• Writing Lessons by Richard Setlowe

    Table of Contents


    Lesson 1: Writing the First Novel


      The Myth of Writing the First Novel

      The Reality of Writing the First Novel

      Beginning the First Novel

      Where to Start Writing


      The Ancient Magic Formula


    Lesson 2: The Magic Formula


    Lesson 3: The Theatre of the Novel


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  • Writing cannot be taught, but it must be learned. For 15 years I taught in the Writers' Program at UCLA Extension in Los Angeles. When I began teaching I had already published two novels, The Brink and The Experiment. In subsequent years I wrote and published The Haunting of Suzanna Blackwell, The Black Sea, and The Sexual Occupation of Japan. All these novels were published by major New York publishers. And that, briefly, is the goal of these lessons—to write a novel that will be published.


    The courses and workshops I conducted had various titles—Autobiography into Fiction, Fiction Writing, Writing the First Novel, Writing the Novel I, II, III, and IV, Writing the Thriller, and a class of Olympian ambition, The Universal Principles of Storytelling, in which we defined the narrative structure and elements common to successful novels, screenplays, television drama, and stage drama. Hence, the organization of these "lecture notes."

  • Lesson 1: Writing the First Novel


    There are two types of ambition. The first wants to build a better mousetrap. The second wants the world to beat a path to their door. If you are in the latter group, read no further. I have nothing to impart to you. These are lessons on the art and craft of building a better mousetrap—a novel that will first attract and then entrap the reader.

  • The Myth of Writing the First Novel

    the experiment

    Many of us have had this secret fantasy—The Great American First Novel.

    In a blaze of inspiration we are going to write 300 to 400 pages of a revealing, ruthlessly honest prose in which we are the thinly disguised main character. And in this story we will not only triumph in ways we have never done in real life, but it's also pay-back for the thinly disguised parents, bosses, ex-lovers, ex-spouses who never really, not really, appreciated us. We will send the manuscript off to a New York publisher, who after a slight but nail-biting delay will wire us a six-figured advance. A few months later, the book will soar to the best-seller list, earning millions in royalties, and we will be lionized in incredibly glamorous parties of the literati in New York and make the cover of People.

    The novel, of course, sells to the movies and Nicole Kidman, Johnny Depp, Oprah Winfrey, Owen Wilson, Meryl Streep, or Nick Cage plays the thinly-disguised us. We then have a torrid love affair with a fantasy figure, or two, or three, on which we can base a thinly-disguised second novel, before settling down with our true soul mate and stimulating intellectual equal.

    When I once regaled a New York editor with whom I was working with this fantasy, she laughed uproariously, then paused, shook her head, and said, "You know, I know two writers that actually happened to." I recount all this, because too many writing student approach the novel with exaggerated expectations, nurturing this fantasy.

  • The Reality of Writing the First Novel

    "Writing is a craft, as well as an art, and that craft takes time to develop. Forget genius, forget inspiration. It takes time measured not in weeks or months, but years. Hemingway said, 'Write a million words.' He wasn't kidding."

    — Dennis Palumbo, screenwriter My Favorite Year, psychotherapist, and author of Writing from the Inside Out

    Write a million words. That was certainly my personal experience. Since most first novels run from 100,000 to 200,000 words, you do the math.

    Understand this reality – you are not going to publish your first draft. Nor your second. Nor your third or probably fourth draft. I don't say this to discourage you. I say it to free you. To free you to experiment, explore blind alleys, to write and be bad, to be dissatisfied with what you write, and keep writing.


    So, where do we start?

    "I have never felt like I was creating anything. For me, writing is like walking through a desert and all at once, poking through the hardpan, I see the top of a chimney. I know there's a house under there, and I'm pretty sure that I can dig it up if I want. That's how I feel. It's like the stories are already there. What they pay me for is the leap of faith that says: 'If I sit down and do this, everything will come out okay."

    — Stephen King, the 2003 National Book Awards Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

    Okay, let's take that leap of faith togther.

  • Beginning the First Novel

    There is an idea abroad in the land that you should not start writing until you have a firm outline and know exactly where you are going. Rather obviously Stephen King doesn't agree. And neither do I.

    I suspect the idea was initiated by publishers, editors, studio executives, and others of the non-writing ilk who pay writers advances and have to justify for what, exactly, they are paying them in advance. In this case an outline is actually a business proposal. But this outline concept has been perpetuated by writing teachers at the university level, because English department require things like thesis proposals and course outlines. Therefore it's logical for the teacher to have the students write an outline of just exactly on what it is they are going to labor in the next semester. It's perfectly logical…especially if you haven't written too many novels. But novels aren't written by logic. They emerge from some strange inspiration, a subconscious alchemy that transmutes our experiences and imaginings into a waking dreamlike narrative.

    This may sometimes express itself in the broad outlines of a story, but much more often it does not. It expresses itself in Stephen King's chimney poking through the hardpan of our consciousness, and we have to dig into the very muddy soil of our subconscious for it.


    And where do we start digging?

  • Where to Start Writing

    My suggestion is to write the first major confrontation, or action, or dramatic event in your novel that comes to your mind? That's it. Write a scene of dialogue and action. Or a description, or a meditation, or a stream of consciousness.

    It doesn't have to come at the beginning. In fact, it may even be the climax of the book. In my first novel The Brink that scene came about three-fourths of the way through the book, what eventually became the beginning of Chapter 23 on page 198 of the published novel. But that's where I started writing.

    And then you keep writing until that scene plays out. Why? Because if it is the first thing you think of, then it's your chimney poking through the hardpan. That's where there's energy and tension. And the act of writing releases that creative energy. Then you can keep writing until you get to the end of your story, or go back and fill in what leads up to that scene. This scene is the seed from which your novel will dramatically grow.

    You don't have to know the whole story of your novel, not yet. That comes later.

  • Scribbling

    Most of us work on a computer. I write letters, class notes, and journalism directly on the computer, but I seldom write my first draft of fiction on it.

    My most recent novel, The Sexual Occupation of Japan, was scribbled with Bic ballpoint pens into those bound black-and-white composition notebooks you buy in the drug story. That's 200 pages of scribbling, as I write on both sides. I filled four of them, and in a fifth and sixth I scribbled random notes, research, clips from newspapers and magazines, quotes that were vaguely related -- at least in my randomly wandering creative thoughts. And when I had scribbled a good hunk -- what felt like a chapter or two -- I then wrote it into my computer, making each chapter a separate file—1999: Death at the Love Hotel, A Very Dangerous Game, 1964: My Lilli of the Lamplight, Taking Over the World, The Skeletons in Japanese Closets, The Guns of Phuc My Luc, etc.

    The novelist John Irving, in an interview in USA TODAY, said that he spent a long time -- in the case of one book, as much as a year—just taking notes and thinking, writing in longhand or on an old-fashioned typewriter, before he really started writing the novel.

    "I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don't praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading."

    — Kurt Vonnegut, author of Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five; or The Children's Crusade, etc.

    This isn't eccentric. It is the way to get a story to flow, without critical thinking. Just keep scribbling. The writer Kurt Vonnegut once noted that writing a novel is like driving at night. You can't see any further than your headlight at any moment, but you can drive across the entire country that way if you just keep driving. At this point you don't have to know the End, Act Three, Denouement, or Resolution, or any of the points we will discuss later.

    If you are having trouble getting started, simply sit down in a comfortable chair, pick up a ballpoint pen or pencil, and scribble the first thoughts that come into your head in a notebook. Doodle. Put down words, phrases, sentences, descriptions, a line of conversation, and pretty soon they will begin to come together in a scene, and, hopefully begin to define THE STORY.


    What Vonnegut casually smuggles in as "one of those old-fashioned plots"—no doubt because after writing and publishing tens of millions of words, he incorporates it instinctively—is The Ancient Magic Formula of Storytelling.

    It is the formula for narrative energy that drives Homer's Odyssey, Shakespeare's Hamlet, the bestseller The DaVinci Code, and Hollywood blockbusters like War of the Worlds.

    This Ancient Magic Formula of Storytelling is what we will reveal, explore, and breakdown in the Creative Writing Lessons to come, so that it becomes t roadmap on your journey of writing the first novel.


    proceed to Lesson 2: The Magic Formula »

  • Copyright © Richard Setlowe 1993–2010