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Stein on writing : a master editor of some…

Stein on writing : a master editor of some of the most successful writers… (1995)

by Sol Stein

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    mcgilh: I use this book over and over again in my writing. It is a wonderful master writing class, chapter by chapter.

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I have a lot of books on how to write. Many of them sit on the shelf and beg me, beseechingly, to open their covers, give them some sense of purpose. Often when I listen to them, I am disappointed by their contents.
This is one such book. Sol Stein may be a "master editor" but my golly I get tired of his name dropping and self-aggrandizement! This book has less advice than self-praise and for this reason I am tossing it to the giveaway bin.
Much better to read Frey's "How to Write a damn good novel" series or, practically any other text. Or just write and READ a lot of the genre you love.
THat said, some tidbits exist. But not nearly enough to leave this book taking up space on my bookshelf any longer. ( )
  Dabble58 | Jan 1, 2014 |
Not perfect, and perhaps not as inspirational as Stephen King, but very insightful into the ways to make your work achieve a higher level of craftsmanship.

Stein writes and edits Literary Novels. He defines this as that better class of writing (he may not define it exactly but you pick up on it as you read the book). So not the work of Stephen King.

That part of writing that perhaps is a tenth of what is read in the fiction world. So if you write that and follow these guidelines, you will no doubt become better at your craft. The rest of the writing world will probably be able to glean something of use as well. The commercial writers as he calls the many who fill the shelves with books.

That I think is ultimately what is wrong with this guide. It has condescension in it. And it does not strive to help the commercial writer as much as it does the literary writer. The writer who is angst ridden at every word placement in every sentence will love this book for it validates that caring. The writers who are the next John Grisham will find themselves thinking that the man is very wordy trying to get to a point.

That with all the verbage he spends on showing the way for next classic american novel, he missed the point, but he does remember to plug his software which in this day and age remains very pricey. (Can't review that, but I expect it would only delay your novel being ready by half a dozen drafts)

Read this for the concepts. See what to apply in your stories (For me I liked several chapters which would be 5 stars such as advice on conflict in each chapter. Dragging out the story for suspense purposes.) But there are many that if you do not have plans to be a literary novelist, you need not agonize over. ( )
  DWWilkin | May 25, 2013 |
A must have for every writer to have in his/her working library. ( )
  AggieCowboy | Apr 3, 2013 |
Audiobook. Pretty good book even though the narrator at one point says "mis-cheev-i-ous." Takes a little getting used to the the author's authoritative tone, but contains somewhat more advanced analysis and instruction than many of the other writing books I have read. ( )
  malrubius | Apr 2, 2013 |
Sol Stein is pompous. If I judge correctly from his writing, he is a curmudgeon with a serious personality defect. His view is very narrow and it is the only right view. I wouldn't want to be his friend, his client, or even his trashman. I was not impressed with Stein.

That being said, Stein does know something (not everything) when it comes to writing. Though there were times during my read of Stein on Writing when I wanted to fling the book across the room, there were more instances where I jotted down helpful notes and immediately followed his advice. The results were amazing. Stein says cut “had” so I cut “had” from my manuscript. He's right! He says get rid of the adverbs, so I did. Over and again, I found Stein's simple rules to have a significant effect on my own manuscript. Rarely does he justify his reasoning—he doesn't have to, he's “a master editor of some of the most successful writers of our century”—but he's often right. Sure, you have to listen to his rants about how brilliant he and his students are—really, they're not—but in the end, it's worth it.

If you choose to read this book, it's important you know what you're getting into. First, know that Stein doesn't like you. He's not going to like your book. Your idea isn't original and your voice never was. He doesn't like the way you bake cookies. If you own a cat, he's a dog person. Own a dog and, well, cats aren't so bad after all.

Next, know that Stein feels no need to explain himself and that some of his examples are absurd. Perhaps I shouldn't say this about a “master editor,” but sometimes Stein is just way off. Take a look at the following examples, and please let me know if I'm missing something:

As an example of how to begin a piece of fiction, Stein recommends the story “The Eighty-Yard Run.” Stein writes, “See how much Irwin Shaw accomplished in the first sentence.” He never explains what it is that we're supposed to see in this passage, so it is up to the reader. Let's take a look at the passage: “The pass was high and wide and he jumped for it, feeling it slap flatly against his hands, as he shook his hips to throw off the half-back who was diving at him.” That's it. That's the brilliant opening sentence. What exactly “hooks” us in this sentence? Does Shaw really convey as much as Stein argues? Well, we know that we're entering right in the middle of action—a football game. The focal character is receiving the ball. The quarterback's throw was a little off. We know the receiver has hands, and that they're capable of feeling. We know that another player is diving at him. And that the receiver is trying to shake him off. Most important, we learn the receiver can jump and has hips. I make fun, but do you see my point? I repeat Stein's set-up for this passage: “See how much Irwin Shaw accomplished in the first sentence.” Sorry, Sol, I don't see it.

Stein argues that his examples excite the reader's curiosity, introduce a setting, and lend resonance to the story. They should tell as much as possible in as short a space as possible. He also argues that great opening sentences should be unusual or shocking. I have no problem with Stein's ideas of what makes a great opener. He is right on. But how exactly does this sentence exemplify these principles? It is certainly vivid in its tight space. It's pretty clear what is happening too. Otherwise, in my opinion, it's a dud. It's a football game. The characters are doing what's expected. There is nothing revealing or hooking about this sentence. Unless you're a huge fan of football, I see no reason to continue reading “The Eighty-Yard Run.”

One more, and then I'll get off my soapbox. Stein writes, “A layman might say, 'Ellen looked terrific in her gown.' That's top-of-the-head writing, which can be improved: 'In her gown, Ellen looked like the stamen of a flower made of silk.'” Stein goes on to say that the first sentence “doesn't say anything particular about either Ellen or the gown.” He's right there. It's not the most revealing sentence. “The second is visual,” Stein argues, “and tells us how Ellen and the gown came across in a way that made them both look good.” “Ellen looked like the stamen of a flower made of silk.” Really? First of all, I think the simile is wordy and confusing. Why not just say “the stamen of a silk flower.” Secondly, a “flower made of silk” does not make me think she “looks good.” It makes me think she's fake, pretentious, cheap, etc. And, finally, the stamen of a silk flower? What does this mean? She's slender? She's the representation of a reproductive organ? This is the advice of “a master editor”? A student writing this in undergrad would be torn apart. Hell, published authors would be ridiculed for this line.

(This is where I welcome taunting for my ignorance. If I have really misunderstood the brilliance of these lines, please gently let me know.)

So, my advice is to take Stein on Writing with a grain of salt, but if you're a student of writing, do read it. When Stein makes a point, he makes it well. It is the single most helpful craft book I have read. So much so that I hope someday to reread it. I'll still want to fling it across the room (if I own my own copy, I probably will), but I know I'll be a better writer for having made the small sacrifice. ( )
1 vote chrisblocker | Mar 30, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0312254210, Paperback)

"The best reading experiences," says Sol Stein, "defy interruption." With Stein's assistance, you can grab your reader on page 1 and not let go until "The End." Stein--author of nine novels (including the bestselling The Magician) and editor to James Baldwin, W.H. Auden, and Lionel Trilling--offers "usable solutions" for any writing problem you may encounter. He is authoritative and commanding--neither cheerleader nor naysayer. Instead, he rails against mediocrity and demands that you expunge it from your work. Perhaps the concept of scrutinizing every modifier, every metaphor, every character trait sounds like drudgery. But with Stein's lively guidance, it is a pleasure. Stein recommends that you brew conflict in your prose by giving your characters different "scripts." He challenges you, in an exercise concerning voice, to write the sentence you want the world to remember you by. He uses an excerpt from E.L. Doctorow to demonstrate poorly written monologue and a series of Taster's Choice commercials as an example of dialogue that works. Stein's bottom line is that good writing must be suspenseful. Your job, says Stein, "is to give readers stress, strain, and pressure. The fact is that readers who hate those things in life love them in fiction." --Jane Steinberg

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:24:23 -0400)

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The master editor of some of the most successful writers of our century shares his craft techniques and strategies, including how to fix writing that is flawed, how to improve writing that is good, and how to create interesting writing in the first place.… (more)

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