Thursday, 11 February 2010

Hooked by Les Edgerton – a Review


It could be just me, but it seems that Americans take a much more pragmatic approach to the production of literature than Europeans. All the most affecting books on writing I've read have come from across the pond, and most things I've read about writing from British authors tend to stress the more esoteric side of the process, or, as in David Lodge's excellent The Art of Fiction, take an approach closer to literary criticism.

The truth is, the last thing a writer who's wrestling with his text needs is esoteria – what he needs is an almost messianic clarity to guide him through his self-doubt and uncertainty. This is why I think writing books with an agenda, with an author on a mission, are the most useful to the practising writer – even if the advice isn't necessarily appropriate for the work, at the worst the argument can be tested and refuted and the writer comes through with a stronger understanding of his own work, at best, the messiah may just be right.

Les Edgerton in 'Hooked' keeps it simple – he's setting out how to advise you to write openings that will get you read, and eventually published. He doesn't pontificate, he's actually gone and asked a load of editors and agents about it, and publishes their responses. He's also been in the position of being rejected countless times, and shares his experience of how he's changed those rejected submissions around and actually got them published.

And boy, is Les on a mission – backstory, set-up, static description get short-shrift here – by his own admission he sometimes exaggerates for emphasis – but he makes his point well and powerfully. I particularly like how he takes examples from high literary fiction, more general fiction, and film. He's not afraid to look genius in the eye and attempt to deconstruct what makes it work, but he's not so high-brow he can't apply the same analysis to more popular works.

One thing Les is above all, is optimistic – he dedicates this book to all the writer's 'who didn't give up', and while he's playing to the gallery a little here, this attitude pervades the writing. He uses a phrase that particularly resonated with me 'if you're green, you're growing' – by which he means, if you're not perfect, you're can only get better – an encouraging thought if you ever look at your work and think it's appalling.

In summary, this is one of the best books on writing I've read, there are echoes of other writers here (Robert McKee particularly) but he adds plenty more and his particular focus on beginnings for novels makes this a must-have for any author serious about getting editors and agents to read their work.

Thoroughly enjoyed, and heartily recommended, but more importantly than that, reading this work and applying the ideas to my own writing has significantly improved it – which is, after all, what a writer is after.

4 comments:

  1. Sorry, James but all these American DIY books on how to write have me foaming at the mouth with rage. You can tell on Authonomy all the people who attend writing groups because they apply rules to writing and spout catch phrases. They look for the faults their handbooks have told them about. Your voice should be as unique as you can possibly make it. If you read writers who have a distinctive voice you'll find they break all the rules in these books. Maybe they're valid for shamelessly commercial works of fiction but that's about it.

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  2. Writing is an art, and it is also a craft. Some how-to books deal with the former and some with the latter. A well-written novel needs both because novel-writing can't be done by putting a program into a machine. Nor can it be done by dreamily streaming all your lovely thoughts into your laptop.

    There's a third aspect to novel writing, and that's getting the darn thing finished. You may be a creative visionary to your core. You may have thousands of techniques at your fingertips. But if you don't know how to solve the problems, break through writer's block, test your story objectively and take control of the project you may well abandon the whole thing. It's an aspect of writing that many books don't cover.

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  3. Hi James,
    Just wanted to thank you for the props you gave my book, HOOKED. I appreciate it. It's always gratifying when another writer gains something from something you've written. What I intended was to show how openings have changed in the past few years. At least for books that have a chance of being published. And why else would anyone write, except to be published? I don't think I'd understand someone who intends to put his book in a drawer and forget it. Being published is the only viable way of getting read, outside of family and friends. Nothing against anyone who has that goal, but I'm not trying to reach that person anyway. And there are "rules" in everything. I hope so, anyway. I certainly don't want a surgeon operating on me who doesn't believe in "any darn rules" and just freelances with his scalpel... Or fly in a plane with someone who just climbs into the pilot's seat and starts turning on dials without knowing what they do... Writing is both a craft and an art, and with any craft, there are always going to be conventions and rules. The rules change, of course, and that's why I wrote this book. The info will eventually become wrong--that's just the nature of the beast. John Gardner, just before he died, had lunch with his prize pupil, Ray Carver, and during their meal said, "Forget everything I taught you in class." He knew it was dated advice. And still, there are teachers who advise students to read his "On Becoming a Novelist." Problem is, if John had lived, he would have written other books and showed how the "rules" had changed, but unfortunately, he's room temperature and can't. He was wise enough to know that. That's why, if a writer wants to have a shot at publication, he'll keep current with the parameters of what sells these days. If he doesn't, his chances are very low and he may end up a bitter old man, decrying all those people who can't see his "genius." Kind of hard to see unless you live next door to such a person or are related to him or her...

    Good writing's hard. Bad writing's easy. They call that "typing."

    Again, thank you so much. I'm wishing you good fortune for your own writing.

    Blue skies,
    Les

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  4. I've heard good things about Hooked. I'll check it out, based on your review. Anything that makes me a better writer...

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