Monday, 21 February 2011

How to write a novel (like I know)

Robert McCrum in The Guardian usually has something interesting to say about writing and books but his latest blog left me wondering if I'm on the same planet as many other bibliophiles.
The piece asks whether writing classes are a waste of time. It's a valid enough question as we seem to be living through a boom period for them. Writing a novel, selling it for a million pounds and becoming pleasantly famous and well thought of as a result, has of late become a middle class equivalent of the National Lottery. Bored with being a lawyer/accountant/doctor? Then why not write a visceral account of your life in about 80,000 words and spend the rest of your days talking about it at book festivals (which you increasingly like to hang about in anyway since you stopped buying new music in 2003).
Creative writing classes have sprung up to feed this ambition. I can understand that. I've been writing books, as yet unpublished, for X years now. It's a frustrating business and I've often considered signing up for a course but usually I am put off by a number of factors. It's not the cost though. usually it is an uncertainty that a particular course could give me anything I couldn't get either under my own steam, or from my extremely experienced author wife. Course satisfaction also seems bound up with who your tutor is - another literary lottery.
But there is a role for creative writing classes however, and in this I think we can learn from American screen writing courses. Structure is what makes the difference between a well written novel and an unputdownable novel. Structure is all important in thrillers, comedies, sci-fi, and yes even literary novels (whatever they really are).
McCrum's post and the comments from the dozens of readers seem to confuse good writing with good prose. But prose, like coming up with good ideas, is something pretty much anyone can do. The trick is to string enough good prose together to make a novel.


  1. I'm not sure about creative writing classes, Thomas, as I only ever did a short one years ago with Gabi somewhere in Bloomsbury - mainly we got the giggles. I think courses vary hugely in quality and scope with the best usually being the most expensive, of course - I'm sure you know all that. Still not published, I read stacks of books on writing as a displacement activity. Are you in a writing group? I'm lucky enough to have found a really good one recently with a cross section of really decent writers, who are honest but gentle critics too. I imagine you're spoilt for choice in Glasgow.

  2. Hi Geves... you must have posted while I was editing... no, not in a writing group, unless you count Carmen and I as one. (I am in a book group, which is a totally different experience, as you can imagine).
    I am fascinated by the idea of writing groups though. Perhaps I should look them up.
    I did do two screenwriting courses which focused on structure. Have you read Robert Mckie's book "Story"? It's Carmen's bible. Screenwriting seems to be conducted in the sort of rigorous way I wish novelists would approach their art. I can't stand all the woolly talk of "brilliant writing", "great characters"... its usually a byword for "boring book".
    And thanks for reading.

  3. You might be interested in an earlier post:

    See the link there to Neil Gaiman's blog

  4. Ah, have been reading for a while, just haven't commented before. Thanks for writing.
    No, I haven't read that book but I'll look out for it. I'm half way through Stephen King's "On Writing" - have you read that?
    I'm in a book group too. Don't you find the discussions fascinating from a writer's point of view? I love my writing group - you have Carmen, but for me I'm ecstatic just for the chance to sit about with other writers, talking about writing...

  5. Yes, On Writing is terrific and very inspiring. McKee's book much more a text book on structure, but also fascinating. Would also recommend the William Goldman books: "Adventures in the Screentrade" and "Which Lie Did I Tell?". Glad you are enjoying the writing group. Sometimes I have to clench my teeth at book group hearing people dismiss novels/novelists for the strangest of reasons. But otherwise it is a real eye opener....
    Keep writing, and reading...