After I finished my 4th novel, well, the 3rd draft of it, who knows what needs to be done to it and at what time it needs to be done, I sent it off to my ‘agent’. He’s not really my agent as we don’t have a writer/agent relationship, he doesn’t have a relationship with me but with a book of mine, my 3rd novel, Johnny William & the Cameraman. However, what’s a writer to do after finishing number 4 but send it on to someone and an agent who has a relationship with number 3 is as good as any. He said he was looking forward to reading it. He said he liked it. With number 4 out of my hair, I felt like my pet budgie had flown away, a little lost. I scanned two abandoned pieces of prose, both over 20,000 words, one set in a declining rural town that seeks its survival only to have that thwarted by the media; and a story of a group of people who witness a tragedy on Sydney Harbour. Neither re-tickled my novelistic fancy.
- To write novels you have to read novels, a LOT of novels.
- The best way to write a novel is to start.
- Don’t be waylaid by family, friends, and lunch invitations. You’re the writer. Write.
- Know how the language works. If you hate grammar take up knitting.
- Genre is something that agents, publishers, booksellers, and readers think about; write what interests you. Let them work it out.
- Don’t try to be too clever with your narrator.
- Spew the whole story onto the screen, or page. This is the first draft: 90,000 words +
- Be disciplined. Give yourself a daily goal, i.e., 2000 words. If necessary write anything. Any writing (except the shopping list) counts.
- You don’t necessarily need to write what you know. How many witches, snakes, and house-elves did J.K. Rowling interview before she wrote Harry Potter?
- You don’t need to know the ending when you start; in fact, it’s best if you don’t.
- The three elements of a novel are narration, description, and dialogue.
- Narration is what your narrator says.
- Description doesn’t need to be exhaustive. A few apt words can paint hundreds more. Let the reader fill in the gaps.
- Dialogue is the best way to create believable and distinguishable characters.
- Verisimilitude (creating truth) is the writer’s goal; you do that with detail.
- Don’t think about your muse. They take the focus off you.
- A cure for writer’s block: put two clear but different characters in an adversarial situation and make them talk to each other. You will be amazed what happens.
- Somewhere towards the end of the 1st draft you need to know what it is about. What is the point of it? What does it all mean. This will lead you to the ending.
- Not every idea you have while writing this novel is right for this novel; it may be better for the next novel.
- After you’ve finished the 1st draft put it away for a few weeks and write some other stuff.
- The best person to tell you the real truth about the 1st draft is (almost always) the person who shares your bed. This is true and a whole lot cheaper.
- The second draft is cleaning up and consolidating the timeline, characters, relationships, lose ends, and getting rid of your (the writer’s) voice.
- You should lose about 10% of the 1st draft. You can add or cut, but it’s mainly cut. Be brutal. If you don’t know about “Murder Your Darlings!” Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch said it first, find out.
- The 3rd draft should be printed out. Read it on paper. You’ll be surprised what ‘other’ stuff you see and that may need to go too.
- Once it’s ‘out there’ it’s no longer yours. It belongs to the reader and it means what the reader thinks it means. You’re irrelevant.
- Start the next one.
Outside the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria in the centre of old Florence is the statue of David by Michelangelo. Actually it’s a statue of David by someone else. It’s a copy. The original is in the Galleria dell’Accademia not far away. Michelangelo’s David is truely remarkable but what is more revealing are the accompanying statues of slaves; unfinished statues. The figures seem to be emerging out of the stone; or to put it another way, they were always in the stone; Michelangelo just had to remove the marble from around them to reveal them in all their glory. Music is like that. The Clarinet Concerto always existed; Mozart just wrote it down so now it’s called Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Stories are like that too.
I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves … Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.
or, in other words; stories have always existed, writers just have to write them down as accurately as they can.
If you hear a writer say “…Oh, it just wrote itself, really,” this is what they are talking about without really understanding anything about it.
Plotting is way down on King’s list of what’s important. For him it’s narration – to move the story along; description – to create a sensory reality; and dialogue – to bring characters to life.
I’ve never plotted any more than I ‘d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible …. plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible … It’s clumsy, mechanical, anticreative. Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.
I’ve heard, and read, many times that Stephan King is a writer’s writer. It’s a good line, although I’m not sure what it means. I took it to mean that I should read him. I’ve been planning to but as his work is not my preferred type (hate the word ‘genre’) other books kept preempting my plan. And then this one came along: a Christmas gift from my sister.
King calls it a memoir, and it certainly is. His chapter on his early struggles – menial jobs – many rejections, a family to support – is particularly honest and heart-warming. Yet, his chapter on being an alcoholic is electric. Talk about ‘being honest.’ It’s an insider’s view, the view of an alcoholic looking out with all the denials, justifications, and excuses that are virtually the ‘brand’ of all alcoholics but while he’s being one, seem particularly applicable to him and him alone.
But the life story doesn’t take long and soon he’s into the advice: the reason for reading it. I was heartened to read that his first piece of wisdom is, if you want to write, you must read. Phew! Good. I do that. His next piece of advice was to wage war on adverbs, especially attributive adverbs in dialogue: he said dismissively, she blithely said. His argument against adverbs like these was particularly convincing. I got up and opened my computer to the writing I had done that day and erased all my attributive adverbs, well, most of them. I had to make a few other adjustments to follow his advice: it should be perfectly clear how a line of dialogue should be said from the words themselves and, of course, the accumulated tension, tone, and information. Don’t be scared of oft repeating, he said, she said.
All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.
And vocabulary? “As the whore said to the bashful sailor, ‘It ain’t how much you’ve got it’s how you use it.” And if you have to run to the thesaurus to find the right word, it’s probably not the right word. He quotes Earnest Hemingway to seal the point.
“He came to the river. The river was there.”
He’s equally honest and up-front about narrative, description, dialogue and a myriad of other implements from his literary toolbox. I am very happy to now know that I share his belief in dialogue as one of the best ways to built character. There are some writers who avoid dialogue. What a missed opportunity!
However, I was, at times, at a disadvantage reading this book because he often makes his point by referring, in detail, to his own work and decisions he had to make, and why. I have never read anything by King so I found these passages redundant. Not his fault, but mine.
For a new writer like me (I can’t use the adjective ‘young’ any more), who’s grappling with the second draft of a major work that at the moment is a broad, messy, and a wooly thing, reading King’s On Writing now is the most serendipitous and useful coincidence.
All writers, especially new ones, and most readers would get a lot out of his insights into the writing process, the hazards and joys of writing for a living, and the more profound elements of imagination, fiction making, and self-fulfilment. Highly recommended.
I have a gripe with Mr King. He’s down on adverbs, but he’s also down on pronouns. And so he should be; he uses them so clumsily (Yes, I now its an adverb but its necessary here.)
Move too fast and you risk leaving the reader behind. either by confusing or wearing him/her out.
The phrase ‘him or her’ is bad enough, but ‘him/her’? Unforgivable! He uses ‘he and she’ and even ‘he/she’ – but thank god, not ‘s/he’!
This is one of the English language’s greatest failings: there is no gender-neutral singular pronoun. For centuries it has been common practice to use the masculine ‘he, him, and his’ to refer to both genders. Today, this is not acceptable. But, there is a solution. What’s wrong with using the gender-neutral plural pronoun? Nothing. This has been around for a few hundred years, from the 16th century in fact* (It’s also been a solution for Jane Austin, Bernard Shaw, and Barak Obama). Yes, it’s breaking a fundamental rule of subject-pronoun agreement which maybe a small problem for some but it fixes a much bigger problem. Hence King could’ve and should’ve written,
Move too fast and you risk leaving the reader behind. either by confusing or wearing them out.
Much simpler, easier, cleaner, and no confusion, despite the broken rule.
* He neuer forsaketh any creature vnlesse they before haue forsaken them selues.
– J Fisher Wayes to Perfect Religion (before 1535)
You can find the Kindle edition, as well as other formats, here.
On my dining room table. Each post-it note is a chapter and/or plot point. Over the last 4 years I’ve been spewing out scenes onto my screen in some, but generally no particular order. Today was an attempt to find the narrative arc. Initially it looked a mess – well, it still is a mess, but it’s now a mess with a little more order. It also gave me some idea where the holes are. There are many.
Here’s the Prelude to give you an idea of what it’s about.
If you ask a family member – of any family – if they are happy, they would invariably pause, not wanting to simply say “yes”, and try to think of a word, or words, that would accurately describe their … but they would all so quickly realise that they have no idea how to describe how they feel so they say, “Yes,” usually adding, “of course.” You know this is a lie, but politeness and fear forces you to acquiesce and you smile and say something limp in acknowledgment, like “Good.” This is an example of two lies being better than none. You can both now get on with whatever you were doing; conditioning your hair, mowing the lawn, doing your tax, without upsetting the balance of the universe, happy in the nameless knowledge that you have successfully bypassed the slippery dip to yelling, tears, and/or the breakdown of your world as you know it. This is the bedrock of why families survive; sometimes, even when they shouldn’t.
If you realise at any time that you have somehow been perplexingly born into the wrong family, or if circumstances render your family suddenly, or slowly, unacceptable to you, you need to – or may be forced to – do something about it.
This is a story of a boy who did just that.
I needed an idea of what this boy might look like and I found this photo on the web and immediately I knew it was him:
He’s a fifteen year old boy who was hit by puberty ridiculously early and hard.
He’s a very naughty boy but affectionate, intelligent, and often annoying
… and he’s still at school.
A boy in a man’s body.
Potential titles: Knitting with Fog, Gulliver’s Travels, or just Gulliver.
Original illustrations by George Cruikshank
“It’s all among Workhouses, and Coffin Makers and Pickpockets,” said Lord Melbourne, the young Queen Victoria’s prime minister. “I don’t like those things; I wish to avoid them; I don’t like them in reality, and therefore I don’t wish them represented.”
I think it’s “excessively interesting,” said the young Queen.
Oliver Twist (1837) was a bit of a shock for Dickens’ fans who were introduced to the writer through that plump, accident-prone, well-off, and comic character, Mr Pickwick. And then along comes the serialised Oliver Twist, even before the serialised The Pickwick Papers, which garnered a circulation of 20,000, had finished; and in a new magazine, Bentley’s Miscellany, edited by Dickens. The underworld of London low life had, in the past, been treated lightheartedly, even comically, but Oliver Twist was something very different. Thieves, house-breakers, pickpockets all living squashed together in dingy slums and mud, taking pride in their work, but seemingly surviving in little groups that resembled something close to ‘a family’; and dealing not only with petty crime, but also, kidnapping, murder, treachery, and domestic violence.
If you think you know the story, you probably do.
A young orphan, innocent and alone, is put to work in a workhouse, fed on watery gruel, and where he has the audacity to ask for ‘more’; is mistreated, runs away, meets Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger, and Fagin and his gang of thieving street boys; is saved from the same occupation by the kindly Mr Brownlow; is kidnapped by Nancy, harassed by the villainous Bill Sikes and forced into a stint of house-breaking, only to be shot and taken in by the also kindly Mrs Maylie and her ward Rose – really his aunt; threatened by the mysterious and dangerous, Mr Monks – who is actually Oliver’s half-brother; but saved by the pitiable but kind Nancy, who is murdered by her lover, Sikes for her efforts; and ultimately reunited with the kindly Mr Brownlow, who adopts him for a predictable happy ending: the oft used, and abused, first rule of novel writing. Oscar Wild said it best and said it better by giving it to Miss Prism to say in his most famous play, The Importance of being Earnest (1895):
The good end happily; the bad end unhappily. That’s what fiction means.
However, what is equally as interesting is what Dickens can teach writers.
Oliver took the hint at once, for the fist had been so often impressed upon his body not to be deeply impressed upon his recollection.
Dickens sentences, usually long, are full of information and in a way that makes them seem packed with it; and sarcasm.
Oliver was frightened at the sight of so many gentlemen, which made him tremble; and the beadle gave him another tap behind, which made him cry; and these two causes made him answer in a very low and hesitating voice; whereupon a man in a white waistcoat said he was a fool, which was a capital way of raising his spirits, and putting him quite at his ease.
These two lines are early in the book, carrying some of the lightheartedness his readership would’ve expected having read The Pickwick Papers, but then surprising them later by his darker themes.
He also uses expression to mirror action. After Sike’s failed house-breaking attempt, during which Oliver is shot, the friends and neighbours of the assailed inhabitants, Mrs Maylie and her ward, Rose, decide to investigate the crime-scene.
Lights were then procured, and Messrs Blathers and Duff, attended by the native constable, Brittles, Giles, and everybody else in short, went into the little room at the end of the passage, and looked out at the window, and afterwards went round by way of the lawn, and looked in at the window, and after that had a candle handed out to inspect the shutter with, and after that a lantern to trace the footsteps with, and after that a pitchfork to poke the bushes with.
A lot of repetitive energy, and phrases, to produce not a scrap of evidence.
Dickens is a great character-builder with the use of dialogue.
Mr Bumble, the beadle, drops the first syllable of ‘apprentice’ (‘prentis), the ‘n’ off the article ‘an’ (‘a old lady’), any syllable that gets in his way (‘unfort’nate’), uses ‘porochial’ (instead of ‘parochial’), and ‘w’ instead of ‘v’. Mr Grimwig, a friend of Mr Brownlow’s, uses a unique expression not ‘… I’ll eat my hat” but ” … I’ll eat my head.” Barnaby, a street urchin, has an adenoidal problem over the letters ‘n’ and ‘m’: “Dobody but Biss Dadsy” (Nobody but Miss Nancy.) Bill Sikes regularly uses the word ‘damn’ but too risqué for British readers of 1838 so it was replaced simply by ‘D-‘; they understood what it meant but were not forced to actually ‘read’ such a shocking word. In a hierarchical society such as Dickensian London where one’s status is ruled by birth, income, education, and gender, such distinctive character differentiation may not be appropriate in a modern context but giving characters vocal habits is a useful device for character differentiation. Dickens has Fagin call everyone, regardless of gender, age, or status, ‘my dear’. Ascribing a character with a particular grammatical habit of, say, never using contractions helps to paint a rather serious and stern person. If characters are not first speakers of the readers’ first language grammatical mistakes ( no plural ‘s’, wrong prepositions, gerund misuse, etc) are really essential. I once heard a writer, a young male American, read, at a literary event, a section of his new novel that was set in Rome but had a Mexican character who sounded, when he spoke, nothing like a Mexican English-speaker living in Rome; he and each of the characters sounded like a young male American. A missed opportunity.
In contemporary fiction the narrator is, usually in the third person, a nameless, genderless, all-knowing, god-like voice with access not only to characters’ thoughts, desires, and plans, but also to their past and future lives. Not so with Dickens. He writes directly to the ‘reader’, calling them such, and refers to himself as the ‘biographer’, and ‘faithful historian … who knows his place’. He even chastises himself for keeping an esteemed character waiting while dealing with other plot necessities. The use of the narrator for plot-based effects is rare but was used effectively by Ian McEwan in his 2012 novel Sweet Tooth, where the first person narrator turns out not to be the writer; and, most intriguingly, the satisfying ending is only evident because you, the reader, have read the book: it’s because the book is available to read that you then know the ending. Curious? Check the link above. Dickens used his narrators in a far freer and more colourful way with direct input into not only the plot but the tone. Here, in a recent short story, Serendipity, is an example of the narrator not only intruding into the writing of the story, but also is a secondary narrator with his own story: a double narrative, if you like, one feeds on the other.
Dickens’ reference to himself, the narrator, as ‘historian’ leads now to another novelistic ‘trick’: creating
Yes, we know that we are reading fiction, that most of the whole thing – sometimes not all – is made-up but the writer wants us to believe that the story is true. Writer’s rely on our imagination to create for ourselves our own reality, and so allowing our emotions to do their work. However, writer’s don’t want to ‘lose’ their readers by letting the text slip too far from possibility. A text in the first person has a better chance of doing that, more so than a text in the third.
However, Dickens ‘tricks’ us several times implying that what he is saying is true: 1) he (the narrator) admits to omitting a word in the dialogue of a character because it is too impolite for your, the reader’s, ears. By refusing to tell us what the word is he is implying that he actually heard it, but decided it was not suitable; 2) a character observes a conversation between two people in the same room but can’t hear the exact words and so infers what is said. This is a plot point but it also implies that the conversation actually happened – no, the narrator is not making this up because if he was he would’ve placed the character closer to the talkers; and 3) forgetting a name. We, real people, do this all the time, so by the narrator confessing he has forgotten someone’s name, or the name of some place, reinforces the truth of the scene because actually the person or the place is made-up – this is fiction, remember – and being made-up the writer (narrator) could’ve provided a name. But he didn’t, so the implication is that the action must’ve happened.
It is true to say that contemporary fiction is the mainstay of a modern reader’s literary diet. However, a dip into the classics now and again, is a palatable way to hone critical thinking, get a grip on literary history, and understand where our literary tastes may be heading, and where our cultural references came from.
Most of the classic literary texts from Australia, Britain, Europe, and America are out of copyright and are, therefore, available online for free. The University of Adelaide has established a website where you can find a myriad of classic texts. It contains all of Dickens’ novels as well as a large collection of his short fiction and you can download ebook versions in various formats and for various devices. Happy exploring.
Dickensian sentence p 10
“He took the hint at once, for the fist had been so often impressed upon his body not to be deeply impressed upon his recollection”
P12 “… made him answer in a very low and hesitating voice… at his ease.”
“… the poor people liked it …”
Narrator as biographer p46
D is a great teacher of dialogue for character building:
Mr Bumble, the beadle, drops the first syllable of ‘apprentice’ (‘prentis), the ‘n’ off the article ‘an’ (‘a old lady’), and any syllable that gets in his way (‘unfort’nate’ p 296).
Mr Grimwig ‘… I’ll eat my head” p110
And Barnaby p119 with his adenoid problem
P155 Bill Sikes who regularly uses the word ‘damn’ but too risqué for British readers of 1838 so it is replaced by ‘D-‘. Mr Bumble, the beadle, uses ‘porochial’ (instead of ‘parochial’) and ‘w’ instead of ‘v’.
The relationship between narrator and reader: strong in OT but rare in modern lit. P135
The narrator calling himself “author” and “faithful historian …. who knows his place” p216 and insinuating what kind of an author would he be to keep a beadle waiting …
Unpleasant description of Fagin: “loathsome reptile” p153. P154, by telling the reader that he, the narrator, will not mention something adds veracity to the tale.
Also, like forgetting a name, not hearing a conversation because the whispers were too quiet. P213;
Describing 1 or 2 minutes when nothing is said p 218
Possible theme: what Dickens can teach us about writing. Use of narrator. A N can be a biographer, a person, not just a dissociated god-like voice. But take it further, if s biographer, then why not a person; and one with opinions, attitudes, even a history, even a present history! Narrators nowadays are usually ‘apart’ from the narrative; what if the narrator was a part if the narrative, or framed a parallel story, see Serendipity. Link to Tablo.
Character: Nancy’s ‘acting’ p165 OT nor the reader is ever quite sure what Nancy is playing at.
Dickens on description p234-5 “0f the two ladies …” He describes not so much what they wear but the impression the whole picture gives.
“Lights were then procured, and …with” p246
The bad are bad but show a little bit of good, ie Fagin. The good are good but not bad (Rose).
English writer and academic, John Mullan
Works like this are gleaned from what novels become not how they are made. A more accurate title, if accurateness is what a title should contain, is How Novels Are.
If you are interested in such things, Mullan gives you a detailed description of the building blocks that he describes from a considerable collection of novels. Don’t worry if you haven’t read them all; one of the beauties of this book is that it whets your appetite for some of the books you had no intention of reading, such as Underworld by Don DeLillo, which is a novel that sets out to describe the second half of the 20th century via the ownership of a single object: in this case, a baseball. Mullan’s descriptions of novelistic tools also throw some intellectual light on those books you may have recently read that left you feeling a little underwhelmed: in my case Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, a ghost story by Ruth Rendell.
However don’t be fooled into thinking that these tools sit in the novelist’s brain like paint on an artist’s pallet waiting to be chosen. This is not true. No novelist thinks “Today I’ll begin a romantic mystery via a split-narrative, with a parenthetically obsessed first narrator, in an attempt to personalise her skaz, who cleverly murders the plain speaking (no contractions) second narrator where the clue to the crime rests on an ekphrasis, in the first chapter, that is proven to be false in the last causing the revelation of a huge, but oh-so-clever, coincidence that will have critics falling over themselves to categorise the bloody thing”… maybe I’ve gone too far but I think you know what I mean.
Novelists tend to write what interests them, and, more importantly, what interests them the most is how to write, describe, conjure, and explore something that up until that point they had no idea how even to begin; and there’s the crux of it all: who was the artist that, when asked how do you start a picture? said, “you start with a mark on a white canvas”. Ditto for writing a novel.
John Mullan has been Professor of English at University College, London, since 2005 and is currently head of the English Department. He was General Editor of the Pickering & Chatto series Lives of the Great Romantics by Their Contemporaries, and Associate Editor for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. He is also a regular TV and radio broadcaster and a literary journalist; he writes on contemporary fiction for the Guardian and was a judge for the 2009 Man Booker Prize. Since How Fiction Works was published in 2006 two other volumes have hit the stands: Anonymity. A Secret History of English Literature (Faber and Faber, 2007) and What Matters in Jane Austen? (Bloomsbury 2012). He is host of the excellent Guardian book club.
“Symbolism in a novel is risky because it presses meaning on the reader.” This is one of the rare references to the reader and quite an important one. Unfortunately he spends little time discussing the role of the reader; or maybe such investigation has only risen in importance since 2006. There is now a strong literary theory called readers response theory …
“which gained prominence in the late 1960s, that focuses on the reader or audience reaction to a particular text, perhaps more than the text itself. Reader-response criticism can be connected to post-structuralism’s emphasis on the role of the reader in actively constructing texts rather than passively consuming them … reader-response criticism argues that a text has no meaning before a reader experiences—reads—it. (www.poetryfoundation.org)
That landscape of Uncle Harry gathering cobwebs behind the broom cupboard or the script in your bottom drawer doesn’t mean a thing until someone has a reaction to it, be it small (it’s alright) or big (Wow! How wonderful!): art isn’t art until someone consumes it.
This idea that there is an active role for the reader in literature is demonstrated by Colm Toibin’s latest novel Nora Webster (Penguin 2014). It’s a moving tale of a recently widowed middle-aged woman, mother of four, in 1960’s Ireland who finds her way back into her own life; one without her husband. No place or person is described. When Nora’s neighbour, an inquisitive old biddy from down the road, comes calling to look about a bit the reader is left to provide his or her own image of an ‘inquisitive old biddy from down the road’. This isn’t hard to do as most of us know of such a character from our past (or present). A grocery store where a bell rings when a customer enters is all that is needed to conjure up in the mind of the reader exactly what Toibin wants; it isn’t important that your ‘grocery store where a bell rings when a customer enters’ may not be geographically like the one in Toibin’s memory, but it’s the idea, the atmosphere, the tone, the times, that Toibin is after; and that the reader can provide.
Of course there are wonderful novelists who describe people and location in great detail but there is something nourishing for a reader when all that is needed is a key (“a belly held in by straining buttons”) that unlocks a memory for a reader and provides everything that is needed for the character (location) to come to life.
I found this book fascinating, despite its neglect of the role of the reader. It almost doubled my ‘to read’ list.
Although Mullan is an academic the prose of How Novels Work is leveled at the general reader but if you are more academically minded try How Fiction Works by literary critic James Wood (Jonathan Cape 2008) who attacks the information, fundamentally the same as in Mullan’s book, but from a completely different angle.