Oakley Hall, writer of westerns and fighter of wars, took a brief break from his typical American-West style fiction to bestow upon us two books of instruction. How Fiction Works, and The Art and Craft of Novel Writing. This is the story of the latter.
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Tip #1 (Straight from the 80’s. Y’know, where Michael Jackson is from):
Novel as a science, not an art.
I don’t want to mislead you: this first bit of novel writing advice was not from Hall himself, but his teacher. Apparently, “proper” sentences in novels were supposed to begin with certain words. There was a list of them. Hall does not recall.
Likewise, dialogue was supposed to be kept to two sentences per line, and no more than two sensory details should be employed. (Because Heavens to Betsy should our novels be too immersive!)
There was a strange trend of picking long-voweled names for main characters and shorter voweled names for background characters. Is that still a technique? I imagine it like a Rodgers and Hammerstein play in which the main couples wear similar colors to be distinguished as, you know, couples.
Much like an uptight Victorian woman, novels were supposed to be “of serious intent.” Hall was quick to say, though I’m paraphrasing, “It’s a damn novel. What isn’t serious about 70,000 words of pure stress?”
Tip #2 (from the decade that brought you MTV and Compact Discs):
Every Author Must Re-write the “Cortes Scene”
This one genuinely baffles me. While giving examples for pieces in which dramatization was done well, Hall includes excerpts of novels written specifically about the history of Cortes.
He starts with William Weber’s “factual biography,” and moves to Margaret Shedd’s historical novel, ALSO about Cortes.
Finally, Hall throws in the phrase, “In my own version of this departure…” which is an excerpt from a another FULL BOOK that he wrote about Cortes as if this is just a thing writers used to do! Were there writing schools in the 80’s that made you re-write a scene about Cortes? Is it like in art school where everyone has to draw a picture upside-down at some point?
Have all the greats written something about Cortes?
Writers? Do you guys secretly know what this is?
Is it code for something?
Are you getting sick of this joke yet?
Tip #3 (And other 80’s things that occurred):
Be hilariously and stubbornly unaware of the internet
I should really give ole’ Hall the benefit of the doubt on this one. His novel was published in ’89 and the internet wasn’t really a thing until the early 90’s.
But man did 80’s book publishing options seem like Hell. First of all, competition was no less than it is today. Publishers still didn’t take unsolicited manuscripts.
But if you did land a deal you had to correspond through actual mail.
And Traditional publishing takes a horrifically long time. Plus, to pitch the book successfully, the author must acquire a “list of powerful literary friends.” Which, where does one find those in the wild? But at least the editor will meet him halfway… by supplying authors from his own Rolodex.
I’m sorry, a Rolodex? Ah, 80’s tech. So endearing, so earnest. When a book of cards on a binder ring was considered an essential business tool, what a time that was!
Hall leaves off with a hopeful note, “But of course, most will not take off. A novelist’s experience has been likened to the grief syndrome: anxiety, rage, bitterness, self-reproach, and finally, acceptance. The purest moment of pleasure she will experience is holding that first copy of her novel in her hands.”
Thanks, Hall. We writers feel absolutely buoyed, now!
The book actually has some pretty great (real) tips, if you’d like. Want it? You can buy it here for a whole dollar (which was a lot of money in the 80’s. Okay. Done with the 80’s jokes.)
Had any strange novel writing advice? Let’s talk in the comments!