3 Lies Every Writer Needs to Know About Before Writing a Novel

Lie Number 1: Teachers can teach you how to become a successful writer.

No one can teach you how to become a writer. Sure, there exist writing classes which will explain the use of adverbs and school you in the art of Perspective, and drill into your noodle the meanings of ‘linking verbs’ and ‘modal auxiliaries,’ but at the end of the day all these things will not add up to a saleable manuscript.

Even if you master everything they teach you and earn (and pay $100,000 for) your MFA in creative writing, odds are you’ll still have to face that vast blank void of disinterest that is the jaded/picky/fickle/hypocritical/judgmental publishing world.

If they reply at all, literary agents will send you only form rejections. Your alpha readers won’t get back to you. Your manuscripts will lie in a dusty, musty-smelling drawer, unread, unloved, and unpublished. Your fancy writing degree will remain on the wall, framed and futile, impotent, a relic of potential that cost you thousands and won you nothing but a shallow and fragile ego.

You could master George R.R. Martin’s Top 10 Rules for Success and still not sell that golden goose you call a mystery novel. Memorized all of Writing for Dummies? Well then, Mr. Genius Writer, you must be all set to write a runaway best-seller, right?

If it were that easy, every Joe with a Word Processor and a mite of ambition would be churning out winners left and right.

Okay, I’ll quit flogging the hog here. You get it.

So if we cannot be taught how to write like best-selling authors (or at least like mid-list novelists) how do we learn the art?

Ray Bradbury states that a writer is one who has ‘put into himself enough grammatical tools and literary knowledge that he won’t trip himself up when he wants to run’ with the ‘run’ here referring to writing with zest and gusto. Filling your stories with energy. Engaging with your readers by creating a world brimming with life. This is accomplished, Ray says, by infusing your writing (re: writing about) your loves and your hates. He goes on:

“Find a character, like yourself, who will want something or not want something, with all his heart. Give him running orders. Shoot him off. Then follow as fast you can go. The character in his great love, or hate, will rush you through to the end of the story. The zest and gusto of his need, and there is zest in hate as well as in love, will fire the landscape and raise the temperature of your typewriter thirty degrees.’ (Old Ray created his best work back in the day, Pre-Computer.)

This is all the advice a beginning writer needs to begin writing. It’s inspiring and basic and profound. And yet, it still does not teach us how to write.

Learning how involves engaging in three solitary activities—often and extensively (though perhaps not exclusively). They are:

  1. Reading—inside and outside your writing genre
  2. Writing—nobody was born a great writer. Your writing will improve the more you write
  3. Living it up—experiences enhance the writer, and by extension, her writing

Now, with that hypocritical advice done, we move on to the second lie.

Lie Number 2: There are guaranteed paths to success in the world of publishing.

‘Just follow these Seven Steps and you are guaranteed to be successful, because this program worked for established best-sellers, the biggest names in the business.’

Yeah, sure, I’ll buy that for a dollar (but not for the $14.99 they want for the e-Book version).

There is no definitive path to success (see my parody of this lie The (Psycho) Path to Success).

Anyone who claims that their way is the One Guaranteed Path to Success in the world of writing is totally blowing a gust of hot toxic air in your desperately-seeking-Susan face. Even if their method worked for them, there is no guarantee it will work for you or for anyone else. There are too many variables involved for any one path to work for everyone. You could try it. But in most cases it’ll cost you ‘only’ $299 for their Guaranteed to Sell 10,000 Copies of Your Book guide book to success.

Lie Number 3: Anybody can become a writer; you just have to want it enough!

A certain type of brute mentality is needed for someone to survive the brutal, competitive, and sometimes heartless world of publishing.

Armor-plated skin is also a necessity—along with an ego, checked by wisdom. To possess all three of three traits is rare enough, but the writer who wishes to thrive in this market must also be able to identify and rectify her weaknesses, be able to take criticism and unsolicited advice, and educate herself in the art of creative writing, all while also having something useful to say and keeping down a day job—in addition to everyday issues and family duties.

Do you think you can handle all of that?

Maybe you think so—and perhaps you even can handle it.

The truth is that most people cannot. Unfortunately for some, they find this out only after years of struggling and heartbreak. Many who do stick with it will never be traditionally published. You could write for years and never win over a publisher.

All those long nights and busy days scrapping at your desk, with nothing tangible to show for it, but a stack of papers filled with pretty words.

Can you handle that?

Few can. There are those who write for the sheer joy of it, who are not bothered by their lack of  the traditionally-accepted idea of success, and I wish to applaud you select few here and now. More power to you!

Just don’t make the mistake that millions of struggling amateurs have made in thinking that if you follow all the rules and master all the writing tips, you will automatically become a published writer.

It’s not that simple.

But it is possible. As Tolkien wrote, ‘The Quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail, to the ruin of all. Yet hope remains while the Company is true.’

Ambition is a good thing, but it’s a deft hand and a deep devotion to your craft that will win the day for you.

Tolkien also gave us this lovely metaphor: ‘It’s a dangerous business, going outside your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.’

Perhaps he was alluding to a writing career here. You must be bold in leaving your comfort zone. It can be exciting and unpredictable, but you must never forget why you left that safe, simple place you know and love for the hope of some new adventure (in writing).

So don’t give up. If you are meant to be a writer, and if you work your tail off and learn how to shrug aside neglect and criticism, and if you seek your own unique path to publication instead of following in the same steps of those who have gone before, you might just find what you are looking for.

Good luck, and don’t forget to keep reading—often and in every genre you can find.

The Making of a Hero: How Spiderman 2 Shows Writers How to Create True Heroes

One of the smartest comic book movies ever written has some great lessons for us writers. What better way to pick up some writing tips than by watching movies?

In Spiderman 2 (2004), director Sam Raimi employed a technique with his main character that great writers have long used, but which, sadly, many writers today fail to employ. That is the method of pounding your MC into the ground. Blast him with bad news. Take everything he has from him and then kick his feet out from under him. (Ali of aliventures wrote a nice little post about this, here.)

George RR Martin has perfected this method. He beats the crap out of his characters. In fact, it is through his extreme use of this method that Martin is able to manipulate readers into sympathizing with formerly despicable characters. (But that is a more advanced writing technique for another post for another time.)

We watch, mesmerized, as Peter Parker is fired from his job, discovers that the love of his life is engaged to another man; he is mistreated and abused and disregarded by everyone (except his anorexic female neighbor), loses his self-confidence and his web-slinging ability by association, and finally is forced to endure a public slapping from his best friend. And that’s not even mentioning his main problem: a vengeful scientist with four mechanical arms welded to his body.

It’s one thing after another, beating poor Peter into the ground.

In novels and movies this makes us feel for the MC. But beneath the surface, it also creates wonderful opportunities for character arcs.

When you hurt your darlings—just as with real people in real life—they become vulnerable and open to deep emotional states. Peter eventually chooses the right path, that of a hero. That’s the story crux of Spiderman 2. He learns to become the hero, not because he can, but because that is who he wants to be for his city, no matter its negative effects on his own personal life.

But if you watch the movie and pay close attention, and think about it, you will realize that all these terrible events in his life could just as easily have resulted in creating a villain out of Peter Parker.

In fact, those events are, when you get right down to it, basically the origin story of many villains. They are basically the same things (or worse) that happened to Adrian Toomes in Spiderman: Homecoming.

The difference is that Toomes handled the situation poorly. His decision was driven by selfish impulses. Instead of reflecting on what the city needed, he considered only his own desires. Peter Parker considered his desires, but he also weighed them against the needs of his hometown, and he was wise enough to recognize and confess that his wants and needs—as always—paled in comparison to the needs of New York.

Mythcreants offers a useful little guide for villain origin stories (and even uses movies as examples, which is always cool.)

Does it seem strange that a hero and a villain origin story might be found in the same circumstances?

When I think about it, I must admit that it does not seem strange, after all.

Heroism and villainy are two sides of the same coin. It should come as no surprise that the basis for both might be similar; circumstances (should) shape each of your characters. It is their response to their situation that determines their personality and, ultimately, their destiny.

There are few things more rewarding to read about than characters in dire straits coming to terms with their stations and resolving how to respond.

How do your characters respond to their situations?

It is a vital question you must consider if you want to create a compelling narrative and bold characters. Indecisive characters are annoying. Those who know who they are, or who know who that want to be, make for the greatest, most entertaining characters. They are the sort of people your readers want to read about.

When Peter Parker decides to be the hero the city (and he himself) needs, we are treated to a character with a resolute mind. He knows who he is—and so what follows is pure entertainment.

When you sit down to write your characters, remember to pound them into the ground, force them into making tough decisions. By the end, they should know who they are, and happily embrace who they are—like you. You are a writer. Embrace that fact. Rejoice in it! Educate yourself in the art and joy of writing, by reading and writing. And don’t forget to look for tips in your favorite movies, or right here.

Misdirection in Your Writing: Samwise Gamgee was the Real Hero of Lord of the Rings

Let’s be frank: Frodo was kind of a whiny turd who failed his mission and betrayed the most loyal character in literature.

Tolkien, in his brilliance, befuddled us into believing that Frodo Baggins was the hero of LOTR, when in reality it was his gardener who accomplished the greatest act of the Third Age.

MISDIRECTION. The old Oxford professor of languages understood this subtle, difficult-to-master writing art.

While many writers will mislead their readers through unreliable narrators, or narrators who are uninformed or misinformed, Tolkien took another route—a longer, winding path—to misdirecting his readers. He chose to share his tale in Third Person, following primarily Frodo, and secondarily a few supporting characters, when all along it was the sidekick we should’ve been focusing on.

This was misleading, because Frodo possesses few of the qualities of a hero. Sure, his journey is tragic, and he chooses to take the hard road, but he is, for the most part, a reactive character that rarely seems to put himself out there for others, and indeed never seems interested in the well-being of others. The fact that he takes on a quest may seem noble, but as Tolkien makes clear through some clever phrasing, the Shire-folks’ decision was made almost without his heart and will:

‘At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice.’

Frodo’s decision seems almost guided by a higher power (perhaps by one of the Power’s of which Tolkien was frustratingly vague and evasive in the LOTR.)

All throughout his journey, Frodo depends entirely on Sam. Sam cooks, comforts, hunts and fights for Frodo, without complaining. It is Sam who tries to protect Frodo from the deceptions of Gollum/Smeagol. And finally it is Sam who fights off Shelob in what might be the most moving scene in the entire Trilogy. Sam displays the courage of Strider without the training and muscles. He shows the loyalty of a true friend, one who would die for another.

Do we need even mention that moment on Mount Doom? (Tolkien had a knack for character names, but seriously, Mount Doom?)

‘I can’t carry it for you—’ even though he had done just that after poking Shelob ‘—but I can carry you!’

I still get writer tingles just thinking of that scene.

If all these actions of Sam ‘the Gardener’ Gamgee are not enough to convince us that he is the true hero and main protagonist of the tale, Tolkien brings this truth home by concluding the entire series with Sam. He returns home from seeing Frodo off to the Havens, and then settles into his chair by the fire, puts his feet up on a stool and declares: “Well, I’m back.”

It’s as if Tolkien is finally admitting that it was Sam we were following through Middle-Earth all along. There and Back Again: a Hobbits Tale may tell of the adventures of Bilbo and Frodo, but it is Sam who finishes it, Sam who comes back again.

Frodo never really returned home. He was too damaged, too emotionally broken to have psychologically survived the Fellowship’s horrorshow of a quest. Sam, on the other hand, improves his life on returning to the Shire. After facing off against orcs and giant spiders, proposing to Rose Cottonwood proves to be an easy and enjoyable privilege. He becomes mayor of Hobbiton, produces a brood of happy healthy children, and, when he is good and ready, is honored by being allowed to cross over to the Havens—having been, for a brief but noble time, a ring-bearer.

Misdirection. Tolkien knew that if Sam were directly shown to be the main character, we would:

  • Quickly grow weary of his unshakable loyalty to a lesser character
  • View Frodo as a poor friend and borderline antagonist
  • Wonder why Frodo was even going on the Quest

Frodo’s journey and struggles were intriguing because we were led to believe he was the hero of the tale, and so when he struggled and grew too weak and weary to continue, we felt his weariness. And it was Sam who picked us up. Sam’s energy never seemed to flag. He never wavered in his devotion. Placing him as the clear protagonist would not have worked, because he is almost too good of a person be taken seriously. Frodo is very much affected by the stories’ events; he has weaknesses, and so we can easily identify with him. We understand heavy burdens. Frodo is the everyman. Sam is the almost-un-relatable hero we both aspire to and have a hard time believing could exist for real.

The brilliance of misdirection—when done skillfully in a novel—is that it adds an element of unpredictability to the narrative. If you cannot rely on the narrator, or if the author is intentionally misleading you, the epic finale will come as a pleasant surprise. No spoilers spelled out for you the way amateur writers would have done.

In my YA fantasy W.A.N.D. I incorporate misdirection (SPOILER ALERT!) by leading readers to believe that the Mythics are the main antagonists, when it is something altogether darker and even more threatening lurking behind the scenes which forces Nick into making certain decisions. The need of a wand is even more important because of this lurking menace. By misdirecting readers, I add an unstable unpredictable element. This–I believe–adds depth and intrigue to the book.

When you go to practice your own misdirection remember what Tolkien said: It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.

Don’t be afraid to be swept off by your writing. You never know where it might take you.