Review: Nail Your Novel by Roz Morris

Nail Your Novel by Roz Morris is subtitled, Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish with Confidence. Her book is, simply, about How to Write a Novel. When you have a subtitle 14 words long on a how-to book, you can assume that it speaks to a specific audience. This book predominantly speaks to the amateur who is struggling to finish the first book. Her solution is to plot your novel in advance.

Thanks to NaNoWriMo, we now have the words “plotter” and “pantser” in our lexicon: “Plotter” being the sort of writer who constructs an elaborate and detailed story summary before beginning to write, and “pantser” being the writer who writes “by the seat of his pants” letting the story take him where it may. The two are not always mutually exclusive, since even a pantser could decide to employ at least some plotting devices.

How-to-write books can be plotted on a three dimensional graph: One axis spanning between “plotter” and “pantser”, a second axis “inspirational” and “instructional”, the third axis “novice” and “advanced”. On this graph, I would plot this book as “plotter”-“instructional”-“intermediate”. (You may not agree with this assessment. I rate Stephen King’s On Writing as “pantser”-“inspirational”-“novice”)

Roz Morris is a woman who apparently makes her living by ghost writing for various best selling authors. Like all ghost writers, she does not disclose who she writes for, and trying to guess who she has written for makes for a good parlor game. You might find yourself in a fun debate with your friends over some beer. Judging from the kind of advice she dispenses, she not only does wholesale ghost writing, but a fair amount of revising work as well.

Her book is filled with little techniques and tricks-of-the-trade you may have already read about or should know already. (Like, don’t throw away the segments you deleted in the editing process, but preserve them in an Outtakes File.) You can pick up most of them free from internet blogs, this one included. There were some tidbits I missed, but the reason you should read the book is not that you do not know the little tricks, but to see how they fit in the process. Every instructor fits them in differently.

Like all plotters, she recommends that you use cards to collect and sort your plot elements on your way to writing a detailed synopses, and then the first draft. Her technique differs in that she advises to write down a beat sheet AFTER the first draft is completed. (Why didn’t I think of this?) There are certainly some advantages to this method. It is exactly how you would adapt a book to a movie script. In effect, you are streamlining your jumbled first draft by adapting it to a movie-like train of beats. An excellent method if you expect your end product to conform to a classic monomyth structure. In other words, great if you are writing Star Wars Episode IV, not so much if your are constructing an elaborate Game of Thrones.

She does not provide a beat sheet template per se. You will have to find that from other sources.

Her methods seem best suited for page-turning, fast-read books, which gives you some hints as to which best selling writers she had been ghost writing for. If you are still obsessed with the dream of turning out “that best-selling novel” of yours, this book is for you. If you follow her instructions exactly, given a good story idea and moderate talent, you will eventually produce a decent page turner to the tune of James Patterson and David Baldacci.

The book is short on two things; really good writing and bleeding your soul at the typewriter. She repeatedly tells you to leave the polishing until the end, which is truly good advice, but she does not tell you how to polish. This is a very big question to which whole books have been devoted to, and which some “inspirational” how-to-write books talk about in length. It is also something that is not very useful for people looking to find the nuts-and-bolts of how to construct and finish a novel. She touches on the bleeding-your-soul element briefly in the final chapter – about sending out your novel to a publisher – saying that editors are only doing their jobs criticizing your book in a vacuum, not criticizing your life which your poured into it. This is very sound wisdom, but does not tell you how you should be bleeding, which again is beyond the scope of a nuts-and-bolts instructional book.

Roz Morris has also written two more volumes to this series Nail Your Novel 2 and 3. The second volume is subtitled Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated, the third is subtitled Writing Plots with Drama, Depth & Heart. I have not yet read these volumes but I expect them to be equally helpful.

Overall, this is a good book on the nuts-and-bolts of writing and finishing a novel. If you are not trying to become the next David Foster Wallace, this book should come in handy. But as every writer will tell you, never read only one book. This is only one of a dozen books you should be reading on how to write a book.

But then (caveat) don’t take it from me. I’ve been writing for forty years and never published a work of fiction.

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