by Leonard Bishop, Author of Dare To Be A Great Writer
This is an” advertisement for myself.” It is directed to those people who are interested in improving their writing abilities and becoming professional writers. I cannot be falsely modest or self-effacing. It is an advertisement. I am also grabbing some space and not paying for it. Ha!
All I need is 52 more pages to complete my first non-fiction book on professional fiction writing. It will have a short, realistic introduction, an index which will serve as a “table of contents” and a photograph of my blunt face on the book jacket. It will also contain a promise. “If you do not learn more about how to write a short story or novel after reading it, then give up writing because you don’t even know how to read.” When the book is finished, I will announce it, and begin taking pre-publication orders. You will probably save about five dollars. Don’t send any money now. Just a note claiming you want the book. Here’s how it all began.
In about 1970 I began teaching a private writing class in Berkeley on Monday nights. They were interesting classes and writing knowledge was coming out of me that I did not realize I contained. Socrates once said,”How do I know what I think until I hear it.” There was an elderly woman, Helen Brown, who was–and still is–a marvelous prose writer and poet. She was always taking notes. She wrote strange novels. One was about a skinny woman who was in love with a whale and wanted the enormous mammal for her lover. Helen was the traditional Berkeley “free spirit.”
One day she just disappeared. She disencumbered herself of worldly possessions and wandered. She traveled to Mendocino, a small town near the ocean. One month after I had moved to Herington she sent me a large volume, The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, with the note, “I am unburdening. I know you have always wanted this book.”
In January of 1985, I received another parcel from her. It contained 750 typewritten pages of the notes she had taken while I was teaching. The accompanying note stated:”I am still unburdening.” I was astonished. Celia said, “It was so good of her to send it,” then clasped her hands in joy. “This is a God-send. You’ve always wanted to do a book on writing techniques. You’ve just finished re-writing your novel. Instead of doing another novel, why not do your book on writing.” After some days of mulling, I accepted Celia’s advice. But I was hesitant, I was troubled.
I have no knowledge of grammar. My educational background was industrial high school, and no more. I can mortise a joint and solder an electrical connection, but if asked to analyze a sentence, I feel as foolish as if I had stumbled into a nudist colony wearing a green tuxedo. Celia sensed my discouragement, “You’re having a self-pity party, Hon,” she said.
“Look at all the years you’ve been writing. Just about every kind of writing there is. Not knowing grammar never phased you before. Write the book the way you teach. Honestly. Bluntly. You know what unpublished writers need. Give them what they can’t get in other books. Your expertise is in the craft of writing, not the theory of writing. Think of what you’ve disliked in all those “how-to-write” books you’ve read, and leave that blather out.”
I began reading Helen Brown’s notes on what I taught. They were incited and instructive, but disorganized and related only to particular manuscripts I had criticized. My instruction did not apply to everyone. I put the notes aside and used a format Celia had suggested. “Leave yourself completely out of it. Deal only with technique. People who write want specific techniques and examples. Tell them how to do it, then demonstrate how it is done through examples and actual writing.”
And now the book is almost complete. There is no lard in what I have written. Only protein. It is jammed with craft-insights that other writers have either ignored or were unable to articulate. Here’s a quick sample.
There are eight basic functions for the use of dialogue. They are: to inform, to gain information, to begin relationships, to reaffirm relationships, to express feelings, to state thoughts, to provide insight to character, to alter the meaning of a situation. But dialogue can be used for structural functions that have nothing to do with what is spoken. To change character viewpoints, to cause transitions in place and time, to relieve the “eye” from reading tedious blocks of prose, as a substitute for narration, to alter disposition, etc.
How is the structure of a historical novel, horror novel, and adventure/thriller/backsplash spy novel developed? Or the family novek, the saga novel, the generational novel, the romantic novel, the contemporary novel? What is the purpose of the sex scene? How do you write a sex scene without being pornographic, yet not pressy? Why should you use a recollection and not a flashback? Because a flashback is an abrupt interruption to the flow of the plot. It forces the reader back in time and impedes the flow ahead of the present. What is double and triple foreshadowing? When you are fulfilling the story as compared to unfolding the plot? How do you deepen a major character and how much depth do you give to secondary characters. Is there male prose, and female prose?
Whee, whee,! I am too restrained within my aged dignity to giggle and jiggle with the elation of accomplishment, but I am happy. I have written the book I wish had been written when I first began to write
I will have this book for the span of time it takes me to write 50 more pages. Then it is no longer mine. I will have my name on it, but I will feel no attachment to it. It is a finished book, but not completed. There is still so much to write about writing. I’ll write another novel, next. And learn some more. Then, perhaps, do another book on the craft-techniques of writing. Yeah, yeah. Wow. Dear God, there’s so much more to do.
© Copyright Leonard Bishop
first published Sunday, September 8, 1985 the Manhattan Mercury)