For the fiction writer, the problem has never been, “Where can I learn about writing?” The reams of advice available for would-be authors are such that the question is rather, “Who should I listen to?” or possibly, “Which way to the exit?”
Even if you keep to the vaunted must-reads, like Stephen King’s On Writing or Robert McKee’s Story or Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, writing about writing is a crowded space. It would be easy to ignore John R. Trimble’s Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing just on the basis of his intended audience: Trimble is writing to nonfiction, expository writers, not novelists. A casual internet search will show that his writing guide is popular, but does it have anything for the fiction writer?
Yes and no. If you’re a fiction writer who never intends to write any nonfiction—no blog posts, book reviews, or letters to the editor—then you can probably skip Trimble’s book. If your writing is swimming along just fine but you aren’t yet ready to revise, then wait to pick this one up. If you’ve read everything in the writing section at your local bookstore (twice), you’ve attended every author event in a 100-mile radius, and you have a shelf of notebooks filled with all you’ve learned, then for goodness’ sake, stop reading and start writing.
For the rest of us, Trimble can’t hurt.
He knows fiction writers well enough to use our best pick-up lines: being smart about adverbs (70), choosing sensible dialogue tags (155), breaking the “rules” of English (76-87), and of course, Mark Twain’s bit about the right word and the lightning bug (53). That he managed to hold off bringing the Twain until the sixth chapter shows admirable restraint.
Trimble even mentions creative writers, although he has us shunted into a footnote: “Poetry, fiction, plays—that’s all termed ‘creative writing,’ even though it’s sometimes far less creative than good expository writing” (29). Fire up your laptops, ladies and gents; he’s baiting us. I can imagine fiction writers everywhere shouting, “Put this creative writing on your expository needles and knit it!” But is that a bad thing? Not at all. The writer who was frustrated enough in the first place to pick up a book not designed for creative writers might profit from some backhanded motivation. Or maybe it’s time to set your tired manuscript aside and write some nonfiction, just to see if he’s right about the creative side of exposition.
The chapter that fiction writers will want to spend some time and a highlighter with, however, is the one on readability. “A readable style is one that invites reading” (58), he says. Ah, now Trimble is speaking our language. He sums up the elusive “voice” we all labor to develop when he writes, “If a person accepts herself, she will be herself, and will speak her mind in her own idiom without inhibition” (60). He also doesn’t try to hide the sweaty reality of good writing: “Considerable labor has been lavished on these sentences, we can be sure, not a little of it on concealing that very labor” (63). If you are looking for something on how to become a writer in five easy steps, then this is the book for you, if only to disabuse you of the “easy”.
Is Trimble’s book earthshaking? No. Is it useful? Somewhat. He assures us that “Writing is hard” does not equal “I’m a bad writer,” something all writers could stand to remember. Plus, looking at our craft through another genre’s eyes might lend some new perspective. That’s never a bad thing.
But give Mark Twain a rest.