How To Write A How-To Novel

Reading a review of Philip Roth’s Nemesis by J.M. Coetzee in the October 28, 2010, The New York Review of Books, I came across a paragraph, and a piece of good advice, that we can benefit from as writers. Coetzee is writing about Roth’s way of providing “how-to’s” in his novels.

“Among the subsidiary pleasures Roth provides,” Coetzee writes, “are the expert little how-to essays embedded in the novels: how to make a good glove, how to dress a butcher’s display window.” In his novel, Everyman, for example, Roth has a “modest but beautifully composed little ten-page episode of how to dig a grave.”

In other words, the reader comes away from a book by Roth not only being impressed by the story, his language, but also with new knowledge. It is perhaps an old prose trick, but it works. Give the reader something new to chew on. Telling a story, but tell it wisely, and with new information.

Those of us writing about the Third World have wide landscapes to describe, from village life to exotic behavior (at least to most Americans) of what we saw overseas. There is a small scene in one of my novel where, in Africa, a man is carrying his testicles around in a wheel barrel. Suffering from elephantiasis, it is the only way the Ethiopian could walk. I spotted this man from a train window of the old Littorina, the train that ran daily down from Addis Ababa to Dire Dawa. We were passing through Awash Station on the floor of the Rift Valley when I saw him beside the narrow gauge track. I used this one glimpse of an African reality, almost as a throwaway line, then explained how and why of his condition. More than one reader has come up to me since with the question: “What that all true?”

So, as RPCV writers we have a lot of knowledge and information to use. The secret is to use it wisely. Don’t burden the reader with tons of information. Remember, a little knowledge (or information) goes a long way.

What we need to do, especially those of us publishing POD books is to make sure our novels, memories, etc., are not only line-edited and copy-edited, but also are precise in detail. Don’t be happy with first drafts, with language easily composed, with ‘getting it all out of you and on the page” fast and furiously.

Here’s a small trick. Do what most women do before going out for the evening. They’ll pause at the hallway mirror and take one last look, and then remove one accessory. Less is more.  All dressed up, they don’t want to, so to speak, say too much.

Do the same with your page of prose. Stop and re-read it when you are done, and then take something off the page, a simile, an attention-drawing adverb, a paragraph of descriptive.

Always remember, a good tale is all in the telling.

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