The First Irony

Recently, I read three books on how to write. There’s an irony in that, of course. Reading is not writing, and the more time you spend reading, the less time you have for writing. I know that. I get it. Joke’s on me. But the books were lying around and they needed to be read. Now I’m going to write…about the books 😉

The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner
Grade: A

In this book, an editor shares her perspective on writing, writers, and the writer’s life.  While I learned very little about the mechanics of writing, I learned much about what one can expect if pursuing writing as a career. Using examples from both her life and the lives of other famous editors and authors, she describes the many varied outcomes of the editor-writer relationship. Well worth the time.

The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes
Grade: C

If you have a hard time believing that the biggest impediment to writing is fear, and you’d like to read a ton of quotes by famous authors about their person struggles with fear, then you’ll like this book. But if you know from experience that writing is terrifying, and you suspect other authors have felt that terror, too, then you’re more likely to view this book as a waste of both time and paper. I persevered and read it all the way through, but I had a hard time staying focused. The book’s biggest weakness, I think, is the number of quotations. Interestingly, the author writes,

Ten readers reviewed a manuscript of this book….Some reactions were common to most readers, but others were singular or even contradictory. Although many thought I quoted other writers too often, one colleague said, “I particularly enjoyed all the quotes.”

He claims to have listened to so many of the other critiques and to have changed the manuscript accordingly, and yet he ignored this one. He reminds me of my father-in-law in that way. As my husband often complains, his father will get opinions from many people and then listen to the one person who tells him what he wants to hear. I’m sure we’ve all done that from time to time, but when you’re publishing a book, the stakes are high. You can’t afford to listen to just that one person who echoes your own belief, unless that’s the only person that you want to like your book. Knowing that the author ignored an opportunity to improve the book makes me feel slightly better about giving it a bad grade.

Anybody Can Write: A Playful Approach by Roberta Jean Bryant
Grade: A

This book has a corny-sounding title. And it’s hard to have any faith in a how-to book by an author you’ve never heard of who is described on the jacket flap as merely a “seminar leader who has taught thousands of aspiring writers and the author of Stop Improving Yourself and Start Living.”  So she led some seminars. For all we know, they were just adult education classes sponsored by the local Parks & Recreation Department (I’ve tried some of those kinds of classes and they have all been bad). And a self-help book? Call me a snob, but I can’t give her much credit for that. Indeed, anybody can write one of those.

But I remember when I bought the book. It was on the bargain rack, of course. Most of the stuff on the bargain rack is bad, but I can’t stop myself from looking. I picked it up thinking it would be awful, but I scanned a bit here and a bit there, and it actually sounded good. Surprisingly, having now read the entire thing, I think it is good. The author stays on topic. She’s upbeat, positive, supportive. She tells us that we don’t need talent, we just need staying power. And most importantly, she’s convincing. The only thing I didn’t like about the book was that her writing exercises were too similar to one another. They all seemed to be about anthropomorphizing something and then creating a dialogue with that object.

“Hello, pencil.” “Hello, paper.” “Paper, have you met Pencil before?”

How many such exercises does one need to do?

Personally, I’d be doing well to manage even one, and that’s one of my goals for this weekend. Anybody can write, after all. I am anybody. Hey, and so are you. Maybe you should do some writing, too. And maybe this book could help! 🙂

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