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A Novel Way to Write One

February 11, 1989|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

Oakley Hall says his new book, "The Art and Craft of Novel Writing," is the kind of book that he would like to have had when he started writing.

"I wish I had known how to look at other people's writing the way this book shows how to look at other people's writing, to see how it works," said Hall, director of the graduate and undergraduate writing programs at UC Irvine and the author of 19 novels.

For more than 30 years, Hall said, "I've been collecting little snippets of things I thought worked or didn't work from all over the place--Gothics and junk novels and everything. So much a part of writing is reading. All these rules and models and things are passed down from generation to generation of writers: You steal ideas and learn from other writers the way those writers stole ideas and learned from other writers before them."

In "The Art and Craft of Novel Writing" (Writer's Digest Books; $16.95), Hall serves as guide for what his publisher describes as an "armchair tutorial, a novel-writing 'symposium,' where the guest tutors are some of literature's timeless talents."

If you want to learn how to provide action to an essentially static scene, you can read how F. Scott Fitzgerald did it in a scene from "The Great Gatsby."

If you want to know how a character can be produced on the page, "whole and alive, his breath congealing on the air," you can read how Anne Tyler did it in "The Accidental Tourist."

Or if you want to learn how to write realistic dialogue that conveys character and moves the action forward, you can read how Philip Roth did it in "Portnoy's Complaint."

In the process, Hall explains why something works or doesn't work.

Hall's hard-bound writer's workshop is chock-full of author quotations that he has accumulated over the years--from Joseph Campbell's definition of the mythological hero to Henry James on "The Art of the Novel."

By the end of the book, Hall has taken the reader though the entire process of writing a novel--from "the first stirrings of the idea to the delightful drudgery and happy torture of the writing."

Hall also discusses the rewards and sacrifices of novel writing, stating that you'll "have the inevitable bad days when you discover that the plot has gone completely awry versus the good times, when writing seizes the hand."

The goal of the book is to demonstrate how to use all the elements of fiction--point of view, characterization, plotting, dialogue and detail--to bring writing to life. And the overriding principle to all writing, Hall says, is "show, don't tell."

"The first thing you learn in our (undergraduate) writing class is to try to make it appear before the reader rather than telling about it: rendering instead of reporting. In fiction, rendering is making it happen. Reporting is telling about it after the fact. This is one of the things you can teach. Some people know this automatically and never have to be told. For some, it comes as a terrific revelation."

"The Art and Craft of Novel Writing" is Hall's first book on writing and, he said, "it is the only one (of mine) there's ever going to be. I used it all up in one book. I had an enormous bunch of stuff and I finally boiled it down. I had maybe 1,000 pages of quotes. A lot were very long."

One of the most effective devices in the book is the incorporation of Hall's comments in the page margins. In his chapter on dramatization, for example, Hall notes where a passage from a novel is deadened by "abstractions" and "generalities" or enlivened by "sense impressions," "specific details," "color" and "motion."

The margin notes were Hall's idea.

"And it took a lot of argument at Writer's Digest," he said. "They hadn't done any other books where they had done that, but I had a nice editor there who took my side."

He did, however, make one compromise: In those passages illustrating undramatic and lifeless passages, his margin comments read, "boring." He originally had used the word "snore." "They made me change that," he said with a laugh.

"The Art and Craft of Novel Writing" comes at an appropriate time in Hall's life as he winds down 22 years of teaching writing at UCI.

Now 68, he is on phased retirement and teaches only during the winter and spring quarters. Next year he will cut down to only the spring quarter. As he puts it, "I'm kind of detaching." He said he is looking forward to retirement in 1990 with a sense of "pain and eagerness: I say, 'Let me out. . . . But I'll be sorry to go.' "

Hall said that what he will miss most about teaching is the students. "If you've done it for 20 years, you've been involved with the careers of a lot of people. A lot of them have been very successful. That's very rewarding." (His book, in fact, is dedicated to his writing students).

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