Writing advice from the first Writer's Handbook
Here are some words of writing wisdom that have stood the test of time.
Published: July 10, 2008
|One of my prized books on writing is a copy of the 1954 first edition of The Writer's Handbook, edited by A.S. Burack, longtime editor of The Writer. This very first handbook was a collection of articles that, for the most part, had been published in The Writer during several years prior to 1954. The editor felt the articles "should be available in book form for study and personal reference" and that the book "should be read and re-read not only as a source of instruction in writing technique, but as an inspiring and stimulating guide." Having recently read again through the articles in this groundbreaking book for writers, I found that the thoughts expressed in it are not only instructional and inspiring, but as relevant now as they were when published more than half a century ago.|
Burack noted that it had been a difficult task to make a selection from the hundreds of excellent pieces that had appeared in the magazine. But I enjoyed selecting excerpts from the book's 79 articles and 510 pages of advice and personal observations because the issues discussed were still intriguing and the ideas and suggestions still pertinent for today's writers. I chose short passages from articles by 18 authors who had focused on novel writing. I've grouped the passages by topics: Writers and Writing; Beginnings; Characters; Plot; and Mysteries.
Writers and writing
Anne Hamilton wrote: "The first thing you must do is take yourself seriously as a novelist. Make up your mind that for a certain length of time each day you will be at your desk writing. And that you will continue to go to that desk and write for as long as it takes to complete the novel." Later she suggested: "Forget the 'Style.' In writing the first draft of the novel it is more important to see that the story is being told, the characters presented as living beings, the settings and action made vivid, than to pay attention to the style."
Discussing her own writing, author Faith Baldwin said: "I have learned to make it a practice to check anything which I state as a fact. ... If in a story, a character is taken ill, I talk to a doctor so that the symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis are correct."
Today, in my teaching, I encourage writers to do more than one thing at a time by including actions, facial expressions and dialogue when describing characters. Helen Hinckley, in her creative approach to this general idea, said: "I was more than pleased to discover the four-way opening sentence. The four-way sentence includes: 1) The name of the central character; 2) a descriptive phrase concerning him; 3) a suggestion of where he is; 4) a statement of what he is doing at the moment he is first seen."
Willett Main Kempton included the following ideas in his list of 50 tips that his students considered most valuable: "To develop style and fluidity of expression, write something every day in the year. Forget 'inspiration' and the rare example of overnight success. Shun adjectives to cultivate exactness and vitality in your verbs. Vary the length and construction of both sentences and paragraphs."
Claire Wallis advised: "First it must be clear, clear as glass. ... Clearness must never be sacrificed for anything. I'd rather see a writer repeat a word three times in a sentence than settle for fancy near-synonyms that obscure his meaning."
From a list of her 10 most helpful writing tips, Jean Z. Owen cited these:
"Don't narrate your stories. When you sit down to write your next story, imitate the way the motion-picture camera focuses on the actors. Make yourself as transparent as the lens. Let the characters speak and act for themselves."
Frank G. Slaughter talked about revision, the other side of the coin of writing: "How many revisions? As many as are necessary to get the story right. All unnecessary material must be cut out, too-long speeches shortened, descriptions pared to a few vivid and effective words, trite and hackneyed words removed, etc. Altogether I often go as high as 12 revisions."
Hamilton advised beginning with a plan: "Practically all novelists agree as to the value of a plot synopsis for the first novel, and many novelists use a synopsis for every novel, no matter how many they have written. Making an outline is a common procedure among novelists and there are many angles for the using of it."
"Readers," Naomi Lane Babson said, "have no patience with thresholds, no time to waste on introductions. They prefer to arrive right in the middle of a situation. To begin at the beginning is no longer good enough." And later: "A fiction editor said to me not long ago that she could throw away the first two pages of most manuscripts without missing anything essential to the story." She concluded: "First, catch your story."
As to setting the stage, Wallis said: "It is also very helpful to establish other things, as many as you artistically can on that first page, the season, the time--present or some specific era--the place, or at least the kind of place where it is going to happen, the appropriate age of your main character, the kind of society he comes from. It does not necessarily mean paragraphs of description. Often a single word will nail it down."
"A good piece of fiction is the biography of an imaginary person," William E. Barrett said. Later he spoke of the need for character biography: "We have no plot and no setting but are going to write the biography, or a chapter of the biography, of a girl who is 24 years old. Our heroine was born in 1930. Born where? (Large city? Medium city? Small town? Country?) What section of the United States? Was it a large family or was she an only child? What were her father's occupation and financial circumstances? Are her parents still living? Did she attend college?" And he went on with further details of how to construct a biography for the main character.
In her article entitled "Writing A Novel," Hamilton wrote about characters as "living people." She said: "The most important single part of a novel is its living characters. No novel is better than its characterization. The people in the novel are, or should be, more alive than the real people you know, for you, as creator, novelist, know them better than you know your friends. You must create two-sided, three-dimensional, 'round' characters with many aspects, many angles, some contradictions, and entire humanness, in order to make them 'alive.' Never write a character who is either all good or all bad; if you do, you destroy any reality in him."
Robert W. Lowndes wrote about creating realistic characters. "All your characters should be sympathetic, in that they should all be recognizable as human beings, rather than puppets labeled 'good guys' and 'bad guys.' Your 'villains' are in the wrong on this or that point, which makes the conflict with the 'hero'; your 'villain's' motives will be less socially desirable than those of the 'hero.' But your protagonist isn't to be just one step removed from sainthood, any more than he is supposed to be a late 19th-century superman."
Philip Ketchum spoke of characterization as "the magic touch": "You enjoy reading a story that catches you up and carries you along with it, and in which you feel you can have a part. This is possible only when the characters in the story are real, and alive, and vital, and when understanding them is no problem." Later, he speaks of a character example: "Exactly what kind of person is Ellen? We've got to know. We must know her intimately. We must know how she thinks and what makes her tick."
Sue Kaufman summarizes her remarks on why a character must change: "And that [change] for me is the key word. If a character comes out a different person at the end of the story, I know I have made things happen, made him go through various experiences. And what after all is fiction, but an interpretation of life? Life in which things happen. Life, in which people must change in order to survive."
With another perspective, Erle Stanley Gardner, prolific author and creator of Perry Mason, talked about series characters specifically, and what is required in writing about them: "Having once created a character, you don't dare to change him or his environment too much because if you do you will receive a flood of letters from readers who think you have murdered your character."
Slaughter wrote: "The simplest definition of a novel is the story of 'interesting things happening to interesting people.' No event is compelling in itself fictionally, except as it happens to the people of the story and causes certain effects and subsequent actions."
Mona Farnsworth described plot: "To begin with, it is very necessary to understand just what a plot is. That may sound obvious and redundant, but I assure you it isn't. A plot is not an enlarged incident; it is not a collection of incidents no matter how gay or thrilling or intriguing such a collection might look to your fond eye when you get it on paper. No. A plot is a tight, carefully put-together affair with a definite beginning, middle and end." Later, she added: "So here we are with the making of a Plot: Situation, Motive and Menace."
In suggesting a broad, general form of a plot, Hinda Teague Hill wrote: "The most generally used basic formula is somewhat as follows: Start with your main character or characters in a predicament of some kind, in which he urgently wants to get or do or escape from something. Success in this endeavor is essential, but opposition is strong. Advantage fluctuates between the two sides, with the main character seemingly getting the worst of it. The outcome is brought about through the main character's own effort and ingenuity, in a logical and preferably an unforeseen fashion."
Slaughter wrote about historical fiction: "The serious historical novelist starts out with a few fundamentals in mind. 1) He doesn't distort history, but weaves his fiction plot into actual historical events. 2) He doesn't distort actual historical personages, which means a lot of research in order to determine just what they were like. 3) He tries to give a true picture of the customs, culture and knowledge of the period in which he is working. All of which means he will probably have to spend as much time in research as he does in writing."
Articles by famed mystery writers Helen McCloy and Q. Patrick were intriguing. McCloy talked about mystery concepts: "How do you write a mystery? This is my recipe for the beginner. First you should read mysteries and, if possible, enjoy reading them. People who enjoy eating make the best cooks. If you have never read any, you should spend several weeks reading all the latest mysteries you can get before you start writing. That word latest should be emphasized. What was acceptable a few years ago is not acceptable today." She said later: "The question is no longer: 'Whodunit?' but rather: 'How did he do it?' and: 'Why did he do it?' " And, she added: "For the mystery novel most likely to attract attention today is the one that gets farthest from the old formula."
Patrick discussed the criminal and the investigator: "A good mystery novel is, or should be, a good novel in which the accent is on mystery, crime and the detection of that crime. The crime chosen is usually murder, since murder is the crime with the most stature and the greatest emotional impact. See that it is thought out before you begin. Think of your plot forward and backward. First, identify yourself with the murderer; go along with him while he plots his crime, carries it out, and later tries to cover his tracks. When you are sure you have his behavior entirely accounted for, switch to the detective and do the same in reverse. Plan out what he will discover first, how he will interpret it, what it will lead him to next, and so on."
S.S. Van Dine wrote a very popular series of mystery novels featuring his amateur sleuth, Philo Vance. His article recited his 20 rules for writing detective stories, most of which still broadly apply today, including these: "All clues must be plainly stated and described. The culprit must be determined by logical deductions. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel. The problem of the crime must be solved by strictly naturalistic means. There must be but one detective. There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be rational and scientific. The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent. A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide."
And he dismissed clichéd devices such as creating confusion by using twins in the story or by overworked twists in locked-room murder stories.
The past was prologue
As we read and study these thoughtful comments from the 1954 handbook by some of the best authors of that era, we can see similarities in what they advised and what works today. These accomplished writers were in the vanguard of ideas and techniques influencing novel writers of the day--ideas that became a prologue for writers of the future. Present-day authors, teachers and editors continue to examine and expand our understandings of the present and future horizons of novels, providing instruction as well as "inspiring and stimulating" new writers--as A. S. Burack wished.
Sam McCarver's six novels in his John Darnell Mystery Series were published by Penguin Putnam and Five Star. His writing books, Novel Writing For Wanna-be's and Poetry Writing For Wanna-be's, were published by iUniverse, and incorporate his methods of teaching writing classes for nine years in Southern California.