Sunday, December 5, 2010

On Writing Novels and Being a Lit Major

Since I've decided to start blogging again, I thought it would be fitting to make a few posts about what I've discovered about my writing process since finishing my current novel. So I guess I'll start with this one!

One question that's been on my mind a lot lately is whether being an English Literature major in college has helped or hurt my ability to write fiction. That might sound strange... After all, an English degree is an English degree, right? But I could have chosen a Creative Writing concentration instead of English Lit, and I sometimes wonder if I should have considered it. I still took plenty of writing courses in my undergrad years, but I felt my talents were stronger in the English Lit area. Besides, I loved my classes. The only thing I enjoy more than writing about books is, well, writing books.

Still, the question remains, especially since I've decided to take a shot at my crazy dream to become a novelist... Did my choice of major help or hurt my ability to write fiction?

I can't answer that question definitively, but I can say that when it comes to writing a novel, having a background in English Lit has advantages and disadvantages. When it comes to the disadvantages, the major one I've noticed is that I have a tendency to write even fictional prose like I'm writing an essay. As you can imagine, this is NOT a good thing! (I have a grand total of one character who can get away with using essay transitions in his dialogue, those wonderfully dry and formulaic phrases like "For instance" and "Additionally" and so on.) I have to make every effort to curb this impulse, because let's be honest, no one picks up a book of fiction to read something that sounds like an academic essay.

That being said, I have discovered a few unexpected advantages to being a Lit major when it comes to writing fiction. One thing that never gives me the slightest trouble is identifying overall themes in my work. If anything, I probably think too much about possible symbolism and reader interpretations. Still, as long as I avoid dwelling on it before the first draft is finished, I've found that this perspective actually strengthens my ability to write a complex story. That's especially true when it comes to adding foreshadowing and choosing the imagery for a given passage. After all, these are things I considered all the time in college; the only difference was that I was analyzing someone else's work rather than my own.

The other major advantage is that I'm familiar with a broad spectrum of classic literature, so I have a decent range of influences. As much as I love books, I probably wouldn't have read most of my college assignments on my own time. (No, not even you, Moby Dick!) Since my novel is set in 1887, my experience with literature of the 1800's has definitely been an asset. It doesn't mean I haven't been doing any research-- I've done a LOT of it, and I plan on doing even more for the series as a whole-- but it does mean I have a general understanding of the literature and culture of the period. It also means I can have fun throwing a few literary jokes into my work! (My favorite in my current novel was naming a character after Varney the Vampire, the title character of a penny dreadful of the same name.)

So while I'm still not sure whether I'd recommend being an English Lit major to other aspiring novelists, I can honestly say that my college education has helped me write better fiction. Whether the benefits of having a Creative Writing concentration would have been greater is something I'll never know for sure, but as a lit geek who thoroughly enjoyed her undergrad years, I'm okay with that. ;)

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