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The Novelist's Briar Patch
by Charles W. Sasser

Writing a novel--indeed, writing any piece of fiction--may be compared to attempting to negotiate a briar patch. Novelists must avoid the thorns in order to reach success on the other side without the loss of too much blood. Five major snares lie in wait to trap unsuspecting scribblers.

The most threatening of these is lack of discipline and perseverance.

Talent is important, but possessing talent alone is not enough. The skills of writing can be learned, the love of books and words is granted or you wouldn't want to be a writer. It is discipline and perseverance, not necessarily talent, that make the difference between a published writer and an unpublished one. No writer of whatever persuasion ever escapes the briar patch without acquiring the simple ability to stick to the job as though he were being paid a salary by a stern boss looking over his shoulder. No one ever climbed a mountain by quitting halfway to the summit.

The second snare menacing the novelist may be called simply trash writing.

Trash writing is a briar patch all its own, a tangle of thorns, creepers, runners and tendrils through which even the most tenacious of editors, much less readers, will not attempt to wend his way. It is convoluted sentences, dangling clauses and phrases, excessive use of adjectives and adverbs, wrong antecedents, show-off words and, often, a pretension toward literary by writers who have not bothered to learn their craft and the mechanics of creating clear sentences and paragraphs.

A third set of briars, companion to trash writing, is the aspiring novelist's neglect in understanding the craft of fiction and developing that craft in himself.

Fiction writing requires a working knowledge of narration, exposition, transition, scene and character building, dialogue and all the other skills of creating believable stories. Many would-be authors seem to think that all they have to do is sit down and let the muse take over. Wrong. Writing is a trade, a calling, a job with often a very long apprenticeship. This apprenticeship may be shortened through concentrated self-study, attending classes and seminars, and critical reading and evaluation.

Skills must be learned, by whatever means. A writer who has not mastered the skills of his profession is like a garage carpenter attempting to build a high-rise. Results will never equal the effort. A writer must learn his craft in the same way that a doctor or lawyer or any other professional learns his.

Poor plotting or even no plotting looms as a fourth snare full of thorns.

Many unsuccessful writers are so caught up in admiring their insight into the human condition, their adroitness and special sensitivities that they feel insulted when told that fiction writing, first and above all else, is story telling. Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. They go somewhere. They have a point. There are conclusions. For the writer whose goal is to publish, even his most brilliant efforts are generally an exercise in futility without plot, without story.

If the most threatening brambles are lack of discipline and perseverance, perhaps the most common thorn trap in the briar patch is overwriting.

Some novelists feel compelled to tell literally everything when they write. John walks up to the door, he opens the door, he walks inside, he closes the door... You get the point. This is "real-time" writing in that reading an account of an event takes nearly the same amount of time as living the event itself Every character, every scene is described in minute detail, almost down to the colors of the protagonist's socks.

Writing is not real life. It must be a crisp representation of real life, condensed to the essentials of plot, story line and characterization.

Recognizing and overcoming these five major snares of the novelist's briar patch does not necessarily guarantee success. However, failure to recognize and overcome them does guarantee that the briar patch will stretch unending to the horizon.

© Copyright 2000, Charles W. Sasser

Charles "Chuck" Sasser is author of more than 60 published books and thousands of magazine articles. Visit Chuck’s website, www.CharlesSasser.com

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