Book Review by Raymond M. Wong
Selgin, Peter. 179 Ways to Save a Novel: Matters of Vital Concern to Fiction Writers. Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2010. Print.
Peter Selgin’s book of sage advice for writers is engaging, humorous, inspiring, and filled with helpful tips to improve one’s prose whether fiction or autobiographical nonfiction. It’s written in an unvarnished, down-to-earth style that suggests he’s talking to a friend over a warm cup of mint tea. The tone is inviting yet instructive at the same time. Readers sense that Selgin is speaking from experiences, some harsh, and he’s trying to save writers from mistakes he’s made. One example is a lesson learned from a writing workshop encounter in which Frank Conroy literally tossed Selgin’s manuscript to the floor to show his disdain for a word that called attention to the writing.
A particularly useful meditation on slicing one’s prose to the bare essentials comes in the form of a challenge to trim a 9000 word story to 6000 in order to fit the guidelines for the “New Yorker.” The magazine pays two dollars a word, so would we be able to shorten the story? If the answer is “Yes!” then why couldn’t we do that with all our writing?
Selgin pulls from his background as an editor of a literary magazine to present some submission gems: “Sarah loved the windy path that wound down to the swimming rock, and the feel of soft needles under her feet as she ran down it.” “Toby swallowed the three pills that looked like bits of colored chalk.” “I was never not mostly afraid.” He explains why each excerpt works.
Selgin also provides humor in giving readers some of his favorite “dead similes”: “Her eyes were like two brown circles with big black dots in the center.” “The hailstones leaped from the street like maggots when fried in hot grease.” “He was as tall as a 6’ 3” tree.” “The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.”
We are told to avoid the “Vincent Price syndrome” of over-the-top writing, using purple prose, “writerly” verbs such as “chortle,” “utter,” and “opine,” excessive use of exclamation points and commas, longer words when a shorter one will do, or any writing that calls attention to itself.
Selgin has a different perspective regarding the teaching of writing from Vivian Gornick in her classic book on narrative nonfiction “The Situation and the Story.” Whereas Gornick writes, “…I have learned that you cannot teach people how to write – the gift of dramatic expressiveness, of a natural sense of structure, of making language sink down beneath the surface of description, all that is inborn, cannot be taught…” Selgin counters, “…I remember how much I’ve learned as a writer over the past thirty years. And if something can be learned it can be taught. Indeed, writing must be taught, because it must be learned. A born writer is as mythical a beast as the unicorn.”
Where they agree is in the essential task of any writer – sinking into the soul of a story. Gornick: “I began to read the greats in essay writing – and it wasn’t their confessing voices I was responding to, it was their truth-speaking personae. By which I mean that organic wholeness of being in a narrator that the reader experiences as reliable; the one we can trust will take us on a journey, make the piece arrive, bring us out into a clearing where the sense of things is larger than it was before.” Selgin: “It may be, too, that as fiction writers the only place we can ever safely call home is the one where dreams and ideas meet, where thoughts turn into words, sentences, and scenes, where moods, inspirations, and feelings are nailed down, as fixed on the page as the stars in the night sky: a sheet of paper.”