Tuesday, August 11, 2009

What I learned from books on writing

I sometimes miss that blissful time when I wrote my first novel, unaware that there were dozens of books out there presenting countless rules and recommendations for what I was attempting to do. I've picked up a few things since then, and the advice that has resonated often had little to do with the actual writing and everything to do with the attitudes that might make the difference between being a productive writer or a frustrated one.

On Writing by Stephen King:
I learned from King's recounting of his years spent collecting rejection slips that those little forms are not symbols for "Failed Writer". You place the slip in the appropriate file and move on.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield:
Mr. Pressfield wrote this book for me. He turns a spotlight on writers' block in all its manifestations: fear, resistance, procrastination, obsessiveness, self-dramatization, self-medication, victimhood, self-doubt, toxic relationships, support (yes, you read that right), and rationalization. Then he tells you how to combat it all, and his recommendation is simple: You turn pro. How does a professional approach his work? Apply the same principles to your writing and see the difference.

"A professional shows up every day."
"A professional demystifies."
"A professional acts in the face of fear."
"A professional does not show off."
"A professional self-validates."

There's lots more, and it's all written with the authority that comes only from first-hand experience, aka the school of hard knocks.

Page After Page by Heather Sellers:
Here's another writer who demystifies. She knows that declarations like 'waiting for my muse' are nothing but lame excuses. "It's a matter of sitting down, conjuring a state of complete dedication and complete openness, and writing. Putting pen to paper." No hocus-pocus there.

What else did she teach me? To talk less about writing, and write more. That except for a very few lucky souls, being published (finally!) does not change your life. You won't be rich and famous, loved and admired by everyone, rail-thin and immune to chocolate binges. You'll still have to deal with all your bumps and warts; those don't disappear once you get published.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White:
This book gives great advice on the fine points of usage, common errors, and style. There was little in there I didn't already know after having taught the language for 22 years, but that slim book clarified something vital I had hitherto understood only superficially: the US version of my mother tongue is a very different beast from the UK version I was taught.

I've got two more books on writing lined up: Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, the title of which has just the sort of new-agey tone I'm a sucker for. (Did someone mention the word demystify?) Next to it on my bedhead bookshelf is The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. I'll be sure to let you know what I learn from those in a later post.

Liane Spicer


Anonymous said...

I haven't read the others but I can definitely recommend Stephen King's On Writing. His "unearthing your hidden story" thing really hit home for me, for example. My only criticism of the book is that there's no index nor any other easy way to relocate the gems of wisdom; you have to read the whole thing again.

Jewel Amethyst said...

That statement about the US version of my mother tongue really jumped out at me and I had to smile. I always knew it was different, I just didn't realize how different until I taught high school in the US. On a different note, I'll definitely read a few of recommended books.

Terence Taylor said...

Love it!

I like practical stuff that gives people something concrete to walk away with, and you cite two favorites I always recommend, "On Writing" and Strunk and White -- I have a hardcover copy of the illustrated edition by my desk always. It was a gift, I usually just had my old tattered paperback early edition.

Bradbury's book is WONDERFUL and you have to get it today and read it, a slim volume that takes less than an hour but is as inspirtational to the true writer as Octavia Butler's brief but fiery essay "Furor Scribendi," that sums it all up into three words -- Read. Write. Daily.

"The Artist's Way" is an interesting exercise, most of which I did before reading it. The morning pages are a good way to break through to regular writing and honesty in writing, but anyone who doesn't already take their inner child out for a battery recharge at museums, to play and visit new places isn't trying. ;) The whole thing got a little culty and magical thinking for me. I shouldn't judge it by its proponents in L.A. who all had the same feral gleam in their eye as Scientologists when they asked if you've read it. I'm sorry -- it was "do it" -- "Do you do the Artist's Way?" Cue the thunder.

I also recommend Walter Mosley's "This Year You Write Your Novel" -- 100 pages, $20, but it sums up how to just get it done beautifully, and even though 98% I had figured out by trial and error, he gave me two things I hadn't gotten completely until I read his description.

Write on!

Marissa Monteilh said...

Great tips, and reminders!! Recently, I revised a book I wrote in 1999 and yes, there is something to be said for the rawness without the rules. I did read On Writing, but will make sure to add the others to my list - thanks!

Phyllis Bourne said...

Great book suggestions. I also love Heather Seller's follow up to Page after Page, "Chapter After Chapter".

JJ Beattie said...

I've got several of those you mention Liane.

I spent a lot of time reading them before writing... finally I seem to be getting down to the actual writing.

Farrah Rochon said...

"A professional acts in the face of fear."

That's the one I'll take with me and try to approve upon. So many times I allow the fear to win. I've got to stop that.

Stephen King's On Writing is another great one!

Fabulous, Liane!

Liane Spicer said...

Captain Black, I reread On Writing every couple of years for the same reason.

Jewel, I first realized how different it was when I had to go through my manuscript and change all the UK-isms to US-isms for the US publisher.

Terence, Bradbury's has been on my bedhead for months - I'll move it to the top of the TBR pile. Interesting thoughts on Artist's Way - seems the book/method is something of a phenomenon but I had no idea it had reached cult status. I'll 'do' it soon. :) I tried to find Butler's essay online but didn't so Bloodchild is now on my wish list. And Mosley's too. (It's $9.99 on Amazon!) Thank you for these suggestions!

Liane Spicer said...

Marissa, you're welcome. Life was simpler when the only voice in your head was your own, wasn't it? :)

Phyllis, I'd forgotten there was a follow-up. Chapter is going on my list too. Thanks!

JJ, I sorta did things the other way round! Congratulations on doing so well on the wip - the home stretch is just around the corner!

Farrah, that's what I like about connecting with other writers - the comfort of knowing you're not alone with your anxieties. The fear has had the upper hand lately. Need to rally and get back in the fight.