The Modern Novel: A Self Study Course for This Aspiring Novelist

I’m a writer and I want to write. This I know through and through, balls to bones.

Like most other writers I have a desire to write a book. Perhaps it’s the thrill of seeing my name in the spine of a cover which will one day grace the bookshelves of many. Maybe it’s the excitement of possibly meeting people I don’t know, but have read my stuff anyway (this doesn’t happen very often now, by the way). Perhaps it’s the narcissistic exuberance of being famous, or the misguided belief that a best seller will solve all of my financial difficulties and place my name in history’s pages. (I, of course, write this with a jealous and curious glance northeast, toward the home of a certain J. K. Rowling.)

Whatever. The point is that I’m writing one now — my first novel, that is — and the deeper I get into the process, the more obvious my limitations become. This is why I need a plan to help me overcome my weaknesses. I need to study modern writers and their novels.

While I aspire to one day become a successful novelist, I realize more and more that I have weaknesses. A lot of them. This is especially obvious when I see what others have written, how others have capitalized upon their talents and furthered them with trained skill (talent alone, after all, is for amateurs). Without knowing it and without any effort on my part I compare myself myself to them — in between the frequent utterances of “oh, that’s a great line, I’ve got to use that somehow” — realizing every time I do that I have a very, very long way to go. Mind you, I’m well aware of the fact that I have to develop my own voice, and that to imitate someone else will make me but a second class them instead of a first class me. (I’d like to thank all the self-help gurus over the years who have turned deep philosophical truths into quips and one-liners.) Nevertheless, there isn’t a person alive from which I couldn’t learn something, and not a writer somewhere from whom I cannot gain. (Whether I want to or not is another matter entirely.) And if I am to learn from someone, why not do so from the best of the best?

With this in mind, I have decided to put myself on a self-study regimen of sorts. The purpose of this regimen is to study the works of successful authors (from both artistic and commercial standpoints), understand their strengths, how I may use these to overcome my own weaknesses, and learn how to wield the tools they wield in their writing. My studying will consist of reading a large number of these author’s books, starting with their later works so as to see them at their best, in order to permeate my consciousness with their writing methodologies.

Why am I doing this? For too long have I haphazardly leaped about from author to author, reading what they have written, and then thought to myself “Boy, I wish I could write like that,” just to move on to the next author with a completely different style and say the same thing. With a more structured regimen I will be able to better understand what it is that I like about the author, analyze how it is they use those methods, and lean then how to do them myself. The end goal here is the self serving and narcissistic goal of becoming my own favorite author, something I can’t currently say I am. (That honor goes to Issac Asimov, although if you were to judge by looking at my bookshelves you’d think it a tie between Stephen King and Napoleon Hill. Can you imagine a collaborative project between those two? That would be weird!)

After some consideration, I’ve decided to study the following writers (listed here in no particular order):

  • Stephen King
  • J.K. Rowling
  • Gene Wolfe
  • Tom Clancy
  • Neil Gaiman
  • Dr. Seuss
  • Douglass Adams
  • Michael Crichton
  • China Mieville
  • George Orwell

I also plan to study the following, though my interest in these is secondary to the aforementioned, particularly in their respective categories (many of these write in similar styles and about similar subjects):

  • Robert Jordan* (But not until he finishes The Wheel of Time, damn it! Edit: Nevermind.)
  • Terry Pratchett
  • Robert Heinlein
  • Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Orson Scott Card
  • Ray Bradburry
  • Neal Stephenson
  • Michael Stackpole
  • Aldous Huxley
  • Lewis Carrol
  • Mark Twain
  • Amy Tan (if I can get past her almost ballistic use of emotional tension through pain)

(If you’re wondering about the lack of female authors here, let me explain: it has nothing to do with my being a male chauvinist pig. Rather, it has to do with the way male and female writers tend to err. Male writers tend to err on the side of the external: they’ll create characters and those characters will move the external story along (at worst, this is to the detriment of character development; hardcore sci-fi is especially guilty of this). Female writers tend to err on the side of the internal: they’ll create characters whose emotions and interpersonal relationships are so deeply explored that the story seems often not to move at all (romances are especially guilty of this). I, of course, tend to prefer the male fault to the female.)

Now, my plan here isn’t to read every one of these authors’ various works: that would take a lifetime! Rather, I intend to study their works enough for me to understand what makes each of these so popular with the different audiences, what methods and verbiage they use, and which methods I can implement in my own writing, tools such as Stephen King’s use of suspense and tension; Orson Scott Card’s characters; Neil Gaiman’s story telling; Douglass Adams’s pseudoscientific, double-take comedy; Tom Clancy’s action sequences; Dr. Seuss’s ability to make nonsensical jibber jabber into enjoyable soliloquies; Gene Wolfe’s depths and double meanings; Michael Crichton’s pacing — the list goes on. By the end of my stint with each I would hope to be able to write in a style approximating theirs. While I know this won’t be the case for all the authors — ’tis much more natural for me to mimic George Orwell than it is China Mieville — if I am able to improve my writing and more completely take command of how I can tell a proper tale, then the purpose for this exercise has been accomplished.

Of course, the study isn’t limited to these authors. There are others who I seek to study, but these are more limited in scope. These are, for the most part, classic authors, such as Cervantes, Poe, and Shakespeare.

Finally, there are the poets, like Neruda, Byron, with whom I’m not yet particularly well acquainted (to what I realize is my own detriment). This is mostly the fault of my judgment: in my mind, most poetry could easily be categorized as the emotional ramblings of people with not enough skill to create a real story and should, appropriately, be discarded lest it ever be read. (In other words, they’re the paper/literary equivalent of MySpace.) The same, I’ll admit, could be said of blogs, and rightfully so. Nevertheless, for every hundred horrible poems by whiny, teen angst-ridden crybabies, there is one which actually graces the paper (or web page) on which it is written, instead of merely staining it.

For the record, I don’t intend to actually read all of these with my eyes. Some I’ll be reading with my ears by way of audio book. While I realize that some deride this as not really reading the book, frankly, I don’t give a damn. I’ve little use for commercial radio and, honestly, how many times can I listen to Chihiro Onitsuka or the soundtrack to The Matrix: Reloaded? This, of course, is my preferred method of taking in classics, by the way: I’m more interested in listening to The Iliad and The Odyssey than I am in looking at it, if nothing else but because it is the imagery in these which I seek. Also, they save me a ton of time, because classics usually make for slow reads.

Anyway, so here it is, my plan of action. If you’re interested in chirping in and telling me who I’ve grievously omitted from my list, or which book I’ve just got to read, or why you think this is a great idea (or a complete waste of time), feel free to tell me here.

7 thoughts on “The Modern Novel: A Self Study Course for This Aspiring Novelist

  1. It’s an admirable course of study, and one I’ve thought about doing myself (with different authors). I love Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams… Some others to try adding to your list, perhaps– some of my favorites, who have completely different styles than those mentioned– Francine Prose, “Blue Angels.” Salman Rushdie, “Shame” or “Midnight’s Children.” Graham Greene– anything. Stephen McCauley– anything. Good luck!

  2. Robin Hobb, is a wonderful author… and female. I don’t know many female fantasy writers but her books are some of the best… in my opinion.

    Also Robert Jordan has a terminal illness. He hopes to finish the Wheel of Time books but there is no guarantee he will. FWIW I am currently up to date on the Wheel of Time books.

  3. @Ellie: Thanks for the recommendations. I’ll look those up.

    @Ben: Robin Hobb, eh? I’ll look her up. I’ve read a lot of Margarett Weiss (including her solo works as well as her works with Tracy Hickman), but that’s about where the extent of my female author reading has taken me. I’ll add Hobb to my list.

    Thanks also on the heads up on Jordan. Never realized he was terminally ill. Now I feel like a jackass for complaining. Great way to start my morning….

  4. From Wikipedia:

    A novel (from French nouvelle Italian “novella”, “new”) is today a long prose narrative set out in writing.

    Prose became a criterion in the 15th century. The modern novel’s precursor, the old “romance”, had until then been written in verse.

    Of course in this case I was looking mostly at things which were written in the 20th century (with the notable exception being Lewis Carrol and Mark Twain).

  5. A 1600s book called Compte De Gabalis, written by Abbé de Villars could use a few strange twists, sci-fi novel, and movie. Just my 2 cents… Many believe that it’s founded in Free Masonry, where the illmnati, at the time, was basing itself out of the church.

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