Friday, June 3, 2011

Writing Advice

I'm not going to give you writing advice. Instead I'm going to talk about other people's advice to you.

I'm not going to give you advice on surviving criticism, either. People in your writing group, your friends, or one of the dwindling ranks of professional reviewers, most of these folks will have something negative to say about your work sooner or later. All that means is that it's not what they want right now. If you throw up your hands and say, "Well, I'm no good," after that, you're not a writer. Nothing wrong with not being a writer. Being a writer is not the highest calling in life. I mean, think about it. Was Gandhi a writer? Was Escoffier? Heifitz?

But if you are a writer, and you feel that your craft needs honing, either because someone has told you so, or you have noticed your own deficiencies, or your self-confidence is faltering, or you're very young, you may find yourself turning to books on writing advice. This is not a bad thing, but you have to be selective. Many of these books will not give you what you want right now, which is useful advice and encouragement. Many of them are there to lead you up the garden path, waste your time and separate you from your money.

My personal criterion for a book on writing advice is this: Can I imagine writers I respect reading this and paying any attention to it? Having passed this initial sniff test, good books of writing advice fall into four categories:

  1. Living the writing Life
  2. Structuring your book and completing a first draft
  3. Editing and polishing your book
  4. Selling and promoting your book

The first category is the most fun to read. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, is my very favorite of these. Steven King's On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft is not to be missed. Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner is also a treat.

The second category is for me the most interesting, because plotting and structure are not skills that come naturally to me. When I get hold of a good one I study it ardently. My favorites are Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel by Hallie Ephron and Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. There's another one I truly love but I've lost my copy and forgotten the title. Writers Digest published it. It had a blue cover. It talked about Aristotelian poetics.

Don't read books in the third category while you are still working on the first draft. You will get all bogged down in grammar and the minutiae of elegant self-expression when you should be figuring out who did what to whom and when. When you are ready to edit, a different process from writing, you can't do better than Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King, and Don't Murder your Mystery by Chris Reorden.

I don't have a good book on selling and promotion. Things in the industry are changing so fast that a book might not be the way to go. You might be better off online, following things like Publisher's Marketplace, and the Query Shark's blog.

Kate Gallison

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