From My Bookshelf: Early Writing Lessons

by James Scott Bell

Back when I decided I had to try to become a writer (even though I’d been told you can’t learn how to do it, that you’re either born a writer or not, and sorry, bud, if you’re not) I joined the Writer’s Digest Book Club. I had to see if I could learn, because the desire to write had come back into my life like a long, lost love.

Behind me in my office is a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf stuffed with my beloved writing books, a goodly portion of them purchased from WD. I thought it might be fun, from time to time, to look back at the early lessons I picked up during my unpublished days. I’ll look not only at the books, but also the several binders of Writer’s Digest magazines which I devoured each month. The underlines, highlights and sticky notes are like an archaeological dig into the formation of one writer’s mind.

One of the first books I got from WD was Dare to Be a Great Writer: 329 Keys to Powerful Fiction by Leonard Bishop. Bishop was an old-school fiction writer in the naturalistic style of James T Farrell. He also did a lot of teaching and editing. I ordered the book because I thought, Wow, 329 keys! I better get cracking!

Something funny about the book—there is no order in the material. It’s a collection of short selections that hop around between plot and characters and scenes and openings and point-of-view and the publishing business and so on. There’s an index which categorizes the subjects for you, but I happily got out my highlighter and sticky notes and read the thing from cover to cover.

It’s so much fun to look back to see what stuck out to me. For instance, on page 39 I highlighted the section called Details of Setting, wherein Bishop writes, in part, “Details of setting should be incorporated into the activity of a character. When details are put down separately from the character, they either intrude, slow the pace, or take the focus away from the character.”

Bishop then, as he does throughout the book, gives examples of how to do it, and how not to do it. And boom! I had learned something about the craft of fiction that I could immediately put to work to make my stuff better. I learned it because someone taught it to me in a book.  

Take that, skeptics!

In the middle of Dare to Be a Great Writer I have a sticky note next to the heading Avoid Repetitious Settings. Bishop says, “When rewriting, be alert for a repetition of setting. This repetition quickly reveals that the writer has been lax in his use of invention or is uninformed about the time in which the characters are living. To avoid this, list the settings you have already used and determine how often you have used them.”

Apparently I got the message, because just the other day I was writing a scene in a restaurant. I moved the characters outside to a hot dog stand where there is more activity going on. And now I realize that move was probably put in my head thirty years ago by Leonard Bishop.

But even more interesting, to me at least, are my own notes scribbled on the blank flyleaves of Bishop’s book. I added 14 more “keys.” These were things that occurred to me as I wrote my own pages or when I noticed what another author did in a novel.

I even numbered them according to Bishop’s scheme. For instance, #330, my first note, says Turn the Cliché 180°. I jotted an example of a man and woman going fishing, with the man being skilled and the woman being clumsy. Switch the roles, I wrote.

#332 is Close Your Eyes When Typing. Especially good for description. Capture the scene.

My last note , #343, says: In first rewrite, take out as much info in opening chapters as you can, in order to make it move and be more mysterious. Fill in the info later. TKZ regulars will recognize this as my later formulation, Act first, explain later. It first occurred to me back around 1990!

What I remember most about Dare To Be A Great Writer is the excitement I felt every time I opened it up. I wanted to be a great writer. Here was a book that was filled with the how. I’d wasted ten years believing the Big Lie that you can’t learn to write fiction. This book dared to tell me I could.

So I did.

What is one of the earliest writing lessons you picked up? Where’d it come from?

28 thoughts on “From My Bookshelf: Early Writing Lessons

  1. I learned, from a junior college instructor who, for some reason, did not like me, that I had the gift of gab. That gift of gab would not, she said aloud in class one day, translate into the ability to be a writer.

    Then, some days later, I read in a book by a writer, that you had to have talent to be a writer. Writing, he said, cannot really be taught.

    But on my wall, preserved in a 49-cent frame from Woolworth’s, is a letter from an editor to whom I had submitted a piece. “This is not quite it,” he said. “But keep going. Learn as much as you can, and don’t fall for those of the ‘writing can’t be taught–you have to have talent’ folks.’ One of these days, I’m certain, we’ll be publishing one of your pieces.”

    I did. And they did.

    • Fantastic story, Jim! A note like that from an editor can mean the world to a new writer. So many of the “old time” writers went through lots of form rejections before getting one that was more personalized, and from that encouragement went on to careers.

    • I’m very glad you did not let such nonsense deter you. In writing, just as in drawing, painting, or other creative endeavors, you just have to have “do” and stick with it & be teachable.

  2. My writing community meets monthly. Last Saturday our ice breaker was to give your name + latest success. One new guy, very young, 30 at best, said, “I just finished the first draft of my first novel.” Clap. Clap. “Took me 4 months, but I finally got it done. I will have it edited this summer and hope to find a publisher this fall.”
    I used to think 2 drafts would do it, too.

    • Ah, youth. But 4 months to a draft is darn good. And if he gets to work right NOW on the next one, and starts developing the one after that, and gets some solid editorial feedback (which might include, “This is not ready to send out”) and listens and learns from it, and keeps on learning on his own, he might have a shot at this gig.

  3. One of my earliest comments from an agent who rejected my manuscript but took the time to tell me why was, “The hero solves things too easily. I know you want her to be heroic, but she needs stumbling blocks, and lots of them.” With each new manuscript (she rejected three, and rightfully so), she offered more and more comments of what she liked and what she didn’t. Her advice and my thirst for writing knowledge drove me to seek out other writers and deep-dive into craft.

    • What a generous agent! To take all that time with you. And her advice was right on.

      Don’t you love deep diving into the craft? I don’t think more than a few days have gone by since I started down this road that I haven’t thought about how to write fiction.

  4. I went to my bookshelf and pulled out PLOT AND STRUCTURE. I think the only book on writing I read before that was ON WRITING WELL, by William Zinsser. Anyway, I turned to the first bookmarked page in PLOT AND STRUCTURE – pg. 28, “Doorways.” No notes or highlights. I turned to the next bookmark – pg. 86, “Set Up the Tension” and “Stretching the Physical.” The page was dog-eared. Notes were written and text was highlighted. “…slow down…alternate between action, thoughts, dialogue, and description…” Here everything was highlighted and underlined.

    I flipped through the rest of the book. A lot of yellow highlighting popped out. Man, I was soaking up all that great teaching.

    And, although not an early lesson, my favorite – write from the middle.

    Thanks for all your teaching, Jim.

  5. I haven’t read Leonard Bishop’s book. I just went to Amazon to see if I could get a copy. The first book in the ‘Customers also bought’ list is one of my go to books, ‘Plot and Structure’ by some guy named James Scott Bell. I thought you might get a kick out of that. Thank you for all the wisdom in that book, your other titles, and this blog.

  6. I owe my career to my newspaper editor, Dick Richmond, who sat with me after work night after night and showed me every word I wrote was not gold. He very patiently taught me line editing, pointing out repetitions and overwriting. I am extremely grateful to him.

  7. My first lesson came when I was eight. I read and reread (and reread for years) The Secret Garden. I loved the story and identified with the cranky heroine who was braver than I was, but the lesson was: Someone, a person, put words down and made up this story. If someone could, I could, too.

    • Noticing what a good writer does is one of the best ways to learn, Susan. Another thing I did when starting out was buy a bunch of paperbacks by Koontz, King, Grisham, etc. and didn’t just read, but studied them. I especially looked at their techniques for ending chapters so I had to turn the page!

  8. At my high school, it was expected for all the smart students to do at least on independent project. So, in eleventh grade, I did one to please my guidance councilor and my parents. I managed to convince them to let me work on my story, promising to do another one next year on something more important (I never did).

    My mentor drove home the concept of really getting to know your characters and not just using them as plot devices. Actually, I was using them to play Pirates on paper since I was too old to do it in real life. But I wanted to learn. One exchange I’ll never forget.

    Mentor: Why doesn’t any of your characters have last names?

    Sixteen-year-old me: I don’t like last names because then I’ll have to give them cultures.

    Mentor: Well, do it.

    I still agonize over last names, since now I know that they hold a ton of significance especially in other cultures. But backstory is one of the first things I explore after establishing the basics. Backstory really fleshes out characters, and absolutely influences their reactions.

    • I loved pirate stories as a kid…my very first “novel” was about a kid named James Green who snuck aboard a pirate ship. I think it was three notebook pages long, with drawings by me.

  9. Two books I read early on which were great even though they didn’t teach many specifics about the “craft” were LaMott’s _Bird by Bird_ and Ueland’s _So You Want to Write_.

    What’s the book that teaches best-selling authors not to use cliches? I just gave up on one who hit me once too often with a table groaning under steaming dishes of [extensive list of yummies]. Tables groaning should go to the same Gulag as eyes wandering around the room. And a dish or mug that should be steaming but isn’t is news; one that’s steaming properly is not news.

    • Eric, Ueland’s book was an early read for me, too. Very inspiring. Made me FEEL like I could do this. Lamott’s “one inch frame” was a good lesson for me.

  10. My first submission, the editor said I have a good conversational tone.Was lost on me at the time. After seriously studying writing, I got what she meant and this one comment kept me going. Three Nanos later, have three first draft novels. Revising, steep learning curve. Reading The Shipping News, by Annie Proulx. Her style is unique, feel like my writing is so simple. Know I shouldn’t compare. So hard not to!

  11. First of all, Lois, good on you for three NaNos. Well done.

    Second, learn what you can from the writers you admire. Drink them in. But when you write, write from your the inside. Fix it later according to your own voice and vision. You’ll be fine!

  12. A New York agent requested to read my first novel twice. Both times she wrote a personal letter with valuable feedback. The first read she wrote back to say she felt the story didn’t take off until around page 250. It taught me to tighten my writing and showed me how and where to start a story. (One of the many things you preach here at TKZ.) There were several other points she made, too. I still read the letters from time to time as a reminder.

    I do have many craft books that I’ve read and refer to often. I have several of yours Mr. Bell. Great books!

    I received a fantastic first-page critique from P.J. Parrish. She taught me not to skin too much meat off the bones. I took Kris’s comments to heart and gutted the first page. So, needless to say, I’m always trying to find the right balance. There’s nothing like getting actual feedback from professionals. It keeps me motivated to work on the craft.

    Thanks to all of you at TKZ who take the time to share your expertise. I’ve learned so much from all of you.

    • Well, thank you so much. We at TKZ are always glad to hear that we’ve been able to help a fellow writer. And you are right, those letters from the agent are solid gold.

  13. I was a late bloomer (still am) and didn’t go to university until I was the ripe old age of 25. I slaved over my first English Lit assignment, handed it in, and got it back with a “C.” I had never in my life received a C on anything I had worked on, although when I didn’t work on something, Cs and Ds were common. But this paper? I had really worked on it. I was devastated.

    So, I went to see the prof with my paper, told him I wasn’t asking him to change my mark, and that all I really wanted to know was why I only got a C.

    He went through the paper with me and pointed out tons of places where I was trying too hard, and as a result, I’d created a lot of confusion. His exact words have stayed with me today: “Say what you mean.”

    Thank you, Professor Manning.

    Of course, one can take this advice about clarity and then go too far the other way, e.g., RUE (‘resist the urge to explain’ for those who are just beginning their fiction-writing journey), but that never happened to me. I simply learned that a lack of clarity will throw the reader out of the story, and, in fiction, that can be fatal.

    No matter how many books on the craft I’ve read, I’m always learning more. What fun!

    • Indeed, Sheryl. When you love what you do it’s always fun to learn more.

      Many writers had one good teacher in their past. Mine was Mrs. Marjorie Bruce at Taft High School.

  14. Bummer. I checked. Mr. Bishop’s book is not available in e-book format. I hope eventually it will be released in e-book form.

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