What I like in such books is not just practical advice, but someone who gives me encouragement.
For this, I recommend Walter Mosley’sThis Year You Write Your Novel. It’s a mere 103 pages, readable in a few hours, but it contains reassuring and common sense advice that any writer could benefit from, even though it’s aimed at debut authors.
Incidentally, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style is widely recommended, but bear in mind that it was first published 100 years ago and revised in 1959, making its advice formal and dated. It still holds good advice, especially about concision.
It is available as a free download in several places, but Project Gutenberg offers the widest choice of file types:
It’s easy to become paranoid as a writer. After all, we work alone, hidden away from the world creating stories that we hope will be loved by the very people we’re shunning. But to do this, we need to make entreaties to mysterious wraiths—literary agents—whose websites appear to show them as civilised arbiters of taste, yet they’re also strangely silent when approached.
Querying takes on the feeling of throwing a message in a bottle into a tempestuous ocean: has anyone even read your submission, and if they have done did they immediately dismiss it or laugh their heads off at your ineptitude?
The old saying ‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean to say they aren’t out to get to you’takes on a frustrating twist for writers: ‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean to say they even know you exist.’
This state of disconnectedness and paranoia are well summed up in a poem by Phillip Lopate, called We Who Are Your Closest Friends. An excerpt appears in Anne Lamott’s Bird By Birdwhich is one of the best books about writing I’ve read.
We Who Are Your Closest Friends
we who are your closest friends feel the time has come to tell you that every Thursday we have been meeting as a group to devise ways to keep you in perpetual uncertainty frustration discontent and torture by neither loving you as much as you want nor cutting you adrift
your analyst is in on it plus your boyfriend and your ex-husband and we have pledged to disappoint you as long as you need us
in announcing our association we realize we have placed in your hands a possible antidote against uncertainty indeed against ourselves but since our Thursday nights have brought us to a community of purpose rare in itself with you as the natural center we feel hopeful you will continue to make unreasonable demands for affection if not as a consequence of your disastrous personality
Do any of you feel like you don’t exist, that what you’re doing is just a figment of your own imagination? How is it that mediocre authors get published when your immaculate manuscript can’t get a look in? Do you ever feel like there are more people who hate you and your writing than love it?
Should your paranoia follow you to bed and cuddle up with regret, then remember Fleur Adcock‘s poem Things:
There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public. There are worse things than these miniature betrayals, committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things than not being able to sleep for thinking about them. It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse.
It’s an evolutionary quirk of the human mind, that we remember and focus on negative memories better than we do the pleasant events that happened to us. Partly, this is a hard-wired defence mechanism to keep us safe, but it can make your brain feel like it’s conspiring against you.
Various famous authors have said things about conscience and the writing process. Chekhov claimed: “I confess I seldom commune with my conscience when I write.”
Joseph Campbell, a key figure in writing theory, showed a little more restraint, but not much: “Writer’s block results from too much head. Cut off your head. Pegasus, poetry, was born of Medusa when her head was cut off. You have to be reckless when writing. Be as crazy as your conscience allows.”
Anne Lamott is more inclusive of her conscience, stating that taking a stance adds to the beauty of the work: “Writing takes a combination of sophistication and innocence; it takes conscience, our belief that something is beautiful because it is right.”
Leo Tolstoy advised: “Beware of anything that is not approved by your conscience.”
In writing stories, we have to choose where we stand.
The internet offers the ultimate get-out, absolving an author of responsibility for revealing information, for after all, if it’s online anyone could find it. Filmmakers have long been accused of inciting real-life violence by showing it on screen, with arguments that it does and that it doesn’t.
Film directors can get very touchy about the issue:
Do your stories have a message for good? It needn’t be heavy-handed and preachy
Or, do you worry that your book might deprave readers?