The Art of Writing Fiction – or not?

Got an email from a certain Julia Hall, publicity manager on behalf of Pearson Publishers, asking if I’d consider recommending a new creative writing book to our students, called the Art of Writing Fiction by Andrew Cowan (the Director of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia). It is due out in May. She says she will send me an inspection copy for my consideration. If she does send me a copy, and if it is any good, I may possibly recommend it to our students – I’ll let you know. However, it is a big ‘IF’. There are so many unhelpful creative writing books out there, and this could simply be another one, making it all the harder to identify the really good books. One of the very best books I have ever read on the art of fiction writing is Anne Lamott’s book ‘Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life’. It’s clever, it’s well written, it’s funny and if you want to write it is downright helpful. Here is what she says to students who ask her about getting published:

There is a door we all want to walk through, and writing can help you find it and open it. Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up. But publishing won’t do any of those things; you’ll never get in that way.

My son, Sam, at three and a half, had these keys to a set of plastic handcuffs, and one morning he intentionally locked himself out of the house. I was sitting on the couch reading the newspaper when I heard him stick his plastic keys into the doorknob and try to open the door. Then I heard him say, “Oh shit.” My whole face widened, like the guy in Edvard Munch’s Scream. After a moment I got up and opened the front door.

“Honey,’ I said, “what’d you just say?”

“I said, ‘Oh shit,’” he said.

“But, honey, that’s a naughty word. Both of us have absolutely got to stop using it. Okay?”

He hung his head for a moment, nodded, and said, “Okay, Mom.” Then he leaned forward and said confidentially,”But I’ll tell you why I said ‘shit’.” I said Okay, and he said,”because of the fucking keys!”

Fantasy keys won’t get you in. Almost every single thing you hope publication will do for you is a fantasy … What’s real is that if you do your scales every day, if you slowly try harder and harder pieces, if you listen to great musicians play music you love, you’ll get better.

I am off to do my scales!

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