According to Kurt Vonnegut, “The primary benefit of practicing any art, whether well or badly, is that it enables one’s soul to grow.” If this is true, then nothing makes for more mature souls than writing a novel, a form that particularly requires perseverance and patience. Though there are no hard and fast rules for how to get from the first draft to bookstore shelf, these guideposts on how to write a novel will help you find your way.
Writing a novel can be a messy undertaking. The editing process will go easier if you devote time to plot in the beginning. For some writers, this means an outline; others work with index cards, putting a different scene on each one. Still, others only have a conflict and a general idea of where they plan to end up before diving in. If you’ve been writing for a while, you already know how your brain works and what kind of structure it needs to complete big projects. If you’re just starting out, then this may be something you’ll learn about your writing process as you revise your first novel.
Though it is a good idea to test your idea out on other writers, resist getting feedback on the writing itself at this stage. Focus on getting the complete story down on paper instead. If you have trouble with writer’s block or tend to let, projects stall, NaNoWriMo might be helpful. Other writers maintain a regular schedule and spread the writing out over a longer period of time. Still, others enroll in novel classes, which provide weekly deadlines and community.
At a reading for his first book a few years ago, novelist Dominic Smith commented that the one thing he wasn’t prepared for in writing a novel was the amount of work between first draft and published book. In one way, this is heartening. However inspired you might feel while writing it, the first draft will probably be bad. It will be clunky, disorganized, and confusing. Entire chapters will drag. The dialogue will be unconvincing and wooden. Rest assured that it’s this way for everyone. And like writers everywhere, you just have to roll up your sleeves and get to work rewriting it.
04. Solicit Feedback.
When you think it’s time to start contacting agents, get feedback from writers you trust. Don’t be surprised if they send you back to your desk for another draft. Address any large structural problems first, and then go through the book scene by scene. Anytime you have a question about whether something is working, stop and see what you could do to make it better. Don’t just hope the reader won’t notice. If you want your book to be good, revise with your most intelligent, most thoughtful reader in mind.
If you find yourself banging up against the same problems with every draft, it may be time to work on something else for awhile. Sixteen years elapsed between the first draft of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and the published version, for instance. Katherine Anne Porter likewise took years on some of her most famous stories. If you find yourself losing your way, go back to the fun parts of writing. Create something new; read for fun. With each new project you take on and each book you read, you’ll learn new lessons. When you come back to the novel — and you will come back — you’ll see it with more experienced eyes.
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In today’s unbelievably competitive industry, how can you make your fiction the best?
Addict your reader.
Make reading your stories and novels an addictive experience. The reader who is addicted to your writing will plunge into your fiction and then fight to stay there forever.
But how can you addict your reader to your stories?
Use the secrets that all great authors have used throughout the ages to give the reader exactly what they want. There are literally thousands of these secrets, but in my work as an independent editor I have prioritized them and categorized them into the simplest possible arrangement—three basic categories.
I teach fiction through its three aspects:
However, beyond than that, I teach the secrets to making these three aspects addictive:
1. unforgettable character
2. inescapable plot
3. mesmerizing prose
Secret #1 Unforgettable Character
The most fundamental truism of fiction is that all great plot grows out of character.
You can design any type of plot you like. However, if it’s not grounded in the character of your protagonist, it will be nothing but a mish-mash of events from which the reader can disengage at any time and walk away.
On the other hand, you can design almost no plot at all, and if it’s grown entirely from the character of your protagonist, the reader will not only be addicted to your work, they’ll convince all their friends and relatives to become addicted as well.
How did James Bond become a cultural icon, although his plots are repetitive and he must frequently be rescued by a young woman he’s just met? What made Agatha Christie a phenomenon of her genre, although her mysteries so often hinge on her villains’ implausible acting skills and even authorial cheating? Why do we still love Cathy and Heathcliff, although Wuthering Heights is so bizarrely organized and consists almost entirely of a laundry list of inhuman behavior?
Because Bond, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Cathy and Heathcliff are the unforgettable characters from which their plots grow.
This means that character is where we always start.
So how do we make this character unforgettable? That work is based upon the character’s conflicting internal needs. These needs must be internal or they won’t be powerful enough to fuel an entire novel. They must conflict, or there won’t be any climax to this story. And they can be explored most effectively through the three basic human needs: love, survival and justice.
There’s a lot to discuss about a protagonist’s conflicting internal needs. And I’ll teach you all about them in my 2nd guest post for Write to Done: The 2 Steps to Creating Unforgettable Character.
Secret #2 Inescapable Plot
Now what is this unforgettable character going to do?
A story—short fiction or novel—is, at its most fundamental, simply an opportunity for the reader to spend time with your unforgettable character. To make friends with them. To bond. To allow this character to become a part of their life.
This means you must design a plot that gives the freest possible reins to the protagonist’s character—exploring it, exposing it, delving into it to reveal its most intriguing and hidden facets.
The paperback genre industry of the early 20th century can teach us everything we need to know about how to design plot. Those authors cranked out their genre novels regularly and reliably, treating fiction as a day job to which they showed up and worked five days a week, 45-50 weeks of the year.
What do readers get out of genre fiction?
A plot that hooks them quickly, takes them for a thrilling whirl, then throws them off a cliff.
This is rooted in our human addiction to things that come in threes: the simplest construct that exists that also retains a crucial layer of complexity.
And this is why I teach three-act structure: Hook, Development, Climax.
Within these three acts, we can refine our design based upon the importance of climax. Each act has a unique purpose, to which we can devote a full half of that act. And each act also needs a climax, to which we can devote the other full half of that act. That’s how important climax is.
Once we have these six structural pieces, we can refine our design even further by breaking each piece into six more pieces. In this way, we can quickly and easily design a plot of 36 pieces along a specific pattern.
I call this holographic design.
The reader has already unconsciously adopted this pattern through the reading of their first great story. It’s what they expect. Because it’s great storytelling. And, through proper design, it’s what we can regularly, reliably give them.
But how do we turn this simple design into a rollercoaster ride, one that will keep the reader addicted on every single page? There’s a counter-intuitive trick to this that gives your plot the essential contrast that throws your entire design into three-dimensional relief, gripping your reader, meeting their unconscious expectations, and making your plot inescapable.
I’ll teach you all about this in detail in my 3rd guest post for Write to Done: The 4 Steps to Designing Inescapable Plot.
Secret #3 Mesmerizing Prose
Finally there is the writing of this character-grown plot.
How do you turn a brilliant, well-developed idea into a novel of some 70,000-100,000 words—a novel that the reader can’t forget, can’t escape, can hardly put down even for a minute? Because 70,000-100,000 are a whole lot of words. And the reader has a life to live.
How do you write a novel that’s mesmerizing? One to which the reader is addicted?
You’ll hear a lot in the writing community these days about how to make time to write, how to write faster and more efficiently, how to get your manuscript finished. This advice is mostly about time management, on the assumption that your life is not set up for endless hours in front of the keyboard. However, focusing upon time management misses a crucial element of writing: you write because you love to.
Truly, if writing is not the one thing you love to do above all else, then go find out what is and do that. Life is too short for wasting on doing things you don’t love.
And if writing is the one thing you love to do above all else, then you don’t need time management. You need stamina. You need to stay in touch with your passion. You need, especially, to know what you’re doing.
Only through a combination of your passion and an understanding of your work can you make your time at the keyboard as productive as humanly possible. Only in this way can you produce manuscripts full of life, while also devoting yourself to the life that is your own.
Your first goal, of course, is to get a draft written. But there are tricks to the efficient writing of a first draft. And there are certainly techniques to editing that draft into polished prose.
I’ve developed a set of guidelines that I use for writing quick first drafts and then turning my clients’ drafts into powerful professional prose. And I often teach my clients these guidelines. Of course, I never teach them all—those are my trade secrets. But I learned them all from the published works of great authors. And you can too.
All you have to do is study in-depth hundreds novels line-by-line and practice for thousands of hours in order to discover what makes writing clear, strong, and vivid. Mesmerizing.
To which authors and stories are you addicted? Why?
By Victoria Mixon
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Novels are tricky. There’s so much to juggle that no-one gets it quite right the first time round … and most authors end up doing wholesale rewrites, rather than just making a few editorial tweaks.
I’ve come to accept that rewriting is just part of the process of creating a novel. Each time I start work on a new book, I want to be a more efficient writer – and while I have found some things easier, I still end up doing a lot of rewriting and reworking.
Maybe it’s the same way for you.
Whether you’re working on your first draft of your first novel, or you’ve completed a bunch of novels already, there are two scenes that you’re likely to spend a lot of time rewriting:
- The opening of your novel
- The climax of your novel
However hard you worked in the first draft, and however much you planned, these are just really difficult scenes to pull off well.
But the good news is – even if your first draft doesn’t quite hang together in these key areas, rewrites can fix anything!
Why Your Opening Scene (Probably) Needs Rewriting
The first scene of your novel needs to do a lot of heavy lifting. It has to get the story going – no mean feat! – and it has to establish your main character(s). At the same time, it needs to set the tone for what’s to come and it has to “hook” your reader.
Plus, unless you draft your book patchwork-quilt style, working on scenes here and there and stitching them all together at the end, the opening scene is probably the very first thing you wrote when you began your first draft. Chances are, your ideas have shifted a bit (or a lot!) since then.
The first scene of my novel Lycopolis went through about a dozen rewrites. I had several completely different versions of that scene – in the very first draft, for instance, I went with an omniscient perspective dipping in and out of all my different characters’ viewpoints. It soon became clear that this wasn’t going to mesh well with the limited close third-person perspective I ended up using for the rest of the novel!
If the current draft of your opening scene isn’t quite working, you might want to ask yourself:
- Have I started this novel at the right moment? Would it be better to skip the preamble and jump straight into the action? (Or, conversely, do you need to backtrack and start a little earlier?)
- Does this scene introduce my main character(s)? If not, is there a good reason – or would it be better to start with them?
- Is there a “hook” in this scene … something that would capture readers’ interest and keep them turning the pages? (It doesn’t need to be something huge and dramatic, unless your genre requires that!)
- Does this scene fit well with the rest of my novel? You could write a brilliant first three pages for a competition or an agent … but if they seem to belong to a different book altogether, they’re not going to get you far!
Why the Climax of Your Novel (Probably) Needs Rewriting
The climax of the novel is the high point of tension/action where everything comes together. Your protagonist, after the greatest trial yet, finally wins what they were after all along. (Or, in a less happier novel, your protagonist finally fails irrevocably.)
The climax, like the opening, needs to do a huge amount of work. It has to pull together lots of different threads from your novel, and potentially quite a few different characters. In many novels, your hero has to face what seem like insurmountable odds … and s/he needs to triumph regardless. But that triumph must be earned, and convincing.
Invariably, I find that the first time I draft this scene in my novels, it falls a little flat. The action isn’t dramatic enough. The very real possibility of danger isn’t potent enough. The characters don’t struggle enough. With each rewrite, the climax involves more tension, danger and drama.
Occasionally, after the first draft, I find I’ve changed my mind about how it should all end. This happened with my second novel, Oblivion, which took a long time (my kids were both born along the way!) and where I realised that I wanted the novel to end quite differently from how I’d originally planned.
If the climax of your novel isn’t quite coming together, you might want to ask yourself:
- Is my protagonist struggling (and even suffering) as much as they should here? How could I make this harder for them?
- What price does my protagonist pay for success? If they haven’t already sacrificed something to get to this point, maybe that should happen during the climax.
- Have I tied up various loose ends from the novel? (It might well be fine to address some of these after the climax, in the final pages of the novel – but be careful it doesn’t end up dragging on too long.)
- Does the victory come because of the protagonist’s actions? Be careful if not: if someone else steps in to save the day, or if the protagonist wins through a stroke of luck or an act of God, the climax might feel unsatisfying to you readers.
If you find yourself rewriting your opening scene and the climax of your novel multiple times, don’t be surprised or dismayed – it’s perfectly normal to end up reworking these a lot. Other scenes in your novel might need much less attention, because they’re neither so complex nor so crucial.
With my own novels, I’ve definitely had times when I felt like I would never get these scenes finished to my satisfaction. Eventually I did! If you’re at that stage right now, hang on in there – take a break or get someone else’s input if you can, and then get back to the rewrites. Good luck!
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Note: This post was originally published in 2016, and was updated in June 2018.
Do your characters suffer enough?
Even if you’re writing a light and fluffy romance, at some point, someone in your novel is going to need to get hurt.
I’m not suggesting all-out graphic torture here, obviously – unless that suits your genre. Suffering comes in a lot of different forms – and I’m going to go through a bunch of those in a moment.
In general, making characters suffer should do at least one, ideally both, of these:
- Advance your plot: bad stuff may well need to happen in order for your heroes to get to (and earn) their happy ending. Often, some degree of suffering is what drives the plot: the protagonist is unhappy with their life as-is and wants to change things.
- Deepen or reveal character: either we see who someone really is when they’re hurt (someone who seemed a bit of a wimp turns out to have hidden strength; someone who was nice on the surface reveals a vindictive side) … or it’s part of their character arc.
Any and all of your characters can get to suffer: heroes, villains, and those with walk-on parts. The main difference is in how the reader will respond.
Our natural reaction to seeing someone hurt or in pain is to feel sympathy towards them. If they’re a particularly nasty character, though, we might well feel they’re getting their just deserts. The more awful they are, the less likely we are to feel sorry for them – even if their suffering is pretty extreme (think Ramsay in Game of Thrones, for instance).
If a minor character suffers, the importance of this may well be how the hero (or villain) responds: do they help? Are they distressed? Amused? Indifferent? Introducing someone who’s in some kind of pain can also be a good way to instantly get the reader’s sympathy.
15 Ways to Make Characters Suffer
There are some fairly obvious ways to hurt your characters: physical violence being pretty high on the list. However, that won’t always suit your novelistic purposes (sure, you could break your protagonist’s legs, but that may make the rest of your story fall apart) – and it’s not appropriate for every genre.
Keep in mind, too, that suffering and misery alone aren’t going to make for a very interesting story: what’s important is how these alter the characters and the plot (generally, if something’s impacting one of those, it’ll impact the other).
If you’re a bit stuck for ideas, though, or you feel like your characters should go through a bit more misery but whacking them around in a fight isn’t going to quite cut it … here are different ways to make your fictional people suffer.
This is not, I suspect, an exhaustive list – please do add your ideas in the comments! I’ve split these into “physical” and “non-physical” (though obviously there’s an overlap in many cases); other than that, they’re not in any specific order.
#1: Sleep Deprivation
As any parent of small children can tell you, this can be pretty horrific! 😉 It brings together physical exhaustion and emotional/mental difficulties too, so it could be a handy one to go for if you’re avoiding outright violence, or if you want something more emotionally draining than purely physical pain.
The cause of the sleep deprivation is (or should be!) significant; if nothing else, these will impact on how the character feels about it (and how easily they can solve it). A young baby? A snoring partner? Insomnia? Deliberate torture?
Handy for: plot complications (character may be unsafe to drive, operate machinery, etc); seeing who a character is / how they respond under pressure.
Example: Season 4 of Dexter begins with Dexter and his wife Rita pretty sleep deprived due to baby Harrison crying at night – this kicks off the plot as Dexter accidentally brings the wrong file to court, resulting in a violent killer going free.
A character who’s hungry has a very basic, pressing need to fulfil. This might be a temporary situation (they’re stranded somewhere with no food and possibly no water) or a more ongoing form of suffering that drives the whole plot.
Handy for: pushing characters into making tough decisions (anything from “steal to feed a child” to “resort to cannibalism”).
Example: In The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins (as you might guess from the title) hunger drives the plot. Teenagers compete in annual “hunger games” to win food for their communities.
#3: Health Condition
Any long-term physical health condition could impact on (quite possibly drive) the plot. It doesn’t necessarily have to have a constant presence: for instance, if a character occasionally suffers strokes or migranes, that could be a source of stress and conflict but not something that limits them at every moment. It could be anything from minor to debilitating.
Handy for: (if the condition exists from page one) limiting a protagonist who might otherwise be too powerful or succeed too easily; (if the condition arises during the novel) forcing a protagonist to come to terms with the loss of their hopes or dreams – or even to face their own mortality.
Example: One of the main characters in Linda Green’s And Then It Happened ends up in a coma, due to a head injury, part way through.
While it felt awkward to count this as “suffering”, pregnancy will at least limit a character – morning sickness and exhaustion in the first trimester; increasing size and tiredness in the third. There’s also the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy, and how your character reacts – which quickly shades into more mental types of suffering. In some romance novels, pregnancy (particularly accidental pregnancy) can be a source of conflict and story tension.
Handy for: other characters’ responses (e.g. concern for pregnant character and unborn child); racking up the tension for the reader if the pregnant character ends up in a dangerous situation; possible drama surrounding any complications, or simply the labour and birth.
Example: Intelligence operative Angela Burr in The Night Manager is pregnant with her first child – this doesn’t have any particular dramatic impact on the plot, but does make her more potentially vulnerable, particularly as she gets more involved in the action towards the end of the series.
#5: Long-Term Injury
A broken leg or arm, or a serious wound, can limit a character’s actions for a fair amount of time. These aren’t necessarily going to cause continuous pain (a broken limb will be very painful in the immediate aftermath, but assuming it’s treated and the character has painkillers, it’s going to be more like an inconvenience than a source of agony).
Handy for: keeping a character on the sidelines during a particular part of your plot; other characters’ reactions to the injured one; how the character reacts to having to rest and recover; initial drama and conflict as the injury gets seen to.
Example: In The Accident Season, a YA novel by Moira Fowley-Doyle, various characters suffer injuries – when the story opens, Cara (the narrator) has sprained her wrist, and her older sister Alice has fallen down the stairs.
#6: Short-Term Injury
This doesn’t have to be minor (it might well be life-threatening), but it should be resolved fairly quickly with minimal lasting effects. E.g. if someone has lost a lot of blood, they could be bandaged up (and possibly treated in surgery) but back on their feet after a couple of days.
Other short-term injuries might be painful (bruising, burns) but not incapacitating.
Handy for: immediate pain and trauma; getting a character back into the plot quickly; potentially changing the relationship between the injured character and character(s) who help; works well in light/comic novels too.
Example: In Off to be the Wizard, a comic speculative fiction novel by Scott Meyer, the protagonist Martin suffers a number of fairly amusing minor injuries, particularly in the early chapters.
A character is – rightly or wrongly – imprisoned. The suffering here could simply be the loss of their freedom, or that could be compounded by other types of suffering (separation from their loved ones, being ill-treated or tortured, hunger…) If the incarcerated character is a more minor one, then the protagonist might be pushed to rescue them, particularly if they’re in danger or being used as leverage.
Handy for: getting them out of the way; giving them time to reflect on how they’ve screwed up; furthering the plot (e.g. through their escape attempt); could easily be part of their character arc.
Example: Tony Stark in Iron Man is captured by terrorists early on during the narrative: this is a hugely important moment in both his character arc and the plot of the whole Iron Man series: he invents the Iron Man suit in order to escape.
The character is deliberately and repeatedly hurt (physically, but you can bring in psychological angles too) by another character. This is – at least ostensibly – usually for information but it could be a form of punishment … or, if your antagonist is particularly heinous, just for “fun”. It can potentially have a medical component: the torturer isn’t causing them pain for pain’s sake, but because they’re testing the character in some way.
Handy for: making your villain pretty darn unredeemable; pushing good characters to their limits; blurring the moral lines (under what circumstances would the mostly-good guys torture someone?); causing your protagonist a great deal of anguish if someone else is being tortured in order to break them.
Example: Firefly’s Mal (Captain Reynolds) and Wash, in “War Stories” are tortured by bad guy Niska; significant primarily for the character development / interaction between them (and to some extent for other characters too, particularly the relationship between Wash and his wife Zoe).
You can put characters through hell without a single cut or bruise. Here are a few ideas:
#9: Financial Problems
Money (as most writers notice at some point!) can be a massive source of stress. This can work for almost any character, however well-off – e.g. they lose all their money, or they go through an acrimonious divorce, or money is a serious source of relationship stress.
Handy for: putting pressure on a relationship; forcing difficult decisions (especially if physical suffering – e.g. hunger – is on the horizon); conflict between characters.
Example: The gulf between rich men and their (usually female) assistants, who are paying off student loan debt, kicks off drives the plot in The Assistants by Camille Perri.
#10: Losing a Job
On its own, this isn’t necessarily a form of suffering – but assuming the character wanted or needed the job, then it’s likely to lead to financial or social difficulties. They may face a crisis of self-identity.
If losing a job is a bit drastic, an explicit or implied threat to a character’s job can be a milder way of achieving some of the same effects. In children’s or YA fiction, expulsion from school, or the threat of it, can work in a similar way to an adult losing a job.
Handy for: relationship problems (with spouse, former co-workers, etc); character blaming themselves; freeing up a character to have more time for interesting things than going to work every day!
Example: A fairly large source of tension in Season One of Marvel’s Agent Carter is the gulf between Peggy Carter’s work in law enforcement and the highly illegal activities she’s undertaking on the side in order to protect Howard Stark (who she believes – rightly – is not guilty of the crimes he’s been accused of).
#11: Social Problems
Perhaps your character is rejected by their community, or is misunderstood or vilified. They might be at fault or they might be blameless – or perhaps something in between. The pain this causes could range from feeling a bit lonely to being devastated; if you’re writing something fairly dark, it could well lead to the character being hunted down and physically attacked.
Handy for: questioning identity, potentially striking out in a new direction, feeling like they have nothing else to lose, potentially making some bad choices
Example: In K.M. Weiland’s Storming, Hitch, the protagonist, returns to a close-knit community that he left years before – and there’s a lot of animosity towards him (particularly from his sister-in-law).
One particularly effective, if horrible, way to make your character suffer is to kill someone they love. This might be part of the plot (the antagonist murders their best friend) or it might be part of the back story (their spouse is dying or has died before the story begins).
Handy for: deep distress and despair; questioning of their purpose; potentially strengthening their resolve to succeed in reaching their goal.
Example: Detective Jamie Brooke in Joanna Penn’s Desecration has a terminally ill 14-year-old daughter who passes away part-way into the novel: a huge source of grief for Jamie, but also a critical part of the plot, as the body is stolen.
#13: Mental Illness
There’s a whole range of potential suffering under the broad umbrella of “mental illness” – depression, anxiety, eating disorders, drug addiction, PTSD, etc. You might have a protagonist with a backstory of mental illness – or your protagonist might have a friend or relative suffering with a particular mental health difficulty. I’m sure it goes without saying, but do approach these with a bit of caution and sensitivity.
Handy for: starting off the novel with a character already facing a difficult struggle; introducing mental health problems part way as a result of traumatic plot events.
Example: Jessica Jones, in Marvel’s Jessica Jones, is suffering from a form of PTSD (plus, if not outright alcoholism, at least alcohol abuse) from the first episode.
#14: Esoteric Suffering
I’m using this as a catch-all for types of suffering that might crop up in speculative fiction, horror, and some thrillers. Think psychic powers or super-powers: pain or suffering caused by something at least somewhat supernatural, which could be anything from some kind of advanced technology to magic-wielding humans to an evil demon.
Handy for: something painful (quite possibly cripplingly so) that doesn’t have lasting effects; showcasing antagonist’s power even at a distance; creepy or unsettling effects; causing or interacting with other types of suffering.
Example: The Hunter in Ceila Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy can inflict this sort of pain, particularly in the form of nightmares.
One fairly simple (but often potent) form of suffering is to have a character who’s afraid. This doesn’t necessarily have to result in any eventual injury or harm: simply having them really scared can ramp up the tension, and can potentially push them into difficult or bad decisions.
Handy for: increasing tension without increasing the body count; keeping scary things just slightly off the page (often scarier!); pushing characters into a corner; making them make a brave decision (or live with the fact they didn’t).
Example: Five-year-old Jack in Emma Donoghue’s Room goes along with his mother’s plan to free them (which involves rolling him up in a rug and pretending he’s dead) despite being understandably scared.
And in case that list isn’t quite enough for you, here are some bonus ways to pile on the suffering:
- Your character’s own stupid decisions caused the Bad Thing to happen to them.
- Your character’s brave, heroic act caused the Bad Thing: they stood up for justice, and it go them shot / arrested / etc.
- Your character isn’t the one suffering (or not the only one) – someone they love is in pain.
- It looked like something was finally going to go right for your character … but then it all came crashing down.
If, like me, you’re sometimes a bit of a wimp when it comes to letting your characters suffer … write the first draft as lightly and fluffily as you want, then pile on the suffering in subsequent rewrites. It’ll make for a stronger, more compelling novel.
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From her Blog “Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors”
What is the first dramatic event?
What is your first major plot point?
What are the three essentials?
A professor of mine once posed it to me this way, thumping the podium for emphasis: “It’s not ‘World War II began’! It’s ‘Hitler. Invaded. Poland.’”
Pulitzers 2012: prize for fiction withheld for first time in 35 years
None of the entries for the best American novel of the last year could command a majority
Sources: http://www.guardian.co.uk By: Alison Flood and LA Times
The best American novel of the last year? There wasn’t one, according to the judges of this year’s Pulitzer prize for fiction, who announced yesterday that for the first time in 35 years the fiction award would be withheld.
Three novels were in the running to take the Pulitzer prize, the most prestigious in American fiction: Karen Russell’s debut Swamplandia, about a family trying and failing to run an alligator wrestling theme park; David Foster Wallace’s posthumously completed novel The Pale King, set in an Internal Revenue Service centre; and Denis Johnson’s old American west novella Train Dreams.
The books were selected from 341 novels by the novelist Michael Cunningham and the critics Maureen Corrigan and Susan Larson, and presented to the Pulitzer board, which took the decision not to give out the $10,000 prize this year. This was the 11th time the fiction award has been withheld, and the first time since 1977. Previous winners of the Pulitzer range from Ernest Hemingway, Harper Lee and William Faulkner to John Updike, Philip Roth and Toni Morrison.
“The main reason [for the fiction decision] is that no one of the three entries received a majority and thus, after lengthy consideration, no prize was awarded,” Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzers, told the Associated Press. “There were multiple factors involved in these decisions, and we don’t discuss in detail why a prize is given or not given.” Larson, chair of the award’s jury, added: “The decision not to award the prize this year rests solely with the Pulitzer board.”
John Mullan, professor of English at University College London and a former judge of the Booker prize, said that withholding the UK’s top literary honour was “absolutely never an option”.
“Quite frequently the Booker shortlist comes out and various critics pronounce upon it and say, ‘None of these are any good,’ but when you’re a judge, that’s absolutely, certainly, not an option,” he said. “You go into it with the knowledge that some years are better than others. Some are very good, some are duff, and you just pray you get a good year.”
The Pulitzer, though, is “different”, according to Mullan. “Americans take it much more seriously. The Pulitzer is like an award saying, ‘You will go down in posterity’ – that’s what they take it as being, therefore the panel sees it as its lofty mission to decide if there is anything worthy of that,” he said. “The Booker, though – the people judging that see it much more pragmatically, and know there is a history of Booker prize winners and Booker shortlisted novels, some of which turn out to be really shrewd choices vindicated by time, and some which look like duff choices. There’s a long history of books that were not even on the shortlist which 30 years later look like they deserved to win, which gives you a rueful realism about the process. It seems to me, the Pulitzer has come to stand for something different, and perhaps Americans are a bit more solemn about what these judgments mean.”
The Pulitzer board did manage to find winners for other literary categories this year: Life on Mars by Tracy K Smith took the poetry prize, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by the late Manning Marable won the history award, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt won the non-fiction gong, and John Lewis Gaddis’s George F Kennan: An American Life won the biography award.
Here’s the full list of the winners:
Public Service – The Philadelphia Inquirer
Breaking News Reporting – The Tuscaloosa (Alabama) News Staff
Investigative Reporting – Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, Eileen Sullivan and Chris Hawley of the Associated Press
Michael J. Berens and Ken Armstrong of The Seattle Times
Explanatory Reporting – David Kocieniewski of The New York Times
Local Reporting – Sara Ganim and members of The Patriot-News Staff, Harrisburg, Penn
National Reporting – David Wood of The Huffington Post
International Reporting – Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times
Feature Writing – Eli Sanders of The Stranger, a Seattle weekly
Commentary – Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune
Criticism -Wesley Morris of The Boston Globe
Editorial Writing – No award
Editorial Cartooning – Matt Wuerker of POLITICO
Breaking News Photography – Massoud Hossaini of Agence France-Presse
Feature Photography – Craig F. Walker of The Denver Post
LETTERS, DRAMA and MUSIC
Fiction – No award
Drama – “Water by the Spoonful” by Quiara Alegria Hudes
History – “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,” by the late Manning Marable (Viking)
Biography – “George F Kennan: An American Life,” by John Lewis Gaddis (The Penguin Press)
Poetry – “Life on Mars” by Tracy K Smith (Graywolf Press)
General Nonfiction – “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,” by Stephen Greenblatt (WW Norton and Company)
Music – “Silent Night: Opera in Two Acts” by Kevin Puts (Aperto Press)