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Truth about Writing | Reviews

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WritersServices Reviews

The Truth About Writing: An Essential Handbook for Novelists, Playwrights and Screenwriters

Michael Allen

Kingsfield Publications, 256pages

The Truth about Writing

'If I feel I’ve been stapled to the wall by a barrage of ‘must’s and ‘should’s, I don’t look as favourably on the text as I would if I feel a range of options has been laid out for me to sample. '

 

 

'it consisted of this piece of advice: keep submitting your book until someone buys it.'

 

 

'I’m always on the lookout for guides which cover the necessary issues in a fair and balanced way, not dwelling too long on relatively unimportant matters... and more importantly, remembering that the author’s inspiration is a part of the equation.'

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

'it’s difficult to get past the fact that Allen really doesn’t like the publishing industry much, and seizes every opportunity to criticise it.'

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

'Unexpectedly, the one thing I felt Michael Allen could have spoken about with great authority, the art of self-publishing, was mysteriouly glossed over.'

As any aspiring writer will be only too aware, bookshops are awash with handbooks designed to guide them through the business of writing and publication. I mentally divide these into two main categories: the descriptive and the prescriptive.

Descriptive guides tend to talk about the philosophy of writing, the ‘whys’ of doing it, the search for motivation and meaning in one’s work, about what it’s like to be a writer. They tend to provide inspiration and spiritual refreshment rather than precise details about how to lay out a manuscript for submission. For anyone who’s in for the long haul, or who likes the idea of being a writer as much as they like doing the work (and not everyone does write for publication), such books can be sustaining or comforting reading. On the whole, I don’t think descriptive books do much harm; admittedly, they’re not always that much help if you’re desperate to get published now, quick, but they’re not written for that kind of person.

Prescriptive guides are an altogether different matter. I tend to gauge just how prescriptive they are by how I feel at the end of reading them. If I feel I’ve been stapled to the wall by a barrage of ‘must’s and ‘should’s, I don’t look as favourably on the text as I would if I feel a range of options has been laid out for me to sample.

Severely prescriptive books tend to offer a ‘one size fits all’ formula for success, but closer examination of that formula often reveals it to be utterly hollow. I recall reading one book, by someone who was apparently a well-known writing adviser in the US; she had a foolproof method which I was naturally keen to discover. No one had ever failed, using her method, and that was because it consisted of this piece of advice: keep submitting your book until someone buys it. Which is not such bad advice on one level, for persistence is vital in trying to get published, but on another, it absolved her of any responsibility for failure, while enabling her to take all the credit for success. It was rather like those ‘get-rich-quick’ schemes one sees advertised; having sent away for the advice (and paid handsomely to receive it) one discovers it consists of placing advertisements like the one you’ve just answered, and taking money off the suckers who come behind, rather as you’ve just been suckered.

More gently prescriptive books usually offer sensible advice about generating a plot and a story, creating characters, producing good prose, laying out a manuscript and so on, taking the neophyte through the processes involved in writing and trying to get published. The worst ones seem to regard writing as an entirely by-numbers process or else akin messing around with a literary Meccano kit – just bolt X, Y and Z together, and bingo! Personally, I find them soulless to a greater or lesser extent, but I also appreciate that such guides have their place in the scheme of things, particularly for the inexperienced writer. I’m always on the lookout for guides which cover the necessary issues in a fair and balanced way, not dwelling too long on relatively unimportant matters (believe me, laying out a manuscript is surprisingly simple and does not require an entire chapter dwelling on the niceties of which font to use or the precise measurement of the margins) or giving short shrift to things that are really, really important, and more importantly, remembering that the author’s inspiration is a part of the equation.

But some books are not what they initially seem to be. Take The Truth about Writing. At first, I thought it was just another prescriptive guide. There were telltale signs – the cover flash ‘reveals the secret of success’, the fact that the subtitle contains the word ‘handbook’. I quite liked the promise of the title too; ‘truth’ is such an emotive, evocative kind of word. This book would rip the lid off the writing business and tell it how it is. In all honesty, I’m sure that’s what Michael Allen thinks he’s doing. The problem is that his view of the writing business is extremely idiosyncratic. Yes, it’s based on his own experiences (which are varied and include a stint as an academic publisher), but it’s difficult to get past the fact that Allen really doesn’t like the publishing industry much, and seizes every opportunity to criticise it. This is, I can’t help thinking, not so much biting the hand that feeds one, as chewing it off at the wrist (though he now self-publishes, in order to avoid further contact with the business he so despises). He would, I think, describe himself as clear-eyed and pragmatic – and indeed, he claims that his book is intended to foster clear thinking in aspiring writers, which is commendable – but I was left with the sense of someone who has somehow found himself out of step with the modern world, who has lost contact with the heart of the business. This latter was particularly noticeable in Allen’s publishing anecdotes, which are often rather dated, and in his reliance on facts and figures drawn from cuttings and The Bookseller. Figures for, say, 1996, are practically prehistory so far as publishing nowadays is concerned, things move so fast. I never remotely felt I was getting the hot insider information the cover seemed to imply.

So what will this book give you? It gave me a startling tour of Michael Allen’s prejudices, which take in, among other things, a dislike of modern educational practices, and of academic literary criticism (as if that has any relevance to getting published, and I speak as someone who writes academic criticism myself), not to mention a conviction that using the female pronoun throughout the book somehow absolves him of accusations of sexism (it doesn’t – I’m fascinated by the way that publishers, i.e., the baddies, are all female, while agents invariably seem to be male, unless they’re bad agents, in which case … ah, you’re ahead of me). I also learned about Michael Allen’s particular theories about writing, which seem to revolve around having a good breakfast and accepting that it is not a writer’s business to express his or herself, but to create emotion in the punter, something which he goes on about at great length. I don’t think I’d disagree about the need to achieve a response in the reader, but I think Michael Allen and I would have to agree to disagree on the nature of the interaction between author and reader, and the author’s role in it. For that matter, I’d argue about the reader’s role too, as an active participant rather than as a passive recipient, but never mind. Occasional crumbs of good sense did emerge, mostly about how to avoid RSI, and how to parcel out time for writing, but they were very few and far between.

Unexpectedly, the one thing I felt Michael Allen could have spoken about with great authority, the art of self-publishing, was mysteriously glossed over. There was vague talk of selling in the digital age, and how older people were also capable of using the Internet too, but I felt we weren’t getting to the heart of whatever was on his mind at that point.

The formula? Success varies according to Circumstance. Well, obviously. One might as well return to the snake oil saleswoman at the beginning, with her advice to ‘keep submitting until someone accepts it’.

The question is, is this an essential handbook? No, not unless you’re interested in getting to know the mind of the author in greater detail, in which case, it’s invaluable and illuminating. But it is a very interesting illustration of why ‘essential’ can be such a weasel word. What Michael Allen regards as essential may well be of little interest to someone who is primarily engaged in getting words down on the page and who couldn’t care less at this stage about the state of the publishing industry. Ultimately, I think it was more essential to Allen to have given his views on the publishing industry and on writing than it is for aspiring writers to read his book.

 

© Maureen Kincaid SpellerMaureen Kincaid Speller a reviewer, writer, editor and former librarian, is our book reviewer and also works for WritersServices as a freelance editor. 2003 Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller

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List price: £12.99
Publisher: Kingsfield Publications
2003-05-01
Paperback
Sales rank: 6,003,328