Category Archives: Great Writers

How to Write a Classic Novel: 5 Elements That Will Turn Your Book into a Masterpiece

Want to write a novel that doesn’t just sell well but is also a classic, one that people are reading 100 years from now? Who doesn’t, right? Well, if you have some talent and try to include these 5 elements, your words—if not you yourself–might become immortal.

#1 Develop a strong narrative voice

You’ve got to have a powerful, sure-footed narrative voice. Your prose must percolate with life, full of energy and drive. Easy to say and easy to spot when you read it, but how exactly does a writer pull that off? How do you develop a unique, strong voice?

  • Read the classics and observe how the great ones did it. I don’t necessarily mean Plato, Virgil, and Shakespeare—though they couldn’t hurt you—but the more recent English language classic novelists, such as Faulkner, Hemingway, Wharton, Melville, Fitzgerald, Hawthorne…the list goes on. Throw in some late-20th century writers who may well pass the test of time, such as Updike, Bellow, Vonnegut, Cheever, and Malamud.
  • Just read good, solid novels in general. If you’re not sure which books are just good and which may be great, Google for lists of classics.
  • Study their techniques—their vocabulary, phrases, and sentences. See how they use point of view, tone, diction, figurative language, and the like.
  • If you’re not even sure who those writers or what those literary terms are, then you have a lot of homework to do.
  • Note that I said “develop a strong narrative voice.” Don’t be discouraged if you don’t have it right off the bat. Not many do. It takes total dedication to your writing craft and upwards of 10,000 hours of reading and writing before you get it.

#2 Dream up a new and interesting story—your story

Who wants to read the same old thing over and over again? Well, some people do, I guess, but most readers want to be surprised and delighted by a story that is unlike anything they’ve ever read before.

All the classics broke new ground. How can you tell a story no one’s ever read before? Why not look at your own life rather than, say, dragons and wizards and vampires? Those creatures populate some great books, but can you really tell a fresh, new story about subjects that have already been written about so often and so well? The really amazing fantasies, the truly wondrous stories left to be told are those about your own life.

You are a great story. Aren’t you? Haven’t you often thought and even told people, “My life would make a really strange (or great or weird or dope) book.” So…what are you waiting for? Sit down and tell some real life stories. Stories about you. Change the names, probably. Do some plotting and condensing and other essential novelistic tasks. And shape those episodic experiences of yours into a plotted novel, one with a conflict, a beginning, middle, and end, an arc, plot points, and resolutions.

Melville went to sea for years and wrote Moby Dick. Fitzgerald partied for years and wrote The Great Gatsby. Hemingway went to war and wrote A Farewell to Arms. Vonnegut was a prisoner-of-war and wrote Slaughterhouse-5. Almost all the classics were based on true stories—crafted, morphed, or mashed-up in one fantastic new way or another.

#3 Make it all fresh: style, plot, characters…everything as fresh as tomorrow’s tweets

Here’s what bores readers:

  • clichés or stereotypes
  • stock plots
  • a feeling that we’ve read or heard this all before
  • vague, lazy diction
  • one-dimensional, unsurprising characters and action

Here’s what thrills and amazes readers:

  • universality: a story that transcends time and place and could happen anywhere, anytime
  • being surprised by what characters say and do
  • defamiliarization: stories and characters that go against the grain, making the familiar seem strange. For Milan Kundera, one of the purposes of the novel is to question the commonplace, making it seem surprising, enigmatic: “It doesn’t just represent situations–jealousy, say, or tenderness or the taste for power–it arrests them, comes to a halt by them, looks closely at them, ponders them; interrogates them, asks questions of them, understands them as enigmas.”

# 4 Create metaphoric magic

Weave a tapestry of images, resonating motifs, tropes, and threads of figurative language throughout your novel. Again, if you don’t know what these terms mean, do your homework and learn. They’re essential elements of great fiction. Without them, your novel will seem dry, stale, somehow empty and unfulfilling. Readers might not even notice they’re missing, but they’ll feel that something is missing as they read.

#5 Think thematically: make it deep

Likewise with themes: without them, the readers will be left with a sense of “Is that all there is?” Books without rich, thematic content are like stomachs full of candy. What’s your point, moral, meaning, lesson? What did we learn, garner, get from the book? How did it enrich, teach, instruct us? What does it say about human nature, society, culture, issues, the world, the universe, life? Be sure to show the book’s theme through the plot points and characters’ trials. Don’t talk about the themes; don’t preach or pontificate. Make the story resonate with rich insights and moments of eureka-like crystallization. But never explain or draw blunt attention to the theme/s. Stop the readers in their tracks, making them pause to mull over and think about what just happened. If you can do that, you’ll have the makings of a classic.

5 Fabulous Takeaways for Writers from Robert Frost

Robert Frost has written some of the most quoted poems ever. What writer hasn’t heard of” “The Road Less Traveled By” (“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/ I took the one less traveled by/And that has made all the difference”)?  Or “Stopping by Woods” (“But I have promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep/And miles to go before I sleep”)? Or “Mending Wall” (“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…”)?

His poetry is deceptively simple: simple because he’s easy to understand (on the surface) but deceptive because there’s a lot of undercurrents and crosscurrents going on. Lots of irony, sarcasm, paradox, and even bitter cynicism.

He created a nice grandfatherly image for himself, but some bios suggest he was far from the “nice grandfather.” But, bios aside, we’ll have a look at his attributes, ideas, and style. There’s a boatload of takeaways a writer can get from studying Frost. Here’s 5 main ones, each with many parts.

Frost’s appeal

Work on finding an “appeal”—making your writing “appealing” in some way, to some audience.

Frost aimed, as you can, to appeal to the masses and not the esoteric few. In simple, unaffected language he wrote of familiar objects and the “character” of New England.

His poetry paints pictures of an idyllic America of the past. It’s an escape from the overly complex, anxious, urbanized society of some of his peers, such as T.S. Eliot.

Frost has four attributes from the 19th century

It might seem strange to suggest to a 21st century writer that looking back at and modeling some 19th century strategies and ways of seeing the world would be helpful. But some ideas are timeless, some attributes universal.

  • As Emerson put it, Frost has “an original relation to the universe”
    • He stressed the benefits of physical labor
    • He communed with the environment
      • eg. “Two Tramps in Mud Time”; “After Apple Picking”; etc.
      • For other examples, read Whitman’s “To a Learned Astronomer”…
  • Use your intuition. Frost seldom proceeded from reasoning or thinking. As Melville said: “I stand for the heart. To the dogs with the head!”
  • Develop a sense of your own national identity in literature. Emerson had demanded that American poets seek independence. Frost knew he was good and knew he was carving out an American niche in his poetry.
  • Be self‑reliant. Emerson enthroned the complete mental and spiritual independence of each individual. Frost’s self‑reliance manifests itself in a total immersion in the daily activities of country life.

Frost’s theories of poetry

Never interrupt a master when he’s speaking. I’ll just post these quotes from Frost without elaborating. They should give you plenty of food for thought about your own poetry or writing in general.

  • “A poem must not begin with thought first. It begins with a lump in the throat.”
  • “Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another.”
  • Composition is a process of letting the poem take over: “like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride on its own melting.”
  • “Art strips life to form.”
  • “Poetry makes you remember what you didn’t know that you knew.”
  • “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.”
  • “A poem is a momentary stay against confusion.”

Frost’s style

  • Frost composes for the ear, loving the sound of words: “They are always there, living in the cave of the mouth. They are real cave things: they were before words were. They are as definitely things as images of sight.”
  • There’s a taut, muscle‑bound quality to his poetry. A real economy of expression.
  • He doesn’t write in free verse, saying that’s “like playing tennis without a net.” His blank verse provides the flavor of idiomatic American speech. He transposes accents at will, adding or subtracting feet whenever he likes. Frost’s blank verse is very regular and careful but appears casual.
  • He usually starts with a simple concrete event or action—such as apple picking, repairing a wall, swinging in a tree, or wielding an axe—that leads to a philosophical observation or insight.
  • He’s the modern master of dramatic narratives, such as “Home Burial” and “Death of the Hired Man.” He’s been compared to Chekov in how he captures subtle changes in emotion through dialogue.

Frost’s subjects and themes

Don’t approach Frost with any preconception of his system or overall vision of reality because he deconstructs himself.

  • Try deconstructing yourself:
    • Be unpredictable
    • Compose stories or poems with conflicting or multiple viewpoints
    • Never settle for clichés or stereotypes
    • Be fresh and original or don’t bother to write at all. Find another profession. Seriously.
    • Read my blog on deconstruction for more details.
  • Man in conflict with a chaotic world, searching for order while everything around him is changing and decaying.
  • Frost called himself a “synechdochist”: by exploring one representative corner of humanity, he was probing a sample of the larger crowd (ala Wm. Faulkner).
  • The individual’s relationship with himself, his fellow man, his world, and God. Man is an entity—one among many—yet alone with his fate.
  • Mutability: spring and autumn; new life, dying life; everything changes: “nothing gold can stay,” he wrote. And in his darkest, most troubling poem of all—”Out, Out‑‑”—an entire family brushes off a boy’s death almost immediately: “And they, since they/Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” Life goes on for those still alive.

A Modernist to the core, Frost he found new ways to be new. So should you.

How the Gospel Writers Can Transform Your Writing

The Bible presents four Gospels, which despite their commonalities are four distinct presentations of Jesus as the Messiah. Looking a little closer at each one and seeing their unique traits can help transform your writing.

Matthew wrote his Gospel for his people, the Jews. He carefully connected Messianic passages to their fulfillment in the person of Jesus. He wanted Jews to see all the ways that Jesus fulfilled prophecies of the coming Messiah. In doing so, Matthew gives a carefully crafted argument why Jesus is the Messiah. Unique to Matthew is the genealogy through Joseph’s side of the family, connecting Jesus back to the lineage of David, including a unique nod to four women in his ancestry. Even at the end of Matthew, his resurrection account is careful to point out the earliest lies about the resurrection that had spread among the Jews of the day.

Matthew had a heart for his people as he tried to communicate the message of Jesus as Messiah. Matthew had learned of forgiveness and grace from Jesus. As a tax collector, Matthew likely would have been viewed as a sympathizer with Rome, the so-called Herodians of the day. Jesus extended a call to Matthew and others who were known as sinners and outcasts of that day, proving that Jesus’ message of salvation was for everyone. Matthew even ends his Gospel with the passage that we commonly call the Great Commission, commanding the disciples to carry the message of Christ throughout the world, teaching and baptizing as they do.

The heart of Matthew’s message was not just to convince the Jews, his own people, that Jesus is the Messiah but also to move them to fulfill their mission to bless the whole world through God’s special revelation to them. This blessing was revealed to Abraham in God’s covenant with him. But like Jonah, too often the chosen people ran the other way or refused to rejoice when God wanted to bless non-Jews. There are several stories in Matthew that surprisingly reveal God is ministering to non-Jews, including the only telling of the visit of the wise men to see Jesus.

Your passion will be evident in your writing, but are you willing to expand your message in other ways? Do you likewise limit your ministry and calling to those whom you feel most comfortable ministering? Or do you equally welcome and pursue all people? Does your writing empower people to live out their life’s purpose? If your writing liberates and frees others to carry out their life calling, you will have multiplied your effectiveness many times through your investment.

Mark, according to tradition, wrote from Peter’s perspective. It is the shortest of all the Gospels but communicates the heart of the Gospel in simple form to the Gentiles. Mark’s Gospel also uses words of action, such as immediately quite often in transition from story to story. Mark’s Gospel is fast paced, direct, and to the point. Mark also emphasizes the timing of God in revealing Jesus and His work of salvation. Jesus often told others not to tell about Him yet, emphasizing a special timing directed by God that Jesus, as Messiah would be revealed.

Mark shows that good writing can be direct and to the point, fast paced, and still effective. Peter’s work in Rome to Jews and Gentiles alike grew that congregation into the strongest church in the world. Mark was most certainly used in reaching people like these to the message of the Gospel.

Good writing can do the same for you: deliver concepts directly to the point in an effective way that presents others with information, allowing them to act upon it. Like Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, Mark presents readers with the Gospel directly and without apology, giving readers the opportunity to respond. Move your readers to action whenever possible. Present the calling that many will respond with action.

Luke, the physician who traveled with Paul, wrote the Gospel bearing his name. Luke’s Gospel is written to Theophilus and is described as a careful laying out of the facts and truth about Jesus. Luke references the earliest information about Jesus’ birth, the traditional Christmas story. Luke also presents the point of view of Mary regarding the birth of Jesus. There are numerous post-resurrections appearances in Luke as well. One of the fascinating theories about this document is that Luke may have written it as part of the documents representing Paul in his appeal to Caesar. Thus, Theophilus may have been a person involved in the court system of the day, hearing Paul’s appeal for Christ.

Writing that carefully lays out facts and one’s belief will appeal to those who have not heard your message or need encouragement. This approach appeals to those who like things presented systematically and logically. We don’t know if Theophilus or others who read the Gospel believed, but they heard the Gospel message and had opportunities to respond.

Luke also wrote a second volume that we know commonly as Acts. Luke carefully presents the expansion of the Gospel and early growth of the church, ending with Paul’s journey to Rome. Luke describes the early church growth in the face of persecution with missionaries like Paul who presented Christ to the Jews throughout the reach first and then to the Gentiles.

Good writing follows the same path that Luke describes in the beginning of his Gospel. It should carefully lay out the facts and truths about which you are writing. Good research is the foundation upon which your writing is built. Luke also was passionate about his writing and the truth it presented. He wanted others to respond to his writing. He was not afraid for it to break down barriers that stood between Jew and Gentile. Good writing also pushes boundaries and challenges individuals with your passion and truth.

John: The apostle John, the oldest surviving apostle of his day, wrote John. John features seven I Am Jesus taught and seven corresponding miracles. John says that he wrote his Gospel so that people would believe Jesus is the Christ and would have eternal life in Jesus’ name. John indicates that he carefully chose the stories he wrote to accomplish this purpose, remarking that all the books of the world could not contain all that Jesus had done.

John shows that good writing is focused. Like the other Gospels, it is focused on the reader and wants to move him to action. John likewise fills in gaps in some stories that are missing from the other Gospels. For example, we read the sermon Jesus preached after the feeding of the 5,000 plus. Good writing builds upon the knowledge people have and fills in missing gaps of information, motivation, and inspiration. It both informs and liberates.

Writing with a similar focus and passion as these Gospels can make your readers become lifelong followers of your work and the vision you are creating through it!