Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Can A Book Teach You How To Write?

Write what you know.

That's usually the first lesson every writer learns. It makes sense, too, because if you try writing what you don't know the lie will be revealed in your own words.

This doesn't mean every lesson you learn as a young writer will apply later in life. In fact even the first lesson can be circumvented. For instance, you can write a compelling story about climbing Mount Everest without actually climbing Mount Everest. Science fiction writers do it every time they write about travel to another planet, travels in time or some other yet-to-be-invented wonder of the imagination.

The other common rules for writers range from using proper grammar (which Anthony Burgess proved wrong when he wrote 'A Clockwork Orange') to avoiding run-on sentences (which James Joyce did to much acclaim in his novel 'Ulysses'.)

So, given that it makes almost as much sense to break the rules of writing as it does to follow them, is there any way you can learn how to be a writer, or a better writer, by reading a book? Of course there is.

In fact, if you didn't know what the rules were, how would you which rules you would like to break? How would you know how to compose a sentence so it makes sense; compose a paragraph so it make sense or include a lexicon of terms so people would know what your characters were talking about?

There is no harm in reading books on writing, especially if you are unsure exactly how to proceed with your work. This does not mean you need to take every lesson to heart, or set down the things you learn in stone. Instead, use these books as guide posts on your journey to completion. Once you have written one thing, you will have likely established your own rules which you can follow (or break) for the next you write.

Taken together all these rules you make for yourself will help you find your writing style. And style, writing style, your style, is what will make your story great and make you a better writer.

Marion Roach Smith, a writing teacher whose classes have proved popular with students for more than 13 years, operates from the premise of “writing what you know.” In The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life (Grand Central; ­paperback, $12), she reminds readers (and would-be writers) in a nonthreatening way of some of the fundamentals of personal storytelling: pay attention to detail, tell the truth, and shift emphasis away from yourself in order to “touch on universal themes.” Good advice in memoir-writing and in life. But Smith doesn’t mince words with her criticism of writing exercises as “insulting tasks.” “We will write no exercises,” she says. “We will write for real.” Once her initial testiness wore off, I was completely won over by her charming stories, her sound suggestions to “write what scares you” and her reminder that “there’s no right word when there’s nothing on the page.” A bonus is Smith’s one-page “punch list” at the end, where she includes simple (but not simplistic) directives for memoir-writing.


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