Monday, October 29, 2012

Erica's Infrequent Book Reviews Presents: STARVE BETTER by Nick Mamatas

I read Nick Mamatas' Starve Better last year and fully intended to review it then, but everyone who knows me knows I hate reviewing things. Especially if I enjoy them and/or find them useful. So let the lateness of this review not be a way to say "this really sucked" so much as "I really suck at writing reviews on time."

Anyway! If you read Nick Mamatas' LiveJournal (and oh, how I wish LJ hadn't deteriorated into a ghost town) you know that he often dispenses bits of writing advice written in an acerbic tone which is a refreshing departure from that given by either commercially-obsessed genre writers or high-falutin', "you'll get your reward in history" literary MFA types. Having gone through a genre-focused MA program, I've obviously heard more of the former types of "advice," and I've gotta say, if this book had been out ten years ago (or I'd even heard of Mamatas ten years ago), I'd have absorbed far less bullshit that wouldn't have led to me pretty much quitting writing for something like four years because it felt like the only way to "succeed" was to sell my soul. (I also probably wouldn't have gotten the MA, but if I hadn't then a whole lot of things in my life would be different so I don't want to traipse too far down that road.)

The book is split up into fiction (with an emphasis on short story writing and sales) and non-fiction and I'll focus on the former, because it had more relevance to me. The title of the preface, "All Advice is Terrible Advice, Plus Other Useful Advice," sets the stage for what you're going to get: someone who's not going to guide you through the wonderful world of spinning yarns for nerds. The opening chapter questions your desire to write short fiction in the first place, giving many reasons TO write short fiction (quick cash, freedom, a greater "hit" of artistic bliss), and just as many reasons NOT to write it (that it's "practice" for writing novels, that it's easier*).

Now, I write short stories, and vastly prefer writing (and reading) them to novels. To me, the short story is the ideal form for genre fiction, and I believe that a lot of genre novels being published today are merely puffed-up short stories. It's also clear when someone who is a "true" novelist is attempting to write a short story, and vice versa. A short story isn't practice for a novel any more than sprinting is practice for a marathon: it's the same basic motions, but nearly everything about the scope, the characterization, the language, etc. is different. Has to be different. So if you're only writing short fiction because you feel you "have" to, just stop. (Same goes for novels. Why I've stopped attempting to write one for now.)

Later chapters go more into the craft of short stories. Mamatas uses the metaphor that short stories are a lot like photography, in that they preserve one moment in time, and are defined just as much by what is absent as by what is present. While short stories often need some backstory to be coherent (in SF/F, it's almost mandatory), the sin of over-explanation can be a story-killer, and lead to something more akin to a family photoshoot than an Ansel Adams composition. Short stories are delicate creatures.

Mamatas continues with a chapter on hooks (yes, they're important, but just throwing a bunch of action at the beginning does not a hook make) and on writing sentences, which includes the forehead-tattoo-worthy phrase "write well; it makes things easier." Two chapters on dialogue--which make a good point that media has tended to make dialogue far more generic and "teen-boyish" than it actually is--are useful reads but I paid special attention to the chapter on scene breaks. I like scene breaks a lot, but they're a hammer, not a seasoning. You don't need to break every time your character gets into a car or goes to the bathroom. It's advice I think I break often (though as Nick might say, all advice is bad advice).

My absolute "favorite" (it seems weird to use that word on a writing-advice book, but whatever) part of the book, though, is the chapter on endings. I seem to remember a similar post being on Nick's LJ once upon a time, but can't find it, but I really think the chapter on endings is worth the price of admission alone. See, stories shouldn't always tie up in a neat little package. Endings should leave you hungry for more, but also give you enough of a meal that reading it doesn't become an exercise is pointlessness. Very often the understated ending is the right one: the "hero" coming to the realization that everything is futile, or that there are mysteries that won't be answered, at least for now. Leave the reader wanting more, but also provide the foundation for that wanting. And all this in a seven-page chapter (did I mention that the chapters themselves are a good example of writing short?).

The non-fiction section of the book, which contains information on how to pitch an article and how to write term papers for <s>fun</s> and profit (Mamatas' widely reprinted "The Term Paper Artist" is included), doesn't have much relevance for me personally (yet) but it's written in the same practical, no-holds-barred style as the first half of the book.

In short, Starve Better is highly recommended, particularly for genre short fiction writers, and people who don't need their head patted every five minutes. If you've ever defined yourself as a "wordsmith," or trumpeted your Nano wins on Tumblr, this book probably isn't for you. If, however, you're someone honestly dedicated to improving your craft, then go pick up Starve Better right now. It's only $5 on Kindle for the best tough-love writing advice book currently in print.

* Ha, ha. Ha ha! Haaa-hha-hee-hoo!!!!