books on craft and knew that character was one of the six basic elements of story writing. And deep down, I think I realized that the idea of Peter as an ‘everyboy’ was really just a rationalization for what was in part sheer laziness, in part an unwillingness to admit that I didn’t know how to develop his character. Rather than acquire the skills I needed, I’d hoped to avoid having to develop the hero’s character by explaining why I didn’t have to.
The experience taught me a valuable lesson: that if you overlook one of the six basic elements of novel-writing, you can’t expect your book to be published.
Of course, I could continue to rationalise. I could say that the main characters in The Magic Faraway Tree were not well developed (and that would be true: Enid Blyton hooks the reader with her fabulous plots – and gets away with it). Enid Blyton’s books are classics. Kids love them. (I loved them!) But she was writing at a different time. Publishers’ expectations are greater now than they have ever been. If those books of Enid Blyton were written today, it’s highly doubtful they’d be published.
Spotting the flaw in someone else’s published work isn’t a justification for incorporating that flaw in your own. Just because another writer managed to get away with it doesn’t mean you will. If you can spot the flaw in your own work, you can be sure your readers will spot it too.
While the best story ideas may bubble up from the sub-conscious, novel-writing is not a mystical and inexplicable process. It’s a process that depends on understanding the six basic elements or ‘building blocks’ of storytelling and honing your skills.
To begin the process, you might like to take a moment to think about the six basic elements and ask yourself: What are my strengths? What are my weaknesses? What is it I still need to learn?
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