Art has this funny way of being really hard on beginners. I think most people have heard the quote from Ira Glass about how a lot of artists get into the creative business but drop out when what we envision isn’t something we can manifest into reality. This is the most frustrating thing.
With drawings, if you take every sketch you’ve made, and you put it in a box, once you’ve filled the box, you’ll have improved your drawing skills. It’s simple, the more sketches you do, the better you will be at making sketches.
On some levels, we think this should work for writing, but it isn’t that simple. With visual arts, it’s sometimes easier to judge it because you have this sort of third eye in your mind. You can see it in your mind and compare it to the thing you make in reality. When you start making the paintings look the way they look in your mind, you know you’re close. But how do you do that with a novel?
Encompassing an entire novel in your mind isn’t an easy thing to do. There are parts, ideas, feels, but the whole thing? Not so much. With a sketch, the whole thing can be judged in one moment, but it takes hours to read a novel. Even though they don’t compare to paintings or drawings, one thing remains the same: the more novels you write, the better you will be at writing novels.
Does this make them good? Being competent at an art form does not make a person good at it. For instance, I’ve been watching Bob Ross painting shows. That man is amazing at how he takes shapes and boils them down quickly into things that can be put together into a painting. He’s got composition, and the colors go together very nicely. I have enough craft that I could probably reproduce his tutorial pieces by following along and being stubborn.
I could do that with novels, too.
I could (and have!) sit and diagram out my favorite novels. I’ve studied the way the plot unfolds, the way the characters are presented, and I could reproduce them if I were to go painstakingly through them. Bit by bit they could be remade. But you know what that makes? It makes a sort of puppet novel.
And that’s why paint by numbers offends some people. You can do what Brandon Sanderson calls the cook method, “Oh, I need a mentor and he needs to die so the main character can grow his wings and fly.” Those are perfectly acceptable forms of novels. Some of them even do very well, but if you’re in writing because you had a vision about the kinds of stories you wanted to tell, making your book according to a recipe isn’t going to work out.
Which brings us to the problem of going from competent to great. I am certain that anyone with enough dedication can reproduce something they love in the same way that a photograph reproduces the view from the top of half dome. But the view just doesn’t compare to the way the wind slips up the cliff like it’s going to suck you off into the void. I doubt the photograph makes you feel as if your life is in danger by standing on that razor edge between two feet firmly on the ground and the better part of mile drop to the valley below. The picture is beautiful, but being there will change your soul.
With novels it’s harder to know if we’ve lost someone in the woods, or the path took a wrong turn until we’ve gotten to the end of the novel and had others read it. They didn’t get to the mountain top, or they felt like it was more of a mole hill. Always so vexing when our vision isn’t understood, but those attempts have given us something. At least the reader felt the rise. Maybe they saw bits of the view between the forest of melodramatic metaphor (such as this bit here). The point is, you have to put in the effort. You have to fill the boxes with your art.
Oh but Rena, my best friends, sister’s ex-girlfriend wrote her first and only book and it sold a bajillion copies. She had ten agents offer her representation—the only ten agents she sent her query letter to!—and she now lives in Scotland with a castle and a staff to see to her mandatory hiking breaks.
Wow. Welp, that’s super awesome for your best friend’s sister’s ex-girlfriend, but I also heard about this guy who got struck by lightning 19 times. I don’t use that as a reason to assume the first rumble of thunder is going to nail me in the back of the head (though, to be clear, I definitely practice lightning safety as I am a coward!). My point is, yes, some people are really lucky and everything falls into place perfectly. For the rest of us mere mortals, the way to making the art we envision is through practice.
You will have to write more than you ever dreamed, and before you think about how you’re done with that nicely polished novel and its three major edits, just wait until you get an editor and they ask you to rewrite most of the end… and most of the beginning… and maybe we could do something different with that middle bit?—but that’s a discussion for another day.