The Ideal Novelist's Degree

Sat Oct 08 2016

If my typical clients are any guide, most people come to novel writing later in their lives. After college, after settling down, folks take up writing as an avocation. For some it becomes a passion, or even a second career.

A lucky few come to writing early in their lives. When I meet these fortunate young people at a writer's conference or something, sometimes they ask what they should study in college if they want to write novels for a living.

I always tell them the same thing: Double major in English literature and psychology.

But I need to be an expert in ...

That answer often surprises people. Somebody might think they should major in something relevant to the kind of stuff they like to write. E.g. "Should I get an engineering degree since I want to write science fiction?"

No. You should not. Nor should you get an M.D. because you want to write medical thrillers. Or a J.D. because you want to be the next John Grisham.

The details don't matter

"But how can I write good sci-fi without a science background?"

I dunno. Do you think Michael Crichton got a degree in paleontology before writing Jurassic Park? No he did not, because honestly, the details don't matter.

Or take Star Wars. I promose you, George Lucas is not an actual rocket scientist with a background in spacecraft design. Nor is he an expert in materials science, electronics, plasma physics, or anything else related to the sci-fi elements of the Star Wars universe.

And yet those elements work just fine, because the details of how they work don't matter.

The story of Star Wars is not the story of how light sabers work. The story of Star Wars (the original trilogy, anyway) is about the redemption of a man who has fallen into evil. And what does that have to do with what George Lucas studied in college? Nothing.

The sci-fi elements in Star Wars are there as part of the story's premise. Audiences will give you a pass on that, because without it, there's no story. Thus, you don't need to explain those elements.

Even more, you shouldn't explain those elements. Look what happened when George Lucas lost his way and attempted to explain how the Force works. It took the story right off the rails and audiences hated it!

The deep-dive details you'll acquire from a degree in some particular specialty are always so deep they just don't matter.

What does matter

If the details don't matter, then what does?

People matter

Stories are ultimately about people. They're about how our species reacts to different situations. They're about how humans express their basic needs and desires.

If you're going to write good stories, you need to understand people. Learn what makes us tick and why we do the things we do. Learn about people's cognitive biases and how our intuitions often lead us astray. Learn about operant conditioning, and why people get addicted to harmful substances or behaviors. Learn about learned helplessness, about typical abilities and behaviors at different developmental stages in life.

In short, get a psychology degree.

All the genre-specific details you might need for a given story are ones you can research on your own (and relatively easily in the Age of Google). You don't need a degree for that. But having a firm handle on human behavior will serve you well in every book you ever write, no matter the genre.

Writing matters too

Stories have structure. They are not just random collections of scenes, but are purposefully ordered collections of scenes, whose organization exists to support the story's ability to portray human psychology.

So if you're going to do that job well, it behooves you to study up on what makes stories tick. Understand why the "hero's journey" works the way it does, and how the stages in that structure support a writer's ability to show a character's process of growth through challenge. Learn how the "heroine's journey" structure works, and how its organization supports a writer's ability to explore relationships.

There are other structures too--the picaresque, the clumsily-named bildungsroman, the epistolary, and many others I won't name. They all work in certain ways that support a writer's ability to convey different messages.

In short, get an English Lit degree.

Living with regrets

When I was in college, I had no idea that what I really wanted to do was tell stories. I ended up taking a lot of math and science before ending up with a technical writing degree. I enjoyed what I studied, but truth be told, if I could go back I'd double major in English lit and psychology.

It's certainly not impossible to learn how to write good novels in your 30s, 40s, or even your 80s. But if you are fortunate enough in your youth to know that you want to write stories, why wouldn't you study what will most help you do it?