How to fail at writing a novel (pt.3)

As part of my grumpy-but-helpful series on the worst aspects of literature, welcome to ‘How to fail at writing a novel, pt.3’. If you missed my earlier pieces and would like some pointers and case studies for what not to do when writing your novel, check out ‘Pt.1: genre‘ and ‘Pt.2: originality‘.

I recently began working on a new novel, and after weeks of reading dry non-fiction books for research was finally free to read literature again. I wanted to refresh myself on what a good novel looks like and be a little inspired. For better or worse, I picked up an e-book from one of my favourite writers, John Irving, famous for ‘The Cider House Rules’ (1985) and ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ (1989) (although I haven’t read either – I liked ‘The 158-Pound Marriage’ (1974) and ‘The Fourth Hand’ (2001)).

There is a lot a writer can learn from Irving. He is a master of vignettes (his opening chapters are usually nothing short of astounding), and he somehow manages to write novels that are deeply moving as well as comic. I rarely find it harder to put down a novel than when I’m reading Irving. But–

Have you heard that old writer’s trick, write about what you know? Well…

3. Don’t write about what you know

John Irving - A Widow for One Year

John Irving is one of those writers who writes about what he knows. He was raised in upper-middle class USA, practiced wrestling as a hobby, went to a posh university, and later became a writer. Guess what? Most of Irving’s books contain one or more of those things. ‘A Widow for One Year’, the aforementioned book I picked up recently, contains all of them.

Writing about what you know is generally sound advice. A writer can do a hell of a lot of effective research from his or her desk nowadays, but nothing beats experience for getting to the nitty gritty that will really sell your story and characters, which should be bursting with life. It’s hard to get the skinny on those tiny details from a Wiki article. For the most part, I advocate writing about what you know.

There’s one thing that all writers have in common. They all know what it’s like to be a writer. And do you know what is going to bore all those writers silly in a novel? Reading a book in which the main character is a writer!

The problem is that writers are almost intrinsically introspective and obsessive. Many artists are even egotistical. It comes from staring into one’s soul for weeks on end trying to pass the next grade in Human Nature just so your protagonist’s motivations make sense. Personally, I think that writing about writing is not only lazy, it’s downright narcissistic. 

Take Stephen King. He is a writer who is a recovered alcoholic who lives in Maine. Coincidentally, so are half of his protagonists. I’d love to see some kind of chart, because with King this crops up a lot.

I have a love-hate relationship with Jonathan Ames, creator of Blunt Talk. His dialogue and characters are often perfect, but I had trouble enjoying Bored to Death because the protagonist was a writer – who (unbelievably) was called ‘Jonathan Ames’. He was also Jewish and had lots of warped sexual adventures and lived out his fantasy of being a private detective. It’s almost embarrassing. Ames pulled the old trick of acknowledging his narcissistic choices by having a fictional critic accuse the fictional Ames of “writing with only one hand” – i.e., whilst masturbating. A fun joke, but acknowledging a cliché does not eradicate it. Characters in bad novels constantly try to justify the author’s unoriginal efforts by saying laughable things like “This isn’t a romance novel!” and “I know it’s a cliché, but… A writer should avoid these flimsy tricks at all cost.

It was when opening ‘A Widow for One Year’ that I rolled my eyes to learn, yet again, that Irving’s protagonist was a writer. I suppose I should shout ‘spoilers’ before continuing. Spoilers!

In the first part of the book, we learn that Ted is a writer who turned from producing novels to children’s fiction. Ted is married to Marion, who is almost catatonic with years-old grief following the deaths of their two sons. Having a third child, Ruth, didn’t help. Ted, seeing that Marion was becoming somewhat obsessed with teenaged boys (the age their sons would be now), hires 16-year-old Eddie as his assistant. His plan appears to be to orchestrate an affair to make a divorce go easier for him following his own many infidelities.

The second part of the book sees Ruth all grown up. She, too, has become a writer like her father. This isn’t too hard to believe, considering her upbringing and witnessing her father’s success. It also helps her to work through the trauma of being abandoned by her mother, Marion, when Ruth was 4. When Ruth sees Eddie for the first time in decades, she sees that he is still obsessed with Marion after their brief sexual relationship. Eddie also writes novels, apparently bad ones, in which the main characters are always young boys being seduced by older women, in constant regurgitation of his powerful adolescent memories. Writer count: 3.

Both Eddie and Ruth would dearly love to see Marion again, who disappeared without trace, apparently to Canada (unsurprisingly, Irving lives part-time in Canada). Eddie thinks he finally has a lead: a reclusive female author has been churning out crime novels in which the female lead detective is obsessed with two teenaged boys who have gone missing, never to be found. Eddie (correctly) believes the author to be Marion.

Of the four main characters in Irving’s one novel, four of them are writers! As someone who has never hid his dislike for this kind of thing, you might be able to imagine how sore my eyes were from rolling so hard. I almost abandoned the book halfway through in despair. Does he really not realise what he’s doing? I thought despairingly. To his credit, the book club gubbins at the back proves that he did, but as I touched on earlier: saying that your bad choices are intentional does not make them any less bad.

Worse still, Irving falls into a common trap: he writes about writing too much. Not only does he describe the intricate detail of Ted’s writing desk, his process and his schedule, but he also includes whole chapters from his characters’ books. A deluded author would insist that these excerpts are important because they show us something about the character who wrote them. This may be Irving’s excuse, but it’s a bad one. The excerpts tell us nothing that Irving’s omnipotent narrative voice hasn’t conveyed already, in far fewer words and in more entertaining fashion.

The proverbial straw was how later several chapters are devoted to one of Ruth’s book tours, which takes her to Amsterdam where she is inspired to write her next novel. She takes a long, long research trip around the city, thinking about her story and characters as she goes, tweaking the plot to improve or enhance it with each new discovery. I suppose this tells the reader a little bit about what it’s like to be a writer, but we should expect it to sound genuine: Irving is a writer! Those chapters smacked of what I call “researcher syndrome”, which is where an inexperienced writer has put in so many hours of research that s/he feels compelled to cram every last detail of it into his/her novel, for fear that it would be wasted effort otherwise. The truth is that research is never wasted, even if it’s not overtly referred to in your narrative. In ‘A Widow for One Year’, it is as though Irving had an idea in Amsterdam once but decided it wasn’t worth writing it up as a novel, so he made Ruth write it instead so as not to waste the material. Just cram it in there, it’ll be fine! Who cares if it bears no significance to the rest of the book? At least it’ll fill out the page count. “Researcher syndrome” is an even more deadly risk if you are writing about writing, but you may be fooled into thinking that it’s relevant. It’s not.

That Ruth’s idea is to write a novel in which the protagonist is a writer like her is even worse: it means that Irving is a writer who is writing about a writer who is writing about a writer! This is an atrocity.

At least Irving steered clear of clichés. According to Hollywood, every writer is a chain-smoking alcoholic who produces their manuscript on a typewriter. Yes, it’s a fine image, but it’s also not true; only the most vain of pretenders chooses a typewriter over a word processor, which is far more efficient, not to mention portable. But then the world is now occupied by people like this prat:

Typewriter hipster prat.jpg

Yes, he took his typewriter to a café to show everyone what a writer he is. Meanwhile:


Apparently laptops and MS Word are just too mainstream nowadays. Avoid trying to learn anything from people like these, who are more in love with the image of a writer than actually being one. Enamored with the cliché, they are also the dopes who perpetuate it. Joining them will only drag your fiction further away from reality and into the realm of the unbelievable – or even the laughable.

Here are some tips for writing about what you know effectively:

  1. Don’t write about being a writer! It’s boring and vain.
  2. Don’t write about the same thing over and over, in all your stories. How likely is it that the protagonists of all your novels are all into sailing?
  3. Be sure that it makes sense that your character has the same interest as you. You may love anthropology, but if your protagonist is a devout Catholic from a poor household and therefore never went to school, this will be incongruous.

Keep reading, keep writing, never surrender!


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