Thursday, July 02, 2009

Working The Snake Oil

Why do you write about writing?

The question stopped me. I looked over and gave it consideration before speaking. "Usually when I write about writing it's a form of metacognition, it's a way I have of looking at the process and trying to get my head around what the hell I'm doing. Sometimes I write about certain aspects of it because it's on my mind; I'm either teaching some concept in school, or worse taking a class and it comes up. Sometimes it's based on something in a writer's group and I just need to get it out of my head."

Actually writing about writing is an entire industry. There's Lessons From A Lifetime of Writing (David Morrell), Sometimes The Magic Works(Terry Brooks), How To Write Best Selling Fiction (Dean Koontz) , Writer's Tale (Richard Laymon) Writing Mysteries (Sue Grafton), How To Write Fantasy And Science Fiction (Orson Scott Card), Creating Short Fiction-The Classic Guide To Writing Short Fiction (Damon Knight), Worlds of Wonder, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (David Gerrold) and on, and on, and on...and those are just about writing for a genre market! There are entire websites dedicated to books about writing. And let's not forget those staples of the professional writer: Writer's Market and Writer's Digest.

Yes, there are books on writing for the poets, for the do-it-yourself guru, and for the naturalist. There are writing books for the writers who take themselves too seriously and think about writing as a form of art and themselves as the consummate artists. There are books for writers who are terrified of writing. There are books for writers who have never written a word. There are books for the writers who follow other writers around at parties, whispering in their ears about a great novel yet to be written.

So, maybe that's the answer.

Maybe the key to writing and getting published, the most important aspect of writing is just....finding the right book. There's enough of them out there, from the literary hauter (James Wood) to the literary hack (fill in the blank...or point a finger at me). So forget about the basics, don't worry about spending hours reading, writing, editing, revising, editing, revising, and writing...just go buy a book and the secret will pour forth from its pages. Why struggle when success is at your fingertips???

Did you know Billy Mays is dead?


Anonymous said...

Okay, the Billy Mays comment is freakin' hilarious.

I'm in the middle of the James Wood book, by the way. Joe lent it to me at the last meeting. I've been thinking about "thisness" for the last two days!

Charles Gramlich said...

I think I mostly write about writing for the same reason you do. Writing is a complex process and I do a lot of thinking about it to figure out what I think about it and how it works for me. And I often think best by writing

Steve Buchheit said...

Write what you know is the old axiom. So writers write about writing (and the other stuff).

Stewart Sternberg said...

Christine, what is ironic is Wood has spoken out about some of the writing that I've been bleating about for a long time. His idea of hysterical reality as it applies to some of the pretentious, self-indulgent writers that dominate the elite literary circles is spot on. He attacks the idea of too much reliance on the mundane, especially in a hyper reality text, sacrificing the story as whole for the effect. It's sort of like buying a kid a new car and all he does is spend all afternoon and freakin' afternoon doing nothing but hovering over polishing chrome.

Charles...I think writers writing about writing is probably a helluva a lot better than writers TALKING about writing. Sometimes.

Steve, if I write about what I know, or about what I think I know, I'd be convicted tomorrow and sent off to state prison.

Rick said...

Hey, Stewart. Great topic.

I think the reason there is an industry built around writing about writing is that there are so many people who desparately want to be published. Think how many stories are submitted to fiction magazines each month. Even small circulation magazines see several thousand submissions during that time frame.

My car mechanic is writing a book. The policewoman who gave me a ticket the other day is writing a crime novel. The Radio Shack technician who fixed my phone is writing a memoir about his grandfather. So they gobble up books on how to write and how to get published.

Every year, no matter how much I protest, my family and friends buy me how to write books. There are 23 of them on my bookshelves.

Here's a relatively hideous point: I have writer friends who read books on how to write by famous authors so they can quote the in defense of their own works, and as a basis for effectively criticizing others in their writing groups.

Hard to argue with, "Oh yeah, well Terry Brooks says that..." or "Oh yeah, well Sue Grafton says..."

Although it's well known among my friends that I consider most how-to-writing books uselss, I have to tell you that I enjoy thumbing through many of them to hear about author's personal experiences. It's nice to see them as human beings, and, seriously, to see that if they've made it, maybe I can, too. Reading these types of books is perhaps less profitable than studying Fitzgerald, but I like doing it anyway.

Also, have you read "The Marshall Plan Workbook" by Evan Marshall. Or the "Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook," by Donald Maass? I just read both of them before going to work today, and these workbook formats, like some Writers Digest courses, lay out simple plans for writing a longer work that I think helps jump start writers who otherwise might hesitate. It doesn't mean their writing will be compelling, but it helps them try.

Sometimes these books are more encouraging than the critics they meet in writing discussion groups.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Rick, to be honest, I don't read books about writing. I've read a few, but oveall, I find it more useful to just write, revise, be reviewed by peers, and rewrite.

Travis said...

I think some people go in search of books about writing because they thought it would be easier than it is. They get a great idea and then the reality hits that there's more to it than "Once upon a time..."

Gwendolyn said...

Clever post! Where's the "I like" button?

Stewart Sternberg said...

I think writing books are often closer to self-help books that anything else.

Approval noted. Thanks.

Jon said...

I wonder if NBC and the rest will devote 2 hours tributes to Billy? You know...clips of his early OxiClean work? Speculation as to whether over exposure to Orange Glo vapors did him in? His will? And what will become of his kids?? Poor Billy. Poor us.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Billy Mays was a genius of capitalism and his beard possessed a hive intelligence.

miller580 said...

I've come a little late to this topic, but I thought I would interject. For the most part you are right. Most of the books are trite. They are merely profit centers for the publishers who prey on oh so many would be writers.

I also agree 250% that good writing evolves from reading, writing, and revising. However, i have read a few good "craft" books. They included writing challenges that helped spark the creative juices. These books are not intended to be a "how to write a breakout novel and get rich quick" but rather they provide insight for emerging writers. The explanation with writing challenges can help the most seasoned writers break through in new directions.

So I guess I'm saying that not all writing books are bad. Just as it is when choosing out a novel, buyer beware.

Barbara Martin said...

I have read a few books on writing by Bob Mayer and James Michener, both on the best sellers list multiple times. And there are the countless issues of Writer's Digest with their articles on writing and getting published.

It comes down to the concept, putting it together cohesively and taking pot shots in submissions. Someone out there will buy it, maybe.