Saturday, March 7, 2009

Novels as Classrooms

"An Itty Bitty Column on Writing" by Mindy Phillips Lawrence
From Sharing with Writers (Carolyn Howard-Johnson)
March 7, 2009

It’s Saturday morning and you’re staring at a blank page on your computer wishing it would miraculously turn into the Great American Novel. Unfortunately, it stays blank. You idea bin is dry and you aren’t sure how to express the one thought circulating through your head. Here’s an idea for you. READ.

In my home office, I have a pile of books that I’ve decided to study. They include Dan Brown’s THE DAVINCI CODE, V.I. Naipaul’s A BEND IN THE RIVER, Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s THIS IS THE PLACE, Dan Skelton’s OUT OF INNOCENCE and Laila Lalami’s ARC of SECRET SON. Lalami’s book weaves together the threads of a young man searching for his identity, the definition of “family” and the factions seeking to take over the heart of Morocco. I began to think how the writer structured her novel, developed the characters and set them on the road to either catastrophe or freedom. It was a perfect vehicle to study.

Here are some ways to turn the novels you read into classrooms for your writing:

* Pick one or two books that you think are exceptionally well written and in the genre in which you want to write.

Read these books once or twice, paying attention to how they are structured.

Choose one of these books and dissect it in these ways:

* Define the setting of the novel.

* Write a paragraph synopsis of the novel chapter by chapter.

* Make a character sketch of each main character.

* Outline how these characters develop throughout the story and how they interrelate.

* Is the setting a character in and of itself? Think the Mississippi River in Tom Sawyer. If so, list its characteristics as if it were a person.

* Look at the literary conventions used in the book: Metaphor, allegory, etc.

* Does the novel make a political, religious or social statement? If so, make some notes about where and how it achieves this goal.

* If the novel is a fantasy, in what way does it relate to the World we live in? What does it say about that World?

* What do you think you could have done better if you had written the book? Even Nobel Prize winners aren’t perfect.

Yes, this will take time. Yes, you will not be actually writing your Great American Novel when you are doing this. The important part is that you are training yourself to write it.

If you want to cut to the chase, look at the links below for sites that have already dissected classic novels. Not only do Sparks, Cliff Notes and Pink Monkey tell you about a book, they also show its structure. However, DO NOT use these tools in place of reading each book that you choose. You might differ with what an academic has said about the piece. In fact, please put your own thoughts down about the book and use the professional notes as a guide only.

Copying the plot of any of the novels you read is not the intention of this lesson. The goal is for you to learn character development, plot structure and insight in order to write your unique work. Whether you realize it or not, you have the same potential that published writers have. The only difference is they lucked out and found a publisher. You may have to write several novels until this happens to you--and it might not--but the process is paramount. There is CreateSpace.Com and other places to publish if you are not willing to wait for a big break (or if you have waited and get too discouraged). REMEMBER to edit your work to a fine polish whether you publish traditionally or otherwise.
Study, write and bloom!


The Best Notes – Online Sparks and Cliffs Notes

Pink Monkey – A Web site that breaks down the plot, characters and meaning in famous novels. Use as a beginning, NOT a crutch.

Writing a synopsis

CreateSpace – Amazon’s arms for publishing on demand

Pulitzer Prize Winning Authors

Nobel Prize Winning Authors

New York Times Best Sellers

Literary Terms

Plot Development

Reviews for Riters © on the HowToDoItFrugally site