Last week I paused while reading The Satanic Verses to invade a Borders bookstore that was going out of business. I picked up a sale copy of The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, by Evan Marshall, and read it in a day. Marshall is a novelists, literary agent, and editor. I don’t usually read these books (though see my past reviews of The First Five Pages and Self-editing for Fiction Writers), but I found that it actually had some good advice, especially concerning the structure of novels. However, the Marshall plan also relies on tips and tricks from commercial mysteries and thrillers that won’t work for all novels. But being someone who enjoys outlines and structure, I thought the Marshall plan had a lot to offer.
The Marshall plan for writing a novel is this: plot. Plot everything before you start writing. Figure out who are your characters, figure out what are their issues, figure out what they will do from first page to last. It’s the same strategy that many prolific commercial authors use. I can remember reading an interview with Michael Crichton where he said that, unless he plots everything before hand, he must painfully determine it in the process of writing. And painful it is, since there’s nothing worse than a blank page with no idea where to go. This part of Marshall’s book is sound advice.
From there, Marshall provides a handy table that helps break a novel into sections based on your desired length. For example, to write a 50,000 page novel (the typical length for a “first” literary novel such as Ellen Foster or Bright Lights, Big City), you would need to write 40 sections: 10 for the beginning, 20 for the middle, and 10 for the end. The sections are of two types: action or reaction. Action sections advance the mainplot or subplot, while reaction sections allow your characters to react to their failures and devise a new plan. Marshall also provides a play-by-play for outlining the beginning and end of your novel: section 1 (action) should introduce the main story line, section 2 (reaction) should show your main character reacting to the crisis from the beginning, section 3 (action) advances this story line further, section 4 (action) introduces your first subplot, etc. The end section is equally detailed. To me, this part of Marshall’s plan is gold, since it’s helps break a novel into manageable goals while also setting up proper pacing.
However, there are also some draw backs to the Marshall plan. As you might have guessed, it’s very rigid. Want to write your novel from the viewpoint of only one character? Hope not, because under the Marshall plan, every book has at least two viewpoint characters. This isn’t always a bad idea (Jay McInerny used it nicely in Ransom), but to me it smacks of Victorian novels or thrillers. It won’t work for every piece. Want to write a novel in which the ending is complex, and the main character doesn’t always get her way? Too bad, because under the Marshall plan, your novel needs to end on “happily ever after”. Just about every literary novel I know ends on some ambiguity. Not necessarily a loose end, but something that could have gone better. The Marshall plan is not made for a fictional world with shades of gray.
If you have always wanted to write a novel and enjoy reading commercial romances, mysteries, and thrillers (and don’t we all from time to time), then The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing is for you. He even includes the routine advice that most books give, including how to set up your writing space, how to show instead of tell, and how to format your manuscript (as if you magically completed it between pages 89 and 90). The Marshall plan will probably help you even if you hate commercial thrillers and can’t stand plotting because, at some point, you’ll need to consider these things anyway. Just don’t expect Marshall to write your book for you, or to help you write the next Ulysses.