Conceptualizing a Novel

- by Kathy Carmichael

Many years ago, when I first started writing professionally, a successful and well-seasoned author told me something that has stuck with me through the years.  I realize the subject might be somewhat controversial, because I’ve argued both sides myself.

kchand2I’m paraphrasing, but my brilliant author friend said something along the lines of, “You can teach people how to improve their books, but you can’t teach them how to conceptualize an entire book.  The ability is innate and can’t be learned.  No matter how determined and persistent they are, those who can’t won’t be able to sell a novel.”

What she meant was the essence of story that novelists have at the beginning of a book, or even at the onset of an idea.  Some call it circularity, others call it plot, and many call it magic.

 At the time, being young and naïve, I argued with her that it could be taught.  I mentioned plotting software and books such as Writer’s Journey.  She told me I was mistaken.  She had taught classes on writing at the college level for a decade and her experience had proven true during that time.  She could always tell who among her students would be able to finish a book and usually knew who would go on to actually sell a novel.

At the time, her ability to discern these things blew me away.  She was uncannily accurate.

Now I realize she was exactly right (and I was wrong).

Most published novelists do some sort of mentoring with aspiring novelists.  We’ve all done it, at least once.  I want to share with you when and how I realized my brilliant author friend was completely and entirely correct.

I mentored a talented unpublished writer for several months.  Her story premises were always wonderful.  She won contests and whenever she pitched a book, both editors and agents took note.  They requested complete manuscripts, but those manuscripts never arrived.  She explained that the problem had been with an earlier critique partner who tore her work apart and it discouraged her to the point of not writing.

I figured I was a great nag and I was encouraging and so I thought it was a union that would work out great.  Especially since she was a gifted critiquer who caught things in my writing that I didn’t see myself.

Win/win, right?


One day when I had a deadline and I was full-steam-ahead writing, she called and interrupted to ask about what should happen next in her book.  All she needed were a few minutes of my time so that she could write.  The words of my friend came back to me, loud and clear.

I realized that whenever we talked, I spent the time helping this aspiring novelist plot her story — several chapters at a time.

I told her she needed to look at the opening of her book and that would tell her what would have to happen.  I honestly tried to help her figure it out for herself, but from that day onward, I did not and would not do it for her.

I couldn’t find it in my heart to discourage her by saying I suspected she was missing the innate ability to conceptualize an entire story.  I ultimately stopped working with her, although I did suggest she might look for a writing partner.  Her gift with language, mixed with another writer’s gift for story, might be a fit.  But she immediately nixed the idea.

She continues to garner contest wins and editorial attention, but I doubt she’s ever written an entire novel.  She’s so talented with the written word that I truly wish story essence was something I or anyone could teach her.  She was a very determined and persistent writer, and still is, but it seems she’s always working on a brand new story idea and never finishing the last one.

Conventional wisdom says that the world needs storytellers.  I understand why now.  Not everyone can do what we do, just as I cannot compose music or paint works of art.

The wisdom of my writer friend comes back to me every time an aspiring author asks me for help.  Often I agree to read a few pages once I hear those magic words, “I’ve already finished my book.”


  1. I used to work with a similar crit partner. She was constantly asking for advice on what should happen when.

    The woman wrote brilliant narrative, sensual description and interesting premises, but I noticed she was scattered. She was always looking for the “shiny” somewhere further down the story. There was no focus, which was why she could never adequately complete a project.

    As I got to know her better, I realized the rest of her life was like that too. Maybe conceptualization can’t be taught, but organization can be learned.

    Sometimes that takes the maturity of years. Sometimes it just takes dogged determination.

    I too had to part company with her. She was too willing to give up her projects and go on to something else. While the good writer knows when to let something go, he also knows when to grit his teeth and get the job done.

  2. Kathy, very true! There are so many elements to being able to write and sell a book, and I think you’ve defined a very common stumbling block–the ability to conceptualize a whole novel. I think many people’s technical writing skills are okay, but they’re not novelists. They may be suited to writing articles, or short stories, or essays, or recipes, or instructions, or blurbs, but they’re not suited to writing a novel. In much the way that not everyone who jogs is suited to running a marathon–let alone to running a marathon every year–or a couple of times per year every year! Not everyone who does a beautiful faux-finish on their own coffee table is suited to go out and paint a mural on the side of a massive building–let alone to make a career of painting murals.


  3. On one hand I do think there is such a thing as “natural talent” — I really do think people in general all have individual inclinations toward success, some toward math or how a house is built or writing, etc — however, talent, absent of the inner drive and discipline to make something of it, means little.

    I think it still comes down to work. If you don’t do the work, talent amounts to nothing.

    One of the reasons I can do this is because for over 20 years I studied it, taught it, and did it, and kept doing it. Sure, I may have a talent for it, but I developed that talent through work. I can feel it every time I finish a book, it’s almost like strengthening a muscle. Like a weight lifter, we push until it hurts, past where it hurts, and then we pick up the next heaviest weight. But while we might have some spotters or a coach, ultimately we push ourselves, and that’s what makes talent result in something.

    The problem with writers such as the one you worked with is their outward orientation — when a writer says that something outside of themselves caused them not to be able to write… NO. We all know people who write through illness, tragedy, through years with no contracts, through rejections, and millions of other things etc…and they keep writing, no matter what happens outside of themselves. It’s what they do, and it comes from inside.

    It’s a red flag for me whenever someone says “this person was critical of me and made me stop writing…” No. YOU made you stop writing — and I think that’s the key to all of it. If you are driven to write, it comes from inside, not outside, and if you have that drive, it’s going to make you work. You will finish books, sell them, keep trying, no matter what.

    People who have natural talent *and* drive will do amazing things. People with drive and little talent may still achieve some kind of success. People who have talent and no drive will do nothing. It sounds like your writer, who had enough talent to draw attention, win contests, etc simply didn’t have enough drive to get herself to the finish line. In the end, she had no one to blame for that but herself — ironically, she’ll never see that. It will always be someone else’s fault. I think the psychologists call it an “outer locus of control.” *G*

    We all use cps to help us see the things we didn’t see (like we use eds, too) — all writers need a few other pairs of eyes to help us, because often that initial conceptualization is flawed and we even get stuck and we can’t see why. But these things simply complement that inner sense of drive and discipline to get to the end of a book.

    I’m thinking of Laura’s essay in the NINC newsletter, about writing and “this is what I do” — boy, could I relate. That feeling of being crazy because we keep doing it, no matter what, LOL. But I think that’s the real magic, actually…


  4. “People who have natural talent *and* drive will do amazing things. People with drive and little talent may still achieve some kind of success. People who have talent and no drive will do nothing.”

    I agree! A person can do SO much more in almost any endeavor with a lot of drive and a little talent, than with a lot of talent and a little drive. And with a little talent and no drive? I believe you’re absolutely right–nothng at all happens, in that case.

    I’ve said for years that the single most important quality in a writing career is also the one the aspiring writers underrate the most: perseverance.

    For my part, with everything I’ve ever kept writing and/or submitting in the face of rejection, I always figured, “Well, if I keep sending it out, I may never sell it; but if I don’t keep sending it out, then I’ll -definitely- never sell it.” And with that philosophy governing my actions, I’ve sold a lot of my work over the years.


  5. I think this is silly. I don’t believe that anyone has a natural ability towards anything over someone else. All men and women are created equal. Personally I feel that you can be just as good as a published author or professional if you put in the same if not greater amount of time and effort and look it the correct places for the help required.