Book Excerpt
How to Grow a Novel : The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them
by Sol Stein

An excerpt from How to Grow a Novel : The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them by Sol Stein, published 2002 by St. Martin.
Book excerpt reprinted with the permission of the publisher.
Copyright © 2002 Sol Stein




The Reader Is Looking for an Experience

What in the world does writing fiction have to do with courtesy?

Lack of courtesy may be the chief fault that distinguishes unsuccessful writing from the most successful. Courtesy is often confused with etiquette, and shouldn't be. Etiquette is a code of behavior considered correct in a given society, do you or do you not keep your left hand in your lap while using a fork or a spoon with your right? Many of the "rules" of behavior are frivolous and deserve to be ignored. I am talking about courtesy, which is sometimes poorly defined in dictionaries as "polite behavior." Courtesy is one of the more important elements in human conduct. It calls for a consideration of the needs and wants of another person.

Etiquette is a man opening a door for a woman. Courtesy is a woman opening a door for a man carrying packages in both arms. The difference between etiquette and courtesy is enormous. For example, in love making, etiquette -- that is, expected behavior under a given code -- may be nice or irrelevant. Courtesy toward a lover, understanding and playing to the needs of one's partner, is essential. Courtesy is also essential to writing, and, sadly, much overlooked by writers who do not consciously consider what the reader may be feeling at any particular point in a story or novel. Here and elsewhere in this book I will be describing techniques of pleasing the writer's partner, the reader; for the pleasured reader will be grateful and loyal to the writer, buying each book and looking forward to the next one.

What is it then that the reader wants?

The reader of fiction may welcome insight and information, yes, but is primarily seeking an experience different from and greater than his or her everyday experiences in life. When a child claps its hands with joy at the promise of being read a story, the child is anticipating pleasure, an experience that excites its imagination and is unlike the child's daily routines. Children treasure their books. The sight of those books reflects the memory of experiences that were full of wonder. When a child segues through the shock of puberty into the teenage years, the wonder generated by stories doesn't cease. Teenagers are fascinated by tales of extraordinary experiences, adventure, fantasy, science fiction, by the good winning out against the bad only after horrendous obstacles have been overcome. When the teenager passes into adulthood, his expectations from fiction are greater. The new adult is less tolerant of coincidence, cartoonish characters, overly familiar plots, static descriptions, speechifying, boring passages, all of which get in the way of an experience so involving that the reader is not aware of turning pages and cannot leave until there are no more pages left to turn.

Fiction involves the creation of characters and events that originally resided only in the writer's mind. The writer creates a vehicle for transporting his characters to the reader's imagination, and does so with techniques that enable the reader to believe that the fiction is true. In the 1970s my wife and I used to visit a resort in Jamaica called Round Hill for a couple of weeks in the cold depth of New York's winter. Round Hill had a number of attractions besides the weather. It was once a watering hole for publishers, and as a relatively young publisher I could meet an occasional senior competitor under noncompetitive social circumstances. More important, the guests came not only from the States, but from Europe, and we always seemed to meet people who became friends whom we would continue to see on both sides of the Atlantic. I particularly liked a cottage that had a tree house the size of a living room, with tropical vines that visibly grew inches each day. Luckily, the titled Englishwoman who owned the cottage had read a novel of mine called The Magician, and this happy coincidence cleared the way for me to rent her cottage. Each two cottages shared a swimming pool. On one such trip, we arrived by air in a sweltering afternoon, and quickly put on swim clothes and headed for the pool.

As I was doing a few laps, I noticed the couple from the neighboring cottage sitting at the far end of the pool. The man was consuming books, by which I mean he was going at first one book and then another so voraciously that he seemed like a hungry man presented with his first food after a period of starvation. I recognized some of the covers. These were substantial books, not a summer's beach reading. A publisher of books who spies a voracious reader immediately has his antennae up. I stopped swimming at my neighbors' end of the pool and, neck deep in water, introduced myself. My neighbors proved to be from Glasgow, he Scottish, his wife English. I later learned that he was the third-generation, reluctant CEO of Goldberg's, Scotland's biggest department store chain, and also Chairman of the Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the author of plays. We chatted a bit and I asked, "Do you ever read fiction?"

"No," he said. "I am only interested in what is true."

I have wasted a good portion of my life trying to reform people, but couldn't resist getting out of the pool, and returning within minutes with a paperback copy of Jerzy Kosinski's masterpiece, The Painted Bird, that I happened to have in my briefcase. Without much ado, I passed the book to him, and he politely put aside the book he was reading and started The Painted Bird. After a while, he came over with an urgent question: "Is this true?"

I swam over to his side of the pool and said, "Do you think it's true?"

He finished the book before dinnertime. I loaned him another novel, which he took gladly. I had made a convert who read only what is true.

The opposite of true is "made up." How disappointing it is when a writer presents the draft of a story to a friend, and the friend says, "It sounds made up." My objective in this book is to help novelists perfect their skill in making the reader turn pages, to forget that he is reading, to live among characters that once resided only in the writer's head and now seem true and memorable to strangers.

"Memorable" is not an idle word. Our brains register, record, and preserve the moments of books that have generated the most-intense experiences. When I was five or six years old, a doctor ordered me to bed with an illness I don't believe I had. While my mother had taught me to read at four, I was still being read to by her, and, when she was at work, by a sitter. At one point they took turns reading to me a book that contained a villainous Indian who had a third eye in the center of his forehead and could therefore watch his prisoner with that eye even when he slept. Being watched night and day was a terrifying thought long before George Orwell's 1984. The story of the Indian terrified me so much that I begged my mother to throw the book away. I was relieved when she told me that she had disposed of the offending volume.

Some months later, no longer confined to bed, I was walking down the hallway where my parents' books were shelved and noticed a familiar binding poking its nose out from behind other books. I plucked it from the shelf. It was the book about the three-eyed Indian! I was instantly overwhelmed by the terror I had felt when it was read to me. My mother had betrayed me. When she saw my reaction, this time she got rid of the book, in part at least to rebuild our bridge of trust.

A book that's been shelved after reading is like an object that is ready to come alive again when we notice it. A book that has provided a moving experience has taken on some magical property, much like a keepsake that reminds you of an out-of-the-ordinary experience long ago. A novel that has done its job will not be discarded because it has been used. That priestly alchemist, the writer, has turned words into memorable experience.

How to Grow a Novel : The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them by Sol Stein,


Each year thousands of fiction writers, from beginners to bestselling authors, benefit from Sol Stein's sold-out workshops, featured appearances at writers' conferences, software for writers, online columns, and his popular first book for writers, Stein on Writing. Stein practices what he teaches: He is the author of nine novels, including the million-copy bestseller The Magician, as well as the editor of such major writers as James Baldwin, Jack Higgins, Elia Kazan, Budd Schulberg, W. H. Auden, Jacques Barzun, and teacher of such current bestselling authors as Jerry B. Jenkins, four of whose books have made The New York Times bestseller list, and Daniel Keyes, whose Flowers for Algernon has sold over five million copies. What sets Stein apart is his practical approach. He provides specific techniques that speed writers to successful publication.


How to Grow a Novel is master editor, novelist, and writing instructor Sol Stein's invaluable workshop in print. It includes details and examples from Stein's behind-the-scenes work with bestselling novelists as well as talented newcomers. Stein takes the reader backstage in the development of memorable characters and fascinating plots. The chapter on dialogue overflows with solutions for short-story writers, novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights. Stein shows what readers are looking for -- and what they avoid -- in the experience of reading fiction. The book offers guidelines -- and warnings -- of special value for nonfiction writers who want to move into fiction. Stein points to the little, often overlooked things that damage the writer's authority without the writer knowing it. And this book, like no other writing book, takes the reader behind the scenes of the publishing business as it affects writers of every level of experience, revealing the hard truths that are kept behind shut doors.

How to Grow a Novel : The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them by Sol Stein,


Sol Stein has edited the work of such major writers as James Baldwin, Jack Higgins, and Elia Kazan. He has taught creative writing at Columbia, Iowa, and the University of California at Irvine, which presented him with the Distinguished Instructor Award in 1993. He is the author of nine novels, including the million-copy seller The Magician, as well as the much-acclaimed Stein on Writing.

How to Grow a Novel : The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them by Sol Stein,


"Stein is a fascinating guide and teacher. This should be required reading for all Booker Prize judges and about 90 percent of published authors. Everything you need is in this wonderful volume."

-- The Daily Mail (London)

"[Sol Stein] went over my manuscript with an infallible eye for the soft spots in my prose, giving me one of the best editorial readings I've ever had."

-- Lionel Trilling

"My publisher Sol Stein was my producer, and my editor Sol Stein was my director. Sol saw what I didn't think possible."

-- Elia Kazan

"'Come sit. We need to talk.' With this simple invitation, novelist, editor, and writing instructor Stein invites the reader to listen as he shares what he has learned from his extensive experience in the fields of writing and publishing. This book stands apart from the wide field of instructional writing books by putting the writer's focus on the reader. Highly recommended."

-- Library Journal

How to Grow a Novel : The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them by Sol Stein,