Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Same Old Song


David and the Temple Choir.
Isabella Breviary, Flemish, 1497.
(reproduced in Celia Fisher's Flowers in Medieval Manuscripts)

Sometimes one reads of writers with shelf upon shelf of how-to-write texts.
Various titles are mentioned.
Anytime the newest, latest how-to tome is advertised the enthusiasm is orgasmic.
Sometimes I wonder why.
Is this the perennial search for the elusive secret, the Key, the formula, that will make all dreams come true?
Was flipping through Miss Bracegirdle's Bible, Ye Olde Grammar Booke for Grades Nine to Twelve -which I have callously metioned here before - and found this quote in a section on Openings:

Most people have a strong impulse to preface something...by at least a paragraph of nothing in particular, bearing to the real matter in hand a relation not more inherently intimate than that of tuning a violin to a symphony.

Followed by (more succinctly): A good beginning catches the reader's interest.

And summed up with this: When in doubt, begin with action and tuck in a bit at a time the antecedent explanation, characterization and setting.

Hmmmm. Where else have I heard this? Recently?
While it is true that a different description can sometimes jerk the light chain and illuminate that closet under the stairs, I wonder if one really needs stacks and piles of how-to-write advice.
Do they not all say essentially the same thing?

NOTE: Louise Penny ( whose gratifying success I posted yesterday) has asked me to mention the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished Mystery Novel.
Penny, her husband, and Marian Misters ( who runs Sleuth of Baker Street bookstore in TO) co-ordinated this award under the aegis of the Crime Writers of Canada.
Deadline - end of January.
Details on the Crime Writers of Canada website.

She also mentioned what a splendid lot you commenters were.
Thoughtful, articulate, supportive and passionate were some of her words.

30 comments:

anna said...

'Sometimes one reads of writers with shelf upon shelf of how-to-write texts.
Various titles are mentioned.
Anytime the newest, latest how-to tome is advertised the enthusiasm is orgasmic.
Sometimes I wonder why.'

hehe! this would be me. Sometimes I wonder why also as none of them have ever been of any help whatsoever. Not that I can put the blame on them as none of em have ever been read. Blue Bag for 'em all!

Erik Ivan James said...

I've sometimes wondered why. Know I know. I don't have shelf upon shelf of.....

Bernita said...

Hee, Anna!
Like putting together toys or appliances...first, read the directions...

Erm, Erik. Your post leaves me wondering if a shelf just collapsed...and what was on it...

Steve G said...

I have only one. Strunk and White 'The Elements of Style', but unfortunately I don't look at it often enough. Thanks for the reminder.

Bailey Stewart said...

She also mentioned what a splendid lot you commenters were.
Thoughtful, articulate, supportive and passionate were some of her words.


I must have been absent that day. LOL No, really, I hit this while drinking my morning coffee and am far from wide awake.

I tend to buy how-to books written by actual authors in my field. I figure they've had success in a field in which I'd like to break in to, so maybe they'll have something "illuminating" to pass along.

Anonymous said...

You mean there's how to books for this stuff? -V95

Bernita said...

Strunk and White (I keep wanting to write "Skunk and White") is clearly one of the necessary ones, Steve.
I would add King's "On Writing" and one or two others - and that's enough.

I think it definitely includes you,Bailey.

You know, Anon, it's hard to walk with one leg longer than the other.

Anonymous said...

I'm not quite smart enough to figure that one out, bernita.

I should have warned you. When I'm on this blog I bring the IQ average down about 40 points. -V95

Ric said...

Ah, yes. The shelf. Best piece of advice in all those books is from 'On Writing' by Stephen King. Take out all the adverbs. Amazing what a difference this makes.

I've graduated to the next shelf. "How a late middle aged writer can attract the attention of a 29 year old agent?"

Bernita said...

Still pulling my leg, V95.

Ric, they don't care about your age, really.How would they know it?

Anonymous said...

Nice enough to let me off the hook and smart enough to know how to do it. That's pretty cool. -V95

kmfrontain said...

My best how to book for writing is my college dictionary.

Ric said...

Write about the free sex of the 1970's, no aids, no stds, they can't relate - you may as well be writing about the 1400's.

Write about the joys of being 50, no birth control, little extra money in your pocket, mid life crises, - the agents and editors don't want to touch anything that sounds like their parents.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I agreaa with you, and yes if you buy enough of the how-to books you will notice that they all say basically the same thing...but with a lot of extra pages...LOL!

Somebody ought to write a book and just give the bare bones...ROFLOL...another book!

Bernita said...

Thank you, V95.

If that is the one I'm thinking of, Karen, it's a good one.

Ric, I thought the '70s were "in," lately.

It's like the seven standard plots, Bonnie.They just give them a new hook.

JLB said...

I DO think that most how-to's must say essentially the same thing. But just as we are all uniquely drawn to various artists and their voices, so too is it likely that each writer's pearls of wisdom will shine a little brighter in the hand of a uniquely receptive aspirant.

Perhaps it's rather like religion and science and other epistemologies... without wishing to derail your trains of thought, I often feel that the wide rainbow of philosophies out there ultimately burn down to a common set of conclusions, each painted in their own unique alphabet which resonates for some, and dissonates for others.

Savannah Jordan said...

Well, I'll be quite honest in saying I do not have any how-to-write books.

I feel this discussion paids heed to the addage about teachers, "those who can, teach." Well...those who can, write. Perhaps skills can be honed, techniques learned, etc; but I think writers are born, and not made.

Bernita said...

A valid argument, JLB. The light bulb in the closet.
I don't avow that such books are unnecessary - just that a ton of them should not be necessary for any given individual.

BTW, does anyone else ever first wince at "epistemologies" - as being too close to a another word connected w/ a medical procedure during birth?

That's one argument - born or made - that I won't touch with a barge pole, Savannah! It's too circular or something. And the "proof" for either position is too easily rigged.

Erik Ivan James said...

I may be wrong, but I think it was Hemingway that said something like: "Don't ever tell them how hard you've worked to make it look so easy."

Erik Ivan James said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
raine said...

I think I have 3 or 4 such books--but I've had them for 20+ years or so. I doubt there's anything new under the sun...

And I don't know why people waste time with such novelties.
The key to getting published isn't in such books.

You simply have to know the secret password.
And to get the secret password, you need the secret decoder ring.
And to get the secret decoder ring, you need the barcode labels from 15 thesauri published before the new millenium, to be found in a quaint little bookstore owned by a descendant of the de Medici family, on an island off the coast of Maine, which can only be accessed by......

(please thank Louise for us, lol).

Gabriele C. said...

Lol, I learn languages without grammar books, and I'm not going to buy How To Write books, either.

I just read. A. Lot.

spyscribbler said...

I've read five or six shelves of the books published prior to 2003, so I feel qualified, LOL, to say you're right.

But, I wouldn't trade my time with those books for anything. I had no other writing education, no idea writing communities were out there (online or offline). Took a couple English and German lit classes in college, but had no idea how to write.

They do all say the same things, and they don't have the key they promise. In the end, you've got to go to the best novels themselves and study. Even the writers themselves usually have no idea how they do what they do.

Bernita said...

Blogger stutters.
Yes, Erik, don't know if it's Hemingway, but it's good advice.

Raine, you are a delight!
~but you shouldn't have TOLD~

The best teacher, Gabriele.

it certainly seems to have worked for you, Spy.

ORION said...

Oh I laughed at the epist.....word!
You can tell I'm over 50!!!
I started this post two hours ago and had to stop - broken refrig. -- raining -- all hatches open -- wet --You name it.
Any hoo
Learn by doing.
That's my motto.
And read.
Even stuff you think is crap. Figure out why.
When tears come in the middle of a sentence. Analyze it. How did a writer accomplish that?
And yes. My Strunk and White.
Holds up.
The rest of my books from falling out of my forward cabin.

Marie said...

I have a few, but they all say the same thing really. But they do help I suppose.

ScaramoucheX said...

Bernita, I have wondered many times at this riddle, but still cannot fathom why your 'blog receives hits in the dozens, while mine is so thoroughly ignored that I have to make up my own comments...wondrous strange to me.
Not that your efforts do not fascinate me...but I really think that people are attracted mostly by your perfect spelling...not that there's anything wrong with that.
Cheers

ORION said...

Oh bernita I run to your blog for solace and warmth!
Thank you

M.E Ellis said...

I've noticed when editing that the first few pages on a MS are the ones with the most red lines struck through them. After that, the MS levels out.

:o)

Bernita said...

Hee, Pat!
And that's an excellent point, reading bad stuff is as useful as reading good stuff.

Yes, they do help, Marie.
Sometimes, on a re-read, a point will hit home - especially after one has learned by doing, as Pat mentioned - and the light comes on.

"your perfect spelling"
~snort, snort~
Pardon me, Scary, while I convulse with laughter.

Pat...gladdens me.

That certainly confirms that some writers have trouble getting into "the groove," Michele.