The Writer’s Idea Book (Jack Heffron)

Jack Heffron’s The Writer’s Idea Book: 10th Anniversary Edition
Writer’s Digest Books, 2011

Heffron Two editions Idea BookThe fact that chapter one begins with one of my favourite quotes, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end”, combined with the fact that I already have a copy of the first edition of this volume on my shelves (and I have packed and moved it three times), reveals that I am predisposed to like this book.

The fact that it begins with dismissing all the standard excuses for not writing warms my heart that much more. For instance, this prompt makes me giggle: “The next time you skip a writing session, write five reasons, three of them excellent, for why you must skip.” A procrastination-soaked prompt: how cool is that!

(And really there isn’t — often, anyhow — an excellent reason for missing a writing session. Not for missing it completely. At the very least, you could write for five minutes, or make a creative shopping list…something! Which isn’t to say that I don’t give myself all kinds of nearly-great reasons for missing one. That is, before I thought about having to write them down. Because what a great idea…turning the procrastination itself into a writing exercise. Love it.)

The prompts in this volume are scattered throughout; they significantly outweigh the straight narrative, particularly as occasionally an entire chapter actually serves as a prompt. This is the kind of book that you can imagine become worn and dog-eared in no time.

Unlike Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, it’s not a volume that you can imagine using as a sole reference, or as a text for independent-study, but it’s like having a visual dictionary alongside your Oxford English: nice to have, damn nice, actually. Often times I think of books of prompts as either being regularly but tangentially useful (i.e. kinda bland but useful in a rote way, the prompt-equivalent of Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages”) or irregularly used but specifically helpful (i.e. you can’t concentrate on your current project and want to spark something completely different). The Writer’s Idea Book seems to have a wider application, offering material for short-term and long-term writing projects.

The structure is rooted in chronology and common sense: Inviting Ideas, Exploring Ideas, Finding Form for Ideas, Evaluating Ideas, and Better Ideas. The first segment includes the procrastination prompt above, along with many others about the enemies of creativity, living a creative life, and reading and other sources of inspiration. The second segment includes chapters on “9 to 5”, “Your Fifteen Minutes” and “All Our Secrets are the Same”. The third section considers specific issues of form and structure. The fourth takes an evaluative stance. And the final segment offers suggestions for trouble-shooting your narrative.

The author describes his tone as varying, “from high-minded to playful to downright cranky”. In Chapter 24, he discusses Tobias Wolff’s The Barracks Thief, which “shifts from third to first person even while focusing on the same character. He also shifts between past and present tense. It’s a very short novel and technically brilliant and ambitious.” In Chapter Five, he explains: “I love Popeye. I used to love him because someone I once loved collected Popeye memorabilia, and together we’d scour antique shops in search of Popeye stuff.” In Chapter 18, he writes: “Short chapter here. You’re going to do most of the work yourself. I’ll contain my penchant for verbosity and try to get out of your way and let you get to it.”

My favourite book containing writing prompts is Naming the World (edited by Bret Anthony Johnston), but Jack Heffron’s is propped alongside.

Terrific Stuff for Writers.

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