Review of THANKS, BUT THIS ISN’T FOR US by JESSICA PAGE MORRELL
Whenever I read a book, I stick tabs on the pages with quotes I especially like. Normally, this equals 0-5 tabs per book, leaning more often towards 0. However, this book had so many tabs by the time I finished reading it, I may as well have stuck one post it note on the front that said: “almost every page” and saved some paper. By the end, I filled five typed pages full of quotes. These are mostly writing advice, but such valuable, well-articulated writing advice that I want the reminders when I’m writing and re-writing my own stories.
Some of my favorites include “Don’t mistake drama for melodrama,” “Revision is the other half of writing,” “Fictional characters differ from us mere mortals,” and prepositions are the “carbohydrates of writing.” And those are simply quotes I selected for their brevity.
I believe all writing advice can be subdivided into three categories: business, craft, and philosophy. Business explains the publishing industry. Craft focuses on the actual writing, the technical mechanics. And philosophy is closer to self-help or therapy for writers, dissecting the emotional turmoils and inner demons most every writer encounters. From my experience, most (well-known, popular) writing books focus on philosophy. This can be validating in a supportive way, but not necessarily helpful on the level of improving one’s writing. Morrell delivers one of the rarer specimens focused on craft. Then she further impresses with not a little but tons of actionable suggestions and insight. Much of what I read attempting to explain craft is too vague: write well. Morrell acknowledges that it is perhaps easier to pick apart what isn’t working than to provide a formula for what works, but I think she has that the right approach. By pinpointing and then addressing problems in a story, the writer can continue to improve its quality.
Morrell provides so much clear, actionable insight that I almost feel I owe her a consulting fee much greater than the cost of this one book. Every chapter ends with a section on what she calls “deal breakers.” In other words, the most common mistakes she sees in relation to whatever aspect of writing that chapter addressed. As if that weren’t enough, she also includes several immensely helpful lists of revision questions. By answering all these questions for your current story, it’s easy to narrow in on the weak points that could use more work. I also made note of her wimps versus heroes list for assessing your protagonist as well as her advice for book openings.
THANKS is easily the best book on the craft of writing that I have read. All of us readers are capable of discussing, in vague terms, what makes a good book, but Morrell actually breaks stories down into their specific components, shows how each works, and how they fit together. She not only provides invaluable advice for assessing your own work, but she’s not stingy with that advice either. A lot of craft writing books have mostly “filler” in my opinion and boiled down perhaps a page or two of actionable suggestions. Every page of THANKS is exceptionally helpful.