How to Grow a Novel: The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Themby Sol Stein, Stein
How to Grow a Novel is an invaluable editorial workshop in print. It includes details and examples from Sol Stein's behind-the-scenes work with bestselling novelists as well as talented newcomers. Stein takes the reader backstage in the development of memorable characters and fascinating plots. The chapter on dialogue overflows with solutions for short story/i>… See more details below
How to Grow a Novel is an invaluable editorial workshop in print. It includes details and examples from Sol Stein's behind-the-scenes work with bestselling novelists as well as talented newcomers. Stein takes the reader backstage in the development of memorable characters and fascinating plots. The chapter on dialogue overflows with solutions for short story writers, novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights. Stein shows what readers are looking for-and what they avoid-in the experience of reading fiction. The book offers guidelines-and warnings-of special value for nonfiction writers who want to move into fiction. Stein points to the little, often overlooked things that damage the writer's authority without the writer knowing it. And this book, like no other writing book, takes the reader behind the scenes of the publishing business as it affects writers of every level of experience, revealing the hard truths that are kept behind shut doors.
Author Biography: Sol Stein has edited the work of such major writers as James Baldwin, Jack Higgins, and Elia Kazan. He has taught creative writing at Columbia, Iowa, and the University of California at Irvine, which presented him with the Distinguished Instructor Award in 1993. He is the author of nine novels, including the million-copy seller The Magician, as well as the much-acclaimed Stein on Writing.
“[Stein] shares what he has learned from his extensive experience in the fields of writing and publishing. This book stands apart from the wide field of instructional writing books by putting the writer's focus on the reader. Highly recommnded.” Library Journal
“Stein is a fascinating guide and teacher. This should be required reading [for] 90 percent of published authors . . . Wonderful.” The Daily Mail (London)
- St. Martin's Press
- Publication date:
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- First Edition
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Read an Excerpt
How to Grow a Novel
The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome them
By Sol Stein
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 Sol Stein
All rights reserved.
The Reader Is Looking for an Experience
What in the world does writing fiction have to do with courtesy?
Lack of courtesy may be the chief fault that distinguishes unsuccessful writing from the most successful. Courtesy is often confused with etiquette, and shouldn't be. Etiquette is a code of behavior considered correct in a given society, do you or do you not keep your left hand in your lap while using a fork or a spoon with your right? Many of the "rules" of behavior are frivolous and deserve to be ignored. I am talking about courtesy, which is sometimes poorly defined in dictionaries as "polite behavior." Courtesy is one of the more important elements in human conduct. It calls for a consideration of the needs and wants of another person.
Etiquette is a man opening a door for a woman. Courtesy is a woman opening a door for a man carrying packages in both arms. The difference between etiquette and courtesy is enormous. For example, in love making, etiquette — that is, expected behavior under a given code — may be nice or irrelevant. Courtesy toward a lover, understanding and playing to the needs of one's partner, is essential. Courtesy is also essential to writing, and, sadly, much overlooked by writers who do not consciously consider what the reader may be feeling at any particular point in a story or novel. Here and elsewhere in this book I will be describing techniques of pleasing the writer's partner, the reader; for the pleasured reader will be grateful and loyal to the writer, buying each book and looking forward to the next one.
What is it then that the reader wants?
The reader of fiction may welcome insight and information, yes, but is primarily seeking an experience different from and greater than his or her everyday experiences in life. When a child claps its hands with joy at the promise of being read a story, the child is anticipating pleasure, an experience that excites its imagination and is unlike the child's daily routines. Children treasure their books. The sight of those books reflects the memory of experiences that were full of wonder. When a child segues through the shock of puberty into the teenage years, the wonder generated by stories doesn't cease. Teenagers are fascinated by tales of extraordinary experiences, adventure, fantasy, science fiction, by the good winning out against the bad only after horrendous obstacles have been overcome. When the teenager passes into adulthood, his expectations from fiction are greater. The new adult is less tolerant of coincidence, cartoonish characters, overly familiar plots, static descriptions, speechifying, boring passages, all of which get in the way of an experience so involving that the reader is not aware of turning pages and cannot leave until there are no more pages left to turn.
* * *
Fiction involves the creation of characters and events that originally resided only in the writer's mind. The writer creates a vehicle for transporting his characters to the reader's imagination, and does so with techniques that enable the reader to believe that the fiction is true. In the 1970s my wife and I used to visit a resort in Jamaica called Round Hill for a couple of weeks in the cold depth of New York's winter. Round Hill had a number of attractions besides the weather. It was once a watering hole for publishers, and as a relatively young publisher I could meet an occasional senior competitor under noncompetitive social circumstances. More important, the guests came not only from the States, but from Europe, and we always seemed to meet people who became friends whom we would continue to see on both sides of the Atlantic. I particularly liked a cottage that had a tree house the size of a living room, with tropical vines that visibly grew inches each day. Luckily, the titled Englishwoman who owned the cottage had read a novel of mine called The Magician, and this happy coincidence cleared the way for me to rent her cottage. Each two cottages shared a swimming pool. On one such trip, we arrived by air in a sweltering afternoon, and quickly put on swim clothes and headed for the pool.
As I was doing a few laps, I noticed the couple from the neighboring cottage sitting at the far end of the pool. The man was consuming books, by which I mean he was going at first one book and then another so voraciously that he seemed like a hungry man presented with his first food after a period of starvation. I recognized some of the covers. These were substantial books, not a summer's beach reading. A publisher of books who spies a voracious reader immediately has his antennae up. I stopped swimming at my neighbors' end of the pool and, neck deep in water, introduced myself. My neighbors proved to be from Glasgow, he Scottish, his wife English. I later learned that he was the third-generation, reluctant CEO of Goldberg's, Scotland's biggest department store chain, and also Chairman of the Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the author of plays. We chatted a bit and I asked, "Do you ever read fiction?"
"No," he said. "I am only interested in what is true."
I have wasted a good portion of my life trying to reform people, but couldn't resist getting out of the pool, and returning within minutes with a paperback copy of Jerzy Kosinski's masterpiece, The Painted Bird, that I happened to have in my briefcase. Without much ado, I passed the book to him, and he politely put aside the book he was reading and started The Painted Bird. After a while, he came over with an urgent question: "Is this true?"
I swam over to his side of the pool and said, "Do you think it's true?"
He finished the book before dinnertime. I loaned him another novel, which he took gladly. I had made a convert who read only what is true.
The opposite of true is "made up." How disappointing it is when a writer presents the draft of a story to a friend, and the friend says, "It sounds made up." My objective in this book is to help novelists perfect their skill in making the reader turn pages, to forget that he is reading, to live among characters that once resided only in the writer's head and now seem true and memorable to strangers.
"Memorable" is not an idle word. Our brains register, record, and preserve the moments of books that have generated the most-intense experiences. When I was five or six years old, a doctor ordered me to bed with an illness I don't believe I had. While my mother had taught me to read at four, I was still being read to by her, and, when she was at work, by a sitter. At one point they took turns reading to me a book that contained a villainous Indian who had a third eye in the center of his forehead and could therefore watch his prisoner with that eye even when he slept. Being watched night and day was a terrifying thought long before George Orwell's 1984. The story of the Indian terrified me so much that I begged my mother to throw the book away. I was relieved when she told me that she had disposed of the offending volume.
Some months later, no longer confined to bed, I was walking down the hallway where my parents' books were shelved and noticed a familiar binding poking its nose out from behind other books. I plucked it from the shelf. It was the book about the three-eyed Indian! I was instantly overwhelmed by the terror I had felt when it was read to me. My mother had betrayed me. When she saw my reaction, this time she got rid of the book, in part at least to rebuild our bridge of trust.
A book that's been shelved after reading is like an object that is ready to come alive again when we notice it. A book that has provided a moving experience has taken on some magical property, much like a keepsake that reminds you of an out-of-the-ordinary experience long ago. A novel that has done its job will not be discarded because it has been used. That priestly alchemist, the writer, has turned words into memorable experience.
We attribute nonmaterial properties even to books we haven't read. There was a time in the 1960s and 1970s when young people scorned property, things you would take with you if you moved. When it came to books, they preferred paperbacks to hardcovers not just because of price, but because you could leave them behind when you shifted elsewhere. In 1974 my publisher sent me on a twenty-one-city tour to publicize my new novel. In Los Angeles, UCLA assembled students from a number of writing classes in a lecture hall where I was to speak. The instructor finished introducing me by holding up a copy of my new novel. I took it from him gently, and with a practiced movement suddenly tore the hardcover book in half. Some students screamed. Why? The book was not a baby I was tearing limb from limb. It was a physical object made of paper, ink, and glue. No one in the audience had yet had a chance to read it. The response from that audience demonstrated that the students spontaneously felt I was destroying something special.
When a totalitarian state wants to attack the culture of a people, it makes a bonfire of its books, a source of pain even to people who have not read most of the volumes heaped onto the fire. Books are symbolic not only of the pleasures and insights derived from them, but also as the safe harbor of the knowledge that passes from one generation to the next. Burning books is an attempt to stop time, to cut short the progression from monks copying books important to their beliefs, to the end of the twentieth century, when tens of millions of people rely on books as providers of knowledge and extraordinary experience. Why else give twelve hours of life over to a book, which is what we're asking our readers to do?
When the baseball, football, or basketball season is at its height, a considerable portion of the American male population and a not insignificant number of females deploy hours away from work watching their sport on television. What the baseball fan, for instance, hopes for, consciously or not, are the moments of tension and suspense when a ball is hit but not yet caught, when a runner is headed for a base and has not yet reached it. The same applies to other sports as well. The spectator rooting for his hero experiences tension, suspense, anxiety, and pleasure, all the things readers hope for when they turn to a novel. The reader is enjoying the anticipation and excitement that are often worrying in life but a pleasure when they are happening on the ball field or in a book.
What is amazing is the fact that so many writers with a novel in the planning stage give little or no conscious thought to the reader's experience. They need look no further than sports to understand that the spectator seeks the excitement that does not usually occur in daily life. The joy of winning, even through surrogates, is real. And the displeasure of losing through surrogates is also real. Spectators cheer their favorites and boo their antagonists, as they do, figuratively, in fiction. And if a favored character is trounced, the reader feels the same sadness felt by a sports enthusiast whose team has just lost. But let us remember that when a team — even the team we are rooting for — is winning too easily, our enjoyment of the game decreases. What the sports spectator and the reader enjoy the most is a contest of two strong teams, a game whose outcome hangs in the balance as long as possible.
The reader is the "customer" of fiction, a notion that can easily be disparaged when it is misconstrued. The need to give pleasure to a reader is not a license to produce hackwork. Kingsley Amis once said that he didn't think he'd ever written anything designed purely as a sop to the reader. "But," he added, "I always bear him in mind, and try to visualize him and watch for any signs of boredom or impatience to flit across the face of this rather shadowy being, the Reader."
True, a large public exists for trash, does that mean writers must or should write transient works? Most writers of so-called popular fiction (the term is wrong; some literary fiction is quite popular) are content to use stock characters, words that are not quite right, cliches, awkward rhythms, phony plot twists, and melodramatic coincidences. A minority of the authors of transient fiction bring some literary values into their popular work, and are rewarded with a wider audience. Every kind of fiction is enhanced by the author's use of precision and nuance in his choice of words. Readers value and remember extraordinary characters long after tricky plots are forgotten. At the same time, it serves us to recognize that certain elements common to transient works are necessary for all fiction, of whatever reach. For instance, the tension and conflict that readers of suspense fiction enjoy have been essentials in theater and fiction since the first storytellers addressed their audiences across a fire.
There's the rub. The original storytellers could see the reactions of their audiences. If these listeners were not held in thrall by what they were hearing, they would doze off right in front of the storyteller, or worse, kill him. Today, the playwright has a sense of his audience's reaction. He knows what holds it silent and spellbound, and also what lapses in the writing or performance cause the coughing and restlessness that signal a drop in attention. But writers of novels and films do not see their audiences. The audience must therefore be imagined. And we bring to that image what we have learned about audiences, they enjoy in fiction what they often deplore in life: anxiety, tension, suspense, and conflict. We ignore those needs of the audience at our peril.
There is an additional benefit to understanding the reader's need for high experience. The more involving that experience is for the reader, the more likely the reader is to tell others, thus beginning the valuable chain reaction called "word of mouth," which is responsible in large measure for the creation of bestsellers as well as the evolution of long-term publication of books that we have come to call "classics."
It is an astonishing fact that many experienced as well as inexperienced writers with whom I have worked have not given much thought to what the reader is experiencing in each scene of a novel. Perhaps it is because courtesy — considering the experience of the reader — is often ignored in dry schooling, where literature is examined for structure and technique more than effect. Consider also that many newcomers to writing want to get something off their chests, which leads them to imagine the audience as passive receptors rather than active enjoyers of a heightened experience fashioned for them by the writer.
How and when can writers deal with the reader's experience? Those writers who attempt to consider the reader's experience while writing usually fail. The time to think about the effect of each sequence is when planning a scene or revising it. It is obviously more efficient to plan the reader's experience of a scene before writing it. If one has failed to do that, the experience of the reader needs to be considered when examining the first and subsequent drafts. How does the writer know if the reader will have an experience when reading a given section? If some time has gone by, if the writing has been allowed to cool, when the writer rereads that scene he will experience some level of the emotion that will be felt by the reader coming upon the scene for the first time. If the writer experiences ennui or nothing, he cannot expect the reader to feel more. That sequence — paying attention to the reader's needs after the scene is written — is wasteful compared to giving thought to the reader's needs before the scene is drafted. To that end, let us consider a number of possibilities.
Writers are sometimes encouraged to write a synopsis of a planned novel for a prospective agent or publisher to interest them in reading the manuscript. This précis is usually a summary of the plot with minimal characterization, and does not allow for conveying the texture of the writing in the book to come. A synopsis works better for transient fiction, thrillers and the like, where the plot counts most, though it seldom conveys how well the book will be written.
Excerpted from How to Grow a Novel by Sol Stein. Copyright © 1999 Sol Stein. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Sol Stein is the author of several novels, including the million-copy bestseller The Magician. As an editor, his authors included James Baldwin, Jack Higgins, and many others. Stein has lectured widely on creative writing, and was given the Distinguished Instructor Award by the University of California at Irvine in 1993. His columns appear regularly on America Online and elsewhere.
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