Times Book Editor and CMC Alumnus Rates Books on Writing

By Nick Owchar ’90

Nick Owchar is Deputy Book Editor of the Los Angeles Times and serves on the CMC magazine Editorial Board.

There are many dreams of getting wealthy. As an editor for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, I’ve found that the one common dream of many people isn’t to find an oilfield in their backyards or pick a small company stock right before it morphs into the next Googleit’s to pen a novel that makes a vast amount of money.

Every year, the embers of that dream are stoked by yet another Cinderella story. Ten years back, it was first-time novelist Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountaina manuscript kept in a shoebox for some six or seven years, its fate uncertain. Eventually the book found a publisher, an audience, a movie contract and a multi-million dollar deal for another book (Thirteen Moons) which appeared in October).

Frazier’s success is deserved: His first novel, fermenting and changing over long years, and written when there was no money on the table, is a meal that’s fully cooked. There’s wisdom and fullness in his tale of a Civil War deserter, which couldn’t have been whipped up in a two-year sprint.
And then there is this year’s fairy-tale-come-true story, Jed Rubenfeld’s The Interpretation of Murder. A law school professor, Rubenfeld toyed with the idea of what happened when Sigmund Freud visited Manhattan in 1909 to receive an honorary award. Information on the trip is apparently scarce, so Rubenfeld decided to fill in the gap with his imaginingsa young society woman’s murderwith enough kinkiness to warrant involving the good doctor. Rubenfeld was heartily rewarded with a bidding war between publishers, resulting in the purchase of his book by Henry Holt for a figure estimated somewhere around $800,000.

Although the book has failed to meet the runaway success of The Da Vinci Code (it has sold a mere 15,000 copies in the U.S. despite the publisher’s push), it briefly put Rubenfeld, an amateur novelist, at the pinnacle of the publishing industryand his success is sure to whet the appetites of still more people. In university writing classes, students arrive with many of these stories freshly in mind.

How do I get a bestseller? they want to know.

My job in such classesI am a critic, after all, and not a novelistis simply to share with them some common editing tips to improve their sentences, and to suggest ways of making meanings clear and, hopefully, free of cliche. But above all, they can take or leave what I offer. Anyone who doesn’t do that, who insists on being some kind of writing guru, should be avoided like the plague.

Why? Because every writer’s approach to the craft is different, even if the goal is the same. Writers whom I’ve read or been lucky enough to talk shop with are elusive on the details of their methods, but effusive on some general points. Most of all, they say, write about the ideas that you love, regardless of where they take you. Ignore the organizational desire to stop and make an outline, to map it all out. As one Midwesterner put it to me, wait until you’ve got some momentum or “traction” (perhaps visualizing sand on icy roads) before you start obsessing about the logical direction of the story.

The reason they say this, as I’ve come to understand it, is that if you don’t start with what you love, your readers will know it. Take, for example, a recent review of Walter Mosley’s Fear of the Dark. This is Mosley’s latest noir thriller set in Los Angeles, and the review offered up the usual, dutiful lines of praise about the author’s ability to construct a fast-moving plot.

But then, the reviewer did something unexpected. He pointed out that one of the novel’s more satisfying moments doesn’t involve the thrilling plot. Forget the fights, blackmail, and hunt for a missing briefcase full of money. No, it’s the scene, in an L.A. eatery, of a character enjoying eggplant parmigiana and a James Joyce novel. The reviewer detected a warmth there, a calmness, a place for the mind to rest before plunging into the action. Even if it’s not the author’s actual experience, these moments feel very personal, as if the writer’s heart is peeking out of the narrative for a sudden, brief second.
And yet, most writing books won’t tell you how to craft such serene scenes: plot formulas are held ever close to their paperback chests.

Despite the enormous market for these somewhat guarded how-tos, there are a worthy few, both past and present, that distinguish themselves from the dime-a-dozen designtitles to either tickle the aspiring writer in your life this holiday, or to enjoy on your own:

How I Write, by Janet Evanovich with Ina Yalof (St. Martin’s Griffin)It’s amusing to see that the prolific thriller-writer Evanovich, who has a huge fan base devoted to her series about spunky bounty hunter Stefanie Plum, suddenly needs a co-author for this book on writing. Open its pages, though, and you’ll see why: Chapter upon chapter is constructed as a simple Q and A. No doubt, Evanovich would never have done this book herself. She has too many good novels still to be written and probably doesn’t want to waste time analyzing a process that seems to work pretty well without being scrutinized.
After cracking up over several of her answers, you’re grateful for this formatthat Evanovich didn’t pen a traditional rumination on the craft. Instead, her replies are like a string of jokes and wisecracks that are as sensible as they are funny. To people who jump from one idea to another when they get stuck, she says, “Stick to the freaking first idea and make it work.” Asked what inspires her, she says, “Tom Jones singing Sex Bomb.” Or, this sober encouragement: “I can’t tell you how many writers I know who started off working at their kitchen table when the kids were in school or asleep. I was one of them. You don’t need a fancy office to put words on paper.”
Evanovich’s thrillers might be full of energetic prose that is easy to read, but nothing comes effortlessly. The fact is, she says, you must be a workhorse to be successful. She’s up at 5 a.m. to work an eight-hour day, developing her chops while still needing the occasional, creative nudge, and overdosing on Cheez Doodles.
Asked how she unwinds, the answer seems obvious: “I don’t unwind! I just keep going. If I ever unwound, I might not get wound again.”

A Writer’s Coach: An Editor’s Guide to Words That Work, by Jack Hart (Pantheon) and Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, by Roy Peter Clark (Little, Brown) seem to belong together on the same shelf. Both books are better packaged than most in their class because their target audiences are broader. They offer insight into writing for the would-be novelist or reporter, as well as for someone simply wanting to communicate more effectively. Embrace brevity and simplicity, both books tell us, and avoid turning your sentences into “thick, forbidding brambles.” Start strong, with a captivating anecdote or a strong statement of the issue to be discussed. Avoid slack expressions and empty words. Instead of writing, “Suddenly, the room began to shake,” for example, write “Suddenly the room shook” to make your thoughts more immediate and urgent. You’ll also find vital tips to make your office memos better, your stories crisper andif nothing elsehow to make that college recommendation letter stand out from the rest.

Turning Life Into Fiction, by Robin Hemley (Graywolf) Fiction is about storytelling, about making things up, so this title’s premise is open to debate: Fiction doesn’t have to come out of real life. Plus, the title suggests that writing involves some sleight of handthat it’s the literary equivalent to alchemy just wave a wand and poof! You’re writing! That said, Hemley’s practical advice is worth considering. One of the strongest of his points has to do with research, which can quickly change into a form of cunning procrastination. Research is important in handling some material, but even though you’re gathering good information for a novel, Hemley sternly reminds the reader, “You still haven’t started your novel. If you’re not careful, you never will, and your research will become a kind of crutch.” This warning, like much else found in the book, is frank, bracing and, above all, necessary in order to separate the dreamers from true aspirants.

Writing Brave and Free: Encouraging Words for People Who Want to Start Writing, by Ted Kooser and Steve Cox (Bison Books)Written by a veteran editor, Cox, and the U.S. Poet laureate, Kooser, this book offers plenty of direction on practices to help break blocks and get the prose flowing. However, even though there is much useful material here on the practical side of organizing and revising one’s prose, the book also concerns itself with the actual physical dimension of writing. One must have a “clean, well-lighted writing place” full of comforts but also free of distractions. Complimenting this Zen-like attitude is the early chapter “No shoulds, No should-nots.” Too often, people approach the writing life with images of what it should be like, and this almost always guarantees that their expectations will be frustrated. Go back, if you’d like, and study the style of the writers you admireyou’ll learn a great deal from them, the authors say. Or else, they say, make up your own rules. “Writing is a capacious activity that allows for a lot of individuality.”

The Correspondence of Shelby Foote & Walker Percy, edited by Jay Tolson (W.W. Norton)Imagine two titans of American literature (Foote for his massive Civil War trilogy; Percy for his philosophical novels like The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman) sharing all the nuts and bolts of their literary apprenticeships. The first half of this book contains Foote’s letters (Percy’s apparently couldn’t be found from that period, but the book’s second half presents an exhilarating exchange of ideas) and the tone is confident, smug, irritated, and splendidly practical. “If you let anyone fiddle with your way of seeing” he says, showing contempt for overzealous editors, “you’ll nick this instrument beyond repair; you’ll wind up with nothing but regrets.” You only learn by experience, he exhorts Percy, and failure is a crucial teacher. So, rather than having an editor help you steer clear of where you need to go, just go there.

From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, by Robert Olen Butler (Grove Press)If you’ve ever read him, you’ll know that Robert Olen Butler’s ease in employing first-person narration plants his stories so completely, so deeply, into one’s mind that it’s easy to lose yourself while you read. That same ease is evident everywhere in From Where You Dream, a valuable book for all budding writers that first appeared in April 2005. Butler treats the craft of writing as a discipline and a mindset. Unlike other writing instructors, he doesn’t promise that literary excellence is just a tedious writing exercise away. Instead, he urges readers to “dreamstorm” about characters and their desiresto not begin writing until its understood what a character wants. “What is it,” he asks, “at her deepest level that she yearns for?”
It might sound like a bit of New-Agey advice, but Butler suggests that characters shouldn’t have their motivations assigned to themwait for them to tell you what they want. And while you wait, think about the story and the situation, and keep “your eyes and ears open for that whiff of true, dynamic yearning” that is going to bring a character to life. He looks admiringly at the writers of entertainment fiction because they pack their characters with all kinds of desires”heat” or “yearning,” he also calls themthat speak to people. “Maybe,” he says, musing about serious fiction, “that’s why they’re selling books and we’re not.”

In closing, there’s one more thing to say.

A friend at work recently eyed a historical romance and quipped, “Why don’t I write a bodice-ripper? I should just scribble something off.”

Maybe she was just tired of the daily grind, or a little weary and wanting relief. But approaching such a project with the attitude that it’s going to be “a scribble” instead of a full-fledged effort almost assures a failureand on the bright side, perhaps this is what spares us from having too many awful books published!

But more important than that, however, is the reader. Anyone venturing into writing for the sake of a financial payoff should realize something: Readers are pretty smart. If you know that you’re not giving it your all, so will they.

Nick Owchar is Deputy Book Editor of the Los Angeles Times and serves on the CMC magazine Editorial Board.