- 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.
I’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I mentored a talented unpublished writer for several months.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.
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.”