On Becoming A Novelist, by John Gardner


Reviewed by Bruce Rhodes


May 7, 2008


Concise, Sympathetic, Sage Advice for the Aspiring Novelist


I first read On Becoming A Novelist in 1989. I thought a lot of the 145-page book at the time, but then steered clear of trying to write for a living and instead embarked on a fruitful fifteen year career as a self-employed software developer (creative writing of a sort, probably close to a million lines of code altogether, in the language of Visual Basic). As for whether I would have been happier and better off financially if I had eschewed software development for novel writing back in 1989, I will never know.


Fast forward to 2008: my software development business wound down about a year ago, which was fine with me because I was eager for a change. Since 2004, and since 2006 in earnest, I have been working on my first novel. As of a month ago the novel consisted of 330 pages, was 90 percent finished content-wise, and I have completed my seventh round of editing. Having said all this, a month ago I decided that I was not satisfied with the manuscript. My gut told me that I could do a lot better, and I decided to dust off and re-read On Becoming A Novelist to try and clarify what my gut was telling me.


Gardner, as an accomplished writer himself, understood the trials and tribulations of the writer… her ups and downs, hopes and fears, joys and frustrations. Gardner did not try to provide ‘one size fits all’ ways to approach writing a novel; he understood that among writers there are differing motivations, desires and styles. On the other hand, Gardner provided advice based on his experience behind the typewriter and in the industry, as his readers would want and expect:








This advice, and Gardner’s other perspectives and ideas, mean a lot more to me now, with a nearly finished (however unsatisfactory) novel under my belt, than it did in 1989. I hope that the benefit I will get from having recently re-read Gardner’s book is that, as I revise (if not re-write) my novel, I will apply his principles to the overall structure of my work, as well as to character development, setting and plot evolution.


I am persuaded that by heeding the guidance one finds in this book, the novelist improves his chances for success. There is no baloney here, just the truth about the novel writing business, as Gardner understood it. I am humbled that Gardner acquired the wisdom and experience that he did in his short life; he died in 1982 at age 49, two years younger than I am as I struggle to get one novel written.


I give this book ten stars out of ten.