Any serious competitor must study the greats. In the world of writing competitions, Jacob Appel is one of them. To find out why, see my interview with Jacob Appel. I recently jumped into his book The Man Who Wouldn't Stand Up , winner of the Dundee International Prize for a debut novel (which happened to be judged by Stephen Fry). Then I followed it up with The Biology of Luck. Both novels have something to offer for recreational readers, and a wealth of exemplary writing for studious readers who want to achieve success in writing competitions. I'll break down both books in this post.
The Man Who Wouldn't Stand Up.
TMWWSU gives you everything you want in a novel: a great rivalry between protagonist and antagonist, various levels of love conundrums, all presented in crisp prose.
In terms of studying the work as a primer on things to do well when writing, here's what jumped out at me.
- Present technical information in a way that does not interfere with narrative. Actually, Appel's presentation of details and minutia actually is an integral component to the novel. Arnold Brinkman is an expert botanist. Throughout the novel, Appel pulls in Brinkman's love of flowers to enhance conflict - for instance, when his garden gets destroyed, Brinkman goes postal. Appel also uses it as a way to connect characters. Brinkman cooks edible flower dinners for his love interest, and later discovers he helped a notorious criminal survive off the grid because of a book he wrote on the topic of foraging.
- Expose controversial issues in a way that readers can digest. By having his characters be so extreme in their behaviors and flawed in their reasoning, they can be written off as borderline nutcases. However, it opens the doorways to dialogue. That's one of the beautiful things about fiction - the ability to trod in areas that may seem to sensitive for mainstream.
- Know your characters. The richness of the cast that Appel presents can only come from spending time with a character. It seems weird, but they are your imaginary friends. Ask them what they care about the most, what would they do with $1,000, what was their childhood like, etc. Now, don't go dumping all of that information in one fell swoop on page one, but infuse it throughout the novel as circumstances dictate.