How to Grow a Novel
By Sol Stein
(St. Martin’s Griffin, 240 pp)
Scope: Craft tips and industry overview
Overview: Similar to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, this book has a chatty, almost memoir-like tone. The author envisioned this book, as stated in his introduction, as a more in depth companion to his earlier published book Stein on Writing. In this, unfortunately, he failed. More than once he skirted the full explanation of a subject or technique, referring the reader back to his first craft book for a more complete picture. Much of what he writes then becomes name-dropping anecdotes with little take away value.
The end of the book is devoted to the publishing industry—its inner workings and interactions with/responsibility to the writer. Written in 1999 and updated in 2002, much of this section of the book feels out-of-date. Some of his insights might still hold true, but only for top-of-the-list, traditionally published novels. And while it’s interesting to read about publishing’s former glory-days, it has little relevance for today’s budding novelist.
Why the three pen rating, then? The author does have helpful advice sprinkled throughout—especially regarding dialogue and a writer’s responsibility to the reader. Stein’s experience as both an editor and writer is vast. Here’s some of his best tips.
- The reader “is primarily seeking an experience different from and greater than his or her everyday experiences in life.”
The writer’s job is to transport him or her there through the page, to evoke emotion with words and description.
- “If there is no action, there is no scene.”
Action is not only physical happenings—argument, disagreement these too are action if they supply tension and story movement.
- “What is it that entices the reader in the first few paragraphs of a book? Most often it is a character one wants to get to know better.”
Action, tension, conflict—these are not enough. Readers want characters they can love and despise, admire and scorn, characters they can laugh and cry with. Give your characters history, vulnerability, desire, and zeal. Take care to grow them, just as you grow your plot.
- Be Writerly. “Writerly writing employs simile, metaphor, and, most important, detail, preferably visual detail that is fresh.”
Approach your writing with care and specificity. Reject clichés. Take pride in your role as a wordsmith.
- “Dialogue is not an exchange of information but a kind of game in which the opponents try to gain an advantage over each other.”
Dialogue can be a great source of tension. Make it adversarial and oblique. Give the exchange attitude and subtext. Don’t try to copy everyday speech. Dialogue is an art form all its own and so much more than an edited transcript of real life speech.
Have you read this book or Stein’s early work? What did you think?