01/11/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts
pub: Souvenir Press Ltd. 310 page enlarged paperback. Price: GBP 12.99 (U). ISBN: 0-285-63525-5.
check out website: www.souvenirpress.co.uk
A couple years back, I was frontlining my boss here on looking through story samples and spending considerable time pointing out all kinds of errors these writers were making so I’m not without some experience in this book’s subject matter. Having only recently discovered Sol Stein’s 1995 book, ‘Solutions For Writers’, since re-issued five times, I think I might have saved myself some work and just recommended them all to have read this book. Well, all except for the grammar mishaps I constantly saw with them. It’s one area I wonder why Stein didn’t cover under his examination of pace but maybe things have gotten worse over the years. Then again, I take on anyone and point out why these mistakes shouldn’t be made as part of my duties. I suspect Stein thinks by this stage in your developing writing skills you’ve got it right whereas I see the opposite a lot of the time.
If anything, we speak from the same hymn sheet in the principles of story mechanics ranging from hooking the reader in the opening paragraph to creating interesting characters and how to sustain interest in the middle of a story. Although most of his examples are from the general genre, storycraft applies to them all. He also inadvertently explains, without realising it, that writers have to have some eccentric quirks themselves as they are writing about eccentric or extreme characters. To write bland characters or stories is the sure way of not getting a sale and there are a lot of good examples here of what to avoid.
Combine with this the ability to edit and revise your own material to make it the best it can be. From my perspective, removing duff scenes and such can be helped in the plotting stage and being aware of what is being repeated. If a scene is in there, then it should be carrying some needed information and thought should always be given to moving the information to a different scene. I’ve played with full plotting to organic plotting – that is not laying everything down structure wise – and the latter are the stories that need the most work. It doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible with either technique but having a plot map does help the most.
Not sure if I go along with him that Harvey, from the self-named play and film, was a drunken illusion though or how else would anyone know he was there? Mind you, Stein could well make a case for mass hallucination. Then again, I never saw Elwood P. Dowd as an alcoholic.
Stein’s reasons why people ignore prefaces differs slightly from mine, mostly because most of the ones I’ve read are so cryptic that they don’t sink in as to what is going on. I suspect many writers think that they are obliged to do a preface but not sure what it should include.
Let’s go back to my bug-bear of punctuation. Granted there is some difference between US and UK punctuation, like having commas before ‘and’, but seeing samples of Stein’s prose against this book’s text, does make me wonder if he’s blind to I-itus – too many in first person - and starting sentences with ‘And’ as on page 147. Let’s not even go as far as having more words after a semi-colon than before. I’m hoping his story is from somewhere earlier in his career and he learnt better later as similar problems don’t happen in the text of this book. If anything, I could argue for a better choice of example or he’s left it in for editor/reviewers like me to recognise when I see one.
There is also a section dealing with non-fiction and how factually based articles have grown to use some of the emotionalism of fiction to ensure the interest of the reader. Although I read the American scientific journals which is somewhere this isn’t likely to be appropriate, I have no idea as to how far this has carried over into newspapers. Even so, there is also some reliable information to learn from this section.
Despite some criticisms, this book should be read by anyone who wants to be a writer as well as those who are writers. If someone like me can benefit from such a read then going over the rudiments of storycraft and non-fiction as a check-up to ensure you haven’t forgotten anything has to be a good thing. If you can only go after only one non-fiction book this year, then make sure that this is the one.
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