Is My Writing Good Enough?Sep 17, 2020
Writers come to The Novelry and ask us – will you tell me if my writing is any good? We can’t answer that straight. Because the truth is: it is and it isn’t. In brief, not yet. As with all writers, writing takes practice and work to be good.
But the question they should be asking is: is this story any good?
You see, it’s the story that makes us good, as writers, and a story has no care for our ambitions. We rise, as writers, to the story. Every time. A good story writes itself, almost. A bad story can’t be compensated for with fine words. Our job at The Novelry is to ensure you are in possession of a good story.
But we are also very interested in your ambition and mindful of the long game.
In fact, our teaching, unlike with other writing courses, begins with you and your ambition. Our focus at The Novelry as a writing school is your development as a writer. We don’t believe in workshopping, having other writers tell you about your writing before you have the story straight. We focus 100% on you and your story with dedicated coaching.
In this blog post, our founder Louise Dean explains our ethos and how our writing courses can help you write a novel, as well as the importance of understanding your deepest hopes and dreams.
Own your ambitions
What’s your ambition as a writer? What’s the ambition for your novel?
When you come clean about it, you’re halfway to achieving it. Own up! Now’s the time and here’s the place.
Honour your creative intentions first and foremost.
A problem for occasional writers, with novels in the drawer for many years, is that over time the author develops so many, they conflict and cause confusion on the page! Time to re-boot, and to that end we would recommend The Ninety Day Novel course to create a newly ambitious vision of the story. Ambition of this kind eschews side stories and backstory, throws out the kitchen sink and focuses on the all-important change and moral growth of the main character.
When we start work with our writers, we ask them about their intentions, both as an author and personally. What do you want from the writing? From your career as an author? What are your intentions for the book? What do you want to show or prove here?
We make a pact to do our damnedest. You’re the author, you get to play God in this one part of your life but we will always have your best interests at heart, and your ambition.
But ambition is a funny thing. Ambition is a bit like libido. When it ebbs, it’s a relief to see clearly again.
I used to be very ambitious, I suppose that sweet deluded state was helpful to me once.
Here’s me on record, interviewed by Time Out in 2006.
On the one hand I have an unholy ambition to be the finest living writer. On the other I wouldn’t mind simply being left alone. In either case, I know I feel grateful that I have something of my own that I love to do, and that it helps make sense of what seems to have no sense at all.
Even in that statement, there’s an obvious split between the mania of ego-driven ambition and the desire for space. I have always clung to Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Wants’: ‘beyond all this the wish to be alone.’
Writing is often about resilience
The Wall Street Journal gave me the dubious honour in 2010 of being one of the world’s five most underrated authors.
And just then, I fell down.
Fortunately, as it turns out, life gave me a kicking and it took me some time to recover. My ambition for fiction was pretty much destroyed by the events of real life.
One fails in all sorts of ways in life, doesn’t one, which are much more important than writing books. In human relations and that sort of thing.
Those necessary but unforeseen losses accumulated, one loss brought another, and they gave me the space to be alone that was my root desire. But I wasn’t writing right.
An author friend and I had a grin when he quizzed me about the lost years. ‘I just always thought I’d write the great English novel’ I said, by way of excuse for the books unfinished. ‘How’s that working out for you?’ he replied. We sniggered.
Just write what you write, he counselled me.
You know there’s a place reserved for all of us in the ‘good’ camp, don’t you? As Steinbeck said: ‘and now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good’. In fact, there’s lots of space there.
My losses created space and nature hates a vacuum they say. The space was filled by new ideas, new desires, and those desires and ideas don’t all belong to me anymore, they belong to my beloved writers. My ambition is now co-occupied by tenants who are wonderful to have around, milling about being brilliant in their spare time, keeping lives together, seeing through to the other side of other lives while they do it.
Now that my literary libido is waning, I wonder if I don’t like ‘good’ a lot.
As a little example of what happens to a good (enough) writer when they get a great story, I can’t resist mentioning The Godfather by Mario Puzo.
As a young man, Mario Puzo had serious literary ambitions. Working as a civil servant in New York, he began to place stories in magazines in the early 1950s and had his first novel, Dark Arena, published by Random House in 1955. The book was extremely well received – critics likened Puzo to Malamud, Bellow, even Hemingway – but sold very poorly.
Married and with five children to feed, Puzo soldiered on as a civil servant but continued to write. His second novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, 1965, is a semi-autobiographical account of immigrant Italian-Americans in the New York of the 1920s and 1930s. But it didn’t sell too well either.
I was 45 years old, I owed $20,000 to relatives, finance companies, banks and assorted bookmakers and loan sharks. It was really time to grow up and sell out.
He decided quite consciously to write a more commercial story. He submitted an outline for a novel about a Mafia family first to his previous publisher, Atheneum, who was sniffy, then to Putnam, who was not. Out of this 10-page outline came the 450 pages of The Godfather, published in 1969.
When the paperback rights to the book were suddenly sold for $410,000, he telephoned his mother. She misunderstood and thought he said $40,000. Three times he told her the real figure, and then she said, ‘Don’t tell nobody’. Earlier, his mother had been sceptical about his work. After The Godfather, she called him ‘a poet’.
It became a no. 1 bestseller in the USA and stayed on the bestseller lists for well over a year. Translated throughout Europe and in Asia, the book sold over eight million copies in paperback even before the film of the book was released in 1972. It’s now sold more than 21 million copies worldwide. Puzo described himself once as ‘a Romantic writer’ with ‘a sympathy for evil’.
In fact, he went back to ground with the storytelling, and the huge and dark character of old man Corleone was based on his mother. Something I teach in the Advanced Novel Course, for experienced writers struggling with their next novel, is to head back to those early major impressions and wounds as they provide the emotional drama that will power your storytelling, and give it the conflict and stakes it sorely needs to go big.
Puzo gives us light and shade in the book, and it’s the distance between the two which creates the glamour and charisma of the bigger stories.
Big stories succeed, regardless of the prose style.
‘I wished like hell I’d written it better,’ Puzo said. ‘I wrote below my gifts in that book.’
Leaving his old ambition to be taken seriously behind him, Puzo allowed for space within the prose and between scenes. Instead, he worked with a combination of physical and moral emergencies, and the central dilemma of the character of Michael Corleone – ‘Tell my father I wish to be his son.’
Stories are everything
In The Classic Course which looks at the big storytelling moves of the all-time bestsellers, we see how these basic family dramas, something familiar to all of us, pull hard on the heartstrings of readers, and gain excitement from publishers and readers alike when given a different setting or twist.
Perhaps I’m getting old, but I want to write good books, and by that I mean good stories.
But so long as you honour your intentions and know the price of them, the risks and rewards, you can and should write what you like. Every device, ruse, sleight of hand, joke a little edgy, plot twist a little twisted has a price. Sometimes the price of your ambition is to lose readers. That’s a matter for you. But essentially, I would suggest prose ain’t worth the price. Get out of your way and get on with the story. At The Novelry, I often tell my writers the answer to every question they have as a writer is this: story, story, story.
Is your ambition to be a great writer, or to write a story?
When you know your ambition, have named it and owned it, you’ll know what you’re doing, and you can assess each chapter, scene and sentence against it and consider whether servicing your prose ambitions over the story itself is a price you wish to pay.
When you join us for one of our creative writing courses and begin coaching, in our very first session we will talk about you and your ambition as a writer. No need to be coy here. Whatever you want is fine with us. We’ll keep an eye on the story for you, while you play with the prose!
Founder at The Novelry
Louise Dean is the author of four novels and has been published by Penguin and Simon & Schuster among others.
Louise Dean has won the Betty Trask Prize and Le Prince Maurice Prize, been nominated for the Guardian First Book Prize, and longlisted for the Dublin International Literary Award and the Booker Prize. Her books have been deemed the top books of their year by the Guardian, the Observer and Publishers Weekly. She was also a finalist for the Costa Coffee 2020 Short Story Award.