On Becoming a Novelist

ISBN: 0844671207
ISBN 13: 9780844671208
By: John Gardner

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Reader's Thoughts


While there are some great bits of advice here, they're lost amid too many opinions and an overdose of rigidity.


Something I really loved about this book was how Gardner encourages honestly - he doesn't glorify the writing life, nor does he make you feel bad if you can't stick it out. Workshops and education are given their own section. I found it refreshing that Gardner didn't hail MFA programs as the answer, despite his background in the academic sector. He's good at showing the pros and cons to everything he brings up, putting information out there for the reader to interpret and decide what is best for themselves. Gardner writes for the "young writer" or "beginning writer," but he also addresses getting published, getting an agent, and interpreting feedback from editors, lumped together in a section appropriately titled Publication and Survival. The section after that? Faith. Gardner takes time to address issues with short stories and even poetry. Doing so didn't make the book feel like it was tackling too much, either - it was all well-balanced and informative regardless of what you're writing. (More in-depth review with quotes: http://www.allisonwrites.com/2012/02/...)

Edward ONeill

Gardner writes clearly and elegantly. I've never read his novels, but as I teach screenwriting, I wanted his take on how writers develop. Much of what he says jibes with my own experiences, and he has a wider view. He treats different literary styles, and he can describe the skills and career path of the short story writer vs. the novelist.Many small chunks of the book are worth the price of admission. Gardner has a wonderful characterization of what makes a first-rate novelist: one type is an SOB who is interesting to hear rant but who is a terrible human being, and who may be the narrator or the main character. So, yes, Nabokov, among others. In short, this brief book is the product of thought and care, and it shows wonderful insights.

Peter McQueeny

One of the best books I've read on the craft. Full of practical advice, enlightening anecdotes and much needed warnings. Gardner presents a good-natured account of what it is like to be a writer in the modern world.

Kevin Hickey

An incredibly enjoyable read for anyone interested in writing and the writing process. It’s also a very easy book to read, which is a testament to Mr. Gardner’s crisp, clear writing style. Given the rate of changes within the book industry I would suspect that some of the information may be obsolete at this stage, particularly in relation to agents and publishers, however, this should in no way deter anyone from reading this slender gem of a book. The book addresses a number of topics that a budding writer would be interested in i.e. the nature of the writer, perseverance, dealing with disappointment. It also includes a few healthy doses of reality for the new writer lest they get carried away with the perceived ease of it all, or with romantic notions of the writers life. I have heard it said that this book was a great source of support for new writers, however, it wasn’t really the pep-talk that I had imagined, it was simply a book full of insightful and helpful and interesting information, some supportive, others realistic. A very worthwhile read.


Gardner has the humor and intelligence of Strunk and White with the conversational narrative of a stern, yet friendly teacher.I'm surprised that I have never heard of this book at school. I find it to be text-book worthy for any English or Creative Writing Course. I only happened upon this because it was a gift from my parents from a used book store, and it is absolute gold.This book gives you the basic principles of writing a novel; even if the novel isn't your goal, it will help with writing too. I recommend it to anyone who wants to write well.


"Finally, the true novelist is the one who doesn't quit. Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or "way," an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world. Its benefits are quasi-religious--a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand--and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough."My third (fourth?) reread of this book, and definitely not the last. I understand and appreciate Gardner's advice more each time. His tastes (heavy realism) are to be taken with a grain of salt, but he is a grand authority on what this kind of life is, and what to look forward to and look out for.


While it is entertaining indeed to watch Gardner work himself into a snooty lather over pretty much anyone, aside from a chosen few, with the *gall* to publish a book, this text focuses far too much on the beginning writer and "art" to be of much practical or psychological use to those with more writing experience and/or ambitions of a lower altitude. The man can write a sentence, though, which ultimately makes this book a worthwhile read.

Jason Carlin

There's little point in expounding on what's written about in this book. It would only be a less than convincing repeat of what Gardner does himself. All I can say is that if you care at all about writing - and not exclusively novels, as the title suggests, but any writing at all - then read it. At times the writing can be quite awkward. Its meaning is still there, but parenthesis and vile amounts of commas can occasionally disrupt the overall flow. Despite this, the scope of what's inside can't be overvalued. You don't feel for a second that here's a man who wrote all this to simply make some money. He feels passionately about writing, and therefore when you read the book he transfers that passion to you. And let me say that it is in no way just a pep talk for writing - he's not afraid to list out the possible signs which will suggest writing isn't for you. He's wholly serious about the craft, and proves as much throughout the slim 150 pages, which contain zero bullshit. I'd give it a five only for Gardner holds strongly to the belief that situation can never be the initial source of a novel's creation(and perhaps that literary writing is the kind one should pursue). I respect that it's an admirable standpoint to have, and that he fully believes it, but I've read too many good novels to be able to believe it myself. All the same, incredibly insightful.

Емануил Томов

Прекрасна книга - и за напъпващите писатели, по-конкретно романисти, и за по-обща ориентация що е то "достоен" роман и към какво следва да се стреми младият романист, "that saint among men", както се изразява шеговито Гарднър. Разбира се, леко спорна е тезата, че съществуват обективни критерии за достоен роман, но пък аз лично изпитвам дълбоко недоверие към обратната: че всичко е въпрос на вкус и всичко е субективизъм, че всяка художествено-морална(не дидактично-морализаторстваща) система, да не говорим за техническа реализация, е тъждествена на всяка друга. Тази, последната теза, всъщност е толкова широко и безкритично разпространявана, че си струва човек от време на време да чуе интелигентна аргументация в другата посока. Книгата е кратка, много ясно структурирана и ярко вдъхновяваща.

Ken Beck

This short primer, very confessional and personal in nature, spoke directly to me. Gardner speaks of conjuring the fictive dream and getting it down on paper. I've done that myself twice in this year. My two novels began, as Gardner describes, as visions, as dreams, that would not let me alone until a draft was complete. I did not experience the agony Gardner experienced with a draft, but that is likely because I am becoming and not there. On the other side of the drafting is where everything Gardner tells of is vitally welcome. I ate this up, reading it in this one day. It will stand over me as I revise.It is meant for just this situation.The least useful is the material on publishing. The self-published ebook was nowhere to be seen in Gardner's time. The story about barging into an editor's office and demanding a reading and having this result in an on-the-spot sale would nowadays not even work in the most preposterous of fictions. But this makes what Gardner has to say all the more important: write it right. Take the time. Don't put out an inferior product. Hire the editor, if necessary. Go find the workshops. His advice on this is good. He tells it like it is. He knows what he's talking about. He's pessimistic about rewards. (The better it is, the pay is worse.) I'll read it again and again, because I care about good writing.


This slim volume is an easy read with a lot of insightful commentary by a well-respected writer. I've never read any of Gardner's novels, but I may have to try one just to see how what he said about the writing process played out in practice. The book is a mix of "How to write" fundamentals that go deeper than just "Don't overuse adverbs" and personal reflections on how the writing process works for him. It's aimed quite explicitly at those who really want to make a career as a novelist, not just those who think they want to write a novel, and it's also heavily biased towards literary fiction; he tries to acknowledge sci-fi/fantasy and mysteries and other genres without sounding dismissive, but somewhat reluctantly.Some of the most useful bits are when Gardner analyzes snippets from authors like Melville and Hemingway and himself, and shows why a particular piece of writing does or does not show the author's best work, and how you can see even the masters developing their craft over time.Besides the writing process, he also talks about the writing career, including what you can do with an MFA besides be a novelist (answer: teach), day jobs that are good for writers (there's a bit of naivete in his suggestion that any would-be writer can go get a job like fire watcher that allows lots of unsupervised writing time), and writing workshops. Some of the nuts and bolts stuff is dated now: Gardner died in 1982, so there is no mention of word processors or the internet, both of which have obviously had a major impact on the writing profession. But most of it is still relevant, and will always be relevant as long as there are novelists.


This book addresses nearly any emotion or trial you might experience as a novelist. I struggled with some of Gardner's assertions. I left a conflicted review on Amazon when I'd read the first half of this book, but I might have to delete that or amend it, because the majority of this book is so, so excellent. Like any other mystical experience, reading this is uncomfortable and challenging. The tone is calmly authoritative. The truths in it run so deep into the nature of creative writing that it really is the King James of novel writing. I scoffed when someone else called it "The Bible of Novel Writing" since so many creative writing books receive excellent reviews, despite their being repetitive, plain or shallow. Not so with this one! The thing that will bother you the most about this guy is his commitment to his own point of view, which can sometimes be elitist. Now that I'm finished, I'm afraid that he might be right though, because this guy really, really does know what he's talking about, and he communicates it beautifully. He's a genius.I feel that I've made deeper commitments to my personal ethics and life path because of this book. Wow! Now that doesn't happen every day!


Books on writing are a dime a dozen but Gardner's volume is the result of decades spent in the classroom and being a practitioner of the art of fiction. On Becoming a Novelist is informative, entertaining, inspiring and stuffed with practical advice. Gardner occasionally makes provocative eyebrow-raising statements, probably just to check if you're paying attention, but you finish this book with the feeling that you've spent time with a wise old sage who is passing the secrets of success on to the next generation. An important landmark volume.

John Wiswell

A profound book for the beginning or emerging novelist. In very few pages Gardner shreds through the work of being a novelist, from experimenting and workshopping all the way through the submissions process and the self-doubts of someone who's sold twenty successful novels. It's all information a writer ought to know: the personal sacrifices, how hard it can be to afford to write or find a job that leaves you with the energy to pursue it, the difficulty of connecting with agents and editors, how workshops can go wrong and how to spot what's working. He is so frank that it's occasionally jarring, especially when he takes you into how he wrote some of his own scenes. Despite covering most of the topics that emerge in a novelist's career, he seldom seems to skimp on depth. Gardner knew pith. There's an excoriating section on how amateurish it is to deliberately withhold information in order to shock readers with a twist, and how to get around it by setting up points of view or characters that would only have the information we do, and stories that are about those turns in more than just shock value. It results in the axiom: "In the final analysis, real suspense comes with moral dilemma and the courage to make and act upon choices. False suspense comes from the accidental and meaningless occurrence of one damned thing after another."Part of Gardner's brevity is the result of axiomatic thinking. He can be reductive, though more often he's steadfast is believing something like piercing writer's block can be achieved many ways and he won't bother quibbling over differing approaches. He'll name them, say if he knows cases where they worked, and blast on. It amounts to an incredibly concentrated and earnest book about what writing is like.The boldest parts are where Gardner rips open his own compositions, exposing times when he was utterly hung up on useless and unimportant details, and more shakingly, how a trance of composition feels and works. He has a case study on himself writing the end of Grendel, which reads as self-congratulatory, but also goes to depths most writers never talk about. His hang-ups, prejudices, desires, and his utter ceding of agency to this fictional point of view spill out in ways you've probably experienced, but that we are usually glib or mum about. These passages are invaluable, if only to let you know other people really do work this way. That's the best thing about the book assuring you, by profound admissions, that a writer is not alone in his or her experiences, and he does it with a clarity that you just won't get on Camp NaNoWriMo or Reddit. It's something I'll give to many young aspiring novelists I know.

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