David Morrell is the author of First Blood, the novel in which Rambo was created, and in his book The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing, he lays down the rules of writing as he understands them. Overwhelmingly, it is a helpful array both for the new writer and the experienced ones.
Though there are a number of tips and insights contained within the book, my favorite is encapsulated in this quote:
Morrell, described as a “mild-mannered professor with the bloody-minded visions,” writes genre fiction, which he is proud of, addressing the idea of “low-brow” and “high-brow” fiction throughout this book. He explains that it absolutely does not matter what kind of fiction you write, if you write it well, and you write a lot.
“Writers write. It’s that basic. If you just got off an assembly line in Detroit and you’re certain you have the great American novel inside you, you don’t grab a beer and sit in front of the TV. You write. If you’re a mother of three toddlers and at the end of the day you feel like you’ve been spinning in a hamster cage and yet you’re convinced you have a a story to tell, you find a way late at night or early in the morning to sit down and write.”
This advice is not new, number one rule is to be prolific (though realizing everyone’s idea of prolific if slightly different), and Morrell joins the bandwagon; however, his approach is a cheerful one. Get down, get dirty, and just do it. The straight forward and simple advice is refreshing, especially as he takes several chapters to describe how to get it done.
The bulk of The Successful Novelist is made up of how-to chapters. From how to outline a plot, to how to create good dialogue, much of the advice is something that many a student would find in a creative-writing class. A unique idea that I pulled from these chapters is a self-conversation exercise that Morrell does when he is between projects.
Explaining that he is inspired by dreams (both waking and sleeping ones), he will sit down at his computer with a glimmer of an idea, and then have a conversation with himself about the idea. There are a lot of why questions; for example, this is an excerpt from Morrell’s actual conversation:
“I read an article in Architectural Digest, and some thing about it really intrigued me…”
To, which the computer asks, “why?”
… And they are off. The idea is to have a back and forth conversation with the computer (or typewriter, or pen on paper) personifying a wider audience, or maybe a specific reader. This allows a back and forth that not only helps to clarify the idea, but also keeps the writer writing even during a down time.
Other how-to advice he gives includes plot, characters, the importance of research, the good and bad of different view points, and what not to do in dialogue. All of the advice is pretty well worn, though he does present it in context of his own writing, which can be interesting. For example, he strongly encourages people to live their character’s experiences as much as is possible. For one of his books, Morrell went to a wilderness survival camp to learn how to survive in terrible conditions in the wild. Living his character’s experiences is how he researches his novels.
Another suggestion is to go to a bookstore and randomly pick books in all genres and read the first paragraphs. As the first paragraph is the hook, this exercise will give you a feel for what works and does not work.
Littered throughout are both encouraging and interesting tidbits that are unique to Morrell; even the advice that most writer’s have heard over and over again, is portrayed from a unique perspective.
At times, the book can feel dated. Though published in 2002, so much has changed about the industry that his advice for publishing and for marketing is lacking important information. This is truly just a side note, however, as only a couple of chapters talk about the business of writing, which is still relevant if not entirely accurate.
Truly, Morrell is at his best when he is writing about his own experience. When recalling personal experiences, where his ideas come from, and his experience, the advice feels authentic and fresh. The book is a very good read for someone just starting out as it encourages and teaches; and for those with a few more miles under their belts, the book is interesting and unique, offering bits of advice that you might not have heard elsewhere.
Disclaimer: this book was received courtesy of Sourcebooks Press Publishing for review purposes.