The Successful Novelist

CC image by Neal Sanche

David Morrell’s book The Successful Novelist follows each step of the writing process beginning with the question, “Why do you want to be a writer?” through what happens if your book is made into a movie. With such a range of topics, it makes the book perfect for those just starting out, anyone looking for an agent, or someone who has already published one book and is moving on to the next. Morrell gives us some personal details of his life, mostly in the beginning, and then throughout the rest of the book he discusses various pieces of the writing process using his novels as examples. Each chapter of the book deals with a different writing topic, and Morrell shows you what’s going on in his head as he’s putting together his own books.

CC image by Neal Sanche

CC image by Neal Sanche

The first chapter deals with the basic question of why you want to be a writer in the first place. He says that the only acceptable answer to the question is because you need to be. Writing is not a passing fancy. It’s something in which you don’t have a choice. Morrell believes that most people become writers because of trauma in their childhood. He writes, “The theory goes like this—most people become writers because they’re haunted by secrets they need to tell.” Writers write because they have to.

The next section handles what to do after you’ve decided to be a writer and had that moment of inspiration. Now you have to figure out where to go with that idea. His suggested method, instead of using an outline, is to have a conversation with yourself. You sit down at your computer or your piece of paper and you ask yourself questions about the idea, writing it all down as you go. Ask the questions, “So what?” and “Why?” over and over. Having this conversation and writing it down fleshes out the story and lets you look back and see what inspired you in the first place, which can also help you avoid writer’s block in the middle of your story.

Plot comes next and having an idea does not mean you have a plot. Morrell has two basic views on plot. There is high concept, where an idea can be boiled down to one catchy sentence with no depth, usually like a movie. In those scenarios, plot controls characters, but in good books, characters control plot. Asking “why” constantly helps avoid having the plot control the characters. Characters need to have a solid reason for everything they do and not just act as plot devices. Morrell writes, “Plot equals conflict plus motivation,” and one piece of advice on character is, “…there are no minor characters, only minor authors.” Even minor characters need a motivation for what they do and giving them an interesting detail adds depth and makes them more interesting and real. He uses the example of an iceberg where you only see a small portion of the whole, but you know it’s there.

In the chapter titled “Importance of Research,” Morrell says, “Next to an utter lack of ability, the worst flaw I can think of for a would-be writer is ignorance about literary history.” He says you should know your genre backwards and forwards so when you write your novel, you’re not reinventing the wheel. Your novel should add something new to the genre, rather than just being the same as everyone else’s. In addition to knowing literary history, a writer should be doing research particular to their book. He suggests writing about things you want to learn and doing your own research, not just from movies and other books, because they’re often inaccurate, but first-hand research. He says, “For me, a vacation isn’t appealing unless it involves unfamiliar activities that are potentially useable in a book.”

His chapters, “A Matter of Viewpoint” and “First Person,” give a clear explanation of when to use each point of view. You should not choose something just because it feels natural, which is how so many first person books are written. Before starting, or before you get very far, you should assess the pros and cons of different viewpoints so you make sure you’re using the one best suited to your story. He says, “In the best writing, the first person implies an unstated deeper level, a hidden lower layer of character revelation, that the first person isn’t aware of and that the third person wouldn’t be able to create.”

The book continues with advice about description and dialogue, such as eliminating adjectives and adverbs and using strong verbs and concrete nouns instead. There is also a chapter devoted to writer’s block, and he says there are two reasons for writer’s block. The first is the writer’s psyche, and the second is what’s being written. Once you determine which is the root of the problem, you can take steps to fix it and be able to continue your story.

The last several chapters approach the subjects of agents, the publishing process, movies, and marketing. He says that, “Writing is an ecstatically liberating and fulfilling experience. But the business of writing is lonely and at times plain frightening.” The movie business is as complicated and difficult as the publishing business, if not more so. In terms of marketing, writers in the past were not expected to do very much marketing for their own book, but now, it can be one of the most time-consuming parts of a writer’s life.

Morrell’s book is a mine of pertinent and useful information about writing. In using his own books as examples, he shows that he’s been through these same frustrations and felt the same insecurities that most of us feel in writing. The way that he describes his books shows the care and thought that went in to each one. His advice is practical, and he’s honest about the difficulties of being a writer, but also the fact that, in general, writers don’t really have a choice.

One of his common themes throughout the book is to stay true to your history and find a style that reflects you. He says, “Use your singular background to create themes and approaches unique to you, even though you might have to be inspired by other writers. In the end, a first-class you is better than a second-hand version of somebody else.”

Rating: 5 stars
I enjoyed the practical nature of this book and the mix of personal stories with advice to handle some of the struggles inherent in a writer’s life. He was also the first author whose book on writing inspired me to go and read their other work.

By Melissa Blakely