On Becoming a Novelist
By John Gardner

On Becoming a Novelist

I dove into John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist, hoping that it, like Stephen King’s On Writing, would provide me with a glimpse into that elusive world of what it feels like to be a novelist, the creative process, and the real secrets of success. I have read all sorts of guides with regard to how to improve my writing, and more than a few that maintain that being a successful writer is just hard work. Of course we all know that. I wanted something that explored the innermost sensibilities of a writer and like On Writing does not mince words about what leads a writer to success.

On Becoming a Novelist is broken into four sections – The Writer’s Nature, The Writer’s Training and Education, Publication and Survival and Faith. There is so much to offer in this book that I am going to focus only on the first section and leave the other sections for subsequent reviews.

The Writer’s Nature explores qualities that contribute to success in a novelist. Gardner stresses that novelists must have a verbal sensitivity – that is the ability to “invent authentically interesting language” but that the good novelist cannot be primarily worried about linguistic brilliance at the expense of “telling his story in a moving way.” Gardner emphasizes the importance of creating a vivid and continuous dream, such that the reader forgets about the printed words on the page and begins to see images. If the dream is not vivid with the right crisp language signals, the image will be “cloudy, confusing, ultimately annoying and boring.” And the dream must be continuous – “the reader must not be jerked back from the dream to the words on the page by language that’s distracting.”

Gardner also believes that novelists must have an accurate and original eye that allows him or her to see both literal details and metaphorical equivalencies more accurately, vividly and selectively. Unpromising writers in contrast see things derivatively. Writers must have both self-understanding and an understanding and fascination with others, especially others that are different from themselves. This is essential for them to be able to get inside their characters’ heads and make them think and behave authentically.

The third indicator of talent in a potential novelist is having a storyteller’s intelligence. This involves the ability to establish the vivid and continuous dream. To do so, Gardner feels the writer must be generous, answering every reasonable question the reader may have, revealing important information in a timely manner and avoiding “pointlessly subtle games.” He notes that every child who likes stories knows intuitively what a good story is, but by the time that child becomes a teenager he or she might become confused as a result of what he has learned in school.  Gardner observes “In the best fiction, plot is not s series of surprises but an increasingly moving series of recognitions, or moments of understanding.”

Finally, Gardner observes that successful writers require daemonic compulsiveness. Gardner argues that this drive is essential particularly for novelists to continue working when one realizes one has created “too many unmanageable elements” and characters that one “must present convincingly” and the writer “comes to the realization that he is lost.” Gardner observes that a truly good novel generally requires “slow, slow baking.”  A key element of success is for the novelist to ultimately achieve authority of voice whereby the reader trusts that the writer knows what he is doing – that nothing is laboured, or wasted or tentative, because most readers have a built-in shit detector.