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On Becoming a Novelist

4.1  ·  Rating details ·  2,378 Ratings  ·  223 Reviews
On Becoming a Novelist contains the wisdom accumulated during John Gardner's distinguished twenty-year career as a fiction writer and creative writing teacher. With elegance, humor, and sophistication, Gardner describes the life of a working novelist; warns what needs to be guarded against, both from within the writer and from without; and predicts what the writer can reas ...more
Paperback, 150 pages
Published October 17th 1999 by W. W. Norton Company (first published 1983)
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Glenn Russell
Jan 05, 2016 rated it it was amazing

Thinking of writing a novel or becoming an honest-to-goodness novelist? If so, then this slim book by John Gardner will offer you sound advice and friendly encouragement. Of course, not every single bit of advice will apply to every would-be novelist, but there are enough nuggets of hard-won writerly wisdom from a dedicated master of the art to make this book worth your time. As by way of example, here are several quotes along with my modest comments:

John Gardner on the experience of reading a
Kressel Housman
Jul 11, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, writing
Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird has just fallen to the #3 position in my list of favorite writing books. I don't think she'd mind, though, as she herself sings the praises of John Gardner in her book with, "What he says about plot is so succinct it will make you want to sit up and howl." What he says about plot is this: all stories boil down to protagonist wants something, goes after it, and ends up with either a win, a lose, or a draw. That's pretty good, but what makes me want to sit up and howl ...more
Lee Thompson
Aug 07, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Jesus, I wish I would have known about this book when I started writing. If you're new to the craft, or just beginning to sell your work like I have been the last three years, give this a read. It's excellent.
Jan 20, 2010 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the best books I've ever read about writing. Interestingly, it's not actually about the process of writing, but more a rumination on what it takes to be a writer and what kind of personalities are the best suited for it. John Gardner writes beautifully and precisely about the persistence required to keep writing even when the odds are stacked against you and has the most to say about "young writers" as he calls them. Being a young writer, I found everything he had to say to be ext ...more
Oct 09, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: on-writing
John Gardners books are not for "popular" writers because though that category existed in his heyday of the 70s and 80s, self publishing did not. So he could not imagine then where writing has gone. His books are for the "serious" writer, who reads constantly, deeply and broadly, and is aware of the great, good, ugly, and bad categories of literature worldwide. Authors who don't read widely will probably not appreciate him. There are many erudite references, and I say this in the best possible w ...more
Jun 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
This book addresses nearly any emotion or trial you might experience as a novelist. I struggled with some of Gardner's assertions. I left a conflicted review on Amazon when I'd read the first half of this book, but I might have to delete that or amend it, because the majority of this book is so, so excellent.

Like any other mystical experience, reading this is uncomfortable and challenging. The tone is calmly authoritative. The truths in it run so deep into the nature of creative writing that it
May 31, 2010 rated it really liked it
This slim volume is an easy read with a lot of insightful commentary by a well-respected writer. I've never read any of Gardner's novels, but I may have to try one just to see how what he said about the writing process played out in practice. The book is a mix of "How to write" fundamentals that go deeper than just "Don't overuse adverbs" and personal reflections on how the writing process works for him. It's aimed quite explicitly at those who really want to make a career as a novelist, not jus ...more
Jan 16, 2015 rated it really liked it
Well, this book could really be titled "On Becoming a Novelist in America" because it's really US-centric. The rest of the world, for instance, won't care that Iowa has a good creative writing program but that Stanford's is no slouch either. But that doesn't take anything away from it, a mix of craft guide, insider wisdom and above all the cumulative experience of the author's many years teaching creative writing in a university setting.

It's enlightening to read that creative writing teachers, w
C.G. Fewston
Jun 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
On Becoming a Novelist (1983) by John Gardner is a book every novelist, amateur or professional, should read (at least three times) to better understand the complete dynamics and responsibility required to become a true novelist who pursues the craft as an art form.

The great short story writer Raymond Carver, who was a former pupil of Gardner, remembers his teacher telling him at Chico State to “read all the Faulkner you can get your hands on, and then read all of Hemingway to clean the Faulkne
John Wiswell
Jul 24, 2013 rated it really liked it
A profound book for the beginning or emerging novelist. In very few pages Gardner shreds through the work of being a novelist, from experimenting and workshopping all the way through the submissions process and the self-doubts of someone who's sold twenty successful novels. It's all information a writer ought to know: the personal sacrifices, how hard it can be to afford to write or find a job that leaves you with the energy to pursue it, the difficulty of connecting with agents and editors, how ...more
Phèdre Banshee
Jul 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: scrittura
A quel tempo avevo già affrontato la penosa verità con la quale ogni giovane scrittore impegnato deve alla fine fare i conti: il fatto di essere solo.

Sono arrivata a questo manuale leggendo Il mestiere di scrivere di Raymond Carver, dove l'autore dedica alcune pagine per parlare del suo mentore, John Gardner.

Uno dei suoi principi fondamentali era che uno scrittore scopriva ciò che voleva dire man mano che capiva ciò che aveva detto. […] Credeva nella revisione, nella revisione continua; er
Hannah Greendale
On Becoming a Novelist offers useful information but is muddled by the author's occasionally sexist remarks. The book identifies the general attributes of a writer and discusses several personality traits necessary for literary success based on the opinion of the author and his decades of experience. The book also provides insight on the relevance of formal education to an aspiring writer and outlines the process of publication.

One of the unfortunate sexist remarks is as follows:

"He [you] can l
J.S. Leonard
Feb 24, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Whether apprentice or accomplished, every author should read this book. It's a sobering pill to swallow, most of the time, but good medicine nonetheless.

Today's publishing landscape has a different rolling sprawl than in Gardner's day, so his outlining of a writer's journey to that of a published one is at odds with what is available to the modern, aspiring novelist. This may very well be the reason to read it. It shines insight on a dark and bygone age and, if one is practiced in self-publishi
Kirtida Gautam
Oct 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I love myself that I read this book. I needed this book like people need food and water. For survival. Novel writing came as an accident to me. A happy accident. I had a story. I felt compelled (even though ill equipped at that time) to tell that story. The story would not leave me alone, and I would not leave the story alone. I wrote it like a manic. Long story short. Today that story is my first novel #iAm16iCan. I followed it writing my second novel. But as my educational background is in nat ...more
Graham Oliver
Nov 11, 2009 rated it really liked it
Next time Tobias Wolff tells me to read a book I won't wait so long...

This is a smart, funny look at what it takes to be a novelist. Obviously, you shouldn't read it expecting to learn what you need to change about yourself in order to become one--like my other favorite book on writing, Stephen King's On Writing, this is just a collection of observations and anecdotes. Some of it borders on the annoying, like the hyperbolic descriptions of what characteristics the personality of a good writer ha
Dec 29, 2013 rated it liked it
While it is entertaining indeed to watch Gardner work himself into a snooty lather over pretty much anyone, aside from a chosen few, with the *gall* to publish a book, this text focuses far too much on the beginning writer and "art" to be of much practical or psychological use to those with more writing experience and/or ambitions of a lower altitude. The man can write a sentence, though, which ultimately makes this book a worthwhile read.
Feb 27, 2013 rated it really liked it
Proper review to come soon. I actually quite liked this insight on writing practice, personality, and guidelines from Gardner. It's not so much a "how to" guide in the sense of walking you through aspects of writing, but noting some of the strengths and attributes a writer must have in order to be successful at their craft. Many of these factors I've learned over time and practice, and he does urge the writer to practice in order to sharpen the senses and experiences needed.
Feb 10, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: writing, for-college
Had to read this book for a class, and it was not an English class.

John Gardner passed away in 1982. This book was originally published one year after his death, (its first publication by Norton was in 1999). I don’t believe the 28-29 year gap makes the advice particularly dated, though it did make me question how Gardner would consider the impact of computers and the Internet in becoming a novelist. I also wondered if Gardner would use examples in the recent years as examples of excellent writi
Alessia Simoni
Se state cercando un manuale di scrittura creativa che vi spieghi le tecniche, i trucchi, che vi proponga esercizi, questo libro non fa per voi. Il mestiere dello scrittore non è un "manuale" come lo si è soliti intendere: sembra quasi una lunga e piacevole lezione universitaria, una di quelle di inizio anno in cui viene illustrato il programma ma non si entra nello specifico. John Gardner illustra la sua personale esperienza di scrittore e insegnante di corsi di scrittura creativa,e e lo fa in ...more
Mark Hennion
Apr 03, 2015 rated it really liked it
Despite mixed feelings after reading "The Art Of Fiction" I decided to give Gardner another go. My reasons for this love/hate relationship are not what most other writers/readers have provided: "he's too prescriptive" and "he's biased." So is everything, even when written in a non-partisan, use less committal vocabulary to provide help to the aspiring writer. My problem falls more under the auspices of his codification of horror/genre fiction as inherently worthless (he provides a begrudging res ...more
Feb 10, 2013 rated it really liked it
This book isn't your friend; someone who stands unfailingly behind you, supports you, and whispers, "You can do it!" in your ear, like many of the "how-to" writing books out there. More realistic than fantasy, John Gardner lays the groundwork on what you can really expect from a writing career; hard work that is endless, tiring, and thankless for the serious writer.

If being told that you'll probably not make a living by being a writer, this book isn't for you. If the following statement isn't mo
Aug 26, 2008 rated it really liked it
He knows what he's talking about--

It's a short book (just over 140 pages) and reads elegantly throughout. The book doesn't provide practical advice on fiction writing. It's more a book about what it takes to be a novelist. Some issues he takes up are outdated (e.g. he considers a question he was often asked: typewriter or pen?), but overall, the book is full of useful gems for anyone thinking about becoming a writer.

I for one was happy to find in it confirmations of my own beliefs about what a l
Louis Arata
About 15-20 years ago, I read other Gardner works: Grendel, Freddie’s Book, and Nickel Mountain, as well as The Art of Fiction.

I confess I’m intimidated by Gardner. I want to like his work more than I do. It’s kind of like my view on The Beatles, Elvis Presley, cilantro, and hoppy beer – I can respect the craft but they’re never going to be my favorites.

The first section of On Becoming a Novelist focuses on “The Writer’s Nature.” Gardner writes about his own experience:

“I worked more hours at m
Caed Scott
Jan 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
John Gardner is my favorite kind of mentor, a grouchy old grizzly who *believes* in you, kid, he knows what you can be, but would you stop fucking around? In a trim, muscular 150 pages, he clears away all the mystical nonsense and bad habits that other writing books will feed you. Don't cheat, he says. Stop lying. Writing isn't special or noble, it's just something you decided to do. Not everyone can be an author, but it's not such a select few, either. Your work isn't very good, and it won't be ...more
Mar 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, writing, art
Read for the third time, November 2017. Read in the novel writing class in which I began No Snakes in Iceland, Spring 2007. Read again after finishing it, spring or summer 2008. Refreshingly blunt about what it takes to write and honest about the inability to prescribe hard and fast rules. Gardner comes across as abrasive to some, but I find him welcoming, honest, and inspiring. But then I always did like my scariest, most intimidating, and arrogant-seeming teachers.
Apr 24, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I disagree with Gardner in a few areas and on a few points, but the sincerity, clarity and accuracy of most of the book is amazing. I approach books like this with the attitude that if I get one good point, have one good insight, then the book is well worth it. This book gave me five or six insights. Gardner is very opinionated and self-confident to the point of annoyance on occasion; however, he is frequently spot on. I don't ask for more.
Mar 29, 2014 rated it really liked it
The first half of this book really made me get my ass in gear when it came to sitting down at the chair and writing. I wish Gardner were still alive to today so that he could comment on the evolving (devolving?) literary landscape. Some of the later sections are dated, but he succeeds in illuminating the writer life and the mindset necessary to pursuing it.
Jul 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: writing-books
This book focuses not on writing technique, but on the writer. It is insightful, funny and informative. I found it a great comfort to read, as if I kept saying 'oh, that's why I am the way I am' all the way through.
Peter McQueeny
May 26, 2014 rated it it was amazing
One of the best books I've read on the craft. Full of practical advice, enlightening anecdotes and much needed warnings. Gardner presents a good-natured account of what it is like to be a writer in the modern world.
Dec 26, 2014 rated it liked it
The first section of this book makes it a must read for any writer, especially if you're just starting out (his thoughts regarding college hold particularly true to my experience). The second half of the book is less impressive and a bit self indulgent but still has some good wisdom.
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »
  • Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft
  • How to Grow a Novel: The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them
  • Making Shapely Fiction
  • Becoming a Writer
  • On Writing
  • Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction
  • Chapter After Chapter: Discover the Dedication & Focus You Need to Write the Book of Your Dreams
  • 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel
  • The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction
  • Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew
  • Writing the Breakout Novel
  • The Writer's Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life
  • The Modern Library Writer's Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction
  • Aspects of the Novel
  • Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form
  • Techniques of the Selling Writer
  • The Portable MFA in Creative Writing
  • What If?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers
John Champlin Gardner was a well-known and controversial American novelist and university professor, best known for his novel Grendel, a retelling of the Beowulf myth.

Gardner was born in Batavia, New York. His father was a lay preacher and dairy farmer, and his mother taught English at a local school. Both parents were fond of Shakespeare and often recited literature together. As a child, Gardner
More about John Gardner

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“We read five words on the first page of a really good novel and we begin to forget that we are reading printed words on a page; we begin to see images.” 61 likes
“As every writer knows... there is something mysterious about the writer's ability, on any given day, to write. When the juices are flowing, or the writer is 'hot', an invisible wall seems to fall away, and the writer moves easily and surely from one kind of reality to another... Every writer has experienced at least moments of this strange, magical state. Reading student fiction one can spot at once where the power turns on and where it turns off, where the writer writes from 'inspiration' or deep, flowing vision, and where he had to struggle along on mere intellect.” 33 likes
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