Book Review: Authors--Novel Writing Not For The Faint Of Heart
By: Regis Behe, Pittsburgh Tribune Review
The Evening Bulletin
It's a situation every writer faces at one time or another. At a book signing, reading or other literary function, a person approaches. They hesitate, smile, then state their purpose:
"I want to write a book."
Which is akin to an out-of-shape, middle-aged guy telling LeBron James he wants to try out with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"Most people know they can't play professional basketball," says best-selling author David Baldacci. "They're not tall enough, they're not fast enough, they're not quick enough. But people think, 'I've got a brain, I've got a hand, I've got a computer - I can be a writer.' They don't understand the skill sets that go into being a writer as well, and sometimes they're almost as unique as being an NBA or NFL or professional athlete."
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, there were 172,000 books published in the United States in 2005. Only in the United Kingdom, where 206,000 books were released, were people more intent on putting their ideas into print. And that's not counting the thousands of books that never see the light of day and those that are self-published.
Which is why Richard Ford, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel Independence Day and has just published the novel The Lay of the Land, has this sobering message for budding writers:
"I always say the same thing: Talk yourself out of it if you can," he says, "which is the same advice I would give somebody if they're about to get married. Because, if you can't talk yourself out of it, you're on your way to a vocation, I think."
Writing, however, is not always a choice. Chuck Kinder teaches fiction writing to graduate students at the University of Pittsburgh. He's taught a Pulitzer Prize winner, Michael Chabon, and Keely Bowers, who won a Nelson Algren award for short fiction and a Scott Turow Fiction Prize.
Compulsion is what drives the students in Kinder's classes. They have to be willing to submit to often-scathing critiques from fellow students, to have paragraphs, sentences and word choices dissected, to have their motivations questioned, to swallow their pride every time the class meets.
They do it, Kinder says, because "they have no choice. They have to be here."
But without talent, Kinder says, it's not possible to teach a person how to write a book.
"I think not," he says. "I don't see how you could. I don't see how you would."
Still, people want to write. There's a cachet in having the title "author" appended to one's name; prestige-wise, it's infinitely more glamorous than being a doctor or lawyer. Authors are famous. Their books get made into movies. Sometimes they meet Oprah Winfrey. They occasionally hobnob with movie stars, and nothing in America is more alluring that attaching oneself to some stray filament of stardom.
Which makes writing all the more attractive despite a degree of difficulty that rivals scoring a 10 in an ice-skating competition. Ford especially wonders if writing is a productive use of time. Not only is the ability to write, and write well, a rare gift, it's also a process that frequently produces more frustration than achievement.
"And I would not really like to encourage people along a line of endeavor which will finally not reward them," Ford says. "And, much more importantly, not reward other people. Because once you've found you can do this - which is to say you can write to the end of a novel; you can write a novel that someone can read - then all of your attention finally turns outward to those people who will be reading it to the point of 'What can I do for you? What can I make that you will find useful?' And that's very unlikely to happen to anybody. It has nothing to do with talent, it has nothing to do with genius. It maybe doesn't have anything to do with perseverance. It has largely to do with luck."
Baldacci, however, never discourages anyone from writing - as long as their expectations are measured and reasonable.
"I think it's great," he says. "If you want to write, you don't need to write to be published. You can write just as an outlet, just for fun."
Fun might be the best that most writers can hope for by way of accomplishment. Carl Hiaasen, the author of the novels Tourist Season, Basket Case and the recently published Nature Girl, says that because companies have consolidated, it's harder than ever to place a book with a major publisher.
"Obviously, it's not something that many, many people can do," Hiaasen says. "It's not just an issue of talent - it's the time that's invested, it's the solitary nature, if you have a family, if you have a life, if you have a job. That's how all of us started out: in our spare time, with the hopes of maybe getting lucky and having a book published."
"When people tell me they want to write a book, I tell them 'good luck,'" says Michael Connelly, the author of the crime novels The Narrows, Blood Work and the recently released Echo Park. "The road to publication is hard and full of obstacles."
So, how to even begin with such a daunting task ahead? Connelly advises any would-be writers to first be good readers.
"They must know the best work out there if they are hoping to join the ranks of published authors," he says, noting that finding an established literary agent, especially one that represents new writers, also is a must.
Then, a writer must remain true to his or her vision.
"My biggest piece of advice is keep your head down," Connelly says. "You can't put your finger up into the wind to try to read the currents of commerciality or publishing favor. You have to keep your head down and write a story you would like to read. You have to believe as a writer that you are an everyman. If you like what you have written
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