Tachyon Publications, November 2009; 330pp; US$14.95 RRP – ISBN13: 9781892391902
There are dozens – possibly even hundreds – of books out there that purport to tell you how to be a writer. I should know, as I think I’ve read most of them, from the general guides to craft through to the genre-specific titles (like Bob Shaw’s How To Write Science Fiction, which is actually pretty useful once you get beyond the fact that Bob Shaw defines “proper science fiction” as “science fiction that has been written by Bob Shaw”). Most of them boil down to the same few essential instructions, though, much of which can be picked out from the blogs of authors and editors and agents and publishers right here on the intertubes, for free. You’ll be told how to format a manuscript, told to read voraciously, told to keep a notebook of ideas and told (most tricky of them all!) to sit down in your chair and write, goddamnit. All good advice, of course, but its usefulness is in proportion to your willingness to act on it. Read one book on how to be writer, and you’ve pretty much read them all.
Pretty much… but Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife is a different bird entirely, because it assumes that you’ve got the aforementioned basics of the writerly life (ie. The Writing) on the go already, and that there’s no point in repeating advice which is already so ubiquitous that it’s inconceivable how few aspiring authors know how to format a submission properly (and believe you me, it really is very few). Nope – no such clichés here. Instead VanderMeer shares some hard-earned wisdom and experience in how to deal with the side of the writer’s lifestyle that the how-to books tend to ignore – how to fit The Writing into The Life, in other words, ideally without losing your money, family, partner, sanity and self-belief in the process.
The great beauty of Booklife is somewhat belied by its name because, while it’s written with writers in mind, lots of the advice contained would suit any creative freelancer – I’ve already started recommending it to musicians, for example, and I expect most sorts of visual artist could learn a lot from it, too. Writers of novels and non-fiction alike will get the most mileage, of course, given whole chapters are devoted to explaining the production and promotional lifecycles of a book after it’s accepted for publication, to discussing the writing and revision processes and the mental spaces they occupy.
But viewed more generally, it’s just as VanderMeer describes it himself: a strategic and tactical guide to living an actively creative life. The first section talks about one’s Public Booklife (how to self-promote without shooting yourself in the foot or running yourself out of time to write with, and how to communicate with your peers, publishers and readers, for a start) and the second talks about the Private Booklife (balancing The Writing with The Admin, The Planning, The Other Work Commitments and The World At Large, and making sure The Writing stays fun, satisfying and vital).
VanderMeer’s style here is anecdotal, casual yet occasionally cautionary, candid. If you’ve followed his blog for a while, you’ll have an idea of what to expect (and may indeed have encountered some of the content of Booklife while it was being created), but there’s masses of genuinely useful and inspiring advice contained within its pages, and the price is just right (though international shipping may blunt that edge for non-US buyers).
If you’ve read enough how-to-write books to know they can’t teach you anything that you can’t teach yourself; if you write regularly and intend to be published, come what may; if you wonder how a creative professional like VanderMeer can seemingly keep a dozen balls in the air and still find time to respond to Facebook comments… if any or all of these are true, you need yourself a Booklife. So go get one.