Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Practical Writer- All You Need

I don't buy books about the writer's craft any more. Not since I picked up The Practical Writer.

Edited by Therese Eibe and Mary Gannon in conjunction with the staff of Poets and Writers Magazine, this volume covers everything from conceiving original ideas to successfully placing the finished manuscript with a publisher. It's not a 'how-to' manual with carefully planned 'Point A to Point B' steps, but rather a series of essays that help both emerging and veteran writers make intelligent and informed choices at every stage of their project. Among the topics covered are choosing the perfect title, submission strategy and protocol, getting low-cost publicity for a small press title, digital marketing, and cultivating your local booksellers.

Some essays provided more insight than instruction, and these were the ones that I found myself mulling over long after I finished reading the book. Helen Benedict's "Fiction vs. Nonfiction: Wherein Lies the Truth?" was one of them. Like many nonfiction writers, I shied away from fiction and literature in favor of immersing myself in works of history, current events, true crime, etc. I saw no value in imaginary worlds and people unless I was looking for an escape, and even then, I preferred a good history volume as a type of retreat. Benedict argues that even nonfiction has its limits in exposing and depicting the truth: interview subjects color their stories, authors are wary of injuring innocent parties, and everyone fears a lawsuit if they're completely honest in print about a contentious issue. With fiction, writers are free to expose unpalatable truths via imaginary characters, as Vladimir Nabokov did with his obsessed child-lover Humbert Humbert in Lolita. History abounds with examples of literature leading to social change: Uncle Tom's Cabin shone a harsh glare on the morality of slavery, Charles Dickens helped the cause of the poor, and Theodore Dreiser humanized the prostitute, the unwed mother, and other figures of universal derision during his day.

Another essay that stayed with me was Robert McDowell's "Publicity for Your Small Press Title". Like me, McDowell believes that the author is a crucial part of a book's success. After his poetry volume On Foot, In Flames was released, he spent nine days driving through eastern Oregon and Washington to promote his book. He read before twenty-two classes of high and middle school pupils, gave readings at local libraries, and even presented his work at a senior's home in Fossil, Oregon. Only three people showed up at a reading scheduled at a small-town hotel, but guests entering the lobby would stop and listen. McDowell only sold one book that night, but as he put it, "Even though the author in me could have easily retreated to a humiliating place, the marketer and proselytizer in me was proud of that sale. My poetry had just taken one more small step out into the world."

The Practical Writer belongs with each year's Writer's Market on any serious author's bookshelf. The latter points to doors, the former helps push them open and make the most of the opportunities presented.

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