5 Timeless Tips for Career Novelists

by James Scott Bell

Back when I was trying to learn how to write fiction, I joined the Writer’s Digest book club. Each month I’d buy a book or two, devour them, try things out. I have several shelves filled with these books, all highlighted and sticky-noted. Every now and then I like to take one down for a revisit, remembering the lessons I learned.

I recently did that with a tome from 1992, The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Novel Writing. It’s a collection of advice from a number of published authors. On the flyleaf I had written five things from the book I especially wanted to remember. Let’s have a look and see if they still apply!

  • Be excited about your story

The advice here, from W. C. Stroby, is simple:

Write a story that excites you, challenges you, that keeps you awake at night every time you start to think about it. If you can’t get fired up over it, who will?

“Some books I’ve written come to me because I’ve seen something in the paper that out rages me,” Says Robert Campbell. “A lot of them come out of a philosophical position that is cooked in my mind for many years, until I found the story to tell it. Either way, it has to be something that, in a sense, demands my attention.”

I’ve tried to follow this advice ever since. Whenever I conceive of an idea that might have commercial value, I don’t start writing until I make an emotional connection with the material. I made a Venn diagram for myself which looks like this:

That’s the sweet spot. You can be jazzed as all get out about an idea, but unless you’re going for the obscure genius profile, you need to find a commercial connection. On the other hand, you may think up a high concept for the market, but you then need to work it until the jazz starts up in you, lest you end up writing something “by the numbers.”

Verdict: Still applies.

  • Open with dialogue

The great Dwight Swain contributed this chapter. He’s not, of course, advocating always opening with dialogue. But he does cite a pulp editor who told him, “Always open with dialogue, because when two people are talking, they have to be talking about something—something your readers can understand without a lot of explanation.”

Opening with dialogue is a great way to combat throat clearing and info dumping in the first pages. Dialogue automatically makes you write a scene.

The standard criticism you hear (“You can’t open with dialogue because we don’t know enough about who’s talking!”) is the bunk. Readers will wait a long time for info if they’re listening to taut, tension-filled dialogue.

Verdict: Still works.

  • One dialogue gem per act

That’s my own term, which I came up with via the same Swain chapter. He advised striving for the “provocative line.”

Hunt for at least occasional new, fresh, original ways for your characters to say whatever it is they have to say. In their proper places, slang, colorful analogies, personification, and the like can prove very effective….Just don’t carry it so far that your readers label it as straining for effect.

Thus I made it a goal to put a colorful line of dialogue (a “gem”) in each act of the book.

Verdict: Why wouldn’t you?

  • Withhold information

Swain’s disciple, Jack Bickham, wrote a chapter on scene and sequel. “For dramatic reasons,” he said, “you can withhold information from your readers for a while” making them eager to read on.

An example is when you write in multiple 3d Person. You finish a scene with a disaster for POV 1. How will he get out of this? Instead of showing that next, you cut over to POV 2. Get that POV trapped, and go back to POV 1 or hop over to POV 3! Make ’em wait and turn those pages! This is how I like to do my stand alones, such as Your Son is Alive and Can’t Stop Me.

But what if you write in First Person, as I do in my Mike Romeo series? Here I learned a neat trick from Bickham, what I call the “time jump.” Bickham says he got it from the famous mystery writer Phyllis Whitney, who always wrote in First.

What you do is get to the end of a scene where something major (a setback or shock) happens, or is about to happen. The reader expects the next scene to be about the character’s reaction. But no! You jump ahead in time to another scene, which is about something else entirely. As the reader keeps reading to find out what the heck happened in the last scene, you keep them waiting until a moment when your narrator recounts to another character what the reaction was. They will turn those pages to find out!

With Romeo, since he’s a philosopher who can also beat people up, I’ll sometimes bring him to the brink, when he’s about to be set upon by one or more thugs. Instead of going immediately into the fight, Mike will recall a philosophical point or historical moment that somehow has relevance to what is about to happen. He loves gardening, too, so he may talk about plant life before commencing to blows.

Yes, it’s manipulation, but when you do it well, readers love it.

Just don’t overdo it.

Verdict: Requires skill, but when you pull it off, it’s aces.

  • Editors want an author, not just a book

Russell Galen’s chapter is called “How to Chart Your Path to the Bestseller List.” He writes:

Editors are buying you, not just your manuscript. They want to be convinced you’re dedicated to becoming successful; that you have more than one book in you; that your current work is better than your past work, and that your future work will be even better; that you’re looking for a publishing relationship, a long-term home for your work, and not just a deal…Don’t boast that you can write a novel in eleven days—as one writer did to me recently—when editors are looking for evidence that you take pains to make each book as good as it can possibly be.

This was obviously written in the trad-only days, but the advice is just as sound for indies. Readers are looking for new favorite authors, not just books, and if you give them less than stellar work, they won’t stick around waiting for you to measure up. If you want a career out of this, as opposed to a hobby throwing wet spaghetti at the wall, put your work through a grinder.

As Dorothy Bryant puts it later in the book, “Anyone can do a rough draft….The difference between ‘anyone’ and a serious writer is rewriting, rewriting, and grinning over gritted teeth.”

Verdict: If you want to sell widely, pay heed.


32 thoughts on “5 Timeless Tips for Career Novelists

  1. Another substantial JSB post, lots to digest.
    Be excited about your story.
    This echoes Bradbury’s perennial advice, e.g.: “I believe a story is valid only when it’s immediate and passionate, when it dances out of your subconscious…”
    Open with dialogue.
    Absolutely! Recently, a writing guru said opening dialogue needs to identify the speaker from the first line. I recalled Heinlein’s “Blowups Happen,” which opens:
    “Put down that wrench!”
    The speaker is not identified till further down the page, but I think it’s a great opening.
    One dialogue gem per act
    I throw in a half dozen putative “gems,” and then murder all but the best. No loss.
    Withhold information
    Yes! Throughout my picaresque novel, Tenirax refers six times to “that awful night in Bilbao*.” Even I had no clue what that meant until writing the closing chapters. He recalls the Bilbao incident in Chapters 97 thru 99, but doesn’t continue the story and its conclusion until Chapter 114.
    Editors want an author, not just a book
    Amen. A youngish writer moaned on Twitter recently about a one-star review his new book had received. I checked out the book’s “Look Inside” pages and found many mistakes. Rather than point them out, I asked if he’d hired an editor. “No,” he said, “I’m waiting for the second edition.” He only deserved one star, but I didn’t say so.

    * If you think this was inspired by Fritz Leiber, you’d be right.

  2. “Open with dialogue”. Interesting because my memorable reads don’t open with dialogue. On the other hand, I just went back to check and the current WIP DOES open with dialogue.

    “One dialogue gem per act” — not something I’ve consciously thought about. Will take practice because if not done well can seem contrived.

    “Withhold information”: working on my first mystery right now and this is a bit of a bugger in revision stage. Trying to find that balance between “haven’t even given enough information” and the art of withholding information to keep the reader turning pages.

    All great tips to keep in mind while writing and revising.

  3. Sorry to sound jaded, but editors only want bestselling authors. If you’re not with one book – you’re history.
    Modern publishing…sigh.

    • Yeah, there used to be something called the midlist where a writer could be nurtured for several books. Not now. At least if you are an indie, you don’t have to cancel yourself and lose publishing rights.

  4. My husband and I recently had a conversation after I showed him a video review of my latest eco-thriller. In the review, the reader said, “This is the best one yet!”
    My husband said, “They say that with every book.”
    I said, “Right. It means I did my job.”
    He didn’t understand, of course. Didn’t matter. The message was clear to me. Each new book should be “the best one yet” or they won’t be eager for the next one. My goal is always the same: outdo the previous book. It’s the perfect measuring stick, IMO.

  5. With respect, only two slight alterations to offer:

    “Open with dialogue.” Yes, but not in a void. The dialogue has to take place in a setting and between or among characters with genders, faces, and (unless the story opens on a nude beach) clothing.

    And “withhold (or postpone) information.” Yes again. But how you do so and what information you withhold matters a great deal. As I wrote in my Journal a few year ago, (see “The Essential Elements of a Story”

    “Yes, to add suspense you can make the reader wait. For example, you can write a cliffhanger at the end of Chapter 2, then switch gears and not write the hook it leads to until Chapter 4 (or 5 or 6, etc.) But every intervening major scene or chapter should also have its own hook and cliffhanger.”

    On the other hand, “withholding a character’s name strictly to build suspense and absent of any necessary reason is not a good idea. All it will do is alienate the reader.”

  6. Jim, as always, your advice stands the test of time. While I read, this line came to me: the fundamental things apply as time goes by.

    • Sounds like a good hook for a movie, Debbie. 😁

      Ironically, Max Steiner, who scored Casablanca, hated the song and wanted it cut, but it wasn’t possible to reshoot the scene where Sam plays it for Ilsa because Ingrid Bergman had cut her hair for her upcoming role in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Steiner was stuck with the song, and ended up working it into the score masterfully.

  7. Great advice, Jim.

    Your 1992 Handbook sounded familiar. I checked my shelves and found the 2010 edition. It’s a good time to reread it. Thanks for the advice.

  8. This post brought me back to the 90s when I was a teenager and used my first paycheck from an after school job to join the WD book club. You can imagine how cool I was in high school.

  9. All are solid tips. Thanks.
    Just looked. My current WIP doesn’t open with dialogue, but it could. Flagging it for edits. My last one did.
    I like to think I’m setting up a problem (not necessarily THE problem) and dialogue shows up within a paragraph or two.
    Even if the readers don’t know the characters yet, a dialogue opening is a lot better than the battle scene where readers have no idea who’s fighting, or why, or whose side they should be on.

    • Right! And these dialogue scenes don’t erupt totally out of the blue; we title our works. Thus “Put down that wrench!” occurs in the context of “Blowups Happen.” If the title were “Picnic D’amour,” we’d get an entirely different impression.

  10. Great tips, Jim!

    My favorite is Be excited about your story.

    My newest WIP, mostly still in the birth canal, is one I’ve been thinking about for several months. And I am excited about it.

    I’ve already written a first draft of the last scene, and it’s that one that gets me fired up. And, I’m trying something new with this WIP. I’m writing scenes as they float to me without knowing exactly where they will land in the MS. I just know they have to be somewhere.

    Might sound a bit untidy, but that’s the way this one is going. Have any of you done this?

    Happy Sunday! 🙂

    • I’ve been writing out of order at times with my mysteries, including writing ahead to the confrontation at the end. It can really get the story and my writing moving again. I’ve come to realize and embrace the non-linerality of the subconscious, which is part of why I think writing out of order can be so powerful, at times, as needed for me 🙂

    • Nice, Deb. Yes, writing a scene out of sequence is a proven way of getting, or staying excited about a story. If you’re slogging, jump ahead to something fun. Just be sure to come back and do some real work to connect things up. All play and no work makes Jack a dull writer.

  11. These five tips are pure gold, Jim. I agree with all of them. The first and last tips provide “meta” book ends to the craft “tactics” tips involving dialog and withholding information.

    “Be excited about your story” is crucial to engaging the reader, and your Venn diagram zeroes in on the perfect place for you to land as a writer, if you want to have an audience IMHO.

    Editors (and readers) want an author, not just a book. Especially now, in this age of A.I. probabilistically “generating” books, on top of those pushing indies to write to market above all else, the author matters, matters for always aspiring to improve, to write with passion, write from their invidiual mindset and outlook on life and the human condition, and forge fiction from the fires of their imagination. Authors connect to readers through the stories they’ve spun with their own individualility, today as much as any other time in history. An algorithm can’t don’t that, and rigid adherence to a formulation of genre tropes can’t either.

    • I’ve looked at some example of AI “writing” Dale. Flat. Maybe gets some things right in terms of plot, but the style and character work are so uninspiring. We carbon-based writers bring a complexity and depth that are not (cannot be?) replicated by robots.

  12. Great advice, Jim, and I love a short list of important tips. I can memorize them and keep them in mind as I work.

    Two stood out to me:
    Be excited about your story. No problem there. I have to wear ankle weights when I write. 🙂
    Editors want an author, not just a book. Such an important concept to remember. I’m going to write this one down and post it above my desk.


  13. Withhold information is my favorite…and you did a superb job in Cant Stop Me! I was flipping the pages on my Kindle so fast I almost burned it up. Oh, and after I finished, I went to the very middle to see what your mirror moment was…there was his choice–stay true to his values or circumvent the law…love it!

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