You Don't Need a College Degree to Become a Novelist
A Love of Writing is the First Thing You Must Have
You don't need a college education to write a novel, as long as you love to write, are good at storytelling, and have the determination and persistence that it will take to see your project through to the end. I'm sure that millions of people start novels they never finish. Without persistence, writing a novel—while it is a courageous and ambitious undertaking, can quickly become just a lovely idea, an elusive dream. Although it's the bottom-line truth that you don't need a college education to write a novel, unless you were born knowing how to write them (and some very blessed people, I believe, were), then you will need to learn how to write a novel. It simply doesn’t matter whether you learn by taking courses taught by others, or on your own.
I will always believe that the love of writing and the love of reading, coupled together, is the best foundation for anyone who wants to become a novelist. If you're not someone who loves reading and writing, then I believe it is going to be a difficult thing for you to write a novel. If you are among those of us who do love to read as well as to write, then it’s likely you’ve already read so many novels, you feel you already know a lot about the ins and outs of novel writing. In fact, this fact might be the real reason you know you want to write a novel—you are acutely aware of what kinds of things have kept your interest over the years as you’ve read novel after novel. You know what things have made you feel excited about turning one page after the other. You know how authors whose work you love have kept your eyes glued to the page while keeping you on the edge of your seat, as well as on the edge of your emotions.
Channeling Your "Inner Writer"
If being a voracious reader of novels, a connoisseur of good books, is the thing that’s tugging at your coattails trying to get you to write one, then you’ve probably arrived at the place a lot of novelists get to right before taking the writing plunge. The writer in you is begging to be heard. You’ve experienced a broad range of emotions as a reader of novels, emotions that have made you feel as though you were a character in a story, feeling that everything happening in a novel was somehow happening to you. You’ve laughed, you’ve cried, you’ve shivered from being out in the cold, you’ve sweated in the desert being baked alive by the sun. You’ve felt fear, love, hate, and so much anger you’ve had to put the book aside for a bit, to calm down. You’ve experienced every emotion the authors of novels you’ve loved have wanted you to feel. You’ve even heard the books you’ve read.
The words authors have written have actually made your mind conjure up and hear every sound you read: A strange man chewing on ice, making a noise like gravel crunching beneath the weight of his heavy, dingy teeth; leaves rustling and scurrying at your feet as you cross the street, the autumn wind whisking away to oblivion the best summer you've ever had, or the struggle of someone trying not to make a sound; breathing only enough to keep them alive, in small whispers of sound that seems to roar in their ears as they try not to be discovered by the bad, bad man.
Points to Ponder for the New Novelist
As a college-educated writer, I know there is a lot that anyone can gain from the formal study of writing. But, as a former college professor of writing, a lifelong teacher, and a lifelong learner, I also know you can do the work you need to do—on your own, to master what it takes to write a novel. You definitely do not need a college education to be a teller of stories, but to write a novel, there are some things you will definitely need to know about. This is especially true if you’re going to finish your novel, and if you want to get someone else to publish it for you. To help you as you begin thinking about writing your first novel, here are some questions for you to ponder:
- Do you know how to find your inspiration? What is it that has you wanting to write a novel? What stories and experiences are buried inside you that are begging to come to the surface? You must be able to get in touch with your inspiration, that thing that sets your soul on fire, that won’t stop burning inside you, until you write it down.
- What are you going to do about plots? My advice is, don’t just go hunting for plots. Don’t be afraid to allow them to track you down. I don’t always know what I’m going to write about when I start a book. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. If there is something that I know I want to write about, then I’ll do a little planning and plotting. But sometimes I find a way to silence everything inside (muses often all try to speak at once!). Once I do that, the plot sometimes comes looking for me, and not the other way around. My point to you is, don’t feel you have to force things. Be still, and allow plots to come to you if they will. If they come knocking, invite them in, and then sit down with them and have a chat.
- What about setting? Do you have the place in mind you want for your characters? Setting, environment, place, town, house, boat—the where of your novel is very important. When it comes to setting (and time periods), I find it’s best to write about or to research places that excite you, or that are dear to you. After all, you’re going to be spending a lot of time in this place (or these places), so you need to be ready with every detail that is needed to tell your story while making your reader feel that he or she is there too.
- Are you in love with the idea of creating interesting characters? You must love the thought of creating characters that will come to life inside the pages of your book. You must have a desire, or a knack, for putting flesh and blood on bare bones, creating a real live, breathing human using nothing but words. And, just like real human beings, your characters cannot be perfect. They must have flaws, likes, dislikes, and things about them that need to change. Otherwise, they will be boring and unrealistic, and readers won’t be able to empathize or identify with them. Everyone has flaws, and so must your characters.Your good guy/hero/heroine/protagonist must be more good than bad; your bad guy/antagonist must be more bad than good. Your major characters must be major in your story, and your minor characters must be minor—the reader needs to understand them and their role in the story, but they must know their place, and they must stay in it. Can you keep them minor, even though you might like them? These are the kinds of decisions you will need to be able to make as you create your characters, and as you develop your story.
- What about the commitment of time it will take to write, and to complete, your novel? Have you given any thought to the schedule you will need to keep once you begin writing your novel? I always tell new writers to devote as much time as they can possibly give, every day, in order to develop a habit of writing. Once you develop your habit, if you love writing as much as you think you do, you will find a way to make time for it, every day. It will become something you will look forward to, and not something you dread. In fact, you will get to a place where your day will seem incomplete if you have not devoted at least some time to your writing habit. Discipline is very important quality for a writer to have, or to develop. Without it, there’s a good chance your novel will forever be a work-in-progress. So find out how you like to write. Are you someone who prefers getting up early in the morning to write, or are you a person who would enjoy spending time writing before going to bed every night? Try writing at different times of the day so that you can discover what works best for you, and then keep as close to your writing time as possible, every day, to dedicate yourself to your new writing habit.
Are you able to take constructive criticism? As a new novelist, you will need to be able to allow someone else to read what you’ve written so that they can offer you their opinion about what you’ve written. It can be very helpful for any writer, and especially new novelists, to hear what someone else thinks about his or her writing. I often “try out” plots with friends and family members, to find out what they think about the idea I have for a story, before I start writing. Once I know their thoughts, I use those to either write what I intended to write in the first place, or make up my mind about changes that might need to be made. As a writer, it’s always your decision to take or not to take someone’s advice. Still, it can help you make improvements to know how others feel about your plot, your story, or even your chapters as you write your novel.
- Do you enjoy reading about writing? As a former college professor of writing/communications, I’ve found that people who love to write usually will love reading about writing because they know it might help them become a better writer. There are lots and lots of books and websites and even some good You Tube videos about the craft of writing. Don’t dismiss what other people know as unimportant to you. Develop a healthy curiosity about what techniques and knowledge has helped other writers refine their craft.
Be Sure You're in Love with Writing and Storytelling
If you're more in love with the idea of getting a book published than you are with storytelling and with writing, then it could be that you may never finish your first novel. Writing a novel is much more than wanting to be published. Writing a novel requires you to have a story deep down inside of you that must be told by you. I’ve always known, from the time I was a little child and before I could even write, that I wanted to write books. I was always creating stories in my mind. I entertained myself on long school bus rides to and from grade school, or I daydreamed them in study hall after I finished my homework. And sometimes, instead of counting sheep to get to sleep at night, I created my own bedtime stories in my mind. And in school, I always excelled in any subject having to do with writing or creativity, such as art, photography, and graphic design.
Tap into what it is that makes you want to write, and if the only thing that comes to mind is that you want to be a published author, you might be in for a rude awakening. Instead of writing so you can be published, write because you know you have a great story to tell, and not just to get published, or to become rich and famous. Write because you love writing. Learn your craft, and then write well. And even though writers have been published who don't even write all that well, don’t count on being one of them. Instead, know that you’re a good writer. It’s true that sometimes it's the story itself that will interest a publisher so much that they will want to publish a book knowing they have editors who can help you refine your writing. But as I said earlier, don't count on that. Count on learning how to write well, and then on writing, editing, and not being too lazy to revise what you’ve written, many, many times. Get ready to do all you can to make sure you're writing well; that you're telling the story you want to tell in a way that will make your reader want to read it. You don't need a college degree, but you will need a great degree of discipline, and, I believe that brand of discipline only comes with the love of writing. Cheers to the writer in you! Keep the faith, and keep writing.
© 2012 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD
More by this Author
Paul Laurence Dunbar and James Weldon Johnson, both celebrated African-American poets, wrote poems using “Negro Dialect,” but for different reasons.