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On Becoming a Novelist (1983)

by John Gardner

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9331619,057 (3.93)16
The classic for serious fiction writers: "The book is the result of John Gardner's twenty-odd years of teaching experience, and it shows" (Anne Tyler). In this essential guide, John Gardner advises the aspiring fiction author on such topics as the value of creative writing workshops, the developmental stages of literary growth, and the inevitable experience of writer's block. Drawn from his two decades of experience in creative writing, Gardner balances his compassion for his students with his knowledge of the publishing industry, and truthfully relates his experiences of the hardships that lie ahead for aspiring authors.    On Becoming a Novelist is a must-read for those dedicated to the craft and profession of fiction writing.  This ebook features a new illustrated biography of John Gardner, including original letters, rare photos, and never-before-seen documents from the Gardner family and the University of Rochester Archives.… (more)
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This had the *longest* sentences. It's a rolling, conversational read from one of the greats. The book is ostensibly geared toward newer writers, but frankly I think it would have been a bit much if I'd read it at that stage. As it is, I enjoyed the reading quite a bit--particularly the last chapter, titled "Faith"--and recommend it to writers at pretty much any stage of their abilities or career.

It's a shame Gardner is no longer with us. He's vastly opinionated in this book, and I kept wondering what he'd have to say about the pandemic. ( )
  whatsmacksaid | Jan 25, 2021 |
The first section, “The Writers Nature” is for me a most inspiring call to arms. In no uncertain terms Gardner lays out high standards for what it means to be in his view a “serious novelist,” but also backs up these high standards with compelling arguments for why art, in particular the art of writing novels, is wory pursuing.

4* because I found the rest of the book either dated or forgettable. These first 72 pages are not to be missed, though. ( )
  Aaron.Cohen | May 28, 2020 |
"Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or “way,” an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world. Its benefits are quasi-religious - a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand - and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough." (pg 145)

This is the best book I have read on the creative task of writing. So much of what John Gardner describes in this book rings true to my own experiences. He writes in a way that is personal, honest, and encouraging without disguising the difficulties of writing a novel (both technical as well as psychological).

I recommend this book to all writers everywhere (whether they be working on poems, short stories, essays, or novels). Gardner's explication of the creative method is useful, inspiring, and strikingly accurate. ( )
  Adrian_Astur_Alvarez | Dec 3, 2019 |
"Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or “way,” an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world. Its benefits are quasi-religious - a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand - and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough." (pg 145)

This is the best book I have read on the creative task of writing. So much of what John Gardner describes in this book rings true to my own experiences. He writes in a way that is personal, honest, and encouraging without disguising the difficulties of writing a novel (both technical as well as psychological).

I recommend this book to all writers everywhere (whether they be working on poems, short stories, essays, or novels). Gardner's explication of the creative method is useful, inspiring, and strikingly accurate. ( )
  Adrian_Astur_Alvarez | Dec 3, 2019 |



Thinking of writing a novel or becoming an honest-to-goodness novelist? If so, then this slim book by John Gardner will offer you sound advice and friendly encouragement. Of course, not every single bit of advice will apply to every would-be novelist, but there are enough nuggets of hard-won writerly wisdom from a dedicated master of the art to make this book worth your time. As by way of example, here are several quotes along with my modest comments:

John Gardner on the experience of reading a good novel: “We slip into a dream . . . We recreate, with minor and for the most part unimportant changes, the vivid and continuous dream the writer worked out in his mind (revising and revising until he got it right) and captured in language so that other human beings, whenever they feel like it, may open his book and dream that dream again.” ---------- Personally, after finished a good novel, I have the distinct feeling I’ve lived life through the eyes of someone else - my horizons has been expanded. Case in point: I traveled the long country roads with Montana detective C. W. Sughrue when he begins his journey, “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beet with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”



“A novelist is interested in playing with sentence formation, seeing how long he can make a sentence go or how many short sentences he can use without the reader noticing. In short, one sign of a writer’s potential is his especially sharp ear – and eye – for language.” --------- Gardner is insistent on how a novelist’s language is not the star of the show; rather, language is always employed in the service of story, specifically, in service of such elements as character, action, setting, and atmosphere.

“The good writer sees things sharply, vividly, accurately, and selectively (that is, he sees what’s important), not necessarily because his power of observation is by nature more acute than that of other people (though by practice it becomes so), but because he cares about seeing things clearly and getting them down effectively.” ---------- Ah, the well-tuned eye. One need not be intellectual or even an articulate speaker (many good novelists are not) but be able to develop and hone one’s unique vision and an ability to translate that vision via the magic of language into a compelling story.



“Much of the dialogue one encounters in student fiction, as well as plot, gesture, even setting, comes not from life but from life filtered through TV.” ---------- When I first started writing fiction I was 20 years removed from watching TV and reading newspapers and magazines. I suspect this had much to do with developing my own off-the-wall surreal writing and having nearly all of it accepted by publishers. My suggestion: if you want to become a writer of fiction, stop watching TV and limit exposure to other mass media since the last thing you want is your unique take on life to be infected and restricted.

“A good novelist creates powerfully vivid images in the reader’s mind and nothing is more natural than that the beginning novelist should try to imitate the effects of some master, because he loves that writer’s vivid world. But finally imitation is a bad idea.” ---------- One effective way to start writing novels is to type out a novel you love, word for word, page by page. You will develop a real feel for what it takes to write a good novel (getting the craft even into your muscles and fingers). However, as John Gardner notes, this is a beginner’s practice – at some point, sooner rather than later, you are on your own.

“What one has to get, one way or another, is insight – not just knowledge – into personalities not visibly like one’s own. What one needs is not the facts but the “feel” of the person not oneself.” ---------- This is my observation when reading a novelist like Richard Russo, who can write about men and women of any age with equal skill and depth; it’s as if he is living in their skin down to their toes.

An brief excerpt on the unique, quirky qualities of intelligence peculiar to a storyteller: “Wit (a tendency to make irreverent connections); obstinacy and a tendency toward churlishness (a refusal to believe what all sensible people know is true); childishness (an apparent lack of mental focus and serious life purpose, a fondness for daydreaming and telling pointless lies, a lack of proper respect, mischievousness) ---------- I recall how Julio Cortázar said that when he was a child, it was as if he had a grown man inside him and when he became an adult, the dynamic flipped – he was a grown man with a child inside him.

“The novelist develops an acute eye, sometimes bordering on the psychic, for human feelings and behavior, tastes and habitats, pleasures, sufferings. --------- Another point John Gardner is insistent upon: how a novelist’s business is to be primarily concerned with the details of character and storytelling and not preoccupied with such general concepts as theme or symbolic meaning. Gardner relates how concern for such subjects in school and with many teachers can be poison for the would-be novelist.

I’ll conclude this review by quoting the last short, inspiring paragraph in the book, words any writer, novelist or otherwise, will certainly appreciate: “Finally, the true novelist is the one who doesn’t quit. Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or “way,” an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world. Its benefits are quasi-religious - a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand – and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.”

( )
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |
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The classic for serious fiction writers: "The book is the result of John Gardner's twenty-odd years of teaching experience, and it shows" (Anne Tyler). In this essential guide, John Gardner advises the aspiring fiction author on such topics as the value of creative writing workshops, the developmental stages of literary growth, and the inevitable experience of writer's block. Drawn from his two decades of experience in creative writing, Gardner balances his compassion for his students with his knowledge of the publishing industry, and truthfully relates his experiences of the hardships that lie ahead for aspiring authors.    On Becoming a Novelist is a must-read for those dedicated to the craft and profession of fiction writing.  This ebook features a new illustrated biography of John Gardner, including original letters, rare photos, and never-before-seen documents from the Gardner family and the University of Rochester Archives.

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