I have a pretty fair selection of writing books, some that are good, some that are bad and many that are ‘meh’. I like to have one on the go most of the time, it’s a good motivator and you never know what new tips or ideas will strike your fancy.
In one writing book I was reading, it mentioned another writing book, described something like, old, but still extremely useful. Well, I enjoy things that are old but extremely useful, so I ordered it and guess what, it’s old, but extremely useful!
The book is Telling Lies for Fun and Profit by the crime and mystery writer Lawrence Block, originally published in 1981 or so, but still in print. I must declare here that I have never actually read any of Lawrence Block’s books, (I know, I know) but he’s got a whole whack of them under his belt.
There’s a few things I really enjoyed about Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. The first was the tone of the book, funny and full of self-deprecating humour that writers will understand all too well. The other was that for every point or theory or whatever he brings up, he gives an example from his own work or experience and I am a girl who loves a frigging example. Show, don’t tell, right? I have no problem with the odd book about writing and creativity as a spiritual practice full of lofty ideals and vague, ill-defined aspirations, but this book is not that book. This book is about the day to day grind of the writer and the many foibles and pitfalls said writer will undoubtedly stumble into. If you have read a lot of books about writing, taken a bunch of courses and been at it for years, this book will probably not blow your mind. However, it will take a bunch of things you have already learned at some point and lay them out in a funny and easy to digest manner. It will remind you of things that it’s extremely easy to forget and nudge you to take action without making you feel guilty about all the ways in which you suck as a writer. I think all writers should own this book and reread it every few years to have a little chuckle at themselves and the very stupid profession they have chosen to pursue.
Lawrence Block has managed to pile a bunch of useful advice, information and practices for writers to consider without being preachy. At no point do you feel that he is suggesting that his advice is the only advice, or even that it is the best advice, but as he walks you through what has worked and not worked over a long career, you can see more clearly what works and doesn’t work for you. So if your writing life could use a little kick in the pants and you could use a gentle reminder of what the hell you are trying to do and why, pick up Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. We may act alone as writers, but we’re all in this together.
I was recently asked by a new acquaintance what I like to read. I find this an exciting and slightly ominous question, because the truth, unhelpful as it is, is that I like to read mostly everything with words, a plot and interesting characters are a bonus. Yay for story! Part of my answer to this question is inevitably classics, those tried and true books that are bastions of the castle that is the written word. She expressed some surprise that I do this of my own volition and not because I have to for some course I’m taking. She is not the only one with this reaction over the years.
I love reading classics. Not because they’re all good, because some of them suck, but to explore the world of the classic. Why is something a classic, who decides? Mostly I like to witness the trickledown effect in reverse. When you read a classic, a lot of other random pieces snap into place. You understand references and asides in a whole new way, you see previously mysterious influences in books and movies, see how one writer’s words can launch an entire genre, world, or punchline. Some of my favorite books are classics. In what will no doubt be many highly unpopular opinions, I will randomly post reviews of them here. I’ll start with the last classic I read:
When I purchased this book, the dude checking me out let me know that the first part is narrated by a mentally handicapped man. GOOD TO KNOW. And thank you, book store guy, for telling me this, because William Faulkner doesn’t bother to until long after the book has landed in a frustrated heap on the floor. Thanks, bro!
The Sound and the Fury is about the Compson family, a southern aristocratic family in serious decline and spiralling into all kinds of tragedy. It’s told in a few different parts by a few different members of the family, all of whom are not really good or likeable people.
My biggest beef with this book is that you have no real idea what’s going on until you’re so far into the book that you’ve ceased to care. Stream of consciousness with no context. I get this book is all about ‘form’ and ‘style’ but to me, if I can’t figure out what’s going on, that’s a big fat writing fail. And before you’re like, “dude, it’s stream of consciousness, you’re just too stupid to know how to read that,” I would say, “but I’m not too stupid to know how to read that. Take Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, also stream of consciousness, also multiple perspectives, also all over the damn place, but you can figure out what’s going on.”
Once I googled it and read a detailed summary of what the book is about, I had a much easier time reading it. The part I did like was the last section from Dilsey’s perspective, who is the Compson’s aging servant. I found Dilsey the most well-rounded character in the whole book, unfortunately she’s last, and not first. Putting Dilsey first to set the scene would have made a huge difference, in my opinion, but hey, it’s a classic, right? What the hell do I know? I give The Sound and the Fury a resounding “meh.” If you do want to read it, do yourself a big favour and go through the Cliff’s Notes first.
Being a writer is a terrible idea. Welcome to a life of chasing mystical ideas through the ether, constant rejection and of course, ever present, crippling self-doubt. The good thing about this is that no writer, or any creative person, probably, would stop for those reasons. You make your life harder than it has to be, you work twice, three times as much as most people for little or no reward. Why? Because there’s no alternative. You can’t stop, so you carry on, slaving away. If you do step away for a while that’s fine because you’ll be back. We always come back. For most writers, I think the detractions are obvious and plentiful. That got me thinking about the shaky, frail support beams that somehow remain – where do they come from?
Perhaps the most precarious, this is number one for any writer because we for the most part work alone. If you are writing, then you are supporting yourself as a writer. You are winning. If you are not writing, don’t worry. As far as I can tell regular bouts of self-sabotage and loathing are part of the process. Eventually you will hate yourself enough that you’ll get back to work. Here are some ideas to help you be more supportive of the very, very stupid path you have chosen (has chosen you?) to be on.
Write – There’s a lot of banter in the writing world about writing every day, getting your butt in the chair and blah blah. This has merit because you are not much of a writer if you aren’t writing, but at the same time, not all writers write every day. That’s right, I said it and it’s true, say it with me, NOT ALL WRITERS WRITE EVERY DAY! There is no need to hate yourself for not preforming this miraculous feat. If you do write every day, that is awesome, but if you don’t, that’s FINE. I think the most important thing here is that you write regularly and always have a project on the go. Don’t stagnate.
Make a Space – One of the best things I ever did for myself was to make a space. I do almost all of my work in my office. I love my office and it loves me. It’s quiet, it’s full of things that make me feel awesome and that’s where I work, so when I’m in there, I work. I highly suggest that if you don’t have a space, you make one. I don’t care if it’s in your damn closet, or a backpack full of crap and a favorite chair at the library, have a space that is conducive to your writing, whatever that means to you. Then go there, a lot.
Never Stop Getting Better – Like any art, there is no proper way to be a writer. There are also no limits. No matter how good you are, you can always be better and the best writers know this. Read books about writing, take classes, join writing groups, go to conferences, work on your setting, your dialogue, your grammar. One of the greatest things you can do for yourself as a writer is to continually invest in yourself. Valuing yourself and your talent enough to spend actual dollars (!?) is a powerful show of support for the bedraggled writer in you.
Your Inner Circle
I’ve been pretty lucky with this one. My immediate family and friends are supportive for the most part, and if not supportive, then at least not unsupportive. One thing I will say about this is that things did change a lot when I first was published. The balance of power shifted in my favour when that finally happened.
“Oh, so you’re a writer.”
“Yes, yes I am.”
“Have you published anything?”
“Yes, yes I have.” Internal dialogue – several things, multiple things, so eat it, eat it, you smug, doubting bastard! Wipe that damn smirky look off of your face, jerk.
So if you are published, keep that in mind at all times. You did it, you made it, you got there. If you aren’t, yet, then just take yourself seriously as a writer and hopefully some of that will rub off on the people around you. If not, then your inner circle sucks, so focus all your efforts on supporting your damn self. You might want to take a long hard look at who makes up your inner circle and toss them accordingly.
The Rest of Them
We get, or don’t get, support from the rest in a myriad of ways. Having a Facebook page, a blog, a newsletter, a Twitter account are all ways that you can reach out and have people reach back. The key here, as with all things writing related, seems to be consistency and patience. Whatever you chose to do to glean support from the rest of them, be more consistent about it than I am. Also, be patient. If you start a blog, you probably won’t get thousands of followers right away. Stick with it, little grasshopper, writing is a marathon, not a sprint.
My husband recently introduced me to Patreon, which is a neat idea where creators have a page where they post things related to their work and people can sign up to sponsor them and get perks with their sponsorship. I haven’t done it, but there are writers on there, so that might be something worth looking into. Check out his page at www.patreon.com/jeremychaulk
Writing sucks and it’s hard. The other side is that it’s awesome, liberating and limitless. Always support yourself and never stop striving to do better. This is a tough, lonely road, so when you can’t get yourself going, and there will be times like that, support others. Buy books, go to readings, leave reviews, follow blogs and maybe sponsor a few creators on Patreon. Give others the support you want for yourself and it will all come back. Remember, we’re all in this together.