The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray and Bret Norris.
Reading Challenge: A self-improvement book.
I struggled to find a book for this category. I can safely say it’s a genre I’ve never seriously investigated, and every one I peeked at with the reading challenge in mind made me want to vomit within a sentence or two. But recently I decided that the only thing required to qualify a book as a self-help book is that it imply that only following its recommendations to the letter can get you what you want. And hey, improving myself as a writer counts as self-improvement, don’t it?
I’ve been writing since I could, well, write, and I’ve had a strange relationship with books on writing since anyone asked me to read one. The first “how to do creative writing” book I encountered was Writing the Natural Way. It was for a community college writing class, I was 17, and I hated the book as only a smart, self-important teenager can hate a book. I’m pretty sure my professor was shocked that a how-to book on “unlocking the right brain” could arouse that amount of passion one way or the other. Looking back now, I’m pretty sure it was nowhere near as bad as I thought at the time. What I do remember is having the sense that the author was telling us that only through using her technique could we write successfully. Excuse me, lady, I’m pretty sure Jane Austen didn’t use fucking “clustering”! I don’t think so! I wasn’t old enough or wise enough to plumb the book for what could usefully be gotten out of it while taking some of the more absurd claims with a grain of salt. So, instead, I just really, really hated it.
So when I approached The Weekend Novelist it was with the lessons of Writing the Natural Way in mind. I flipped through it at the bookstore and said “oh! Writing exercises!” Those I like. Writing prompts, characters sketches, excellent. Even better, the book contains advice on plot structure, which I have always desperately needed. Characters I can do. Dialogue is fun. Plot kills me. Give me plot structure advice. I beg you.
I got advice on plot structure, and writing exercises, and examples from classic books. The examples were interesting: some of them went better because I was familiar with the book, others went worse because I was familiar with the book (my inner 17 year-old is insisting I mention that they clearly don’t understand Jane Eyre at all). Others just made me want to never, ever read the book they used as an example (Amsterdam sounds like a book I would hate even worse than Writing the Natural Way). I’ve started working on some of the exercises and I see the value to them. I’m not going to do the ones that seem pointless (“write your character’s dream” might be good advice, but, no thanks). Yes, I had to ignore some “only our way will work” rhetoric, but not all that much. I definitely recommend this if you’re restarting your writing, prepping for National Novel Writing Month, or otherwise trying to get moving or find ways to deepen what you’re working on.
The thing I did find hard to ignore about this book was…okay, let me put it like this. I’ve been listening to this podcast, “Classic Film Jerks,” while I run, okay? And they have this segment where they observe things that hopelessly date movies, see? And it’s called “so old” but it’s in this unbelievable geezer voice and…well, anyway, there were a lot of moments when reading this book that I’d hear that “so…old…” cue in my mind. For example, when they mentioned movies as something you really should accept as a touchstone of culture, and how you can get one from your “local video emporium” (so…old…). Now, when this book was originally written, you could probably get something from your “local video emporium.” But they’ve revised since, certainly enough to bemoan the “Age of Screens” we live in and coincidentally sound even more SO…OLD.
I also couldn’t help waiting for the advice that went “finally, run your novel-in-progress through a little process we like to call ‘the real world exists’ for any perpetuating of harmful stereotypes. For example, consider the fact that your bisexual character seduces absolutely everyone, and carefully review your descriptions of your Native American female lead for fetishistic language.” I waited in vain. I know, I was hoping for too much. And based on the rest of the book the authors would probably fail to understand what I was getting at and remind me that I am a product of the Age of Screens, young whippersnapper that I am.
Recommended pairing: Gin rickey, anyone, to go with the breathless discussions of F. Scott Fitzgerald? I think we must!