I want to share my take on the “advice to writers” books beloved by countless aspiring writers.
When I was laid off in the summer of 2009, a writer friend loaned me her well-worn copy of Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, which I read through twice. At the time it felt like a life saver, full of funny anecdotes about growing up in a writing household, compounded by her own misadventures in getting some of her works to publication.
However, being a legacy writer is not the norm. Few writers (are there any others?) inherit their agent. And acquiring an agent has traditionally been the most important step (or roadblock) on the road to publication. The other issue is the book was published 15 years ago, pre-Internet, so much of her how-to advice such as keeping note cards in you pocket and telephoning experts for information about their particular expertise, is dated.
But her most important advice—it’s not about publication, it’s about the writing—is timeless.
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At a writers’ conference a couple of months ago I purchased a copy of Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Where better to sell a book on writing by one of America’s most famous living authors. It is a comfortable look inside the not-all-that-unusual life of the King of creepy. He touches briefly on his losing battle with alcohol and drugs until his wife arranged for an intervention. King makes this sage observation: “Substance abusing writers are just substance abusers—common garden-variety drunks and druggies, in other words.”
About his writing, King says he is an intuitive writer and gives numerous examples of how he “finds” his stories. But like an Olympic athlete or concert pianist, what appears to be intuitive comes from beginning writing as a child, to teaching writing at university, to all the blood, sweat, tears and travails leading up to the first BIG BREAK which, for him was Carrie.
King ends with a list of about 200 books that have inspired him. His final words of advice are, “write a lot and read a lot.”
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If this paragraph from The Forrest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by editor turned agent, Betsy Lerner, speaks to you as a writer, you get it—you understand the writer’s life.
“I can think of no riskier business than writing. Not only because so few succeed in conventional terms, with publication and some payment, but because it almost certainly requires banishment. First, there is the literal act of removing oneself, of choosing solitude. Then there is the psychological separation, holding oneself apart. And finally, the potential rejection of friends and family, critics and publishers… But you cannot censor yourself; successful writing never comes about through half-measures. For most people the first book is about the family, if only metaphorically, and it must be conquered as surely as the walls at Jericho.”
Her second book was her memoir, Food and Loathing: A Life Measured Out in Calories.
Although it is a fearless account of the self-loathing she felt vis–à–vis her food addiction, ultimately she was diagnosed with a treatable chemical imbalance of which the food bingeing and depressions were but symptoms.
Getting published through the back door of working in publishing doesn’t invalidate the book(s) even if it is immeasurably more efficient than cold calling. Back in the day, I was counseled to take typing (the most marketable job advice I ever received) as a “back door” to a better job.
The rules are changing. We are on a bullet train of electronic publishing where the gate keepers are loosing ground to the marketplace where consumers get to decide what’s worth their time and money and aren’t afraid to champion their finds and denounce what doesn’t live up to their expectations. It has long been said that the most successful and popular method of merchandising (selling books) is word-of-mouth.
So what are your great finds in the wonderful world of books?