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On Becoming a Novelist

4.10  ·  Rating details ·  2,738 ratings  ·  265 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: writing, non-fiction
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 how ...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. ...more
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
Apr 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: own
"There is in the most confident metaphysical construct, in the most affirmative work of art a memento mori, a labour, implicit or explicit, to hold at bay the seepage of fatal time, of entropy into each and every living form. It is from this wrestling-match that philosophic discourse and the generation of art derive their informing stress, the unresolved tautness of which logic and beauty are formal modes. The cry "the great god Pan is dead" haunts even those societies with which we associate, p ...more
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
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
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
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
Michelle Stockard Miller
Some sound advice here. The first and longest section, The Writer's Nature, contains advice on not being overly pretentious from a man who actually sounds pretty pretentious. That being said, the part on pages 33-34 about 'show, don't tell' is probably the best I've read on the subject since King's "On Writing," and it's only a paragraph long. Pretty amazing. Thinking of copying it down to have beside me as I'm writing. Definitely a book any writer would benefit from reading. ...more
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
Lee Kofman
Dec 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Less a how-to, this book is primarily concerned with the ethical and moral qualities that are essential for a good novelist. The least-moralistic book on morals I've read - a real inspiration and treasure, and yet it is also packed with useful practical advice (without suggesting any 'rules'). ...more
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
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
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
Shelves: chakra-3
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
Mar 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Fourth reading, May 2020, as I make the first serious round of corrections on The Wanderer. 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 ...more
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. ...more
Tim Porter
Jun 26, 2020 rated it liked it
To repeat what I’ve said in other places, reading about writing is easier, and often more satisfying, than actually doing the writing.

John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist (1983) is on most short lists of books about creative writing. Gardner’s advice is not for the faint of heart, weak of will or others who prefer a cozy cuddle with a kitten to being handed a cat-o-nine tails by an unsmiling master and ordered to self-flagellate.

Gardner is the grumpy uncle who visits every Thanksgiving and uses
Jared Gibson
Jun 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book was able to both give me hope that I may one day write some meaningful fiction and at the same time, instill within me a feeling of respect for the art of writing fiction and the artists who write it. Gardner makes himself clear that this book is concerned not with writers but artists. This has the effect of making him sound condescending. For instance, he suggests that TV writers, sci-fi writers, and fluffy romance novelists are not true artists. He even cites a certain science fictio ...more
Aug 26, 2020 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, writing
VERDICT: 2.67 stars. Not quite a "like" for me, but there's advice of varying usefulness scattered among the late Gardner's many personal opinions. Some mild humor here and there. There are better "how to" books for the modern writer, but if you run across a copy of this book on the cheap, go for it.

This is an older book, first published circa 1983. There are several mentions of typewriters, and none of computers. He mostly talks about short stories and novels, with a few asides for poetry or ot
The author's advice to would-be writers

This book is not for me. The author obviously values the classics and taking your time to choose each and every word. Me - I like (gasp!) science fiction and horror. And generally not the type of science fiction that this author grudgingly admits can be good.
Dylan Perry
I don't feel any better or worse for having read On Becoming a Novelist, which is leaving me at a loss. This was the first John Gardner book I read and, the obvious elitism of the author aside, I find it hard to review this. On the one hand, there is knowledge to be gleaned. On the other, I can honestly say I don't feel I learned much from this. 3.5/5 ...more
May 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: writing
Definitely worth reading and an interesting perspective from a prolific writer. Main takeaways:
- all workshops and classes are not created equal and some may be more damaging than helpful
- persistence is key.

“Novelists are the plodding workhorses of the writing world.”

Sounds about right!
Feb 07, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: reference, writing
I was prepared to be irritated—maybe I'm growing up a bit. ...more
Oct 18, 2020 rated it really liked it
The section on publishing is very out-of-date due to how the internet has changed the process. I'd also question his depiction of the sort of temperament needed to become a good artist--"childish"? Really? It's unfortunate that Gardner seems to have been unfamiliar with Dabrowski's theory of overexciteability; I think that might describe some of what Gardner is after in a better way. But much of what Gardner says is helpful for younger writers--particularly his explanations of the writing proces ...more
Jan 01, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2021-reads
Everyone should read it probably
Feb 10, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: for-college, writing
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
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
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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

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