Can anyone write a novel?

We’re approaching another WriMo event.  They’ve got this ‘anyone can write a novel’ attitude and philosophy.

But is it true?

Hard to say, for one thing, how do you define a novel?  For my purposes I like Wikipedia’s answer of the moment:

novel is a long prosenarrative that describes fictional characters and events in the form of a sequential story, usually. The genre has historical roots in the fields of medieval and early modernromance and in the tradition of the novella. The latter, an Italian word used to describe short stories, supplied the present generic English term in the 18th century.

Further definition of the genre is historically difficult. The construction of the narrative, the plot, the relation to reality, the characterization, and the use of language are usually discussed to show a novel’s artistic merits. Most of these requirements were introduced to literary prose in the 16th and 17th centuries, in order to give fiction a justification outside the field of factual history.

Now, I’m going to say no … and yes.  This isn’t GATTACA, anyone can fly a plane, but not anyone can fly with the Blue Angels.  I’m not talking about eyesight and other requirements, I mean some people simply lack the reflexes, the neurological circuitry to do that without killing themselves or others.  In some cases, timing is something you’re born with, not something you learn.  I think everything in life is this way.  Some people have talents that guide them one way or another.

In this vein, no, not anyone can write a novel.  Not everyone possesses the talent to tell a story well, to build endearing and enduring characters, to entrance and enthrall the reader.  Am I such a person?  I hope so, but who knows?  I suppose in the end only time can say.

Anyone can be taught written language.  Even severe dyslexics can learn the ideographic writing of China or Japan, and the corresponding languages, and tell a story in them.  You can then learn about structure, characterisation, plotting, and all manner of other things I can’t name because I neither think about them or even know about them (I never paid attention in Lit class … well, twice.  Once we were reading works by Edgar Allan Poe, and the other was Romeo & Juliet).  They would have a technically perfect novel when they were done.  They would have a long work of fiction, but is it a novel?

That depends.  Let’s leave the world of fiction and writing for a moment and go to another bit of art:  Music.  Did you know that study after study says that people don’t like computer generated music?  I don’t mean MP3s, I mean programming a computer to reproduce a piece of music.  Why not?  It’s Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Jimmy Hendrix, but without the flaws!  It’s perfect, each note exactly the right length, each chord exactly the right pitch and key; the frequencies guaranteed or your money back.  That’s the problem though.  It’s soulless.  That perfection, that exact timing, that exact frequency, it’s … wrong.  Music has life, has spirit, and the people playing it adjust accordingly.  It might say an eighth note on the paper, but it really needs to be a 31/256th note, but that would be silly to write down.  It might say C♯, or B♭ but really it needs to be something just … not exactly that.  Then the music is perfect.  And that’s something that can’t be taught to a computer, nor to a human being who lacks that talent, lacks that ear and sense for when to make a ‘mistake’.

Is what the computer makes music?  If it is, then yes … anyone can write a novel, make music, paint a portrait, write a sonnet, and so on.  If not, then no — they can put words on paper, paint on canvas, make sound out of an instrument, and put 14 lines in a rhyming pattern on the page.

The most endearing, the most well loved stories are ones that don’t follow ‘The Rules of Writing’ as a lit major might refer to them.  Have you ever noticed how the things that lit majors and their ilk go on and on about in rapt adoration are the things no one else reads, no one has heard about unless they had to endure it for a literature class, and/or are things that, have you read them, are known to cause you to wake up years later in a cold sweat going on about giant dung beetles?  At the time, Mark Twain’s stuff was not well liked, Robert Service wasn’t considered a Real Poet, and J. R. R. Tolkien told silly children’s stories (when he wasn’t reinventing the study of Beowulf, of course).  These people broke The Rules!  They didn’t do things Right!  Good God, for one thing, they wrote stuff that was popular!  Accessible!  And, horror of horrors, entertaining!  Cardinal sins, one would think from the way some go on about them so.  But perhaps novels, short stories, poems, paintings, and many other things need that little bit of instinct, that little voice and connection that says ‘no, that’s not exactly right, I’m going to do it this way instead’.  Maybe a technically good novel … isn’t.

So yes, I think anyone can write a novel.  Anyone can learn to put words on a page, get enough of them together to have plot, characters, a beginning, a middle, and an end.  No, I don’t think just anyone can write a good novel.  Not everyone has the knack for telling a good yarn, and keeping the audience’s attention; to breathe life and soul into the words.

A good novel is one you read and you think, This wasn’t bad, not my cuppa, but I can totally see why people who’re into this kinda thing would like it.  For me that’s Seanan McGuire‘s October Day series, too dark for my tastes, but well written and a good novel nonetheless, just not one I’m in a hurry to read.

But what do I know?  I said, I found more interesting things to do in my literature classes, both high school and college, than paying attention.  I can’t even name the rules of writing.  I couldn’t really give a definition of theme, nor could I find the theme of most things I read with both hands, a GPS, and a pack of bloodhounds.  I just love to read, love to explore the worlds of imagination; to sail the high seas with Long John Silver, to explore the Yukon and Alaska with Mr London, investigate the stars with Heinlein, fight heroic battles with John Carter upon the vast plains of Mars, and face dragons with a little burglar named Bilbo Baggins.  Maybe I don’t know a good novel from a bad one, but I know what I like.

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