No, I’m not waiting for the devil. That only happens in rock’n’roll. I’m at a crossroads in my writing. And since the publishing industry moves notoriously slowly, I might be waiting a year or more for the devil to show up.
Instead, what I do when I’m at a crossroads in my writing (or just plain stuck) is read how-to-write-a-book books. Lots of these give advice on a specific element of novels. Some that I’ve read in the past few weeks are Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell and Bullies, Bastards and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction by Jessica Morrell. But my favorite how-to-write-a-book books are part instruction manual, part memoir by writers who have Made It.
The memoir I read most recently was Stephen King’s On Writing. Of all the how-to books, this one’s probably cited most often in the how-to literature, next to Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (which I found depressing, because she is even crazier than I am when it comes to writing = not helpful) and Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (which, as has been widely noted, breaks many of its own grammar and style rules). I’ve resisted reading King because I don’t like his genre, I did not enjoy reading The Shining, and I am tired of people telling me I can’t use adverbs because Stephen King said so in On Writing. I will use adverbs if I damn well please, and if and when I decide not to use them anymore, I will let you know.
I'm glad I finally broke down and read it. The book starts with his early life, which he admits he remembers only patches of. The patches occur when he endured a painful medical procedure or vomited. All of which you would expect from Stephen King, and if you were reading this book solely because you were his fan and wanted to know how his writing got so twisted, well, here’s your answer. After he used the bathroom in the woods and wiped with poison ivy, I skipped ahead a few sections.
The payoff for me was the last two-thirds of the book, in which he talks about his writing preferences (ex: no adverbs) and the writing life. Here is where I find solace in these sorts of books, whether or not I’m a fan of the author. The particulars of writing preferences may be different, but writers come to those preferences the same way, by experience, by writing lots of novels, many of which are never published. And the particulars of the writing life differ wildly, but the devotion to writing every day, and feeling a little sick if you do not--those are always the same.
Another of these books in my recent reading spree was Dennis Palumbo’s Writing from the Inside Out: Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within. Now, this title promises a lot, and I don’t think the book delivered. Basically the message is that if you feel unloved and undervalued in your writing career, you should channel those feelings into your novels, and write characters with the universal feelings of being unloved and undervalued. The message was not exactly supported by the story of the author’s friend, Let’s Call Him Larry, who was a brilliant writer but never could catch a break in the industry, gradually got old and fat and bitter, lost all his friends, and finally found himself at the end of his rope, in an interview as a college writing teacher. The professor interviewing him was about to dismiss him when a textbook fell off the table and opened to what it said was one of the finest examples of TV comedy writing--a Norman Lear comedy episode that Larry had actually penned!!! Hooray, Larry got the job! Palumbo is holding this up as a positive example of sticktuitiveness: you think you are working for the writing, but occasionally the writing will pay you back in an act of kindness. However, I did not see this as a positive example. It made me want to go back to bed and pull the covers over my head in the middle of the morning.
But again, I loved hearing Palumbo’s own, often hilarious, accounts of his experience writing, mostly as a screenwriter for TV shows like Welcome Back Kotter (which I loved so dearly when I was 6, and probably taught me a lot about comedy). If you have ever gotten a “good rejection” from an agent or editor that said she enjoyed your story and might like to see it again if only you changed all the bridesmaids in the wedding to space assassins, or something equally apropos of nothing, you will get a good laugh out of this book. (Which will fortify you for the story of Larry.)
My unexpected favorite was Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing by David Morrell. Morrell wrote the novel First Blood that later became, more or less, the Rambo movie series. At first Morrell seems inordinately proud of Rambo, and if you have not read his novels but remember the conservative pro-military fervor that surrounded the movies in the 1980s, you might find his pride a bit off-putting. But he goes on to detail his struggle toward publication, the strange things that happen to your books when they are made into movies, and horror stories about book signings that I previously could not have imagined, even in my heightened state of paranoia about public appearances and the audience that does not show up to them. I particularly loved his explanation of why he prefers not to write in first person, which I found logical but utterly wrong, something only an English professor (him) or a longtime English graduate student (me) would come up with, because we think too hard. Even more so than while reading the Palumbo and King books, I felt that Morrell and I are traveling the same path. He is way ahead of me; and Rambo, formerly following him, is now in front of him and clearing his path with a machete; and I may never reach the spot on the path where Morrell and Rambo are standing now--but it’s the same rocky path uphill both ways, and it’s comforting to see that traveling it is not impossible.
My critique partner Cathy loves how-to-write-a-book books even more than I do. My critique partner Vicki never touches the stuff. How about you? What are some of your faves? For good or ill, has a writing book ever changed your direction at the crossroads?