Notes in November 2020

In reading about writing, I’ve been reading Questlove’s Creative Quest (written with Ben Greenman).

In writing about writing, I’ve just finished an essay about the quality of Rachel Carson’s crafting, which is often over-looked amid the deserved acclaim for her landmark 1962 work, Silent Spring.

In reading about reading, I’ve just started with Nancy Pearl’s new collection of interviews, The Writer’s Library.

And, in writing about reading, I’m working on an article which will be published soon to coincide with the reprint of Betty Smith’s second novel, Tomorrow Will Be Better (1948), about Smith’s willingness to examine the lives of the working-class in an era when stories about poverty were frowned upon.

November, like a murderous octopus, spread its tentacles over all narrative plans.
Marie-Renée Lavoie. Mister Roger and Me

Sweat the Technique (Rakim with Bakari Kitwana)

The artist behind what MTV called “the greatest hip-hop album of all time” (1987’s Paid in Full, recorded with Eric B.), Rakim, traces his inspiration to pre-birth. “My mother heard—and, by extension, I believe I heard—the words of Dr. King while I was still in the womb, and that sparked a connection to the man that resonates with me still.”

When he was a boy, Rakim witnessed DJs taking “disco, soul, and funk records—anything that was high-energy and powerful and danceable—and isolating the breakdown” (which is “the part where it’s just rhythm, percussion, and drumming that makes people want to dance with some force”). And he wrote his first rhyme when he was seven years old—about Mickey Mouse!

After he recognized his talent for rapping and his passion for hip-hop, he began to focus on improving his craft. In “Purpose”, he writes: “Three keys guided me: originality; the vibrations in the music; and the challenge to always be better than myself.”

Of course, some of his commentary is immediately applicable for musicians: “Music is vibration, and when it hits a certain spot, it boosts your energy. And it gives you a photo-flash memory of that moment.”

But creatives of all sorts can embrace this kind of observation: “You’re competing with the last thing you did. That’s one way of sticking to your guns and letting who you are speak through your work.”

And, like Questlove, he does not limit his sources of inspiration:

“Inspiration is everywhere, and to gain the knowledge required to become your best self and create your best work, seek inspiration not only in the obvious but across all spectrums of culture. In the effort to expand my thinking, elevate my creativity, and always outdo myself, I observe and record, and I learn from teachers, from books, from art, from science, from spirituality, from strangers on the street, and, many times most of all, from my closest family.”

After “Purpose” and “Inspiration”, the other three segments of the book discuss Spirituality, Consciousness, and Energy. For Rakim, his “…spiritual beliefs, the scientific and mathematical concepts” studied and “ideas and philosophical questions” both inspired and shaped his journey. He recommends artists embrace conscious energy: “Performance days are an important part of being a hip-hop artist. Their value to the art shouldn’t be diminished.”

For musicians, performance is paramount in importance, but other writers can consider this advice when it comes to readings and interviews, social media engagement and video presentations. Certainly musicians and spoken word artists will find particular encouragement here. For instance, the five detailed explorations of Rakim’s creative process, breaking down his work on “How to Emcee”, “Mahogany”, “The Mystery”, “Musical Massacre”, and “Casualties of War”.

Broader discussions of creativity, however, have clear applicability to artists of all sorts:

“You want to reach that point of creativity where it’s just flowing. No distractions, with the room comfortable like you want it. You’re trying to get to that place where everything is ten times more exaggerated. You want to get to that level where you’re at your highest point for expressing your art. Tap into it.”

Good stuff for writers.

Rakim with Bakari Kitwana. Sweat the Technique: Revelations on Creativity from the Lyrical Genius. NY: HarperCollins, 2019.

Creative Quest (Questlove with Ben Greenman)

Ahmir Khalib Thompson, known as Questlove, is an American drummer, DJ, music journalist and record producer. You might recognize him as the drummer and front man (with Black Thought) of The Roots, or maybe from The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

In Creative Quest, he contemplates and draws inspiration from across the musical landscape but he also refers to other artforms along the way. Like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, in which Willy Wonka’s attempt to make three-course-dinner chewing gum unexpectedly transforms Violet, to illustrate how a creative exercise can take unexpected turns.

He also discusses his interest in chefs as creative professionals. (Like Barbara Ueland, his understanding of creativity is inclusive—a variety of endeavors suits his definition.) Regarding cooking as a creative act, he is intrigued as much by the differences between it and his own creative work as by the similarities: “The biggest difference, obviously, is in the relationship with their audience. Musicians have audiences making demands on them, but not in the pure sense.”

Although his literary references appear scant (he’s not referring to the Roald Dahl novel when he thinks about Violet’s unfortunate condition, but the 1997 film directed by Mel Stuart), he does consider French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (the inspiration being, again, the film directed by Julian Schnabel in 2007, rather than 1997’s Le Scaphandre et le Papillon). He chooses this story, about how Bauby adapted to life after a stroke in his early forties left him trapped in his body, to illustrate how a dramatic departure from your own life can have unexpected and creative consequences.

Questlove freely discusses how important other artists’ work has been to him creatively. He’s generous in acknowledging a debt to their work: “We take our ideas where we find them, and largely we find them in the works of other artists.” And he’s gracious towards his mentors. (Fans who are more interested in the biographical aspects of this work will find these chapters particularly valuable.)

His observations about mentorship do have a broad applicability. It’s refreshing to hear how his understanding of certain concepts has changed over time. Though he’d expected mentorship to be “more about teaching skills, refining them, identifying what’s there and what’s not there”, he discovered that it was more about the importance of making the process a “two-way street, like everyone was inspiring everyone”.

Creative Quest is primarily focused on positive experiences and encouraging suggestions, but there is a no-nonsense acknowledgement of the varied experiences that an artist will have. For instance: “Much of what you do creatively will not land in the middle of a receptive audience. It will just fall into the world, to be ignored by most people and found by a few who react strongly to it, either positively or negatively.”

There is also some discussion about the need for conviction and self-awareness when an artist engages with social media. An overarching concern for Questlove is authenticity. In engaging with a broader community, he has simple advice: “Learn how to present yourself to others, but not to present yourself at the expense of truth.”

This concern with authenticity is evident throughout the volume. For instance, in a discussion of his personal experiences with epiphany, he does discuss some creative breakthroughs and successes, but not in a bold-or-italicized-text kind of way. Instead, he acknowledges that adopting that kind of nomenclature is not always appropriate: “It’s hard to pinpoint an epiphany, and it always seems artificial from the outside”

The volume is text-heavy but his tone is accessible and inviting. Even without a familiarity with his creative work, I was consistently drawn to the next chapter, and the book’s conclusion is simple but remarkably satisfying:

“When you’re done here, don’t just close the cover and let the world return to the way it was before. Make things. Make your way to the things that others have made. Make theories of yourself. All the advice in the world won’t help if you don’t get out ther and start the perfectly imperfect process of creating.”

Good stuff for writers.

Questlove with Ben Greenman. Creative Quest. NY: HarperCollins-Ecco, 2018.

Broken Places & Outer Spaces (Nnedi Okorafor)

They’re striking when they gather in a pack, but the TED books usually leave me wanting more. This is also true for me when it comes to Nnedi Okorafor’s contribution, based on her November 2017 TED Talk, “Sci-Fi Stories that Imagine a Future Africa”.

For those readers who only know Nnedi Okorafor through her fiction, however, this story does bring an interesting dimension to how she conceives of agency and powerlessness in her stories. The process she undergoes, to regain her health, is a trial but—like many challenges—travelling through difficult territory can lead to another kind of homeland.

Her paralysis and recovery not only created the opportunity for her to read more, she also discovered writers whose works she hadn’t previously enjoyed. The potential to tell different kinds of stories led her to query the texts in a different way.

Like this: “Could it be that Mary wrote Frankenstein as a way of facing her pain and fears? That she produced something so great and beyond herself from the grief she suffered? If this is true, then not only did Mary Shelley have her own ‘clay lady’ (Frankenstein’s monster), but an entire genre of literature (science fiction) was launched by the Breaking.”

Later, a friend encouraged her to take a creative writing class. Which also turned out to be a formative experience: “That class aligned all the planets scattered about my shattered universe. As I sat there listening and learning and eventually writing, everything came into focus. It was my Big Bang. My singularity. I finally heard my calling.”

Being introduced to a quantity and variety of writing styles opened up unsuspected possibilities for her, but one other formative experience awaited: “My paralysis and recovery led me to writing, but it would take an additional journey, a journey through my ancestral home of Nigeria, for me to meet and bond with an African-rooted form of science fiction.”

From here, readers can immediately recognize the connection between her personal and creative experience and their impact on her writing. And readers can learn the distinction between ‘Africanfuturism’ and ‘Afrofuturism’:

“Most traditional science fiction depicts a white world where I was not able to freely exist. But in the science fiction of what I’ve come to call ‘Africanfuturism’ (which is somewhat similar to Afrofuturism, but is specifically and more directly rooted in African culture, history, mythology, and perspective, where the center is non-Western), my characters inhabit worlds in which I can fight, play, invent, run, leap, and fly.”

As a tale of personal exploration and discovery, Broken Places & Outer Spaces is a succinct and well-told story. The ways in which writing can emerge, through different aspects of our selves, is something with which many writers can relate. And the ways in which struggle can culminate in articulating truths not only relatable but admirable and inspiring:

“The struggle that I sublimate through all my writing has been in my actively, willingly facing, breaking, and fusing my American and Nigerian cultures into what many of us call ‘Naijamerican’ (‘Naija’ is Nigerian slang for ‘Nigerian’ or ‘Nigeria’). And it has been in my learning to live with and embrace my strange crippled body.”

It takes more than nine minutes to read the book (but it’s barely a hundred pages, so not THAT many more), so you might rather watch. And bank your extra minutes to read her fiction. Or write your own.

Good stuff for readers, alright stuff for writers.

Okorafor, Nnedi. Broken Places & Outer Spaces. NY: Simon&Schuster-TED Books, 2019.

If You Want to Write (Brenda Ueland)

Because my copy of this is a reprint from the 1980s, purchased around the same time as Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (1994), I expected something different. In truth, the first couple of times I started to read, I managed only a few pages and set Ueland aside.

Had I understood that it was first published in 1938, I would have adjusted my expectations. In spirit, it falls at the intersection of Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer (1934) and John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist (1983). Ueland’s style is removed and direct like Gardner’s but she shares specific and personal details like Brande does.

Her advice is startlingly relevant. That plain-speech which seemed over-simplified and off-putting on my first attempts was refreshing when I revisited it.

At first glance, one might mistake her as being too idealistic. She says, for instance:

“We have come to think that duty should come first. I disagree. Duty should be a by-product. Writing, the creative effort, the use of the imagination, should come first, — at least for some part of every day of your life.”

But she is not overlooking other basic needs. She is only asking that writers follow that principle for “some part of every day”. Every day in every way? That would be too much. But even for a few moments, anyone can strive for that.

Her directions are simple: “With every sentence you write, you have learned something. It has done you good.”

One element that I appreciated was her spirit of inclusiveness. This, from a footnote, broadens her audience substantially:

“Whenever I say ‘writing’ in this book I also mean anything that you love and want to do or to make, It may be a six-act tragedy in blank verse. It may be dressmaking or acrobatics, or inventing a new system of double entry book-keeping. But you must be sure that your imagination and love are behind it, that you are not working just from grim resolution, i.e. to make money or impress people.”

I mean, come on: acrobatics is great fun to include here, right? (Not only because many writers lead such sedentary lives that a daily walk can be construed as serious exercise.) But what an act of generosity to afford creativity even in areas which are often presented as the antithesis of creative fields, like accounting. Not everyone is willing to acknowledge that creativity can take many forms.

Ueland’s approach is grounded and humble. She writes: “I think there is something necessary and life-giving about ‘creative work’ (forgive the term).” In a footnote, she writes: “To say the word ‘creative’ has always embarrassed me. So many unctuous people have over-used it. But I have to use it. It is what I mean.”

If You Want to Write is also the source of one of my favourite quotes about writing: “So you see the imagination needs moodling, –long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.”

When I first began to write, I had realized how essential this kind of moodling was to my work, but when I tried to describe it to other people it sounded too much like procrastination. Which it could be, if one never got around to writing writing.

Seeing the idea in print validated my experience and I still recall her words when I find myself forcing strings of words together, frustrated but unable to set aside the work, and eventually I get to moodling. “So never bother to grind. Just try to understand something for the time. If you don’t, go on to the next. For if you understand the second or third thing, you will suddenly understand the first.”

She is also a great reader. She loves and admires the Russian novelists for their truthfulness and lack of pretense, especially Chekhov, Tolstoi and Dostoevsky (also Ibsen, Blake, Goethe, Mann) but not Mencken, nor Lawrence, nor Lewis.

And she is something of a philosopher. Asking tough questions. Leaving us to answer them. “But how to single out your true self, when we are all so many selves? Yes. I know that is hard.” And, “…only by writing and by long, patient, serious work will you find your true self.”

As well as an egalitarian type of feminist: “In fact that is why the lives of most women are so vaguely unsatisfactory. They are always doing secondary and menial things (that do not require all their gifts and ability) for others and never anything for themselves. […] But if women once learn to be something themselves, that the only way to teach is to be fine and shining examples, we will have in one generation the most remarkable and glorious children.”

One could sit and read this entire volume easily in a single afternoon. But even if you do not want to take that time, there are twelve points at the end of the book which she makes to summarize its contents. I especially love number 5: “Don’t be afraid of writing bad stories.” Her suggestion? To discover what is wrong with a story write two new ones and then go back to it.”

Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit. 1938. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1987.

Murder Your Darlings (Roy Peter Clark)

Here is the sixth in a neatly designed set of reference and inspirational volumes by Roy Peter Clark. He is an accomplished writer on writing and what a catchy title—thanks to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s famous instruction to delete your most-show-off-y-ish bits.

Here marketability doesn’t equate with superficiality. Clark summarizes and lists some fine resources herein. And I’m more likely to seek out Ursula K. LeGuin’s writing advice than Aristotle’s, so I was content to read Clark’s condensed version of Poetics. (LeGuin is here too though: several of the resources I’ve chatted about here also matter to Clark.)

When Clark was struggling to condense his list of favourite resources, he came to organize them into sections which remain in the final manuscript as six parts: Language and Craft; Voice and Style; Confidence and Identity; Storyteling and Character; Rhetoric and Audience; and Mission and Purpose. And although this book is ideal for a beginning or emerging writer, more experienced writers who are grappling with a specific aspect of finishing a manuscript might find it worthwhile to browse that relevant section to see if something sparks.

Each segment begins with a “Toolbox” and ends with a set of “Lessons”. The Toolbox succinctly reworks the resource’s key idea (like Anne Lamott’s “shitty first drafts”, for instance) and the Lessons offer a handful of tips directly related to that premise. So if it’s not enough to condense an entire book into a half dozen pages, you can contemplate its essence, captured in a dozen lines or so.

For the self-taught writer, the bibliography alone would be worth the price of this volume. Although only about a quarter of Clark’s selections are works by women writers, most are classic rather than contemporary, and nearly all are Anglo-American.

Having already read more than half of the works that Clark discusses, this is a book I’m content to borrow from the library rather than house on my own shelves. Nonetheless, I did enjoy reading through these chapters, one – sometimes two – each day. Rather as I imagine some people might leaf through a volume of prayer in the early morning or late evening, as a reminder of basic tenets of storytelling and rhetoric. There’s an air of humility coupled with enthusiasm and I enjoy that.

Good stuff for writers.

Roy Peter Clark’s Murder Your Darlings: And other gentle writing advice from Aristotle to Zinsser. New York: Hachette – Little, Brown Spark, 2020.

The Business of Being a Writer (Jane Friedman)

Friedman’s book covers the “fundamental business principles that underlie writing and publishing success”. As advertised. Direct, accurate, and worthwhile.

One particularly valuable aspect of the work is her early introduction of – and regular references to – the concept of literary citizenship.

It’s not unusual for business books to emphasize the importance of networking and connections. And it only makes sense that good relationship building equals good literary citizenship. But something about the way that Friedman frames it? It makes it more about actually building and less about cashing-in or, even, less about tit-for-tat.

She cites, for example, emerging author Chris Guillebeau’s experience. He spent six months reading the work of authors with whom he identified and he wrote personal letters of admiration to them. He asked for nothing in return and spent about two hours every day talking them up to his small audience and sending personal messages of acknowledgement to new followers.

Other books on the business of writing suggest similar activities, but often in the context of an author’s having finished a manuscript, so that it feels like the idea of community is an after-thought, that the author is simply executing a series of actions to secure publicity for their work specifically rather than building a community generally.

Call it an investment or call it paying-it-forward, call it idealistic: this (possibly old-fashioned?) idea of putting time and energy into the literary-world-at-large rings true to me and because Friedman places it prominently (just a couple dozen pages into the work) I was predisposed to attend to her ideas and suggestions.

Against this backdrop, she clearly and methodically breaks down the key elements to finding, securing and executing the business of writing. She makes statements like this one about writing a synopsis: it “has an uncanny way of highlighting plot flaws, serious gaps in character motivation, or sweeping failures of story structure”. It’s an invitation for savvy writers to revisit their manuscripts to suss out such flaws, gaps and failures. But she remains stalwartly on-topic.

She also does not clutter the volume with material that anyone with an internet connection can source without her particular expertise. So, for instance, she does not include examples of a synopsis (or a query letter or a book proposal): she refers to specific websites online which house samples.

And, when she does include site addresses, she selects established (but niche) sites. Like (an aggregator site which could be useful for locating images for noncommercial use) and (mostly-free templates for cloud-based design). She only occasionally dabbles in the obvious (stating, for instance, that one could use Windows Movie Maker to create a video to upload to YouTube) and this may actually still be useful to many writer-types, who are more focussed on words than technology.

Some of the advice Friedman offers is familiar and a matter of common sense. She does, however, add the kind of insider advice that can be overlooked by the ubiquitous click-here articles you find online. For example, in her discussion about the benefits of agent representation, she includes a reminder that agents have contacts in Hollywood, which afford the opportunity to sell a book project to a producer/studio.

In all, this volume could play an essential role on the shelf of an emerging writer whose romantic ideas of the writing life require some structure and direction, but also on the shelf of an established writer who is wrestling with some uncertainty about the technological opportunities and demands in the digital age.

Great stuff for writers.

Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 2018.

Manuscript Makeover (Elizabeth Lyon)

Some of my favourite resources are devoted to revision, like Sandra Scofield’s The Last Draft: A Novelist’s Guide to Revision.

Nonetheless, at first glance this volume would not have made it into my stack: it’s ten years old now and the stock photo cover doesn’t do it any favours. (It was recommended as a resource in the back of another book on writing, one which was useful enough to inspire a bout of list-making.)

Elizabeth Lyon’s book is, however, still worth a look. Yes, it has a chapter on “marketing”, which doesn’t once refer to social media. And it extolls the power of the digital cut-and-paste, a feature most contemporary writers no longer admire, simply take for granted. And it refers to the “newcomer springing from authors of two generations, Gen X and the Millennial Generation (1977-1998)”, the “graphic novel”.

But the art of revision doesn’t change as quickly as terminology and Lyon’s two basic approaches to revision are solid: “inside-out” and “outside-in”. The imaginative and technical approaches to the act of revision are enduring.

Each chapter begins with a brief discussion of options, which includes a summary of the upcoming material and suggestions for engaging with related topics considered elsewhere. At the end of each chapter is a checklist (literally, although all the boxes are already checked!) which summarizes the content and the potential solutions, in statements and bullet-points.

The material is elementary and Lyon begins with overarching issues and moves into more intricate matters in later chapters. She suggests, for instance, beginning with a consideration of basic structure, before moving into detailed revision work.

There are five stages of structure in her model: “1. A character has a problem. 2. Complications arise and conflict intensifies. 3. Crises culminate in a climax. 4. The problem is resolved. 5. The hero or heroine learns something about self or life.”

This feels a little like high-school English class, but just a couple of chapters later, there is more detailed information. For instance, the discussion of the importance of movement and suspense. These elements are created, Lyon notes, by: “actions, outer and inner”, “raising questions”, reactions, emotions, reversals and subtext.

Taking two or three pages to explore each, and using examples from well-known stories (like Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet and Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass), she takes things to sentence-level. (No spoiler warnings, but most examples are only the length of a paragraph.)

She selects areas of emphasis based on a couple of decades working as an independent editor and the bulk of her work centres on characterization (which fits with my experience – investing time in characters is never fruitless). She writes: “Almost every novel that is finished in the eyes of the writer still needs work on characterization.”

She also devotes time to the scenic level: “What I have observed in many published novels is that scenes tend to be more fully developed and longer at the beginning (minus the hook, which may be a very short chapter one) than later when all of the setup is done and the characters known.” The additional work on characterization fuels this developmental work.

For beginning and intermediate writers, this resource presents solid suggestions and philosophies about storytelling. For advanced writers, both Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit and the Sandra Scofield linked above spend less time on orienting the reader, fewer pages defining basic terms and outlining theories, and more time analyzing and querying.

This is still good stuff for beginning and intermediate writers.

Elizabeth Lyon’s Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore. NY: Penguin – Perigee, 2008.

The Story Cure (Dinty W. Moore)

There is a house call and a diagnosis, which is followed by a cure, and, next, an alternate cure: it’s a gimmick, sure, but accessible and playful.

There are even spaces, like worksheet lines, inserted into the book, so that you can fill in the spaces with, for instance, an imagined warning for your story, or your main character’s sharpest early memory, fears or desires.

So, yes, it’s that kind of writing book.

Between each chapter, there is a well-known quotation about writing and creativity (from writers like Stephen King, Salman Rushdie and J.D. Salinger).

You’ll hear from reliable and familiar sources, like Anne Lamott, Isabel Allende and Joan Didion on craft.

And you’ll read selections from works by Dickens and Fitzgerald for analysis. Classics and safe choices. There’s also an index with endnotes (and source details).

But even beyond the concept, there is a sense of fun lurking behind the prose. Like the subtitle “Is your writing out of touch?” in consideration of ways to bring the tactile world onto the pages of your manuscript. And in passages like this one: “And when you are done, revise accordingly. Revise as if someone will lock you away for five years in a world without books or puppies or chocolate or red wine (whatever your biggest weakness is) if your writing is not lighting and delighting every inch of the readers’ neural pathways.”

Useful and practical tips and advice like, for example, when it comes to characterization, to allow characters to be distracted on the page (because people do get distracted) but don’t overuse their names in dialogue (because people known to each other do not use each other’s names very often).

The exercises are straight-forward and clear. So that, for instance, a study in perspective recommends that you try to describe a schoolyard, first, from the perspective of a child on the first day of school and, then, on the last day of school, without identifying either day, only making the situation clear via style and content.

Occasionally there are stationery products required, as when, for example, working on characterization, Moore advises you to high-light passages from a story/chapter in yellow for things you tell your reader about your character, in pink for things you show your reader about your character, and in green for actions you present your character executing: finally, consider the patterns and quantities and adjust in favour of green. (Michelle Visage would not approve.)*

Mostly the advice here is basic. Like: “I prescribe trial and error, cutting and pasting, a heavy dose of the delete key, and lots of trying again.” (On beginnings.) And: “Thoughtful revision takes varied forms, from sentence level to story level, with different considerations and questions at every stage.”

But sometimes a basic statement can act as a reset. Consider: “A memoir is not everything that happened in your life; rather, it is those moments that tell the story best.”

For my taste, I prefer the volume I read first by Dinty W. Moore, which is arranged to be a more casual encounter.

But this is good stuff for beginning writers.

*Viewers of RuPaul’s Drag Race will appreciate that reference. Those who wish to get the joke now have the option of procrastinating for the time it takes to watch all eleven seasons.

Dinty W. Moore’s The Story Cure: A Book Doctor’s Pain-Free Guide to Finishing Your Novel or Memoir. NY: Penguin Random House – Ten Speed Press, 2017.

Masterclass: Developing Characters (Irving Weinman)

This book is designed to mimic a traditional masterclass in which a student’s shared piece of writing is distributed among classmates and critiqued by the master (with some feedback from other students as well).

There are eight chapters which consider sources of character, flat characters and round ones (yes, Forster still counts), narration, action, dialogue, symbolism and satire, and, finally, voice and turning point.

Following each chapter, there is a workshop assignment, which includes a series of questions, which one is to imagine are questions from the teacher and the rest of the class. (This doesn’t bother me one bit: fiction writers make up people all the time, so why not have a bunch of them sit with you in an imaginary class.)

The only element of the book which rings false for me is the iconology; symbols marking short and long exercises (camera, for ‘snapshot’ and pencil, for ‘write’), editing work (scissors, for reworking), key ideas (key!), and central messages (magnifying glass). All the elements are in place, but the iconology feels like an overlay (but who among the overly wordy doesn’t appreciate an occasional graphic).

Illustrative quotations are sometimes lengthy (which is fine, as there is a list of resources for each chapter but not everyone will have these works readily available) – a couple of pages – and italicized. (The use of italics is one of the pet peeves Benjamin Dreyer discusses and it niggles me too, although I do understand the desire to set apart the examples from the text proper.)

The works selected for study are classic and contemporary, with the majority drawn from works by American and English writers (some women, a few writers of colour, an occasional short story and translation). Beginning with Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native and ending with Richard Ford’s Independence Day, the representation is not expansive, although the consideration of Iain Banks’s novel The Quarry, with its autistic character, 18-year-old Kit, is welcome.

Although the work is designed with advanced writers in mind, the recommended resources would suit serious-but-not-particularly-advanced readers. Nonetheless, although works like the Graywolf series are more interesting in the attention paid to lesser-known writers (like Barbara Comyns Dezsö Kosztolányi in Maud Casey’s volume, for example), the advantage of these well-known authors is that they would be recognizable to students who might be using this volume in conjunction with other college and university texts which could contain the complete narratives.

The workshop questions balance specifics and generalizations and invite writers to query the manuscript (and themselves) and explore possibilities.

For instance, consider this single bullet-point in the workshop about action: “Action has nearly no limits in type. Do certain types of action tend to dominate the example of action in your writing? What are they? (This chapter has given some examples, but has had to leave out many important types, for example, actions connected with eating and lovemaking.) Do you think your fiction could improve if you ventured out of your ‘favourite’ areas of action?”

This work would be particularly valuable for a writer who seeks to address a noted failing in characterization (e.g. in a complete work with an identified weakness, which has been rewritten previously) and who is looking for a new way to engage.

Good stuff for experienced writers.

Irving Weinman’s Masterclass: Developing Characters. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014.