WIR #7: You Can Write a Novel

You Can Write a NovelBocca, Geoffrey. You Can Write a Novel. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. Copyright © 1983, by Geoffrey Bocca.



I first read this back around 1999 or 2000, I think it was, when I lived in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. I'd borrowed it from the local library. A couple of years after reading it, I decided I wanted to buy it. I placed my order with Amazon. They didn't have it in stock, but said they'd place an order for it with one of their third-party vendors. Time passed and I completely forgot about the book. Nearly a year later, the book arrived on my doorstep, and when I received it, I devoured it as quickly as I did the first time. I know I've read this little volume twice since I came into ownership of it, and now I'm going to read it again, for a fourth time. It's only 130 pages, so I expect to finish it quickly.

The 'About the Author' at the end of the book is sad:

GEOFFREY BOCCA was the prolific and successful author of eleven novels, seven biographies, four travel books, three histories, and one volume of literary criticism. As Author in Residence and teacher of creative writing, he was associated with several American universities, most recently with Pennsylvania State University. Mr. Bocca died suddenly in London on July 8, 1983, while correcting the galleys of this, his last, book.

The blurb on the back is a lengthy one, but enlightening:

Look elsewhere for mathematical formulas on how to write a novel. You won't find them here.

This is the "how to write" book with a difference. Geoffrey Bocca — who has published twenty-six books — says that "of all the rules of writing fiction, the most ironclad of all is that no rule is absolutely ironclad."

In this refreshingly original book, the author makes you a participant of the freemasonry of novelists. To be sure, Bocca provides instruction on all the standard creative-writing topics — setting, plot, characterization, and so on — and it is eminently practical, sound instruction. But what makes this book so valuable is the author's advice in addition to formal instruction. For Bocca is concerned with the writing process — the practical nuts-and-bolts business of sitting down at a typewriter and creating strong, marketable fiction.

The book abounds in illustrative anecdotes. Did you know, for example, that Ernest Hemingway frequently typed standing up? Or that Harold Robbins keeps a list of his characters' birthdays on the wall above his typewriter? And Bocca is generous in providing prose excerpts from a wide variety of fiction (from James Joyce to Judith Krantz) to show you exactly what he means by active language, dialogue, monologue, characterization, description, downbeat tension at the end of a chapter, hooks, fast opening paragraphs, and much more. He goes into detail on the touchy problems of how to handle sex, violence, and obscenities and four-letter words — unavoidable aspects of fiction whose handling is generally ignored in text-books. And Bocca devotes an entire chapter to getting published, featuring inside tips learned from years of experience with editors, agents, and publishing houses.

If you're an aspiring novelist or a creative-writing student, you can't miss this book. Much more than just a manual, it is both engaging to read and a real eye-opener for the practitioner.

One of the things I enjoy most about this book is Bocca's diction. It is thoroughly British and I've always found it a refreshing change from most of the how-to books I own on writing.

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