Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

How To Write a Novel

by Robison Wells
(If you'll recall, I'm in grad school. The following is the actual text of a paper that I turned in this week for a business communications class. Trust me, it follows the requirements...) (It's also long, so sorry about that.)

How to Write a Novel

Everyone wants to write the Great American Novel. Everyone says that one of these days they’re going to sit down, look the computer in the eye, and churn out the next Huckleberry Finn. And every year, these aspiring writers spend millions of dollars trying to do just that: going to conferences, buying how-to books, and listening to motivational speakers.

Unfortunately, one of the most common sentiments I hear from these novice writers is that they’re having a terrible time writing. It’s not unusual for a first-time author to spend years on their book—some even take decades to write and rewrite, refining every sentence, word, and punctuation mark.

Is it as hard as they say? Is there an easy, sure-fire formula to writing a novel? Of course there is. (If Dan Brown can sell sixty million books, so can you!) It’s simply a matter of setting, plot, characters, and theme. Fill in the blanks and—move over Hemingway!—you have yourself a masterpiece.


Setting is the most basic element of a book. The setting is where and when your story happens—it’s the Dust Bowl era of Oklahoma, or the Death Star a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. But more than time and place, setting also includes the little details: what would Hogwarts be without Every Flavor Beans, or Oz without flying monkeys? When choosing a setting, you have one of two options, and your decision here will determine much of the course of your novel. You can have either a boring setting, or an exciting one.

A Boring Setting
A boring setting is perfectly acceptable in novel writing. While the word “boring” might be considered pejorative, there are certain books that actually require boring settings. I’m speaking specifically of literary novels. These are books wherein kids die of wasting diseases, and they’re books that win national awards.

The absence of anything interesting in the setting is done purposefully; the general atmosphere of these books screams of despondence and depression, and such things simply can’t exist in an interesting setting. Imagine Summer of the Swans taking place in Narnia, or Angela’s Ashes including a chase scene on top of Mt. Rushmore. If something like that happened, readers might actually want to read these books, and then where would we be?

An Exciting Setting
An exciting setting is appreciated by virtually all readers. According to a fictional study which I just made up, 94% of readers prefer exciting settings. When asked if they would replace Ethan Frome’s setting (winter in Starkfield, MA) with something more exciting, such as a space station or the top of a speeding train, 85% responded positively. And a staggering 96% said that they’d prefer the sled be switched out with either a hovercraft or a Taun Taun.

This sentiment was illustrated clearly in an interview with Brianna Johnson, a high school junior who is currently reading Toni Morrison’s award winning Beloved: “Like, I get all the stuff about slavery and stuff, but, like, Denver? Who cares about Denver? Seriously. I mean, like, I’ve been to Denver and it’s not all that special. Why not Cabo San Lucas? And why not have Sethe be all like in your face? She’d be all, ‘Emancipate this, jerk!’”


Plot is the next step for your novel, after you choose a setting. Basically, the plot is the action—it’s what happens in your story. Plot is Frodo throwing the One Ring into Mount Doom, or Ralphie Parker shooting his eye out, or whatever it was that Henry David Thoreau did at that pond. There are two ways to plot a book: you can outline, or you can make it up as you go.


Outlining is used by some of the best authors. One of the chief reasons for outlining is if you’re writing a book that is clue-heavy, such as a mystery or a suspense novel. Since you want to feed your reader a little information at a time—information which will, at the end of the book, lead you to an epiphanous conclusion—then you kind of ought to know where your story is going. If you outline, then you can decide: “In Chapter Four I’ll mention Lady Prudence’s fear of snakes; in Chapter Eight I’ll disclose the location of the elusive French Fugitive; in Chapter Fourteen Professor McDonald will find the bloodied penknife behind the tool shed.” (If you didn’t outline this kind of thing, then when you reveal that it was actually Judge Hughes who killed the nanny, your reader would be all like “What?!”)

Making It Up As You Go
Making it up as you go is a fine method if you want to write a meandering, amorphous book with very little structure. It’d be difficult to foreshadow anything, because you wouldn’t have any idea what you were foreshadowing when you wrote it. But, then again, foreshadowing is an advanced technique and probably doesn’t jive well with modern readers. A recent study done by an elderly author states “Kids these days wouldn’t know good writing if it bit ‘em on the butt. Now get off my lawn!”


Characters are vital to a story. They’re what gives the book meaning and humanity (except for character who are, like, robots). It’s not the futuristic technology and rat cages that make 1984 resonate with readers, but the thoughts and feelings of the main character as he yearns for freedom. It’s not the car chases and tornadoes that cause Les Miserables to speak to our souls, but the soul-searching and inner turmoils of Sherlock Holmes. The three simplest ways to come up with characters are to base them on people you know, make them up from scratch, or plagiarize characters from other books.

Base Characters on People You Know
Basing characters on people you know is a quick, easy trick for inexperienced writers. We all know that Mark Twain’s nephew was named Tom Sawyer, and that Twain used to pay him to paint his fence. It’s less well known that Robert Louis Stevenson had a podiatrist named Howard Jekyll, and his butler was Louie Hyde. When you base characters on people that you already know, the hard part is done. Harper Lee didn’t have to completely fictionalize Boo Radley—-she just had to think of the weird guy who lived next door and her book practically wrote itself.

Make Characters Up From Scratch
Making characters up from scratch is where an author really earns his or her pay—-when you’re stuck having to come up with something completely original. There are two schools of thought here: you can either draw random attributes from a hat, coming up with someone, for example, who is a civil engineer with blonde hair who loves cats and listens to Led Zeppelin. The other option is to register your characters with fake email addresses in Facebook: you’d follow their simple registration forms and discover that your protagonist is a female libertarian seeking friendship. As simple as 1-2-3.

Plagiarize Characters from Other Books
Plagiarizing from other books is the easiest and fastest method to character development. Consider this: Thomas Langdon and Siddhartha really aren’t all that different. They’re both Harvard symbologists, they’re both claustrophobic, and they both become the Buddha. It’s obvious once you think about it.


Theme is what really makes a book shine, and it’s not that hard to master if you know what you’re doing. A novel’s theme permeates the book—it’s the message, or moral that you come away with at the end. Put simply, if your reader cries, it’s because of theme. Much like there are only seven basic stories in the entire world, there really are only two themes: first, it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice; second, be yourself. That's it; those are the only two themes.

It’s Nice to Be Important, But It’s More Important To Be Nice
The idea of “It’s Nice to Be Important, But It’s More Important To Be Nice” is that your character has the opportunity to have all life’s luxuries—maybe they’ve gone from small town America and are suddenly a rock star—but then they give it all up because they don’t like the corrupting power of stardom. Examples: Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Be Yourself
Being yourself is the perfect catch-all theme. Your character learns that he/she doesn’t need to conform to The Man’s ideas of fashion and fun. If this novel were a movie, it would star Amanda Bynes. Examples: More’s Utopia, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Go and Do Thou Likewise

All you have to do to write a novel is figure out setting, plot, characters, and theme. All the essentials are laid out above, and you must simply follow the quick, easy formula to produce a book worthy of critical praise and national acclaim. Harry Potter will be shaking in his wizardy shoes when he sees you coming. Why, you could be the next me!


At 10/02/2007 2:21 PM, Blogger Christine Kersey said...

I hope you got an A on this assignment.

At 10/02/2007 4:33 PM, Blogger wom said...

Thanks for the outline, I know of someone who was asking for just this kind of outlining. I will send her your way. This is good to have in a binder to refer back too from time to time. Thanks again.

At 10/02/2007 5:43 PM, Blogger Julie Wright said...

I bet your teacher is so relieved to have you around in that pile of boring absurd papers.

At 10/02/2007 5:49 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

Wow--so insightful. NY Times Bestsellers, here I come!

I might have to try plagiarizing characters from people I know. Maybe a red-headed, freckled, goof-ball with a wicked sense of humor.

At 10/03/2007 1:16 PM, Blogger Tristi Pinkston said...

I would love to become the next you! I'll wait until after you get your degree, though, so I don't have to do it.

At 10/03/2007 1:24 PM, Anonymous meanaunt said...

Wow, I never thought of "Heart of Darkness" as a Be Yourself kind of book. But now that you mention it. . .

At 10/03/2007 1:36 PM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

Great blog! I love it!

And I want to be the next you, too! I haven't had any success at all with being the last me . . .

At 10/04/2007 12:11 AM, Blogger Marsha Ward said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 10/04/2007 12:42 AM, Anonymous Jen said...

HA ha ha ha ha ha! I have to admit I was just about to skip the blog after you mentioned it would be long, but then I caught the examples of setting and it sucked me in.

At 10/06/2007 3:25 AM, Blogger Janette Rallison said...

I want to be the next you after Tristi and Kerry are done. Will the next you when I'm me be rich? I tried to figure it out from Kerry's astrology blog, but it got too hard.

At 10/07/2007 6:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post reminds me of a quote from William Faulkner:

"Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him."

At 10/08/2007 7:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the blog, Rob. You've inspired me to go write again. I like the plagiarizing character idea(I always thought Felix was the best communist ever. Maybe he has a clone name Xilef.). Though, I've never tried the drawing random attributes from a hat method.

And I know what you mean about the two different themes. Disney is a big fan of the "Be yourself" theme and I must say, I think it's annoying. They need more of the "It’s Nice to Be Important, But It’s More Important To Be Nice” for better variety.


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