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Story Behind the Story #55:
A Beginning, a Muddle, and an End

Advice to WritersSitting on my bookshelves is Advice to Writers: A compendium of quotes, anecdotes, and writerly wisdom from…literary lights. (Compiled by Jon Winokur) I don’t look at it often, though it is fun to read. It is full of useful reminders, such as E.B. White’s: “The best writing is rewriting.” Or even, Flaubert’s “Prose is like hair; it shines with combing.” Fitzgerald: “Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.”

In truth, any number of writers have written books about writing. My own favorite is E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. The first chapter is particularly brilliant.

Like other writers, I have written a book about writing, A Beginning, a Muddle and an End.

A Beginning, a Muddle, and an EndUsing the characters Edward and Avon from The End of the Beginning, it is (hopefully) a funny, maybe silly, book about writing. For example:

Avon sighed. “The truth is, Edward,” he said, “I’ve read a lot of adventures. And I’ve been on my own adventures. But I’m making no progress writing about my adventures.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” said Edward. “Do you know anything about why?”

“I’m pretty sure it’s at the end of the alphabet,” said Avon. “Next to z.”

Aspects of the NovelThe idea was to write something about writing that would make young people, and adults laugh. We do take the subject very seriously. Perhaps too seriously. Never more so than in schools.

One of my favorite sections in my book is about punctuation. Here a paragraph is presented, which says one thing. Then, using the same words in the same order, with only the punctuation different, it says something very much the opposite. I assure you it took hours to figure that one out.

My own view, for what is it worth, is that you have to be a good reader before you become a good writer, not the least reason is because you have to read your own writing and evaluate it. That, I think, is the hardest part of writing.

That said, another favorite remark, this one by Raymond Chandler: “Technique is never enough. You have to have passion. Technique alone is just an embroidered potholder.”

And, from Peter Mayle: “Best advice on writing I’ve ever received: Finish.”

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