Monday, April 13, 2009

Lying for a Living

NOTE: I took Easter Sunday off, so you get two posts today. Enjoy! 

Book Review A lot of writing books have made the trek from the store to my shelves and back out again, but there's only one that I reread on a regular basis. It is also the one I enthusiastically endorse to anyone who asks me for advice on writing.

I push it into people's hands with such free abandon, you would almost think I was trying to get rid of it. (It's frankly amazing that I still have the original copy I bought at a Milwaukee bookstore back in the day.)

For my money, the classic Telling Lies For Fun & Profit is the quintessential writing book. If you can only buy one, buy this one. It's been in print without update for some time, so some of the nuts and bolts issues Lawrence Block deals with in the book are a bit dated (he talks about typewriters even more than I do) but good advice never expires. I can't think of another place you'll find this quality of advice about the writer's life and the business of cranking out lies with sufficient consistency to make a living at it.
(On a sidenote: I don't look to books for the latest on publishing anyway. Since the most current information about dealing with editors, agents and maneuvering the current publishing labyrinth changes constantly, getting that advice on the web only makes sense. Most literary agents maintain websites and many of them have highly-informative blogs, which I recommend more than any of the many books I've read.)
I have a confession to make: Years ago when I first "discovered" this book, it was because I quite frankly wanted a book with that title on my shelf. Seriously, who wouldn't want to have people peruse their shelves and find a book with this title?

After I got past chortling over the clever title, I was pleasantly surprised by the essays contained in this odd little tome.

Lawrence Block is the depressingly-talented author of over 150 books. He sold his unagented first book at an early age and on the first try back when those things really happened. He quickly established himself at a time when short stories were still a going concern and his stories of this education in the booktrade and his years turning out unabashed slush for a paycheck are hilarious and the lessons to be learned thereby are hilarious memorable.

Block's essays are compiled from his years writing for Writer's Digest, so the tone - while lighthearted - is educational. It deals with more than just the usual "Where do you get your ideas?" topics, expanding to advise the aspiring writer on finding your voice, what to study in college, procrastinating, plagiarizing, avoiding chemical dependency, and how to answer the people who ask you "So... where do you get your ideas?"

In between he also manages to cover plotting, characterization, structure and characters that speak languages fluenty which you're only passingly familiar with. His college advice will make you wish he'd written you a letter before you chose your major. The final chapter - a writer's prayer based upon AA's Serenity Prayer - will make you wish you could get it printed on a poster and hang it above your desk or writing chair.

This book should be on everyone's shelf. If only for the title and that last chapter, I dare say that it needs to be on every writer's shelf.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).