Friday, January 23, 2009

How Not to Write a Novel

As a writer you have only one job: to make the reader turn the page. Of all the tools a writer uses to make a reader turn the page, the most essential is the plot. It doesn't matter if the plot is emotional (“Will Jack's fear of commitment prevent him from finding true love with Synthya?”), intellectual (“But Jack, Synthya's corpse was found in a locked room, with nothing but a puddle on the floor next to her and a recently thawed leg of mutton on the end table!”), or physical (“Will Jack's unconstitutional torture of Synthya Abu Dhabi, the international terrorist, lead to the location of the ticking bomb?”) - as long as it compels the reader to find out what happens next. If your reader doesn't care what happens next - it doesn't.

Typically, the plot of a good novel begins by introducing a sympathetic character who wrestles with a thorny problem. As the plot thickens, the character strains every resource to solve the problem, while shocking developments and startling new information help or hinder her on the way. Painful inner conflicts drive her onward but sometimes also paralyse her at a moment of truth. She finally overcomes the problem in a way that takes the reader by surprise, but in retrospect seems both elegant and inevitable.

The plot of a typical unpublished novel introduces a protagonist, then introduces her mother, father, three brothers and her cat, giving each a long scene in which they exhibit their typical behaviors one after another. This is followed by scenes in which they interact with each other in different combinations, meanwhile driving restlessly to restaurants, bars, and each other's homes, all of which is described in detail.
There's a delicious extract from How Not to Write a Novel :200 Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs If You Ever Want to Get Published by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark on The Times website, with much more sterling advice for the wannabe.

The authors have more on their website, including this rather nice post called What About I, The Literary Novelist - which shows that writing crap is within anyone's grasp, MFA or not.

Oh, and then there's the "bookfomerical" (nice way of getting around saying "book trailer" which is copyrighted elsewhere) :

This is on my want list!


Madcap Machinist said...

was that peacock meowing?

Abdullah said...

Wow.. this is actually the first time I've seen a bookfomercial... What will people think of next?

PS: I rather enjoyed it :)

bibliobibuli said...

abdullah - they've been around for while. the orig name was book trailer but one company copyrighted it. some malaysian authors and publishers have made them too inc amir muhammad