Writing a Novel | Reviews
Methuen 176 pages (Paperback)
'If you couldn’t sustain a novel-length draft, then you weren’t going to get far as a novelist.'
'If you have the ability, you will achieve a result, he said, and that surely is what every serious writer looks for.'
According to John Braine, the novel is the most variable of literary forms, with no hard-and-fast rules about subject, technique or purpose. How then to write a book about writing a novel? In fact, Braine believed that there were certain basic rules about writing generally, which could be as easily applied to novels as to anything else. These were rules he had formulated for himself, by trial and error, through a long and distinguished writing career – in addition to Room at the Top, Braine wrote twelve other novels, and also a study of fellow Northerner, J. B. Priestley – and he set them down in Writing a Novel, a book he regarded very much as a practical manual about writing.
His approach was disarmingly straightforward but nonetheless effective. Writing was what mattered, first, last and in between. A desire for commercial success was irrelevant, and for Braine, researching the market would have been nothing but an intellectual distraction from the job in hand: writing. As he put it, a writer is a person who writes, a person who doesn’t wait until he or she has something to write about. Don’t think before you write, he advised people, don’t wait for inspiration to strike. For him, writing itself was thinking and inspiration came as part of the process of writing. All that was needed was to catch a glimpse of the novel to be able to start writing. The very act of writing would uncover the novel.
In fact, Braine attached a good deal of importance to the first draft. For his own part, he started each novel with very little clear idea of what would happen. With nothing more than a brief synopsis and a self-imposed timetable, he would set off for terra incognita, discovering the story as he went. For the first-time novelist, it was even more important to get that first draft completed because this was the only way to find out if you could sustain a full-length narrative at all.
It didn’t matter how sensitive you were to the nuances of the human psyche, nor how good you were at devising a plot, nor even whether you had a good prose style. If you couldn’t sustain a novel-length draft, then you weren’t going to get far as a novelist. Only by taking a conscious decision to write a novel and then persisting in that decision could you succeed in writing a first draft. This was something Braine couldn’t teach but he did his best to provide encouragement, although he also believed very much in individuals doing what suited them best rather than slavishly following one proven routine. Braine liked his writers to be independent and self-sufficient, working things out for themselves, much as he had done when he himself was struggling as a young man to make a success of writing.
Having completed that first draft, having found satisfaction in creating that narrative, having proved that you had staying power and that you didn’t need to wait for inspiration, it was then time then to uncover the real novel. Braine himself did this through a process of summary, cutting out what wasn’t wanted, and through research where necessary.
For less experienced writers he did include several chapters discussing writing techniques, analysing various aspects of the novel, such as the all-important beginning, the use of dialogue and an assortment of narrative techniques, but all the time he encouraged people to look at the work of others, to understand what they were doing and why it worked. Not for him the notion of never looking at the work of others in order to form your own style. Style came after solid technique, and Braine’s prime concern was that a first novel should at least be craftsmanlike, something that any writer ought to be able to achieve.
John Braine made no great claims for his method of writing, except insofar as it worked for him, but he shared his thoughts in the hope that it might work for others too. His approach was very much a creative rather than a mechanistic one, encouraging writers to discover what worked for them, while trying to ensure that they didn’t have to re-invent the wheel along the way. Where there was a right way and a wrong way, he suggested that it was just as easy to do things right the first time rather than waste time. When so many how-to books seem to promise to do everything for the would-be writer, Braine’s philosophy of hard work and responsibility to oneself is a robust and welcome contrast. If you have the ability, you will achieve a result, he said, and that surely is what every serious writer looks for.
|Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller|