Writer to Writer: From Think to Ink. By Gail Carson Levine. Harper. $16.99.
Here is a book that reads like a series of blog entries lifted from the Web and assembled in print form – because that is exactly what it is. Levine, best known as the author of Ella Enchanted and other fairy-tale rethinkings and spinoffs, uses her presence at www.gailcarsonlevine.blogspot.com to give writing tips and advice to aspiring authors. She has also written a book about her craft called Writing Magic, and Writer to Writer is a companion volume of sorts – although it stands perfectly well on its own.
Levine’s strength is not really in the information she imparts, which is straightforward, unexceptional and readily available elsewhere: accept rejection and make use of its value, read constantly and learn from what other authors have done, use your real life to conceptualize and map fiction, and so on. What is helpful in Writer to Writer is the sense of chatting with a successful, established author, the sense of humor with which Levine presents her material, and the constant references to various books – her own and many others – with which Levine makes and enlarges on her points. She is particularly fond of James Barrie’s Peter Pan, a work that few young readers likely know (the novel dates to 1911, the preceding play to 1904). She uses Barrie’s novel both to show stylistic points and to explain ways in which writers can use particular techniques: “Contemporary stories don’t usually use foreshadowing as directly as this [passage in Peter Pan], unless the writer is being funny.” She uses her own books in similar ways: “Ella’s character doesn’t change very much in the course of Ella Enchanted. …[S]he has much the same personality at the end as she did when her mother got sick. On the other hand, Addie, the heroine of my book The Two Princesses of Bamarre, is fundamentally altered as a result of her exploits…” This latter example is part of a discussion of character change in general: “Sometimes the reader absolutely does not want a character to change. As a child, I gobbled up books in the Cherry Ames series. I did not want Cherry to switch even the color of her lipstick!” Again, as with Peter Pan, this series is not likely to be one that many contemporary readers know: the 27 student-nurse novels (by two different authors) were published from 1943 to 1968. Aspiring young writers will find that they need to look into books with which they are not familiar in order to understand everything Levine says and get the most benefit from it.
Levine discusses her own uncertainties and weaknesses in Writer to Writer, although usually just in passing. “I’ve had trouble, more than once, making my MC [main character] sympathetic,” for example, leads into a discussion of creating main characters that readers will like. Among her suggestions are to “think of real people and what you like about them,” to have a character rescue someone or something, and to use “thoughts, feelings, speech, [and] appearance.” On the opposite side, she has a chapter called “Villainy” in which she cites the Sherlock Holmes passage about Holmes’ nemesis, Moriarty, explaining that “Arthur Conan Doyle relies…on the reader’s imagination to make Moriarty threatening.” Explaining that comic-book villains do not have to be believable, she admits her own predilection for villains who are “interesting” and cites one who is “awful, but he has a personality, and the reader hates him even more for it.”
Levine is careful to explain her own viewpoint about various elements of writing as she presents the alternatives. For example: “As a reader I’m not fond of stories in which the moral dominates. I don’t read fiction to be lectured to. …When I write, I don’t think about a moral or a theme. I start with an idea or a question.” Another instance of this: “I’m prejudiced in favor of past tense, which I think is more flexible [than present tense] even when we’re writing a gritty, contemporary tale. …For a writer, present tense seems like more of a decision. Past tense seems more like, for good or ill, choosing the common path.” Yet Levine is well aware of the power of present tense, offering readers yet another Barrie passage to show how past and present can be skillfully interwoven: “All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this…”
It is, of course, up to readers of Writer to Writer to decide whether or not to follow Levine’s guidelines – one of which, repeated at the end of every chapter, is “Have fun, and save what you write!” That, in the slightly expanded form of “save everything you write, whether you like it or not,” is one of seven rules that Levine sets down at the start of the book – the first three of which are the same: “The best way to write better is to write more.” Nothing exceptional there; nothing aspiring writers have not been told again and again for many, many years. Those who enjoy Levine’s books and wonder what she, in particular, advises would-be writers to do, may nevertheless find Writer to Writer revelatory. As for getting one’s writing published – well, that would be a subject for another book altogether.
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