I’m blogging chapter by chapter through a great book on the art of writing by James Scott Bell. I encourage you to pick up a copy of “The Art Of War For Writers”.
I’m going to amend tip #24 in the “Art of War for Writers” from James Scott Bell to read as follows: “There Are 3 Essentials For Writing A Novel”.
Bell begins by humbly taking issue with the famous quote from W. Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Though the quote is meant to encourage writers to be themselves as they write and not follow a formula, it’s simply not the case that there aren’t tried and true essentials for good writing. Bell identifies three of them, drawing inspiration from John D. MacDonald.
First, there has to be a strong sense of story.
“I want the people I read about to be in difficulty,” says MacDonald, and “I want to live with them while they’re finding their way out of these difficulties.”
Bell’s translation: Create characters readers will be drawn to and put them in desperate straits soon.
Even the Bible teaches us this. We get to live in paradise all of two chapters before the snake slithers into the garden. Jesus has barely dried off from his baptism before he is led into the desert to face off with Satan. Go and do likewise.
Second, the writer must make the reader suspend their sense of disbelief.
Bell writes, “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.”
But to create that world, you need to be ready to do your homework, and if you must do research in what you’re writing about, then do it. You should sound like you know what you’re talking about, so the reader can place trust in your story-telling.
Third, the writer ought to have a bit of magic in their prose style.
Writers should always be stretching their writing muscles, trying to lift their prose out of the mundane and mediocre. Bell offers several tips here:
- Take note of good writing that makes you soar as you read it. (I’d suggest you actually write down sentences and paragraphs that move you.)
- Do writing exercises. For example: describe someone who has “wild hair”, by writing 3-5 minutes without stopping, and by completely ignoring your ‘inner editor’. Write hot, revise cool, quotes Bell.
- Read some poetry. Ray Bradbury tried to read poetry daily. It’s interesting Bell recommends this because I’ve been taking up Shakespeare for my bedtime reading. And after a week of reading “Hamlet” and marveling at the Bard’s vocabulary and turn-of-phrases, I’m discovering in some subtle way how it’s shaping my own choice of words when I speak and write. I have yet to cry out, “Frailty, thy name is woman!” to Janis (a good thing), but there is something about the cadence of Shakespeare’s voice that elevates my own.