Monday, February 25, 2013

Books for Writers # 5: Starve Better, review by Steven Young

Today's post is a book recommendation for all us writers, by fellow CCer Steven Young. He grew up in a village you've never heard of, but currently calls South London home. A marine biologist of sorts, he works at sea out of exotic locations like Singapore, Antarctica and North Yorkshire. With a single fluke short story sale, he is not yet a writer (or that's what he'd want us to believe...), but day by day, he learns.

You can find Steven on Critique Circle, along with the rest of us. Take it away, Steven!

When I discovered Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life by Nick Mamatas, my head was spinning. I’d devoured all the how-to books and blogs I could find. And suddenly- oh my!- there were all these rules I had to follow! “Never use adverbs,” I was confidently informed. “Said-bookisms are a bad idea,” another source snarled. “Your writing will be ruined by passive voice,” said yet another. I felt paralysed, as though my mind was being poisoned by advice-overload. When I saw the opening chapter, “All Advice is Terrible Advice, Plus Other Useful Advice,” I knew I’d found my antidote.

After listing a bunch of, often contradictory, rules (“don’t be a pretentious Little Miss Fancy Britches. Make your prose purple and poetic,”) the author proceeds to debunk the very notion; pointing out that there “are no rules. Only the results matter.” The Harry Potter books, for example, are infamously littered with adverbs, and at least a few people seem to like them.

Before going further into his critique of traditional writing wisdom, the author detours briefly to highlight one recurring focus of the book worth emphasising here. He is primarily a short fiction writer, and much of what is said stems from that. This section is interesting in itself, going into the reasons why someone would write short fiction; for all that it is so uncommercial. And the reasons why someone should not write short fiction made me reassess some of my own assumptions. Turns out, it is neither easier than writing a novel, nor good practice for doing so.

The author goes on to discuss various structural elements of storytelling. One chapter discusses the importance of choosing a focus for the story, for a writer to capitalise on their strengths and downplay their weaknesses. Not every author can be a master of the intricate plot. Not every writer can break the reader’s heart with their characters’ plight. Work out what you are good at. Do it.

Something currently close to my heart is that dread beast- The Hook (Quick! Read the first sentence of this post again. Did it draw you in? If you’ve gotten this far, hopefully so. But believe me, I fretted about it.) The author has issues with the phrase ‘start with a hook.’ He considers the hook the “motor of the story.” It can be many things, from an unexpected plot twist to the quality of the writing itself, and can be found at any point in the story. Too often, ‘start with a hook’ leads a writer to include whizz-bang excitement in the first paragraph, followed by pages of irrelevance. No. The important thing is to begin the story at the place when the story actually starts. The purpose of the beginning is to show the reader that the writer knows what they are doing.


Via analysis of the role of the sentence in writing (including several pages rhapsodising about two sentences from a story by Raymond Chandler) and advice on writing dialogue (listen) he gets to an interesting discussion about how to end stories. Specifically, he suggests writers avoid neat, everything-is-resolved endings, to “leave room for that post-reading daydream”.

The part of the book dealing with the writing process itself ends with perhaps the most important question. “Why Bother?” Why deal with rejection after rejection, instead of self-publishing immediately. Reputation, essentially. Whilst I’m not sure I agree with his claim that being “not terrible” is sufficient for publication (as I think back to my own rejections, I certainly don’t want to agree), I can’t help but see publication as a kind of ‘proving ground’ for new authors.

The second half of the book shifts emphasis towards the nitty-gritty of getting cash for words. The focus is very much on non-fiction. The chapter on publishing non-fiction includes some eye-openers. I had no idea how much better paid non-fiction can be compared to fiction! He takes the reader through the process of finding and soliciting markets, and highlights the differences from fiction- work your way up, not down, and don’t bother trying to find market listings and submission guidelines.

The author also mentions writing for non-publication. Remember, this is all about fast money, not getting a six-figure advance and the Pushcart Prize. As he describes gigs from writing business letters to church newsletters, he gives the impression of being bloodhound of writing, forever sniffing around for the next easy dollar.

Considerable space is devoted to content mills and his time ghost writing term papers for students. Content mills seem to be the sweatshops of the writing world, with writers churning out online fluff for a pittance. There are perhaps ethical concerns regarding the ghost writing but I’m reviewing the author’s book, not his moral code, so whatever your stance, he highlights yet another way of getting paid to write.

This book may not be for everyone. It looks at the world of professional writing with a cynical eye. It may poke holes in fondly held preconceptions about writing, but does so with a distinctive acerbic wit. Despite being the very definition of the “barely published neophyte writer” whom the author disparages, and despite all advice being terrible, here’s some advice. If you are open to a perspective that differs from the norm, if you want to know more about life in the writing trenches, if you want to be entertained, read this book.


Thank you for your review, Steven. It's been great having you here!

4 comments:

  1. "The purpose of the beginning is to show the reader that the writer knows what they are doing." This is one million times a better guideline than "Start with a hook". Good job Steven!

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  2. I know exactly how you felt. I'm glad I didn't listen to ALL the advice. thanks for the great review.

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  3. Woah! I’m really enjoying the template/theme of this site. It’s simple, yet effective. A lot of times it’s challenging to get that perfect balance between usability and visual appearance.

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  4. Nice write-up! Being able to write creatively is something not all of us are capable of. Count yourself blessed because you have a talent. Getting into the mood in writing does not have a set of rules to follow. ‘To each his own’ is what people say; however, a list of suggestions wouldn’t hurt.write your story

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