Writing a Novel

Wrting a novel – that is the dream of many, if not most, writers.

Climbers dream of Mount Everest. Swimmers dream of the Olympics. Joggers dream of someday running a marathon.

And writers dream of writing a novel.

In 1974, John Braine wrote a wonderful book entitled (surprise, surprise) “Writing a Novel.” He refers to his book as “a practical manual, a conducted tour of my workshop. The workshop is scruffy–I imagine it as a ramshackle wooden hut on the wrong side of town, every piece of machinery makeshift and battered–but somehow or other the work is done there, and done on time.”

How great is that? John Braine, who wrote 6 novels including the well-known “Room at the Top,” is going to take us–the nervous novelists-wannabes–into his workshop and show us how he does it.

And, unlike a number of famous writers who say that you either have it or you don’t, writing can’t be taught, blah blah blah, John Braine offers hope and encouragement: “I am sure that, if you have the necessary ability, observing my rules will enable you to write a novel which will be accepted for publication.”

So, what are the chief points and rules that John Braine lays out for us?

Rule 1: A writer is a person who writes (and counts words)

Don’t wait until you have something to write about. Don’t wait for inspiration. Write a minimum number of words at least 3 times per week (he suggests a minimum of at least 350 words per session).

Rule 2: Always write from experience

John Braine actually posits that what isn’t written from experience is worthless. However, he makes clear that he is not speaking just of direct personal experience. For example, anything a writer may have seen or heard of happening to someone else comes then from the writer’s personal experience.

Rule 3: Writing is seeing

This is the most important rule, he says. He says that he keeps in mind always the admonition of Ford Maddox Ford: always write as if the action of the novel is taking place before your eyes on a brightly lit stage.

Rule 4: A good beginning means a good book

Rule 5: Dialogue must be speakable

The rule of thumb, according to Braine, is that if you can ‘t speak it out loud, then the dialogue is no good.

Rule 6: Narrative prose must be speakable, too.

Rule 7: First and third person narrative

John Braine recommends that a writer’s first novel be written in the first person.

Rule 8: The point of improbability

John Braine says that somewhere in a well-constructed story, something will happen that couldn’t possibly happen in real life. You can’t do anything about it. It is a given. His advice is to be bold about the Point of Improbability. Make sure no one misses it.

Rule 9: The quick and the dead

The essential point here is this: there really aren’t any rules. The so-called “rules” are only guidelines to make it easier for someone to write a novel.

Braine quotes from D.H. Lawrence who said that we have to choose between the quick and the dead. “The quick is God-flame, in everything. And the dead is dead. . . . And now we see the great, great merits of the novel. It can’t exist without being ‘quick.’ . . . The man in the novel must be ‘quick.’ And this means one thing, among a host of unknown meanings: it means he must have a quick relatedness to all the other things in the novel. . . . What he says and does must be relative to them all.

One Final Word 

If you’re a “no outline person,” like me, then John Braine’s method of writing a novel may be just up your alley. He says that what happens in the novel is not known until it is finished. He recommends writing only a brief synopsis of no more than 500 words before launching into the actual writing of the novel.

He says that you don’t need to do character sketches before you begin. Indeed, he says that you don’t even need to know anything about your characters, because they will reveal themselves in their actions as you write.

Once you start the first draft, the only goal is to finish it. Never revise or go back until you are finished. Write as quickly as possible.

If you think John Braine’s “Writing a Novel” may speak to you and the way you write, I heartily recommend finding a copy. I think it is one of the best “how to” writing books I’ve run across in my years of writing.

And remember, read, read, read. And write, write, write.