February 05, 2018

Jack Burger on How-To Books

The Long and the Short of How-To Books for the Writer - Three Examples

Site__Burger__Jack.jpgWhy read books about writing when you could actually be doing it? Maybe they have suggestions that will make it easier to write or help to do it better. For example there’s Walter Mosley’s This Year Write Your Novel. It’s short, 111 pages including the index, and it’s to the point. After all, if you’re going to write a novel in a year you can’t waste time and you have to “write every day” he urges. The pages add up and writing the book everyday gets it into your head, making it easier and more efficient writing each successive day. That’s how his book starts. It ends with “When am I finished rewriting?” The answer: When you can’t make it any better. 


He also has tips on how to get an agent. Speaking of which, I met Mosley at a conference inMosely__Walter.jpg Paris. I ambushed him at a cocktail party at Reid Hall, the Columbia Paris connection. I asked him to autograph my copy of This Year Write your Novel. As he was writing “Hey Jack Burger” on the title page with his Sharpie I said, “It seems to me that when you’re starting out, getting an agent is a lot like trying to get a job during a recession.”


“You want to know the truth?” he said. 
“That’s how it is and it never gets any easier.” 


Another book useful for writers is Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. The title is likely a riff on Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. The poem is two and a half pages; the book is 591 pages. The index doesn’t have any entries for the word “agent.” None. 


She does have a lot to say about every other aspect of the novel--reading, writing and analysis. The last three hundred pages (half the book) are devoted to capsule discussions of one hundred novels from the point of view of the reader-writer, starting with the first novel Don Quixote and running on chronologically to end with Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me.


A third book, well worth the time, and a lot funnier than the other two, is Elif Batuman’s The Batuman__Elif.jpgPossessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. The introduction is the most important part. In it she explains that she wanted to be a writer, a novelist, and agonized over whether to best way to prepare herself for this was to go for an MFA or for a graduate degree in literature? She opts for the literature route thinking that creative writing workshops were craft obsessed: “What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning? All it had were its negative dictates: ‘Show, don’t tell’; ‘Murder your darlings’; ‘Omit needless words.’ As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits—of omitting needless words.”


She took time out from graduate school to write but “the result somehow wasn’t a novel.” It lacked beginning, end and didn’t tell a story. She admits, “It had occurred to me to worry in advance about writer’s block, but the production of a huge non-novel just wasn’t a possibility I had anticipated.” 


Ah ha! 


If you then read the rest of the book, much of which takes place in California, Moscow and Samarkand, you will then be prepared to read the novel she ultimately did publish which is pretty close to a non-novel but very funny and full of transcendent goofiness.  How often does the subject of crop rotation make you laugh out loud? Her novel is The Idiot, 423 pages, and chronicles a sort of romance. She knows that he has another girl friend, a fiancé he does not break up with. They kiss for the first time in the last couple pages. It is a remarkably non-hormonal romance. From reading the non-fiction The Possessed it’s clear the novel is autobiographical. 


Will this help you write your own novel this year? There are probably thirteen ways to answer that question. The best answer is, “Yes.” But it might help to be possessed or an idiot.