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Want To Write A Classic Novel? Here’s How.

Later this year, I’ll cross the halfway point of this somewhat epic journey. So far, I’ve loved the experience. More than just the reading and the writing, getting to discuss great books with you guys has been awesome.

Along the way, I’ve discovered some reoccurring themes in these novels. This isn’t groundbreaking stuff, you might have heard it before, but I thought I’d try and put my spin on what you need to include in the great novel you want to write some day.

So all you budding novelists out there, take heed. Make sure you include the following in your manuscript. Almost all the classics have at least a few of these:

1) A screwed-up protagonist. This is important. Your main character needs to have issues. Lots of them. This is psychological stuff, mostly. Sure, it would be kind of neat if Johnny had a third eye that never blinked. But that’s not screwed up…it’s just unfortunate.

Your protagonist could be a slacker, (Yossarian or Hal Incandenza) a druggie (John Converse, Ezekiel Farragut, everyone in Infinite Jest), a murderer (Bigger Thomas or everyone in I, Claudius), a pedophile (Humbert Humbert) or just a flat out crappy person (Rabbit Angstrom or Frank Wheeler). They just need to be screwed up.

2) Drugs. Drugs. Drugs. At some point, someone in your classic novel needs to be stoned off their gourd. Think Infinite Jest, Dog Soldiers, Revolutionary Road, Falconer, The Power and the Glory, and on and on. An alcoholic druggie works even better. An alcoholic, druggie, war veteran, fundamentalist Mormon with three wives? Now we’re really talking.

3) Weird sexual stuff. This isn’t about quirky or kinky. This is really weird junk. Think Deliverance or Lolita. Yeah, this will definitely make your reader uncomfortable. Me, included. But serious book critics fall over themselves for novels with weird sexual crap going on. Seriously, what is it with book critics’ obsession with sex? Is it because….oh, nevermind.

4) A mentally instable kid. Literature abounds with mentally instable kids. Catcher in the Rye. Lord of the Flies. A Clockwork Orange. Blood Meridian. American Pastoral. Infinite Jest. Native Son. Need help on this one? Here’s my suggestion for opening a novel about a screwed up kid:

“Carlton’s moustache itched. As he sat quietly at the back of the class, head down, all the other 12-year-olds pointed and laughed at Carlton. They laughed because he was a 12-year-old with a fully developed moustache—a moustache that, at the moment, itched because he had never shaved. He was 12.”

Poor kid. There’s your prompt. Go write!

5) A dysfunctional family. Screwed-up kids sometimes come from screwed-up families. Novels that come to mind: The Corrections. Go Tell It On The Mountain. American Pastoral. I Claudius. Think about the most annoying people at your family reunion, multiply their level of annoyance by 10, and make them into characters in your book. Another possible aid: Picture yourself with Rush Limbaugh AND Bill Mahr as your brothers. Now think about THAT family.

6) Biblical Allusions. The more obscure the allusion, the better. Referencing David and Goliath might score you a couple of points in English 101, but you’re playing with the big dogs now. You’ve got to do better than that. What about the story of some little kids making fun of Elijah and his bald head in 2 Kings? Elijah’s response? Calling up two bears from the woods to kill all 42 boys! Obviously, the moral of the story here is that you’ll do well not to make fun of insecure bald men, so how can you work that powerful truth into your classic novel?

Since I’ve only read, and not written, a classic novel, I’m probably woefully inadequate to write this post.

But there you go.

What else should be included in a classic novel?

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28 Comments Post a comment
  1. Looking forward to your wicked cool novel. Your plot line is certain to follow a certain mustachioed 12 year old’s introduction to dope and the zany antics that ensue.

    Like

    March 23, 2012
    • He’s got a disturbing future, for sure. Poor guy.

      Like

      March 23, 2012
  2. I don’t believe any of the titles on the Times list are officially classical novels since one strong standard is that it has survived the loss of copyright protection. Now I notice that in some circles the end of World War II is being used as a break between classical and contemporary works.

    Try going back to Tolstoy, Balzac, Flaubert, Hawthorne, Eliot, Sands, Dickens, Gissing, Austen, Richardson, Hardy, Fontane, Dostoevsky, Mann, etc. and run your list of requirements against actual classical novels.

    Like

    March 23, 2012
    • Thanks, Mike. I’m using the term “classic” in the loose sense. Not the technical sense of the word. It’s all in fun!

      Like

      March 23, 2012
    • THANK you for recognizing this outline doesn’t seam with the classical characters and writers I cherish.

      Like

      March 25, 2012
  3. Matt #

    If Rush Limbaugh and Bill Mahr were my brothers, I think I might shoot myself.

    Like

    March 23, 2012
  4. hannahkarena #

    Ha. Guess I’m not going to pen the next great American novel. I have 0 out of 6.

    Like

    March 23, 2012
    • Oh, but you can create all six of them. That’s what novel writing is about.

      Like

      March 23, 2012
  5. Teresa #

    And you haven’t even gotten to The Heart is a Lonely Hunter yet. We won’t even mention Naked Lunch.

    What about lots of big parties with important people Mrs. Dalloway and A Dance tithe Music of Time? I’m ribbing you, Robert ….

    Like

    March 23, 2012
    • If I was writing about what NOT to have in a classic, I could suggest the uninteresting characters in “Dance.”

      Like

      March 23, 2012
  6. I agree that the hero must have flaws. But what’s more important is the hero must deal with one major issue or problem. He must deal with various obstacle to solve his or her problem.
    A common plot usually boy meets girl, fall in love, but a problem come up, the hero must deal with it, but there are people or could be his or her inner that make him can’t get his or her partner…
    Of course, the plot not always about love but it’s just one example. You see, the more complicated the hero must deal to get what he/she wants, the better is the story..

    Like

    March 23, 2012
  7. Might want to throw in some stream of consciousness for good measure, especially if it comes from a mentally challenged kid (a la Faulkner). I’m not talking unstable, like in Catcher in the Rye, but actually developmentally delayed (or whatever the current PC term is–don’t want to offend anyone).

    Like

    March 23, 2012
    • Yes, a little SOC, maybe just a few pages of it, to throw the reader off and make the critics furrow their brows.

      Like

      March 23, 2012
  8. Challenge accepted.

    Like

    March 23, 2012
  9. When I started reading the post, I was wondering if you were serious or tongue-in-cheek. Once it became clear you WERE writing with your tongue in your cheek, and not in someone else’s…oh, never mind…I was fully with the groove.

    But this was one of those truth-in-humor moments: just exactly why do modern literary critics think so highly of books about disturbed people (kids or adults), including addicts and sexual deviants, and the use of Biblical (or other religious) allusions as a way of discrediting religion? What ARE their values, anyway? This is way beyond being about people who are interesting just because they’re different from the rest of us.

    And then those same critics look down their noses at “genre” fiction (a false distinction, but I’ll let it go)? Yeah, in case you hadn’t noticed, I don’t have much respect for the LitCrit crowd.

    Like

    March 24, 2012
    • Shem the Penman #

      Ross,

      I hope writers take your critique to heart, and we can look forward to a new era in literature where nice writers tell normal stories about normal people and their nice religious values and how important it is for things to be nice and normal.

      Take that, LitCrit crowd.

      Shem

      Like

      March 24, 2012
      • Irony?

        You miss a vital point, though. Books are not being written to appease a very small LitCrit group but rather they are being written to make money. If you were to follow your own advice no publisher would take on your writing: they know that they can’t make a profit on nice stories about regular folks with admirable values.

        Another way of saying this is to posit that books with all their naughty bits showing are exactly what the reading public demands and that makes money for the publisher and the author.

        Like

        March 24, 2012
        • Guest #

          Bullshit. Writers write things because they tell themselves they must. At least I do. And I hope that some of the biggest, most famous ones did as well, or otherwise I won’t count them as artists anymore. Art is art, not business. Making off art is a business. You should be able to distinguish between one and the other!

          Like

          September 3, 2013
  10. As part of my reading list of recommended books, I have started Hugh Walpole’s Mr Perrin and Mr Traill, published as The Gods and Mr Perrin in the USA. Walpole’s lasting heritage are the numerous websites that say he is now largely unread, although he was a best seller in his time (1909 – 1940). He has none of the above qualities but neither does he write about normal people. Irony abounds, love flourishes (although whether it will last I don’t yet know) and people fight over umbrellas. I have to say, much to my surprise, I’m enjoying the book thoroughly.

    Like

    March 25, 2012
  11. I loved Franzens Corrections cause I have a similar family with reserved people clashing, I thought I was in a minority tho and most people had healthier lives and families. Thats why most women like confident chick lit and most men like confident “jack reacher beats ppl up” books.

    Like

    March 26, 2012
  12. I think critics are some of the most twisted people on the planet, and I refuse to be influenced by their opinions! If our world truly mirrors what we’re reading, then we are of all people most to be pitied. I followed a writing contest on Gather a couple of years ago. There are truly some lunatics out there, and the winning novel was so bizarre I couldn’t imagine myself reading it! I think I’ll stick to things like Old Yeller. 🙂

    I am a published author, and my novel only makes the cut with three of the items on your list, thank goodness! I prefer normal people, solvable problems, and happy endings! Guess I’ll never be in Time, huh?

    Like

    March 29, 2012

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  1. The First 40: A Look Back | 101 Books
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  3. Repost: Want To Write A Classic Novel? Here’s How. | 101 Books
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