Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Writing to Sell

My essential writing books

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The Elements of Style

1. The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. If I were putting together an essential library of books for an aspiring writer of any kind, The Elements of Style would be first on the list. In recent years, there’s been something of a backlash against Struck and White’s perceived purism and dogmatism, but the book is still a joy to read, and provides an indispensable baseline for most good writing. It’s true that literature as a whole would be poorer if every writer slavishly followed their advice, say, to omit needless words, as Elif Batuman says in The Possessed: “As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits—of omitting needless words.” Yet much of creative writing does boil down to overcoming bad habits, or at least establishing a foundation of tested usage from which the writer only consciously departs. More than fifty years after it was first published, The Elements of Style is still the best foundation we have.

2. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. I bought this book more than fifteen years ago at a used bookstore in Half Moon Bay, shortly before starting my freshman year in high school. Since then, I’ve reread it, in pieces, a dozen or more times, and I still know much of it by heart. Writing books tend to be either loftily aspirational or fixated on the nuts and bolts of craft, and Gardner’s brilliance is that he tackles both sides in a way that enriches the whole. He has plenty to say on sentence structure, vocabulary, rhythm, and point of view, but he’s equally concerned with warning young writers away from “faults of soul”—frigidity, sentimentality, and mannerism—and reminding them that their work must have interest and truth. Every element of writing, he notes, should by judged by its ability to sustain the fictional dream: the illusion, to the reader, that the events and characters described are really taking place. And everything I’ve written since then has been undertaken with Gardner’s high standards in mind.

The Art of Fiction

3. Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith. I hesitated between this book and Dean Koontz’s Writing Popular Fiction, which I reread endlessly while I was teaching myself how to write, but I’ve since discovered that it cribs much of its practical material from Meredith. Scott Meredith was a legendary literary agent—his clients included Norman Mailer, Arthur C. Clarke, and P.G. Wodehouse—and his approach to writing is diametrically opposed to Gardner’s: his book is basically a practical cookbook on how to write mainstream fiction for a wide audience, with an emphasis on plot, conflict, and readability. The tone can be a little mercenary at times, but it’s all great advice, and it’s more likely than any book I know to teach an author how to write a novel that the reader will finish. (One warning: Meredith’s chapter on literary agents, and in particular his endorsement of the use of reading fees, should be approached with caution.)

4. On Directing Film by David Mamet. I’ve spoken about this book at length before, but if I seem awed by it, it’s because I encountered it a time in my life when I already thought I’d figured out how to write a novel. At that point, I’d already sold The Icon Thief and a handful of short stories, so reading Mamet’s advice for the first time was a little like a professional baseball player realizing that he could raise his batting average just by making a few minor adjustments to his stance. Mamet’s insistence that every scene be structured around a series of clear objectives for the protagonist may be common sense, but his way of laying it out—notably in a sensational class session at Columbia in which a scene is broken down beat by beat—rocked my world, and I’ve since followed his approach in everything I’ve done. At times, his philosophy of storytelling can be a little arid: any work produced using his rules needs revision, and a touch of John Gardner, to bring it to life. But my first drafts have never been better. It’s so helpful, in fact, that I sometimes hesitate before recommending it, as if I’m giving away a trade secret—but anyway, now you know.

A portrait of Dean Koontz as a young man

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Sooner or later, one comes to the painful realization that most books on writing are useless. Most are either written by unknowns, whose advice obviously needs to be taken with a huge grain of salt; critics or teachers who lack practical experience; or famous novelists whose instruction is colored by the irreproducible circumstances of their own good fortune. Success in fiction hinges on so many factors, many of them out of the writer’s hands, that trusting what, say, Janet Evanovich has to say about craft is like chasing performance in investment funds: past performance is no guarantee of future results. What we really need is a book written years ago by a struggling author, in which he laid down some rules on how to write and described as honestly as possible his own methods—only to become famous and acclaimed after the book’s release by following his own advice. And as a matter of fact, this book exists.

Earlier this week, in my review of In Time, I briefly mentioned Dean Koontz’s Writing Popular Fiction, which is one of the four or five most useful books on practical storytelling I’ve ever seen. The book has many virtues, but its most interesting quality is completely accidental. Koontz wrote the book in 1972, when he was only twenty-six, and best known as a productive author of short category novels. Within a few years, he’d be famous. Part of the fascination of this book, then, is its candid snapshot of the real work habits of a writer who was about to embark upon one of the successful careers in modern popular fiction. It’s very rare for an author of writing guides to go on to genuine fame—the only other one who comes to mind is J. Michael Straczynski, who wrote a number of screenwriting manuals before creating Babylon 5—so unlike most books on writing, the advice here has been tested, in real time, in the best possible way.

So what does the book tell us? Koontz starts by laying down the basic elements of all genre fiction—a strong plot, a protagonist with believable motivation, a colorful background, and a great deal of action—and then details the requirements of specific genres. Some of the information here is badly dated, especially the chapters on Gothic romance and erotica, but the sections on science fiction and fantasy, suspense, and mystery are still among the best I’ve found. The chapter on science fiction, in particular, is crammed with useful advice, and I still think about Koontz’s section on the tools of suspense (the chase, the race against time, and the anticipation of a violent event) whenever I start a new writing project. Koontz winds up with a few chapters on practicalities, most of which lean heavily on Scott Meredith’s classic Writing to Sell, but which also provide a fascinating glimpse into the life of a category writer at the time. Whenever I feel pressured by my current schedule, which basically calls for a novel a year, I remember what Koontz says about productivity:

If you can produce only one or two category novels a year—especially science fiction, Gothics, mysteries, and fantasies—you will never know a time when the wolves are not a stone’s throw from the door—and you without a stone to throw…Even if you are prolific enough to produce and sell eight or ten novels a year, your income may hold steady at $20,000 a year, which is comfortable but by no means enough to classify you as a nouveau riche.

Obviously, things have changed a lot in the past forty years, but part of the book’s appeal lies in its evocation of a time in which category writers like Koontz, Donald Westlake, and Lawrence Block could make a good living on the midlist. Nine years later, after he became famous, Koontz addressed the changing state of publishing in How to Write Best-Selling Fiction, and while this book has its merits as well, it lacks some of the charm of the earlier work. In addition to its considerable practical value, Writing Popular Fiction is one of the best portraits we have of a young genre novelist working at an exciting, if exhausting, time, and I’ve tried to recapture some of that excitement in my own writing life. As I’ve mentioned before, I picked up my copy at a church book sale in my early teens, and it’s been a constant companion ever since. These days, you can find it online for around twenty bucks, and it’s well worth the price. If nothing else, it certainly worked for its author.

Written by nevalalee

November 3, 2011 at 10:29 am

Quote of the Day

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The newspapers once published a story about a noted psychologist, and quoted him as saying that the four words that most easily arouse emotion in Americans are Lincoln, mother, doctor, and dog. This news fired the imagination of one young writer, who immediately wrote a story and topped it with what he described as the most ideal title of all time: Lincoln’s Mother’s Doctor’s Dog.

Scott Meredith, Writing to Sell

Written by nevalalee

March 21, 2011 at 8:36 am

For the novelist who has everything

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Most writers, let’s face it, are less than wealthy. This profession has all kinds of rewards, but financial ones, unless the writer is especially lucky or the star of a reality television show, usually aren’t among them. This holiday season, then, you might want to treat the writer in your life to one of the following gifts, which will make his or her solitary existence a little more comfortable. (Full disclosure: I already own most of the following, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t get me this.)

1. Infusing Teapot from Hues ‘n Brews ($25). Most writers like to sip from a cup of something while they work. For me, it used to be coffee, and, in the evening, white wine—a bad habit that I’ve mostly given up. About a year ago, I switched to green tea, and it’s been great: with an infusing teapot, I can easily make tea from loose leaves, bought on the cheap from the Chinese supermarket, and steep them for two or more infusions, which is more than enough to keep me going throughout the day. After a factory fire this summer, Hues ‘n Brews teapots can be hard to find, so if you see one, grab it. And make sure you get a thermos, too—a tip that I learned from A Writer’s Life by Gay Talese—and a nice mug. (My own favorites are these sturdy little mugs from Pantone. Mine is Pantone 292, which fans of The Magnetic Fields will appreciate.)

2. Recycled hardcover journals from Ex Libris Anonymous ($13). These book journals—which are created from vintage hardcovers, with a few pages from the original book thoughtfully distributed throughout—are among the most beautiful and sensible gifts that a writer can receive. My first Ex Libris notebook, created from a copy of Thomas B. Costain’s Magnificent Century, has served me well for years now, and includes notes, mind maps, and miscellaneous scribbles for three novels, two screenplays, and a handful of short stories. Once the pages run out, I’ll be switching to a notebook made from Tatsuo Ishimoto’s Art of the Japanese Garden, which I’m hoping will last for just as long.

3. Messenger bag from Tumi ($150). Writers tend to carry a lot of stuff with them. (In addition to whatever book I’m currently reading, I’ll usually have pens, pencils, business cards for notes, Altoids, and often a larger notebook.) In cities like New York or Chicago, where the creative class tends to rely on public transportation, it’s essential to have a reliable bag. Women have this part covered, but men will probably need some kind of satchel. My favorite, from Tumi, is no longer available, but they seem to have some nice alternatives available online. I’m also fond of this one from STM, which is large enough to accommodate a laptop and some library books. (Just don’t call it a man purse.)

4. Symphony pillow from Tempur-Pedic ($99). Back pain is a chronic part of the writer’s life. I’ll be writing about this in greater detail in a future post, but suffice to say that right chair, a properly elevated workstation, and a good pillow all go a long way. If you’re in a generous mood, you might consider buying the Aeron chair mentioned above (I had to give mine up, sadly, after my move to Chicago). But, failing that, the Tempur-Pedic pillow will make your favorite writer’s neck and back a lot happier. (After six or more hours at a desk each day, that’s no laughing matter.)

5. The Writer’s Chapbook by The Paris Review ($10 or so). This wonderful book, edited by George Plimpton from the legendary author interviews conducted by The Paris Review, seems to be out of print, but it’s still widely available online. All things considered, it’s probably the single most useful and inspiring book a writer can own. (Many of my Quotes of the Day have this book as their ultimate source.) Other good books for a writer, aside from John Gardner’s essential Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist, include Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith (apparently out of print, but very useful), How Fiction Works by James Wood (infuriating, but invaluable), and How to Write Best-Selling Fiction by Dean Koontz (also out of print, but available online for a whopping $88).

Finally, if all else fails, there’s always another option. At best, writers tend to be rich in spirit and poor in cash. Most will happily accept donations toward the advancement of art.

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