“How to grow a novel”, Sol Stein #takeaways 


Be the first to see what you see as you see it.
Robert Bresson (french filmmaker)

  • Readers value and remember extraordinary CHARACTERS. Plot might be forgotten with a time, but never a hero. The goal is to involve the reader’s emotion, in this case a feeling of warmth for the central character. 
  • What the reader is experiencing in each scene of your novel? If you can’t answer the question – look for a garbage bin.
  • Structure and technique is more important than effect. The time to think about the effect of each sequence in your book is when planning a scene or revising it. 
  • Sol’s recommendation – make an outline of scenes only! 
  • If there’s NO action – there’s NO scene. Action connotes something happening. That is not necessarily physical movement. An argument is an action too. 
  • NEVER take the reader where the reader wants to go. Your job as a manipulator of the reader’s emotions is to start a new chapter somewhere else or with a different character, leaving the reader hanging. Example: if you are finishing a chapter with suspense – start the next quietly. Think of it as the calm before the next storm.


  • How to outline? Put each scene description on a card, number the scenes and test new locations by moving the cards. When you are finished you will know that you have absolutely the best order you can come up with for your story.
  • Ask yourself: what is this scene doing to the reader’s emotions? Write your answer next to each scene description.
  • You must reward your audience. Ask yourself which of those scenes will be so strong, so good, so memorable that your reader will be rewarded?
  • Is Conflict a Necessity?  YES. IT IS THE ESSENCE OF DRAMATIC ACTION. The engine of any fiction is somebody wanting something and going out to get it. And if you let him get it right away – you are killing the story.
  • The best novels of all the time for the most part deal with the evils of human nature (for which seem to be no remedies within our grasp). Oedipus slays his father, Hamlet kills Polonius and so on. Human nature is your subject if you take your work as a writer seriously.

Lenin said once: “WHO WHOM?” 

  • Central to dramatic action is the clash of protagonists/antagonists. Man against man, man against woman, man against fish, man against bureaucracy – all demonstrate that conflict is the motor, a force of dramatic fiction. 
  • Capture your reader! Make him LOVE your books. We may like them, but we don’t love them – is not good enough to sell a novel in the difficult market of 21st century.
  • “Narrative hook”  – has to come as close to the beginning as possible. It grabs the reader’s attention and invokes his curiosity.

For mystery and thriller writers – get the hook into the first paragraph.

  • Success lies in seeing the details.
  • The writer’s job is NOT to EXPRESS but to CREATE an emotion in the reader. How? Through details. Detail is the salt that enriches what the eyes see.
  • We crawl before we walk. James Joyce didn’t begin with Ulysses; he mastered short stories first.
  • Remember that generalities are blurry, and that precise detail is what enables the reader to see and experience your scenes.
  • You and Sol Stein are sitting at a small table outdoors at a sidewalk cafe in Paris, watching people stroll by. He invite you to play a game. Pick any passing pedestrian who could be a hero of the story. Often we choose someone who is oddly dressed, walking in an unusual manner. We notice people who stand out in the crowd. That is exactly the kind of character you want for your novel.


Why? Because a reader can be seduced by character/hero. Readers don’t want to pay money in order to spend 12 hours in the company of someone who is just like their neighbour next door. They are attracted by differentness. 

  • I’ll ask you: “WHAT DOES YOUR CHARACTER WANT?” Whatever your answer… my response would be “THAT ISN’T ENOUGH!” 
  • Remember that “nice guys finish last”. That means nice guys (males or females) are totally unsuitable as the protagonists of fiction. 
  • Flat character is a fail for your book. If you have difficulties to give a character #color – pick up a children’s book. You’ll meet characters more extravagant than those you’ll usually find in adult fiction. Browse! Read! Go back to your character and see what you can do to replace his or her ordinaries with characteristics that are fresh and wild.
  • How to give an extra tension to the story? Place your hero in a place he can’t leave (prison, army, family, boat)
  • The idea or concept of your novel is only 1 or 2 sentences. Learn to represent the whole book in 2 sentences.
  • Dialogue is a foreign language to most writers (especially those who are writing non-fiction). Dialogue has to make us:


Dialogue is adrenalin. Readers want something special, dialogue that excites. 

She: Hello! How are you?
He: Fine. On my way to jail…

  • Never take both sides in dialogue. You won’t succeed. 
  • Use “beats” in dialogue, short thoughts, phrases. Throw sparks. That’s what readers like. Three methods to create tension in dialogue are:

a) Impatience
b) Misunderstanding
c) Attitude (the characters have different intentions, and the intentions clash)

  • Dialogue is illogical. Think about analogies with baseball and ping-pong. In dialogue every word counts. Be ruthless in eliminating excess verbiage. All talk is first draft. Dialogue is NOT talk.
  • POV – or point of view. It is the perspective from which a scene is written (which heroes, eyes and minds are witnessing the events). The skeleton of possibilities:

First-person point of view: I saw this, I did that.
Second-person point of view: You know this, you did that (rarely used in fiction).
Third-person point of view: He saw this, he did that (the most common in popular fiction).
Omniscient point of view: The perspective is anybody’s (the easiest and the most dangerous).

Don’t worry, you can DO IT! As we all remember, Bernard Shaw was the true father of both Liza Doolittle and Henry Higgins.

  • The primary sense in fiction – sight – became dominant in fiction XXI. 
  • A writer cannot write what he does not read with pleasure. He must write what he MOST LOVES to read. 
  • One of the biggest problems among beginners (fiction writers) to find their voice, so that the writing sounds like them and not offshoots of Danielle Steele or Dean Koontz. How to find your own voice? Here’s a technique: talk the first page of your story into an audio machine. Don’t censor and don’t pretend. Just talk. Then – listen.
  • A writer is someone who CANNOT not write. There’s example about Christy Brown in the book (he wrote his book with a help only of one toe on his left foot)… right. What did you say your problem? Still can’t find time for writing? Really?
  • Editing/revision: are you sure that your novel starts on page 1 and not on page 129?
  • Make changes, create new draft. Revision is the most essential part of writing even for geniuses. If you created your draft on computer – print it out and edit as the hard copy (will give you more objectivity).
  • Friends and family ARE THE LEAST OBJECTIVE PEOPLE IN THE WORLD! They like you. They are so pleased to see your words on paper, they will exult, they will praise and they will mislead you. 

There’re a lot of examples (about editing) in the chapter “Where Writers Go Wrong”.
Also the chapter “Some Fundamentals for the emigrants from non-fiction” is very practical and can help you if you stuck with your story or writing. There’s also step-by-step sheet – how to revise your draft; questions from newcomers/aspiring writers answered.
A very interesting chapter to read – “The Responsibilities of the publisher” (tells us that publishing is 99% business, so drop your hopes to find someone who will fall in love with your book from first (or second) sight). The truth about publishing process revealed! You’ll also find out the most punishing, dismissive word in the publishing industry – “midlist” – and about the importance of positioning (why it is so important?). 

How agents and publishers think:

  • what is selling best now?
  • how we can get more books like the ones that sold best last year?
  • is this book like book X or Y or Z?
  • how did the last book like that do?

The publishers effort is directed to earning back the advance through the sale of copies and subsidiary rights to third parties. How can the publisher minimise the risk? He can give the writer a low advance, or print a smaller number of copies. Nice…

WELCOME to the 21st CENTURY! 

From the other side, there’s no publisher without a writer 😂 

Books of fiction are like sex. If sex was good – the customer will come back for more. 

Next post – The outline of the crime novel “The Orange Wheel”

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