Saturday, April 9, 2011

Finally, A Good Book on Writing

I'm not a fan of books on writing.

They're either too mechanical -- Strunk and White are fine, but vastly unimaginative -- or entirely too preachy and concentrating too much on the writer than on the craft of writing.

Robert Newton Peck's "Secrets of Successful Fiction," though dated and -- at the end -- revelatory of an author who sometimes doesn't follow his own advice, is among the best books on writing that I've ever read.

Here's why:

Peck is a doer, and invites writers to jump into the practice of writing, rather than wasting time with the theory. Though he himself is a professor of writing (or was when the book was published in 1980) he's leery of those who teach writing without ever having done much successful writing of their own.

He's an advocate of daily writing, which in of itself isn't all that unusual, but he's also an advocate of novelists pursuing daily poetry writing as a way to hone their craft. He probably enjoys free verse, but he states implicitly that he admires the strict structure of formal poetry, particularly the sonnet, in helping a writer become disciplined in shaping his or her writing.

He also offers what I think is some good advice on dealing with editors, from neophyte author to seasoned professional. The best advice, in my opinion:

(page 97)
Your editor's prime function, in my opinion, is to cut. Painful though it may be to an author, when in doubt, throw it out. It makes sense to hearken to the folks who are working to make you richer. And you can always holler "pearls before swine!" at him or some other dandy little artistic epithet.

But your temper is less useful than your editor.

Editors know things that authors don't know. I never truly know what I have written. Why? Because I'm too close to it, deep inside it, where I can't see the whole of the book. My editor can.
I find this is true in my own writing. I'm too close to it. I'm never anxious to cut. But I realize as well that there are things that are going to have to go in order to make what I write better.

Ironically, Peck doesn't follow that advice with the last chapter of the book, which could easily have been trimmed to a few paragraphs and still retained its punch. (He delves into what I believe is a cardinal sin of all writers: Believing that since he or she is successful at writing that his or her opinions in other areas matter, are important, or are significant enough to deserve mention.) I know I do a lot of that on my blog, but, yuck, shoot me if I ever descend into that in my own writing.

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