People are not born knowing how to write fiction.
That seems obvious, but given the awe that’s sometimes bestowed on published authors, you’d think they possessed supernatural powers not available to regular mortals. That may be true in some cases, but most authors learn their craft through courses, workshops, practice and study. If they’re really lucky, they have a mentor.
I was really lucky.
Many years ago, we moved to the town of Manhattan, Kansas. I had a new baby, no job, and didn’t know anyone in town. In other words, I’d run out of the distractions that prevented me from doing what I’d always wanted to do – write a novel. (I know what you’re thinking…babies can be distracting. But they also sleep a lot.)
I’d had enough education to know how utterly clueless I was, so I signed up for a writing workshop starring Lee Killough, author of many science fiction and fantasy novels. The workshop was stimulating, fun, and inspiring. It was also short. I came out with some ideas about characterization and world building, but still no clue how to write a novel. Perhaps a handful of 1.5-hour sessions aren’t quite enough to give a wannabe writer everything she needs to know to write a book.
Enter Leonard Bishop.
Upon hearing that I was interested in writing, an acquaintance suggested that I join a local workshop mentored by some published author I’d never heard of. She said he was a great teacher. Fair enough. I joined the group. Little did I know what a treasure Leonard would be, both as a mentor and as a friend. I certainly didn’t know anything of his stature in the literary world until much later. From the 1950’s through the 1980’s, Leonard published numerous short stories and 13 books, both fiction and non-fiction, several of which were International and National Best Sellers in the US. His book, Against Heaven’s Hand, was made into the very first ABC Movie of the Week (called Seven in Darkness), and he wrote for TV shows such as Rawhide and Naked City.
Many more nice things could be said of Leonard’s writing career, but I’m getting off topic. While Leonard’s writing credentials can’t be denied, his greatest passion (professionally speaking) was for teaching. And he was renown for it. He taught at places like Columbia University and University of California, Berkeley, and was in high demand as a keynote speaker at writing conferences across the US. His book on writing, Dare to be a Great Writer, remained in print for over a decade. He really knew his stuff, and was happy to share it. Ninety-five percent of what I know about writing, I learned from him. The remaining five percent is just embellishment.
So, yeah, I was really lucky.
Leonard died in 2002. Now, as I’m about to begin a new novel, I feel the loss almost as keenly as I did when I heard that terrible news. I’ve lived with Valknut: The Binding for so long that I flounder at the prospect of starting something else. I really could use Leonard’s steadying insight, just now. But at least I have the notes I took in his writing group. Maybe they will be enough to help me get through this new first draft. And maybe they can help others get through the tough spots, too. With that in mind, I’m starting a new feature, called “What Would Leonard Do?” (WWLD for short. My apologies to the fans of the radio station by the same name.) Expect the first installment in a few days.