From My Bookshelf: Early Writing Lessons

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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 I thought it might be fun, from time to time, to look back at the early lessons I picked up during my unpublished days.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

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Yes, You Can Learn To Write Better Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I love having Brother John Gilstrap back on TKZ. He doesn’t pull punches. He’s the Conor McGregor of writing bloggers. Witness his post last week, Tell the Damn Story. It’s a straight right to the chops.

John and I have gone around on this topic in the past, and I’m inspired by John’s post to do it again today. But rather than get all Floyd Mayweather about it, I’d like to start by looking at where we agree.

There is a lot of good packed into the simple admonition to tell the damn story. To me the gist of this advice is: You are a storyteller, and that is your first and greatest function. So don’t get tied up in “rules” and analysis when you are writing. I even wrote a post on that subject called Avoiding Writing Paralysis Due to Over-Analysis.

John and I agree that when you’re sitting at your typer, with the story in your heart and head yearning to get out, let it out! Get it on the page!

Where John and I part ways is on what to do to make the story better, both before and after the typing.

John says he holds this truth “dear”— “that no one can teach a person to write.” I could pounce on that, but I believe the disagreement may come down to what John means by “to write.” A few lines later John says:

I do believe that instruction and workshopping can hone and develop talent, but it cannot create talent where there is none. Some people are not wired for storytelling.

Ah! Then “to write” for John is tied up in that thing called “talent.” There’s where we could spend more time, talking about what talent really is and how it might be coaxed … or coached.

Further, what John calls “honing and developing” I would simply call “teaching.” So if we parse our terms precisely, I believe John and I would agree that in some measure you can teach a writer things that will make their fiction better.

I also agree that there are some people who are not, as John puts it, “wired” for storytelling. But you know what? In my twenty years of teaching and reading countless manuscripts, I have run across very few who fit this description. The overwhelming majority of writers I’ve taught do have story sense, because how can you avoid it? We grow up reading and watching story after story. We press our reality through the gauze of beginning, middle and end. And most people who come to a workshop do know how to string coherent sentences together. Part of my job as a teacher is to help them stack those sentences in the most effective way.

Which is what the craft is all about.

John further stated in a comment:

A gifted musician is first and foremost gifted. Studying with a master maestro will help him to greatness. For most of us, though, our piano lessons will only help us become really good amateurs. Ditto athletic prowess. Beyond that innate talent, though, there needs to be the drive and desire to work one’s butt off. That work for us writer’s includes not classroom time, but lots and lots of alone time with our imaginary friends.

I liked this up to and excluding the last sentence. We do agree on this basic point: someone with talent can be made better at what they do through lessons. The boy George Gershwin had monster talent, but he needed lesson after lesson for that talent to shine through.

Still, you only get a Gershwin once in a lifetime. But there are countless superb piano players who make good money in bars and restaurants and hotels. They please a lot of people with their music.

It’s the same with writers. There are not many Hemingways or Chandlers, but there are (now) thousands of fiction writers making bank writing entertaining, well-structured, satisfying novels and stories.

Many of them have been my students.

John and I also agree that “working one’s butt off” is a non-negotiable for anyone to make it as a writer. But I am puzzled by his disdain for the classroom. What’s wrong with listening to an experienced writer sharing techniques that make fiction better, stronger, more compelling, and deeper? Why isn’t that something an ambitious writer ought to be anxious to seek out?

At the very least it might save that writer years of frustration and rejection.

Working with a good editor is another way fiction writing is taught. Now, really good fiction editors are rare and always have been. I had the good fortune to work with one of them, Dave Lambert at Zondervan. He was the reason I chose Zondervan over three other publishers back in the day. Dave was famous for his “Dave letters” — multi-page, single-spaced documents of pure insight and instruction. I was a pretty good writer before Dave. He kicked me up several notches. Without his instruction, and my working hard to incorporate that into my pages, I don’t believe I’d be where I am today.

So to me the big disagreement with John comes down to his statement: “The breakthroughs—the true light bulb moments—can only come via self-discovery while pasting butt to chair.”

That’s like saying to a hacker killing gophers on the golf course to just keep hacking, you’ll find your way eventually. Meanwhile, year after year, he continues to stink and give gray hairs to the groundskeepers.

I react this way because my experience is the opposite of John’s axiom. I did write and write, to no avail and no “breakthroughs.” Indeed, I was told several times that “writing can’t be taught.” So I gave it up. For ten long years.

When I finally felt I had to try again, I decided not to listen to the naysayers and started studying the fiction column in Writer’s Digest every month (penned by Lawrence Block, followed by Nancy Kress). I bought writing books and joined the Writer’s Digest Book Club. One of the featured titles, Jack Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell, gave me the biggest epiphany I’ve ever had in my writing life. It was a huge breakthrough, and led directly to my stuff starting to gain interest, and eventually to sell.

When I wrote, I wrote. But I also valued my study time. And as I tested things on the page, I began to formulate my own theories and techniques and then teach them to others, many of whom have written to thank me for helping them along the fiction journey.

Where would I be if my desire to write had stalled again at the man-made wall with the graffito Writing can’t be taught? In the introduction to Plot & Structure, which keeps selling, I went so far as to call that “The Big Lie.” Because it is.

And now let’s get this deal about “rules” straight. Artists hate that word, because they want to be free! So fine! Don’t use that word!

But do think in terms of fundamentals and guidelines, the tools and techniques that work, that have stood the test of time, and will work for any writer. They are there not only to help you as you try to figure out what to write next, but to help you understand why something you’ve written doesn’t work, and how to fix it.

Perhaps this will ease the conscience of my blog brother: The most important thing a writer can do is produce the words, to write his own stuff, every day if possible. To a quota. That’s always the first and most important thing a writer does. It’s the first advice I always give anyone who asks me what they need to do to become a successful writer.

But I also say this: the writers who have the best chance to make it, to have a career or a good part-time income, will also study their craft with diligence and desire, and without a chip on the shoulder. I’ve seen it happen time after time after time.

Here is my Exhibit A, the highly successful novelist Sarah Pekkanen:

I needed advice before I tried to write a novel. The usual axiom — write what you know — wasn’t helpful. I spend my days driving my older children to school and changing my younger one’s diaper — not exactly best-seller material.

So I turned to experts. Three books gave me invaluable writing advice. One, by a best-selling writer; one, by a top New York agent; and one, by a guy who struggled for years to learn how to write a book and wanted to make it easier for the rest of us.

The books Sarah mentions are Stephen King’s On Writing, Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, and my own Plot & Structure. And she explains exactly what she learned from each.

That was back in 2009, just before her debut novel came out. You can check out Sarah’s career trajectory here.

So leave us not speak in extremes. Don’t give us a blanket “writing can’t be taught,” because that is demonstrably false.

On the other side, don’t speak about iron-clad rules. There are critique-group commandos who will take a tip or suggestion and turn it into a law. Like the now infamous Don’t start with the weather. The real guideline should be Don’t start with the weather unless you know how to use it to hook the reader! (For further elucidation on these , see my post on Baloney Advice Writers Should Ignore.)

That’s my case. Fiction writing can be taught .. and learned … and practiced .. and made profitable. I know because I’ve got a huge email file of testimonials to prove it … and I’ve lived it myself.

The boxing ring is now open. Discuss!

***

I would be remiss if I did not mention that the best of my workshops has been put into a complete video course on the craft. It’s called Writing a Novel They Can’t Put Down.

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How Did You Get Here?

by Joe Hartlaub

It was only a few hours ago that I spoke with a friend that I hadn’t conversed with in almost forty years. Don and I worked for a couple of summers on a municipal road crew in the Akron, Ohio area in the early 1970s. We came from very different backgrounds and had a bit of an age difference between us but became something more than work friends. He had a number of colorful expressions, most of which I can’t use in family blog, but which pepper my conversation to this day. The method we used to rid a field of a hornet’s nest almost got me arrested some fifteen years after the fact when I replicated it elsewhere.

You don’t forget a guy like that, but you do lose touch. I moved to Columbus in 1978; Don stayed in Akron. Life got in the way for both of us. There weren’t emails or cell phones or Skype and we became busy with jobs and raising families the way that people do. I never forgot Don, however, given that I quoted him like Scripture on a frequent basis, usually with appreciative laughter from whatever audience I was before. I started looking for him on the internet several years ago but couldn’t find him and assumed he had moved or even passed. I had long since given up trying to reach Don when I saw him featured on the front page of a northeastern Ohio newspaper. He had been ambushed by a reporter outside of a polling station; he looked older (unlike me) but it was still the same guy, for sure. His internet presence, however, was still non-existent. I was able to locate a couple of phone numbers for him but they were out of service. I did, however, get a street address for Don after some effort and wrote him a letter — an actual letter — with my prized fountain pen. It took eight days for him to get it (they don’t call it “snail mail” for nothing) but he ultimately received it and called me. We’re going to get together soon (“…before one or both of us dies!” he said) and catch up further.

All of this got me to wondering about all of you. I remember where and how I met Don, and most of my other friends, and my wife, business associates, etc. But those of us who contribute blog posts to The Kill Zone don’t know how you, our wonderful readers and commenters, got here. What brought you to The Kill Zone originally? How did you get here? Twitter? Facebook? Writer’s Digest? An author’s link? I’d love to know. And if you have any stories about reuniting with old friends and acquaintances that are unique and/or unusual, please share if you’re so inclined.

BERLIN, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 03:  Cars and traffic fill the A100 ring highway at dusk on November 3, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. Germany is heatedly debating the introduction of highway tolls (in German: Maut), which in the current form proposed by German Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt would be levied solely on foreigners. Dobrindt's office argues that this is not discrimination, which would be illegal under European Union law, since Germans already pay an annual car tax.  (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

(Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)            

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