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Want to Be a Novelist? What to Look For in Your College

Feb 21, 2011 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

If you want to be a novelist, the easiest way to get there is to just sit down and write. You don’t need a college degree. You don’t need any prior experience. You do need talent, drive, and the ability to sit down and make progress—even incremental progress—on a regular basis. Even when you’re not inspired.

College can help you advance your career as a novelist—and even graduate with connections and an agent-ready novel. And colleges with great creative writing departments can help you with many aspects of craft. But not all colleges—even colleges with well-known writing programs—are equipped to help novelists specifically. If you want a college that will help you with the kind of writing you want to do, here are a few things to look for.

Classes in genre writing

If you plan to write mainstream literary novels, a college creative writing department may be able to do more for you. But if you want to write crime novels, romance, science fiction—any kind of genre fiction—your creative writing department may not have classes that support that. Many in the mainstream literary area look down on genre fiction—and that’s where a lot of creative writing professors come from.


College can help you advance your career as a novelist—and even graduate with connections and an agent-ready novel.

You can learn a lot about general craft issues in some creative writing programs, but they may not focus strongly on plot development or the specific conventions of your genre. Find out if the college you want to attend teaches classes in genre fiction—or has any genre fiction writers in the writing department.

A focus on the industry side

So imagine you do write a novel in college. Would you have any idea what to do with it once you graduate? Look for a creative writing department that won’t leave you hanging in this area. Look for classes that deal with the publishing industry—how to market yourself to agents and publishers, how to manage your own book marketing, self-publishing, and other classes on how to deal with the business end of your own writing career.

Writing professors with a publication record

Do the professors in your writing department have a record of publishing novels? This isn’t that common—a lot of creative writing professors come from short story and poetry backgrounds. But if you have a few published novelists on campus, chances are they understand the industry and what sells in addition to how to create beautiful works of art with strong character development. As an aspiring novelist, these are valuable mentors to have. In addition, published novelists may have good connections to agents and publishers.

Opportunities to craft your own senior project

Can your novel be your senior project? The first novel is often the most difficult—and as a first-time novelist, having a mentor help you through the process could be extremely valuable. See if you can design your own senior project with the outcome being a marketable novel ready to send out to agents—and if there’s a professor on staff with the right background and expertise to help you out with it.

Graduates who are novelists

How many people have gone through this creative writing program—and come out on the other end with successful careers? Bear in mind that getting a career as a novelist is extremely difficult even for people who graduate from very supportive creative writing departments. But if there are a few people among your college’s alumni who do have careers as novelists, that’s a good sign. One or two might even be willing to meet up with you at some point near or after your graduation to talk about what you should do next with your manuscript and career. 

Not every college—even those with well-known writing programs—is designed to train working writers. Many simply train students to become prize-winning short-story writers and move into a career in academia. If that’s not what you want, consider what you’ll get out of your college’s writing department before you enroll. If there are classes in genre writing and practical industry knowledge, if there are published novelists among the professors and alumni, and if you have the option of developing your own agent-ready novel as a senior project, these are all very good signs.




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