You Don’t Have to Write the Novel (Repost)

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I originally posted this to Tumblr some months ago. I may or may not have deleted said Tumblr, originally, for various reasons, before restoring it. Unfortunately this means I lost all my posts, including this original.

But thank goodness Tumblr has reblogs, and the reblogs live on even when the original post does not. 🙂

So here it is again, because I did rather like this post.

This was originally posted in late September of 2014.


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You can make little paper airplanes of all the novel pages you don’t have to write. (Image credit: freedigitalphotos.net and zirconicusso.)

As students return to classes — including writers in creative writing  classes — as Nanowrimo approaches, and as writers everywhere toil  and laugh, a gentle reminder:

 You don’t have to write The Novel. 

You don’t even have to write a novel.

There is a lot of pressure out there for writers to produce a Novel of some kind.

For writers who went through academia, there is pressure to produce  a work which proves that the time spent in school was worth it, that  they are doing their program and mentors proud. There is certainly a  “formula” for literary and academic success which hinges on producing at least two novels to be eligible for coveted creative writing teaching positions.

For writers working outside of academic circles, and often in genre literature, there are a million books which scream WRITE THE BREAKOUT NOVEL and allude to promises of fame and bestselling fortune if you follow a certain formula as well.

Nanowrimo is dedicated to writing a 50,000 word novel, and we occasionally hear of writers who produced a first draft in that time who go on to publish.

Major book awards the world over cater to The Novel, and publishing houses increasingly want writers coughing up not just one novel, but trilogies of novels.

The novel seems to be one of the high water marks of accomplishment for a writer in this current literary climate. And not without reason. The novel is a demanding and rigorous literary format in any genre.

But the novel is not the only thing out there worth writing or exploring. And you don’t have to write the novel, or even, a novel, to be a successful and legitimate writer in your own right.

There are short stories (which are a fine art). There is poetry. There are plays. There is screenwriting. There is prose poetry. There is spoken word poetry. There is creative non fiction genres of all shapes and sizes. You can make zines, you can self publish, you can write your poems on sidewalk in chalk, you can write your words on your body and walk around as living art, you can write a blog or an opinion column, you can write new and innovative textbooks, you can roleplay a character online, you can write fanfic, you can write whole novels of fanfic that will be published online but never see a mainstream publisher (because that wouldn’t interest you anyways). You can make up worlds and stories with your friends and chatter and laugh excitedly about your imaginary worlds until 3 am of the clocking and never commit more than a few thousand words of that to paper.

You can do all these things and more with your words, your writing, and it doesn’t make you less of a writer, or less legitimate, or less objectively good than those who choose to write novels.

There is a world of wonder and innovation and options available to writers now. The novel, as a format, I think, is dead in the present. The term novel was originally minted and invoked to mean something “new”. The novel used to be the mark of innovation and creativity. I maybe read one or two novels a year which are imbued with a real sense of innovation and creativity. The rest may be good, even very enjoyable and creative, but not necessarily innovative in the original sense that the word “novel” involved.

Between publishers who are interested in commercial content, in what “sells”, and academia, which is interested creating distinctive brands through creative writing programs, where the students are often prodded to kowtow to certain styles, we live in a world which doesn’t always encourage writers to become better writers, or to seek real innovation, or to understand the vast myriad of options they actually have. We live in a world that often asks writers to adhere to formulas for success.

Formulas like: if I write this novel, I will be a writer.

If I write these novels and publish them with a traditional publisher, I will be a writer.

If I write a novel that wins awards, I will be a writer.

If I write this series and it sells, I will be a writer.

Etc.

None of this is true.

The defining measure for success, for any writer, begins with yourself. What makes you happy as a writer? What makes you anxious to get to your notebook or keyboard and start writing? What makes you ache with rapture and longing? What makes you feel joyful?

If it’s writing novels, then good.

If it’s not, then equally good.

You don’t have to write a novel to be a writer, or even a good writer. Maybe you were meant to be a master of silly, smutty haikus that you write for your significant other. Maybe you were meant to write short stories that you publish online. Maybe you were meant to write plays for your local, rag-tag theatre company. Maybe you were meant to make sidewalk poetry.

Whatever it is that brings you joy as a writer, you should do that. If it turns out to be a novel, and you can publish it and publishers want it, hurray! If not, though . . .

As one of my favorite authors, Ursula K. LeGuin wrote in The Left Hand of Darkness: “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

Enjoy your journey writers. And don’t think you have to write “a novel” to do so, or to live up to your potential as a writer.

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