Books on Writing

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¤ The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner

Another oldie but goodie is Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers. Its good less so for technical advice but strong on how to deal with the roller coaster ride that is writing from the point of view of an experienced editor.

Lerner helps you sort out what kind of writer you are, and therefore what strategies you might need to invoke to get that manuscript finished, how to deal with rejection and has some practical advice for what editors are looking for and what publishing is like for authors. It’s done with compassion and humour.

Key take outs:

  • Editors see themselves as de facto therapists in that their ‘author presents a set of symptoms as clearly as a patient visiting a doctor…When an editor works with an author they cannot help seeing into the medicine cabinet of their soul.’
  • She has many great quotes, including this one from Don DeLillo: ‘The writer has lost a great deal of influence, and he is situated now, if anywhere, on the margins of culture. But isn’t this where he belongs? How could it be any other way?…This is the perfect place to observe what’s happening at the dead centre of things…The more marginal, perhaps ultimately the more trenchant and observant and finally necessary he’ll become.’
  • I’m not alone, there are other writers out there like me. Writing is hard for many people and that’s normal. Phew!

Score: 8/10 Reassuring

¤ Writing the Breakout Novel: Insider Advice for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level by Donald Maass

This writing book aims to help you take your fiction to the next level. If you know the basics of writing, it’s a great guide on how to do this. I found it practical as well as motivating.

Maass talks about the premise, stakes, time and place, character, plotting, POV, endings, and I love that it also discusses theme. In short, it’s pretty thorough.

Key take outs:

  • The great novel should sweep you away with unforgettable characters, and dramatic and meaningful events. The essence of a great story is conflict.
  • High stakes come from your own stakes in writing your story. An author who is fired up, or rather who fires up their characters as their proxies, stands a much better chance of crafting a spellbinding story.
  • Use exposition – interior monologues – in which there is no action to deepen dilemmas and increase tension e.g. irresolution and mixed feelings.
  • To set your voice free, set your words, characters and heart free.
  • Novels are moral. Say something passionately that must be said.

Score: 9/10 = It works

¤ Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A Scott Berg

I love this beautifully written 1978 biography of the editor, Max Perkins. It’s not so much a how-to book on writing but a story of how a humble though intellectual man discovered, fought for and supported his list of writers, many of whom became famous.

It’s an inspirational  book about the process of writing and how it renders even well-established authors terminally insecure. I also loved the deep discourse between his stable of writers on writing. If you’re looking for inside stories about authors such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wolfe, Rawlings etc. (not many women, sigh) then this is a good book to dip into when you’re in the mood.

Key take outs:

  • It gives inspiration and comfort about how fickle the writing process can be
  • Cut out every word that is not essential to the meaning of the writing
  • Great writers take great risks e.g. Tom Wolfe saying he’s “going into the woods for two or three years” to “try to do the best, the most important piece of work I have ever done.”

Score: 10/10 = Fascinating

¤ Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

This big picture book goes beyond writing by focusing on creativity. It de-romanticises the creative process but also uplifts by bringing it under your control. It is strategic or big picture rather than tactical or practical. Specifically, Gilbert discusses the realities of writing; the hard work, need for courage and tenacity, difficulty of breaking through, daily frustrations, discipline required, pursuit of inquisitiveness and how to trick yourself into enjoying the process etc..

Favourite takeouts:

  • Frustration is not an interruption of the process; frustration is the process.
  • The outcome cannot matter.
  • A lighthearted process does not necessarily need to result in a lighthearted product.

Score: 8/10 = Inspiring