Friday, July 16, 2010

Writers vs. Novelists

Free-form Friday

What are you? A writer? A novelist?

This may sound like a simple semantic quibble, but I want to suggest it's an important distinction.

I've heard people in the industry (e.g., published authors, agents, and editors) say they find it odd that no one who wants to be a musician believes they can do so without practice whereas many aspiring authors believe they can simply sit down and write the great American novel.

Could the problem stem from the fact that we call the endeavor writing? Viewed as the fundamental act of putting words together, writing is something most of us do on a daily basis (in one form or another). Couple that experience with nearly constant reading (again in one form or another), and it's not nearly so illogical for people to think they can write a novel. After all, they've been practicing putting words together most of their lives.

A novel, on the other hand, is a particular kind of long-form writing. The fundamental question for a novel is not can you write an interesting sentence or paragraph or chapter, but can you write an interesting book: can you sustain the level of story-telling for hundreds of pages?

I'm not saying that other forms of writing are less worthy or less ambitious--we need both the sonnet and the epic poem; the song and the symphony. What I am saying is that I think it helps us be clearer about the nature of our endeavor and the skill set we need to master if we think of ourselves as novelists instead of writers.

What do you think? Is the distinction useful or am I straining at a semantic gnat?

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

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