Libraries and books

A few weeks ago I decided that of all the things I could do with the last 23 days of my summer (of which four are now left), what I should do is fix my writing (and help teach more canoe camps; and learn to use Unix and Perl; and revive my C++ skills; and get back in shape; and chill with more than one non-family-member per week; and, um, sleep—but we’ll talk about that later). Considering that English is not my native language, I think I can write pretty well. But if I rekindle my second-grade dream of writing novels (and I think I will, in a week or two or ten), I think I have room to grow (room in this case being a few galaxies).

So I went to the library. (By the way, Pennsylvania is not adequately funding our public libraries. If you have ten minutes, please visit your local library and write a touching letter to our government.) I haven’t really gone to the library since my novel-a-day phase ended (that is, when high school started), unless you count AP-studying, which I don’t. But 19 days ago I spent two hours in that library, just flipping through pages and wondering what I should read. That panicked glance at the clock was like finding a long-lost elementary school friend on Facebook and seeing that despite many years and fall-related injuries, she still likes reading on swing sets as much as I do.

But anyway, I got two books on programming (which I still haven’t finished) and three books on how to write good (ha-ha-ha). One of them focused on college essays and was—guess what?—from Barron’s, just like the dozen and a half AP/SAT prep books I read this spring. It gave me a few good pointers and inspired a few good ideas, but I already blogged about that.

The other two self-help writing books focused on improving writing in general: Live Writing: Breathing life into your words, by Ralph Fletcher; and Words Fail Me: What everyone who writes should know about writing, by Patricia T. O’Conner. Admittedly I came in looking for Everything’s an Argument and left with the two least pompous alternatives and a resolve to donate good books to the library someday, but I think they were at least kind of useful.

Live Writing reminded me of the junk (as my dad calls it) I used to read in elementary school: skinny paperback with a big font, wide margins, and that dusty smell you can only get from yellowed pages. The text itself reminded me of elementary school—actually, I’m pretty sure that Fletcher wrote it for fifth graders. My first hunch came at the allusions to Hatchet and grew at excerpts from fourth graders’ writing. When it finally got to If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, hunch morphed into strong suspicion—not that I stopped reading.

Fifth graders or not, we can all use some simple language and a few simple instructions. And after not writing genuine creative prose for a few years I think I needed some good fifth-grade writing tips. After all, writing is expression, whether you’re a fifth grader or a college freshman. And I think I might have been better at expressing myself before high school instilled its legislation on my writing. Then again, high school helped me organize my thoughts and eased me into a more socially acceptable writing style. For example, I no longer christen my lab reports “The Effect of a Generation’s Genotype on the Phenotype of the Generation After It and the Ratio of Phenotypes of the Generation Following the Generation After It In Fruit Flies” like I did in eighth grade.

Words Fail Me was a bit more age-appropriate (maybe). O’Conner started off on a roll, with her witty remarks and friendly tone making me want to be her Facebook friend (and keep reading her book). But I guess she didn’t realize that a writer needs to not only draw the reader in, but also keep him there. And sure, witty remarks can draw a reader in, but at some point they need to stop (or decelerate to a reasonable velocity) before I lose my respect for her as a writer. I think I can quote her in saying, “There are times when enough is enough is enough.” I am, after all, reading for advice on writing, not confirmation that you know what a pun is.

Puns aside, O’Conner did have some pretty good advice. She had good tips on general writing, especially on writing fiction. She talked about character development, struggling through writer’s block, and writing down your thoughts. The only exception was the middle 50-100 pages of the book, in which O’Conner lapsed into a witty title-pun-writing tip-example-auxiliary example-more examples in excess-pun-pun-pun pattern that had little more to offer than four days of an AP English class and left me wondering if she had a small tome of puns hidden in her desk somewhere. I have a sneaking suspicion that O’Conner wrote the beginning and end of Words Fail Me with true passion and stuck a bulleted list of basic advice somewhere in the middle. Then her anti-bulleted-list editors made her fluff up a concise and helpful five pages to a whopping 50.

Now, before college starts, back to Unix!


~ by science cow on August 20, 2009.

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