• Here’s the Story

    I wrote a book called The Forest for the Trees and it’s an advice book for writers. For four years, I blogged every day about the agony of writing and publishing, and the self loathing that afflicts most writers. A community of like-minded malcontents gathered and thus ensued a grand conversation. Now, the most popular posts are gathered in Greatest Hits ( a work in progress) Gluttons for punishment can scroll through the archives. If I've learned one thing about writers, it's this: we really are all alone. Love, Betsy
  • Archives

No I Would Not Give You False Hope

Guys, if you can only buy one book about writing, it’s gotta be THe Forest For THe Trees, duh. If you have cash for two, or a library nearby, please get yourself a copy of GOOD PROSE by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd. Todd is one of the best editors in the business (and my beloved client) and Kidder is one of the four gods of non-fiction carved into the granite face of  Mount Rushmore. Also for an online conversation with Todd and Kidder, click here.

Three prizes for the best piece of non-fiction writing advice you’ve ever received (except WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW) and win a copy of Good Prose. As always, I am the judge, unless I can convince Kidder and Todd to judge. That would be cool.

“Legendary literary journalist Kidder and his longtime editor trade war stories and advice for the ambitious nonfiction writer . . . an entertaining handbook on matters of reporting (do lots of it, much more than you think you need) and style (simpler is better) . . . Other writing guides have more nuts-and-bolts advice, but few combine the verve and plainspokenness of this book, which exemplifies its title.”Kirkus Reviews(starred review)

“A comprehensive, practical look at the best practices of professional nonfiction writers and editors . . . anecdotes and close readings throughout the text are an excellent resource for would-be writers of any prose genre.”Publishers Weekly

“[Kidder and Todd] share their dedication to“good prose” and expertise in creating it with warmth, zest, and wit in this well-structured, to-the-point, genuinely useful, and fun-to-read guide to writing narrative nonfiction, essays, and memoir … [they] also offer some of the most lucid, specific, and tested guidance available about technical essentials, from determining what makes a good nonfiction story to choosing a point of view to achieving accuracy and clarity … Kidder and Todd’s book about strong writing is crisp, informative, and mind-expanding.”—Booklist 

Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction takes us into the back room behind the shop, where strong, effective, even beautiful sentences are crafted. Tracy Kidder and his longtime editor, Richard Todd, offer lots of useful advice, and, still more, they offer insight into the painstaking collaboration, thoughtfulness, and hard work that create the masterful illusion of effortless clarity.”—Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Good Prose offers consummate guidance from one of our finest writers and his longtime editor. Explaining that ‘the techniques of fiction never belonged exclusively to fiction,’ Kidder and Todd make a persuasive case that ‘no techniques of storytelling are prohibited to the nonfiction writer, only the attempt to pass off invention as facts.’ Writers of all stripes, from fledgling journalists to essayists of the highest rank, stand to benefit from this engrossing manual.”—Jon Krakauer, author of Into the Wild

“What a pleasure to read a book about good prose written in such good prose! It will make many of its readers better writers (though none as good as Tracy Kidder, who sets an impossible standard), and it will make all of them wish they could hire Richard Todd to work his editorial magic on their words.”—Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

56 Responses

  1. Best advice I ever heard about nonfiction from….somewhere, can’t remember. It is basically this:

    You still have to tell a story and engage a reader’s heart. Give them characters to connect with and care about. Just because it’s nonfiction doesn’t mean emotions aren’t involved.

  2. What a coincidence. Yesterday I saw an ad for Tracy speaking at a local bookstore sometime soon. I don’t read much nonfiction but I fell in love with his writing when I came across Mountains Beyond Mountains (one of the 5 books I own that I ever wanted autographed). Not just the content but the way he told the story. He’s a storyteller. So I immediately looked up Good Prose. It’s still fresh, and that might color the degree of best-advice but I’ll rank it first as of today–the first line of text: “to write is to talk to strangers”. A bell went off. Talking to strangers can be both excruciating and exciting in that way of listen-to-me-I-have-something-to-say. But attention, like respect, has to be earned (or seduced, I’m not sure). I can’t wait to read more of it.

    (Your blog is a perfect example of how to write well for strangers, Miss-no-false-hopes)

  3. Betsy,

    I was just at a reading at our local bookstore. The author, Juliette Fay, mentioned you and when I mentioned you were my cousin, she got very excited and asked me to please let you know how much you have helped her!!

    Hope all is well.

    Love, Susan

  4. “If it’s one, say one. If it’s two, say two. If you don’t know, say you don’t know. A white horse is not a horse.” — Gordon Lish, December 6, 1990

  5. Write YOUR truth, not THE truth.

  6. I have no advice, but will happily read all that everyone offers here. And thank you for pimping out this book–it looks terrific. My groaning TBR pile, however, isn’t so appreciative.

  7. Always assume everyone you know will read whatever you publish. –Krista Bremer

    You need to be fair. If the writing’s not fair, it’s not good writing. –Stephen Elliott

    Readers can tell when writers are afraid to go all the way (to where it’s deepest, most painful, most complex). They feel cheated and lose trust for the writer. Press on to the place of discomfort. –Lee Martin

    Some stories you can choose not to tell. Ask if it’s telling your story or your family member’s story. –Cheryl Strayed

    (All quotes are from “The Ethics of Nonfiction” session at AWP last year.)

  8. BTW, Betsy, I am watching the Golden Globes and keep waiting for your name to be announced as the winner of the Best Yet Unsold Screenplay category.

  9. Three pieces of advice:

    1st piece of advice – MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT, excellent book by Gary Provost. The title is the best advice ever, the book, required reading for anyone who considers themselves a writer.

    2nd piece of advice – I am an essayist so I love Lary, (with one-r), Bloom’s… The most memorable essays are reflective of some compelling reason to write them, and some compelling reason to read them.

    3rd piece of advice – “Don’t take advice from anyone; write what you want to write, the way you want to write it. If you like to learn you’ll figure it out. Who said that? I did.

  10. “If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.”

    Mr. Steinbeck didn’t tell me this directly but it certainly felt like he did.

  11. What’s your question?

  12. “For God’s sake, don’t forget to cite your sources and spell all the names right. And they’d better be eye-witnesses or experts in their field, if you’re going to use what they say as gospel truth. Otherwise, it ain’t. And sometimes even if they are, it ain’t.”

    —a newspaper editor who lectured during a writing class I took several years ago. He was right about citing sources, since I can’t remember his name.

  13. Best writing advice: Glossing. Jessica Brouker, a tutor of mine at the Writing Center at The College of Saint Rose, taught me how to turn chaos into organized writing.

    Betsy, I am glad you visited your blog again. I wish you well with your screenplay.

  14. This advice from my first agent (for my nonfiction book) was in the form of a question: “How is it different from all the other books out there?”

  15. The best advice I ever received : ‘Start Anywhere’

  16. Hi Betsy. Happy 2013! I adore your posts. The Forest for the Trees is my bible. Just ordered Good Prose – great suggestion. Twyla Tharp’s book about creativity is another must-read.

  17. For memoir, from Kathryn Harrison:

    “In terms of memoir, my aim is vivisection. I want to lay myself open and see what’s there, and that’s an inherently painful process. It implies a willingness to see myself clearly, a self who may not be the me I’d prefer to discover.”

  18. Never wear brown shoes with blue slacks. Only allow your character to if you wish to show he/she has no sense of fashion.

  19. “You must give yourself permission to tell. Most important, give up the vain hope that people will like your work. People like vanilla ice cream.”

    Betsy Lerner, page 69, The Forest For The Trees

    P.S. I LOVE vanilla ice cream, but this still makes me laugh and makes me try to be a little more ornery with my writing.

  20. “When I write sentences I am at home. When I do not, I am damned, doomed, homeless; I know this well – restless, roaming; the actual places I have lived become unrecognizable, and I, too, monstrous, am unrecognizable to myself.

    In the gloating, enormous strangeness and solitude of the real world, where I am so often inconsolable, marooned, utterly dizzied – all I need to do is to pick up a pen and begin to write – safe in the alphabet, and I am taken home. Back into the blinding waves, the topaz light, the fire. Or far off into the enthralling, voluptuous dark.”
    Carole Maso
    “Break Every Rule” pg. 19
    Salvation in writing. A reminder that never fades.

  21. Bought and sent to Ye Olde Nook.

  22. Don’t give the same weight to every part of the story. Shape it into foreground and background.

  23. Boo! (b/c you keep popping up when I least expect it…)

    This is from Stephen Ambrose…who received this tidbit of advice from someone I assume was a professor to him.

    “Dr. William B. Hesseltine told me never to use the passive voice. It is almost impossible to write in English without using the passive voice, but it is a goal worth striving for always.”

  24. Advice for writing nonfiction:

    “Shut up and listen.”

  25. or from Thelonious Monk: Just because you’re not a drummer, doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time.

  26. This is sort of a two-part answer, but with the same theme.

    The answer to every writing question: Mat time. Okay, so that’s actually advice from my jiu jitsu coach, and it can apply to about anything, but it’s one that definitely applies to writing. It means just what it sounds like–the time you spend on the mat, hashing it out, being confused, getting your ass kicked and, all the while, getting a bit better, even if you don’t notice right away. Jiu jitsu folks, like writers, are always asking the ones who have “made it” the same question: What’s the one thing I need to do? What’s the one thing I need to work on (that will make me good, like you)? The answer: Mat time. Do it more. Figure it out. There is no one answer, there is only the time you need to put in. So get back on the mat, er, desk.

    This was reinforced once by a journalism professor I had in a magazine writing class as an undergrad. He had worked for Time and his classes were some of those that every student knows about and wants to get into. He emailed me once to tell me that I had won the class’s highest honor, which he would present during the next class. I was, to point out the obvious, shitting myself with excitement. I showed up in class waiting for him to bring it up. When he finally did, he said that I had won the award for being the class’s biggest failure. I kept trying things that didn’t work. And kept trying. At the time, I didn’t see it as an honor. I was, for a moment, actually. But in time I came to understand. I was putting in the mat time.

  27. “The only way to begin is to begin, and begin right now.”
    -Stephen Koch

  28. Write like you talk. Unless you’re a (insert unflattering noun here).

  29. Know what you write.

  30. Don’t describe the grief: show me the coffin.

  31. You (writer) are not preeminently important. The story is more important, and comes first. Get that through your head, then consider putting pen to paper.

  32. A comment on this, not a submission:

    At this point, the world is cluttered and clogged with advice for writers, as it is with advice for losing weight, for getting more done, and a sand pile of other subjects. We need less advice for writers, not more. Possibly this rehash of what’s already been said, once it’s been sifted and sorted by Betsy, et al., will leave us a little piece of gold. But I’m not betting my paycheck on it. For me, all that’s needed is this (I have to tell myself this from time to time): keep writing, and keep your eyes and ears open.

  33. From Stephen Adly Guirgis:

    Sit down and stay down. (presumably to write)

    • I love that, rea!

      • I do too! I started to enter, write like you mean it…but, thought it might make me drive myself to Hardee’s for a Big Angus burger.

    • He makes a point. I liked this part of the piece:

      “To follow literary fashion, to write for money, to censor your true feelings and thoughts or adopt ideas because they’re popular requires a writer to suppress the very promptings that got him or her writing in the first place.”

      Unfortunately most ‘how to write’ books require the writer to stoop to fad and suppress their inner daemon. My impression, from the variety of books that are around right now, is that editors are trying to dictate what is considered to be marketable and trendy and I totally disagree with that approach. [No offence Betsy].

  34. “If you go, it’ll happen.” — From my undergraduate writing teacher, Paul Hendrickson.

  35. Best advice I ever got was from the Managing Editor of my publisher: “Finish the manuscript so we can cut you a check.” In my experience, nothing fuels the creative muse like a deadline and a looming payday.

    Another piece of wisdom: “Sarcasm rarely translates well in print.”

  36. Tell the whole truth, with love – a bit of advice from Tristine Rainer’s book on writing memoir.

  37. Another, from my undergrad days: Use your voice.

  38. “Tell, don’t show.”

    As an antidote to the reverse, the most horrible directive, beaten mercilessly into writing students. It took me years to recover from it.

    The truth is more like “Tell AND show–each is indispensable, and magical in its own way.”

    Showing exclusively, or predominantly, INSTEAD of telling, extracts one element: the voice. The most crucial element of all.

    When people complain about “MFA writing,” what they mean, typically, is bland, denuded prose with no voice. All showing, no telling.

    Picture your favorite storyteller. Now notice the second half of his title. Picture him telling a yarn. If he’s done it on the page, picture yourself flipping them madly. A great story–it’s all in the telling.

    Tell tell tell. The word doesn’t keep landing their by accident.

    So of course, fill your stories with vivid details–pick out the illuminating sights, sounds and tastes, so you put us right there in the room, smell the sulfur as the fuse burns down. Get us there with the showing. And then tell us one hell of a lively tale.

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