How to Draw a Novel

Image of How to Draw a Novel
Release Date: 
December 12, 2023
Grove Press
Reviewed by: 

How to Draw to a Novel is an imaginative examination of the art of novel writing that is thought provoking and invigorating in equal measure.”

Most “how to write a novel” books follow one of two tracks: a systematic, scientific breakdown of the nuts and bolts of constructing a story from the ground up, or a more personal collection of anecdotes, allusions, and musings on the writing process. Martin Solares takes a different angle—literally—with How to Draw a Novel, which ruminates on novels as geometrical objects, while also providing insight on how creativity can shape their creation.

Rather than a primer that hands out set-in-stone instructions, How to Draw a Novel invites the reader to consider specific aspects of the novel, and the multitude of ways one can attack them. Solares’ playful, slightly whimsical approach is present from the start, as he proffers hand-drawn illustrations that chart the “shape” of specific novels: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is represented by a zig-zag that eventually spirals upward to a climax, while James Joyce’s Ulysses is depicted as a large loop with smaller narrative loops enclosed inside, resembling a giant snail shell. Novels are also compared to fruits, with curlicues of complications and diversions sprouting in all directions.

Solares’ charmingly concise prose (well-translated by Heather Cleary) also contemplates specific facets of novel construction, taking pleasure in possibilities. A reverie on beginnings displays the different methods one can use to open a novel, whether it’s bringing out a detail, revealing character, or setting a mood, place, or time.

Speaking of time (and speed), narrative velocity is also explored, with Solares demonstrating how single moments can be stretched out over several pages, or how eons can be compressed into a few sentences.

In another amusing analogy, he compares the evolution of novel-writing to the shape of an automobile (novels from past centuries have the ornate roominess of a 1950s luxury sedan, while those written by some modern writers tend more toward the compact two-seat convertible—just enough room for writer and reader).

The end of a novel is described as a “bang”—but is it the bang of a universe-ending explosion (the universe of the book, that is), or that of a firebomb, in which flames burn for a while afterward in the reader’s mind? Solares argues it all depends on the writer’s intention and artistry. Even the title of a book offers food for thought, as it can describe anything from an aphorism to a protagonist’s name.

Using examples and quoted passages from other works to illustrate his points, Solares is nothing if not expansive in his references, pulling from famed literary theorists like Mikhail Bakhtin as well as pulp detective fiction, movies by Andrei Tarkovsky, and Latin American writers. In the hands of a more pompous author, this encyclopedic rundown of references could come off as show-offy, but Solares’ inclusive tone encourages readers to think along similar lines, drawing inspiration from any and all sources. No source gets more attention than Juan Rolfo, as Solares takes a deep dive into the author’s unique universe of talking spirits and shifting realities, making a case for Rolfo as one of the most important writers of the century.

If the subject matter of How to Draw a Novel may seem somewhat amorphous at times, it’s no accident—Solares admits as much, dancing around the novel as a concept, demonstrating myriad ways in which one can be written. Which is not to say that How to Draw a Novel has no point to make; Solares concludes that the one distinguishing feature of all novels is that the reader is compelled to read on and find out what happens next, and he offers some prescriptive advice on how to “break down” novels as a reader using the same illustrative techniques he uses throughout his book. Characterization is likened to the shape of a tree, with unspoken drives as buried roots and aspirations as ideas in the sky just beyond the leaves. A short chapter cheekily titled “Tool for Writing a Novel” even posits that all novels can be boiled down to a mystery or an obsession (or both).

Solares’ idiosyncratic point of view makes for a refreshing accompaniment (if not a corrective) to the over-determined advice one usually gets from books on writing a novel, and serves as a mental palate-cleanser, spurring fresh thoughts and perspectives. How to Draw to a Novel is an imaginative examination of the art of novel writing that is thought provoking and invigorating in equal measure.