The Ever-Pretentious “Born Novelist”

Anyone can be a writer, right? It’s something you have to learn to do well, and some people don’t want to do it, but anyone could learn. It’s not like high science, where a certain level of ability to understand complex concepts is necessary and some people just can’t do that well. And just about every writer has had that conversation where they say to a new acquaintance “I’m a writer” and the person replies “Oh, I want to write a book some day.” Like it’s a thing you just do without any effort or learning curve or hard work. But is there such a thing as a born novelist? Someone who is born to write and as a result does it…better, maybe?

I’ve heard a lot of negative stereotypes of this concept and I was shocked when I first heard Brandon Sanderson insist that he doesn’t think it’s a real thing. Anyone can be a writer, Sanderson said. You don’t have to be born with a calling to be good at it.

What a strange way to interpret the concept of a born writer.

Finding a Path

Most of a decade ago now, when I was in my seventh year of undergraduate college trying to get a four year degree, I spent an evening reading a book of quotes from authors, directed toward aspiring authors. One of these quotes caught my eye, attributed in the book to R.A. Salvatore, though I can’t find any evidence this was actually him. I don’t have the book any longer, so I’m paraphrasing, but it went something like this.

Every year, when a new set of students comes into my classroom, I do an exercise. I tell them to consider all the things they might want to be, and if they think they can do anything besides writing, they should do that for a career. For those who can’t imagine doing anything else, those are the writers.

For the first time since I started writing novels at eight years old I felt understood. I’d started college intending to get a creative writing degree and become a famous novelist, but college requires you to do work and I was lazy as a teenager, so that first year went poorly. When I went back after a year off, I was focused on getting some form of stable life. Everyone knows you don’t make a real career out of writing, or so I was told, so I spent the next six years trying every college major that seemed reasonably interesting, excelling at most of them, and then changing my mind and trying something else. By the time I read that quote I had two associate’s degrees in physics and philosophy and a year and a half of upper division physics classes under my belt. And when I opened my notebooks to study for my physics tests, every other page had a fantasy story written, continued from the last time I’d been writing, so that it was clear I was spending my class time writing novels instead of trying to understand the content. In some ways it’s a wonder I got as far as I did.

Now I’m not going to tell you that one quote in a book of author quotes changed my life. There were a lot of factors in my decision to make one final change of major. But for the first time, staring at that quote, I thought that maybe my lifelong desire to be a writer wasn’t crazy.

Several years later, after finally finishing my bachelor’s degree (in creative writing) and getting a job at a legal publishing company as a copy editor, I attended a writer’s conference where Jeff Lindsay gave a keynote address. Jeff Lindsay wrote the very popular series of novels featuring Dexter Morgan, a serial killer working for a police department and using his serial killer urges to punish those other serial killers who weren’t prosecuted by the police. Lindsay got up for his keynote and told a story about how he become a novelist. Again, I don’t have a transcript, so I am paraphrasing (and probably getting some details wrong), but it was something like this.

When I got my first job, I had no real expectation of being an author. I was just an entry-level employee. But after a while, as I talked to some people, I got into some discussions and then I ended up writing the content for some of our blogs. Later, I worked at another place, and my job had nothing to do with writing, but after a while I ended up writing and managing the company newsletter. At another place I wasn’t supposed to be writing, but I ended up composing all the company e-mails going out for announcements. Eventually I just realized I was feeling this…voice or this call. I needed to write. That was what I should be doing. So if you hear that voice, you’re not crazy. Some people are just called to write.

At my editing job, I’d just ended up being asked to write an article for the company newsletter to showcase my team’s work on a particularly time sensitive project. There is nothing quite like the kinship of realizing that the big name author giving the prestigious keynote address at your writer’s conference is just like you.

Two Types of Authors

The most fascinating thing to me about Brandon Sanderson’s statement on people who are “called” to write is that he took it as an attack on those who aren’t. No one’s saying you can’t write if you don’t have that call. I don’t even think Jeff Lindsay or the author from my quote book would say that authors without that call are lower quality. It’s like saying some people are born to swim. That doesn’t mean all Olympic swimming champions will be “born swimmers.” But this comment illustrated to me a fascinating distinction between two essential types of authors.

Some authors love books and they are so excited by the books they’ve read that they decide to write some of their own. These authors seem to often be planners, though that’s anecdotal and shouldn’t be taken as any sort of rule or definitive statement. But the thing about these authors that distinguishes them from my other category is that they chose to start writing. At some point they saw a story and thought “I want to create something like that.”

The other category are the “born writers.” The people I’ve met like this seem to be pantsers, but I see no reason why a planner couldn’t have this same drive and implement it by planning the story concept out beforehand. These people will often love books as well (there are some really great books out there), but on an essential level, they write because they have to. Personally, I tried six other college majors, from forensic science to chemistry to literature to philosophy to math to physics, and I loved them all. But I literally could not stop writing. It’s not a matter of me enjoying the process, although I do. I write, and others in this category write, because there are stories I have to tell and there is no better medium for me.

Since I’m defining new categories, let’s pick some names. Let’s call the first category “Mirror Writers” since they take a thing they love (usually a genuinely great piece of writing) and try to recreate that effect with their own vision and stories. The second category we’ll call “Spotlight Writers” since they are driven to tell stories they often can’t let go of no matter how they try. These are for the purpose of this post only, though feel free to steal them if you like them. Just remember to explain the terms, since probably no one will know what you’re talking about.

So what do we do with these new categories? Do they mean anything? I actually think they do, and I think they mean a lot more than the traditional “planner vs. pantser” distinction that writers often use.

Writers talk about themselves in terms of what their process is all the time. Rarely do writers talk about why they write. When they do it’s often in response to someone being rude, or to a perceived implication that writing is an unimportant or lesser pursuit. But I write because it makes me whole (and I can’t stop), while Brandon Sanderson (I think) writes because he loves sharing his creations with his fans. Both of these are perfectly reasonable, but publishing (especially traditional publishing) only considers one of them valid.

Publishing Expectations

I’ve said before on this blog that publishing is a business. Businesses need to create products for which they have a market. And in order to make sure they have a market for their product, publishers demand that writers explain what fans their book is targeted toward. This is a good business practice that assumes everyone wrote their book with the audience in mind. Some of us didn’t have a choice. The story wouldn’t leave us alone.

A well-written book can be mashed into one of these target audience categories with very little mangling even if it wasn’t conceived of within that framework. I’m not really arguing that target audience isn’t a thing. I always know my target audience before I sit down to write: Readers of low-magic epic fantasy. What I am saying is that a lot of publishing advice doesn’t make sense from the Spotlight Writer point of view. Here’s some common advice that frustrates me:

  • That genre/trope/etc isn’t really selling right now. Now, I talked about this a bit in an earlier post, but here’s the thing, random publishing professional. I don’t have a different genre or trope to sell you. This is the story that spoke to me. What do you want me to do? Just wait ten years until that’s a thing again? This is gate keeping at its most pure—deciding what readers want before they ever get a chance to see it. And, of course, because publishing is a business, doing anything else is risky. But what if we found a way to get some reader feedback to help make decisions on what books to buy? I bet publishers would be surprised by some of those results.
  • Don’t trend chase, but be aware of the market when you write a book. Another one I’ve glossed over before and my top-level complaint is the same as the last point, but let’s take a closer look. If you’re not trend chasing (which you shouldn’t…trends end way faster than most people can write and publish a novel), then what do they mean by “look at the market”? The current trends won’t help you, as we discussed. The most recent past trends might give you a hint what isn’t likely coming back right now. But what else are you expected to look at? What they really seem to mean is “be a Mirror Writer” so that you can take the good things that sold well from the past and re-purpose them into your book. I’m not a Mirror Writer. Do things that I enjoyed from past novels I’ve read find their way into my books? Of course they do. But no amount of market research is going to allow me to incorporate those organically if that’s not the story I need to tell right now. Telling me to write differently is just going to make me write bad books.
  • Don’t keep querying the same book over and over again—move on to a new project. The problem here is actually fascinating. Almost all authors start off querying a book that wasn’t ready to query yet. Brandon Sanderson himself did it with a bunch of books. I don’t recall the number, but he has an entire writing series on YouTube from his BYU class that is actually pretty good and has the number in it. So is traditional publishing telling us to start off writing and querying books we don’t care about so we can learn through the querying process? Then, once we know how to polish our books well and have a solid understanding of how and who to query, we should stop querying those interim books and write the one we care about. What if we had programs (college classes or writer’s conference workshops or writer’s groups or something) that actually taught us this sort of skill instead of focusing on how to evaluate creative works or how to apply writing theory to book drafting? I have a degree in creative writing (and took classes for it at three different colleges). Very few creative writing programs teach you anything about the publishing world, and I don’t recall more than a few conference workshops that even approached the topic of self-editing, much less gave you any techniques.

The short version of this list is, traditional publishers want you to prove that you can write something you don’t necessarily love before they let you write the thing you do love. This strikes me as a terrible idea, and even though these examples hit Spotlight Writers hard, the concept hurts Mirror Writers as well. If writers are writing things they don’t love, they’re far more likely to write poor quality books that don’t sell. As well, agents always say they’re rejecting books because they “didn’t connect with the characters quite as much as they had hoped.” Of course not! You told me to write bland people and stories until I’d figured out how to query right!

Are There Solutions?

Obviously I’m exaggerating a bit in my frustration, but it’s interesting to me that traditional publishing takes a product that they know to be a work of art (regardless what type of writer authored it) and then complains that the author won’t treat it like a paper clip. But you can tell a paper clip manufacturer that people don’t need to hold pieces of paper together very much anymore and that manufacturer can go make tablet screen protectors or something. If you tell the YA fantasy novelist that YA fantasy isn’t selling right now, what do you expect that author to do? Suddenly start writing a different genre they don’t enjoy?

So, anyone can write a book and with enough study and work, anyone can do it well. But some people are called to write. Born with it in their blood, or drawn to it early enough that it’s a thing they’ve always wanted as a core part of their person. And those born novelists are at a lot more risk for being left behind when the publishing industry decides to stop signing new authors to a particular sub-genre.


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All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

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Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

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