Thursday, January 23, 2014

How To Write a Novel

That's a catchy title, isn't it?  I had to get your attention somehow. I was going to title the blog, "I am a victim of bullying."  If you heard the things that Paul Levine and Patty Smiley say to me about blogging on a more regular basis, you’d agree that it's over the line. But with all the attention bullying has been getting recently, I didn't want someone inadvertently reading one of my flippant posts thinking they might find relief.

In fact, it is my intention to blog at least a little more often by stating now that I will write a series of blogs about writing. That is essentially what I intended to do when I joined The Naked Authors.  I hate to admit I've taken on too many projects, so by stating it clearly here, I will force myself to post something at least once a month.

In addition, it will give me some notes and guidelines to refer to when I teach classes on writing. I have been too busy to accept any invitations for the past two years,  however it’s my hope to start speaking at conferences once again. I have at least two books coming out in the next year, but that's news I'll save for another time.

I once taught a class on how to write a novel at the South Carolina Book Festival. I received tremendous response, which was followed by an invitation to be the opening speaker at the South Carolina Writers Workshop, traditionally held in Hilton Head, South Carolina. The concept was simple and had nothing to do with how to get published, find an agent, pitch your idea or get out of debt quickly by writing a novel. The class only covered the mechanics of writing a novel from my point of view.

I am approached by would-be novelists virtually every week. There are very few cops who don't have stories that could fill a book and it sometimes feels like every criminal attorney would be happier as a novelist. (As evidence we need look no further than our own Paul Levine who has excelled in both professions.)

More often than not, when I ask the would-be novelist who they read, they respond, "I don't read fiction." In my opinion, that's a mistake. I learned so much from reading across all genres, from crime fiction, fantasy, historical novels to virtually any other well-written prose. It is the foundation of a good novelist. Generally my response is to tell whoever is asking me about becoming a novelist that they should read fifty novels in the next two years. That would not only prove their persistence, a trait that is vital to working in publishing, it would provide them with a decent start to an understanding of what they like in fiction. 

In addition, I usually suggest several books on craft. I read about writing almost every day. It is something which interests me so it's not hard to accomplish.  I always have a novel I'm reading and roughly every other week I read a book that has something to do with the craft of writing or the writing life. I would recommend these books as a start to any writing career:

Hit Lit by James W Hall

In full disclosure, Professor Hall is a friend of mine and I enjoy virtually everything he writes. That being said, this book is a culmination of his life studying the theory and practice of writing a successful novel. He breaks down the most popular books of all time in a way that is enjoyable and enlightening.

How to Write the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas

This is just a simple, practical guide to elements which could help a commercial novel. I'm sure some would call the book crass and commercial, but it's important to remember that crass and commercial sometimes pays the bills and Maas’ advice is rock solid. Mr. Maas has been an agent for many years and seems to know what he's talking about. I also like how he works his own clients’ novels in the text as examples. That's a good agent.

On Writing by Stephen King.

The book starts out as a memoir, which is interesting, but when Mr. King decides to teach his lessons with examples he has provided in the first half of the book, all I can really say is, "Brilliant."

I have quite the collection of books about writing. From one of Paul Levine's suggestions, How Fiction Works to the Bible of screenwriting, Story by Robert McKee. In the past few months I have been paring down my extensive library in the event that I am forced to move quickly without leaving a forwarding address. The books which remain on my shelves, including the three above, are a testament to how much they have influenced me.

Here are Elmore Leonard rules to writing:

This should give you something to think about as you prepare to write the Great American Novel. In my next blog, I’ll get into the actual concepts that go into a novel. Until then, read the three books listed above and if you don't read fiction, start on the first of fifty novels, preferably several by writers on this blog.


  1. Thanks for Hit Lit. I have the others but not that one. I'm a collector of writing books because I always believe the next one I open will have the magic formula for making writing easy :O)

  2. from Jacqueline

    Good list, Jim - and I think "On Writing is the very best of the bunch. And as for Elmore Leonard's ten rules - I think I have broken about half of them, but not the ones pertaining to punctuation and use of adverbs or yawn-inspiring adjectives. And Jim - lovely to have you back on NA! (one exclamation mark).