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Jewish World Review August 1, 2001 / 12 Menachem-Av, 5761

Diana West

Diana West
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How-To Hackdom: The dubious art of writing books about writing books -- IT is summer. It is hot. Going to the office is oppressive. But it was oppressive even when the weather was cool.

Inevitably there comes a moment when you have to wonder: Is this what life was meant to be? Is going to work and returning home after a long, memo-filled day what Aristotle had in mind for a meaningful life? Is the drudgery of meetings and sales reports a requirement of existence? Does man's fate involve managerial bullying and the threat of layoffs? In short: Is there a way out? There is. Be a writer.

Not a writer? Not a problem. "All you need is the willingness to be labeled 'writer,' and with that one word, you are a writer." You are? If you say so.

While this sounds way too easy--no fuss, no absinthe, no Lost Generation--it's the expert opinion of "The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile," an offering from bookstore shelves crammed with what are known as writing-for-publication manuals. There are magazines devoted to such instruction, too, and lots fancy courses at expensive colleges. But books capture the whole culture of writerly aspiration with a bluntness that even Mickey Spillane might envy.

Their titles say it all: "You Can Write a Novel," "Writing a Book That Makes a Difference," "Writing the Blockbuster Novel," "You Can Make It BIG Writing Books." Clearly this is not the kind of how-to-write material for modest scribblers who, reaching for Strunk & White, worry over such nonglamorous matters as syntax and clear prose.

No, the quarry here is larger. Even so, it's possible that you're not ready to make it BIG. After all, you've only just learned that the act of merely willing yourself to write makes you a writer. The next question might be: Is there a book inside you? Now, where to turn for the answer . . .

Try "Is There a Book Inside You?" Its table of contents is neatly divided into chapters ranging from "Why You Should Write a Book" ("Chances are you already know") to "Can You Author a Book?" ("Yes, you can author a book") to "Is Your Topic a Winner?" ("If your choice is nonfiction, picking a subject is your first step").

The book even offers autographing tips--"especially when rushed, make sure you spell your fan's name correctly"--as well as solutions to the most common "Hazards of Being a Successful Author." This is a chapter to be dog-eared. After all, as you will learn, "too much recognition" and "jealous friends" can be a real pain.

First, though, you need to get started. There are a slew of titles designed to release those creative juices--and on just about anyone's timetable--from "Discovering the Writer Within: 40 Days to More Imaginative Writing" to "Fast Fiction: Creating Fiction in Five Minutes." The methods vary from standard exercises familiar from the classroom--e.g., keep a journal--to some fairly funky practices.

"Finding Your Writer's Voice" requires "rituals" for cultivating that voice: among them, writing in the dark (could be tricky), writing while dressed all in one color (could be tricky, especially in the dark) and writing while cross-dressed (ditto). Other rituals call for pine needles and wild herbs. You may not find your inner voice, but you're bound to find your inner Druid.

"Writing From the Heart" takes a more urgent approach. To wit: "I say go in there--open that Pandora's box and set your artist free. She's dying (literally) to get out. And she can't emerge until you give her back her rightful pain. She earned it. Now let her feel it. And sob from it and sculpt it and paint it and write it and sing it. And--what the heck--if she wants to--sell it!"

If you would just as well put "her" and "her rightful pain" back in the box and weld it shut, this is not the guide for you. Maybe you already know where your voice is and think pain is for Band-Aids. Yours could be a case for the hard-boiled how-to. Within this subgenre, you can read "Dare to Be a Great Writer," hone the tactics of "Guerrilla Marketing for Writers" (which are presented against camouflage backgrounds) and learn "How to Write a Damn Good Novel."

This last book features no-nonsense pointers on, for instance, recognizing the point at which a novel is finished--"You will feel like throwing up whenever you look at it"--and defying various levels of writer's block, a k a "blanko" and "El nothingissimo." This is tough stuff. As "Dare to Be a Great Writer" puts it: "You get what you dare, baby, and if you want big, you dare big--or you piddle away in a nickel and dime existence."

Golly. What a choice! But dare or piddle, the blank page beckons. What to do? "The beginning of your novel must grab the reader and also give him a hint of what to expect," explains "How to Write & Sell Your First Novel." Or, as you may learn from "You Can Write a Novel": "Write a great first line, then try to grow an entire novel from that seed."

This may have worked for, say, Herman Melville, but it leaves a bit of a gap between "Call me Ishmael" and the finished product--not to mention all those jealous friends and rushed autographs. Instruction that is more specific, however, is not necessarily more rewarding.

"Create a physical prototype of your novel," suggests "You Can Write a Novel." How? By taking a book off the shelf, stripping away the dust jacket and recovering the book with a jacket of your own making--complete with your own name, title and even cover art. This, the theory goes, is supposed to gin up instant inspiration. "If you're feeling frisky," the guide goes on to say, "add a quote from someone of the stature of John Grisham." Of course, why stop at Grisham? Might as well get William Shakespeare to pen a juicy blurb while you're at it, or Danielle Steel.

JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Diana West