Lawrence Block, the award-winning crime fiction author, is almost as well known for his instructional books for writers, and contributed a monthly column on fiction to Writers Digest for 14 years. WRITING THE NOVEL was his first book for writers, and remained continuously in print since its original appearance in 1978. But the world of publishing has changed in the past 40 years, and Block has now expanded and updated his original text, bringing each chapter up to date and adding welcome new material on the ebook revolution, the phenomenon of self-publishing, and what perils and opportunities await the new novelist—and the veteran as well.
Unlike many advice-givers, Block doesn't tell you what book to write, or the one and only way to write it. He holds that every novel is different, and so is every novelist; his aim is to give you the tools to enable you to find your own way.
Here are some chapters: #1—Why Write a Novel? #2—Deciding Which Novel to Write. #3—Read...Study...Analyze. #4—Developing Plot Ideas. #5—Developing Characters. #6—Outlining. #7—Using What You Know...and What You Don't Know. #8—Getting Started. #9—Getting It Written. #10—Snag, Dead Ends, and False Trails. #11—Matters of Style. #12—Length. #13—Rewriting. #14—Getting Published. #15—The Case for Self-Publishing. #16—The Case Against Self-publishing. #17—How to Be Your Own Publisher. #18—Doing It Again. #19—Now It's Up to You!
WRITING THE NOVEL FROM PLOT TO PRINT TO PIXEL is half again as long as the original version, and Lawrence Block has managed to retain all the 1978 text while bringing it up to date. As he would be the first to tell you, you don't need this book—or any other—to succeed as a novelist. But thousands of writers have found it helpful. And most of us feel we can use all the help we can get.
As Lawrence Block tells you in this classic writing book, you don't need to read writing books to become a successful author. But books like Writing The Novel From Plot To Print To Pixel certainly help. I read the 1980s version of this book, before pixels, and this year had the opportunity to read the volume again, with the revised material. I've been writing for 30-some years, and I still learned new things from this book. If you only have time to read one book in this bundle this summer, this is the book to read. – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel is not a practical, nuts-and-bolts writing manual. It's a philosophical handbook that answers the tough questions whoever wants to write a novel has to eventually face: Should you write novels or short stories? How do you get ideas? I've written a novel, now what? That sort of stuff. Lawrence Block delivers his take on writing novels from the widest, most conceptual angle possible, which only a renowned novelist like him could've done successfully."– Benoit Lelievre, Dead End Follies
"Because he doesn't seem capable of writing a sentence that's not entertaining, reading this book is an enjoyable experience in itself, not just for its educational and informational value. Block also provides quite a bit of background on how some of his novels came to be written, and that's always interesting to me. As for the writing, I already do many of the things he suggests, but I also picked up some ideas about things I'm going to be watching for in my own books. One of the nice things about writing is that you can always get better at it...If you're a novice writer or an experienced writer or anywhere in between, or if you're just interested in good fiction and its creation, I highly recommend it."– James Reasoner, Rough Edges
"An essential book, not just for writers but for anybody interested in writing and reading. My favorite chapter is Chapter 18, which is the one I advised my daughter to read first after I gave her the book. You should start wherever you want to. Just be sure to go ahead and read them all because this is still right at the top of my list of good books about writing. Highly recommended."– Bill Crider, Pop Culture Magazine
"Since the Seventies I've probably bought a dozen or so books on how to write good. I've kept two them and they're both by Larry Block. The damned things are fun to read. He shares his stories of writerly failure and success with his usual wit, style (the best sentences in the business as I always say) and genuine wisdom. And he teaches you stuff. Useful, practical, serious stuff. I keep the two books on the shelf right of my desk. I pick them up all the time if only to make myself feel that maybe the piece I'm working on will not, after all, end my career. Larry makes you feel good about being a writer....This is must-have material, folks. No kidding."– Ed Gorman
"When a venerated, award-winning craftsman like Lawrence Block pens a tome on how to write a novel, authors would be well advised to pay heed. As much a memoir as it is a how-to, or how-not-to, book, I found the insights into Block's process fascinating, especially the aspects that mirror my own approach. While he makes the point that there may be no right way to write the perfect novel, Block underscores the marvelous diversity of systems that provably work, drawing from a long career as one of the most respected names in the business. Highly recommended to authors, and readers interested in the writing process, alike. Five solid stars."– Russell Blake
"WRITING THE NOVEL FROM PLOT TO PRINT TO PIXEL is like having a pocket-sized mentor you can consult any time. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy."– Alex Kourvo, Writing Slices
"In addition to old reliable topics like developing plots and characters, rewriting, developing your style, and breaking into the business, Block also addresses the increasingly important topics of self-publishing and all the pros and cons that go with it. If you're looking for a new book on writing, this is it."– Dan Schwent, Dangerous Dan's Book Blog
When Writing the Novel from Plot to Print was first published, Jimmy Carter was halfway through his four years as President of the United States. Mamie Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller were still alive. So was John Wayne. So too was Mary Pickford.
And I was forty years old. And you, Gentle Reader, may not even have been born yet.
The world has changed in the years since 1978, and you don't really need me to count the ways. The small world of publishing has changed at least as much as the greater world, to the point where a latter-day Rip Van Winkle, newly risen from a 37-year slumber, would wonder what the hell was going on. Five or six major houses instead of fifty or sixty? Ebooks? Online booksellers? Self-publishing? Phones you tuck in your shirt pocket, and whole books you can read on them?
And computers, for heaven's sake! Why, if Rip wanted to write about what he saw, he'd need a typewriter. And where would he find one outside of an antique shop?
You get the point. Being a writer is vastly different now. So how could a 1978 book about the writing of novels have anything to offer to today's reader?
Well, here's the thing — when all is said and done, the novelist's task is pretty much the same as it always has been. The important element of writing has always consisted of taking the right words and putting them in the right order, and that's every bit as true whether you're cutting them into clay tablets with a stylus or talking them onto a screen with the aid of voice-recognition software. You have to tell your story, and everything follows from what you write and how you write it.
And the elements that make a story work, that make characters come alive on a page or screen, have not changed much since Shakespeare's day, or Chaucer's.
Writing the Novel from Plot to Print remained continuously available from its original publisher, first as a hardcover volume and then as a trade paperback, until just a few years ago. By the time Writer's Digest Books finally allowed it to go out of print, I'd made it electronically available from Open Road as an ebook. All these years after its initial appearance, I continue to get letters — well, emails nowadays — from writers who tell me how valuable they have found it.
May I take a minute or two to review how it came about in the first place?
In the spring of 1976 I sold a piece to Writer's Digest, the monthly magazine for writers. I was in Los Angeles at the time, in mute testimony to H.L. Mencken's observation that a Divine Hand had taken hold of the United States by the State of Maine, and lifted, whereupon everything loose wound up in Southern California. The article I sold them was a reply to the perennial question, Where do you get your ideas?, and no sooner did they accept it than I got an idea on the spot.
My idea was to sell them on the idea of hiring me as a columnist. They already had a couple of columnists, but nobody was writing about fiction, and that was the chief interest of most of their audience, so the need seemed to be there. Rather than press my case through the mail, I waited until I could do so in person; my daughters flew out in July to spend the summer with me, and we stayed that month in LA and passed the month of August on a leisurely drive back to New York, where they lived with their mother — and where I had lived, until that Divine Hand sent me spinning.
I mapped out our route east so that I could work in a lunch in Cincinnati with John Brady, then the editor at Writer's Digest. He'd bought my article, and now he bought my lunch, and over lunch he bought my idea for a fiction column, to run six times a year, alternating with their cartoon column. I got back to New York and sent in the first column, and by the time I'd written the third one they'd booted the cartoonist. My column, called simply Fiction, would appear in the magazine every month for the next fourteen years.
I'd been doing it for a little over a year when Brady got in touch. Their book division felt the need for a book telling how to write a novel. And they liked the way I wrote about writing, and wanted me to do the book for them.
I was living in New York again, in an apartment on Greenwich Street. (It's no more than a two-minute walk from where I live now, all those years later, but I've had a slew of addresses in the interim.) I wrote the book and sent it off, and the folks in Cincinnati liked it just fine, and proposed a title: Writing the Novel from Plot to Print.
I didn't like it at the time, feeling that it made the whole process sound more mechanical than I thought it to be. I'd made a particular point in my book of not telling the reader, "This is the way to do it." There were, as I saw it, at least as many ways to do it as there were writers, and arguably as many ways as there were books. But they really liked the title, and I went along with it, and I have to say it seems OK to me now.
The book, after all, has had a nice run. I guess the title hasn't hurt it any.
Twenty years ago, Writer's Digest Books wanted me to revise Writing the Novel. They felt it was dated. I talk about the Gothic novel, for example, and while books fitting that pattern may continue to be written and read, the category by that name has long since ceased to exist. If I could go through the book and update it, then they could bring out a new edition with the words "updated new edition" on it, and increase sales accordingly.
I thought about it, and ultimately decided against it. The book seemed to be one readers find useful, and the techniques and principles discussed struck me as essentially timeless, as pertinent in 1995 as they had been in 1978.
And the whole idea of updating a book bothers me, anyway. I knew a writer once who'd updated a novel, or tried to; it was being reissued after fifteen or twenty years, and he'd gone through it page by page, upping the cost of a telephone call from a nickel to a dime (this was a few years ago), changing the stars of a movie his character watches from William Powell and Myrna Loy to William Holden and Gloria Swanson (yes, this was a while ago), and otherwise altering the book's temporal setting.
Well, it didn't work. One way or another, every word in that book was attached to the year when it was written. It had a certain integrity, and you altered it at your peril.
Writing the Novel is not a novel, and thus may not need to adhere to the same standard of artistic integrity, but it's nonetheless a creature of the time of its writing, and my inclination was to leave it alone. I'm also predisposed to avoid work, and this looked to me to be work to no purpose.
Now, twenty years after I decided the book wasn't broke and didn't need to be fixed, it is in fact that much older and that much further out of date. But it still ain't broke, as I can tell by the enthusiastic word-of-blog I keep encountering on the Internet, and I'm still predisposed to avoid work.
Still, if the book doesn't need fixing per se, neither does it have to go on looking like something chiseled out of a time capsule. I don't want to sit down and rewrite it, changing William Powell and Myrna Loy to Michael Cera and Ellen Page, or Smith-Corona to iMac, or Britannica to Wikipedia, or — well, you get the point. But shouldn't there be a way to retain what works while bringing the book into today's publishing universe?
Toward that end, here's what I've done: I've kept the original text of Writing the Novel intact, except for the occasional alteration of the occasional infelicitous phrase. And for that original text I've used this nice traditional typeface, which has the great virtue of readability.
And I've added new material in this nice modern sans-serif typeface, to set it apart and make it easy to tell today from yesterday. Sometimes, when I write about ebooks and self-publishing and such, the new material will reflect the manner in which the world has changed. And on other occasions, when I reflect further on a point, it's because I myself have changed. All those years have come and gone, and it would be odd if I didn't see some things a little differently now.
Of course, when all is said and done, it's still only a book. I can but wish it does for you all a book of this sort can possibly hope to do. May my words, old and new, help you speak in your own voice, map out your own route, and find your very own way to your very own book.