What I Learned from Jack Bickham’s The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them)
Book Review by: Leo N. Ardo
The stars have aligned, and you want to become a published fiction writer. Your dream is only 60,000 words away from an editor’s approval. Writing club members, family, and friends “really like your story,” so you dedicate extra time to writing. Your book is complete. Pride oozes from your soul as your manuscript is mailed to publishers. Then the rejection letters begin to appear in the mail. What do you do?
A suggestion is to read The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them), by Jack M. Bickham (1930–1997), an accomplished author and journalism professor at the University of Oklahoma.
Jack M. Bickham published seventy-five novels—some under the pseudonym John Miles, Jeff Collins, and Arthur Williams. Two of his books were turned into movies: Apple Dumpling Gang, and Baker’s Hawk. Bickham also wrote seven instructional books about fiction writing.
He was an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma beginning in 1969 and achieved full professor standing in 1979. The University of Oklahoma recognized him with their highest honor for teaching excellence: a David Ross Boyd Professor.
“In more than twenty years of teaching courses in professional writing at the University of Oklahoma, I think I’ve encountered almost every difficulty an aspiring writer might face. … So, despite the fact that I’ve chosen to write this book from what seems a negative stance, telling you what you shouldn’t do, please don’t fall into the trap of thinking negatively, or backwards, about my writing. … But my message is positive—always.” (From the Forward of The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes)
“Bickham chose the word ‘Forward’ to replace ‘Foreword’ to emphasize two vital points: All good fiction moves forward; all good writers look ahead.” (From the Forward of The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes)
This well written, well organized, and to-the-point book is a great reference for any writer. A sampling of the thirty-eight writing topics includes:
– Writing vivid compelling characters
– Getting started
– Writing to readers
– Using “said”
– Avoiding coincidence
– Clarity for readers
– Point of view
The chapters cover everything from getting your project started to preparing a manuscript package for an editor, and finishes with encouragement to start writing and keep writing.
Several entertaining chapters deal with character development: “Don’t Use Real People in Your Story”, “Don’t Write About Wimps”, and “Don’t Duck Trouble.”
Bickham offers guidance on who to seek advice from:
“But to ask a club member, relative or friend for criticism is mostly a waste of time for at least two reasons: they won’t be honest; they usually don’t know what they are doing anyway.” (Chapter 30, pg 85).
“A good writing coach is not just a teacher; he is an advisor, handholder, slave driver, critic, friend, psychologist, editor, even inspirational guru.” (Chapter 31, pg 89).
The chapters are one to three pages in length, and concisely describe common writing mistakes, and correct methods. Bickham has filled the 112-pages with valuable information, exercises, and examples. The book is a great addition to any writer’s reference library.
“Where are the problems? Editors rarely take the time to map them out, so Jack Bickham has. In this book, he spotlights the 38 most common fiction writing land minds—writing mistakes that can dynamite story ideas into slush pile rejects.” (From Back Cover of The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes)
I think “minds” is a typo, but it works well—much like the use of “Forward” for “Foreword.” “Minds” emphasizes that good fiction is born from the application of the writer’s craft, quality, knowledge, and understanding. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, good fiction is in the skilled mind of the writer—and reader.
Leo N. Ardo
As a young boy, I can recall sitting with my father at the local gas station listening to the stories, and thinking what a wonderful life. In reflection, we had everything that mattered: good friends, comfortable life, sense of community, … and good stories.
Now I am a thirty-five year veteran of small business, and author of the Jon Hersey – Industrial Spy series. Jon Hersey, the hero, battles terrorism on American soil. He must be a ghost to accomplish the goals of: culling terrorists from the company’s employees, maintaining employment, ensuring that products ship to the armed forces, and eliminating the shipments to the enemy.
Several short stories can be found at the blog listed below.
Another passion is photography, which I find to be similar to writing. A photograph tells a story—1000 words worth. Like an author, the photographer has to make judgment calls when framing—what to include, or exclude. Altering the position of the camera changes the exposure and may reveal flaws, much like a writer’s pen enlightens the reader by revealing character flaws.
When the world is closing in I pack up the fly-fishing gear. Fly-fishing has a required calming rhythm to cast a fly where it needs to land.
Saved for the happy ending: luck has blessed me with the girl in my dreams. We enjoy family, movies, travel, reading, golf, and biking. We call Utah and Wyoming home to be near our families.
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