James Scott Bell's The Art of War for Writers is a book on writing I come back to again and again for pithy, excellent advice. In Chapter 24 (pp. 71-76), Bell harkens back to the hallmarks of successful novel writing that were put forth by one of his idols: John D. MacDonald. Below are MacDonald's essentials, and some of Bell's comments on how to achieve them:
First, there has to be a strong sense of story. I want to be intrigued by wondering what is going to happen next. I want the people that I read about to be in difficulties—emotional, moral, spiritual, whatever, and I want to live with them while they're finding their way out of these difficulties.
—John D. MacDonald
James Scott Bell's comments: Notice . . . that the reader has to wonder what is going to happen next. To people. . . . Create characters readers will be drawn to and put them in desperate straits soon.
Second, I want the writer to make me suspend my disbelief; I want to be in some other place and scene of the writer's devising.
—John D. MacDonald
James Scott Bell's comments: Simply put . . . (w)e have to to create the impression of something really happening in a real world to real people. So how do you do this?
First, by being accurate. If you're writing about 1905 Los Angeles, do not include the Dodgers. . . . You have to know your world before you write about it. . . .
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 know it. Show me how other characters react to her.
Next, I want [the writer] to have a bit of magic in his prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases really sing.
—John D. MacDonald
James Scott Bell's comments: The key word here is unobtrusive. If the prose stands out too much, shouting "Look at me! I'm wonderful writing!" the suspension of disbelief takes a hit.
But if it's dull, if it moves the story along like a burro in Calexico, it creates no magic.
Example, from John D MacDonald's Darker Than Amber:
"She sat up slowly, looked in turn at each of us, and her dark eyes were like twin entrances to two deep caves. Nothing lived in those caves. Maybe something had, once upon a time. There were piles of bones back in there, some scribbling on the walls, and some gray ash where the fires had been."
Suggestions from Bell: Say you want to describe someone's wild hair. Write for five minutes without stopping. Describe the hair in two hundred or three hundred words. Let the images fly. Go back later and find the good parts and edit them down. . . . Write hot, revise cool. . . . And read some poetry. . . . The lilt of language will help you tap into different parts of your writer's brain.
Like I said, excellent advice from Bell. I'm at the beginning of revising a novel, over half of which I wrote eight years ago, then put aside. It was just more than I could carry at the time. It's a huge, powerful story that took all I had to give when I worked on it back then, and now, after writing other, lighter stories and novels while it lay fallow, I'm back at it. I've learned a lot about writing in the intervening years. Believe me, I want to get this novel right, because I think it might be real and moving and compelling—it deserves my best efforts. More about that in a later post, but I bring it up here because when I sat down to laser-focus in on making those revisions on the opening chapters, I wanted to test the results against excellent standards. I think these essentials and comments from MacDonald and Bell are great standards for that purpose. Or any novel writing, for that matter.
Do you have a favorite book on writing you go to to test your work against? There are many good ones. I'd love to hear what works for you, and why.