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Issue #127 - March 2006

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The Science of Fiction

By Cheryl Morgan

In many ways I am the wrong sort of person to be reviewing Samuel R. Delanyís new book, About Writing. You see, the book is intended as a guide for professional writers of fiction, and I am not one. I have, on occasion, tried to write fiction, but the results have been so laughably poor that I havenít spent much time trying to get any better. However, as I noted in my review of Parietal Games, you canít hope to review fiction properly unless you know a bit about how it is made. With that sage advice from M. John Harrison in mind, Iím trying to educate myself about the process of writing, hence I read Delanyís book.

The first thing that strikes you about About Writing is how deeply Delany has thought about the issues he is discussing. Most of the "how to write" books that I have seen have been the sort of quick fix lifestyle books that are so popular these days, and which promise success without work. "How to lose weight and gain love in 10 easy lessons", "How to write a best-selling novel in 10 easy lessons." They are all very similar, and similarly dishonest. Delany, however, pulls no punches. Right from the start he makes the case that becoming a successful writer is Hard.

The increased size of the new, democratic field that today produces both readers and writers, the increase in competition for fame and attention ó not to mention the increased effort necessary to make a reasonable living from oneís work ó all transform a situation that was always risky into one that today often looks lunatic.

Of course the one point you can make about the self-help books is that they focus solely on what you need to do to sell books (preferably in large quantities). They donít care much, and indeed may advise you not to care, about literary quality. Delany, however, cares passionately. You can make a lot of money turning out formulaic tripe. That isnít Delanyís way, and if it is what you want to do then you should not buy his book. If, on the other hand, you want to learn how to write well, then he has a lot of good things to say, starting with (you guessed it) that it is Hard.

To learn anything worth knowing requires that you learn as well how pathetic you were when you were ignorant of it.

Or, to put it another way, if I had read a lot more John Clute and Gary Wolfe 10 years earlier than I started I would be a much better book reviewer now. You never stop learning, and you should never want to. Indeed, Delany too has wise things to say about the whole process of reading and criticism.

It is only relatively wide-ranging readers who can respond to writerly talent, because they alone experience what it is different from.

This is entirely true, although of course you donít actually learn how true until you have written your first few hundred book reviews.

All of this, however, is peripheral to the main question, which is to do with how one actually writes. Iím not going to try to go deeply into this because, as I said earlier, Iím not a fiction writer. However, I was particularly impressed with the way in which Delany demonstrates that the same scene can be written in a vast number of different ways. Letís stop thinking of writing for a moment and think about baseball (the new season being about to start). Any old coach can say trite things like, "keep your head steady and hit through the ball." A really good coach will sit you down in from of videos of your swing, and that of Barry Bonds, and show you how they differ so that you have some basis for managing your training program. Delany teaches writing in the same way.

If the book has a fault it is that it isnít written from scratch, but is rather a collection of essays, letters and interviews lumped together to form a book. This means that there is a certain amount of overlap in material between the sections, and a lack of overall flow. But I would much rather have a book like that than not have the book at all. (I should add also that, as a journalist, I think the interviews published are not good interviews. They take the form of the interviewer asking very simple questions and Delany writing a multi-page essay in response. However, as distilled essence of Delany wisdom they are just as valuable of the rest of the book so Iím not complaining.)

Iíll add here that I have seen About Writing discussed on the blogs of several writers and they have all been as impressed with it as I am, so the people it was written for like it too. All I can say is that I hope it gets read by a lot of those self-published authors out there who think that because they have read a "How to Write a Best Seller in 10 Easy Lessons" book they know all that there is to know about writing. It is so sad seeing so many people with such great hopes and so little talent.

About Writing - Samuel R. Delany - Wesleyan University Press - trade paperback

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
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