Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print by Lawrence Block

[Note: a review of the expanded and updated version of this book can be found here.]

It’s hard for me to be objective about Lawrence Block. His photo was taped to the wall above my computer for several years. I considered him my mentor, but not like the guru who dispenses wisdom from on high. To me, he was more like a big brother who’s been where you are (not so very long ago) and will always reach back to hold your hand if you need it. That feeling comes from Block’s conversational tone, his optimistic view of the world, and his honesty about his own failings.

However, I suspect my real love for WRITING THE NOVEL comes from it being the right book at the right time. It was published in the 70s, but I didn’t discover it until many years later, sometime in the 90s. Even so, it was just what a brand-new baby writer needed, and I read it three or four times. I recently revisited it for this review, and was shocked at how timely it still is. A lot has changed over the years, but a lot has not. Oddly enough, a few things have come full-circle and become newly relevant.

WRITING THE NOVEL is meant to set your feet firmly on the novelist’s path with the minimal amount of drama. It also separates technical progress from creative breakthroughs. Block teaches you to cultivate the former, knowing the latter will take care of themselves. He is also quick to point out that every bit of his advice is optional. Do what works.

Publishing may have changed over the years, but the craft of writing hasn’t. Block discusses the importance of nurturing your ideas, the advantages of outlining, how much research is necessary, staying with the novel for the long haul, and how to revise your work. Block states that an apprenticeship writing short stories is unnecessary. One learns how to be a novelist by writing novels, not by writing short stories. Besides, the market for novels is stronger than the one for short fiction.

Block also emphasizes the importance of reading. It won’t stifle your creativity, you won’t write derivative work, and you won’t be overly influenced by your predecessors. What will happen is that you’ll be well-read in your genre. You’ll be less likely to imitate by accident. Block teaches you to read like a writer, advising you to go so far as to outline a published novel you admire. I tried doing that and holy cow, it works. Outlining someone else’s novel taught me more about story structure than a million words of theory ever could.

Although much of WRITING THE NOVEL is timely, not all of it is. I skipped the chapter on publishing, knowing it would be useless in today’s digital age. But smaller anachronisms were woven throughout the text. The constant references to typewriters seemed quaint and somehow funny. Block also discusses great markets for beginning writers to break into–gothic novels, westerns, and confession magazines–genres that are now mostly dead. Reading those sections just made me wish Block had time to write a complete update of this book. The vast majority of it is solid advice, all told in an easy-to-read style with a compassionate tone. In other words, it’s just what today’s writer needs.

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rating: 4 stars

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pie slices: 7 slices craft, 1 slice business

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

4 thoughts on “Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print by Lawrence Block

  1. Oh yay, I’m not the only one. Block was my guru and I gobbled up everything he wrote about writing. What drew me most, I think, is the utter respect he has for craft and story and creativity.

    • I feel the same way, Jaye! Mr. Block’s books never talked down to me. Even when I was a new writer and should have been talked down to. Instead, his books lifted me up.

  2. “Besides, the market for novels is stronger than the one for short fiction.” I have a hunch that one might not be true any more, as there are so many online markets now, and the New York publishers have really tightened their belts. 😉

    That said, I’m sure there would be a lot of writers relieved to hear the advice. I never had much interest in reading or writing short stories myself (though I have some out there, because they don’t take as long to write and edit, lol), and always preferred longer adventures. I think a lot of readers feel that way, as the novel market is so much stronger (even in the e-publishing world where length doesn’t really matter) than the short story one.

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