When you think about it, those who succeed in getting a novel into bookstores illustrate “publishing of the fittest.” Just as critters evolve over time to become better, stronger, and more successful, I think writers do, too.
There are stages in the evolution of a writer (think of the illustration you’ve no doubt seen of the progression from ape to man). Novelists emerge from a primordial goo of wanting to tell stories. But there’s a lot of evolving yet to come.
Just as early mankind figured out how to use tools, writers have to learn and figure out how to use language. That starts with adequate grammar and punctuation. Since an author’s audience is trained by schooling and reading to interpret words and punctuation in certain ways, a writer will never get her true meaning onto the page without knowing the effects of what she puts on that page. Even a misplaced comma can throw a narrative off its stride.
Okay, so now our evolving writer has the urge to tell stories, and has a grasp of using language. We’ll assume a certain level of talent, just as early mankind had a certain level of intelligence. What next?
Craft. Even well wrought sentences can add up to boredom without craft. Maybe the evolutionary analog is becoming upright and bipedal, and gaining the ability to move forward. Storytelling craft can begin developing from an instinctive feel for story, and from the absorption of good fiction, but I think a writer needs to understand it consciously, and then wield it instinctively.
Craft lessons to be learned include when to show or tell, and how to show or tell. How to weave characterization into description. How to deliver a strong, clear point of view. Clarity, clarity, clarity. Developing a voice through the word choices you make. You know the drill.
Now that you’ve evolved up the ladder to talented writer who can handle the language and apply craft, the next step is to acquire the persistence to actually write an entire novel. And to rewrite it. And to rewrite it. And to re– I have a feeling that this is the point on the evolutionary trail that many folks turn off onto the dead-end branch of Neanderwannabees. But not you, you’ve got persistence to spare.
At last, homo authorus!
So now you’ve written the novel and are ready to become a true homo authorus, right? Nope. Two more hurdles to clear, two more alterations needed in your writerly genetic code to evolve.
Now you need to acquire the ability to volunteer for the remarkably masochistic endeavor of finding an agent. Writers who evolve past this point frequently have inch-thick hides covering their brains, which can also be handy in Chicago on a January day.
The last part of your genome that needs to be modified? Acquiring a knack for telling a story that others want to read. Yep, it does no good to have the urge to tell a great story, or to master the language and craft, or to persist unto the birth of a manuscript, or to stalk and secure an agent unless you tell a story that folks want to hear. Genre writers may have an evolutionary edge over writers like me who are busy following a vague inner direction, but for both of us that’s the last bit of DNA to fall into place.
So where are you on the evolutionary scale? I hope I’m at the last stage (yet still learning), and the only thing I can think of to do is keep shooting arrows until one finds a target.
Image: Primordial Flow by Jo Ann Taylor