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 I thought it might be fun, from time to time, to look back at the early lessons I picked up during my unpublished days.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?

Getting Inspired to Write


by James Scott Bell

While I am a firm believer in the adage that to be a writer it takes an iron butt, and also that a pro can’t afford to sit around waiting for the Muse, I do believe in inspiration. Just like a football team gets a locker-room speech, so the writer can use the occasional boost in motivation.

That’s why I like writing quotes. Over the years I’ve collected hundreds of them. I glance at them from time to time and, depending on my particular writing challenge of the moment, I usually find a quote that speaks to it.

Today, I thought I’d share a few of them with you, along with some annotations.

Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

If you boldly risk writing a novel that might be acclaimed as great, and fail, you could succeed in writing a book that is splendid. – Leonard Bishop

You get what you dare, baby, and if you want big, you dare big. – Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop was a novelist and author of one of the first craft books I ever purchased, Dare To Be a Great Writer. I still love that book and have it sticky-noted all over the place. Here, Bishop advocates the setting of high standards. I join him in saying, Go for it! Look at your own work and assess it according to what I call “The 7 Critical Success Factors of Fiction”—plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice, and meaning—and determine to kick each of them up a notch in your writing.

One needs natural talent, much physical energy (which calls for a strict regimen of diet and exercise), and the resilience to bounce back after the most shattering disappointment and frustration. – L. Sprague de Camp

L. Sprague de Camp was a writer from the golden age of science fiction, the America of the 1930’s, and continued writing until his death in 2000 at the age of 92. He was the author of over 120 science fiction and fantasy novels, and several hundred short stories. The kind of writer I admire, one who worked hard at his craft and kept producing pages. Why? Because if he didn’t, he didn’t eat.

Let’s talk about talent. You do need some, but in my opinion it is the least important of the attributes for writerly success. It’s taking the talent you have to the highest level you can that counts.

So does bouncing back. The writing life has myriad ways to disappoint, frustrate, and even anger you. The trick is never to take any setback lying down. Get up and keep writing.

You have to evolve a permanent set of values to serve as motivation. – Leon Uris

Leon Uris’s books have sold over 150 million copies worldwide and have been translated

Leon Uris

Leon Uris

into 29 languages. There has to be a reason for this.

Values may be the heart of it. Uris was a Marine in World War II, and thus his novels have a certain fundamental nobility. Uris’s protagonists are full of passion for justice, and often involved in wider battles for freedom. Battle Cry, Exodus, QB VII, and Trinity each reached the top spot on the New York Times bestseller list.

What are you most passionate beliefs? Transfer that fire to your protagonist. What would he die for? If nothing, he’s probably not that interesting.

At every significant juncture in a story, consciously look at the situation from the viewpoint of every character involved – and let each of them make the best move they can from his or her own point of view. – Stanley Schmidt

Stanley Schmidt is the science-fiction author of such books as Newton and the Quasi-Apple (1970), Lifeboat Earth (1978) and Tweedlioop (1986). From 1978 to 2012 he was the editor of Analog, the noted SF magazine. Schmidt knows story.

Here he emphasizes a key rule of the craft, that of “maximum capacity.” Every character should be in the story for a reason, and the reason must matter greatly to that character (see the previous entry). When shove comes to slap, the characters all should be thinking how they can get their licks in. Don’t ever let the opponents of the Lead operate half-heartedly, lest the readers feel cheated. Don’t ever let the allies of the Lead just “hang around.”

Take a look at your WIP and assess the drive of each major character. Now turn those into overdrive.

Keep working. Don’t wait for inspiration. Work inspires inspiration. Keep working. – Michael Crichton

The best cure for not writing is writing. The best antidote for the writing blues is writing.

Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton

The best thing to do if you can’t face the blank page or screen is . . . write!

But what about the writers block deal we’ve been talking about here at TKZ? Is that real? Only if you don’t attack it by typing or moving a pen.

You don’t have to write on the project that’s stalling you. Work on something else. Have several projects going.

Isaac Asimov had a number of typewriters around his apartment, and when he was stalled on one project he’d get up, stretch, and walk to another typewriter, with a page in it, on some completely different subject, and he’d type some more.

So if you stall on your WIP, work on something else. Anything. Write your obituary. Truly. How do you want to be remembered? This is a great way to focus the mind and get your life in order.

Journal. Talk to yourself on paper or screen.

digiorno-1Heck, you can even be creative with your grocery list. Make it a thing of beauty. Turn it into a series of mini-essays, on the questionable identity of beets, and the pleasures of DiGiorno Pizza.

Once the brain starts cooking with words you’ll be back in the flow in no time.

Do you have a favorite writing quote? Let’s hear it!