Review: Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice

Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice
Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice by Colum McCann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is inspiring and liberating. I feel like Colum McCann cut my puppet strings and gave my writing free will. There were many times when a passage jumped out at me as if the author were speaking directly to me.

I’m going to try to limit my quotes and not quote half of the book. This one quote made me feel like he was pointing his finger at me.

”A writer is not someone who thinks obsessively about writing, or talks about it, or plans it, or dissects it, or even reveres it: a writer is the one who puts his arse in the chair when the last thing he wants to do is have his arse in the chair.”

I can talk about writing my next novel nonstop, but I can go weeks without opening up my latest Word document to work on the novel I’ve already started. I’m actually working on my third novel. The first two are only first drafts and I still have rewritten them. People ask me if I’m going to get them published. They’re shocked when I tell them no. They incredulously ask me “why not?” I just want to roll my eyes at them. I don’t know any writer who published the first novel they ever wrote. If you know of such a writer, then please tell me and I’ll bow down and kiss their feet for being a genius writer. The first several novels that you write are practice, because it takes that long to develop your writing skills. Several. I don’t know if people are naïve or impatient when they think you can slap down one novel and get it published.

”To hell with grammar, but only if you know the grammar first. To hell with formality, but only if you have learned what it means to be formal. To hell with plot, but you better at some stage make something happen. To hell with structure, but only if you have though it through so thoroughly that you can safely walk through your work with your eyes closed.
The great ones break the rules on purpose.”

This reminds me of all of those writing advice books that claim they have the magic formula for writing the next bestseller. The problem with those books is that they use a cookie cutter formula that may work for the author, but it’s not one-size-fits-all. You can’t stuff your creativity inside somebody else’s box if it doesn’t fit. It’s like trying to squeeze your butt into a size 6 pair of jeans knowing that you’re a size 8.

”Don’t write what you know, write toward what you want to know.”

If authors only wrote what they knew, the entire fantasy fiction genre wouldn’t exist. I’m fairly certain that J. K. Rowling never once lived in a magical world filled with weird creatures where she learned how to fix broken noses and unlock doors by flipping a wand around.
There’s a great chapter on creating life-like characters.

“Your characters must be intricate, complicated, flawed.”
“In the end you should probably know your characters as well as you know yourself.”

Yes, yes, yes. There’s nothing more annoying than reading a novel with one-dimensional characters. Most of us are still thinking about Harry Potter characters years after we’ve read the books, because they’re so fully developed that we sometimes forget that they’re not real.

I love the chapter called Be a Camera. He reminds us to “Make us feel as if we are there”. Later he says, “It is a good trick to assume that you have a number of changeable lenses.”
Another good chapter is on writing dialogue.

”Make each character distinct. Give them verbal ticks.”
“Make action occur within the conversation.”

“Even if using dialect, or patois, or Dublinese, you must realize that there is a reader at the end of the sentence. Don’t confuse them. Don’t knock them out o the story. A wee bit is enough to get a Northern Irish accent. Don’t go Oirish on yourself. Don’t fall into stereotype. No arragh bejaysus and begob. No overdone Southern twang. It’ll make y’all wanna holler. No Jamaican overdose, mahn. No Bhrrooklyn nasal noise.”

Hahahaha. I laughed so hard when I read that. I think we’ve all read a book or two that fell victim to that.

I’m just going to list some of the other advice that I liked:

• Read your work aloud.
• Answer the Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How questions.
• Structure is developed from your characters and plot, not a preconceived idea.
• What happens in your story isn’t as important and how it happens.
• Good grammar becomes intuitive from reading a lot.
• Research beyond Google.
• Don’t flood your novel with too much detail, but toss in some odd details that only an expert would know.
• Only be in competition with yourself.
Another great chapter is called Read, Read, Read. He recommends reading everything you can get your hands on, from your own contemporaries to the difficult classics that confuse the heck out of you.

There’s so much more that I didn’t even cover. I borrowed this book from the library, but I still want to add this little book to my collection so that I can reread it and highlight my favorite sections. I highly recommend this book to aspiring writers and get ready to take notes.

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