Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, Good Prose: The Art of Non-Fiction (New York: Random House, 2013), 195pp.
Tracy Kidder is best known for his book Mountains Beyond Mountains about the physician Paul Farmer. He's won a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. One secret behind his success has been his editor of forty years, Richard Todd. But Kidder's success was hardly a foregone conclusion. In the first article he ever wrote for the Atlantic magazine, the editor-in-chief Bob Manning returned the manuscript to Todd with the lament scrawled in the margin, "Let's face it, this fellow can't write."
This book is partly a memoir about the working relationship between a writer and his editor, and also a manual of practical advice about how to become a better writer. There are separate chapters about three distinct types of prose — writing about the world (narrative), ideas (essays), and the self (memoir). There are discussions about point of view, structure, chronology, characters, the difference between facts and truth, and style. An interesting stand alone chapter considers the ambiguous relationship between art and commerce, writing and money. The book concludes with a short chapter on word usage and grammar, and a brief bibliography of books about writing.
But what makes this book really sing is the story telling about lessons learned over a forty-year friendship. Kidder and Todd are self-effacing, funny, candid, and hard-working. But even after all the hard work, if 80% of books lose money, and publishing is an inherent gamble, then even the best have to acknowledge "the power of luck." Todd says that one of Kidder's greatest strengths is that he isn't afraid of writing badly. Nor does he shirk from wholesale rewriting — not just tinkering with a text or "shuffling the same old stuff around," but throwing good work away and starting over. Kidder was always going to be a writer, says Todd. But "successful or not, who can ever tell?"