While there is no sure-fire formula for a good novel, there are mistakes you should avoid. That is the principle on which our book was based. But every rule has at least one tutelary genius; an author who triumphs despite – or because of – having run roughshod over it. Ulysses is baffling, over-written, and plotless. Tristram Shandy takes a long time getting started (the hero isn’t born until Volume III). Others include:

1. Candide: Almost every writing guide will tell you that the plot should be driven by the protagonist’s actions; s/he should not be passively batted around by fate until fate’s arms tire and the happy ending results. Of course, that is Candide in a nutshell.

2. The Brothers Karamazov: Here Dostoevsky continually halts the plot while one character after another recounts his dreams, concept of sacred love, or the plot of a long prose poem he wrote as a teenager. Not only does Dostoevsky get away with it, his most celebrated passage is the bit about the prose poem.

3. Lolita: Writers should avoid using obscure words or ornate prose purely for the sake of using obscure words and ornate prose. If those writers are writing in a second language, they are likely to be headed for a humiliating garble. In Nabokov’s hands, though, words like leporine and matitudinal are a sensual pleasure.

4. To the Lighthouse: It is easier for the reader if the novelist does not hop merrily from one person’s point of view to another, from head to head like a summer cold, guided by mere proximity. Unless you are Virginia Woolf, in which case this creates a fascinating compound view of life, sort of like the spider’s-eye view in old horror movies.

5. Watership Down: The vast majority of aspiring writers should not write a 500-page novel from the point of view of a rabbit.


Reposted from the Times.

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