Telling Lies for Fun and Profit: A Manual for Fiction Writers by Lawrence Block
|Telling Lies for Fun and Profit: A Manual for Fiction Writers by Lawrence Block|
|Reviewer: Robert James|
|Summary: Superb collection of writing advice from an absolute master. A must-read.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 256||Date: February 1994|
|Publisher: William Morrow|
|External links: Author's website|
If I was going to write a list of authors I admire - well, I wouldn't begin it now. There are so many that I'd still be doing it at the end of November. But if I did take it upon myself to write a list, Lawrence Block would probably be on top of it. Hugely prolific and vastly varied when it comes to thrillers and crime stories, he's someone who seems able to turn his hand to so many different types of novel or short story with excellent results every time. He's created my two favourite crime-solvers, alcoholic ex-cop Matt Scudder and gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, and the contrast between the grittiness of the former series and the cosiness of the latter would place him high on my list of favourites even without his other work. Throw in the comic capers of Evan Tanner, whose sleep-centre was destroyed by shrapnel and now works for a mysterious department going across the world and stirring up trouble, and stamp-collecting assassin Keller, and you've got four excellent series of novels. Then there's the short stories, which feature all of these characters and many others, often rivalling Roald Dahl for darkness and clever plot twists.
I was about to say I don't know how he does it, but the whole point of this review is that I now have some idea. Block shared some of his secrets in a series of entertaining and informative magazine columns, and Telling Lies For Fun and Profit is a collection of them, taking the aspiring writer through everything from how to choose the best place to start a novel to when surprise endings work, via creative plagiarism, sharing your work with other people, and the pros and cons of pen names. There are 47 chapters here, along with an introduction from another prolific crime writer, Sue Grafton, and there's not a bad one amongst them. My personal favourites are the chapter on dialogue, and the one on using verbs effectively, but each and every one has given me something to think about while writing.
To be fair, I've probably read similar advice to that given in those chapters, and some of the others, several times before. It's not so much that Block is dispensing hitherto-unknown wisdom - more the sheer amount of excellent advice given, and the way in which he puts it across. His writing style - similar here to his first-person narration in the Bernie Rhodenbarr series - is so entertaining that it's possibly worth reading even if you have no plans to write anything yourself. (Is there anyone out there in that boat, the day before NaNoWriMo, though?) There are a huge amount of wonderful quotes here - complaining about people congratulating him on self-discipline rather than talent, suggesting that this implies that a persistent chimpanzee could match me book for book if he could just sit still long enough and work the space bar with his non-opposable thumb, or talking about procrastination. Procrastination's had a bad name ever since 1742, when Edward Young called it the thief of time. (He'd have written that line back in 1739, but kept putting it off.)
He also gives a generous amount of examples to illustrate his points, often from his own work but also quoting authors as varied as PG Wodehouse and Robert Ludlum. It's fascinating to see his analysis of what works and what doesn't - he's unsparing in his criticism of some of his own work, particularly his earlier writing. This is perhaps even more interesting to long-term fans who've read the stories he's talking about, but I think it can be enjoyed even by people who haven't read any of his work before.
The column format makes it easy to dip into and out of as well, always a plus if you think you'll be too busy writing this month to read an entire guide. Highly recommended.
Another book which we found to give really useful advice on writing fiction was Monkeys with Typewriters: How to Write Fiction and Unlock the Secret Power of Stories by Scarlett Thomas.
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You can read more book reviews or buy Telling Lies for Fun and Profit: A Manual for Fiction Writers by Lawrence Block at Amazon.com.
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