Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

Quick Review: Write Faster, Writer Better

David Fryxell’s book, Write Faster, Write Better, has been on my shelf for a long time. I’d started it several times over and just couldn’t seem to make it through. I finally pushed myself to get through it (it was really tough)…and now I can get rid of the book. Definitely not a keeper for me.

I might have rated this book higher, if I didn’t feel the premise were so misleading. The intro and first few chapters or so make you think Fryxell is talking about how to write novels faster and better: but he really doesn’t.

The meat of this book — and the solid advice — is geared toward making you write NON-fiction faster and better. And there’s some good information there. Fryxell makes his living writing non-fiction about writing, so I’m not surprised that there’s good information here for non-fiction, and some so-so information about fiction.

There’s a good deal of time spent on organization — and time management — being the key to getting more done. I don’t doubt he’s right, but once again I felt misled. This book was supposed to be about writing better and faster, not about getting organized or finding out what 15 minute increments of my day are sucking time out of my writing.

If you’re a disorganized writer (or maybe a semi-organized writer) — and I mean this mostly in the physical sense of your surroundings… Or, if you’re lacking the time to get your writing done, you’ll benefit from this book.

If you’re intent on a non-fiction — even freelance — career in writing, you’ll find some gems here, too.

If you write chiefly fiction, there are better books to turn to.

Two chewed pencils.

Saturday, February 11th, 2012

Review: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is one of those ‘famous’ books on writing that writer-type folks talk about whenever the subject of good-books-to-learn-writing-skills comes up. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time.

However, I found it very difficult to get through.

The premise of the book is based on a wonderful 30-year-old memory: Faced with the insurmountable problem of writing a book report on birds, Lamott’s 10-year-old brother is in tears and wondering how he’s going to get it all done. Their father puts an arm around his shoulder and says, “Bird by bird, Buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Fabulous advice.

But I realized after reading the introduction the book was not for me. It’s written in a literary style, a bit verbose for my tastes, and the takeaways aren’t what I need in my writing life right now. In my mind, Lamott spends a lot of time rambling about she thinks about things, rather than adding any concrete “how to” to the information. And there are a few chapters where she talks about something that happened to her, and you’re sort of left to wonder what she wanted you to get from the aside.

In the first chapter, “Getting Started,” Lamott talks about writing the truth and writing what’s real. She advocates starting with writing down everything you remember from school and kindergarten and holidays and such, along with your feelings and what you knew at the time. If you keep hacking at it, you’ll find the truth, or what’s real to write about. And that’s where you should start writing.

As a writer of speculative fiction, this isn’t what I needed (or wanted) to hear. I make things up. And while my stories might contain a kernel of something that happened to me (or someone else I know) it’s not going to resemble anything in the way of this exercise. The feelings, the emotions, yes – else how could you identify with my characters? – but the rest doesn’t make sense for me.

(From a genealogical perspective, on the other hand, I find this chapter fascinating. And, I might have to give it a whirl when I find the time.)

Other chapters in the book offer sound advice for beginners:

  • Start small. (Especially if you are easily overwhelmed by large projects.)
  • It’s okay to write terrible first drafts.
  • Stop being a perfectionist. Perfectionism is “the voice of the oppressor,” according to Lamott.
  • Plot grows out of character.
  • Care passionately about what you write.
  • Trust what your inner voice – your intuition — is telling you about your writing.

Then there’s a chapter called, “School lunches,” where Lamottt talks about a writing exercise she uses in her classes. Everyone writes down what they remember about school lunches and then they compare. She says when they discuss the differences of lunches throughout the states, it’s where they “see in bolder relief what we have in common.”

She gives some examples of what she wrote, which seem over dramatic. I think they’re supposed to be funny, but aren’t to me. It’s like she’s trying too hard.

One section of the book is called, “Help Along the Way,” where I suspect Lamott meant to suggest some useful tools for writers. But she spends an entire chapter discussing index cards, where the advice amounts to “Always carry something to write on.”

In another chapter, “Calling Around,” Lamott advises, “There are an enormous number of people out there with invaluable information to share with you, and all you have to do is pick up the phone.” Again, good, but we don’t need entire chapters to get the point across.

Two chapters, “Writing Groups” and “Someone to Read Your Drafts” are all about finding critique partners and getting feedback on your work. These are the two best chapters in the book. They contain good information, especially for beginning writers, and I agree with most of what she says.

(Unlike Lamott, I don’t advocate getting feedback from relatives, because in most instances they’re too afraid to hurt your feelings to tell you what you need to hear.)

The chapter on writers block is encouraging, but not instructional. There are no suggestions for how to overcome it (although an earlier chapter on writing letters could be useful. Lamott does not tie the two together.)

If you want to learn more about the author Anne Lamott, read this book. There are long passages about what she thinks about the writing process and how she handles it. She’s admittedly neurotic about it, and makes the assumption that most writers are as well. I disagree.

If you’re looking for concrete examples on how to write, new tools for your toolbox, or tricks of the trade, I’d look elsewhere.

Two chewed pencils.

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged Predicted the Now?

Atlas ShruggedAtlas Shrugged   has been on my “to read” list for a long time, and I finally finished it.

I “read” it via audio book — the 25th Anniversary Edition — which contained a long introduction about Ayn Rand and her process. I found it fascinating.

She journaled obsessively about the story before beginning to write, and filled hundreds of pages with information about the characters and how they felt, what they did and why they acted in certain ways and more. She determined precisely how she would portray a character and listed ways to show this to readers.

The book is a hefty tome, and the audio version was over 63 hours of listening. There were times I wanted to just pull the plug, but I persevered, and I’m glad I did.

Atlas Shrugged is the story of Dagny Taggert, who fights to save Taggert Transcontinental Railroad from failing as the US falls into a downward economic spiral. Bad economics are caused by government intrusion into industry and the economy.

The government passes the Preservation of Livelihood Law, which limits the production of any one company to the output of another; as well as the Fair Share Law, making it possible for anyone who wants its “fair share” of a commodity to simply file the paperwork and get in line, regardless if they can pay for it or not.

Big Business is essentially forced to pay for the privilege of being in business. And if obeying the laws creates a negative profit flow, they can’t close up shop: because there’s another law that states that a business must remain open and continue to employ all its workers.

[Spoiler Alert]

This government intrusion spurs John Galt, an inventor who creates a motor which would revolutionize the world, to destroy the motor and withdrawal from society. He creates a home in a Colorado valley which he hides with the help of another invention, and one-by-one invites other industrialists to join him. Their disappearance signals the end of the US economy and the death of many who no longer have the support of the industrialists.

[End Spoiler]

Rand’s writing in Atlas Shrugged can only be called ‘philosophical.” She employs rhetoric every chance she gets, which accounts for the length of the story. In fact, there is a radio speech at the end of the book, made by John Galt which lasted over two hours of my listening time.

(I never wanted to fast-forward something so much in my life!)

Part of me can’t help but feel that what Rand describes is what’s happening now in the U.S. Did she predict this present turmoil?

But that’s the nature of a philosophical work: the questions asked are timeless and thought-provoking.

I’ll go a step further and opine that Rand was writing alternate-future (rather than alternate-history), pushing the What if?  boundaries as far as they could go. Let’s hope her fiction never comes to pass.

*Photo above is courtesy of Flickr Commons/Fibonacci Blue