The History of the Novel

History and Definition of the Novel

A. Novel Writing: History

With origins dating back to poetic prose from thousands of years ago -- Elizabethan times, fanciful French romance narratives from the mid-17th century, and episodic, central-figure adventures from the Spanish Don Quixote era -- novel writing is an art form that has long been an integral part of our culture.

Yet, just because novel writing predates many long-established civilizations, you should not be discouraged from pursuing your dream.

Rather, much evidence points to the fact that even a first-time novelist can achieve great success. Even if success takes the form of personal gratification, that should prove to be a sufficient enough payoff to carry you forward as you embark on this exciting and immensely fulfilling journey.

B. What is a Novel?

1. A fictional prose narrative of considerable length, typically having a plot that is unfolded by the actions, speech, and thoughts of the characters

2. The literary genre represented by novels

Derived form the Italian word 'novella', the formalized term, "novel," was not used until end of the 18th century. In its infancy, the term was used during the Medieval Period as a literary classification to describe a shortened tale that relayed a generalized sentiment reflective of the society-at-large.

In short, the goal of a novel is to offer the reader a streamlined, cohesive story in which all of the components seamlessly combine to present a statement on the human condition.

In our contemporary world, the use of "novel" has shifted to focus more on the central character, than on the plot. Also playing a defining role in the novel, is the sense of realism. Although novels are developed as fictional stories, the underlying element inherent in all, are truisms based upon human behavior, and the ways in which we interact with others.

Thus, in line with this definition, the plot lines of a novel, though referring to a fictional universe, need to be plausible in the sense they could happen in everyday life. Examples of such humanistic elements include: aging, logical time sequences, conventional ideas; e.g., necessity of travel to distant locales, money (barter) to purchase goods and services, a 24-hour period being composed of phases of day and night.


C. Novel Features

As a whole, the three primary features of a traditional novel include:

A cohesive, believable plot structure
Well-defined, credible characters
A strong undercurrent of reality

It has been said that a work of fiction is measured by how well, or poorly, the author is able to unify the story and control its impact. Therefore, the only obligation of the writer is to make the story flow well for the reader, and have strong elements of interest.

Novel Differentiations

Although the "realism" element may be consistent among all novels, a range of other qualities may be used to differentiate one from another.

For example, while one aim of some novels may be to entertain its readers, others may strive to engage and stimulate readers in an effort to expand their conscious awareness of the greater world in which they live. Others may aspire to reach readers on a more emotional and/or psychological level, by presenting humanistic references in terms of the form of conflicts, fears, and desires.

According to John Braine, the British novelist popular during the 1950s, the novel is the most variable of literary forms, for it has no hard-and-fast rules about subject, technique, or purpose.


D. Classic Examples

Over the years, novels that have remained in our minds and hearts to earn the title of "classic" include: Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (1811), and Pride and Prejudice (1813); Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (1847); Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (1847); Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850); Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1851); Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884); F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925); Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926); William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929); and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939).

Mark Twain

E. Novel Definitions by Multiple Masters

According to Nathaniel Hawthorne: As a work of art -- though a novel must conform to certain laws and rules -- it also bears the burden of having to be brutally truthful, albeit truthful based upon the writer's own set of circumstances.

It was Henry James' contention that the purpose of a novel is that of representing life.

In Randall Jarrell's famous definition, he viewed novels as prose narratives, of some length, that reflect real-life situations involving some form of conflict.

And, within the literary work, In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner proclaimed a novel to be akin to a symphony in the sense that its "closing movement echoes and resounds with all that has gone before."

Gardner surmised that the conclusion of a novel reveals hidden connections and causes, and that life, for the time being, becomes unified and organized. Perhaps, most significantly, the novel's respective characters' motives and plans become evident, and we, as the readers, learn the consequences of free will.


F. Can Anyone Write a Novel?

You tend to daydream a lot about writing "The Great American Novel," but does that mean that you will be able to successfully pull it off?

As you have undoubtedly heard countless times before, if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything you want.

And while this may be true -- wanting to write a novel, and actually writing it, are entirely different things. In order to produce a novel, you first will need to create a structure around your project, define your objectives, and prioritize this project in your life to ensure you follow it through to completion.

Why would you want to invest what can seem like an inordinate amount of time and effort into the task of writing a novel?


G. Novel Writing: Rewards and Payoffs

Attracted by the following rewards and personal payoffs, many people do go forth with their plans to write a novel:

- Satisfaction of achieving a hard-earned goal.
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- Medium to utilize creative skills, which may not otherwise be used in one's professional life

- Opportunity to hone one's writing skills

- Forum to focus one's ideas and life experiences

- Area over which one does not need to conform to anyone's standards or rules

- Outlet to showcase one's theories, ideas and creative visions (albeit masked within a work of fiction)

- Ego-gratification endeavor, culminating in one's name appearing on the book jacket of countless copies

- Lasting legacy


Regardless of what becomes of the finished product -- picked up by a publisher, self-published, bestseller, etc. -- the fact that you stayed the course in writing your novel is something that will remain with you for your entire lifetime.

Committing to the generation of your novel, and seeing it through to completion, is an endeavor that will leave you with a new-found confidence that will carry over on to any project you put before yourself.

Ideally, the following chapters will help you feel more secure with the novel-writing process and, thus, better able to navigate as you head out on this memorable journey.

Work Philosophy

Akin to running a marathon, writing a novel demands attention to discipline and technique.

In order to complete a 16-plus chapter novel, it is necessary to devise a strategy complete with outline, synopsis, chapter summations, etc. Along with an approach strategy, in order to complete all of the steps required in writing a novel, it may prove invaluable to craft a like-minded work schedule.

To some writers, creating a writing schedule may seem like an overly microscopic thing to do. However, having the forethought to lay out a specific time sequence, is often viewed as an insurance policy. Pre-planning your writing times ensures you adhere to your plan, as opposed to straying off track, or becoming easily discouraged.
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Writing Schedules

Thus, in order to acquire a manner of discipline around your novel writing process, the first thing you will want to do (before mapping out the story lines, or fleshing out your characters), is to assess your project in terms of the total time it will require you to invest.

Once you have gained an idea as to the amount of time your novel will demand of you, you will then be able to determine when -- during the course of your busy life -- you will realistically be able to sit down, concentrate, and write.

For some people, the chunk of time they can devote to writing on a daily basis may differ, both in terms of the hour (day/evening), as well as the amount of time (e.g., one hour or three hours) they have available.

And, though the ideal would be for you to write at the same time, and for the same duration, each day, if this is not a schedule to which you can commit, then alternating the times that you devote to writing may be the next best thing.

What if you have a packed day? Between working a full-time job, attending to children or a spouse, and taking care of the household essentials, what if you are truly pressed to find a sufficient amount of time to write your novel. In such circumstances, carefully (and honestly) analyze your schedule to determine where spare pockets of time may exist. For example, while we all think that our lives our overly hectic and filled to the brim, what we may be failing to realize is that throughout the day we tend to unnecessarily waste a great deal of time.

Simply put, if we were to effectively use the time on our writing that we spend aimlessly wandering the Internet or mindlessly watching television, then we should be able to carve out a sufficient number of writing sessions per week.

If restricted time is not a factor for you, consider yourself fortunate. You are one of those people who can choose when and where they ultimately sit down to write. And, though time restrictions may not be your issue, you may still have difficulty, at least in the beginning, exercising the discipline to sit down and focus on your writing.

For those who have the luxury of being able to write at any time during the day, it may be in your best interest to write in the morning. As established novelists have stated, mornings tend to provide a calmer solitude and a fresh perspective, as one has only recently arisen from a long night's sleep. (Hopefully, it was restorative.) Plus, by working in the morning, you do not simply decide to skip your writing session after enduring a long, hard day -- which is all too easy to do!


B. Examples of Authors' Working Schedules

Examples of writers who have found success in scheduling the times they allocate to their writing are:

Barack Obama, the President from Illinois, and author of Dreams from My Father, and The Audacity of Hope, has explained that while in the midst of his first term in office as a U.S. Senator, he worked on his writing in the evenings, from approximately to 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., while based in Washington, DC.

Scott Turow, the best-selling mystery-suspense novelist (Presumed Innocent, Personal Injuries), has relayed that he was accustomed to writing in the morning, from 8 a.m. to approximately noon. He felt that he was most motivated at this time, and possessed the greatest amount of clarity.


C. Focus/Motivation

After formulating a working writing schedule, you can shift your focus to the best ways for sustaining your motivation and ability to focus solely on your novel.

It is at this point that you may find yourself falling somewhat short in your ability to hold your attention throughout long, intense writing sessions. Fortunately, should you find this to be the case, there are numerous methods you can employ to increase your levels of concentration and motivation.

Capturing your ability to focus on one activity for a sustained period of time, is something that can be greatly enhanced by integrating some form of regular meditation into your life. The simple of act of learning how to sit still, and focus your mind, offers immeasurable benefits. Not only can it increase the satisfaction you derive on a daily basis, it can also contribute to your writing, in terms of allowing you to hold your thoughts for longer periods, and to explore multiple story scenarios without losing sight of the principle idea.

Unfortunately, some aspiring, time-constricted novelists may view meditation to be yet another major consumer of time. However, those who have found time to incorporate meditation into their lives, commonly attest to the sense of calm and serenity they have achieved and are able to apply to their work.


D. Common Problems that Plague Writers

Beyond finding time to write, and being able to attain mental vibrancy and clarity, there exists a plethora of other issues that can beset first-time (as well as, repeat) novelists:

Blank Page Syndrome -- A condition whereby the blankness of the page proves to be overwhelmingly daunting. In layman's terms, the writer is experiencing difficulty coming up with new material; thus, he/she is left staring at a "blank page."

Excessive Revisions -- Rather than moving on to subsequent chapters, some writers have a tendency to obsessively retread and make continual changes to what they have already written. This proves to be distracting and prohibitive in terms of allowing the writer to move forward to writing the next portion of the novel.

Distractions -- For some, simply finding a place where they can go and write, sufficiently removed from the daily grind, where they can keep focus on the novel, tends to present the greatest challenge.

Surfing the Internet -- Even when writers find a nice removed spot (coffee shop, library) in which to work, the simple act of logging onto the Internet to do a bit of research, or check email, can prove to be a writer's very own worst distraction.

While the Internet can be an invaluable source of information, it can also be a time zapper in terms of sidetracking you from your writing, even from your research. It may be best to limit the time you spend seeking out information, or even to shut off (or turn down) your computer's sound, so that you are not distracted by the tone that indicates you have a new email.

The "Day at a Time" Challenge -- It is essential for aspiring novelists to learn how to operate according to the "day at a time" philosophy, whereby they are not bogged down by how in the world they will finish it, or what they will do with the manuscript when they do finish.

This type of futuristic thinking only adds additional stress and anxiety as to how the novel will turn out, and ultimately be received, instead of allowing the novelist to be concerned only with the chapter/sentence at hand.

E. Helpful Novelist Tips

In order to sidestep any of the aforementioned "writing plagues," the following tools can prove highly useful:

Chart your progress -- Documenting the number of hours worked per day, and specific novel-related tasks accomplished, can be helpful in numerous ways -- from acting as a motivational device illustrating how far you have come, to identifying problem spots, and/or possible delays.

Create an incentive for meeting your daily/monthly/overall writing goals -- If you need to encourage yourself to stay on course, you may want to build in a series of goal-oriented incentives. The incentives you select need only be motivational to you -- not to anyone else.

For example, if you have a fondness for high-end specialty coffees, then reward yourself with one upon finishing each chapter. After completing six chapters, treat yourself to an incrementally greater treat, e.g., a film or live theater performance you have been wanting to see.

And, upon wrapping up the entire novel, do something very, very nice for yourself. Such indulgences may include: a one-hour massage, new outfit or a piece of jewelry, or dinner at a four-star restaurant.


F. Good Health

As a whole, it is probably most important that, as you divide your time up among your family, friends, work, and writing, you pay attention to what you are eating, the amount of sleep you are getting, the time you are allocating to physical fitness activities, and the degree to which you are using stimulants, e.g., tobacco and caffeine.

While you are attempting to stay focused and encouraged, it is essential that you take good care of yourself to ensure that your productivity and the quality of your work do not suffer.