Archive for the ‘Writing Book Review’ Category

Ah, writing books. With a few exceptions, authors of said books like to hold you gently by the hand and lead you down the path of writing philosophies, rules (which, as they say, can always be broken if you know what you’re doing), and sometimes exercises. Some go so far as to repeat aphorisms and affirmations.

Not so with Nick Mamatas’ Starve Better, which I think of as belonging to the extreme end of the writing school of hard knocks. Mainly about the art of the short story (and general writing principles that hold up anywhere you end up writing), he pulls no punches, even questioning your need to write stories in the first place—for instance, short stories and novels don’t really lead from one to the other, novels have better bang for the buck if you manage to sell, and a lot of book writers end up letting stories fall by the wayside for some reason. He of course also talks about the merits of writing short stories—as well as an allusion to the real reason to engage in this not-very-high-paying area. “Why Write What Nobody Reads”, indeed.

Starve Better is a collection of essays rather than a write-by-numbers book, organized by subject matter. My favorite piece of advice comes from the introduction, “All Advice is Terrible Advice, Plus Other Useful Advice”:

There are no rules. Only the results matter; the process of shoving the kindhearted zombie mortician into the rented coffin is irrelevant. The problem is that when people can’t get results they want, they become obsessed with process.

He doesn’t pull punches even on his own advice. That’s cojones as far as writing books go.

Some interesting Mamatas advice (and possibly terrible advice, depending on your situation—it’s a hard thing, but sooner or later you have to fess up to the fact that you need to know, or at least get a feel for, what you need to do with your work):

  • Short stories can’t do everything, so it’s best, like a photographer, to focus on certain elements—in particular your strengths. Like everything on this list, he expands on the subject and gives examples.

  • Hooks should not be thrown carelessly at the reader.

  • Breaking scenes is like ringing a gong; do it with care.

  • Ending a story meaningfully.

  • The four elements to a good piece of dialogue.

  • What I’ll call anti-patterns to avoid in your writing (threaded throughout all his essays).

  • And more!

On the practical, fast survival money side of things, hence the title of the book, he also talks about freelancing, something not covered in other artsy books about writing.

The appendix and the introduction are important and not to be skipped.

Will you like Mamatas’ style? If you’ve never read his essays before, you can start with his blog. A few posts focused on writing, at his blog and Salon:

Ah, man, I wish I still had access to my old LiveJournal favorites, so I can dredge up some of his older posts, when he was an editor for Clarkesworld. (I can’t even figure out where that is anymore, but it was another account in another time.)

Looking for acerbic amusement? Looking for a frank accounting of the hazardous-to-your-checkbook nature of taking on a full-time writing career? In particular, looking for advice on short stories?

Starve Better is your book.


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I admit it: I used to not see the point of outlining a story, much less a novel. Shouldn’t real writers leap full into the fray with teeth bared, ready to shred writer’s block into little bloody shreds?

Then I discovered that, hey, plotting is hard. So I did try outlining—you know, the kind you get taught in school, with the I… A… a)… i)… and so on. I soon discovered that the format drove me crazy, and the outline would get tangled up when the actual writing came into play.

Finally, at wit’s end, I saw K.M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success in the Kindle store for $5, and after reading through the sampler, I decided to chance the money.

Was it worth it? You bet it was.

For a “pantser” (that is, writing by the seat of your pants) such as myself, I didn’t understand the viewpoint of the plotter (unsurprisingly, a writer who plots ahead of time) all that well. Other writing books merely allude to outlining as a possible methodology for Getting It Written; but Weiland’s is entirely tailored to the art of the fiction writer’s outline—which, as it turns out, is pretty loose and free-form, not at all like what we generated in high school.

Indeed, while Weiland is a hard-core outliner, she discusses the different ways and depths to which one can outline, and offers guidance towards constructing the building blocks—always one of the hardest places to begin whether writing or outlining. As I read the book, I was left with an impression of outlining rather akin to that of a painter beginning with a quick sketch, then filling out the picture in gradual layers. Methodical, yes, but watch an artist painting some time—it’s a combination of method and inspiration that leads to shades of sunsets, rippling waters, lit forest clearings, and so on.

Ultimately, here’s the key to understanding the outlining mindset: outlining is writing. Writing is primarily about problem-solving, and outlining is a way to take the structures circulating in the nebulous understanding of your brain and transcribe them into concrete form. Something concrete (especially if you can manipulate it, via index cards, mind map bubbles, or plain old Word) is leagues easier to reason about in the end than something that’s just in your head.

Of course, “concrete” is misleading here; an outline is rarely set in stone. Having the flexibility to deal with changes is vital, particularly as you begin to write out full scenes. I feel that this is where the book, which hitherto had wended into such glorious detail about outlining, left things dangling. The idea is that if you plan enough ahead of time, derailings should be minor—and I suspect as one gets more experience writing, that this theory eventually holds up. But what do you do about major derailings?

Sometimes, as painful as it is, you gotta go back to the drawing board.

I highly recommend this book to the impromptu writer looking for another technique to add to their toolbox.

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