Monday, August 17, 2015

State of Hope

Phyllis A. Whitney

I am constantly looking for a writing craft book or article, organized notebook, online class, or writing conference that will bring all the elements together to make me the writer I want to be. I search the computer and scope out the writing sections of bookstores and libraries, certain the magical resource is out there if only I can locate it.

Perhaps this continuing optimism comes from the memory of discovering Phyllis A. Whitney’s books that gave me a step-by-step writing process and helped me to focus on the craft of creating a story. I will never forget my aunt giving me a copy of Whitney’s Guide to Fiction Writing (Boston, MA: The Writer, Inc., 1982) (which she bought as a selection from her book-of-the-month club). I consider it a prized possession. That gift let me know my aunt shared my vision, believed in me as an author, and supported my dream.

While some of Whitney’s advice doesn’t match the current publishing industry, other pearls of wisdom are timeless:
(1)    On why she does not need to apologize for following a “formula” for mystery writing: “Having found my niche, I’ve worked out a pattern that enables me to venture within its broad boundaries and never find myself bored.” (p. ix)

(2)    “Perhaps opportunity is like a train on an endless track. Now and then it makes a stop at your station, often without fanfare and without warning.” (p. 4)

(3)    “What you do now counts. . . . Work and wait and learn, and that train will come by. If you give up, you’ll never have a chance to climb aboard.” (p. 9)

(4)    “[W]e all write somehow – making time – and habit grows strong with practice. The challenge is always the same: How much do you want to write? Not just to be a writer, but to write.” (p. 12)

(5)    “[Y]ou must develop your own writing pattern.” (p. 12)

(6)    “[Y]ou’ll learn to use what comes, good and bad, and it will become part of whatever you are, and find its way under many disguises into your work.” (p. 13)

(7)    “[D]evelop the habit of observation and analysis.” (p. 13)

Maybe my favorite part of the book is Chapters 3 and 4, where Whitney explains how she sets up her own notebook for writing a novel. Chapter 3 covers “the Preliminaries” and proposes the following divisions for the writer’s notebook: a calendar (to measure progress); a list of potential titles; a chronology in two parts, the first listing a chapter-by-chapter summary and the second providing information about characters and story events; and a section to explore theme and situation.
In Chapter 4, she gets to “the Heart of the Matter.” The notebook sections described are for: plotting, characters, an outline, material to be checked (including matters for research as well as details to be verified), a bibliography of sources consulted, research notes, background unique and perhaps created for the novel, and a collection of potential names.
Some of the sections in Whitney’s notebook are specific for a single work while others may be continued through several works. She offers her method as a system that works for her and may be adapted by other writers to suit their practice.

The second part of Whitney’s book is about structuring a story and has chapters explaining how to deal with the beginning, middle, and end; add suspense and emotion; create intriguing characters; deal appropriately with time, transitions, and flashbacks; and revise. The shortest chapter provides advice on getting the book published.

At the end, Whitney says, “This is a book about writing. I hope it’s a book you will mark up and use – as I do my collected books on writing. I hope as well that you’ve found in it some of the encouragement we all need to keep us going.” (p. 140)
How amazing that Whitney’s voice continues to humbly reach out to future generations seeking the same type of career she achieved through hard work, persistence, and taking advantage of any luck that came her way. No wonder Whitney has been viewed not only as a grand master of the craft, but also a great supporter of the profession. She’s an incredible role model.

Have you found the “perfect” method? Are you willing to share it? Who’s your role model?


  1. I am far from having perfected any method, but I certainly owe Phyllis Whitney a debt of gratitude because her "formula" books hooked me in and turned me on to mystery at a very young age. Ironically, I don't think I ever saw her book on writing.

  2. Debra, I'm convinced that she wrote a version for YA readers, because I remember a book I kept checking out of the library, but I have not been able to find it through the Internet. She has written the Guide and a book about writin YA for adults. Her method helped me organize. I follow it with my own adaptations.

  3. That should be writing YA for adults!