How Not To Write a Novel

21 May

Over the years, a cottage industry has arisen around books that offer advice on writing fiction. These come in all stripes, from the folksy (Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird) to the insightful (Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist) to the inspirational (Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write). Writing schools have published anthologies on craft and novelists have weighed in with opinions and experiences, among them, Stephen King, Norman Mailer and Ray Bradbury.

Volumes promise to make you finish writing a novel in the next year, the next ninety days, the next thirty days and even the next ten days, should you be in a hurry. There are books on dialogue, plot, characters, subtext. There’s even one titled How Not to Write a Novel, with examples of the mistakes that novices make.

Most of these assert that there are no rigid rules for writing – and yet, certain pieces of advice crop up time and again. These have been repeated so often that they’ve come to be taken as hoary truths. This is far from the case. Here, then – speaking as someone who’s never written a novel – are five common pieces of advice you’d be better off not to follow blindly.

Keep it Simple. George Orwell said it. Strunk and White insisted on it. So it must be followed, right? Not necessarily. What if, by subject and inclination, one needs a prolix, wordy style? In that case, the important thing, especially at a rewriting stage, is to be clear about what you’re aiming for, and then make sure you’re communicating it. Not convinced? Two words: William Faulkner. Still not convinced? Two more words: Henry James.

Write What You Know. On every novel written by a Vietnam veteran describing the horrors of conflict, there falls the shadow of Stephen Crane’s classic The Red Badge of Courage, which he wrote despite having no Civil War experience. If you have first-hand knowledge about your subject, great; if you don’t, and it’s something you need to write about, find out what you have to and let your imagination do the rest. Kafka never visited the United States, which didn’t stop him from making it the setting of his first novel.

Show, Don’t Tell. This makes sense on the face of it, considering that a large part of the art of fiction lies in dramatizing characters in action. Yet, almost no novel can rely on only showing and not telling. There has to be a balance between the two – and what that balance favours depends on the needs of the novel in question. Look at how much Milan Kundera tells instead of shows, underlining his ideas. (Polemical novels, though, face the danger of being more polemical than novel, but that’s the subject of another column.)

Murder Your Darlings. This one originated from Arthur Quiller Couch, who wrote in 1916: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” Ever since, it’s been held up as a way to banish passages that are “clever”, “literary” and otherwise not plain enough. While I’m certainly not advocating purple passages and overwritten prose, I don’t think that one ought to kill those poor darlings at all. Rather, examine them scrupulously and, if they’re there for a reason and make the point you want them to make, let them live and breathe.

Write When You Have Something to Say. Scott Fitzgerald, somewhat confusingly, once said, “You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say”. The need to have something to say has stopped many fledgling writers in their tracks and is one of the leading causes of furrowed brows among their tribe. Here’s a more worthwhile way to look at it: write to find out what you have to say. Scribble, explore, go down blind alleys, take U-turns and then emerge onto the highway of meaning. And don’t forget to thank me in your novel’s acknowledgements.

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