On Writing the Novel: Fiction, (Part Seven)
I recently agreed to be the judge in a national competition for writers. I offered to take on three categories: non-fiction book, verse published in a magazine, and novel. Believe it or not, the first two are easy. The third is not so easy, in part because it is so painfully obvious that most of the candidates don’t understand the basics.
So here, if you care, are some of Professor Brown’s rules for the writers of novels.
Learn to write a short story first. Here, at least, you can work on correcting mistakes in narrative technique without losing the desire to become a writer. Trying to correct a novel that is full of such mistakes will, perhaps, appear so daunting that you find it easier to pitch the whole thing in the drawer and forget it. On second thought, if you’re not serious about your writing, maybe this is the preferable option.
Read John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist. Then read it again. Highlight it and refer to it often.
Start at the beginning of the story. Don’t give us interminable pages of introductory material; start where it gets interesting! I once took a student’s story which everyone had praised and tore the first seven pages off and threw them over my shoulder. As everyone else recoiled in horror, she said, “Too much set-up, hey?” She understood. She cut the first seven pages and the story, much improved by this simple act, got quickly published the first place to which it was sent!
Read Thomas Uzzell’s Narrative Technique. You may be able to order a copy from abe.com. This is a classic of writing instruction, and although it was written in 1923 (that’s right, 1923), you will learn more about how to write fiction-that-will-move-the-reader from this book than from any other.
Show, don’t tell. This is the most-often repeated phrase in creative writing classrooms for good reason. You are hereby forbidden to interpret any of your characters’ feelings for your readers. Provide a description of the person’s response and the reader will get it!
Learn to write dialogue! People don’t speak perfect English! By the same token, don’t write dialogue the way people actually talk! No one wants to read “’Uh,’ he stammered, ‘I-uh-really, like, think that—uh—I-uh don’t want to like, have to like, really do it, you know?’” When you sit in the company lunch room, or in a crowded restaurant, or on a crowded bus or subway train, take notes. Write down dialogue you actually hear. You will quickly hear the difference in the way two different people speak. The writer need not explain everything in order to differentiate between characters if the dialogue is clearly spoken by different people clearly enough drawn!
SEPARATE DIALOGUE SPOKEN BY DIFFERENT CHARACTERS INTO DIFFERENT PARAGRAPHS! Do NOT write endless dialogue that all melds together. Each new speaker should begin a new paragraph! You are NOT to confuse your reader! Refer to John Gardner in Rule #2.
Learn to punctuate properly; punctuate consistently! The number of folks who don’t understand punctuation astonishes me.
Read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and keep this book handy as you write! I tell my students that this is “Cliff Notes” for grammar. It’s also “Cliff Notes” for punctuation. If you have trouble with #8 above, this is a real writer’s tool.
Be sure, if you describe a REAL PLACE, that you’ve actually been there in person! (or have read extensively about the place and seen every photograph in every travel magazine you can.) If you haven’t already, download Google Earth and go look at the layout and topography.
The over-use of stilted dialogue, overly descriptive, florid prose, explaining it all to the reader ad nauseum, and beginning long before the story actually begins, all make me fearful of the future of literature.
That said, let me also ‘fess up to being near the end of a novel which begins a quarter century before my protagonist is born, and which includes encyclopedic information not directly germane to the immediate plot, and all sorts of politically incorrect violence, none of which is gratuitous, incidentally, because it is a novel about the fall of the Roman Empire in the west. Let me also say that you may only actually break these rules once you know what you’re doing and are aware of the fact that you are breaking the rules.
If there is one rule that wraps up all of the others, it would be MASTER THE BASICS BEFORE YOU TACKLE A NOVEL!!!
(from The Broadkill Review, Vol. 2 No. 3, May 2008)