A good book on writing needs to do a couple of things.
First, and most books get this right, is to instruct. It should teach you something about the craft of writing. It should tell you things you didn’t know before, or make the invisible visible.
Elements of Style is a great old stand-by of this type, and probably one of the first writing books you read. ‘Omit needless words’ still rings in my head every time I try to edit something.
The second, and this is harder, is inspire, to actually make you want to write.
I always looked at Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury as a shining example of inspiration. It’s really, really hard to read it and not want to write with gusto. It’s less successful in instruction, but that’s not what he’s going for, really. Ray Bradbury let all his subconscious do the work; we mortals need to know how to build houses before we burn them down.
The book Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life by Nick Mamatas is one of the few that does a good job of both. It’s an excellent book, well worth the time of any writer interested in writing things so other people will read them.
It’s structured exactly like a book on writing advice should be: short, punchy essays that aren’t necessarily connected with each other. Instead of the drowning we can often get reading things like this, Starve Better is a glass at a time. I can manage that. When I read it, I didn’t even read them in order. Sip, Sip, Sip.
There were a few lessons that stuck out to me as well.
Hunger in an ending was something I never considered as a writer. The best books are the ones that leave you wanting more at the end. When things are neatly tied up, and there’s nowhere left for your imagination to take them, it doesn’t have the same impact.
In his essay on dialog, I never realized was how much of speech is inferred, or straight-up not there. We often don’t say what we mean, for both good and bad reasons; why would dialog where everybody says what they mean be natural, or even interesting? We’re built to look for those extra layers and hidden meanings. It’s what makes us, well, us.
Mamatas also doesn’t feel the need to rip all the magic out of the short story, even though he talks about the practical side of that game. He includes some of his own fictional work in the book, along with how it came to be and where he sold it.
It doesn’t hurt that the story is pretty good. He’s got that going for him.
Starve Better also does a third service that most writers never get: an explanation of the business side of writing.
Mamatas does a fine job of filling us in on how one might actually make a living putting words together. I can’t say it made me want to quit my day job – well, maybe a little – but reading it, you feel like making a living as a writer is something a normal person could do. Sure, maybe you won’t be living in Beverly Hills, but you can still make writing your trade if you want, without a teaching gig or a million dollar advance.
He isn’t a Ray Bradbury, in terms of his tactics or his success, but I think that helps the book. He brings writing down to earth. It’s not that his writing is bad, but there’s a clear path of how he learned, and the tactics he used to get where he is.
This book is great for anybody who wants to write things that other people would want to read. It’s entertaining. I wouldn’t read it all the way through. An essay here and there will do you, and it’s not terribly long anyhow.
It’s a book that can inspire, instruct, and help you keep the lights on. Not bad for a book shy of 200 pages.