Category Archives: review
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.
Ah the dreaded pitch slam. For many writers, this is the big reason to attend the Writer’s Digest Conference and also a truly terrifying proposition. All of that was true for me. There were four Pitch Slam sessions on Saturday of an hour each and you signed up for one of them. There were over sixty agents in a big room sitting at tables in alphabetical order, you had three minutes to pitch your book to however many of them that you could and get feedback and hopefully, a request to see more. The pitch slam is really its own beast. Here’s what I learned from participating in the pitch slam.
Prepare, prepare, prepare! All of those months of preparation I was yammering on about in my last post? This is where it paid off. Write a pitch you feel good about. Tell the agent about your book and get them interested in seeing more. Be yourself. Remember that you are one human telling another human about your book – that is all! You have ninety seconds, so keep it short, the shorter the better, in my opinion. Don’t ramble. There are a ton of great resources out there to help you do this, so google away, little grasshopper! I had a pretty good pitch when I arrived in New York, which I then tweaked a little after the pitch perfect information session and yammering with my fellow writers. I felt pretty good about my pitch and knew it by heart. This is key.
They limit the number of people in each pitch session. I read some horror stories about long lines, agents that were not there and all of this stuff. None of that was true for me. There seem to be a million people when you’re waiting to go in and that is terrifying. It seems like you will never get to any agent, but the room is big and there are a lot of agents. I had a list of ten agents I wanted to pitch and I made it to seven of them, which is pretty damn good. Best advice here came from Chuck Sambuchino – do not stand in long lines. Go to agents that have a short line or none at all. If Chuck is there, he will hustle you to a shorter line anyway. He knows what’s what, listen to him. On average, I had one person ahead of me. Several times I went right up to the agent. Time was not an issue.
When you’re getting ready for this, it’s easy to believe that agents are mean, scary dragon people just waiting to crush your dreams and spit in your face. Maybe, but not any that I spoke with. They tell you way ahead which agents will be there, so research them like a crazy person. Yes, the list changes, yes, there are additions and subtractions, but you need to know who you want to pitch to. Ten seems to be a good number. Anyone I didn’t make it to is getting a query. My strategy was to avoid long lines and also not to pitch my top agents first. This was my first pitch slam, I was nervous and very, very tired. I didn’t want to blow my first pitch on my top three agents. This worked great for me. My ‘last’ agent had no lineup when we first went in there, so I went for him. He was very nice, liked my pitch, asked me some questions that let me know that he understood what the hell I was trying to get across, and guess what? He requested more. First one, bam, feel good, flying for the rest of the slam. That was key for me, to start on the right foot. I tried to set myself up for success and it worked. I pitched seven agents and got five requests. Some of the best advice I read ahead of time was to remember that agents are just people and all that is happening is that you are having a conversation with them about your book. I tried to be happy, friendly, relaxed and normal as possible and it paid off in a big way. The two agents that did not request were just as excellent. One said my pitch was great and sent me to another agent she thought would like it, that agent was not on my list. She requested it. The other agent also complemented my pitch and suggested some comparison titles I hadn’t thought of whose agents I might want to investigate. She also told me that if I wrote anything with a more literary bent in the future to send it her way because she liked how I presented things.
So I got five requests to see my book and a massive boost in the confidence department. No one I spoke to at the conference regretted doing the pitch slam. Even if they didn’t get requests, they got valuable experience speaking about their work in a concise way, and some great feedback. That alone is worth the price of admission.