“The Art and Craft of Novel Writing”: Excellent for Learning the Craft of Writing a Literary Novel

★ The Art and Craft of Novel Writing (Paperback) by Oakley Hall, reviewed by C. J. Singh on amazon.com, copy posted December 28, 2010 (7 of 7 people found the review helpful.) – See all my reviews
For two decades, Oakley Hall directed the MFA program at the University of California, Irvine, teaching the craft of writing fiction to numerous apprentice writers, including Richard Ford, Amy Tan, and Michael Chabon.
In The Art & Craft of Novel Writing, published in 1989, Hall sequences the chapters of the first two parts as the syllabus for a basic course in fiction writing. The first part comprises four chapters: dramatization; characterization, point of view, and plotting. The second part also comprises four chapters: style; dialog; indirection; and information. He includes quotes from the writings of literary masters like Gustav Flaubert; Anton Chekov, Henry James; William Faulkner; Ernst Hemingway; and Flannery O’Connor. These well-chosen quotes enhance his exposition of the craft elements to high sophistication.
(In 2001, Hall published How Fiction Works: The last word on writing fiction – from basics to fine points , which includes examples from the recent writings of Philip Roth, Don Delillo, and Charles Frazier among others. Moreover, the book covers the crafts of writing short story as well as novel. See my review on amazon.)The third part focuses on the process of novel writing: coming up with the germ of the novel, planning, beginning, continuing, and finishing. Hall quotes William Styron and John Fowles on the germ for their novels Sophie’s Choice and The French Lieutenant’s Woman: an image of the main character.Hall cites Gustav Flaubert’s emphasis on planning: “Flaubert . . . pondering on the failure of his `Tentation de Saint Antoine’ condemned improvisation. He wrote to Louise Colet, who had read the manuscript of `Tentation’ and praised it: `It’s a failure. You talk of pearls. But it is not pearls that make a necklace; it’s the thread. . . . Everything depends on the plan. Saint Antoine lacks one” (page 143). On the same page, another Flaubert quote on how novels are written: “…as pyramids are, following a premeditated design, and by hoisting great blocks one atop the other by dint of sheer brute strength, time, and sweat.” Other examples are Dostoyevsky’s writing eight successive outlines of “The Idiot” and Henry James’s writing a 20,000 word outline of “The Ambassadors.”Hall’s advice: “Experienced writers may trust the emerging novel as a source of its own development, but beginners are well-advised to outline the work, considering the many novels that have been abandoned because the novelist languished waiting for the repeated prod of those feelers from beneath the reef, instead of putting on snorkel and face-mask” (page 143).How to begin? “Formal planning usually begins with character…. What does he hate, fear, need, or passionately desire, and what is he going to do about it? And what does he, and what does the reader, as well as the author, discover about him in the process?” (page 146). “Characters, as they begin to curve into roundness, will contribute to the progress of the novel. “Decisions as to their personalities, relationships, and fates may have to be rethought because of demands of the characters themselves. Each will have his throughline–his overall objective, as well as his objective in a particular scene” (page 156).”The novelist, as he tiptoes or blunders into his first draft, may be forced to summarize as a kind of expanded outline, telling what happens in a scene he is not yet prepared to dramatize. Ultimately, of course, he must move out of summary in order to breathe life into it, for the novelist’s burden is to find means of scenically presenting summary and situational information” (page 157).In the appendix, Hall presents a synopsis of his novel “Apaches” as well as how he developed it.The book’s jacket presents four stellar endorsements, including one by Ethan Canin, novelist and currently professor of creative writing at the University of Iowa: “A wise, authoritative, and charming book. It teaches everything about writing that can be taught.”Five-star book.


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