A review of Writing a Novel by Richard Skinner

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Writing a Novel
By Richard Skinner
Faber & Faber
ISBN 9780571340460, Aug 2018, Paperback

Faber Academy’s Writing a Novel course is highly respected, and has spawned many a published and even successful novel from its participants. At $6,500 for the full course though, it’s hardly a cheap investment. While it’s not a substitute for a hands-on interactive course, Richard Skinner’s book Writing a Novel is designed to be a thorough guide and covers all of the key topics that the course does. Skinner knows a thing or two about novel writing.  He not only directs and teaches in Faber Academy’s fiction program, he’s written three novels of his own, three books of non-fiction, three books of poetry and has edited several anthologies.  The book is easy to follow, and is well-structured, moving smoothly from novel ideation through planning, character development, point of view, dialogue, plotting, conflict, dealing with tie, pace, setting and genre. Though the book is practically oriented, Skinner doesn’t dumb down the complexity of novel writing, or suggest, as many how-to books do, that it can be done quickly and painlessly. Skinner writes with the style of a poet and is always encouraging readers to find the joy and power in their story, and to treat it with respect:

Ask yourself this question [Where’s the story?] and it is like standing in a stream – although you can’t see it, you can feel its current on your ankles can’t you? You can see ahead of you how the stream runs.  To get to know the structure of your story is to feel the direction of the current and to go with the flow. To dip into the waters of yourself (4-5)

Skinner advocates reading as a form of apprenticeship: that all writers need to read broadly, but also specifically,  learning, as other artists do, by copying the work you love by hand, taking careful note of what the author does.  It can be frustrating to read how-to books that only teach to a single, heavily plot-focused, writing process. It’s easier to teach to a single formula, but that doesn’t generally reflect the variety of fiction being published and particularly not award winners.  Skinner’s method involves many options and the book provides a range of tools, not a didactic formula, and will be relevant and valuable to both novice and experienced writers.

The book is full of exercises, which can be practically attempted for all of the different core requirements of novel writing.  One that I found especially valuable included describing a character’s home or the landscape that they’re in in enough detail to full comprehend the character without actually providing character details.  There are many such exercises throughout the book, along with specific examples, quotations, and passages from other writers. There are also a lot of practical tips on how to fix common problems, such as over use of coincidence – a trap for many writers:

If you feel that you might have one too many coincidences in your story, lok back over your manuscript for phrases such as ‘suddenly’, ‘at the same time’, ‘accidentally’ or ‘luckily’.  The more culpable of thes is ‘suddenly’, a word that has been the cause of thousands of chance meetings. Go back over your plotting and, at every moment, ask yourself not only whathappens next, but why. (144)

This is a book that can be used in many different ways.  It could be read cover-to-cover prior to writing a novel, to gather strategies and get the writerly juices flowing.  It can be referred to as a guidebook when things aren’t working or to iron out issues such as an awkward point of view. Or it can be used as an editing guide to be worked through after the initial draft is done, working through the exercises in the context of the novel to make sure everything, from pace to dialogue to character to setting is operating optimally. Probably the optimal use of the book is in all three ways – reading it through first, referring to it through the writing process and then using it for editing,  effectively turning writing a Novel into a complete primer that also provides motivation and encouragement:

The book is yours, but it is ours now, too.  We have been swept up by its narrative pull and have been touched by its emotional involvement.  You have made the personal universal. (200)

For those who really want to be guided, there are 30 slips at the back of the book representing the key scenes that most novels should have. These can be taken out, filled in in long hand (or copied) and cut up to piece together the perfect plot. It’s a great way to start, especially for novices who want to write but aren’t sure where to begin. Writing a Novel is a comprehensive guide that will help any aspiring (or blocked) novelist to get to work and produce a book.  It won’t do the work for you, and Skinner doesn’t pretend that his book will make it easier, but it does provide a lot of help and support around all of the most important aspects of novel writing, and is probably one of the best, most informed guides on the market.