I Can Do That!

I Can Do That!

It's the thought that comes up sometimes when we're in a modern art museum, looking at a blank canvas or squiggles on a wall. It's the thought that occurs to us when we see silly talent show performers on reality tv. And it should be the thought that pops up occasionally when we're reading our favorite books.

When we see a character moment or a pretty turn of phrase in a good book, we can begin to say to ourselves, "I could do that." Many writers shy away from this thought because it smacks of egotism. It may seem irreverent to compare oneself to the great gods of literature, but it's important to remember that the literature gods were or still are living human beings, flawed and earnest, stretching for their writing and often becoming disappointed by their limitations just as we are. To say "I could do that" is to accept that we can be part of the company of real writers.

How to recognize what you can do

To say "I could do that" to an entire expert novel or as a vague assertion could be simple egotism. It's a comment that has to be earned, and the first step toward earning it is understanding the tricks and tools of fiction. Study what your favorite piece of fiction does. It will seem intimidating at first, because good fiction seems effortless, seamless, without any moving parts. By looking closer, however, and reading thoughtfully, you'll be able to see familiar techniques. Does the author often use a pair of unusual adjectives to describe something ("it was a dark purple day")? Does the author always give characters some sort of physical tag to make them memorable ("John had low droopy ears; Betsy always winked her right eye compulsively")? Does the author have familiar, repeating sentence structures? Use a mental magnifying glass and notice what your favored authors do on the sentence level.

Now try it out in your own writing.

Maybe you think you could do that, but can you really? Now that you've identified some techniques that are effective or delightful in prose, try them out yourself. Write a page of vividly paired adjectives. Tag every character you have with something visually interesting. Study your own work with the same intense scrutiny and really, truly, ask yourself, "Could I do that?" If the answer is yes, then you're ready to step out into a larger world.

Have the confidence to call yourself a writer. These little flourishes and techniques, combined with editing, discipline, a sustained vision, and lots of hard work, are all it takes to be a writer. If you see the same techniques in fiction at work in your own writing, then don't be afraid to call a spade a spade and say to yourself, "Yes -- I could do that." If a published work you love has the same things in it as your work, then you're on your way. Many writers end up handicapping themselves by not having the confidence to call themselves writers. They say they're dabbling in a novel project, "Just for fun", or else they're afraid to bring it up at all. If you think your novel has what it takes, you've got to tell others about it. Remember the spirit and gumption that lies behind that thought: "I am writer! I could do that too!"