Archive for July, 2009

Follow the Story

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

James B. Stewart’s Follow the Story is one of those writing books where the central question is “Do you like the work of the author?” If the answer is yes, you are going to really enjoy the journalistic lessons shared by Stewart. If you are less impressed or enamored of the non-fiction as narrative school of writing, then you are probably going to have some objections to what he tells you. Stewart was breaking ground in the form made popular by Sebastian Junger in The Perfect Storm.

The book covers a very specific form of Non-fiction writing and that is the ability to frame the story in the form of a mystery or an anomaly with the end goal of unraveling the mystery. The central theme is that people are curious, so you should use that to your advantage. He is not wrong, but he does open that his story strays from the general class of Non-Fiction to that of feature, as in made for a feature film. If anything, this could be a book on writing a three act play. In fact, some of his chapters focus on leads, transitions and dialog.

You might gather that I am not a big fan of this book, but I actually think it is very good. For a feature writer looking for tricks on salability, this is a fantastic book. It is a very good cookbook for the non-fiction feature targeted for magazine market with the intent of extending to a long form such as a book. The mechanics are clearly explained and he speaks from authority using his own work as examples.

This is worth a read if you are a commercial writer, and the subtitle to the book explains its objective clearly “how to write successful nonfiction” with an emphasis on successful as in commercial. This book is also solid if your work is focused on the real world (crime fiction for instance) or you are looking at dramatic forms. For the emotional or literary writer, its value is less direct.

How To Write

Monday, July 6th, 2009

Richard Rhodes How to Write is a very difficult book to categorize. Ostensibly a how to book by Pulitzer Prize winning author of the seminal work “Making of the the Atomic Bomb”, it brings in aspects of memoir detailing Rhodes development as a writer. This hybrid is both a strength and a weakness of the book, since autobiography is not a transferrable mechanism of training. Rhodes unique circumstances, can in many ways deter would be authors because it is true that circumstances and experience inspire the writer. For those whose lives are tragically ordinary, it is difficult to bring the veracity of life without relying on the hackneyed cliches of works of others.

So if experience is not transferrable is craft. This is where Rhodes book is more useful for the budding writer. Chapters on research, developing voice and structuring your writing are much more helpful. But the chapter that gives How to Write its strength is an excellent chapter on editing that goes through the process of editing on a short piece that Rhodes wrote by parenthetically interspersing the text with the decisions and questions that took place as he revised the piece. This example effectively illustrates the active process that good editing entails.

One major fault with this book is that it’s often too clever by half. Rhodes tries to coin the neologism verity to cover the writing more commonly known as non-fiction. His objections are valid, but it’s a needless distraction.  He also beleaguers the point that writing is hard, and the writing business is even harder. You can’t simultaneously romanticize writing and make it mundane without losing your point of view on the subject. 

How To Write is not as prescriptive as other comparable works, and is definitely of less value to a novice than an experienced writer. It’s best suited for those who admire Rhodes work and want to understand his writing process as one template out of many.