Thursday, March 16, 2006

Review: Stein on Writing

Stein on Writing, St. Martin's Griffith, 2000.

I have my suspicions about Sol Stein. I think that somewhere down deep inside literary Mr. Stein there lurks a sleazy adventure writer trying to get out. At least, that was the impression that I had from the samples of his work.

And oh, how scathing he is of genre writers, those he denigrates as writers of "transient" fiction. That is, writers you've actually heard of and have read, some of whom have books in print decades after they were written.

Yet if one can let the "my way is the only way" attitude slide by, Stein's book contains much of great value for novelists and nonfiction writers alike. Stein discusses resonance, a concept that I've not found in many other books on writing, yet a concept that has great power to create memorable fiction. He warns against using cliches, and shows examples of cliches from modern genre fiction -- and yet in a sample from his own fiction, Stein describes a character as walking across a room "naked and unashamed." Even Stein can slip on his own rules.

The chapters on editing are perhaps the most valuable in the book. Stein has the writer search a manuscript for the weakest chapter, and either pump it up or cut it entirely. It's all too tempting for writers, once past the exciting opening scene, to think, "Okay, now that the reader is hooked, I can get away with putting in the boring bits." Yet losing the reader on page 36 can be worse than losing the reader on page 1. The latter will leave the book behind in the bookstore and stroll on to other selections. The former will fling down the book and go tell friends -- or an entire blogging community -- about how boring it was.

One thing lacking is a discussion of writing for one's audience. Stein quotes a passage from Thomas Huxley and chastizes the writer for using convoluted language and altogether too many words. But had Huxley, a Victorian scholar, written as Stein does today, he would have lost his audience. His Victorian readers expected no less of a scholar. Stein also complains that academic journals are written in dull, passive voice. True enough, but if today's scholars wrote their research papers with the voice of a literary fiction writer, their manuscripts would never get past the review process. Voice is important to the writer, but voice must also be appropriate to the audience.

Stein may be better known for his books on writing than for his novels themselves, but the advice he offers is solid. Ignore the attitude, stay true to your voice and your own writing goals, but do try his advice on plotting and editing. It will make you look at your writing in a whole new way.

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