A veteran editor, teacher, and author assembles some advice for aspiring writers of fiction.
Cohen (Chasing the Sun: The Epic Story of the Star that Gives Us Life, 2010, etc.) tells us that his new volume began “as an outflow of my university teaching,” and in some ways, the lecturer’s tone remains. For each of his points, the author mines his own vast reading, with names like Tolstoy, Twain, Updike, Dickens, Eliot, and other notables appearing continually, and he has a fondness for occasionally declaring what is the best: James Wood is the best book critic today (difficult to argue with that); F.L. Lucas’ Style is the best book about rhythm and writing. Cohen’s myriads of examples are lush and instructive though sometimes quite elementary. He takes a little time, for example, to explain what iambic pentameter is; it’s hard to imagine that the readers of this book would not know such a thing. Organized topically—beginnings, point of view, dialogue, rhythm, sex, endings—the book generally surveys the literary history of the topic, offers some prescriptions and proscriptions, and concludes with some advice for the novice—e.g., “simple clear prose is not the only way to write, but it is the best.” Along the way, Cohen delivers a few sharp jabs at some writers—Michael Holroyd’s writing, he writes, has grown “slipshod”—but for the most part, he is a generous tour guide through his literary world and generally favors positive over negative examples—though there are plenty of the latter. Perhaps most engaging are Cohen’s occasional anecdotes about his own experiences as a writer and editor and—in one extensive case—literary friend: he tells a fine story about how Richard Holmes developed the idea for his Footsteps (1985).
Mostly standard writing advice, minus the bullet points, plus the gleanings from a lifetime of reading and thought.