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Two Books on Writing for Writers March 13, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews, On Writing.
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A post on two books I checked out this afternoon at the bookstore: (1) How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittlemark and Sandra Newman and (2) Bird by Birdby Anne Lamott.  While both were on writing, they could not be more different in terms of styles and approach.

Note that I have NOT read either book from cover to cover – the following simply contains some of my views on them from flicking through the book, skimming the majority of it (using my slightly faulty speed reading capabilities) and reading in detail only the specific sections that appealed to me.

How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

how-not-to-write-a-novel1I first caught a glimpse of this book in the hands of some dude standing outside a bank in Dublin of all places.  It sounded like an interesting concept for a writer’s book (if anything, it was catchy), and I was keen to know whether I was committing any of the 200 classic mistakes in the fantasy novel I was working on.

So I found the book rather easily today and had a good look through it.  The book is broken down into various parts, each dealing with a specific problem area, such as plot, pacing, character, dialogue, voice – and goes as far as telling writers how not to write sex scenes!  Each of the 200 classic mistakes were accompanied by a tailor-made example provided by the authors that allow the reader to identify the mistake with ease.  Much of the writing is infused with quite a bit of humour, and the tone is light-hearted, though it can be somewhat condescending at times.  The authors call it ‘tough love’.  They say if you can learn to avoid all the mistakes they listed, you would have transformed yourself from unpublishable to publishable writer.

To be honest, I’m not sure how helpful the book would be to serious writers.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a fascinating read, but the significant proportion of the ‘classic mistakes’ were so blatantly obvious that any writer with a little common sense would not make them (perhaps they just needed to get to 200).  And I say this as a first-time writer who is acutely aware of the fact that he has a long long long way to go before becoming even remotely publishable.

However, that is not to say all of the tips were useless – I did find a few to be beneficial.  Perhaps not in reading what the actual mistake is as such, but rather from seeing clearly why the mistake is bad for your writing.  As a consequence, it will make it easier for you to recognise the mistake in your own writing.  In particular, the bits I found most useful were the examples on sticking to just the relevant details in descriptions and dialogue, and avoiding stock-standard character descriptions and  indistinguishable or faceless secondary characters.  These may have been things I knew were bad before, but now I will aim to target these problems even more in my next draft.

The biggest problem with the book might also be its selling point – most of the time, the book tells you what NOT to do rather than teaches what you SHOULD do.  You might say it’s the same thing, but it’s much easier to point out another’s mistakes than doing it right yourself.  Not making a common mistake does not necessarily make the writing any good.  Furthermore, some of these so-called mistakes may be found in many of the published novels you see on shelves today.

The verdict: A good book to pick up and flick through, especially for novices (like myself), but the truth is it won’t instantly transform you into a publishable author if you weren’t one before.  Many of the classic mistakes are obvious and reading too many in a row can get tedious, so it’s probably better to pick and choose your problem areas rather than go from cover to cover.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

bird-by-birdNow this is a completely different book to the one above.  I first came across Anne Lamott’s gem of a book the first day of a creative writing course I did a year ago.  Since then, I have picked up the book in book stores on several occasions (which killed the need to buy it) and I’ve enjoyed it immensely every time.

This book is less about gimmicks and more about the essence of writing.  It’s written like a memoir, with lots of personal stories, experiences and anecdotes, usually told in Lamott’s trade mark, self-deprecating humour which I find very funny.  You won’t find any meticulously structured tips on writing techniques (though it is split into chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of writing), but what you will get are brutally honest and sometimes profound observations about the craft of writing and the struggles in the life of a writer.

Much of it is philosophical, so how much the reader takes out of it may vary significantly, but personally, I found it more useful than How Not to Write a Novel.  Instead of learning about the types of mistakes that publishers avoid, Lamott tells you to be honest with yourself and write from the heart.  You can tell she believes what she preaches through her writing.  That is not to say there are not any broad lessons to be learnt.  Ones I found especially helpful include:

  • allowing yourself to write shitty first drafts (no one gets it right on the first attempt);
  • knowing its okay to learn about and define your characters as you progress, rather than worry about shaping them completely before you begin writing;
  • ensuring each character has a different voice and distinguishing characteristics, such that they can be distinguished through their dialogue;
  • reading your dialogue out loud (where possible) to improve it;
  • dealing with jealousy (in relation to successful friends and colleagues!);
  • getting help from others, such as finding someone to read your drafts, join groups and networking;
  • how to deal with writer’s block; and
  • the cold hard truth about getting published.

Lamott paints a pretty grim picture about the publishing world.  Frankly, she says, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, and in particular, the financial rewards for most are minimal.  However, she continues to remind writers of the beauty and pleasure of the act of writing itself.  For people that tend to get too caught up in getting published, it’s a good book to read to bring you back down to earth.

A problem I had with the book are common with books of this type – you don’t always find the anecdotes and stories interesting and engaging.  Sometimes, you might feel like skipping to the next point, except you’re not sure where the next point is because the structure doesn’t allow it.  So it’s best not to see this book as a technical writing guide, but rather, as something you can enjoy as a piece of work in its own right, though you might be surprised to learn a few valuable lessons along the way.

Another issue one may find is that Lamott’s style is more suited to writers like her who write about characters and relationships.  Accordingly, for someone (like me) working on a fast-paced fantasy novel, the suggestions about letting your characters take complete charge and drive the plot wherever it may go might not always be the most suitable approach.

The verdict: An honest, often hilarious book that speaks to writers’ hearts.  It might not be the book you would choose if you want to learn about the technical aspects of being a better writer, and some people might simply not get her message (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but personally I found it enjoyable.

PS: for those that enjoyed the book, there is a documentary called Bird by Bird with Annie: A Film Portrait of Writer Anne Lamott that focuses on a year in the life of the titular writer.  I haven’t seen it but would be interested to know if it is any good.


1. Creative Writing Courses Two Books on Writing for Writers =AB About Writing - The Pers= onal … « - March 14, 2009

[…] Two Books on Writing for Writers ? About Writing – The Personal … By pacejmiller I first came across Anne Lamott?s gem of a book the first day of a creative writing course I did a year ago. Since then, I have picked up the book in book stores on several occasions (which killed the need to buy it) and I?ve enjoyed it … About Writing – The Personal… – https://pacejmiller.wordpress.com/ […]

2. Alexander Field - March 17, 2009

I loved Bird by Bird, especially the part about shitty first drafts (which is so true), and yes, you’re right – Lamott is certainly not technical in her advice but she’s got spirit and passion for her writing and that comes through. I’ll have to check out the other book you mention seeing the guy read outside a bank in Dublin. Why not. Thanks for the post!

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