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Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Archive for June 20th, 2011

Writing and Editing — some Helpful Books

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Folks, over time I’ve probably read just about every book on writing and editing there has ever been — or at least it seems that way.

Now, you might be asking yourself why I’ve done this.  Simple.  I enjoy picking the brains of other writers and editors, and the easiest way to do this is by reading about their particular processes as written down in various books.  Some are dry as dust, yes — but the best ones make you laugh, and think, and you’ll come back again and again to ’em in order to find some pearl of wisdom that you’d perhaps overlooked before.

The first, and best, of the three books I recommend is Carolyn See’s MAKING A LITERARY LIFE.  Ms. See has fun with her subject; she uses witty commentary and true-to-life examples, but what I’ve gotten out of her book most is the value of being polite.  (This is something my late husband Michael would’ve appreciated, I think.  He felt people often were impolite for no reason whatsoever and had no patience with it.  I have to agree that most of the time, I share his oft-expressed viewpoint.)  Because being polite is the way to build literary friendships — expressing your appreciation now and again doesn’t hurt, either.  (Ms. See believes you should write what she calls “charming notes” to other writers and editors because life is too short not to express praise when warranted.  Though she also believes you should write these notes when you’ve received rejection letters, as a way to turn a negative into a positive — those types of notes are, “I’ve received your rejection and I will be sending you back something else in X time,” which also is a way to keep yourself on track and focused on the long-term goal.)

The second book is Anne Lamont’s BIRD BY BIRD.  The title comes from something Ms. Lamont’s father once told her brother after he’d procrastinated about an assignment (this one on birds); it’s a way of saying, “Take things one at a time,” no matter how many things there might be in an assignment (or in this case, a book).  Ms. Lamont’s wisdom, similar to Ms. See’s, has a great deal to do with real-life examples.  Ms. Lamont admits her first drafts are very far short of perfection (she calls them a synonym for “crappy” that I won’t use here at my family-friendly site) and says the only thing good about them is that you’ve gotten something on the page — anything at all — and that a first draft is not supposed to be perfect so we writers shouldn’t beat ourselves up about that.

This is a very interesting attitude, because we all seem to have the tendency to say, “Oh, no!  This is terrible!  Why do I write, anyway, if all I can do is this trash?”  But as Ms. Lamont says (and Ms. See does, too), the purpose of the first draft isn’t to be perfect — it’s to get it out there, so you can start working on what it will eventually be — good prose, a compelling story, you name it — and get on with the job.

Finally, there’s Sol Stein’s STEIN ON WRITING, which actually is more helpful as an editing primer because Stein explains what he does when he edits.  The reason he does this is to help writers catch their own mistakes before they ever get to the editor, but I know that it’s very difficult if I’m in “editing mode” to shift out of that and just write because they’re markedly different things (writing a first draft is messy, as both Ms. Lamont and Ms. See pointed out).  And if I think too much about editing while I’m writing, I don’t get much done because I think it’s “all crap, so why bother?” and that’s not good.  (Instead, it’s counterproductive to say the least.)

So, read these three books, and see what you can get out of them — and don’t say I’ve never done anything for you.

Written by Barb Caffrey

June 20, 2011 at 11:32 am