With Tips About Agents, Editors, Publishers and Self-Publishing
Reviewed by Robert E. Hamilton
If you refuse encouragement to “Write your story” as well as a 100-day useful schedule for doing exactly that, put this book aside. “The truth is,” Coyne writes on the first of the unnumbered pages of How to Write a Novel in 100 Days (HWaN), “all writing begins in the human heart.” Coyne’s Peace Corps (Ethiopia, 1962-64) and other professional and personal experiences have made him aware of how many hearts hold untold stories. This book was written to help you “unlock what’s in your heart and write your novel.”
John Coyne is not a preacher on a proselytizing mission. He does not presume to persuade you to want to write a novel. You either want to write “your story” or you do not. Suppose you harbor that secret novel in your heart, but you’re also a realist, a skeptic or even a cynic, a busy female software engineer who’s just read a different current popular “how-to” book and you’re planning to “lean in” more at management meetings. Or, you’re a professional or working-class stiff with a lot of real-world experience but much of it results in confidential or proprietary information which you cannot disclose. But, you can draw upon it to ask, “What if . . . ?” and to construct new, created people and stories. Still, as you confessed to your girl friend over dinner last night, “I’m just not a writer. Plus, I’m too busy.”
Coyne addresses the “lack of confidence” and “too busy” excuses beguilingly: “Here’s how you do it in the next 100 days. In that time you will write (and rewrite) your novel by following the simple instructions in this small book. [It’s actually over 200 pages long.] The ‘how’ is the easy part. Writing is a craft that can be learned . . .. The only two things you need to write a novel,” Coyne contends, “are: the ability to write a simple English sentence and the desire to write. You can do it.”
Still feel that you lack the talent to be a “real novelist?” Coyne responds with a quotation from Kurt Vonnegut: “Talent is extremely common. What is rare is the willingness to endure the life of a writer. It is like making wallpaper by hand for the Sistine Chapel.” Citing the case of Jose Saramago, author at age 60 of Baltisar and Blimunda, Coyne argues that writing and, later, authorship, means that you, “Begin with pure emotion and turn it into pure prose.” For Saramago, it was the memory of his grandfather, following a stroke, paying an emotional farewell to “a few trees, fig trees, olive trees” at his village home as he left for the last time for treatment in Lisbon.
Now assume the opposite: you do not lack confidence in “your story” or writing ability, but you are skeptical of Coyne’s claim of “100 Days.” So you dismiss it and start to move on. Wait! What if you change the title to “300 Days”? Is that more realistic?
Coyne acknowledges that, “It’s hard to find time to write when you have a full-time job, a family and other responsibilities.” So, how does one manage? “Most writers have had to carry on two lives.” For example: Wallace Stevens (insurance V.P.), T. S. Eliot (banker), William Carlos Williams (pediatrician), and Robert Frost (poultry farmer).
“But, I don’t have the time to write a novel right now,” you howl. Coyne replies: “For the purpose of organization, I am breaking your writing down into ‘days,’ but a ‘day’ for you might be 30 minutes or it might be eight hours.” And, you need not start your novel today: “You must plan ahead.” Read this book, Coyne recommends, and then pick a start-date that shows the promise of some free time at the outset (e.g. the beginning of a summer vacation). Then come back to HWaN a second time “and work through it day by day, doing the exercises as you go along.” Devote whatever time you can to it but “write something every day.” Oh, and “track your progress by recording how many words you have written, and complete a short assignment that will help you organize your thoughts and stimulate your creativity.”
“Wait a minute! What does Coyne mean by ‘exercises’”! Plus “recording . . . words” and completing “a short assignment.” This is starting to get complicated. “Don’t worry,” Coyne says in a soothing voice, “I’m an easy grader.”
Although Coyne refers to dedicated individuals who developed the discipline to become serious and successful authors without his assistance, perhaps your final mental objection to starting this journey of 100 days is: “I have a story, yes, that I want to tell, but I’ll never be a Kurt Vonnegut, Jose Saramago, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, or any of the 13 writers who offered advance praise for How to Write a Novel in 100 Days.”
My response is: So what? The average Kindle book in 2012, according to author Mike Cooper, had $297 in sales. That average would be lower if you included those books which are “free,” he said, noting how secretive Amazon is about average book sales. If the average price was 99 cents per book that would represent 300 buyers, and the author would have received 35% of $297, or $103.95. My two fiction books to date — a novel and a collection of short stories and poetry — are Kindle books. I can’t tell you exactly how many copies at 99 cents each I have sold — maybe 100 per book to date — or given away as free Word documents, but I can tell you that the publishing and marketing exercise has resulted in intellectually stimulating and satisfying conversations with reviewers and readers. I have five more books in the pipeline as concepts, outlines, or in draft form and look forward to collecting my fair share of the market (say 300 copies annually at 99 cents each) as well as conversation and fun. Think about it: With your book in hand, you’re standing in front of 300 people who’ve read your book in 2015 and now want to ask you all of those interesting questions you’ve posed before to published authors. Or, equally possible, inform you that, “My mother also took me to school on a Harley-Davidson.”
This review will not summarize the “100 Days” of labor but rather focus upon the start. The Roman poet Horatius Flaccus (a.ka. Horace; 65-8 B.C.) advised wisely: “He has the deed half done who has made a beginning.” Of course, giving his readers the option to postpone “a beginning,” Coyne also does not dispute Mark Twain: “Never put off ’til tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.”
Day 1 begins with a quotation from E.B. White’s The Elements of Style: “A writer’s courage can easily fail him . . . . I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all.” “On this first day,” Coyne instructs, “decide on the story you’re going to write.” It isn’t necessary to know all of the story details, “but today you are going to begin writing.” Think about “the book that you have always wanted to write. What type of novel appeals to you?” Note that Coyne does not ask you to decide what genre of novel is popular and has the best current chance of financially succeeding. “There are no rules other than that the book must be interesting. It can be exciting, scary, fun, funny, romantic, sad or true down to the very last word. But it must not be boring.”
“ . . . not be boring” for whom?” While Coyne does not say, one answer is obvious: It must not bore you. There is a simple test you can apply: Each day, beginning with Day 2, begin reading randomly what you have written and ask yourself, “Does this interest me? Do I want to read more of what came before this sentence, paragraph, or page as well as what follows?”
Next, on Day 1, Coyne tells you not to worry about how much you write each day, citing Ernest Hemingway who “averaged 50 words a day when ‘the going was good.’” He does suggest that your goal be an average of 1,000 words per day (four pages). Remember, that is an average. And he himself confessed to this reviewer that How to Write a Novel in 100 Days was not written in 100 days! Of course, it is not a novel.
Coyne calculates that if you average four pages per day, you’ll have a draft 240-page novel in 60 days (two months) and will then have 40 days for “editing, rewriting, reorganizing and writing some more.” And, even if you take twice as long to write and edit your 240 pages, you’ll finish in 200 days. This means you could reasonably expect to write a novel each year for as long as you choose.
So, now you’re ready to write on Day 1. Finished? Good. Count your words and then answer the following three questions, using the space provided in the book:
- What is your favorite genre of novel? Name some books in this genre that you enjoy.
- What will be the genre of your novel? Why?
- Describe the story in one sentence.
Your own copy of HWaN becomes a journal of your writing experience. It is not something that you are compelled to share with anyone else, so you can and should be both thoughtful and honest in answering each day’s questions or completing the exercise. Day 2, for example, focuses upon those who people your novel and Professor Coyne asks you to, “Write down the descriptions of your key characters. You need to make these characters as familiar to you as the members of your own family.” Thus, one-word answers are not sufficient: “Guadalupe is funny and Pedro is very serious” does not do justice to your mental image of them. Coyne is suggesting that you describe them with the same detail you expect from authors who share your chosen genre.
Day 3 shifts you away from “key characters” to the practical matter of your daily writing routine: the time you can afford to write, “best time of day,” and “best environment for you to write in.”
The result of using the Coyne approach will slowly result — in this reviewer’s opinion — in changing your mental image of yourself. You will come to view yourself, among other components of your persona, as “a writer.” Some runners, especially amateurs, who specialize in a 5K, 10K, or even 15K distance, have trouble adjusting to a marathon-length race — until they mentally turn on the switch which says, “I’m really a marathon runner. That’s what I do. I run marathons.” Likewise, at the New Year’s Eve party this year, you’ll be able quite casually to say, “Yes, I do write. I just finished sending Revenge of the Elf to a publisher and am now outlining The Triumph of the Troll.”
In contrast to my “small-ball” approach — thus far — to How to Write a Novel in 100 Days, author John Coyne treats his reader as a serious writer who will eventually want and need a dedicated agent and first-class publisher. On Day 89, Coyne advises: “To begin the process of finding a publisher, write a one-sentence selling line about your novel. Make this one sentence so intriguing that it catches everyone’s attention. It must go to the core of the book. It is your ‘selling hook.’ For example, ‘My novel is the Jewish version of The Da Vinci Code.’” And, your exercise for that day is: “Write a 200-word ‘selling line’ for your book. Then cut it to 100 words. Then 40. See if you can cut it to 10.” On Day 90, you’re instructed to, “Write a short description of your novel.” He quotes his description of his book The Caddie Who Played with Hickory, which “set the stage for the expectations of my readers”: “And the greatest hickory [golf club] player of all time was Walter Hagen — until the day he met a teenage caddie at a country club outside Chicago.”
Readers are instructed to “Write a short statement about yourself” (Day 91); advice is offered about page formatting (Day 92), how to approach an agent (Days 93-96), self-publishing (Day 97); and why and how to meet other writers (Day 99). Finally, Coyne includes a note of congratulations and a quotation from Gloria Steinem, author of Doing Sixty & Seventy: “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”
There is a section titled “Resources” which covers self-publishing, internet writers (e.g. PW.org; AWPWriter.org; Writing.com, and others), and “Terrific Books About Writing” (e.g. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers and On Becoming a Novelist both by John Gardner).
If after reading HWaN and your resulting novel you put a boot through your computer before throwing it and your manuscript into the Mississippi River, you can always hearken back to the advice of Kurt Vonnegut and see how you like “making wallpaper by hand for the Sistine Chapel.”
Reviewer Robert E. Hamilton lives in and writes from Portland, Oregon. You can contact him at: Robu43@gmail.com.