Pros: Variety, even-handedness, honest desire to help
Cons: Exercises you’ve seen many times before
Rating: 4 out of 5
First published 7/22/2002
I’ve long since given up on the idea that there is any piece of writing advice other than “do it in the way that works for you” that is worth following religiously.
This hardly makes writing advice irrelevant, however. In fact, I take it as an argument for the idea of going out and tracking down plenty of it. After all, if any given piece of writing advice might turn out to be the one that gives you great ideas, allows you to finally sit down and write, or shows you a new and interesting direction to move in, then you want as many pieces of advice to pick and choose from as possible! Otherwise, how will you find the right ones?
There are two ways a novel can come together for anybody. One is answering to a plan. I’ve found over the years that doesn’t work very well for me. I’ll outline everything and then the outline becomes irrelevant.
– Thomas McGuane
“The Novelist’s Notebook” is a pretty neat idea. It’s a journal (which mostly just means there are lots of blank spots on pages where you’re supposed to write things) in which you play with exercises and ideas in an effort to improve and aid your novel-writing.
The journal is broken up into six sections: Planning, Beginning to Write, Necessities, Possibilities, When You’re Stuck, and Double-Checking and Revising. The table of contents helpfully lists out every exercise, so you can find whatever you need at a moment’s notice. Even the shortest chapter has 13 exercises. The longest has close to 30. So you can see that whatever your inclinations – whatever advice works for you – there should be plenty of things in here that you can make use of.
When I start I have a pretty well developed idea what the book is about and how it ought to go, because generally I’ve been thinking about it and making notes for months if not years. Generally I have the ending in mind, usually the last paragraph almost verbatim.
– Bernard Malamud
Planning takes you into those very early stages, before you really even know what your novel is about. It discusses genre (if someone were to ask a librarian which books were similar to yours, what would she say? What would make your books different?), your obsessions, issues that make you mad, your favorite novels, the rules and expectations of your genre, a writer’s journal, scheduling time for your writing, regular routines, things that keep you from writing, the tools you use for your writing, and more.
Beginning to Write discusses picture outlines, writing without an outline, naming characters, research of various types, the diction of your characters, your style, how your characters match up with each other, auditioning your characters, and more. As always, each part is more than a piece of advice – it’s a simple exercise you can play with and try out.
Necessities addresses some things every (or almost every) novel must have. Like titles, character motivation, an opening sentence, dialogue and exposition, memorable minor characters, conflicts, subplots, crises, lulls, locations, a climax, a theme, and an ending. The “Types of Endings” exercise describes five ways in which novels end and suggests that you describe a conclusion for your novel for each of the five types.
Possibilities encourages you to play with writing elements – crowd scenes, moral development or degeneration, obnoxious characters, outsiders, family trees, the news, big issues, animals, juxtaposing elements, documents, coincidence, secrets, reversals, contrasts, flashbacks and flash-forwards, sex, time pressure, humor, symbols, and diaries. There are some interesting things in here that you might not think to try otherwise. You can play around with them, see whether you like them and whether they take you anywhere interesting or not, then use or discard them as you please.
When You’re Stuck starts off with an exercise called “A Really Bad Day.” You look down the checklist and check off everything that contributed to your bad writing day. Just about anything you might think of is here; some of the entries are also quite humorous: “technical malfunction (coffee spilled on chapter seven).” Next you’re encouraged to explain your bad writing day, and then come up with solutions to such future problems. In this same chapter are exercises on imagining the effects of time, combining characters in unexpected ways, dissecting the way in which you use sentences, writing a letter from one character to another, drawing pictures of your characters, taking a walk, making arbitrary choices, writing in your head, and mapping.
Double-Checking and Revising is the final chapter. It includes the usual exercise of reading your work aloud, but adds a new suggestion of looking for patterns in the revisions you end up marking this way. It introduces epigraphs, making sure each character is pulling his weight, playing with point of view, mucking with the outcomes of your crisis points, making sure each scene is pulling its weight, questions to ask your helpful readers, making sure it doesn’t take you the rest of your life to write your book, and a handy checklist for copyediting and proofreading.
I never know how a book is going to end when I begin it. If I knew how it was going to end, I probably would not continue on … It [is] like ‘writing down’ rather than ‘writing.’
– Margaret Atwood
The Book Itself
Very nearly every exercise includes a quote from an author (as 99% of all writing books do – I rarely fail to find these interesting, though). In addition, many exercises pull specific examples of how their techniques have worked for one author or another, which I find very handy.
I wouldn’t actually write in the book itself – after all, then you’d have to buy a new one to use for your next novel! Instead I’d photocopy the pages or simply do the exercises in a notebook of your own or on your computer. If you do want to use the book, however, the paper is sturdy and the book (or at least my copy of it) is hardbound (which will make it much easier to write in!).
Asked whether a character ever takes hold of him and ‘dictates the course of the action’ in a novel, Vladimir Nabokov’s response in Strong Opinions is ‘What a preposterous experience! Writers who have had it must be very minor or insane.’
Perhaps the best detail about the book is that it unabashedly makes use of variety. Where you find material on planning out your novel, you’ll also find material on writing without an outline. Where one novelist is quoted as saying that only insane writers allow their characters to decide what happens, another is quoted as explaining that this is the key to her success. The book shows by example that what works for one author will not work for another; it merely suggests that you play with all of the various tools available until you find the ones that work for you.
Because of this, the beginning writer might find it easier to find the confidence to pick and choose her own techniques, rather than mindlessly doing what some opinionated writer once told her to do. Seeing such contradictory and decisive quotes from writers makes it clear that just because one writer thinks it’s the only way to do things doesn’t necessarily mean a thing.
I suggest that you carefully mark the ones that prove most valuable so that you can easily find them again. While it is true that what works one time won’t necessarily work the next, you’ll probably find that there are certain techniques that work better and more reliably for you than others.
If this book has any flaw at all, it is that, for roughly $19 (according to the book cover), you’ll probably only find a couple dozen pages with material that will work for you over and over again, and many of these techniques have been covered in plenty of other books. However, you’ll be able to use this notebook itself over and over again, with each successive novel you write, and you have all of the techniques in one easy-to-peruse place. So from that point of view, $19 isn’t that bad.