Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Reading About Writing: The Quill and the Crow, Volume I, by Lilith Saintcrow

What Writing Book Did I Read This Month?
The Quill and the Crow, Volume I, by Lilith Saintcrow

Essays on writing from the prolific Lilith Saintcrow, compiled from her popular blog. This first of three volumes ranges from the writer's craft to pro tips, musings on art to how to write a better sex scene and more, salted with her trademark pungent phrasing and self-deprecating wit.

Why Did I Pick That Book?
Well, Lilith Saintcrow said she was publishing a book, so I bought it. Because, as I've said, that woman could put out her own version of the phone book and I would preorder the damn thing and mark the release date on my calendar in bright red pen. It also happened that her announcement coincided with my resolution to read a writing book every month, so it felt like very perfect timing.

What Did I Think of It?
I've followed Ms. Saintcrow's blog for years. Her blog is actually what led me to her fiction in the first place. (Well what do you know? Marketing, functioning as designed.) So it should come as no surprise at all that I really enjoyed reading a collection of some of her best posts on writing and publishing.

I loved the way, when taken together, these essays cover the whole spectrum of writing life. From the basic stuff like how to write certain types of scenes and where to find good examples to tricks like how to be an un-obnoxious observer and all the way up through some philosophy on what it means to be a writer. Saintcrow covered it all with a great deal of humor and insight.

She also made me want to put the freaking book down. That's not usually the goal when writing a book, I know, so it seems like a funny sort of praise. But it's not like I wanted to put the book down and go do laundry or walk the dog. (Which would have been really bad, as we don't have a dog.) No, I wanted to put the book down and go write.

There's just something about the way Saintcrow tells a story that always draws me in and sends my mind rattling off in unexpected directions. I wonder, for example, what would happen if the girl Saintcrow observed leaving her boyfriend in "Always an Explanation" ever read the story.

(What are the odds, right? Well, I like to believe that all people love all the things I love, and so of course the girl read the story because she, as all people should be, is a rabid Lilith Saintcrow fangirl and she too snaps up and devours everything the woman writers.)

(Of course, if everybody reads it, then that means the guy read the story too... I wonder how that would go? The idealist in me wonders briefly if it would serve as some kind of catalistic wake up call. But then the realist in me remembers that he would probably just turn trollish. *sigh* Let's not go down that road. Back to the girl. And my point.)

Would she recognize herself in the description? She comes off pretty good in that anecdote, strong and determined and brave in my opinion. Would the idea of someone seeing those things in her actions, when she was probably a quivering mass of indecision and doubt inside, give her strength in a weak moment down the line?

Holy crap, that's a powerful idea. The idea of people-watching seems so small, but you could changing someone's life with nothing more than the way you express what you saw in that one fragile moment.

Don't mind me; I'll just be sitting over here, stunned anew at the amount of power we writers can have if we do this thing right.

My Muse, on the other hand, is skipping off, all excited and wondering when we can get to work. So, yes, Saintcrow did make me want to stop reading and put this book down, but in the very best way possible.

What Did I Learn from It?
That I should be writing. Yes, right now. I won't, because we're in the middle of a discussion here (if you define discussion as me giving you my opinion in a completely passive way for you to read and ignore at your leisure) and that would be rude. But I will as soon as I'm done with this review.

Because I learned that the writing is important. Not just from a discipline-building perspective either, though there is that as well.

I bookmarked three posts in the book for repeated reading. "Hack Manifesto" (Saintcrow's take on what it means to be labeled a hack), "Always an Explanation" (an essay on observation, with the anecdote I references above), and "On Truth, Close to the Bone" (a discussion of the importance of telling the truth in fiction). Most of Saintcrow's writing advice I've taken in over the years and I hope I've internalized it. But those three stuck out, for me anyway, as the ones I most want to keep fresh in my mind always.

When I pull those three out and look at them as a collection, I notice a little bit of a theme. They resonate with me because they make me ask an important question: what am I doing here? What is my purpose in this game? Because in as much as this gig is just that, a gig, a job that one must show up to and work hard at in the hopes of being entertaining enough to coax some rent money out of the Man, it is also an act of creation.

Creation is serious business and the wise would tell us that humans will insist on playing at godhood, but they ought not do so lightly.

Lilith Saintcrow writes great books that entertain the Reader while forcing them--us--to take a hard unflinching look at the worlds we live in and build around ourselves in as honest a way as she possibly can.

That's what writers do.

That's what writers should do.

That's what I want to do.

I sort of already knew this. (And I suppose it's not even a slight coincidence that the example I cite in that blog post is from one of Lilith Saintcrow's novels.) But it's so easy to lose courage or focus or whatever and forget about telling the truth and take the simpler path instead.

Would I Recommend This Book to Another Writer?
Yes I would. As I've said in these posts before, I don't like a lot of writing books. There are a lot of people out there spouting off about tragedies and suffering of artistes in a highly unrealistic, melodramatic kind of a way. I like this writing book. Lilith Saintcrow doesn't do melodrama and tragic suffering and she has a very low tolerance for bullshit.

She works hard and tells it to you straight, with a healthy dose of wit and sarcasm seasoning everything, just to make sure it burns properly on the way down. (The tingle tells you it's working!) Saintcrow gives great, entertaining advice that you can easily wrap your head around and apply to your writing in real life. There are big themes in here, some of which I talked about above, and there are basic nuts and bolts too. I think just about every writer could take something, probably several somethings, from this book.

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