Pros: Extensive, helpful, useful and eminently practical
Cons: Tone is a bit world-weary at the beginning
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Review first published 10/9/2003
Review book courtesy of Writer’s Digest Books/F&W Publications
I haven’t read many books by Jack Heffron, but I know his name quite well. I’ve read and reviewed a ridiculous number of books about writing, you see. His name has popped up in quite a few of them, and a good many other books besides. Sometimes he’s listed as an editor. Sometimes he gets thanked in the acknowledgments. Often the author wishes to express how wonderful Mr. Heffron is for listening to this idea or that proposal, or helping out with a project in one way or another. It’s become a running joke for me–I check for his name in the front of any book that has anything to do with writing, and sometimes my husband remembers to ask whether the latest book I’m reading was edited by Heffron or not. If I were paranoid I’d label Heffron one of the secret masters of the writing world, shaping young writers everywhere through his nefarious behind-the-scenes influence!
So it’s little wonder that Jack Heffron, as much as anyone, has the experience and skill necessary to write a book all about the process of taking your ideas from their first inception through to finished product. And this is exactly what he does in his latest book, “The Writer’s Idea Workshop: How to make your good ideas great.”
Heffron wrote a previous book called The Writer’s Idea Book that focused on idea generation and seemed aimed at all writers, whether they were determined to publish their writing or content to write for themselves. As the subtitle of “Workshop” implies, however, book two is meant to take those original ideas and move them forward–from something enjoyable to something that will hopefully be publishable. It’s less a book on creativity, and more a book on self-editing, or finding and fixing the problems in your own manuscripts. You could say it’s a sequel to his other book.
While you can find many of the suggestions here in other books on self-editing, you’ll also find advice that moves in new directions. There’s an entire section on how to apply other people’s suggestions to your own work; it goes beyond the usual hints to talk about the ways in which you can dig through surface-level criticism to get to the really helpful information underneath it. Rather than simply telling you that often very little of your first draft of a piece will survive into later incarnations, Heffron helps to clarify how this process can happen and how you can help it to happen. Many of his prompts in the section “Mining for Diamonds” focus on various ways to look at a piece of writing, pick out what’s working and what isn’t, and go from there. For example:
PROMPT: Reduce the piece to its frame, its skeleton. If necessary, outline it. Examine how the pieces work together. Isolate those elements that don’t fit and brainstorm ways of making them fit. If they still don’t fit, outline the piece again without those elements and see if the piece still works.
“Workshop” provides straight instructive material on a number of topics. Do you want help generating ideas? Evaluating your ideas? Making them serve the greater needs of your specific writing projects? What about using them to help you overcome various problems you’ll encounter while writing–such as difficult beginnings, stuck middles, and troubled endings? The book follows up its instruction with helpful questions you can ask yourself, and then expands on those with plenty of prompts and exercises to help you apply what you’ve learned to a specific piece of writing.
“Workshop” is an improvement on the “Idea Book,” although really the two books occupy slightly different niches. It has more explanation in addition to the prompts, aimed in particular at what Heffron prefers to call apprentice writers, i.e., writers who haven’t yet mastered their craft. I think this book is more widely applicable to writers of all types, including genre authors, for which I’m grateful–his last book seemed to have a specific literary bent. Whether you prefer to write essays, memoir, short stories, or novels, you’ll find plenty in here to help you out.
Yet there’s one small change that I wasn’t quite as fond of. In the “Idea Book,” Heffron comes across as a bit of a romantic where the process of writing is concerned. I might not have agreed with all of his assertions, but I enjoyed the tone, and think that most beginning or intermediate writers would find it encouraging. In “Workshop,” however (specifically, the beginning parts of the book), Heffron has developed a more world-weary tone that focuses not on the wonder of writing, but rather on the mistakes that apprentice writers tend to make over and over again. In some ways this is good–after all, he spends plenty of space on concrete suggestions and prompts meant to help you spot and conquer these issues. On the other hand, it’s less inspiring and uplifting. He has become more assertive about declaring certain things to be this way or that. (He may deride “de-clutter nazis,” for example, as having a harmful effect on a writer’s creativity, but some of us actually do work better with a lot less clutter surrounding us.) This attitude doesn’t last, however, and toward the latter half of the book he seems to regain his equanimity. So if you could use this book, don’t let this small quibble deter you from checking it out.
If you’re writing for publication and have a real interest in working out the flaws in your writing, this book is a great asset. It talks about many of the mistakes that are common to writers, and will help teach you how to recognize them, pinpoint them, and work them out. If you’re just writing for yourself, however, rather than honing your craft, this might not be the right book for you. Heffron’s “Idea Book” makes a better inspirational book than does “Workshop.”
Since I’m prevaricating a bit, consider my ultimate rating to be 4.5.