Book Review: Writing Novels That Sell by Jack Bickham


Vision 76


Book Review:

Writing Novels That Sell by Jack Bickham

Reviewed By

Erin Hartshorn

Copyright © 2014, Erin Hartshorn, All Rights Reserved


This is an older book (and only available used), and some of the advice that Bickham passes out makes that clear. Not just the comments like "If you're a wife, you can cook a real dinner. If you're a husband, you can actually cut the grass," but comments about what bestsellers have in common for POV or dialogue or how quickly the primary goal of the main character arises in a book. On the other hand, if you actually do the exercises he recommends and study what's selling today, it's fairly easy to discover what specific bits of advice he offers are fashion rather than foundation.

And there's a lot of solid foundation in this book -- everything from discussing characters' self-concepts to clarity of story questions to a discussion of what effect different types of writing (narration, exposition, dialogue, etc.) have on pacing for your novel. Bickham also provides a good bibliography for those who may want more details in a specific area, including a couple of books on body language (useful for those of us who rely heavily on smiles, eye rolls, frowns, and shrugs).

Some specific nuggets I culled for my own use: "Our primary motivation isn't self-preservation, but preservation of the symbolic self." "...dramatic working out of an external conflict in the plot action which shows and worsens the conflict inside the character." "Nothing in storytelling fails like letting the lead character succeed." "The more intense the pressure, the more slowly and minutely you cover the action or thought, moment by moment, with nothing left out."

The meat of the book, however, is in his discussion of scene and sequel. I'd avoided both Bickham and Dwight V. Swain because this concept made no sense to me when I was first starting out. I've had a definition of scene ingrained into my head since I first read a play back in middle school -- and even if I've broadened that definition so I no longer think the scene changes whenever people enter or exit, this was such a radical departure that I got hung up wondering why they didn't just use a different word. Chapters are broken up into scenes, right? But no, each of those sections could have several scenes and sequels within them.

A scene, per Bickham, is a component of the story that plays out like real life -- it's all in the now, inside one person's head, where we know that there are consequences to the actions -- specifically, a scene has a goal (which relates to the story goal in a clear fashion), conflict, and a disaster. Yup, every scene ends in reversal -- the character is worse off than when she started.

A sequel also has a set pattern: emotional reaction to the setback, quandary -- a struggle to figure out what to do when all choices look bad, a decision, and action based on the decision (which leads to the next scene). Unlike a scene, time can be skipped, transitions occur. It tends to read more slowly.

I don't necessarily go through and make certain I have all seven of these elements in order, but understanding the sequence has definitely improved my dramatic structure -- as simple a thing as moving the emotion to before the character is thinking about why they feel that way makes a big difference.

Then Bickham gets complicated and starts talking about skipping scenes or sequels, placing them out of order, and otherwise playing with the presentation of the story to the reader. I won't sugarcoat this -- when I read this section of the book, I was dubious. He can tell me that a published book uses these tricks, but as a reader, if I don't see the scene or sequel there, or they're out of order, how much confidence do I have that the author really intended them? It felt like Bickham was saying basically, "Don't worry if you read a book that doesn't seem to follow these rules. Trust me, it does, and you should always do things the way I'm telling you to." When I go back and reread this book in a few years (which I will; I'm sure I'll get more out of it by revisiting it), I may feel differently, but right now, it comes across as shoving a square peg into a round hole to prove he's right.

Overall, this isn't a quick reading book. Each chapter should be read and studied, with careful thought given to how the ideas presented relate to your writing. I strongly recommend working through at least some of the exercises he suggests to more fully understand what he's saying. I wouldn't recommend this as a beginning text, or as only one of a handful on a shelf, but if you've achieved a certain level in your writing and you're looking for something that digs in deeper, this is a good book to turn to.

Writing Novels That Sell
Jack M. Bickham
Fireside (a division of Simon & Schuster)