Steal Your Way to Better Writing

The Novelist by L.L. Barkat

Today’s guest post is by poet and editor L.L. Barkat. You may remember her from an earlier guest post, You Don’t Need a Degree to Find Your Voice.

“I can’t write poetry,” she said. And it was true.

This girl—who read Macbeth at age twelve and argued with the commentaries, who in the same season read all of Tolkien in less than a week and memorized a good deal of the embedded poems—could not write poetry. Everything she tried seemed shapeless and wan. This defied logic. At least mine.

I’d been an English teacher and a writer myself, and the formula I knew was fairly simple: excellent readers are usually excellent writers. This is why every editor will tell you that you must be a reader if you hope to become a better writer. No question. There’s a strong connection.

So I was puzzled, to say the least, when my own daughter could not pen a poem with any life in it. Not that anyone would care, since few people recognize that poetry is important and formative for other kinds of writing (including business writing). But I cared. And my daughter, watching her talented younger sister, cared.

Maybe this is one reason she stole my Norton Anthology of Poetry when it arrived in that trim Amazon box. Maybe that’s why she attempted what I’d never seen another pre-teen attempt with such vigor (or at all): sonnets, sestinas, pantoums, villanelles. And she was shockingly good for her age, sometimes writing a sonnet in ten minutes flat (and that with her mother bothering her to please take a phone call from Grandma).

Here’s the point I want you to take away: writers are opened by different approaches, sometimes radically different. To this day, my daughter pleads with me to read the how-to writing books. She challenges me to write poetry in form. I humor her a bit, but the truth is that these approaches do not help my writing the way they’ve helped hers. I need approaches that feel altogether more organic—Annie Dillard over On Writing Well.

And that is why I had to write The Novelist. As a writer with four books already to my name, I had no organic approach to my new genre of choice: fiction. The how-to books only paralyzed me; I’d been stalling on fiction for just about forever, with no hope in sight.

Where was the book I needed to teach me, and others like me, the secrets of this tantalizing genre? Where was the equivalent of my daughter’s Norton Anthology? As it turns out, it was inside me. I just needed to steal a series of 4 a.m. writing slots, to find that I could learn to write fiction from story itself. Never mind that I would have to be the one to actually write the story.

What kind of writer are you? Maybe you’ve been waiting to find the approach that will open you. Maybe if the how-to books have not taken you where you want to go, it’s time you learned to write through story itself.

Sure, I can recommend The Novelist. And remind you that anything that opens your inner writer is a real steal.

Additional suggested reading

Or, read a chapter of The Novelist


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