Sunday, August 10, 2008

What would you want in a writing guide?

Rhian and I were at the Jersey Shore this past week, and so we took along some W6-recommended crime novels. We really got into Lawrence Block's Hit Man, recommended by Mr. Saflo. It's a lighthearted (if you can believe that) book about a hired killer, and I enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than many of the literary books I've read lately.

This is kind of a theme lately, I suppose...thinking about what makes a book good. Ambition is not necessarily advantageous, and neither is depth. When a book is those things, and still good, then that's great--but, as I've said here recently, I think what I'm looking for, above all, is honesty: to one's readers, to one's characters, and to one's own preoccupations.

Anyway, this brought me back to a thought I've been having on and off ever since we started this blog, and that is that maybe we ought to write a writing guide. I mean, we talk here a great deal about writing--our processes, our philosophy, our successes and failures. So why not write a book? We are not the most wildly famous writers in the world, but so what. It wouldn't be about getting published, it would be about making something you can be proud of. Which, for both of us, I think, is the goal.

The thing is, I've never really loved a writing guide. And there are already so many of them out there. Does the world need another? Probably not. Still. With more than a couple of decades of writing and teaching between us, we probably have a few things to say that someone might enjoy. If Lawrence Block has managed to turn out four writer's manuals (and yes, he has), then surely we could manage one between us.

Do you ever feel as though you want to read a good book about writing--an inspiring book, an entertaining book, whatever--but the thing you want doesn't seem to exist? What are you looking for in a book about writing, if in fact that's what you're looking for?

And should its title be something like The Ward Six Guide to Writing a Novel? Or do you prefer one of those cryptic metaphor titles, like Shaving the Deacon's Goldfish: A Life In Writing, or A Thimbleful of Opium: Finding Your Voice, or perhaps The Bastard in the Butterchurn: A Novelist's Companion?

Or should we just stick to blogging?

PS, big thanx to Ed for posting so diligently in our absence.


rive said...

i definitely think you and rhian should put together a writing guide. some people feel like writing guides are a sham, designed to take advantage of those would-be writers who would shell out anything to find out "the secret" to getting published. while i'm sure plenty of those people snatch up writing books, i think most books are bought by writers who are simply trying to retain the general "rules" of writing. i know plenty of young writers, many who have published in various magazines and even have book deals, who continue to buy writing guides. why? because unless you've been writing for a solid 10+ years you still have a tendency to forget. every time you stare at the blank page it's like you're doing it for the first time. i've pretty much read them all. some good - the gotham writers' workshop guide to writing fiction, some bad, but they all still help in their own ways. so, i see nothing wrong with putting out another writing guide. we need them. to beat the ideals into our skulls. anyone who thinks they know all there is to know, can't know much. get at it.

Elizabeth said...

JRL, this has been on my mind a lot lately, as I've read three (3!) books about writing in the last few weeks. ("The Art of Subtext" by Charles Baxter, "About Writing" by Samuel R. Delany, which I've posted about here, and this weekend, "How Fiction Works" by James Wood.)

What I find helpful and interesting are different perspectives that get me thinking about things -- craft, technique, art, etc. -- in new ways. For instance, Delany and Wood have opposing views on structure, with Delany practically daring the writer to try straight chronological form, and Wood arguing for the approach he asserts more closely mirrors consciousness, a sort of back and forth revelation of character that allows it to deepen over time, makes way for complexities, contradictions, and so forth -- as the experience of meeting someone and growing a friendship is like a Polaroid picture developing. (That's my clumsy metaphor; Wood is an elegant stylist, of course, and the book is super.)

I think this pleasure I find in conflicting opinions has to do with comfort; the idea that when I write, I'm not doing it wrong, I'm just doing it differently; that there are many approaches, many theories. I think, too, it's why I'm addicted to writer interviews (The Believer Book of Writers Talking To Writers, the Paris Review Interviews, shoot, even the writer blurbs in the back of BASS.)

So, what I'd look for in a book about writing by a couple of writers whose work I admire is really the idiosyncratic over the general. I want to read not what you think will work for me, but what works for you. Tell me about the mistakes you've made. Tell me about the successes you've stumbled upon. Tell me why you favor one form or structure or POV over another. Take issue, directly or indirectly, with what's already out there -- the Forster, the Gardner, the King (!), the Wood. The more particular to you, the better, in my opinion.

A book on writing by you and Rhian? Absolutely, I'd buy it.

jrlennon said...

Great advice, thank you! I should add that Rhian is not exactly on board with this idea yet. In fact she has said, um, "no" to writing it. But even if I wrote it alone, it would basically be made of stuff I stole from her.

Anyway, you're both saying what I'd hoped to hear--that idiosyncrasy wins the day. I can't speak for Rhian, but I haven't actually done anything particularly interesting in my life that didn't take place in my head. I see this as kind of a memoir of possibly useful mental processes, stuff I figured out while writing or teaching.

rmellis said...

My resistance comes from my belief that you learn to write by doing it, after having developed some good taste by reading good stuff. I don't think you can skip over any of that by reading a chapter on "plot" for example.

That said, it would be satsifying to set down some rules. Though I'm not sure we have anything to say that hasn't been said elsewhere, JR!

Here's something I haven't read much, and that I would blog about if I were blogging now, which I'm not: early praise kills writers. No one should write seriously until they're thoroughly grown up and have a solid sense of themselves. There!

jrlennon said...

Well...maybe no one should try to publish at an early age. They oughta write all they want.

I know it's all been said before, but not by us, right? I mean, you could say the same thing about fiction itself--it's all been done. But the point isn't doing something new. It's doing something that is uniquely representative of your own personality. Making the old new, out of the stuff of the self.

rmellis said...

Well, I said write *seriously,* that is, with a future in mind. Certainly writing for fun is fine.

But I don't think people should major in creative writing, like I did, for example. And shouldn't take high school classes in it, etc.

Pete said...

Sure, go for it - and be sure to call it "Sausagemaking for the Unsqueamish."

jrlennon said...

Perhaps, then, I should just write a book that is a big long list of writing-guide titles...

bigscarygiraffe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bigscarygiraffe said...

Along the lines of both author-interviews and serendipitously, early-praise-kills-authors...

Mr. John Berryman in the Paris Review:

"If a writer gets hot early, then his work ought to become known early. If it doesn't, he is in danger of feeling neglected. We take it that all young writers overestimate their work. It's impossible not to--I mean if you recognized what shit you were writing, you wouldn't write it. You have to believe in your stuff--every day has to be the new day on which the new poem may be it.

So if I were talking to a young writer, I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers."

Have I posted this before? I feel that I must. At any rate, I'm off my Berryman kick

Actually, that whole interview is quite sexy.

jrlennon said...

I think the publishing industry is having some trouble these days knowing when a writer is hot, though. Increasingly they like to package new young writers as exactly that, regardless of what state their work is in. I am afraid that, all too commonly, we get an OK first book from a young turk that is pitched hard and sells well, and then instead of working slowly up to a great book, the writer rips her hair out trying to figure out how to please the monster, and descends into mediocrity.

It takes a very strong writer to ignore the hype of his first book and then write the second as though the rest of the world doesn't exist, to hell with what the house thinks. But the truth generally is, once you're in, you want to stay in, and you'll compromise your work to do it. I wish fewer publishers put this kind of pressure on their writers--I think we'd see a much stronger, and much stranger, body of American writing.

Pete (another Pete) said...

Write it, publish it (or don't publish it) and put up juicy bits on the web. I like this idea. One thing it will definitely do is firm up what it is you guys think about writing, with the added benefit (if it was needed) that your own writing would be enhanced in the process.

5 Red Pandas said...

In terms of developing a wider range of knowledge, I think Rhian's comment about not studying writing at a young age is probably good advice. Studying literature and other subjects gives you lots of knowledge to draw upon, in addition to your life experiences.

Anonymous said...

I think if you study Creative Writing you should study literature alongside. I also think the literature syllabus should be chosen by a range of teachers - not only your CW teacher.

jrlennon said...

Well--I definitely agree, a CW student should school herself on lit as well. With only two years in most CW programs, though, that's not much time to scribble your brains out...not many students would be interesting in taking a lot of lit classes during that time.

It might be interesting, though, for MFA programs to have "strongly recommended" reading lists for their students...or perhaps some pioneering program might float a three-year plan, with the first year consisting of the intensive craft-based study of literature.

Personally, I like the system as it is, with the students reading on their own--but I'm sure some students would prefer a bit more pressure in that department.