Extract from BWT podcast episode 8 (Oct 2010) – novel recommendations

Needless to say there are hundreds of guides to writing a novel. Ones I have include:

  • One of the Writer’s Digest Books is ‘First draft in 30 days’ by Karen S Wiesner. It includes itemised and flexible schedules to keep you focused each day, detailed worksheets to guide you through the outlining process, completed sample worksheets inspired by best-selling novels, tips for outlining projects already in development, brainstorming techniques to keep you motivated and goal sheets for getting (and keeping) your career on track! It’s a very well laid out book which promises a “sure-fire system to reduce timely re-writes”.
  • ‘The weekend novelist’ is a “dynamic 52-week programme to help you produce a finished novel…one weekend at a time.” It offers advice on characters, scenes, plotting and drafts with an appendix on finding a publisher. Being an American book, the latter is based on the American process so you need to bear this in mind when submitting elsewhere; it does make an interesting read.
  • ‘Creating characters – how to build story people’ by Dwight V Swain is an American book but that doesn’t really matter as it shows you how to ‘invent likeable or loathsome characters – champions, cutthroats, charmers and cads – fictional people who will make your readers feel something’. It also explains how to ‘give story people goals and motives, allow them to reveal their emotions, fill in the background that got your people where they are, imbue (fill) them with varying degrees of eccentricity, make them fit their roles as protagonist, antagonist and supporting players, write good dialogue, stir in a bit of humour…and more’!
  • ‘Writing dialogue’ by Tom Chiarella tells you “how to create memorable voices and fictional conversations that crackle with wit, tension and nuance”. Contents include ‘listening, jotting, crowding’, ‘the direction of dialogue (examples and possibilities)’, ‘dialogue and character’, ‘compression’, ‘on silence’, ‘radio, TV and movies (seeing, listening, reading)’, ‘using dialogue to create stories’ and ‘nuts and bolts’. The afterword concludes with “good dialogue, like stories in general, captures part of the larger world and shows it to us”. It also has exercises so you can try out what you’ve learnt. If you are placing yourself in the mouth of anyone from a duke to a dalek you must make yourself available to reproduce their words.
  • ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ is a Penguin book containing “the funniest opening sentences from the worst novels ever written”. It also mentions the USA-based ‘Bulwer-Lytton’ contest which is a competition to find the worst first sentences. More details from www.bulwer-lytton.com.
  • ‘The way to write novels’ by Paddy Kitchen, who I mentioned earlier, is a great little book. Paddy explains that Iris Murdoch finds planning the most important part, saying “I invent the whole thing in enormous detail before I start writing at all. That can take longer than writing.” Others sail rather blindly into the first fifty pages or so and then stop and take stock. Is it going to work, is it worth pressing on? If the answer seems to be yes, then this is perhaps the stage to work out details of the rest of the plot. If the answer is no, well – put the pages away in a drawer for a while and do something completely different or read other books. When revisited you might suddenly see how the idea could be developed after all. Paddy continues “if you are going to have a complex plot, and particularly if your narrative is going to depend heavily on the development and pace of specific events, then it is essential to plan out the story. There is nothing more maddening than writing 150 pages only to discover that the confrontation you had intended around the end of Chapter 4 can’t happen because one of the protagonists was unexpectedly jailed in Chapter 3.”
  • ‘Writing fiction step by step’ by Josip Novakovich is great. It has over 200 exercises that will “sharpen your writing skills”. Josip concludes the book saying “Fiction allows us to conduct experiments, to jump into something that passionately concerns us and to live it through the playfulness of imagination…”
  • Teach Yourself’s ‘Writing a novel’ offers to help “improve your techniques, develop your range and ability, and get your work published” and has a tagline by PD James! Contents include beginnings, plot, sub-plot, character, dialogue, view-point, setting the scene, style, theme, editing and shaping, the personality of the writer, support and marketing. The marketing section is split into ‘going it alone’, ‘agents’, ‘self-publishing and vanity publishing’, ‘presenting your manuscript to a publisher’ (detailed above), ‘from presentation to publication’ and finally, ‘money’! Their final chapter titled ‘taking it further’ recommends 25 other books to read and 5 writing courses to attend: The Arvon Foundation, Fen Farm (Diss, Norfolk), International Forum (Sevenoaks, Kent), Skyros Holistic Holidays (Greece – courses run from April to October) and Taliesin Trust (Gwynedd, Wales – courses run May to November). Other books in the range include ‘writing for children’, ‘creative writing’ by Dianne Doubtfire and ‘how to write a blockbuster’ by Helen Corner & Lee Weatherly (which is published in association with writing magazine Writers’ Forum). The Teach Yourself company was established in 1938, their website is www.teachyourself.co.uk.
  • I mentioned the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and Writer’s Handbooks in episode 1. Both are packed with information and resources for novel writing. More info. from www.acblack.com which also promotes ‘Is there a book in you’ by Alison Baverstock. Each chapter of Alison’s book offers a mini-quiz. A grading at the end of the book helps you discover whether you should begin writing now, or stick to your day job! There is advice from authors including PD James, Jacqueline Wilson, and Katie Fforde and examples from other writers.
  • The two yearbooks have sections on agents, publishers etc. but information can change. People obviously move from company to company so you would need to check contact details so probably best to concentrate on writing advice rather than specifics. The internet and other reference books can help when submitting.
  • Although it won’t write the book for you, New Novelist’ software will help you “plan and create your complete story, characters and events; collate all your ideas and develop your novel methodically; keep all your notes in one easily accessible place and access the best writers’ resources on the internet”. More information from www.newnovelist.com. The newnovelist website sells it for £30 but when I got mine for my previous laptop (a PC) from PC World at £9.99 (as well as two others – ‘Write your own novel’ by GSP Software and ‘Write ambition – plan and prepare to make better movies’ by Mindscape (approved by Writers’ Forum magazine).
  • http://literapedia.wikispaces.com/Gone+with+the+Wind has an interesting and chapter summaries and character listing for Gone with the Wind and over 70 other classics. I’d not come across ‘Literapedia’ before and it is fascinating. Literapedia says it is a “web experiment being conducted by an English literature teacher and his students. Since March of 2007 this site has provided interpretation-free book notes on great works of literature. Since these book notes do not seek to analyze the texts, they will be useful only to students who actually have read or are reading the texts – not to students seeking a shortcut”.
  • Other recommendations: I was sent some leaflets by the nice people at Magma Poetry. Issued 3 times a year, Magma Poetry magazine is available via subscription or from your local bookshop at £5.95. The perhaps-unique aspect of the magazine is that each issue has a different editor so if you write, or are a fan of, poetry do take a look at their website (www.magmapoetry.com) for more information. Callio Press have also been in touch. Their website (www.calliopress.com) has plenty of information about the Press and welcomes submissions of manuscripts, synopses with a 60-word biography.

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