Notes in April 2021

In reading about writing, I’ve been enjoying Lennie Goodings’ memoir about her years working at Virago Books; my favourite publishing memoir until now has been Diana Athill’s Stet, but this one is very enjoyable for a Virago Modern Classic geek.

In writing about writing, I’ve just shared my thoughts about John Defresne’s Storyville (illustrated by Evan Wondolowski). And soon there’ll be some chatter about the new Poets & Writers book, which covers the gamut.

In reading about reading, I am just beginning Wendy Lesser’s Scandinavian Noir. Her book on rereading is a longtime favourite.

And, in writing about reading, I’m dusting off my write-by-hand reading journal (it’s been neglected during this past year).

April snow berating the crocuses
and tulips, falling as if it cannot stand
for another minute the ground warming up
in early spring.
Lynn Davies The Bridge that Carries the Road

The Poets & Writers Complete Guide to Being a Writer (Kevin Larimer and Mary Gannon)

As Poets & Writers is my oldest-favouritest magazine about writing, my expectations for this volume were high. When I finally had a copy of it in my hands, the volume so thick and heavy, I was concerned that it would be a reprint of highlights from the periodical, but it’s super satisfying and current, exhaustive and substantive.

Because it’s intended for writers of all experience levels, you can dip in and out (i.e. experienced writers might want to focus on time management, or writers with a completed manuscript might turn directly to the section on agents and representation). But you can also read straight through, moving in a logical progression, from inspiration to craft, from education to publishing, from book deals to publicity and promotion.

There are essays interspersed, contributed by noteworthy and talented writers, on each key topic as well as additional pieces which recommend books for further reading. There is also a section of short chapters dedicated to some big-picture themes (money, time, happiness, family, respect, and the law), which are intended to be thought-provoking and clever. There’s one, for instance, by Charles Yu on the subject of the “Inner Writer”, which is presented as an interview and it’s hilarious.

The Poets & Writers Guide aspires to go the distance. Many books about writing consider the question of goals, for instance, but here the discussion is broken down into Educational Goals, Writing Goals, Publishing Goals, Financial Goals, Higher Goals. Each topic is considered in some detail, so that distinctions are clear, with enough information to invite personal reflection: concise and directed.

There are also textboxes with salient quotations (and throughout the chapters) that would make this a good volume for browsing too. Maybe you are seeking a temporary escape, rather than a dedicated project. This Annie Proulx quotation is one of my favourites: “You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.”

Action Items, advice presented in circles apart from the text, are also browse-worthy and eye-catching. There are, for example, suggestions to visit pw.org/writers for recommendations (about movies, music, books, plays, activities, and philosophies, including “The Time is Now” newsletter—one of my favourites—although their website services are also considered in detail in an appendix). And #49 suggests that you count your rejections. “Note how they represent just one person’s opinion or judgement.”

For many years, Poets & Writers has been an excellent source of ideas and information from diverse authors and industry professionals. The gritty details here are useful, like the Valuing Your Time worksheet (courtesy of Amy Smith with contributions from Andrew Simonet and Aaron Lansman), the Submission Tracker sheet, a Publication Checklist, and a list of Eighty-four Agents Active on Twitter.

But just as helpful is the undercurrent of respectful and hopeful discourse. For a solitary writer (and many of us are more isolated than usual, with COVID restrictions in place to protect vulnerable individuals), the dimensions of this volume (literal and figurative) work to create a small community between two pages. This quotation by Luis Alberto Urrea is so encouraging and powerful: “Writing is on your side. Writing, story, poem, words, they need you if they are to survive. You are part of the life support system of story.”

In a similar vein, I appreciate the note of generosity and optimism, on which the book ends. Some might think it’s mawkish or insincere, but in a sector characterized more by rejection than acceptance, I receive it at face value, with gratitude: “Thank you for being a writer. Your writing is important. It is creative, generative, and the world needs more of it. We wish you the very best of luck with your writing and publishing. And now that we’re at the end, it’s time to get started. The end is just the beginning.”

Top-notch stuff for writers.

Kevin Larimer and Mary Gannon. The Poets & Writers Complete Guide to Being a Writer. New York: Simon & Schuster—Avid Reader Press, 2020.

Storyville (John Dufresne)

Straight up, I’m a sucker for illustrated books like this. But I’ve also been disappointed on occasion, having found the accompanying narrative lacking. So when I picked up Storyville, I was cautiously enthusiastic: would the graphic content be forced to carry the bulk of the load? No need to worry: the balance is wholly satisfying.

The graphic style is somewhere between clip-arty and doodle-y, but not in the sense that anyone purchased a set of a thousand images and now has to fit them all into this book. Only at first glance do the images seem generic—they align neatly with the content. (There’s a beach umbrella with this Eugène Ionesco quotation, for instance: “A writer never has a vacation. For a writer, life consists of either writing or thinking about writing.”)

Full-page quotations, white text on a black background (with the white beach umbrella!) salt and pepper the book. For avid readers of books about writing, some of these will be familiar, but many of them are fresh, and drawn from a variety of genres and decades. They’re also positioned within the relevant chapters, integrated into the text, which gradually establishes into an air of authority.

The text is divided into four parts: The Fiction Writer, The Fiction Writing, The Plot, and The Revision. (Illustrated in the TOC with a pair of scissors cutting along a dotted line, with four letters floating above the paper—an E and a W, a J and a D, the illustrator’s and author’s initials—as if to prove that these simple images are carefully curated.) I appreciate the effort to keep it simple. When you get to this chapter, another set of TOCs follows the title page, which suggests that the book is designed to pull readers straight through and discourage dabblers.

Within “The Fiction Writing”, for instance, one of the segments is illustrated by a magician’s hat upended, with a rabbit peering out (one ear up, one ear down): “Surprise the Reader”. I appreciate the approach of surprise being something that the writer experiences too—”what brings us to the desk every day”—as well as more concrete advice from a craft perspective: “A surprise might be a robust verb, an unpredictable behavior by a character, an abrupt shift in time or place, a plot point that spins the action of the story off in a new directions, or an unexpected turn of events.”

Speaking of a pleasant surprise, I really appreciate the renaming of “writer’s block” as a natural step in the creative process (renamed “gestation”). Dufresne is not the first to take this approach, but he states it so confidently that it seems he could have been. Another happy surprise? Finding a page of dialogue from The Golden Girls on the theme of “writer’s block”! (Dorothy gets the biggest laugh, of course.) He’s also not the first to granularly break down the revision process (into rewriting, line editing, copy editing, and proofreading) but his suggestions are spot-on. This advice will be most helpful to emerging writers, but I appreciate the reminder that editing (like procrastinating, like gestating) is an essential part of the process.

There are two graphics which stand out for me. First, the “Story as Iceberg” page, which illustrates “The What?” as the 10% which shows above the surface of the water, with “The Why” lurking in the larger chunk of ice beneath, with “Lies, Secret, Family, Values, Beliefs, Culture, Dreams, Phobias, Heritage, Thoughts, Emotions, Motivation, Experience, Aspriations, and Childhood Traumas” lurking. And, furthermore, the last graphic, which I won’t spoil, because it simultaneously seemed both a basic and brilliant ending.

Really Good Stuff for Writers.

John Dufresne. Storyville: An Illustrated Guide to Writing Fiction. Illus. Evan Wondolowski. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2020.

The Writer’s Practice (John Warner)

On the surface, there is nothing remarkable about this writing book by a McSweeney’s-Editor-at-Large; it’s a slim volume with predictable subject headings (Getting Started; Introduction; Skills Drills; Analytical Writing; Research and Argument; Other Writing Experiences, and This is the End).

But what I particularly value about this book is one of the underlying tenets, which subtly but meaningfully impacts every aspect of John Warner’s instruction: that one should think more about the experience of writing than about the exercise of writing. This might sound obvious, but it reaffirms the need to build a connection between your writing self and your work.

It’s possible to complete a set of exercises without truly engaging with – experiencing – the work; prioritizing the experience subtly shifts every part of the process. Thinking about every draft as an experience even allows you to adjust your expectations (so you can temper your disappointment over what Anne Lamott calls those “shitty first drafts” before you even begin to write).

Another writer might have put something like this in a textbox, but Warner doesn’t even elaborate on it. Similarly, he doesn’t bold his reminders about the importance of establishing one’s audience, he simply includes notes about an exercise’s audience in every instance.

He’s like the parent who schools by example rather than nagging. Reminding writers of the relationship between writer and reader, at every step of the process, makes sense; consistently keeping your audience in mind reduces the need for rewriting and it lightens the editorial load as you move closer to publication.

Another thing that I appreciate about Warner’s approach is the balance he strikes in his tone: he’s instructive without being overly didactic, personable without being overly informal. Every book about writing includes some commentary on procrastination (go figure!) and Warner doesn’t fall back on snide parenthetical remarks; he does contribute some personal admissions, but the bulk of his time is spent on considering how and why many writers’ fears result in last-minute or late submissions. (In his experience, 80% of writers admit to struggling with procrastination, despite recognizing that it’s a destructive pattern.) He lands between finger-wagging and coddling, and it suits me perfectly.

And, finally, the importance of Prewriting in Warner’s process satisfies me immensely. (It’s the first step—followed by Drafting, Revision, Editing and Polishing.) Many writers acknowledge this part of the work, which can overlap with discussions of how to increase receptivity, nourish creativity and counter resistance. But there is a matter-of-factness to Warner’s instruction: “A deeply researched piece may call for weeks of work in the prewriting stage and require a detailed outline before even beginning.” And he combines this with a generosity of spirit: “Procrastination is prewriting. Provisioning (Coca-Cola and Peanut M&Ms) is prewriting. So is reading, research, planning, thinking.” And, also, with advice: “This doesn’t mean prewriting has to be haphazard, though. A planned, deliberate approach to the prewriting period helps make the drafting process go more smoothly.”

The Writer’s Practice is also highly adaptable; it could be used in a classroom setting and by a solitary soul in their garret room/back seat of the bus/employee lunchroom/home office. There are even multiple endings (which is to say, different ways of structuring the content to suit different students’ priorities)!

Great stuff for writers.

John Warner. The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing. New York: Penguin Books, 2019.

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 visualHunt.com (an aggregator site which could be useful for locating images for noncommercial use) and canva.com (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.