Like most novelists, I have a day job: adjunct professor of creative writing. And I can tell you that, yes, writing can be taught. I’m one of those teachers who believes that everyone has a story worth telling and that everyone can learn how to tell it.
So why do so few people? At least two reasons that have nothing to do with publishing: 1) To paraphrase Stephen King, you need to write one million words before you write a good one. Yep. One million words. Or around 12 medium - long novels. Now, Split was the second novel I wrote. But I’ve done the math and one million is about right.
Reason No. Two. Not everyone wants to revise. My students resist revision. They believe in the creative muse. Fearing they will destroy the delicate balance that the muse bestowed upon them, they cling to every word. (Either that or they know how to BS and have three midterms, two papers, and a beer to drink. But let’s assume they believe in the muse.) I believe in the muse.
Mine’s named Oliver. I couldn’t write without Oliver. He carries me from scene to scene and finds nuance and meaning in moments. He is like most muses: sensitive, flighty, and disdainful of reality. He has no idea what a deadline means, doesn’t care if the reader needs to know who is who in a novel, and snobbishly eschews logic. He leaps lightly from here to there, never willing to settle. Oliver is wonderful, but not perfect – sometimes not even that good.
Let me show you what I mean:
Draft One of the Split’s opening:
Now I have to start lying. I doubt “I was in the neighborhood” is going to work. It’s 19 hours from Chicago to Albuquerque, if you drive all night, if you only stop for Mountain Dews from 7-11s and “extra crispy” from KFC which, by the way, closes much too early in Oklahoma.
What if I tried, “I was passing through”? Nah, not unless Christian’s gone blind in the last six years. My split lip might tip off Clever Boy. I run my tongue over the chasm and suck on the salt of my blood...
Final Draft of Split’s Opening:
Now I have to start lying.
As I stare through the windshield at the building my brother lives in, I try to think up a good lie, but nothing comes to mind. “I was in the neighborhood?” Yeah, right. It’s 19 hours from Chicago to Albuquerque, if you drive all night, if you only stop for Mountain Dews and KFC’s extra crispy. By the way, KFC closes far to early in Oklahoma.
Maybe I should try, “I’m just here to borrow a cup of sugar.” Pathetic. How about “One more stop in the eternal quest for the perfect burrito”? Unless Christian has gone blind in the last five years, no lie is going to cut it. My split lip might tip off Clever Boy. I run my tongue over the slit and suck on blood.
Maybe it’s not a huge difference and yet, in the final version, every word in a novel has been chosen, consciously. (Not written consciously. Written in the flow and passion that Oliver brings. But revised with a discriminating eye and tuned by an attentive ear.)
I think everyone can write a novel. I just am not convinced that everyone really wants to. Or rather, I should say, I’m just not convinced that everyone is as obsessed with the sound of their characters’ voices. Novelists won’t settle for “I was in the neighborhood” in paragraph one and “I was passing through” in paragraph two. We cringe at the repetition, not only the redundant sentiment, but the sentence construction. (Passive voice? Twice?) We care whether there’s a paragraph break between sentence one and sentence two. Many novelists, including myself, regard meter and flow, rhythm and cadence so highly that we read every word aloud, pencil in hand, making the spots that trip our tongues.
So in my syallbi, where I permit myself to add a little snarky humor, I always write: Real writers revise.