Sell Your Story In a Single Sentence (Lane Shefter Bishop)

Wandering through the 800s in the library, I spotted this book when I was feeling frustrated with my efforts to summarize a book-length project. So many hours spent on just a few sentences. So many ways to tell it slant. So few words at the end of a writing session. 

Lane Shefter Bishop’s book seemed the perfect match. As the CEO of Vast Entertainment, which specializes in screen adaptations from longer narratives, she has many years of experience hearing and shaping the elevator pitch.

Between 2011 and 2016, 45% of the Academy Award nominees for Best Picture were based on books: someone came up with an enticing pitch for each of these projects and Bishop points to the primary importance of a logline in that process.

A logline is a powerfully crafted single sentence that highlights the most unique element(s) of your work. In short, it shows others why they should want what you have.

In some ways, she spends more time discussing what the logline is not than what the logline is. It’s not the recitation of “one film title MEETS other film title”, which is open to misinterpretation. It’s not the back cover blurb, which is more generic. It’s not the movie-poster copy, which belongs in marketing team meetings. And it’s not a rehashing of the entire plot.

But the bulk of the book is comprised of examples of loglines, (and, later, exercises) accompanied by advice and suggestions for constructing them effectively.

Given her background, it’s appropriate that Bishop turns to the screen and stage (predominantly screen) for her examples. When it comes to “Wicked”, for instance, she is evaluating the musical stage production, not Gregory Maguire’s novel, which was the inspiration for it.

For prose writers, like me, who are all about books, this does introduce an element of distance, and overlooks the really interesting detail of how the logline for the novel Wicked might have differed from the logline for the stage production “Wicked”; nonetheless, the idea of crafting summary sentences is a skill required by a variety of professionals, so this did not put me off the work.

She nearly always includes a “Rough” logline which she then corrects (visibly, with strike-outs) into a “Redo”, and increasingly as the book progresses, she ends with a “Clean” version. (It’s puzzling why she doesn’t offer final versions of all of them. Why, for instance, not offer a clean version of “Pretty Woman”, when most readers would be familiar with the film and might find the development progress interesting.)

She focusses on three anchors in a logline:

Who is the protagonist?

What do they want?

What is at stake?

Each of these anchors receives some detailed consideration and Bishop does offer a rule-set. The challenge, however, is that ultimately it is a matter of taste and contradictions abound because human beings are contradictory creatures: we like what we like and that doesn’t follow a rule-set.  

So Bishop’s rule-set is ever-shifting. In one instance, a logline is rewritten to include new details, because “you can never go wrong by being more specific”. In another instance, a logline is rewritten to remove unnecessary details: “Notice by the way, that I removed all reference to the high school. That’s because it doesn’t matter where he delivers his speech.” So, apparently, you can go wrong by being more specific.

Bishop does not call out the subjectivity, however. She relies upon her years of experience to back her conviction about what makes a good logline and suggests that it is a matter of standards.

Perhaps this is wise on her part, because “selling is a way of life” and, as she observes, the world truly revolves around marketing. So, Bishop is selling herself as an expert, and she does so consistently.

For an experienced writer, however, the matter of subjectivity is key, and it’s disappointing to feel that it’s being shuttled into a corner, covered with a sheet like a piece of furniture in a cottage off-season.

Ultimately, there is no unique piece of advice here. Perhaps it was unfair to expect there would be, but the fact that an entire book exists on the matter of writing single-sentence pitches does suggest a particular expertise.

Actually, the unique piece of advice could exist for the writer pitching specifically to Lane Shefter Bishop. But my takeaway is that I simply must do all the things an experienced writer is already doing daily – tweak vocabulary, choose dynamic words, aim to be both accurate and succinct – but, this time, with a single sentence.

Good stuff for beginning writers.

Bishop, Lane Shefter. Selling Your Story in a Single Sentence: Advice from the Frontlines of Hollywood (The Countryman Press – W. W. Norton, 2016)

Imagine This: Creating the Work You Love (Maxine Clair)

Whereas Ann Patchett’s essay was written for people who are specifically interested in writing – either in her own process of writing or the ways in which her process might serve as a model for their own – Maxine Clair’s 2014 book is written for people who are interested in exploring their own creativity.

Whether because they have never had a creative outlet or because their creative aspirations have taken a back seat to other aspects of life (whether more or less satisfying): Imagine This is about taking the opportunity to imagine alternatives.

Each chapter begins with an epigraph. For instance, Mary Oliver heralds chapter nine:

“Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

The epigraphs are designed to act as a way of probing your thoughts on how you engage with the world around you, which suits a book preoccupied with the inner life.

The narrative is partly rooted in the author’s personal experience and partly in a broader commentary related to the aspect of her life under discussion. Her autobiographical writing is unsentimental and matter-of-fact, avoiding the nitty-gritty and concentrating on the patterns she has observed as she gradually moved towards fulfillment. The commentary takes a step back from her personal life and invites readers to situate their own experience in this broader perspective.

Finally, each chapter ends with a series of exercises, prompts and queries designed to encourage readers to explore. At the end, there is a short interview and a list of sources (which one could approach as a reading list, although an actual list would have been helpful).

Much of the material here is familiar, but the tone strikes a satisfying balance between informal and informative. Imagine This is also delightfully jargon-free. One does not have the sense that she is simply looking to capitalize on the insecurities and disappointments which can drive the despairing towards the shelves of self-help and personal growth.

“It can be tempting to linger in maybe-land, savoring the satisfaction of having made a choice, but shying away from commitment. The business of consciously committing your mind, body, and spirit to a new creative expression requires stepping up your energy over time to both develop and sustain new habits.”

Although the book is clearly written with a varied audience in mind, I found the growth of her creative work as a writer (through a helpful exchange with Toni Morrison, a confrontation with a discouraging and critical English professor, and her early experiences with publication) of particular interest and the joy with which she practices her craft is inspiring.

Good stuff for writers.

Clair, Maxine. Imagine This: Creating the Work You Love (Agate Bolden, 2014)

“The Getaway Car” (Ann Patchett)

This essay appears in her collection This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Over the years, she was asked certain questions about her writing process repeatedly, and this essay is her well-honed answer.

The entire collection is worth reading. Some of the essays are interesting and some are beautiful; “The Getaway Car” is the most immediately relevant to me. (But the pieces about her dog and her grandmother are moving and memorable.)

Although I can imagine how easily she might have turned this work into a full-length book, I appreciate her concise and deliberate approach. This is a piece i plan to reread periodically, and its length makes that intention more realistic.

I appreciate its succinct reminders about things i already know. “Habits stick, both the good ones and the bad.” It has taken a lot of work to undo some habits which have interfered with my writing. And even though I’m more cautious now, having fallen into traps I have laid in the past many times, and now better equipped to recognise risks and pitfalls, I can always use reminding.

“This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.”

This pure affection for a work not-yet-begun is immediately recognisable. Sometimes it is paralysing. I have left drafts sitting, unouched, for years, because the gap between the imagined and the written was vast.

Ann Patchett, too, has struggled with the gap between the writer she wanted to be and the writer she grew into being. She has worked to adjust the balance.

“When I thought about the writer I had wanted to be when I was a child, the one who was noble and hungry and lived for art, that person was not shallow. I would go back to my better, deeper, self.”

She writes about the importance of fallow periods, about painful periods of growth.

“I am a compost heap, and everything I interact with, every experience I’ve had gets shoveled onto the heap where it eventually mulches down, is digested and excreted by worms, and rots. It’s from the rich, dark humus, the combination of what you encountered, what you know and what you’ve forgotten, that ideas start to grow.”

She considers the ways in which we work that do not revolve around a printed page.

“There may be no tangible evidence of the work I do in my head, but I’ve done it nevertheless.”

Ultimately, however, she is an experienced writer. “Somewhere in all my years of practice, I don’t know where exactly, I arrived at the art.”

Nonetheless, this piece offers useful advice for beginning writers too.

About the need for dedication and work. “If I wanted a better life for myself I was going to have to write it.”

About the need to understand one’s audience and market. “Magazines really do have personalities, and you should be able to figure out if your story might fit in.”

And about ambition and passion. “One more thing to think about when putting a novel together: make it hard. Set your sights on something that you aren’t quite capable of doing, whether artistically, emotionally, or intellectually. You can also go for broke and take on all three.”

The piece which I intended to find at the core of this reading, the one about her marriage, was considered and articulate. And, of course, ironic. For even if it was happy (and that seems questionable in this accounting), it is now over.

In the end, I was left feeling that her true marriage is to words.

Great stuff for writers.

Patchett, Ann. “The Getaway Car” in This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (HarperCollins, 2011)

A Muse & A Maze (Peter Turchi)

This I began to read while walking home from the library. The construction on Eglinton creates pedestrian detours which take me off the straightaway, force me to slow my pace even more, travel alleyways rather than sidewalks.

Peter Turchi’s book feels like exactly the right writing book for me right now, as I fuss with the details in a complicated structure in a manuscipt I’ve been fussing with for countless revisions, constructing detours around the page to play with discovery and mystery.

It reassures me to learn that Jennifer Egan rewrote parts of A Visit from the Goon Squad 79 or 80 times. (Although now I wonder if I should be counting drafts, wonder what made her decide to count. Or whether it was an application’s relentless habit instead, electronic memory.)

This I learned from a NYT interview, but it fits, because Egan’s novel proves Turchi’s point, that some novelists are puzzle makers.  Actually, ALL writers, he suggests.

“Our wariness of neat solutions, our desire to grapple with deeper mysteries, is what draws us to serious fiction,” he writes.

A Muse and A Maze is a delight. Not only does it actually include puzzles (of all sorts: even the cover!) but puzzles which are designed to appeal specifically to bookish people.

There are solutions in the back, except for one puzzle which was presented as a contest for readers to solve, with directions to the author’s website instead. A logic puzzle about writers, an acrostic with bookish clues, Will Shortz’s favourite word game, magic squares, riddles: they are designed to intrigue.

It also contains many inspiring quotes which support his theory of writers-as-puzzle-makers and many suggestions for your TBR list. It’s fitting that he recommends so many books: “Even the books we don’t choose to spend time with tell us something about what we value.”

Also included are many carefully selected images, from self-portraits of artists which contain only objects to photographs and prints which complement the text. He even includes a set of tangram pictures and a template on the back page so you can make your own and play at assembling the pieces into the shapes shown.

There are longer musings upon concepts which underpin his theory (the bits on mystery and labyrinths were especially interesting to me) with an abundance of illustrations and references. Even if these weren’t elements of interest to you before-hand, Turchi makes them seem fascinating.

The quotes included from other writers’ musings upon the craft of writing vary from general thoughts on construction to quotes which more directly reflect his theory.

John Le Carre writes: “Creating order from chaos is the innermost room of a writer’s desire.” Ross MacDonald writes: “We reshape ourselves as we write.” These ideas carry a broad appeal; surely any writer can find something to relate to here.

Tim O’Brien writes: “A satisfying plot, I believe, involves not a diminution of mystery but rather a fundamental enlargement.” And Jan Kjaerstad writes: “You know…all of this could be rearranged to form quite a different story.” These ideas may have a more specific appeal, seeming to speak of a particular kind of story and particular ideas about how it might be told.

Further into the work, thoughts by other writers are more complex, even more specific in terms of what motivates their storytelling and how structure and theme dance in some literary fiction.

James Salter writes: “Most of the details…have long since been transformed to rearranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important…. The myriad past, it enters us and disappears. Except that within it, somewhere, like diamonds, exist the fragments that refuse to be consumed. Sifting through, if one dares, and collecting them, one discovers the true design.”

Michael Ondaatje writes: “It’s like a villanelle, this inclination of going back to events in our past, the way the villanelle’s form refuses to move forward in linear development, circling instead at those familiar moments of emotion…. We live with those retrievals from childhood that coalesce and echo throughout our lives, the way shattered pieces of glass in kaleidoscope reappear in new forms…. We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell.”

I’m not sure that all writers are puzzle makers. But I can think of specific books which read like puzzles to me and they are usually amongst my favourites. While not every writer will be drawn to Peter Turchi’s meditation, those who find the idea of it immediately intriguing will likely find the book thrilling.

Great stuff for puzzle-making writers.

Turchi, Peter A Muse & A Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery and Magic (Trinity U Press, 2014)

Vivid & Continuous (John McNally)

A writing book that begins with an epigraph from John Gardner? That bodes well for me. Gardner’s was one of the first books I read on craft and it has stood up well to rereading.

Vivid & Continuous contains 15 chapters, beginning with one on Writing and ending with one on Humility.

It contains some very broad advice. Such as: “no writer can please everyone”. And a general reminder that writers need to be very good manipulators. (Of text, yes, but also their own doubts and fears.) 

He offers specific advice too. For instance, he considers the twenty most common craft-related issues that lessen immediacy for a reader. The first is Dialogue Tags that Yell for Attention; the last is Searching for Substitute Words instead of using Commonplace ones (and, in between, Backstory and Simile-metaphor Overload). 

John McNally has read over a million pages of fiction written by beginning writers, and he has edited theme-based anthologies. He is well situated to identify the common default stories – those ubiquitous and problematic tales – even when they vary regionally (for instance, the plethora of snowboarding stories written in Colorado). 

He can warn against the overused and make suggestions to transcend. Which is what he does when it comes to specific structural and mechanical issues as well, as in the chapter on  Imitative Fallacy. Here he begins with a definition and ends with examples of how Flowers for Algernon mitigates the common problems associated with Imitative Fallacy and also explains Keyes’ techniques.

McNally relies upon familiar stories and full-length works to demonstrate a variety of techniques and approaches. In fact, there are ten pages filled with tiny print at the end of the volume, devoted to  Further Reading.

This includes his Works Cited but also an extended reference list, which includes biographies and collections of letters, story collections and novels. Although there are not many representatives of either young writers or genre writers, otherwise the list is representative of a wide variety of literary prose.; he recommends writers from Bradbury to Gaitskill, from Gowdy to Hurston. 

At the end of each chapter are a few exercises, which are designed to work well for both individuals and groups. (It’s frustrating when exercises are designed only for a classroom setting: surely the majority of readers are alone in a room with a piece of paper.) These are general enough to be inspiring but specific enough to feel fresh and repeatable.

Very good stuff for writers.

Selected Quotes:

“There is, when all is said and done, only that which works for you.”

“I’ve been thinking a lot about humility recently because, as a creative writing professor, I see less and less of it every year, and it depresses me.”

“Routine, routine, routine: a writer finds a routine that works and, barring life’s interferences, sticks with it.”

McNally, John. Vivid & Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction (U of Iowa, 2013)

Margaret Laurence Lecture: Hugh MacLennan, 1987

In a letter to Marian Engel, Hugh MacLennan wrote: ““But factually I’m fifty, even though my economic status is no more secure than than of the average McGill engineering graduate. But time, the ability at last to become accustomed to it, to measure its power and effects – there’s no doubt of it, a novelist needs that. A woman novelist, oddly, needs it much less than a man. That is because a woman of 20, if she’s intelligent, is basically more mature than an intelligent man of 30.”

It was 1957. Thirty years later, he is eighty years old and delivering the first of the Margaret Laurence lectures.

“It seems a grim jest of God that she should be gone and I should be here, for I was born some eighteen years before she came into the world.”

Because I am less familiar with his works and more familiar with Laurence’s, I enjoyed the first part of the piece more. (And it was particularly fine to discover a reference to the importance of both Laurence and Gabrielle Roy to the Manitoba letters scene, as I have been systematically reading through Roy’s works over the past year.)

His piece is preoccupied with time, as suits an octogenarian speaker, and it is interesting to read his perspective on the relationships between nations.

“Sometimes people ask, ‘What is the difference between Canada and the United States apart from the climates?’ Historically and psychologically there are very great differences. Until the long debacle in Vietnam, the Americans had never lost a war against a foreign power. But the ancestors of nearly all Canadians were losers.”

His experience being a writer stretched from Princeton to Oxford, from Halifax to Germany; he literally ran into Einstein walking on campus and compares the prices of orange juice and hot dogs across the decades. As one would expect, even only having read Two Solitudes, there is much to consider about national identities and conflicts large and small.

MacLennan has nothing to say about his writing process or whether he liked to read in the mornings or in the evenings. He looked outward as much as he looked inward.

Ulitmately, however, the piece left me wanting to read his last novel, to which he refers as having taken him six years to write, Voices in Time. And his discussion of the introduction of a Metis writer, to the pages of Margaret Laurence’s fiction, made me want to reread The Diviners.

Next in the series? Mavis Gallant. Won’t that be a treat.

Still Writing (Dani Shapiro)

Still Writing falls somewhere between Elizabeth Berg’s Escaping into the Open and Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird. It contains some concrete advice and some general musings, some straight talk and some philosophizing.

Her tone is conversational and at times the narrative feels very personal. She says, for instance: “If I’m not writing, my heart hardens, rather than lifts.” Perhaps that isn’t true for every writer but it speaks to me.

Not every line has an immediate or intense resonance for me, however. I feel less of a connection to this description of the process: “The page turns from us like a wounded lover. We will have to win it over, coax it out of hiding. Promise to do better next time. Apologize for our disregard. And then, we settle into the pattern that we know.”

But Dani Shapiro combines a personal response with more commonplace observations of the writing life.

“So what is it about writing that makes it – for some of us – as necessary as breathing? It is in the thousands of days of trying, failing, sitting, thinking, resisting, dreaming, raveling, unraveling that we are at our most engaged, alert, and alive. Time slips away.”

Sometimes she offers straightforward advice:

“Act as if you are a writer. Sit down and begin. Act as if you might just create something beautiful, and by beautiful I mean something authentic and universal. Don’t wait for anybody to tell you it’s okay. Take that shimmer and show us our humanity. That’s your job.”

She is well aware of the standard pitfalls and challenges and issues direct warnings:

“We are commuting inward. And on Monday mornings – or after a long holiday, a summer vacation, any time we have been away from the page – we have to be even more vigilant about that commute. We are traveling to that place inside ourselves – so small as to be invisible – where we are free to roam and play.”

At times, her language is strikingly simple: “Word after word, sentence after sentence, we build our writing lives.”

Is this really a helpful statement? Perhaps not for every writer. But as someone who has spent more time resisting the simple act of writing a sentence, I find simple directives useful.

“Who would ever be in the mood to write?” she asks. And, then, she sends you to your desk.

Good stuff for writers!

Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013

[Note I added this to my reading list thanks to Alexis Kienlen, whose comment on GoodReads convinced me that I should give it a try.]

Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott)

Whenever I look at the list of books about writing that I’ve considered on this site, I feel a pang of disloyalty.

Most of the books that had a fundamental impact on the way that I think about writing are books that I read a long time ago, books whose titles are not listed here, books whose ideas have no gratitude expressed towards them here.

When I decided to re-read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird this year, that’s what I was thinking about. It was a deliberately planned pilgrimage. But I was nervous about it.

Sometime between 1994 and February 2012, I did pick up Bird by Bird again, and I hadn’t loved it with the same fervour that I had when I first discovered it. After only a few chapters, I set it aside and wondered if I hadn’t grown out of it.

After that, I stopped recommending it as widely as I had, even though it was one of the books whose names still came immediately to mind when I considered influential books on writing. After that, I looked at my copy warily, like you look at a favourite food that’s been tainted by the memory of having eaten it on an evening that transformed into a particularly painful morning-after.

But now I can comfortably refer to it as a favourite once more. If I ever find the notes that I made from that first reading (if, in fact, I made notes, because all I remember is racing through it, even taking it into the tub, so attached was I), I might find that I noted completely different passages, but the number of flags that marked the remarkable passages of this re-read was an impressive tally indeed.

What makes Bird by Bird such a vital resource for me?

First, the specific.

“One line of dialogue that rings true reveals character in a way that pages of description can’t.”

“If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in.”

Next, the general.

“Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.”

“Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artists’ true friend. What people (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here – and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.”

Also, her bookishness.

“I read more than other kids; I luxuriated in books. Books were my refuge. I sat in corners with my little finger hooked over my bottom lip, reading, in a trance, lost in the places and times to which books took me.”

“Becoming a writer can also profoundly change your life as a reader. One reads with a deeper appreciation and concentration, knowing now how hard writing is, especially how hard it is to make it look effortless. You begin to read with a writer’s eyes. You focus in a new way.”

And, finally, her voice.

“There are moments when I am writing when I think that if other people knew how I felt right now, they’d burn me at the stake for feeling so good, so full, so much intense pleasure. I pay through the nose for these moments, of course, with / lots of torture and self-loathing and tedium, but when I am done for the day, I have something to show for it.”

“To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind, the mind that so frequently has its head up is own ass – seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcissistic way that it presents a colo-rectal theology, offering hope to no one.”

It’s Still Great Stuff for Writers.

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994)
Pantheon Books, 1995

The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed (Karen Elizabeth Gordon)

A newer, fancier-schmancier version of her 1984 handbook, The Transitive Vampire, The Deluxe Transitive Vampire offers more of the same, with prettier pictures, wider margins, and somewhat more content.

In the preface, Karen Elizabeth Gordon explains: “”I crawled beneath the lines of the previous version and found what had been left unsaid because of questions I hadn’t asked. The answers came in many voices, with me emerging somewhat battered and bruised from the adventure (and there are these curious marks on my throat), but that’s what it took to tear the terror from this terrain.”

If you truly find English grammar terrifying, this likely isn’t the book for you. But, if you are well-versed, and simply need a refresher, but find yourself wholly reluctant to start at the beginning of The Chicago Manual of Style and read straight through, The Deluxe Transitive Vampire manages to straddle the line between useful and amusing.

Its gothic flavour does not detract from its clarity. The introduction states: “Learning is less a curse than a distraction. If you nuzzle these pages with abandon, writing will lose its terror and your sentences their disarray.”

The text is divided as follows: Sentences, Words, Nouns, Verbs, Verbals, Adjectives and Adverbs, Pronouns, Agreements, Phrases, Clauses, and, finally, Fragments, Splices, and Run-ons.

See, it covers the basics and you can’t help but grin at the examples for even the most straight-forward elements of the text.

As an example of a compound predicate, from the Words section: “The baby vampire hurled his bottle at his nanny and screamed for type O instead.”

As an example of prepositions, from the Words section: “Lisa shakily stood her ground with the obstreperous opposition of her puny will.”

Even something as elementary as a noun is more interesting in The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: “That’s the pure, simple beauty of the noun: utter the word, and you have company on your hands, however abstract (apathy, hypothesis, dissent), palpable (balsa wood, marzipan), or specific (the Loch Ness Monster, Elvis Presley, The Duino Elegies).”

However, the pleasure of the text does depend on the reader’s familiarity with the concepts herein. If you didn’t have at least a passing familiarity with past perfect participles, a sentence like this one might through you off course in her discussion of verbals:

Having been seen to have seen the crime at the scene of it, the innocent onlooked feared the rat pack would hunt her down after the big Appenzeller heist.”

Nonetheless, how funny is this bit from the Agreements section: “The shade of sadness we call the blues can take a singular or plural verb, since anyone who has them can’t be bothered to look it up, or to be consistent about whether it is — or they are — in pieces or in a solid hopeless mass.”

And even if you’re not interested in the details, you have to grin at the fantastic illustrations, which often relate directly to the text. For instance, one of the simpler illustrations, a bat, appears on a page with this tidbit about agreement: “Often these issues are so easy and apparent that you scarcely bat an eye.”

Still, it’s not all gothic fun ‘n’ games, The Deluxe Transitive Vampire is a solid introductory handbook. It offers everything from definitions (e.g. “The verb is the heartthrob of a sentence.”) to useful tips and tricks (it is particularly tricky) like this one about distinguishing between participial phrases and gerunds: “If you’re confused in the presence of an -ing word, you can find out if it’s a gerund by making it submit to this simple test (no torturing the prisoner, please): Can it be preceded by an article or by a possessive form?”

If you’re looking to sharpen your skills, this reference book has teeth. The fun kind.

Good stuff for writers.

Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed (Pantheon Books, 1993)

Ben Yagoda’s The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing (2004)

To begin with a cliché, which of course Ben Yagoda would never do, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. That’s style. And that’s at the core of Ben Yagoda’s The Sound on the Page.

Accepting as his premise, “style matters”, Ben Yagoda went on to interview more than 40 writers.

He quickly discovered that it wasn’t an easy subject to discuss overtly. Some writers approach style consciously, others subconsciously, and even those who do approach it deliberately had difficulty assembling their explanations.

“The underlying movement is a circling around the subject, until finally it is securely roped and tied to the ground.”

The writers interviewed include Jonathan Raban, Abraham Verghese, Dave Barry, Andrei Codrescu, Elmore Leonard, Cynthia Ozick, John Updike, Camille Paglia, Junot Díaz, Jamaica Kinkaid, Bebe Moore Campbell and Bill Bryson.

From whether one prefers writing longhand to writings on a keyboard, from literary influences to Strunk and White, from writing in Black English to the overuse of adverbs: it’s all here.

The author declares that it’s not a how-to guide, but nonetheless every page has  “implications for writers who are interested in discovering and developing their own style”.

And these pages are best absorbed over time. The narrative contains long excerpts of the interviews, and some chapters are comprised entirely of writers’ thoughts on style.

This is not a work with the conversational style of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, or the intimate tone of bell hooks’ remembered rapture; The Sound on the Page feels formal, methodical and s-e-r-i-o-u-s.

“To be sure, most of us neither can be nor want to be a Hemingway. But all of us have within us a quieters sort of stylistic distinctiveness. Anyone who is serious about writing in any form is engaged in a lifelong waltz with this capability.”

Random Quotes:

“Thinking about voice, my first thought was that it’s about identity, recognizability, individuation. But then I thought, no, recognizabilty is not the point, it’s the result — of emotion, movement, kinetic thought, dance, fear, love. It’s the result of specific experience filtered through a specific sieve.” Sharon Olds

“If you’re a lens with a particular grind, with warps and bumps, the writers you like are lights that can shine through that lens. Different lights are going to reveal different aspects. You end up with a map of your own lens — the things that come up again and again.” Michael Chabon

It’s Good Stuff for Writers.

Yagoda, Ben The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing (HarperResource – HarperCollins, 2004)