February 05, 2010


Paul Lamb

As usual, a fine post. I devoured each word. Still, we newbies have a hard time knowing when we're doing the wrong thing.


Another sand trap for any writer, but particularly first time novelists, is writing about a subject that was transformative and emotionally powerful for you, the writer. You may say, "Aren't those the best things to write about?" Yes, of course. The problem is first timers often have a hard time distancing themselves from such powerful events in their lives, and they just assume they will then of course be equally powerful and compelling to a reader. Unfortunately, the reader will wind up reacting with, "meh!" instead of, "OMFG, this is deep shit!". Attaining objectivity on events with which one is intimately involved emotionally is really, really tough. Pick something less searing for your first outing.


Okay, that was one of the most helpful "list of dos and don'ts" blog posts on writing I've seen. There should be an award for THAT.


Ah, well observed. And a little ouch. But two thoughts in response:

1) Many of these pitfalls I think apply to any number of (critically acclaimed) non-debut novels. There's something about your list that strikes me as straitjacketing for any novelist; the form seems to me most invigorating (from the writer's perspective) when you feel free to risk any or all of the above. I recently read Marlon James's comment about Colum McCann's "best advice" to him: "Risk sentimentality." For someone who's been writing for some time and has ingested a lot of "rules" about writing fiction, I found this kind of advice revelatory. Related, Tan Dun says: "If you become too sophisticated, you lose courage."

2) Related perhaps most to the "taking on too much" issue, I'd personally encourage ambition. Why NOT try to be Atlas? Why write at all if not to push hard at it? In every other context in lived life, one must pick and choose, either/or; the novel form, to me, is exhilarating precisely because it is a canvass for the most unlikely bedfellows, for bringing all your resources and experiences and fascinations together into a single universe, which in this contemporary "the world is flat" age seems to me a true depiction of life. (Sidenote: I've just read David Shields's REALITY HUNGER: A MANIFESTO, which is very much an everything-under-the-sun book. It takes on, well, everything. I admire this. But, to your point, it is his 10th book, not his first.)


well said

Also, most aspiring debut novels lack tension and are burdened with backstory


Sonya, I think your points are very well taken and the caveat I probably should have added - as I do when I speak to my students at UCLA - is "Feel free to ignore any and all of these." I am not saying by any stretch that a great first novel can't do any or all of these things and still be great. What I merely meant to do was to share what I found were the most common failings - so if you're going to try one of these things, you'd better either (a) pull it off or (b) be honest enough with yourself to know when you've failed to pull it off. But yes, we should all aim high; and I've started the Shields myself, so I can see where you might be coming from on this. I didn't mean to make the list overly prescriptive, though it did sort of evolve into that. Maybe it should have been framed more as "If these are things you want to do in your first novel, these are the things to watch out for."

Appreciate your thoughtful commentary. And I agree with McCann 100 percent.

Carlin M. Wragg

Picking up Sonya’s sentiment -- Why not risk everything? The issue becomes then not one of ambition, but of rigor. You pointed out that it’s important to recognize that the writing may not be working, to recognize when it’s time to try something else. Paul Harding, the mention of whose gorgeous debut novel, Tinkers, started this post, told me in a recent interview that he came to his story after years of working on another novel, very ambitious in scope, and that it was only after he’d abandoned that novel that he thought of the story for Tinkers. Maybe Tinkers is the novel it is it is because of what Harding learned while writing the novel he didn’t finish? Perhaps the lesson is not for the first-time novelist to dream modestly, but for that novelist to know when it’s time to stop and to start again.


Let me try to clarify because I think what I said has been misinterpreted - no doubt my own fault.

I did not and never anywhere in my post said do not take risks. In fact, I agree with all the posters that without risk-taking, why bother to write?

What I did say, was beware of trying to take on too much - very few debut novelists have the control or skill to take on the whole culture. Go back and re-read Jonathan Franzen's first book if you doubt me.

So I'm not saying that risk is bad or ambition is bad. But I'm also saying that someone getting on a bicycle for the first time does not go straight to the Tour de France. You have to build your skill to get to that level. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't challenge and push yourself. In fact, I second Joseph O'Neill's idea that what you are trying to do should probably lie just beyond your ability - but only just beyond, not way beyond.

It's also telling that Harding abandoned this ambitious novel to which he refers. And Tinkers, which is certainly modest in scope but scarcely trivial, is nearly perfectly realized.

This is probably no more satisfactory but I hope it's clearer.


It's funny, Mark -- in a recent piece I wrote about writing sex scenes in fiction, I looked at a number of "Bad Sex Writing" award-winning passages and put forth a hypothetical "Don'ts" list. I was analyzing what the award-givers seemed to deem unforgivable, not at all prescribing from my own point of view (I would never myself be that prescriptive); and yet it seemed clear that a lot of readers interpreted it as *my* prescription for sex writing. So now that you've clarified, I definitely understand that you meant the above in a more observational, "be aware" kind of way.

The fear of failing in the areas you describe I think can effect a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many of the novels I cherish most both succeed and fail (in some cases, spectacularly on both fronts), and as both reader and writer I don't think I'd have it any other way.

Maybe what we're all saying is that good writing requires both courage and wisdom.

Scott Sparling

I once heard Robert Stone describe his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, as "the book I broke my youth against." Feeling like he had to put everything into it. I like it though. I'd rather read something that goes a little too far than something that's too controlled.


Excellent post and conversation. I am curious though, where is the editor in this process? What role do they have in shaping and directing/advising the author on these challenges? When I encounter some of the common pitfalls you mention, I rarely blame the writer, but rather ask myslelf, "why the hell did the editor leave this passage in here?"


Mark - How do you address the issue of pacing in your novel class? Given that the novel is a longer work, the issue of pacing strikes me as crucial. I read so many novels where the first third just carries me along, and then everything grinds to a screeching halt for about 150 pages, and only picks up again at the end. If you can teach your students to avoid this trap, I would be very grateful to you.

Jerry Sticker

Mark's biking analogy is a fantastic one for pacing. You gotta save something in your tank.

I think a lot of good writers use their own personal "endurance" analogies when trying to make an entire book hold up. I think John Irving uses the wrestling match strategy, realizing that the battle's not won by who starts out best but who ends best. And he's a writer who certainly has his share of diversions and weird detours throughout the book, but you can say there's a certain consistency there throughout the whole thing. He carries it out and executes all the way to the ending. It takes patience gained by experience. Consistency in first time novels more often than not happens through trial and error, a little bit of luck and chamomile tea.

Good stuff, Mark

Richard Payne

I know this list isn't meant to be overly prescriptive, but Housekeeping, a gem among first novels, couldn't have been written if Robinson had adhered to this list. What would have happened if she'd become self-conscious about the 'smallness' of her story? Some of the best novels in the world are barely-plotted and hinge upon the teeniest, quietest moments. And, honestly, I can't remember the last time I read a book that didn't feel familiar. It's rarely the story itself that needs to see the light of day, but rather the unique aesthetic and the philosophy and insight that is demonstrated in the telling of the story. I mean when you break it down, Moby Dick is just another story about obsession. I think the story is rarely the appeal outside of genre books. In fact, the best example I can think of to support this idea would be a book like Blood Meridian, which takes its essential story from actual events. Clearly, the story is not unique, but then it never is.


Mark, Excellent post. I must renew my search for "Tinkers." I've looked in every bookstore I've stopped at for months and haven't found it. I hate resorting to Amazon.

However, I wish you were free and inclined to give examples. Without them your observations, as great as they are, are abstractions for the student/debut novelist. How much is too much? What is relying too heavily on voice? We have to see/read these problems to be able to recognize them in our own work. Obviously you can't name names here, or quote extensive examples, but whenever I read observations like this I wish I knew the specific passages/books the author had in mind. This is because these topics are excellent ones. They speak to the great questions of structure. Most beginning novelists can grasp not using too many adverbs even after seeing one sentence train-wrecked by them. But structure, how to keep the book from flagging in the middle, and satisfy the early promise of that voice takes monumental amounts of reading and writing and re-writing and learning to recognize when it's not working, all the hardest things (hence the popularity of workshops, which I'd argue only work for short pieces). With the commitment to time reading the 20+ books to come to similar observations would take, a nice directed list would be excellent. Then we can see first-hand too, what your biases/tastes are and incorporate your observations appropriately. Of course, in your critical work, and generally on this blog, this is what you do all the time, so this comment is only an observation/wish/light, light, criticism of this post. It's also, I'm feeling now, kind of ridiculous. We should discuss these fun topics over a drink. I guess the point is for students/writers early on, it's critical to read, read, read, and include criticism in your/our reading. How else can we "get" structure, and the big "details" of writing?


Richard -

In re your point about "Housekeeping" - perhaps we need to distinguish between the size of the story and the size of its telling? These are two different things. I think "small stories" succeed as novels because they are *told* as larger stories. A really masterful example of this is Penelope Fitzgerald's "The Blue Flower" which is as slight as gossamer in terms of its story, but unforgettable in its telling.


As I said above, I always remind my students that anything I am saying might well be wrong, can safely be ignored and, more importantly, could also be right and STILL be ignored. I realize that my tone is prone to pronouncements so let me try to reframe this in a way that might be helpful.

Let's consider a specific debut: White Teeth. (Sorry, Carl, but modesty prevents me from discussing the books that didn't advance.) White Teeth does, by count, at least three of the things I "warn" about: It tries to encompass too much; it relies on a quirky narrative voice; and it completely runs out of steam, falling into a heap at the end.

And I love this book.

But. That is not say that I would not love it MORE if Smith had done better in any of these areas; if she hadn't slapdashed the ending; if she hadn't allowed the voice to become cutesy and cloying at turns; if she'd had better control of her canvas. I am not necessarily saying she should not have done any of these things - I merely say that when first timers do them, they need to watch out. Smith did not avoid all these traps, but her talent - the sheer brio of the thing - carried it off. And I wouldn't have it any other way. (Though it's a book I'm afraid to go back and read again.)

So, although in my natural high handed default voice, it sounds like I am saying DO NOT DO THESE THINGS. But what I think I'm really saying is if you DO, here are some pitfalls to consider.

I also think, re: Housekeeping, that although the canvas seems modest, the relationship that girds the whole thing, between Sylvie and Ruth, has nothing small or modest about it.


Mark, people hate to be told how to write. Unless they're paying for the privilege in an MFA program. Then you can't be programmatic enough.

Martha Southgate

Mark, just gonna jump in to say--"right on, bro!" These are excellent and fresh ideas to consider--not only for new writers but for us old ones. You can always learn something. Two observations about particular texts: One, to this day I have not been able to finish "White Teeth" largely, I think, because of what you describe. I did not find the "brio" enough to get me through. And two, that voice thing is right--unless you're a genius like J.D. Salinger (which far fewer people are than think they are). Just re-read "Catcher" in the wake of his death and was astonished by how that book is almost entirely voice-propelled. There's no real plot to speak of.
Anyway, thanks for a marvelous post--a real keeper.


Great post--thank you.


Niall - I'm sure you meant masterly?

Mark - thanks for this post and discussion, really interesting. I'd be fascinated to hear more about what you think people think are the Rules of the Novel? Are there patterns that you saw in the debuts you read? And did they lead to disappointing novels? I think it would be interesting to a lot of us who are trying to write a novel to hear more about what was wrong with the ones that were 'too formal'.



Tim -


Main Entry: mas·ter·ful
Pronunciation: \ˈmas-tər-fəl\
Function: adjective
Date: 15th century

1 a : inclined and usually competent to act as master b : suggestive of a domineering nature
2 : having or reflecting the power and skill of a master

I intended the word in the sense of #2 above.


Niall - I'm sure you'd agree that both senses are useful; isn't the distinction between masterful and masterly worth maintaining? Or is this something that sounds fine in American English while sounding like a solecism to British ears?


What is the distinction that needs to be preserved? And I have no interest at all in British English, since I write in American English.


The distinction you elide by using masterful when most people would use masterly is, roughly, that between 'domineering' and 'excellent'. Of course, since you append a dictionary definition and an indication of which sense you intended, there's no ambiguity. Please do this all the time.


But how can I be eliding a distinction that, in American English, is contained within the semantic field of the word "masterful"? It contains a fruitful tension that makes the use of the word interesting, not confusing.

If this is a distinctiont that exists between two different words in British English, then by all means continue to maintain it. But that's hardly my responsibility.

Mihku Paul

In terms of debut novels, I have reviewed a couple of manuscripts that writer friends sent out too soon, and that they have been working on for more than six years.
First, it really shouldn't take quite so long. If nobody bites, take a hard look at the work, and have it evaluated by someone who will be completely honest.
I have also encountered idiosyncratic, self-conscious narrative voices that were way too clever for their own good, and first novels that were essentially 300 pages of descriptions and dialogue, without a pulse, a pace that moves through a story like a shark through ocean. Novels cannot stand still.
Writers must give their debut novel a set of wheels and a hard shove down a steep hill. The speed may vary, but we know at some point
something amazing and possibly dangerous is going to happen, and we never know exactly how the ride will end.


Mihku - Those are really good observations. I remember when young writers started out with short stories, and then moved on to the novel. But the short story market has disappeared, so it seems the unprepared are forced to go directly to tha tmost difficult of art forms, the novel.


Most debut novels are whimpers when they ought to be bangs


This post and the comments should be required reading for debut novelists. I'm off to tweet!

Barbara Plotkin

Wonderful, wonderful post. As an aspiring novelist, I would like to add "don't fall in love with your writing." By that I mean, it's very easy to be so wrapped up in what you think is a great novel that you don't see how others might perceive it. I'm not saying write for other people, your voice is unique and true and worth being heard. Just don't be so self-indulgent that the story ultimately doesn't go anywhere (even though you think it reads damn good). This "advice" is from personal experience!

Mihku Paul

Hmmm. Well, I did start a novel in my MFA program and I believed that passion and commitment would sustain me but after about a hundred pages I felt like I was trapped in sour dough that was continuously expanding and I had no idea how to bake the loaf.
So, I started writing short stories in order to hone my storytelling skills and now, more than a year later, I feel ready to try again.
I have to agree that the novel IS a challenging art form and just because one can put together an intelligent sentence does not mean that a string of them (a very long string) is a novel. I say, aim high, but be sure to practice your landings because that is the truest mark of an accomplished writer.

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  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."