Book 8 of 52: How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead by Ariel Gore

Here’s a fun exercise: go to your local bookstore and check out the writing section. You’ll find two kinds of books: instruction books and fun books.

Instruction books show you the nuts and bolts of how to be a writer, whether it’s something like The Renegade Writer: A Totally Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing Success by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell, which hows you how to make this freelance writing thing work (a book I highly recommend) to On Writing Romance by Leigh Michaels, which is a guide to writing romance novels (I haven’t read this one, but I’ve thought about it — more about that later in this series).

Fun books about writing would be something like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, which, yes, does offer writing advice, but is more about being a writer than a straight writing guide.

How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead by Ariel Gore is a fun book about writing. Yes, she (and the many many MANY people she interviews) offer advice, and the book includes writing exercises. But it’s more a book about what being a writer is like than anything else.

It focuses on becoming a fiction writer, which is why I almost didn’t read the book. I don’t do fiction. Sure, I’ll read it, but I’m not a novelist and have no aspirations to be one — at least at this point in my life. I’ve tried it. I know it’s a lot of work for something that no one other than a slushpile reader might skim over and then reject, and I don’t have that fiction writing fire that my fiction writing friends have. When people ask me when I’ll write a novel (or “When will you become a real writer?” which I don’t deign with an answer), I tell them this: writing fiction and non-fiction are two different things. Yes, we use the same tools, but so does a woodworker and a carpenter. Same stuff, different results.

But I’ve learned a lot from fiction writers, like how to punch up your writing and set a scene. Lamott’s book is, for the most part, about fiction writing, and I use the “one inch picture frame” exercise, where you get out of writer’s block by picturing what you could see within a one inch frame, when I’m in a writing pinch.

For the most part, I enjoyed Gore’s book. She walked a fine line between offering advice that would work for everyone and advice that worked for HER. I wouldn’t recommend that you start freelance writing by getting a Master’s degree in English Literature first, even though that what worked for me. Gore gives enough of her life experiences to make her a narrator worth following through a guide to writing without seeming to pompous — there isn’t any “this is what I did so you should do the exact same thing, too,” which I liked.

The interviews with other writers are interesting, too, especially the imagined interview with Haruki Murakami. Her advice re: deadlines is spot in (turn it the piece no matter what you think of it because it’s better to be on time with something that’s not perfect than late — even if that late piece is perfect, it might not be published because it was late) and her advice on using bad stuff for good (“When bad things happen to writers, there’s always a silver glimmer of a good story. Damn, we think when we’re face-down on the rain-wet pavement, nose broken and bleeding, coughing betrayal. This is gonna make a good story.” My version is “I’m so getting a column out of this.” )

BUT — by the end of the book, some of those interviews drag on, and seem out of place. As much as I like Margaret Cho, I didn’t think her interview belonged in this book. I like Dave Barry, too, but it seems to me that guy didn’t want to be part of the book. Why print the sliver of an interview here?

But don’t let that stop you from getting the book. Gore is a funny writer, and she tells it like it is. I haven’t tried any of the writing exercises yet (non-fiction writer here, remember?), but I’ve dog eared the page on a few of them where I think they’ll help me tighten up my writing. It’ll make a good gift for a budding writer, too, especially of the college age.


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Jen Miller

Jen Miller

Jen A. Miller is a an author and freelance writer. Her memoir, Running a Love Story, was a Philadelphia Inquirer best book of the year. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, SELF, Buzzfeed and the Guardian, among others.

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