I’ve had The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself (2007) by Susan Bell on my to-read list ever since I decided to try NaNoWriMo about seven months ago. I can’t remember how I originally found The Artful Edit, but I quickly decided to postpone reading it until after I had actually written something to edit. And that’s how I came to be reading it in December.
Susan Bell taught a New York’s New School graduate writing class in self-editing, and I think the idea for the book came from that class. Bell separates the book into five separate chapters: one about stepping away from your work to gain perspective; one focused on macro-editing; the next on micro-editing; a “master class” delving into editing for different artists (i.e. photography); and finally a brief history on editing and how it’s changed throughout the years. Although this book was more school learnin’ than entertainment, I found it generally interesting and helpful. The chapters end with a quick summation of the suggestions discussed in the chapter, and I think I’ll keep those for further reference. The last chapter dragged, and was more challenging to push through, although Bell still managed to relate it back to our own works.
Unlike No Plot? No Problem!, which got me started on the whole NaNoWriMo adventure, The Artful Edit is a little more intimidating. Instead of encouraging laypeople that anyone can do it, Bell dissects great literary texts and quotes and discusses countless famous authors (only some of whom I actually knew). I definitely got the sense that this book was for “real” writers. Part of me felt desperately out of my league. However, Bell also had a number of famous authors describe their own editing processes, which turned out to be quite varied. Not only was this fascinating, but it was freeing to see that what works depends on who you are and how you work.
One of the main teaching elements of The Artful Edit was the use of The Great Gatsby. Bell liberally used quotes from earlier versions with comparisons to the final draft, as well as some enlightening correspondence between Fitzgerald and his editor to illustrate various aspects of writing and editing. The examples were helpful as illustrations, but it was also fascinating to see the building of something so famous. I’m certainly not looking to write a great classic: an understandable story that I let some of my friends read would count as a major accomplishment, but it was inspiring to see how much difference editing can make in a text. I haven’t even looked at my first draft since the end of November, but reading this book has me excited to get back into it.
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Deep down, I’ve always thought of myself as a writer. Writing helps me think and clarifies my ideas. The forced focus of putting the right words on the page allows me to think more deeply and intensely about almost any subject. In fact, I’ve had dreams of finally settling down to write and becoming an overnight success. Unfortunately, the main hindrance to my becoming a bestselling author is a severe lack of talent. I cannot even imagine being able to formulate anything as complex and detailed as some of the worst novels I read last year, let alone craft some of the stunningly original and beautiful novels that are my favorites. It’s too intimidating to even get started. I’d heard of people doing National Novel Writing Month [NaNoWriMo] before, but that sounded even worse. If I don’t think I can manage to write anything passable in a year, how could I possibly manage it in one month?
But then Gretchen Rubin talked about writing a full novel in one month in The Happiness Project, and I suddenly had a different view. Rubin wrote her book for fun, just to see if she could do it. She wasn’t expecting anything out of it and didn’t even look at the finished product once she finished. This sounded like something I could do. I started thinking of ideas and picked up No Plot? No Problem: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days (2004) by Chris Baty–one of the founders of NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo began in 1999 with 21 participants and six “winners.” It has since grown to over 250,000 participants with over 35,000 completing their novels.
This book was exactly what I needed to push me forward. Click here to read more.
That’s right. For my 26th book (halfway there!) I decided to finally read through this classic guide to writing. The copy I picked up is a special illustrated edition, which made me feel as though I were reading something more elaborate than a small grammar and style textbook.
This book has been around for years, with multiple versions and editions dating back to the 1920s. It is a slim book containing six chapters that have been finely edited to provide the reader with just enough guidance to improve his or her writing without weighing him or her down with hundreds of individual rules. It covers grammar, composition, form, expressions, style rules and spelling.
You may be asking yourself why someone might choose to read this book cover to cover, as opposed to perhaps purchasing it to keep as a reference. I will certainly keep it as a reference, but I found that by reading through it I received a much-needed refresher on grammar rules (although Mr. Strunk and I disagree on what is commonly known as the ‘Oxford Comma’ – he uses it and I don’t). I also appreciated the composition and style suggestions. As I have been writing more this year – both for the Cannonball Read and for my own blog – I appreciate suggestions to help improve my writing. Mr. Strunk and Mr. White appreciate brevity and the willingness to take a stance on a topic when writing and I can benefit from incorporating both suggestions more often.
The most relevant lesson for me was woven throughout the book and mentioned in different areas: the lesson of clarity. Why try to sound fancy when fewer words would be clearer to the reader? Keeping both by message and the reader in mind should help me to improve my writing over time.
I recommend that you purchase a copy to use if you write often as well as if you write rarely; in both instances it is likely that you could benefit from style refresher.
Townie is a memoir written by the author of House of Sand and Fog, among other fine novels. It portrays the journey of one young man’s descent into a personal hell, and his inspiring climb back out again. Written in novelesque fashion, it reminded me of nothing so much as a non-fiction version of some of Dennis Lehane’s poignant novels set in a south end of Boston dominated by alcohol, drugs, crime and violence. Dubus spent his impoverished childhood in the seventies moving with his divorced mom and three siblings from one dying New England mill town to the next, staying one step ahead of eviction, often going hungry and being bullied and beaten up everywhere he went. Endless television and hiding out became his and his siblings’ lives for years, their mother’s occasional magical optimism and their professor/writer father’s weekly fly-through visits their only relief from the grimness.
The constant humiliation of being a perpetual victim eroded Dubus’ soul, and at one point, as he puts it, he “broke through the membrane” of social conscience that prevents most people from using violence against another. In his teens, he began a punishing, obsessive routine to build up his body and learn to fight, and then he began to wreak revenge, looking for any and all slights—real or imagined, against himself or against another–to beat perceived bullies to a pulp, and coming near to killing several of them. One sister became a drug dealer, while his brother and youngest sister did their best to hide from their lives in their rooms. His life becomes a schizophrenic one of insightful observations on one level but a totally inability to rein in or overcome his insane fury on the other.
Dubus’ discovery of writing as a way to channel himself into something both healing and creative is a slow process, as is his shedding of the animal rage that continues to drive him. It also eventually enables him to build a relationship with his quirky father around forgiveness and a shared love of the written word. Dubus’ life is painfully depicted, beautifully rendered, and a universal warning to the rest of us that our inherent humanity is not something necessarily handed to us, but needs to be strived for and won, sometimes over and over again.