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How to Write: Advice and Reflections Paperback – October 16, 1996
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"If you want to write," says Richard Rhodes in the beginning of How to Write, "you can." That is not to say it will be easy. Rhodes is the author of short and long works of fiction and "verity" (he dislikes the word nonfiction, because it defines such a broad range of writing by what it is not), including The Making of the Atomic Bomb, which won a Pulitzer Prize. "Even now," he discloses, "all these books and articles later, writing often feels to me like groping in darkness along a wall."
While Rhodes has much solid advice about the grit one must bring to the writing life--"the best remedy for fear of writing ... is ... ass to chair"--it is his analogies about writing that are most refreshing. "Writing is a craft," he says. "I mean craft strictly: like carpentry or pottery, writing is handmade. Like other crafts as well, writing can sometimes be organized to the special depth and resonance people call art." Elsewhere, Rhodes compares structuring a work of writing to generalship. "A general," he writes, "needs to know what troops and weapons he commands and how they're deployed, but he also needs to develop a strategy for fighting battles and winning the war. The battles probably won't go as he plans, of course. If his strategy is sufficiently flexible, he'll be able to adapt it to circumstances and still come out victorious." And finally, he says, "writing is always like scuba diving, a descent as deep as you can or dare to go, given your capacity and your level of skill."
Advice and reflections are imparted by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who examines the basics of beginning writing. From questions of where to begin to the trails of telling a moving story, this provides lively, literary reflections by one who has succeeded. -- Midwest Book Review
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Rhodes begins with a few assertions that run contrary to much of the accepted wisdom in writing programs. How do you become a writer? You write. As one advert told him, you start by "putting ass to chair." All forms of writing are equally worthwhile, and equally helpful in your development as a writer. It's as difficult to write really good genre fiction as it is to write good literature. Any sort of writing, if done with care and attention to craft, will advance a writer's skills; Rhodes himself began his career writing and editing an in-house newspaper for Hallmark Cards. That job taught him several things, including how to turn out finished, presentable work five days a week without waiting for inspiration to strike.
Writing, Rhodes stresses, is a craft, whether it's editing an industrial newsletter or writing free verse for poetry journals. Creative writing students are often told that there are no rules, but that's not really true; the writer is confronted with a number of choices that will strongly constrain the structure and flow of their work. Rhodes begins with the question of voice: Should I write my story or article or review as a first person narrative? Omniscient point of view? Present tense? Past tense? First person, present tense, narrative is a way of involving the reader more deeply in a story, but at the same time it constrains the narrative to what the narrator has experienced directly. A first person narrator can't know that someone is waiting for him/her just around the corner. How do you begin a story? The question is applicable to both fiction and non-fiction. Do you begin and the beginning, or dive right into the middle to grab the reader's interest, and then fill in the history? And one that non-writers always ask of fiction writers- where do fictional characters come from? For Rhodes, there's a parallel with acting. Characters are extensions of some aspect of the writer, extended, fleshed out, and made whole. Other writers, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, begin by writing a small biography of each character, the likes, dislikes, opinions, and tastes. How do you name them? Baby name books are a very useful tool. What's important is that the characters are distinct people, recognizable as individuals, and not (as can easily happen) all variation on the writers own personality.
Rhodes also devotes a lot of his attention to the mechanics of non-fiction. How do you conduct an interview? (Tip: Make sure your recorder has fresh batteries!) Some of his advice is a bit dated in this age of Google ( was published in 1995, twenty years ago as I write this!) but the underlying principles still hold: Use multiple sources. Make sure you understand the facts you're presenting. Use the right word. Get the context right. And so on. The chapter on editing your own work contains a section in which Rhodes re-creates his own editing process, using selections from his published work, showing how choices were made in phrasing, flow, choice of words and so on. It's particularly inspiring to the novice reader to see that even the best writers still struggle with choices. Rhodes' advice goes beyond the mechanics of writing and into the business of writing. How you you sell a story? What payment can you expect? What's the best way to market your work? Again,some of the advice is somewhat dated, but much still remains applicable to today's Internet-dominated world. Rhodes also reminds the prospective writer that publishing doesn't only mean selling though a publisher. It can mean giving copies away, public readings, or self-publishing- something that's more practical, and easier than ever in today's Internet-enabled world.
I've read a lot of books that attempt to teach the craft of writing, and I've gotten something out of most, but none has been so complete, and so inspirational as this one volume. Strongly recommended for anyone who wants to write better, or wants to publish what they've written, and especially those wondering how to begin.
In "How to Write," Rhodes provides a succinct overview of the tools and motivation needed to start and complete writing. His chapters progress through topics, in order: motivation to write, tools, research, writing, editing, and publishing. He finishes by providing perspectives from other writers as well. Given his background as a magazine essayist and his drive for fact-based underpinnings, even in his fiction works, Rhodes is best to read for his advice on non-fiction writing. His best section is his chapter on editing where he shows the evolution of a specific non-fiction piece and the author's thought process during writing and editing.
My one issue with this book is that some of his passages come across with a bit of braggadocio -- he often, perhaps rightfully, quotes his own writing, he calls out his extensive publishing history, and even mentions his substantial income level. His pride in how far he has come in life is evident, and yields a somewhat pedantic tone, perhaps stemming from insecurity (a result perhaps of his difficult childhood, noted in the book). This tone is softened somewhat by his last chapter where he brings in thoughts from other authors. My recommendation in the end is to buy this book, less for the autobiographical call-outs, and more for its technical advice and clear depiction of the work and strength needed to truly write well.