Three new writing advice books tackle both ends of the authorial spectrum. One is a memoir by a finally-published writer who shares the advice he got from bestselling author John Grisham. If you study it, you’ll learn too.
The others are guides to language itself, that is, when to use or avoid clichés, and how to avoid flabby writing of all kinds. Those, too, have a chance of making you a better writer. I’m not letting my own copies out of my sight.
Writing with the Master: How One of the World’s Bestselling Authors Fixed My Book and Changed My Life, by Tony Vanderwarker (Skyhorse Publishing). A more accurate subtitle would be: How one of the world’s bestselling genre writers, John Grisham, who happened to be a long-time family friend, worked really hard (and with genuine generosity and great specificity) to mentor me as I worked to turn my thriller idea into a book, and when, after many rewrites, it still didn’t sell, how I gave up writing and moved on to something else, and how I later got the idea to write a book about the whole experience, using all of Grisham’s editing notes and suggestions, and how that led to an independent publisher, finally, taking both books, and how that led me back to my earlier unsold books, which were darn good after all, in my opinion.
Writing with the Master flows pleasantly and self-deprecatingly, and I enjoyed it. It would seem a remarkably useful volume for someone intending to write a popular thriller. Certainly, it’s much more nitty-gritty in its advice (showing both Vanderwarker’s drafts and Grisham’s suggested edits) than many more run-of-the-mill how-to books. Following along with the author on his very long road to a finished book, getting an agent, and finding an appropriate publisher should be an eye-opener to any writer (or reader) who think that what Grisham (and many others) do is the least bit easy.
It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés, by Orin Hargraves (Oxford University Press), a lexicographer and author of language reference books. I read once that celebrated author Ian McEwan uses three friends to help steer him clear of cliche. He and his friends came to call such careless and timeworn turns of phrase FLF, meaning flickering log fire. Keep that in mind.
Far from compiling a dull list of overused phrases, Hargraves gives each cliché in It's Been Said Before a full paragraph of examples and clear explanation so you’ll know the reasons you should probably avoid using it ever again.
For example, there’s the phrase “half the battle.” It says a lot whether it’s preceded by “only” or it isn’t. However, here’s an example Hargraves offers to illustrate “how a potentially effective phrase may be completely anesthetized, by burying it among other clichés”: “This was one occasion when the old saying that a good start is half the battle was truly wide of the mark.”
An extensive Introduction discusses what a cliché is. Believe me, they’re lurking everywhere, especially if you don’t have a private editor (or three good friends, like McEwan) to catch them for you. Enlightening reading for lovers of the language.
To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing by Robert Harwell Fiske (Norton), editor and publisher of The Vocabula Review, and author of other books about language. After a couple of chapters of good advice, the two main sections of this fat volume (583 pages) are a dictionary of concise writing and a reverse dictionary (“Guide to Obfuscation”). You’ll see why “come in contact with” is less concise than “contact” or “touch,” for example. “Come to a standstill” is best replaced by “stop” or “cease” or “close” or “conclude.” Of course, if you prefer to write less pithily, use “mesh together” instead of “mesh.” Read it through once, then use it to go over anything you’ve written before you share it with an audience.