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Boycott Writing Books

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It’s easy for me to be suckered into buying books about writing and publishing. First of all, I wanna know about these things. Secondly, I can justify the expense by deluding myself into the belief I may find something worthwhile in their pages and I can discuss that nugget here on Slushpile.net.

There are 557 books listed in the Reference: Writing: Fiction section of Amazon. There are 3,270 books in the Reference: Publishing & Books: General section. But the sad truth is that the vast majority of writing and publishing books are shit.

And I’ll be damned if I waste any more of my money.

Sure, you’ll get a couple of useful pages out of these writing books. A tidbit here and there, scattered around like the rare winning ticket on the ground at the racetrack. But most of these books contain the same regurgitated information over and over again. These money pits can be lumped into three basic categories:

  • How-To Books
  • British Old Fogey Intellectual Books
  • So Far Removed From It to Be Laughable Books 

The How-To Book

Why do these books seem dashed off by some hack desperate to collect a two-thousand dollar advance from Writer Parasite Books so he can focus on that article for Cat Fancy? If you don’t refer to your book as a “fictional novel,” then these books are a waste of money. They dispense gems like “don’t send your gore-soaked, sexual deviant slasher novel to Harlequin Romances” and “address editors by name.” But if you’ve ever obtained a job where you aren’t required to include fries with every order, you already know the basic professionalism they offer.

I also include the Noticeable Formatting books into this category. These books tend to be unusual sizes, are often placed near the cash register in bookstores, and put more emphasis on showing off their fancy printer than examining writing. The voice in these books isn’t quite as stale as in the other How-To titles. In fact, they brag about their “witty and humorous” approach. But why do these writers all sound the same? One part sarcasm, two parts wit, one part snark, three parts Humor 101, and voila, you’ve got a so-called voice that is just like every other Noticeable Formatting book.

British Old Fogey Intellectual Books

Although not necessarily a British creation, these books do reflect the Anglophile’s mindset. Tweed-jacketed writers sit in their ivory tower and ponder the intellectual aspects of literary life while snow gently falls outside, Vivaldi graces the stereo, and the cat curls up by the fire. These books sometimes contain useful writing information, but you can’t stay alert long enough to absorb it. These titles don’t inspire me to dash off a new short story; they encourage me to sip a cup of hot tea and nap.

Consider these books People’s Exhibit A when debating the evils of tenure.

The So Far Removed From It To Be Laughable Books

These books are usually penned by literary giants who have useful wisdom to pass down from their lofty perches. However, the useful information is frequently undercut by the fact they haven’t been rejected in decades. I suffered one such book the other day. It was published just three-and-a-half years ago, yet this literary giant claimed simultaneous submissions are unacceptable and instructed to submit to one publication at a time. Maybe this person doesn’t have to wait, but down in the literary gutter, submitting to one magazine at a time will yield publication in a time equal to the half-life of radioactive material. Another book claimed that an unnamed, unfinished novel by an unpublished writer elicited positive responses from eleven out of a dozen agents.

These writers and the quality of their work demand respect. However, in many instances, they’re doling out advice that is the publishing equivalent of “you can’t get pregnant if you do it standing up.”

Call to Literary Arms

Where are the books for people like you and me? People that want to learn, to become better writers, but who already know to run spell-check for Christ’s sake? I want a book that’s useful for people who know the obvious facts but still have much to discover about the finer strategies. I want a book that’s for people who ache to write but who hang sheetrock all day or wash beer mugs all night. I want a book for people who are in the trenches, who still mail their own submissions and suffer the rejections.

I want a book for people who say fuck and don’t sound like they host NPR. For people who don’t capitalize the words “muse,” “art,” and “inspiration.” For people who listen to Ministry while they write and idolize Chuck Palahniuk and hate coffeeshops.

You don’t have to be stodgy about literature and you don’t have to be asinine to be humorous in  your voice.

Pat Walsh’s 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published and 14 Reasons Why It Just Might. John Dufresne’s The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction. These are fantastic books about writing and publishing. Anything by John Gardner. There are a couple of others but for the most part, I can name the great books on one hand. The majority of them are just ways for people to make a quick buck off your writing dreams, without offering any real guidance or sustenance in return.

If you talk to any publisher about a writing book, they’ll tell you the market is too small. Poets & Writers magazine has a circulation of 70,000 while Writer’s Digest reaches 150,000. There are more than 300 university and college writing programs in this country. Editors and agents everywhere squeal about being inundated with submissions. But we’re supposed to believe there isn’t a market for a serious, useful writing book?

Well, they may not be willing to provide an alternative, but I’ll be damned if buy any more of the shit that is passed off as literary assistance.