Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Rules for Writing a Novel?

As I work on this final draft on Little Wolves over the summer, I'm constantly thinking about craft and principle. "There are three rules to writing a novel," W. Somerset Maugham once said, "but no-one can agree what they are." The truth is that you have to teach yourself how to write every novel. Writing one is no guarantee that you'll ever finish another. Many don't. One of those depressing statistics I've encountered is that 80% of all debut authors never go on to publish another work. That's frightening for those of us in the trenches, so when I get frightened I look for a helpful guide.

One of those guides that I've written about in my Goodreads account is Sol Stein's How to Grow a Novel. Stein is a former agent and author and provides an insider's view of the art. (He's also the author of Stein on Writing, and The Magician.) He places a writer's focus where it should be, on the reader. In the appendix section he offers some "principles" that I'd like to list here for those of you spending your summer writing. I'm a lover of lists and I find this one instructive. For copyright reasons this is just a partial sampling of the book. The list itself does not hint at the full riches the book offers. For that you'll need to buy yourself a copy!

Before Beginning to Write

  1. What does your protagonist want badly?
  2. Who or what is in your protagonist's way? ("Who" will be more dramatic)
  3. Get into the skin of characters who are different from you.
  4. Why would you want to spend time in the company of the person you are choosing as your protagonist?
  5. How do your characters view each other? Write a short paragraph about each character's views of the virtues, faults, and follies of other important characters. Save these paragraphs for referral and guidance.
  6. How are you planning to hook your reader on page one?
  7. Consider starting a with a scene that is already underway.
  8. What are the dramatic conflicts you intend to let the reader see in each chapter?

Keep in Mind While Writing

  1. The "engine" of your story needs to be turned on as close to the beginning as possible. The "engine" is the point at which a story involves a reader, the place at which the reader can't stop reading.
  2. Keep the action visible on stage as much as you can.
  3. Don't mark time; move the story relentlessly
  4. Is your hero or heroine actively doing something rather than being done to?
  5. Use surprise (such as an unexpected obstacle) to create suspense.
  6. During your descriptions of places do you also move the story along?
  7. End scenes and chapters with thrusters that make the reader curious about what happens next.
  8. To increase a reader's interest, deprive him of something he wants to know.

There are many items on this list (25 in all!) and I recommend you buy the book which includes many instructive examples highlighting why each point is so crucial. Copyright:

Stein, Sol. How To Grow a Novel: The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Avoid Them. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1993.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm so pleased to hear that you are working on the final draft of your next book! Can't wait...loved Night Birds.