Monday, 9 January 2012

Book Review – Some More Books on Writing

I've been wading recently through a quagmire of books on writing. Really I should give it up. I see it as extracting the best from the conventional wisdom; but then the problem with the conventional wisdom is it's… well… it's conventional… and… and it's not always wisdom. I should have known this all along. Having picked up a few useful tips along the way, I must admit the ratio of gold to dirt is painfully low; all but making you want to give up on the prospecting lifestyle. These are some of the books that have recently dulled my addled brain.

It's an odd thing: but books on writing stories and novels contain very little about the subject of plotting; those books aimed at screen writing contain more useful guidelines. This is odd because a novel, potentially at least, can do so much more than a film script. This does not pose too much of a problem as much that's written about script writing is easily translatable into novel writing. Linda J Cowgill's The Art of Plotting is a reasonable little book. However it's only superficially about plotting; the large scale sweep of plot twists and turns somehow gets forgotten. Instead we get scene sequences. Now if we accept the idea that scene sequences is not plotting but one level below plotting and above individual scenes then it's an interesting concept.

Scene sequences (I shall use my own terms rather than follow those of Cowgill) are plot events that follow a particular pattern; a plan-action-result sequence. Here the plan scene is where the characters decide what they intend to do, action scene(s) is where they attempt to carry out the plan, and the result scene is where you show your characters response to what actually happened. Cowgill's point in developing these sequences is to show the characters emotional response to events; to highlight detail that could have been missed; it's a tool to guide the writer in aiding the readers emotional engagement with the story.

Obviously the action should follow on from the plan; however it is within the action that you introduce your twists and turns and where plans become frustrated, driving the story forward. Don't see this as inflexible; the action could be anything from a kiss to nuclear war; the result scene could be anything from a long angst ridden monologue contemplating failure to thumping the wall in frustration; it just depends on the particular sequence. On average a scene sequence would last three to five scenes; however the options are ever open.

Cowgill seems to think it's all about showing the emotional impact of events. And this is indeed important; but why limit the idea to this one dimension? It could be about linking together anything. The writing model would become: (i) begin by developing your plot. Our plot at the end of this stage would be a list of events in the story. Then (ii) map out the scene sequences so that every (most?) events count and connect in a plan-action-result sequence. (During this stage it may even be necessary to go back and adjust the plot a little.) Then (iii) write the scenes.

Cowgill's book contains this one interesting idea and I have not come across it elsewhere; so it's worth reading as it has more potential than even the author seems to think.

Josip Novakovich Fiction Writer's Workshop has the distinction of being the worst book on the process of writing that I have ever read. It's packed from start to finish with useless pretentious waffle. I read this rubbish because an Open University creative writing module (A174) is based upon this book. The OU module is not in itself that bad, though it is not particularly exciting; the book the module is based upon is just dreadful. Novakovich seems to be a 'professional' creative writing tutor of the mind numbingly narrow kind. It's a shortish book; even so it could be cut to a tenth of it's original size and still feel boringly long – and not one single scintilla of insight would be lost as there's not one single scintilla of insight in this entire monstrosity. I would rather eat my own vomit than read anything by Josip putrid Novakovich ever again.

Let's start with a compliant about How to Write a Damn Good Thriller by James N. Frey. His writing contains this particular mannerism: before every word indicating fiction or film he inserts the words 'damn good'. This is almost amusing, but not quite, the first few times; after that it's just plain annoying and makes you want to groan. If anything this is an example of a terrible writing style; and also an example of where less could have been more. What a hateful and off putting start.

Next on my annoyance list are the examples. Now, of course, every book of this kind needs examples to illustrate particular points. But Frey's examples go on and on with endless little, one paragraph, descriptions of some film – usually a film – and you just think: no please not another one. Really they're just padding because he couldn't think of anything more substantial to say.

Next annoyance: these are the worked examples where Frey demonstrates his methodology. Again it's necessary to do this but why do they have to be so horrible. They are pitiable examples of plotting and I would have been ashamed to have unleashed them on the wider world. Take the most substantial of these; some nonsensical story about kids solving the Israel Palestine conflict. This turns out to be only a backdrop to another disgraceful story of a writer's revenge. If this is an example of Frey's work then it would be better not to bother.

Finally, on this hit list, we arrive at something more positive. The methodology Frey describes is reasonable if unexciting. If you can look past the padding then the advice is sound enough. The sequence of steps to construct a thriller is useful. There is nothing outrageously original here or could not be obtained from other sources. Nonetheless it's solid, conservative, workman like advice; all geared towards the factory line of the Hollywood film.

In this book ignore the examples and the worked examples. However the advice, and the outline of steps to create a thriller, is reasonable if simplistic. You will need to look elsewhere to fill in the detail.

I read Linda Anderson's Creative Writing – A Workbook with Readings because it is an Open University set book. This covers not only writing literature but also poetry and, what the book calls, life writing. It does have some positive points. The main one being the readings that take up the back half of the book. These help illustrate points made in the main text. Though there are several that I wonder if they are really supposed to provide an example of appalling, atrocious, boring or abysmal writing; of what you should never do; some of these readings I would simply have been ashamed to expose to the world and call my own.

This book advocates a particular approach to the activity of writing called freewriting. With freewriting you scrawl your thoughts down each day allowing them to accumulate. Then revise, revise and do more revision until, somehow, mysteriously out pops a novel. The action of freewriting is described in excruciating detail; but the step(s) of transforming the resulting detritus into some kind of structure is, alas, completely lacking. If you personally appreciate this methodology then maybe you will like this book; if, like me, you don't then there is little in the way of an alternative on offer. It's unfortunate that the authors force you down one narrow path; especially when different real world writers have so many different approaches. As would logically seem to follow, the chapter on plotting is so weak as to be almost non-existent.

The section on poetry is quite good, in fact the best in the book, possibly because I know little about this subject; the section on life writing seems to be aimed at those churning out celebrity biographies and suffers as a result; and the final section on revising and the world of publishing is, well, just about adequate, nothing special or enlightening here.

If all you want to write is the literary equivalent of a rabbit hutch then this book contains the minimum needed; but, even then, not all you should aspire to, not for any halfway decent rabbit hutch. If you want to write the literary equivalent of a skyscraper or cathedral then this book contains only a small, makeshift, part of what's needed; it's woefully inadequate; for the major architectural guidelines, building regulations, construction techniques, and a lot more; for all that you will have to look elsewhere. It's a pity the authors are not upfront and honest about this; they make such grandiose claims; but then, they are in the rabbit hutch business.

After tackling what seems an insane plethora of books on writing one conclusion seems obvious: they can be best viewed merely as an addition or auxiliary to learning the writing craft. For sure some, most even, contain reasonable advice, often much less than the respective authors vouch for on the cover. Also, again despite the cover's claim, none of the approaches come across as that original. Really, a much more insightful process is reading the works of – for want of a less patronising term – the masters. So a few words here might be in order. (And I do not claim this as some grandiose insight.)

You need to read widely and vociferously.

There should be at least two dimensions to your reading. The first dimension is that of writing quality. You need to look at writing of every possible style and quality. Indeed you can learn a lot, sometimes more, from bad writing: what not to do, common pitfalls, annoying habits you may be indulging in yourself. However your reading should be skewed towards the best writing. At least half your reading should be of authors better than the quality you are aiming at.

The second dimension is that of genre or subject. You should read at least something from every possible genre or subject; fiction or non-fiction, the list is far too obvious and endless to develop here. Again your reading should be skewed towards the genre in which you intend to write. (If your selected genre has insufficient quality writers then you would need to do more reading outside your genre.)

Books on the writing craft should be best seen as a guide to what to look out for in your reading; though, even then, they do not explain everything you should be looking for. Then, when reading, taking the hints, and learning how to write.

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