Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Most Useful Writing Advice Book Ever Written?


When you are depressed and it all seems hopeless, go back to the library and consider all those books, all those writers who made it.  Find the place where your own books will be shelved, and then go home and get to work.
-- Kate Wilhelm

I've taught at all three Clarion workshops -- Clarion West, Clarion South, and Classic Clarion -- so I can make the claim to know something about how to teach writing.  However, whenever I find myself in a situation where I'm going to teach, I always go to Gregory Frost first for advice.  He's taught so much more than I have, read so much more about how to teach, thought so much more about the enterprise, that I'd be foolish not to. 

Recently, I participated in a StarShipSofa seminar (or "webinar" as it was called) on how to write and afterward Greg told me that part of his really quite brilliant presentation on how to open a story was based on Kate Wilhelm's book Storyteller.  He showed me his own copy, every page of which was heavily annotated.  Then, because he had a spare and because he's a Mensch, he gave me a copy of the book for my own.

So I've been reading a book on teaching writing by a woman whom the guy who knows more than I do about teaching writing acknowledges knows more about the subject than he does.

Wilhelm's book is both a memoir of her 27 years teaching at Clarion and the distillation of everything she learned during that time would be useful for new writers to hear.  The parts of it that touch on SF history are amiably written (if Wilhelm has any axes to grind, she clearly felt this was not the place to do so), and of great value to those like myself who are interested in SF history.  But the bulk of the book consists of advice to writers who are trying to make their work publishable.

Every word of it is true.

Let me repeat that:  Every word of it is true.  This may be a record for a writing book.  But, having read hundreds of unpublishable stories and pointed out their every mistake to scores of unhappy writers, I can say that without hesitation.  Wilhelm (to nobody's surprise) really knows her stuff.

The advice in this slim  (less than 200 pages) book is organized by topics, but it comes in great tumbles, one dense and useful observation upon another.  Your characters have to do things they do not want to do or make choices that are hard.  If you're using your own unfictionalized life for material, you're writing autobiography, which rarely works in the context of fiction.  (Note that "rarely"-- Wilhelm knows there are always exceptions and can explain why that's usually irrelevant.  And when it's not.)  Beginning writers often confuse predictability with inevitability. 

I chose those sentences almost at random.  There are literally hundreds of pieces of good advice -- which means that it will often be hard to put into practice -- in this book.  A new writer is going to come to the end of it with an aching head and a sense of being waterlogged with ideas.

That's good.  Nobody learns how to write in the time it takes to read a book.  This is a book to be bought, held handy, referred back to often, and applied to every near-successful story until its lessons have been learned and the new writer is not only published but writing as well as he or she possibly can.

It may well be the most useful writing advice book ever written.   I honestly can't say.  But in any case, a new writer who wants to make a serious mark in the world's literature and is willing to work will find much in here to shorten the way.

Storyteller is published by Small Beer Press.  You can find their website here.  I note that they've got links to a couple of excerpts, so you can judge for yourself.



HANNAH'S DAD said...

When did you do Clarion South?

Michael Swanwick said...

That was in 2005. There was a lot to like about that particular class of students, including their very strong desire to create a distinctly Australian literature.

I also liked the fact that the college where it was held was on break for the first couple of days and as a result, the campus was overrun with enormous goannas.

And I also liked . . . but I'll stop. If I list everything I liked about that visit, we'll be here for weeks.

HANNAH'S DAD said...

Goannas sound better than cane toads, which are also an option.