fundamental techniques of novel-writing explained
The Weekend Novelist is a guide to novel-writing techniques which teaches by two principal features. The authors Robert J. Ray and Bret Norris (both experienced creative writing workshop tutors) first take you through the basics elements of novels by showing structure, character, and plot being created in the work of successful novelists. Then they set exercises which allow you to practise the techniques you have just learned. Actually, there’s a third strand too.
Running through the chapters is a practical example of a novel in the process of being created – though Trophy Wives reads as if it’s going to be closer to a Jackie Collins novel rather than Nostromo or To the Lighthouse. Nevertheless, they are demonstrating for would-be novelists all the things they need to take into account. They start quite reasonably with the concept of structure, encouraging writers to sketch out diagrams of their stories.
This is backed up with some very useful analyses of novel plots, showing how they are built on standard models such as the journey, the quest, and the rise from rags to riches.
As points of reference they use contemporary fiction such as the Harry Potter novels, Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, as well as examples from classics such as Jane Eyre, Moby Dick, and The Great Gatsby.
Sometimes the advice is conveyed by emotive metaphors – “When your prose speeds up your brain catches fire. When your brain catches fire, ideas spark” – and at other times they draw heavily on a scene by scene construction technique which is drawn from the world of television and cinema.
In fact there is so much concentration on concepts such as ‘the back story’, ‘chain of events’, ‘climax’, and ‘the importance of carefully chosen objects’ that I suspect it will be just as much interest to screenwriters and dramatists.
There’s quite a lot of plot synopsis, and as a result of using the same plot lines in most of their exercises, there’s also a good deal of repetition and overlap. But the upside of this feature is that you get to consider these stories in depth, and they make you aware of the complexities and careful planning which goes into the development of a successful novel.
Given their title, I was surprised there wasn’t more advice on personal time management, but they are telling you how to write – not when. Besides which, I doubt if many people with serious designs on writing novels will limit themselves merely to free time at weekends.
The approach is very encouraging and hand-holding. You need to plan, plan, plan. Then write, stick at it, and be prepared to revise and edit.
It’s realistic, because it realises you don’t have all the time in the world. And it urges you repeatedly not to sit staring out of the window, but to get pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. Their advice is a mixture of writing techniques, warnings, and encouragement. All you need to do is follow it, and you could have a best-seller on your hands.
© Roy Johnson 2005
Robert J. Ray and Bret Norris, The Weekend Novelist, London: A & C Black, 2005, pp.268, ISBN: 0713671432