If you’ve spent any time around me at all, you’ll know that I’m a huge fan of J Michael Straczynski’s work. Babylon 5 opened my eyes to epic storytelling while never scrimping on the humour or the characters, while his move into mainstream comics soon after still echoes on to this day – especially in how some of those characters have been portrayed on screen. His is a career that spans decades, and with good reason.
Of my writing influences, Joe is by far and away the biggest. It’s a great regret to me that we’ll probably never meet, but as we’re both (self-described) social inepts, perhaps that’s for the best.
It should therefore go without saying that I was delighted when BenBella Books offered to send me a copy of Straczynski’s Becoming a Writer, Staying a Writer: The Artistry, Joy, and Career of Storytelling in exchange for an honest review.
This weekend, I finally had a chance to dig into it.
First things first, Becoming a Writer, Staying a Writer is beautifully written. Straczynski strikes a balance between earthily straightforward and unashamedly romantic. You never doubt his passion, but this seldom clouds more practical advice. Every page flows effortlessly into the next, leavening the (sometimes brutal) advice with anecdotes, wry asides, and nuggets of information. By example alone, it’s a masterclass in how to speak directly to your reader.
In terms of content, there is a lot of advice to be had within these pages. It’s here – in giving a neophyte writer a boost in their chosen career – that Becoming a Writer, Staying a Writer really shines. Traps and techniques are laid bare with brutal honesty, coping strategies and gentle humour. Every dire warning about the challenge ahead is softened by encouragement.
In the book Straczynski says “… if you have any success at all, you have a moral obligation to send down the elevator for the next person”. That’s exactly what this feels like, and I wish I’d had these lessons five, ten, twenty years ago, rather than having learned them the hard way.
That’s not to say that there’s nothing in here for a veteran of the word mines. Scarred by my rough tutelage though I am, it’s still vindicating to see those same learnings reflected within these pages. Indeed, there’s plenty in Becoming a Writer, Staying a Writer for survivors of the trenches – one or two points, in particular, I’m considering how best to apply to a forthcoming project.
If I’ve a criticism to make of Becoming a Writer, Staying a Writer, it’s hardly a unique one. Sooner or later, any treatise on writing stops being advice, and metamorphoses into a prose confession by its author. The coulda woulda shoulda of the life literary. It’s no different here. There are plenty of regrets on the page – some in plain sight, some hinted at – and it’s unavoidable. We learn by doing, and sometimes the thing we learn is to never, ever do that particular thing again.
All told, I have no hesitation in recommending Becoming a Writer, Staying a Writer for anyone who’s a writer – or thinks they might like to be one. It doesn’t shy away from some of the tougher truths surrounding the profession, it’ll make you a better, more confident writer … and if all else fails, you’re spending an afternoon in the company of Joe Straczynski, which I’d recommend on its own merits.
 See also ‘very surprised’. They clearly overestimate the number of visitors this website attracts.
 This shouldn’t seem remarkable in a book about writing, but … it doesn’t always pan out that way.