The dream of becoming a novelist is not limited to literary scholars. In fact, many of today’s successful fiction writers graduated from with a non-English degree. Within certain sub-genres of fiction—such as psychological thrillers, historical drama and science fiction, as well as non-fiction—those who study the topics discussed in their work tend to fare just as well as (if not better than) their English major counterparts. There is also that demographic of writer that may have already obtained an undergraduate degree in English and embarked upon further graduate study in a non-English field as another means of acquiring a sub-genre specialisation. With the ubiquity of online graduate programs from various higher-education institutions now all over the Web, this option of finding inspiration for further story ideation and a student community to help foster creativity is a lot more attainable than it was before.
When it comes to writing an entertaining novel, one’s level of creativity is more important than his or her major. If an individual wishes to write a novel in which the central protagonist is a criminal psychologist, for instance, then professional details related to that field (technical jargon, case histories, workplace environment, etc.) are just as important to the story as effective grammar and a wide vocabulary. Prior to its publication, several professional editors will meticulously examine the novel in order to improve upon its language. This means firsthand knowledge of the signature topic (criminal psychology, in this case) is the most important contribution the writer will make to that particular project—in addition to the initial creative spark.
Besides, an English degree does not typically translate into lucrative earnings. Journalism is a far better option for writing students, since the unemployment rates are lower and the starting wages are almost always higher for entry-level journalists. Though the major does not concentrate on narrative details to the extent that creative writing or literature courses do, its students learn the same nuts and bolts of English grammar required for successful writing projects. In addition, they learn a valuable skill for fiction writing: how to conduct extensive research on a specific topic.
Post-graduate employment is also crucial for aspiring novelists. It can take years for one to publish his or her first novel; meanwhile, bills and rent must be paid. Many experts agree that this early transition period presents the would-be novelist with a valuable opportunity to learn the trade they wish to someday chronicle on paper. If one hopes to write science fiction, then time spent working in a laboratory or research center can provide some much-needed inspiration. If historical fiction is the genre of choice, then the writer can learn much from working in a museum or library.
The most successful novels inspire readers to dig deeper into the subject at hand—and often, the writers of these works were experts in that particular field prior to their literary careers. Dan Brown studied art history in Spain as an undergraduate; to date, his best-known novel, The Da Vinci Code, has sold an estimated 65 million copies, according to Policymic. John Grisham was a successful lawyer for six years prior to the publication of his first legal thriller, A Time To Kill; today, he is one of most successful novelists of all time. Bestselling Australian writer Kathryn Fox attended medical school and practiced medicine for more than a decade prior to her first forensic crime novel, Death Mask. The reading public has historically shown appreciation toward writers who professionally understand their topics.
If one wishes to write for a living—but is unsure about pursuing a potentially limiting degree in writing or literature—he or she should not give up the dream. Bestseller lists are full of men and women with no formal training in professional writing, and readers do not seem to mind. For many, the key to a great novel is authenticity.
The Australian Literature Review