“How to Write a Great Novel” – Why the Wall Street Journal Got it Wrong

WSJ pic

I gotta admit, this pisses me off.  And if you buy into the first half of that headline, it should piss you off, too.

Because somebody’s gonna read last Fridays’ Wall Street Journal article entitled, “How to Write A Great Novel,” and they’ll to go back to their stories and emulate the supposed strategies of the greats.  Things like growing a beard, writing on trains, experimenting with font styles and playing with cool pens, and going old school by writing their manuscripts by hand.

Like any of that is gonna make you great.   

All because the 11 noted authors in this article did all that stuff, and more.

Rather than actually tell us how to write a great novel – which would have been a neat trick, at best – this article tells us just how human, mixed up and challenged – even clueless –  the most successful among us can be.  And perhaps how damn hard it is to do what the title implies is forthcoming.

That said, I think you should read it.  Because, if you can get past the cheap glow of literary celebrity, it should make you feel a whole lot better about how you go about writing a novel.

They’re Just Like Us… Insecure and Completely Alone with Their Stories

I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I haven’t heard of over half of the authors who made the cut for this article.  Names like Junot Diaz (Pulitzer Prize winner), Orhan Pamuk (Nobel Prize Winner), Edwidge Danticat, Amitav Ghosh, who join more familiar names like Anne Rice, Laura Lippman and Margaret Atwood in, supposedly, telling us how to write a great novel.

Let me inject a spoiler here: it doesn’t happen.  Not even close. 

While there is indeed a bit about the writing process, the article is completely void of creative storytelling wisdom or technical literary insight.  Then again, process is the thing people seem to argue about most – I still have pantsers putting out hits on me – so in that vein, in much the same way we are fascinated by the latest foibles of greats such as Britney Spears and Jon and Kate Goslin, you may be entertained.

One author I have heard of wasn’t among these interviewees, yet was nonetheless quoted with what I think was the best morsel of advice of all: John Irving says the first thing he writes is the last sentence of the book.

Love that.  Huge insight and wisdom there.  Because you can’t and won’t write a great novel unless and until you know how your story is going to end.  And no matter how you write it, the entire process is all about that discovery. 

And that pretty much sums up the actual “how to” value in the entire piece. 

From there it gets, well, positively gossipy

We learn that one writer likes to dress up like his characters and videotape himself running lines.  He admits that the first draft of his book (out this fall) was “a mess,” so – and this is pure genius, at least until he realized it didn’t work – he found a random number generator online and used it to randomly rearrange his many chapters.  Of course, this resulted in an even more randomly chaotic mess, leaving him with the rather ordinary task of trying to put it all into some semblance of a structure.

Feel better now?  I thought you might.

Another rewrites his opening line 50 to 100 times – more pure genius – while another narrates the story into a recorder and mails it all off to a typist, never setting finger to keyboard the entire time.  Several write their stories in longhand before setting themselves in front of a keyboard, which, in my view, is about as inspired and effective as commuting to work in Manhattan via tricycle.

One guy wouldn’t reveal his top secret writing process at all, perhaps fearing he’d look as completely mundane and uninspiring as the rest of these authors.

The Ways and Means of Finding Story Structure

What was most fascinating – and dare I say, validating – is that all but one of these authors spend significant time nailing down the content and sequence of their stories before they even begin assembling an actual working draft. 

Some write a few chapters along the way but have the discipline and presence of mind to set them aside until those chapters have a place in the dance line.  They use note cards, bulletin boards, notebooks and other common means of exploring storytelling alternatives, and only when that sequence is solid and in line with accepted principles of story structure – let’s assume, from their results, that they understand this concept — do they go about the business of actually writing the story in an official manner. 

The one who didn’t?  Who tried to pants her way to a draft that works?  She confesses that with her first novel she had to throw away the first 150 pages, which –and here’s the disturbing don’t-try-this-at-home part —  took her two years to write.  Then she confesses that she did the same thing with her second, third and fourth novels, until she finally figured out enough about story structure, in an intuitive sense, to realize that trying to make up her own principles of storytelling just wasn’t working.

That must be working just fine – Kate Christensen won the PEN/Faulkner Award last year.

What Works, What Doesn’t

Because I don’t want this article to be guilty of the very thing I’m railing against in reference to the WSJ piece, allow me to inject a little content here.

As I’ve said here many times, the only way pantsing a story will ever work is if and when the writer gets story architecture, inside and out.  Then, and only then, will it finally begin to pour out of their head in the right order. Because now they know what they’re doing.  They’re not making up random rules about their craft as they go along, either to suit their needs or in the absence of an awareness that such principles even exist (the sad state of many authors, pantsers and plotters alike… but more-so on the pantsing side).  And even then, multiple drafts define the process, because you can’t write a submitable draft until you know how the story is going to end.

Alexandra Alter should have put that into her article.  At least, if she wanted to come somewhere near the neighborhood of her title.

Fun With Ways and Means

It’s fun to see what means these authors go to in quest of inspiration and sanity.  Many of them, to my great pleasure, are the very same tips and ideas I’ve set forth in my ebook, 101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters.   And the structure they seek and ultimately master is precisely that I discuss in my other, newer ebook, Story Structure – Demystified.

Guess those tips aren’t as unpredictable as I thought, while being every bit as effective as I knew they were.  I’m just sayin’.

So by all means, check this WSJ piece out.  You can get it right here.

And please, feel better.  We’re all in this together, great and small, published and nonpublished, pantser or plotter, green-behind-the-gills rookie and grouchy writing instructor types alike.

(NOTE: two posts today… read the next one for a movie you should see to learn about Story Structure.)


Filed under Book reviews for writers, other cool stuff

8 Responses to “How to Write a Great Novel” – Why the Wall Street Journal Got it Wrong

  1. Patrick Sullivan

    I saw this article, I think via my random digging in the writing tag on delicious (GREAT way to find interesting writing articles if you’re looking for inspiration, by the way). I think I made it half way through the first person’s “way of writing” before I just closed the web page in disgust. The whole thing felt silly.

    It’s like talking about the baseball players who wear the same underwear for an entire post season run until they win the WS or get knocked out of the playoffs. Superstition at it’s most dangerous. After all wearing nasty underwear isn’t how that team made it into the final 8, is it? It’s playing the damned game, and well.

    Of course, it’s probably articles like this that help perpetuate the myth that writing well is easy, and anyone can do it. I remember a guy I know thanks to this wonderful Internet who writes screenplays for a living ranting about how someone was talking about getting a novel published after he retired, and how the guy made it sound like a total lark.

    As long as pieces like this abound, the real soul of writing skill will likely continue to be disregarded as something simple, because it looks so damned easy, and unlike slam dunking a basketball, it’s harder to get proof of how good or bad you are at putting words on a page in a way that touches people, or at least entertains them.

    But I guess I shouldn’t expect any more from a piece about writing fiction from a financial paper, it isn’t exactly their forte.

  2. You’re right, the article misses out on some important aspects of novel writing, for example how these writers structure and execute their work.

    I saw very little mention of the hundreds of hours spent typing, the days and weeks spent revising.

    Consider the source, though. This is more like a human interest piece, a way to add to the myth and lore of writing rather than the writing process itself.

    Isn’t this good, though, for writers who actually put in the time and do the work? And don’t pieces like this help generate interest in literature and sell more books?

  3. I think the problem with this article is it was given the wrong name. It should have been titled “Strange and Wonderful Writing Habits of Bestselling Novelists,” or something similar to indicate its focus on habits as opposed to how-to writing wisdom.

    I must admit, I found some of these novelists’ rituals interesting, but I won’t be trying any of them.

  4. Most probably, the WSJ piece was only an ad right?

  5. Why would anyone consider the WSJ an authority on this subject?

  6. @J.C. – great question, that. Trouble is, when a branded name, especially a newspaper or a broadcaster, puts something out there, a certain segment of the population buys into it as Holy Writ. One has to look no further than Fox News — and the WJS — to see that in play.

    Hopefully, like suggest here, people are more entertained than they are believing they’re now ‘informed.”

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