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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

At the crossroads

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?


Barbara Caridad Ferrer said...

I've glanced at my share, including Bird by Bird which was, as you say, incredibly depressing but basically, I don't get a whole lot from them. I tend to have issues with any writer who says you "must" do something a certain way because a) I so don't and b) um, anyone see the irony in a creative type such as a writer, insisting that rules have to be followed for a creative pursuit borne of one's imagination?

Makes no sense to me. I mean, beyond learning the basic structural rules of writing, which is good if you want your work to be readable.

scott neumyer said...

Great post! I make it a point to listen to the audiobook version of ON WRITING at least once a year... it's a nice way to get back into the flow and feeling of writing.

Jenny O'Connell said...

I have Bird by Bird on my bookshelf because I felt, as a writer, I should. Read and page and stopped. Am not a big fan of "writing" books - when I'm stuck I just read stuff I like, old favorites, and they get me going again. If I analyzed being "a writer" I'd probably never write again for fear I wasn't anguished enough to ever be a good writer. You never hear about happy, fun people being writers - they're all head cases. Can't positive, upbeat people who like a good laugh write too?

Jennifer Echols said...

Jenny, this is a great point. Maybe only anguished writers feel the need to write books about writing, and only other anguished writers like me feel the need to read them--but there's another whole segment of the writing population out there that doesn't fit the anguished mold.

zac said...

Bird by Bird by Anne Lammott. Everything else has been annoying. Oh, and Zen in the Art of Writing.

Summer said...

I really enjoyed Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I thought it was really informative and also fun to read.

Jennifer Echols said...

Zac--I've seen Zen in the Art of Writing mentioned quite a few places. I'll have to check that out.

Summer--I enjoy Self-Editing for Fiction Writers too. My favorite line, in their chapter on sophistication: "Just think about how much power a single obscenity can have if it's the only one in the whole f***ing book" (but they use the word). This is the only one-liner I remember from the book, which proves their point.

Nisha said...

I love 'On Writing' by King. It really was an inspirational piece. I read a lot of instruction manual type stuff, though. 'Story' by Robert McKee was the latest and it was FABULOUS. I write fiction, but just visualizing plot structure from a screen writer's point of view was really great.



Jan Blazanin said...

After reading all the other comments, I'm almost afraid to post here because Bird by Bird truly made me laugh out loud. Please note the use of the adverb "truly." One of my favorite writing books is Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel. He presents some interesting ideas about plotting and character relationships. I've read lots of books about writing, and I always learn something new. If nothing else, those books motivate me to get my rear in the chair and go back to work!

Jennifer Echols said...

Jan--I love the Maass book too and pull it out to re-read about once a year.

Zac--thank you so much for mentioning Zen in the Art of Writing. I'm about 3/4 through and it's such a hoot. I think Ray Bradbury is that writer Jenny O. has been looking for, who seems so happy with his writing. For me, this is the best how-to-write-a-book book yet.