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The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell

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A writer with a credo will
not be tempted to settle for
mediocrity.
It was W. Somerset Maugham who famously stated,
“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately,
no one knows what they are.” This is often quoted in writ-
ing classes to give the huddled scribes comfort as they
approach the mysterious alchemy that is fi ction writing.
Well, far be it from me to take on Mr. Maugham, but
perhaps I can offer at least three essentials for a success-
ful novel.
I took them from the credo of one of my favorite writ-
ers, John D. MacDonald. He wrote a series of amazingly
good (and diverse) paperbacks in the ’50s, then created
an enduring series characters, Travis McGee. His output
was prodigious, but his essentials remained the same.
In Revision & Self-Editing, I gave the credo. Here I
would like to comment upon it.
Essential #1
First, there has to be a strong sense of story. I want
to be intrigued by wondering what is going to hap-
pen next. I want the people that I read about to be
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72
in dif culties—emotional, moral, spiritual, whatever,
and I want to live with them while they’re fi nding
their way out of these dif culties.
—John D. MacDonald
Notice what MacDonald meant by story. The reader
has to wonder what is going to happen next. To people.
That creates the page-turning effect, and it applies not
just to commercial fi ction but literary as well.
Remember Alfred Hitchcocks axiom:A good story
is life, with the dull parts taken out.”
No trouble for intriguing people = dull.
So we might sum up the fi rst essential this way: Cre-
ate characters readers will be drawn to and put them in
desperate straits soon.
Essential #2
Second, I want the writer to make me suspend
my disbelief; I want to be in some other place and
scene of the writers devising.
—John D. MacDonald
Simply put, we must weave a dreamscape for the
readers. We have to create the impression of something
really happening in a real world to real people. Thats as
true for fantasy as it is reality-based fi ction.
Readers want to suspend their disbelief. They start
out on your side. They hope your words will lift them out
of their lives and into another realm.
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So how do you do this? First, by being accurate. If
you’re writing about 1905 Los Angeles, do not include
the Dodgers. Or if youre writing about lawyers, dont
have one asking his own witness leading questions with-
out the other side objecting. And so on. You have to know
your world before you write about it.
One way to get it right is through experts. People
love to talk about what they do, if you approach them
correctly.
Get into research. Some writers, like a James Michen-
er, do a ton of research up front. Others, like Stephen
King, wait until the fi rst draft is done and then see what
needs to be fl eshed out.
I like a method in between. Enough research to write
knowingly, then when I come to a place in my book that
needs detail or depth, I’ll leave a comment in my docu-
ment and pick a time later to research it more. I do this
so I don’t end up writing a long scene that is completely
off-base.
And always choose the telling detail over plain vanilla
description.
“He jumped into his car and drove away.
Wait. What kind of car was it?
“She was beautiful.”
Was she? I don’t believe it. Describe her so I’ll know
it. Show me how other characters react to her.
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