Picks and Pans Review: Starting from Scratch: a Different Kind of Writers' Manual

updated 04/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Rita Mae Brown

After two Emmy nominations (for I Love Liberty and The Long Hot Summer), writing several screenplays (The Slumber Party Massacre was the only one that got produced) and nine books, including the 1973 novel Ruby-fruit Jungle, the ever sassy Ms. Brown has a right to dole out this advice on the writer's craft. "My drive," she says, "comes from throwing my work out to you like a giant beach ball and hoping that you will play with it." Much of this book is about that drive. Opening with a short autobiographical sketch, Brown recalls her upbringing in Pennsylvania and Florida, her education and her growing social consciousness, which was shaped by the civil rights movement. The background for her writing is a classic combination of struggle-filled apprenticeship and formal study that she reviews with candor, noting: "Show me a writer, any writer, who hasn't suffered and I'll show you someone who writes in pastels as opposed to primary colors." As a teacher, Brown seems rather predictable. She admonishes beginners to "Show, don't tell," offers such weary aphorisms as "Politics seeks to conceal, Art to reveal" and even goes stumping for Latin: "If you don't know Latin, you don't know English." Brown's style is often more substantial than her material. In a section devoted to words "as separate units of consciousness," she points out this difference between the words "involvement" and "commitment": "Think of ham and eggs. The chicken is involved. The pig is committed." There's plenty to savor, though. There are chapters on plot and a variety of reading lists of reference books and the classics. Brown's refresher course on writing and how to succeed in the more-than-occasionally trying life of a writer is quick and entertaining. But someone actually starting from scratch would do better to look elsewhere for help. (Bantam, $16.95)

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