Text Book vs. Cook Book – Writing Guides

Books on writing can be utilized in different ways.


To be honest, I would rather read a well written novel than a book explaining how to write a well written novel. But all writers read books on writing sooner or later. How you view the material can make all the difference.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou just purchased a new book on the craft of writing. You can approach it with traditional trajectory, scribbling notes in the margins, highlighting, completing the exercises, uh… I mean, prompts. But before grinding through its pages like required reading in a text-book, consider viewing your new guide as if it were a cook book. Skim through it until something catches your eye. Something fresh, nourishing, creative.

And, like a cook book, you can either follow the author’s recipe in exact fashion, striving for a dish that appears just like the picture on the cover, or you can experiment. Add your own ingredients or toss the ones you don’t like. Change the cooking time and the temperature. If their prompt is a hairbrush, write about a plunger. If their target is a thousand words, cut to five hundred. If their muse is a sunlit glade, make yours a dumpster, pelted by acid rain.

Expand your library. Like switching from American cuisine to Italian, try writers’ commentary over step by step processes. A Moveable Feast is no “how to” book, but it is edifying, as well as entertaining. There are lessons to be learned in Hemingway’s exchanges with Scribner and Fitzgerald.

Reading good writing, fiction or otherwise, can be as helpful as any book on execution of the craft. Immersing yourself in Smiley or Steinbeck is like bathing in ink. No matter how vigorously you scrub afterwards, some of what you read is going to stain your next manuscript, whether it seeps in consciously or not. And yes, I must admit, I read that last piece of advice in a book on writing.

Now get cooking.


Is Point of View Sacred?

After reading Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent , I wonder.

I like finding old copies of old books in old book stores. Last summer, I happened upon the Steinbeck classic, The Winter of Our Discontent, in a little shop in Depot Bay. It was stamped with markings from the Multnomah County Library. I was hooked.

This spring , I finally got around to reading it.

Somewhere in the first few chapters, the story changes from third person omnipresent to first person. Is this a mistake or a risk in style only masters are allowed?

Curious as to the genesis of this oddity, I read several reviews online, some from when the book was first released a half-century ago. Although many reviewers made reference to Steinbeck’s shift in p.o.v., none seemed to have an explanation. It made me wonder, had he ever explained his choice? I found no evidence that he did.

I have never considered changing p.o.v in midstream. It would be like changing the setting or a character’s name without explanation. But, apparently, Steinbeck found it a useful lever with which to propel his story. Hopefully, someday, I will learn the reason why.