Friday, April 20, 2012

Book Review: The Novel Writer's Toolkit by Bob Mayer

Learning how to write is a little like learning how to box. In order to excel at it, you have to get beat on by someone with far superior skill day after day, year after year, until you can finally hold your own. And even then, every time you step into the ring, you know you're going to feel like crap when you climb back out again.

That having been said, most of us who look at the prospect of earning a living (or at least, earning some mad money) through selling our written wares know this is a necessary part of the process. To that end, we go out and find a few (or more than a few) books on writing and dig through them to glean what helpful tips and golden rules we can find. I know I've read a few over the years, some better than others, some more specific to genre writing while others are more generic, focusing on the technical aspects of word-smithing.

Bob Mayer is the sort of writer I'd like to become 20 years from now. He's written a bajillion books ("bajillion" being a more technical term for "around fifty"), he lectures and teaches writing, and although his works aren't explosively popular, he's maintained a steady following and does well for himself writing action and adventure fiction. In my mind, it doesn't get much better than that. So, when I saw he'd written a couple of books on the writing process, I looked at them and decided to pick up The Novel Writer's Toolkit. it was $5 on Amazon for the Kindle edition, and I figured there would be enough within its digital pages to make the buy worth my while.

Long story short, I think the book earned its five bucks, but only just. I will admit, there are some good tips to be found. For example, I really liked the idea of boiling your book down into a "core idea" that you could express in one sentence, and then you keep that core idea in the forefront of your mind whenever you're working on the book. Everything you write and everything you consider should be aligned with that core idea, because otherwise it is taking time and energy away from the story.

I also agree with Mayer's assertion that, as writers, the world is our body of research, and we shouldn't make apologies for digging wherever and whenever we find inspiration. A lot of writers, especially newbie writers such as myself, feel guilt when we're doing something that isn't writing; watching a movie or TV show, reading a book, playing a video game, or just chilling out and listening to music. But Mayer reminds us that stories and inspiration can come from anywhere, and any time we encounter a story being told, experiencing that story and learning from how it's being presented is "work" because if you take away something from the experience, it'll make you a better writer.  This struck a chord with me because last weekend, I spent a good chunk of time marathoning through the first two seasons of Justified on DVD. I knew I should have been editing my manuscript, but now I say to myself hey, I was experiencing some of what I consider the best crime drama storytelling on TV today, and I was paying attention to dialogue, to character, to pacing and plot and theme and arc.  I was doing work, and I shouldn't feel guilty about it.

Beyond these and other ideas, The Novel Writer's Toolkit doesn't really break any new ground for me, although it does a good job of reinforcing what I'd already seen. Mayer is a fan of using a very "cinematic eye" when writing, something that I do a lot, in part because of my background in film.  Some writers pen their stories as if they were creating a movie in novel form, while others write in a way that is almost antithetical to a "silver screen viewing" of the book. I don't necessarily think one is better than the other, but I know I come from a very cinematic point of view when I put pen to paper.

There are portions of the book where I don't agree with the author. I'm not going to argue them all here point by point, because let's face it; he's the veteran professional author and I am hardly even a rank amateur. However, there are a lot of "Never do this / Always do this" points in the book that I take issue with. For example, Mayer's assertion that there can only ever be one Protagonist. I would agree that most of the time, this makes sense. But it is not a hard and fast rule; take a look at George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series - who exactly is the "protagonist" in those books? Or perhaps the Phoenix Force series? There is a team leader, but I don't feel that he is in any way the "protagonist" of the series. I'm sure there are plenty of other examples to be had where a book or series has no clearly defined protagonist.

A similar issue I have is the idea that your protagonist should change significantly by the end of the book; that if you took your protagonist as they are in the beginning of the book and placed them in the climactic scene at the end, the protagonist would fail. I can see that working for some really dramatic books that cling to the Joseph Campbell school of "The Hero's Journey", but...this notion seems to ring hollow for me because it really only works if that one novel is a huge turning point in the character's life. For a number of series, this advice falls quite flat, and even for the first book in a series, it doesn't always work. How would I apply this to something like Casino Royale? James Bond isn't so changed by his experiences throughout the novel that he would fail at the end, and in fact (bit of a spoiler alert here), he really doesn't "succeed" at anything by the end of the story - he's lost more than he's gained. Not every Protagonist is a Frodo or a Harry Potter or a Luke Skywalker.

For the sake of brevity, I'll just cut to my biggest single complaint about this book: presentation-wise, it is a pile of crap. The font sizes jump all over the place for no real reason at all - there were times where the text was in three different font sizes on my Kindle screen. Mayer points out at the beginning of the book that he's gone back and edited the book many times over the years, and I'm sure that means there are different pieces of formatting code buried in the guts of the book. All that junk needs to be dug out and thrown away, because it was extremely distracting. Also annoying was the constant use of indented text, often poorly formatted, with irregular spacing and a lot of jumbled, hard to read text-based "diagrams" that are a terrible idea when ported from print to digital media. Any e-book formatting guide will tell you that the layout for this book is a definite no-no, and Mayer really should have known better.

In addition, there are extensive editorial errors throughout the text. A lot of errors. Words that are missing, or left in from a sentence edit that should have been cut once the sentence was re-written. Plurals that should be singles and vice versa. Lots of really simple things, but for a veteran author, the proofreading of this book was non-existent. I am in no way a "critical" reader, but I was repeatedly grinding my teeth upon finding an error that would get me lambasted if it ever appeared in something I wrote.  This is again clearly a result of him repeatedly editing the book over the years, adding new things to it and changing others, but he really needs to sit down, read the whole book from cover to cover, and give it a thorough polish, because it is very embarrassing to read a book on how to write that is a copy-editor's nightmare.

And finally, one last quibble. Mayer repeatedly references another book of his, "Write it Forward", throughout this book. I understand that an author may want you to know another book of his covers things you might want to read, but these references happen so often that it felt way too much like a hard sell. There's even a rather large excerpt from Write it Forward at the end of this book. If Mayer thinks the two are so inseparable, I feel he should have made it very clear that this book is "step one" and WiF is "step two", and leave it at that. Pointing out " I state in Write it Forward..." at least twenty times just seems really gauche to me.

I usually don't rate books on a "stars" basis here, but I'd give this book three out of five. There is good advice here, but I think you can find that advice in other books that present that advice in a much better format.

1 comment:

Bob said...

I don't believe there are hard and fast rules. My purpose for saying things like one protagonist and one antagonist are the baseline. If you're George RR Martin and can handle world-building you can do a lot with it. Rules are made to be broken. However, the first rule of rule breaking is to know the rule. Most writers I've worked with are breaking rules they don't even know exist.

I'll check into the formatting. Appreciate you letting me know that. I thought that had been fixed.