Bill Bucko

Advice to Fiction Writers

59 posts in this topic

Jim A.: You prepare yourself by living, thinking independently, and being a passionate valuer. Do those things, and don't worry about writing.

My most important novel, The Outcasts, grew naturally out of my own life. From my earliest years I wanted to understand things for myself. I was never willing to take my parents and their irrational behavior on faith. That led to violent clashes and constant strife. My father came within an inch of killing me.

When I started writing, as an adolescent (right after a reading of The Brothers Karamazov led me to break with religion), I wrote stories denouncing Christianity. Religion had always been important to me, as a child, because the meaning of life was important to me. And I thought that it was true. But once I saw it was a lie, all my idealism made me revolt against it. In college, I tackled my first novel, Bring Me Giants!, about an atheist scholar at the court of the first Renaissance pope, in 1451. It was an apprentice work, melodramatic, about the hero's narrow escape from the Inquisition.

But my second novel is on quite a different level. Rather than being a melodrama, it's a drama---about a family destroyed by the "family values" of faith and obedience. It grew out of my own experience. The characters are partially inspired by my own family. They're also significantly different--it is definitely a work of fiction. The hero is not me, he's only halfway based on me. But the similarities are enough to give me familiar emotional territory to work on--and to develop into a startling, harrowing plot.

And I did lots of background reading. That suggests ideas. I was lucky. In an old book from the mid-1800s, I came upon a dark secret forgotten for centuries, about Christianity's destruction of the human spirit. I discovered something far worse than being burned at the stake. There's something the Church made women do--to themselves, at the end of the Middle Ages. And it brings one of my characters to the most wrenching end imaginable--her soul torn apart in an agony that makes hell seem like child's play.

That's the pattern. I didn't write about religion vs. life because my philosophy told me there was a clash. Or because I wanted to teach people something. NO. I wrote about it because I had lived it.

I'll try to post some chapters from The Outcasts, soon. (I've been too busy, up till now, with my project on Ayn Rand's French children's magazines.)

It's probably a good path to follow: learn your craft writing an adventure tale, then deepen your skills on a more personal work.

* * *

The book Betsy recommends is the best "how to" book I've seen. But read it once, make a filing card or two of notes, and put it away. Absorb some common sense lessons from it, then practice on your own. Don't try to write "by the book."

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I'd like to also suggest Sol Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. He was the editor for Elia Kazan among many other famous writers. While not as structured as Structuring your Novel that Betsy has recommended (and that I have as well), and sometimes his exercises I think are without worth, he has some real good advice to offer. He has a recurring theme of making sure the writer shows and not tell, and a focus on conflict as the focal point of plot. It is also fun to read because he rips on John Grisham at many points in the book as an example of bad writing. Another value is the sections on getting rid of flab in writing.

I recommend this book with a stiff warning, the gems are laid in a bed of equally bad advice. But it does give a particular focus, from an editor's point of view, on legitimate points that will any author that needs it.

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Jim, I cannot answer for Bill, nor am I a writer, but I know what is important to me. I know what gets me excited to see and hear about. I know the type of people I would enjoy meeting. I also know the types of demands I like to put upon myself and see if I can overcome them. I know what I think of as heroic actions and the types of stands that I would like to see taken. I think, these types of things will lead to what or how you want to portray your stories and the characters. I do not think someone should or could write about something they do not care about or have very little knowledge about, you need to have a passion for it.

Again, this is just my insight on the subject.

It's good insight. Thanks!

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Thank you, La Zafada, for your idea in post #47, and you, Bill, for post #51. You've both given me alot to think about.

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Thank you, La Zafada, for your idea in post #47, and you, Bill, for post #51. You've both given me alot to think about.

Keep at it, Jim! I wish you a smashing success... after much work.

IMO we need good artists who understand Objectivism more than we need new philosophy professors. :P

Here are some of the people whose writing advice I've found useful. Sometimes I only got a single idea from their work that I was able to incorporate into my own way of working, but it was a good idea.

Some have books available, and others give workshops or offer newsletters on line.

Martha Alderson

Jack M. Bickham

Lawrence Block

Dorothea Brande

Orson Scott Card

Debra Dixon

James N. Frey (not the recently controversial James Frey)

Michael Hauge

April Kihlstrom

Margie Lawson

Donald Maass

Dwight Swain

Alfie Thompson

Karen Wiesner

Al Zuckerman

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Here are some of the people whose writing advice I've found useful.


Noah Lukeman

Christopher Vogler

If you're at all interested in writing popular fiction, you should be aware of Vogler, even if you don't use his ideas. His "hero's journey," based on Joseph Campbell's studies of mythology, is very influential today in terms of story structure.

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Up until tonight I found the best way to summarize what I've observed from fiction writers who admire Ayn Rand in Bill's #35 post. Those didactic monstrosities are, simply, rationalistic presentations that mimic art. I almost didn't think anyone else noticed this.

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I don't keep track of literary trends, never know what's on the Best Seller lists, and rarely discover any modern author except by accident (or upon recommendation from a friend). But I recently heard an author, Philip Pullman, being denounced by religionists for writing a series of children's books with an atheistic moral. ("The Golden Compass," a movie to be released in December, is based on the first book in the series.)

I'm rather skeptical, since the samples I've read are full of "daemons," angels, magic, etc. How do you expect to wean children away from one fantasy (religion), while promoting another form of the same? Isn't the whole point of atheism that the supernatural doesn't exist?

(I wish someone would tell that to the Editor-in-Chief of a prominent non-religious publishing house, who was "intrigued" by my description of my atheistic novel The Outcasts, sat on the manuscript for almost 2 years without returning my messages, then sent it back saying they had decided to concentrate on fantasy and science fiction.)

Well, I've just discovered the author's website:

and found he does have some worthwhile things to say about writing:


"Where do you get your ideas from?

... I once said in answer to this that I subscribed to Ideas 'R' Us, and someone wrote in and asked for the address.

But what interests me is why people ask. I can't believe that everyone isn't having ideas all the time. I think they are, actually, and they just don't recognise them as potential stories."

"Who do you write for - children or adults?

Myself. No-one else ..."

"What advice would I give to anyone who wants to write?

Don't listen to any advice, that's what I'd say. Write only what you want to write. Please yourself. YOU are the genius, they're not..."

"How does it feel to receive a good review or an award?

I feel pleased to live in a world where there are such good critics.

And how does it feel to receive a bad review?

I feel sad to live in a world where there are such poor critics."

"Do you test out your stories on anyone while you¹re writing them?

Never. My stories are none of the readers' business until I have finished them. The idea of asking people what they think is so bizarre as to be inconceivable to me; if these people know how a story should go, why aren't they writing stories of their own? ..."

"Do you think it¹s important for aspiring children¹s writers to keep in mind current trends or should they in fact forget such considerations?

What they should do is take no notice whatsoever, and write exactly what they want to write. Back in 1996, how many people did we hear saying "We want the first Harry Potter book! ..." None, is the answer. It's silly to ask the public what it wants. The public doesn't know what it wants until it sees what you can offer. So follow the whole of your nature and
write the book that only you can write
, and see what happens." [emphasis added by BB]

"Can aspiring writers learn much from creative writing courses or 'how-to' books?

Goodness knows. I don't think they would have helped me much. The most useful quality you can have as a writer (given a basic amount of talent) is stubbornness, pig-headedness, call it what you will - the insistence against all the evidence that you will produce something worth reading. I'm not sure you can teach that."

"For somebody looking to get their stories for children published, is there any single piece of advice you would offer them?

It's implicit in the answer above: write exactly what only you can write. Don't make commercial calculations. Be crazy about it. Insist on the primacy of your own vision."

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I've posted the first third of my novel The Outcasts at

Like Ed Cline's Sparrowhawk series, it shows the level of writing that can be achieved when you take fiction seriously, as a profession in its own right -- as Ayn Rand did and all the great writers have done -- not as a mere means of illustrating your philosophy, or a didactic tool. The essence of fiction is story-telling.

If you want to teach, write a textbook. If you insist on writing little tracts posing as fiction, glorifying the Objectivist virtues, you've reversed the proper order:

Objectivism does not demand that you devote your life to it. On the contrary. It requires that you devote it to your life.

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