I’ve just been reading Becky Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers. At least in the first few chapters, Lerner, a poet-turned-editor-turned-agent (and I gather still all of these things), offers advice at one end of a continuum I’ve noticed. Hers is what I would call a “soft” book for writers: strong on inspiration, on the emotional landscape of writing, on how you’ll know if you’re really meant to write and how to persevere through the cold winter of a writer’s disenchantment. At the other end of the continuum: books like Michael Larson’s book on non-fiction proposals, which I downloaded for help writing my proposal for Survive College Writing (a future bestseller currently interred in a massive data dump of all the things I want to say to the students I saw struggle so hard). Larson is in the “how-to” school; this is what you do and this is what it should look like, down to how long paragraphs should be. Quit yer belly-achin’ and just get going. What’s so damn hard?
In the middle I’d place Susan Rabiner’s Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction and Get It Published. This claims to be a how-to, but there’s a good amount of inspiration here–for example, she maintains that if you’re passionate about your topic, your heart will beat through your prose. But there’s also some of that hard-headed get-on-with=it spirit: All the passion in the world won’t help if you don’t do these X or Y Most Important Things.
Reading Lerner, I find myself thinking about the many conferences I’ve attended over the years. Lerner tells ms, forget about writing the next X or Y; forget about “Marley and Me meets ET.” Write what you’re obsessive about, what haunts you. Write the book that’s your book. Thus far, the implication is that if anything is going to sell and hit, that’s the book that will.
The real question is, where’s that line between “what we’ve seen before” and “we don’t know what the heck it is”? Lerner will presumably tell me if I’ve just gone too far, according to one of the Amazon reviews. I will await the event.
If I were in the inspiration queue–I’m not exactly; I know I’ll always write–I would find some solace in sentences like these from Lerner:
“It takes a certain kind of person to understand and cope with rejection as an appraisal instead of a judgment.” (See this post for another take on criticism of our work.)
“[T]he degree of one’s perseverance is the best predictor of success.”
I value information about what’s not working more than ever, and God knows, I persevere.