RK Recommends: “Starve Better” by Nick Mamatas

Posted by Paolo Chikiamco On May - 4 - 2011

[New section time: I won't bother putting up reviews of non-Filipino books which I wouldn't recommend, or even those which are merely adequate, but now and then I'd like to recommend something worth reading, especially if there's a digital edition available. Hence, "RK Recommends"]

Nick Mamatas’ “Starve Better” (Kindle version) is a collection of essays focused on the craft and practice of being a writer–with an emphasis on practical advice (as opposed to theory) and shorter pieces of work (as opposed to novels)–and I don’t think there’s anything quite like it on the market. In part, I think this is because I don’t think anyone looks at the business and art of writing (or articulates those views) quite like Mamatas. The current editor of Haikasoru, Mamatas is a critically acclaimed writer and editor who combines a wealth of experience in freelance writing with the bedside manner of (to use a professional wrestling analogy that Mamatas might appreciate) of Bill DeMott (or, for those more familiar with non-wrestling TV dramas,  Dr. Gregory House). Mamatas’ irreverent tone and blunt opinions are part of what made the book so enjoyable (and useful) for me, but prospective readers unfamiliar with his style may want to read a few posts from his blog to see if they feel the same way. Make sure to find a post where Mamatas takes a stance that you don’t agree with (that shouldn’t be too hard) and see if you’re entertained, or at least given pause. (My suggestion: this post on his stance on the obligation to provide constructive criticism, which is, I think, the first post I ever read on his blog.)

Prospective readers (who, I assume, are also writers or writer-aspirants) will also get the most out of the book if “Starve Better” isn’t the first text of writing they’ve read: a few of the best essays in the book (“All Pistons Firing”; “Don’t Throw the Hook”) involve a closer look at common writing tips that may do more harm than good. Actually, a solid foundation in the “basics” of fiction provides the best context with which to enjoy most of the first part of the book, “The Book of Lies”. This part focuses on the craft of writing, particularly short fiction, and the essays provide a good counterweight to the sometimes homogenized writing advice you can find in the standard writing texts. Mamatas also excels at providing striking imagery that makes his uncommon take on issues all the more memorable: he illustrates his position that “There are no rules. Only results matter.” by using the (remarkably apt) analogy of a professional wrestling match; he explains how some bad writing can still manage to be riveting because it takes the point of view, not of a character, but of a movie camera; he compares scene breaks to 800-pound gongs… Like I said, there’s no one quite like Mamatas, and that means that even long-time students of the craft of writing will find something new to chew on–and, for a true student, that different and well-articulated perspective can be invaluable.

The second part of the book is “The Book of Life”, and it’s a from-the-trenches look at how you can make quick money from non-fiction writing. I’m not sure how applicable some of the specific advice is to people outside of the United States (much of the advice hinges on placing articles in magazines, and (a) not every U.S. magazine is open to electronic submissions, or international contributors; and (b) Philippine magazines pay much, much less for articles), but many of the more general principles, on topics such as how to write an interesting review or the need to “write your way up”, are sound advice wherever you are. The tips Mamatas gives with regard to how to treat writing as a business are particularly useful for writers (or any artistic/creative type really), given that a lot of the writers I’ve met have no idea how to monetize their talents.

The third part of the book is an Appendix, which consists of articles which don’t fall under either of the two main categories but are still well worth a read (although “The Term Paper Artist” could probably have been put in the “Book of Life”, seeing as it discusses Mamatas’ time writing student papers for hire). The articles on MFA programs will likely be of great use to those geographically situated to avail of them (and cause great envy in those like me who are not), and Mamatas’ take on what makes a “great” writer puts that particular superlative in what I believe to be its proper context… but again, even if I didn’t agree, I’d likely have enjoyed the essay anyway. If don’t mind the feeling of having dearly cherished writer-ly beliefs body-slammed and, occasionally, pinned for a three-count, I highly recommend “Starve Better”.

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Rocket Kapre is an imprint of Eight Ray Sun Publishing Inc. (a new Philippine-based publisher), dedicated to bringing the very best of Philippine Speculative Fiction in English to a worldwide audience by means of digital distribution. More info can be found at our About section at the top of the page.