how-write-140How to Write a Novel in 100 Days: With Tips about Agents, Editors, Publishers and Self-Publishing
by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64).
A Peace Corps Writers Book
$12.39 (paperback), $6.00 (Kindle)
238 pages
2013

Reviewed by Don Messerschmidt (Nepal 1963-65)

John Coyne knows how to write books. He has published 25 of them, including novels, nonfiction, collections, guide books and others. Several of his novels are award-winners and best-sellers, on sports, historical fiction, mystery, horror and romance. He’s a writing teacher and mentor, and keeps us all up to date on what PCVs and RPCVs are publishing here at peacecorpsworldwide.org/pc-writers. You can read more at johncoynebooks.com. In short, he’s well qualified to write a book about writing a book, and more than one writer will wish they’d had How to Write a Novel in 100 Days before they started their latest masterpiece.

Ideally, to review his insightful and informative how-to book, I should have taken the 100 days, step-by-step, following John Coyne’s advice. That’s a future goal. Meanwhile, short of that, here’s a synopsis of what How to Write a Novel in 100 Days is all about, and how to proceed.

After a brief Introduction, the book has six parts: The Beginning (Days 1–12), The Characters (Days 13–22), The Plot (Days 23–39), The Details (Days 40–60), The First Edit (Days 61–88), and Preparing to Sell Your Novel (Days 89–100), followed by a short section on Resources, and Acknowledgments.

Each day’s activity proceeds in two steps, short and sweet. First, brief instructions, followed by a work page for you to fill in, all on two pages (not counting your draft assignment). There’s no long-winded verbosity here. Coyne’s advice and instructions are relevant, useful and encouraging, and it’s apparent that he follows one of the fundamental rules of writing: “Simplify, simplify” (quoting William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well).

The best way to describe the book is by example. For instance, on Day 1, Coyne says “Set a goal for yourself to write four pages a day.” At approximately 250 words a page, that’s 1,000 words. Of course you can write more, but he admonishes you not to write less, and not to shirk. If you write every day following his guidance, by the 60th day you’ll have a 240 page book. That leaves 40 days for the all-important editing, revising and selling your manuscript. Go for it.

Most instructions are short, the longest being about 250 words max. I like the shortest one, on Day 76, in the midst of the First Edit process: “Start on page one and delete one adjective or adverb from every paragraph in the book.” At the top of each page is a salient quote. On this particular day it’s from novelist Stephen King: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Cut, cut, cut.

I also like the advice on Day 60, by which time you should have a draft of your book done. “Congratulations. You have achieved a lot. You have written a first draft.” Now, he says, “Take the day off. Don’t read a book. Don’t write a letter. Go to a movie. Climb a mountain. Ride a bike. Enjoy the world beyond your home and desk.” Do it.

Here’s another excellent idea. On Day 13, at the start of the section on Characters, he suggests: “Get a batch of 4″ x 6″ index cards and write each character’s name at the top of a card,” he says. “Next, think about the role each character plays in your story, and what kind of person each is: age, education, place of birth, appearance, mannerisms, personality. Are they shy, hotheaded, funny, squirrelly? What are their quirks? .  .  . Put down so much that you finally come to know these characters intimately .  .  .”

At the top of that page he quotes W. Somerset Maugham: “You can never know enough about your characters.” And Coyne reminds you that “every character must have a reason for being. If they do not, they will slow the book down and, worst of all, bore the reader.” So, card them.

At another point, on Day 37, Coyne talks about inspiration. “Count on your subconscious to take charge and work through ideas that come to you during the day.” Agatha Christie, he says, thought for her “the best time to plan a book is while doing the dishes.” Maybe for you it’s while mowing the lawn, weeding the garden, shoveling snow, working out in the gym, taking a shower. The novelist Tony D’Souza (another RPCV writer) calls this “writing off the page.” Follow your muse.

Is the book full of hard and fast rules? No, but the author suggests some that have worked for others. For example, Ernest Hemingway was convinced that these four rules made him a good writer: “· Use short sentences. · Use short first paragraphs. · Use vigorous English. · Be positive, never negative.” Good advice.

If you want to write a book and need help getting started, this is the book for you. And even if what you are working on is not a novel, but an article, an essay, or a letter home to grandma, Coyne’s writing advice is spot on!

Don Messerschmidt was a rural development PCV in Nepal in 1963–65, followed by many years in and out of Nepal and Bhutan and elsewhere in Asia, as an anthropologist, teacher, rural development worker, editor and writer. His Nepal experience informs much of his writing, including two award-winning books. Today he writes at home near Portland, Oregon, when he’s not off leading treks and tours in the Himalayas. He can be contacted at don.editor@gmail.com.

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