word craft


Story Behind the Story #55:
A Beginning, a Muddle, and an End

Advice to WritersSit­ting on my book­shelves is Advice to Writ­ers: A com­pendi­um of quotes, anec­dotes, and writer­ly wis­dom from…literary lights. (Com­piled by Jon Winokur) I don’t look at it often, though it is fun to read. It is full of use­ful reminders, such as E.B. White’s: “The best writ­ing is rewrit­ing.” Or even, Flaubert’s “Prose is like hair; it shines with comb­ing.” Fitzger­ald: “Cut out all those excla­ma­tion marks. An excla­ma­tion mark is like laugh­ing at your own joke.”

In truth, any num­ber of writ­ers have writ­ten books about writ­ing. My own favorite is E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Nov­el. The first chap­ter is par­tic­u­lar­ly brilliant.

Like oth­er writ­ers, I have writ­ten a book about writ­ing, A Begin­ning, a Mud­dle and an End.

A Beginning, a Muddle, and an EndUsing the char­ac­ters Edward and Avon from The End of the Begin­ning, it is (hope­ful­ly) a fun­ny, maybe sil­ly, book about writ­ing. For example:

Avon sighed. “The truth is, Edward,” he said, “I’ve read a lot of adven­tures. And I’ve been on my own adven­tures. But I’m mak­ing no progress writ­ing about my adventures.”

“I’m so sor­ry to hear that,” said Edward. “Do you know any­thing about why?”

“I’m pret­ty sure it’s at the end of the alpha­bet,” said Avon. “Next to z.”

Aspects of the NovelThe idea was to write some­thing about writ­ing that would make young peo­ple, and adults laugh. We do take the sub­ject very seri­ous­ly. Per­haps too seri­ous­ly. Nev­er more so than in schools.

One of my favorite sec­tions in my book is about punc­tu­a­tion. Here a para­graph is pre­sent­ed, which says one thing. Then, using the same words in the same order, with only the punc­tu­a­tion dif­fer­ent, it says some­thing very much the oppo­site. I assure you it took hours to fig­ure that one out.

My own view, for what is it worth, is that you have to be a good read­er before you become a good writer, not the least rea­son is because you have to read your own writ­ing and eval­u­ate it. That, I think, is the hard­est part of writing.

That said, anoth­er favorite remark, this one by Ray­mond Chan­dler: “Tech­nique is nev­er enough. You have to have pas­sion. Tech­nique alone is just an embroi­dered potholder.”

And, from Peter Mayle: “Best advice on writ­ing I’ve ever received: Finish.”

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