Is Life Like This?: A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months

Image of Is Life Like This?: A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months
Release Date: 
February 1, 2010
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

Though the subtitle is bit tongue in cheek, this book is practical, imaginative, and encouraging. The author is well read without being erudite, and his style is the fine prose of good writing anywhere. John Dufresne has been there, read wide and deep, and written his own well received novels, which he uses at times to illustrate the process. Quotes from a whole host of authors, artists, and thinkers are sprinkled throughout the body of the text much like chocolate chips in cookies. At times I’ll admit I traded his text for these sweet quotes.

The advice is hard earned and essential: “Novels are written, not wished into existence. You have to sit your ass in the chair or nothing will get done,” he warns us, adding, “Don’t think of writing a novel just yet, only a scene.” He clarifies the process, “Writing a novel does not proceed in a linear fashion even if the novel itself eventually does,” and adds, “In the opening scene you have the chance to teach the reader how to read your story.” And he demonstrates all of this through examples drawn from others or projected through exercises he suggests.

There is that handbook aspect to the book, for example the “Plottomatic” section where he lays out characters aspects, motives, and situations, much like a Chinese menu urging us to take one from each column and write it out. Here too, he has a sense of humor about it that tempers the seeming simplicity of the task. These many prompts are not imposed on the potential writer, but encouraged as exercises that can strengthen one’s commitment and endurance.

Dufresne is expert at brining the work of writing a novel within reach. Keep a notebook, stare into photographs, watch and listen wherever you are for characters and details, work out your anger elsewhere (say, on a blog), find your theme as you write. As he suggests early on, the uncertainty of the task is part of its reward. We write to find out what we think and where the story and its characters will go. “Plot is not about one thing after another. It’s about one thing causing another thing to happen. There is an architecture to stories, to novels.”

The premise of the book is made clear: “if you come to understand how the writing process works—by fits and starts, with equal parts elation and frustration—you won’t give in to despair when you feel stuck, as you inevitably will. If you understand that the novel-writing process is messy, chaotic, and perversely irrational at times, if you know that you will lose your way . . . and that you will excise words, delete sentences, and remove whole chapters because that’s just the way it goes . . . then maybe you won’t raise your arms in surrender when you feel besieged, instead you’ll do what you need to do—you’ll write through the difficulties.”

Certainly there are other books like this on the market, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird for example or Dufresne’s own The Lie that Tells the Truth (2004), yet page after page this reviewer found here helpful truths and solid advice expertly crafted together with examples to learn from. What more can we ask?