Do you wanna hear about my favorite book on writing? Yay!
If you’ve been around the blog a while, you know I’m an aspiring author. Always have been, due to my obsession with books. (I think readers can’t help but contemplate what they’d write themselves, and most of us give it a try.) Fiction writing was on hold while I was in graduate school, but lately I’ve been experimenting and practicing again. In the interest of learning, I revisited what I remembered (ten years later) as a stunningly helpful book, and it was even better than I remembered: Writing and Selling your Novel by Jack M. Bickham.
Bickham actually wrote successful books in the 1970s — he’s not famous now, but he wrote a lot of them, under several names including his own. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked up the author of a how-to-write book and found… nothing.) He also taught writing courses, so the information here is based on wide experience and contacts, not just a narrative of his own success. He published several books on writing, but this was his last and most comprehensive, published in 1996, the year before he died.
Writing and Selling Your Novel is techniques and exercises, not pep talk or a “system.” Having trouble with your dialogue, for instance, and not sure why it reads strangely? Bickham probably knows, check out the chapter on stimulus-response and the follow-up on dialogue. There are lists and structures for how to make the dialogue work the way you want it to, however you want it to work. The same for segments of narration, description, explanation, plus how they should go together. All the things I wonder about when I’m writing but don’t know how to ask, like “what are the ways to structure dialogue,” he answers without ever making you feel stupid. I don’t need to be told what my character would say, I’m just struggling with making it sound the way I want, and Bickham can help. He gives you building blocks, when most writing books just don’t seem to understand that new writers need to know these things. If you’re a natural at writing or a specific aspect of writing, awesome! If not, you can learn! Style is great, experimentation is great, but writing is a thing you can learn.
Of course, not everything is down to the specific word order like dialogue. Bickham’s explanation of scenes and sequels blew my mind and stuck with me for ten years. Basically, scenes are story segments of action and conflict at some level, while sequels are reactions to what happened in scenes. You can chain them together forever, and understanding how they work fixes your problems. They keep your story going, they make it make sense, they keep you in your chosen POV. I always struggle with connecting scenes together in a way that makes sense but also keeps the story moving, and scene-sequel understanding is the magic bullet. But! But! Even here! Bickham knows that you’ll make decisions based on what you want to happen in your book. Scenes and sequels don’t always have to be presented in order. Sometimes you skip showing one. Sometimes you lengthen and shorten them to control pace. It’s all up to you, but you can learn the foundations so that you can make purposeful decisions and have the effect you want to create.
Bickham doesn’t discriminate by genre. He knows things will be different in different kinds of stories, from literary classics to hardboiled noir to romance to whatever. He doesn’t assume that all writers are masters of body language, either, or know naturally how people work psychologically. He gives concrete tips and further-reading suggestions for those things too. He gives general tips for selling, but his focus is on writing a novel that will sell because it works, so there’s no outdated publishing information taking up space.
The beloved pep-talk writing books are beloved for a reason, and top-down systems are awesome if you find one that works for your style. I keep a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing to browse through any time I get discouraged, and I’m still using Jeffrey Alan Schechter’s plotting method. But Writing and Selling Your Novel is a writing class for when you can’t take a writing class. What’s more, it’s a writing class you can keep on hand and revisit as you get further into your book. As an added bonus, because it’s old and not famous, you can get it cheap!