A Book on Writing for Novelists
Before launching myself into the historical novel I’ve been thinking about, I decided to read some books on writing before getting too far along. My luck was to pick up Sol Stein’s How to Grow A Novel.
Some writing books are good for beginners, but some are not. I think that the writer who has completed a book length manuscript will get more out of the Stein book than one who is just getting started.
I almost didn’t read this book because of its title. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in DWT, the use of the transitive verb “grow” with a non-biological direct object produces a blackboard moment in me. I’m glad that I didn’t let this prejudice keep me from the trove of great advice to be found in this book.
What hooked me was the subtitle:
The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them
Stein knows what he’s talking about. He’s a writer as well as an editor. He has written plays, poetry, and novels.
The book is arranged in four sections of unequal length:
The Responsibilities of the Writer
The Responsibilities of the Publisher
The first section is the meat of the book and discusses the expectations of the reader, the importance of conflict in every scene, and the development of plot, character, dialogue, and setting.
I’m not going to comment on every section. They’re all useful, but I know that this is a book I’ll read more than once. This time around I was most taken with what Stein says about conflict.
Chapter Two poses the question “Is Conflict A Necessity?” This is how Stein answers it:
Yes, conflict was and is a necessity, it is the essence of dramatic action. The engine of fiction is somebody wanting something and going out to get it. And if you let him get it right away, you’re killing the story…Without…opposition, fiction is a vehicle without an engine.
What I’ve taken away from this first reading of How to Grow a Novel is the importance of planning conflict into every scene before I take the time to write the scene.
As I gear up to write my historical novel, I’m taking the time to create a scene outline that I think will be more practical than any chapter outline I’ve used for my previous novels.
My new mantra is “Conflict runs the engine.” Each scene I sketch has a character who wants something and either gets it or doesn’t get it by the end of the scene.
When I’ve got the first draft on paper, I’ll go back to Stein’s book for help in revising it.
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