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On Becoming a Novelist

A non fiction book by


Top Ten Things First Novelists Do Wrong

There are 100 things first novelists do wrong. In fact, to really catalogue the things first novelists do wrong could fill a book. However, for brevity's sake and in order not to frighten first novelists too unmercifully, let's look at just ten.

1. THEY FOLLOW. First novelists are timid and want to feel safe, so they write novels that are pale imitations of the next guy. Yet no one needs or wants another Stephen King or Tom Clancy. Imitation leads to failure. Henry Miller said to leap without a net. Risk writing passionately about what means the most to you.

2. THEY DON'T READ ENOUGH. If a writer is not reading every novel he can get his hands on, both classics and modern, then why should he think he will make a novelist? Without reading widely, he could believe he has a unique idea and not even realize it's already been written to death.

3. THEY DON'T KNOW THE MARKET. There are major publishers and minor ones, East Coast and West Coast, small-press publishers, genre publishers, literary publishers, mass market publishers, electronic publishers, and publishers who put out works only on CD. You can't enter the marketplace to peddle your wares when you don't know your buyer.

4. THEY ARE PRIMA DONNAS. Some first novelists should write on stone so the words can't be changed. And they invariably believe they're going to be rich. The truth is, first novels usually need work and the advances are small. There might be some changes called for, proofing will be done, and maybe even the title will be changed. If the prima donna struts onto the scene, the contract walks out the door.

5. THEY THROW IN THE KITCHEN SINK. First novelists need to keep it simple. They try to tell the equivalent of five plots in the space of one book. Mario Puzo, when he wrote The Godfather, said that he put everything in, even the kitchen sink. But that was Puzo.

6. THEY HAVE NO THEME. Many first novelists have no idea what a theme is. A book must say something. The one idea it's talking about throughout the story is the theme, the core, the center. How love triumphs. Why people suffer. How courage is formed. Too many themes, however, and the book is a collage.

7. THEY AREN'T HONEST. Know thyself. Unless the novelist knows himself and has faced up to all his failings, secrets, flaws, and weaknesses, how can he show a character who is imperfect? Books aren't about perfect people in a perfect world. That's a sitcom.

8. THEY WRITE SKIMPILY OR TOO ELABORATELY. First novelists have a tendency to write too much or too little dialogue, narrative, action scenes, or description. They often tend to give tedious character details, use too many adjectives or adverbs, or just outright find ways to bore the reader. Balance must be sustained.

9. THEY CREATE WOODEN CHARACTERS. Characters in books can't live by the use of mere gimmicks -- physical tics, the use of repetitive phrases, and TV soap opera reactions. Characters live only when the author loves them enough to let them go. Let them breathe. Characters create plot, not the other way around.

10. THEY WRITE DEAD ENDINGS. First novelists often, in sheer desperation, leave the denouement dangling or come up with some off-the-wall solution that tries to tie up loose ends while only making it worse. The ending must pertain to everything that came before, and it must satisfy completely. Endings that are wrong or do not satisfy sabotage a novel.

Other books I recommend:

Steinbeck: A Life in Letters

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within

The Crack-up

-Billie Sue Mosiman

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Used availability for John Gardner's On Becoming a Novelist

Hardback Editions

June 2001 : USA Hardback

Title: On Becoming a Novelist
Author(s): John Gardner
ISBN: 0-8446-7120-7 / 978-0-8446-7120-8 (USA edition)
Publisher: Peter Smith Pub Inc
Availability: Amazon   Amazon UK   Amazon CA   

June 1983 : USA Hardback

Title: On Becoming a Novelist
Author(s): John Gardner
ISBN: 0-06-014956-6 / 978-0-06-014956-7 (USA edition)
Publisher: Harpercollins
Availability: Amazon   Amazon UK   Amazon CA   

Paperback Editions

October 1999 : USA Paperback

Title: On Becoming a Novelist
Author(s): John Gardner
ISBN: 0-393-32003-0 / 978-0-393-32003-9 (USA edition)
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Availability: Amazon   Amazon UK   Amazon CA   

January 1985 : USA Paperback

Author(s): John Gardner
ISBN: 0-06-091126-3 / 978-0-06-091126-3 (USA edition)
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Availability: Amazon   Amazon UK   Amazon CA   

Audio Editions

August 2016 : MP3 CD

Title: On Becoming a Novelist
Author(s): John Gardner
ISBN: 1-5318-1548-0 / 978-1-5318-1548-6
Publisher: Audible Studios on Brilliance Audio
Availability: Amazon   Amazon CA   

November 2013 : USA Audio edition

Title: On Becoming a Novelist
Author(s): John Gardner
Publisher: Audible Studios
Availability: Amazon