Writing the “Great American Novel” – Myth vs. Truth

I’m going to make a slight departure from my usual posts regarding the release of my new book to share some thoughts on writing.  I apologize in advance for the length of this post,

Recently, I had a conversation with a new college graduate.  He had received a liberal arts degree from an ivy league school.  When asked what he wanted to do with his life, he replied: “I want to write the great American novel.”  When I asked how he was qualified to write something like that, he was surprised and somewhat offended.  He felt his college degree gave him all he needed to be a great writer.  So, I explained my perspective to him, and I want to share that information here.

Once he recovered from my question, he wanted to know more about how I wrote my book.  I told him that, in my opinion, a novel needs several key elements.

First, it needs a good story – one that will hold a reader’s attention. The definition of “good” in this case is not what the author thinks is good, but what the intended audience thinks is good.  To be successful as a writer, the author must have something to say/write that someone else wants to hear/read.  There are a lot of people coming out of college today that are more than ready to share their thoughts – most are an unoriginal reciting of their professor’s opinions rather than their own convictions, which are both uninteresting and incomplete as the writer does not completely understand the subject matter.  There is a very limited audience that wants to hear/read this, and the author lacks the credibility to engage their intended audience.  A good write must have a good story and be able to tell it well.

Second, the work needs to have characters that are interesting and believable.  A good story without good characters is not a good story.  Good characters trapped in a bad story does not work either.  Both must be present.

Third, the writer needs to have their own “voice,” or perspective and way of telling the story, to keep the work from sounding like a cheap imitation of someone else’s work.  The rhythm of the story telling, the pacing of the story, the amount of detail included, the handling of dialog and the transition between the story’s events, all are must be unique to the author to make the work truly unique.  An author without their own voice is a mimic, and there are too many of those out there already.

As I relayed this information to this young person, he confidently told me that he had all of that.  Then I told him about the last key ingredient for being a successful author.  You need life experience.  By life experience, I do not mean surviving fraternity parties or taking the summer off after graduation to tour around Europe with friends.  I mean having the scars (emotional and sometimes physical) that come from the life lessons that transform us from naive children with ideals and opinions to adults with understanding and convictions.  Young people typically have limited exposure to the kind of life lessons that temper the way a writer creates and tells a great story.  It is these life lessons that influence and focus a story that makes a story believable to an audience.  It is these life lessons that give a writer a wealth of plots, sub-plots, imagery, and characters to draw from when building a story worth telling.

Then I gave this person an example.  Sixteen years ago, I attempted to write a novel.  I had a story, I had characters, I had settings, and I thought that was all I needed.  Three years later, I still could not get the novel finished.  I lacked enough life experience to tell a complete story that was both long enough for a novel and compelling enough for someone else to enjoy.  Eventually, I put the novel aside, never to work on it again.

Sixteen years later, I wrote three complete novels in a five month period – the first of which was just published.  What happened during that time?  Life experiences.  Twelve years ago, I married a woman coming out of a horrible marriage.  The man she was married to was a monster.  By that, I don’t mean he was mean or angry or a pain to deal with.  I mean he was the lowest form of life that could exist.  He regularly abused his wife and children – physically and mentally.  He had threatened to kill them numerous times, and these were not empty threats.  When she left him, he threatened to take the children back to his country where she would never see them again.  When we got married, I supervised his visitation with the children, and there were acts of physical violence committed against them in my presence.  Upon discovering that I was the children’s new step father, I knew he was about to kill me – stopped only by the fact that we were in a public place with too many witnesses.

We learned to change the way we went to and from work every day, noting each car we saw in case we were being followed since he was not allowed to know where we lived or worked, or where the children went to school.  We never kept to the same routine, and were constantly watching for him and his friends.  We never went anywhere without knowing exactly where the nearest police station was in case we had to go there to get someone to stop following us.

It took seven years of continuous legal battles to finally terminate his parental rights so I could adopt the children as my own.  During that time, we have moved to several different states – each time taking tremendous effort to make sure he could not find us and kidnap the children.

These life experiences matured me quickly, and gave me a wealth of experiences to draw from in my writing.  I have the physical, mental, and emotional scars from the years of staying one step ahead of him and keeping my family safe from his madness and rage.  By the time I sat down to make another attempt at writing a novel, I had all of the elements I needed – story, characters, voice, and life experiences.  Even then, I don’t believe I have written the great American novel, but I do believe I have written something to be very proud of and that others will enjoy reading.

By the end of the conversation with this young person, I could tell he was somewhat demoralized and still unsure if wanted to believe me.  That didn’t bother me.  I refuse to spoon feed lies and platitudes to someone just to keep them from feeling bad about something they believe or something they have done.  This person needed to hear what I believe to be the truth – after all, he asked my opinion, and that’s exactly what he got.  I don’t know what he will do with the information, but I wish him well as he decides what he wants to do with his life.

About wbspeirjr

Author of "Muzzle-Loading Artillery for Reenactors," the 9-book action/adventure series "The Knights of the Saltier," five historical novels ("King's Ransom," "The Saga of Asbjorn Thorleikson," "Nicaea - The Rise of the Imperial Church," "Arthur, King," "The Besieged Pharaoh"), the sci fi novel "The Olympium of Bacchus 12," and the fantasy novel "The Kingstone of Airmid." William is also a 5-time Royal Palm Literary Award winner: 2014 Second Place Unpublished Historical Fiction for "King’s Ransom," 2015 Second Place Unpublished Historical Fiction for "The Saga of Asbjorn Thorleikson," 2017 Second Place Published Historical Fiction for Arthur, King," 2017 First Place Published Historical Fiction for "Nicaea – The Rise of the Imperial Church," and 2017 First Place Published Science Fiction for "The Olympium of Bacchus 12."
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