Monday, October 16, 2023

Guest post: What skills do you need to write a novel? by Emily Winslow


The first thing you need is desire! Not just desire to be a novelist, but the desire to write itself. It’s true that that desire comes and goes; it’s very normal to have stages with a project where the writing is something you have to push yourself to do. But at heart, you need to like playing with words and telling stories.


As for skills, to me they come in two main buckets: writing skills, which help you write good sentences and paragraphs, and storytelling skills, which help you write good chapters and books. Good writing makes a reader want to underline passages for their beauty or insight; good storytelling makes you want to turn the page and find out what happens next. Both of these kinds of skills are important to learn and important to respect.


Honing writing skills is often easier because sentences and paragraphs are small enough to analyze in a class or small group, looking closely at examples from published books and at students’ own work. It’s more difficult to find the time to write and look at longer work, so storytelling skills are often not dealt with, or only dealt with by discussing published books, not practiced by students themselves.


Student writers also get great at writing starts and standalone scenes/short stories. It’s common in a class for each new skill to be practiced by writing something entirely new. It’s important to also practice writing onward if a novel is your goal. Continuing a story feels different from starting, and that strangeness can make an inexperienced writer uncomfortable. It can make them wonder if they should turn back and look for a better idea. It’s important to know that that difference in feeling is normal and expected. It doesn’t, on its own, mean start over.


When I started teaching, I thought that if someone can write good scenes they can write a good novel; after all, a novel is just a lot of scenes, right? But I learned that stitching scenes together into a coherent whole that has momentum and crescendo takes different skills. That’s the storytelling bucket. For me, the most important of those skills is cause and effect. Each happening should be the cause of the next, and so on, and so on.


In Time to Write I give equal time to writing skills and storytelling skills, and other aspects of the writing life, such as giving and receiving critique, and publishing. Getting stories out of one’s head and onto the page, vividly and with clarity, is one of life’s great pleasures. I aim to help others to write their own stories and share in that happiness.



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