This how-to writing book was first published in 1995 but it’s my latest writing book read. Stein is a successful author and respected editor. While it’s a little outdated on the state of the book market, it’s a standout in its genre because it’s practical, technical as well as strategic, well written and inspiring. Stein also covers fiction and non-fiction, while many books do one or the other.
The topics he covers include the technical essentials such as character, point of view, opening, dialogue and how to stand out, albeit in a more strategic way than I’ve seen before (by that I mean he writes about these issues as part of the whole rather than as distinct aspects).
He also offers some different and more strategic approaches such as how to use all of the six senses in your writing, particularity, resonance, love scenes, tapping into your originality, ‘guts’ ad how to revise fiction. His great writing, frequent use of examples, and strategic point of view, and all done in an encouraging way, are memorable. I’ll always find his lessons useful.
Key take outs:
- In the chapter ‘Triage: A Better Way of Revising Fiction’, Stein offers a prioritised approach to rewriting manuscripts. Rather than going sequentially from beginning to end, he offers up a list of issues to resolve beginning with the main character, antagonist, minor characters, conflict, memorability of scenes, motivation etc.. I found this approach very helpful. Even if you don’t use it, it provides a thorough checklist.
- Practice is essential. Practice is good. Practice is normal. “By practice one learns to use what one has understood. Only writers, it seems, expect to achieve a level of mastery without practice.” So don’t feel bad if you’re not there yet. Just keep working at it. Be open to learning, search for constructive criticism, attend workshops and read read read books like this.
- I yawn at those lists to of questions to ask your character to get to know them better. He has a much deeper set of exercises that I found interesting and much more useful, including listening to your character complain bitterly, having a heated argument with them, picturing them old/young or in an unusual situation, and having a conversation to have with them before sleeping in the hope you’ll wake up with a solution to any story issues.
Score: 10/10 Instructive
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
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..
1. Frustration is not an interruption of the process; frustration is the process.
2. The outcome cannot matter.
3. A lighthearted process does not necessarily need to result in a lighthearted product.
Score: 8/10 = Inspiring
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
So you’ve completed your manuscript. Before you send it off to publishers, make sure it’s the best it can be. Not just the best it can be right now, but best FULL STOP. Often we get impatient and send our manuscripts out into the world too early when we should put them away for a couple of months before reviewing them again, send them off to a professional for an assessment or do yet another draft. But let’s say you’ve done all that and your book is the best it can be. You truly believe in it.
You compile a list of publishers and you send it to them. You’ve spent the time you need to write each personalised letter, hone your pitch, nail your marketing strategy, write gripping synopses of varying lengths and a fascinating author bio. Off your MS goes into the wilderness (with a touch of that true belief).
Now you wait. Perhaps you get bites for more of your MS. Perhaps you succeed quickly – someone wants to publish your book. Yay you. Congratulations! But if you’re one of the majority who either hear nothing back (“assume if you haven’t heard from us within three months that we’re not interested”) or get outright rejections, then what?
This is a normal human reaction. Allow yourself a set time, say one day, to sulk during which time you’re allowed to indulge in all your self-doubting thoughts such as what a crap writer you are, you’re never going to get published, you’ve wasted your time and you’re definitely going to give up.But once your twenty-four hours are up, it’s time to stop the tantrums and get on with it. You have a choice to make. Do you want to write or not? Ask yourself why you’re writing and who you’re writing for? If the answer is anything other than you’re writing because you need to and that you’re doing it for yourself, then you might need to have a good hard think about your motives. Good writing comes from truth and honesty, from baring your soul, not from dreams of fame and certainty. This is not that kind of career. Writing demands vulnerability because that’s the creative process.
- Get detailed feedback
If you don’t want to give up on your story yet, you could take on board the feedback you’ve received from editors and begin a re-draft. For deeper feedback before you begin re-drafting, get a manuscript assessment done. You should end up with a thorough twelve-page report that assesses everything about your novel from structural issues, voice, character, style and so on. These can be very helpful. This is a lot cheaper than hiring an editor, which is another option. If you can afford an editor, they will take you through your MS line by line as well as giving you a detailed report. Just make sure they believe sufficiently in your writing and your story before, and that your MS is ready. Going down the editor path costs thousands of dollars so getting the right person at the right time is critical.
- Retire your story
No one else can tell you if your story is worth persisting with or not. But perhaps, after much thought, you’ve realised this was your learner book and that you don’t want to salvage it. Perhaps you know in your gut it’s time to let it go. For many published authors their third book is the one that gets published. Say thank you to your story before putting it away for good. Also, pat yourself on the back for having finished a novel. That’s not something that a lot of people do, even though many try. Now you’re free to start the next story bringing along everything you learnt from your first. This might be a good time to do a course or read a new book on writing, something that inspires and strengthens you.
- Self publish
If you’re satisfied your story is the best it can be and really do believe in it, perhaps self-publishing is the right option for you. It’s a bit of a learning curve, but there are many free and paid websites, eBooks and courses full of step-by-step how-to advice, including on how to market your book. Marketing is a skill you’ll need no matter which way you publish as most publishers don’t have large marketing budgets these days. You can publish an eBook only or give people the option of buying a print-to-order hard copy. If you decide to hire someone to do the work for you, be very cautious. Most such companies, including some owned by the big publishing companies, do very little for thousands of dollars. They’re in that side of the business to make money, and by all reports they’re raking it in. Do your research first.
The important thing is not to be beaten in the process of getting published. You may view not finding a traditional publisher as failure, but failure is simply another form of feedback. Use it wisely and keep moving ahead.
As you can see by the well-worn cover, 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.”