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

I’m taking my annual week-long summer hiatus this week, which means this is a “Best of 101 Books” week.  I’ll return live on Monday July 8.

Today’s post originally appeared on the blog on March 23, 2012.

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?

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I love this post! You see so much about the formula for various types of genre fiction, it’s nice to see it turned on it’s head for a classic 🙂


    July 7, 2013
  2. I just found your blog, and I love your writing!! You have a really great voice and this post is hilarious!


    July 20, 2013

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