Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor

Book Review:
Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print

Reviewed by Erin Hartshorn
2007, Erin Hartshorn

"After twenty years and a hundred books, I at least realize that I don't know how to write a novel, that nobody does, that there is no right way to do it.  Whatever method works -- for you, for me, for whoever's sitting in the chair and poking away at the typewriter keys -- is the right way to do it."

Thus ends Lawrence Block's introduction to Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print.  He makes it clear from the very start that what he has written in this book is merely his opinion (unless he is quoting someone else, in which case it's their opinion).  And some of his opinions are quite interesting.

One such opinion is that if you want to write a novel, the novel, rather than the short story, is the place to start.  He contends that skill and ideas are less important with a novel than with short stories -- not that they are unimportant, but that a paragraph of poor prose in a novel is less of a problem than it is in a short story where it takes up more relative space.

He also tackles deciding which novel to write, developing plot ideas, and developing characters, with examples of how he has approached each.  Ideas, he believes, arise in the mind "when the conditions are right," and then he gives concrete example of how to make conditions right: read the kind of things you want to write, pay attention (including an anecdote about how he created the character of Evan Tanner), remember what you're looking for.  I'd have to say that his chapter on developing plot ideas resonated with me the most; his anecdotes are similar to my own collection process for plot bunnies.  I may never write like Mr. Block (which is good, since I'd rather write like me), but in some ways, my mind functions like his.  I find that comforting.

His emphasis on individual patterns in writing continues throughout the book.  The chapter on outlining states near the beginning, "There is no right way to do this -- or, more correctly, there is no wrong way.  Whatever works best for the particular writer on the particular book is demonstrably the right way."  He includes quotes from Willo Davis Roberts, Tony Hillerman, and Richard S. Prather on their outlining habits to show how different attitudes can be.  (Show, don't tell.)

Other good advice comes in his chapter on "Getting It Written."  Concern yourself with the work of the day.  Don't worry about what comes next, or whether you'll be able to sort out tomorrow's problems.  If nothing seems to come out right, write it anyway; you can throw it out later.

I don't agree with everything he says; nor should I, if I am to follow the advice of "whatever works."  For example, he says that when he puts aside a book for a week to work on something else, he's setting it down forever.  That's not true for me with all projects.  With some, if I don't maintain momentum, they won't be completed.  With others, I can set them down and pick them up again many times before I reach "The End."  It all depends.

This book is a fun read and can be useful for someone looking for specific pointers on process, alternative methods of working, or just glimpses of how one author thinks about writing.  I recommend it for everyone.

Remember: whatever works -- always good advice.

Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print by Lawrence Block

Writer's Digest Books paperback copyright 1979, paperback first published 1985.

ISBN 0-89879-208-8