In a rare moment of understatement I’ll say there are a lot of how-to books on writing out there, enough to make the starter-outer writer feel as though its a natural if not necessary part of the process of learning. I’m talking about the breed that have arisen recently, though not as recently as previously thought, with the aim to teaching the wannabe film writer, novelist or entrepreneur how to get the winning formula. Yip, I said entrepreneur. Between Rowling and EL many are convinced writing is a cash cow ready to be milked.
For those genuinely just looking to learn and grow here’s an alternative perspective (of a totally unappreciated gen..uine story lover 😀 )
But you write a blog on writing?! I hear ya.. and that’s reason number one 😀
~Why pay when its free?~
This is not an argument against learning. We all learn, the only question is how. The internet has proven itself to be the writer’s university, but there doesn’t seem to be any screening process for the professors. There are countless articles, blogs, critique sites and god (but not me) knows what else, all available for free. I follow several myself. And my writer friends send me tons more. I’m still wading through them. They do vary wildly in quality and even within that, some of the most well written pieces published by the most respected sources are simply rehashed and rather uninformative, while the absolute novice who still considers head hopping something involving talking frogs, can actually offer some surprising, if badly spelt, ideas (like that ever bothered me).
Some might defend the how-to book as being able to go far more in depth than a 1000 word article. And I agree depth could be an issue. But I don’t read articles to learn how to write, I read to get the gears in my brain turning, to give me a nudge to view something from a slightly different angle which might hopefully throw some unexpected light on an issue; the depth, in simple terms, is all in the reader; the person who is reading to be taught how-to versus the person who believes only they can figure out how-to, given they are the only ones privy to their vision. They still wanna know everything about writing, to gather as much information as possible, as many different perspectives and techniques as possible to make sure that vision comes vibrantly to life.
Again some might say that’s why they read these books, that they don’t expect one book to hold all the answers. Well maybe they have far more money and time than I do, but really my concern is that these guides are not written as surplus educational tools, they are written as Gospel….
~They do the critical thinking for you~
They aren’t here to suggest, nudge, help. They are written to tell. Actually they are probably written to sell. But the first lesson every salesmen gets in Sales For Dummies is ‘confidence in your product.’ Have you considered.. but perhaps.. some might think.. are not the words of a good salesman. THIS IS WHAT YOU NEED, is, WRITE GOOD(like this) or DIE (everyone will point and laugh), is, HOW TO WRITE A BESTSELLER, is. There’s even HOW NOT TO WRITE A BESTSELLER.
Don’t be too harsh to these poems until they’re typed. I always think typescript lends some sort of certainty: at least, if the things are bad then, they appear to be bad with conviction. ~Dylan Thomas, letter to Vernon Watkins, March 1938
There is an authority in writing, those little black and white squiggles are the stamp of merit, that perhaps even the internet isn’t completely eroding. There are countless studies which show that writing things down makes them more real. It adds an extra layer of definition, a hook that allows us to return to something that might otherwise have faded away. The dieter who journals is far more likely to succeed. Memory can play tricks but written words on something you can hold in your hand, are hard to deny.
So the how-to book reader can very easily get swept up in the rhetoric, the musts, the shoulds, more so in a book, which hammers its message home repeatedly. I did peruse quite a number of these guides for this article and almost universally they began with a rhetorical argument for why you must listen to them. Pages dedicated to the repetitious art of waffle. Few articles have the space to do this. They are also open to conflicting opinions in the comments sections – I am expecting a few on this 😀
~They don’t speak to how we learn~
I wouldn’t call the reader of such books inherently lazy, they aren’t intentionally looking for a shortcut, a cheats guide to the golden Egg, on the contrary they are probably grafters, perhaps many are even those types that invariably ended up being teachers pets. They are looking for the way to get it right, but writing just doesn’t work that way. Its a nebulous, emotional, personal experience that even the most dedicated reader finds hard to explain. And each new book we read is tainted with every other book we’ve read before.
I’ve heard physicists joke that anyone who can explain quantum physics is lying or stupid, I think writing might mirror that.
Reading and writing as teachers are surpassed only by thinking. Your judgement is your voice. You’re making decisions – countless decisions – with every word. There are no limits to the possible ways you can express yourself. They say there are only seven stories, how many books do you think there are? But what if you haven’t developed your critical faculties, if instead you are filtering through the lens of a how-to book?
Take the issue of show don’t tell and the clichés that keep on turning up time and time again as some kind of solution (not not not!), well apparently you need not think of these yourself. Angela Ackerman has done the work for you and compiled a couple of handy guides. We have the Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. Do I believe show is good? Obviously, but what are you showing me? You’re ability to overlook amazon’s appalling workers rights violations? That you can remember your paypal password? that is quite impressive actually… But you are certainly not showing me anything of interest. When your character starts widening eyes and dropping their jaw(amazement), my eyes are glazing over (boredom) and jumping ahead (impatience) neither of which will have you rubbing your hands (glee). You’re also efinitly not showing me a character, a perons, you know those other two legged creatures all around you , from where those funny things we call emotions arise? But don’t worry about that, because we also have the Positive Traits Thesaurus: A writer’s Guide to Characters Attributes and its companion the Negative Traits Thesaurus. That’s everything covered, bad guy, good guy, no thinking required.
But I really like thinking…
~They shatter your confidence~
I keep hearing about the delusional starter-outer, the wannabe King-slayer, and I do envy them. A little. I never even had the delusion of confidence. I don’t envy them the inevitable toppling. It seems every other writer out there is sitting in wait, ready to show you just how shit you really are. And it seems How-to books are leading the charge.
How Not To Write A Novel – common mistakes everyone makes.
Grow Your novel – starting with the most common mistakes all writers make.
Eat, Shoots And leaves – common punctuation mistakes every writer makes..
The key point with all of these is that ‘all writers make’. Cause they do. I don’t want to read my favourite books with bits taken out. I just don’t.
Anyone else feel just a touch of ice at the thought of telling writers ‘everything you have done is wrong, now take it out and replace with the appropriate sanctioned ….’ ?
Thinking is good. But much more than that, writing is the art of thinking. I keep returning to this fear, that phrase my friend coined ‘art eating itself’. When we stop looking to the world, to people, to ourselves and consult a dictionary of human beings, an encyclopaedia of human experiences, what are we writing? What twisted notions of truth are we putting out there? And putting out there over and over and over again..
I’m old enough to have honed my reading in a pre-internet world. The next generation will likely not be. And I can’t say that looking back at my teenage self the lure of writing sites, of like minded folk, wouldn’t have been overwhelming, which means the fledgling writer of today is likely to bump up against how-to books long before they have a strong sense of their own voice.
I’m often asked if I think the beginning writer of fiction can benefit from writing classes or seminars. The people who ask are, all too often, looking for a magic bullet or a secret ingredient or possibly Dumbo’s magic feather, none of which can be found in classrooms or at writing retreats, no matter how enticing the brochures may be.” ~ Stephen king
It took me a long time to reach the place where I was comfortable speaking up but when I finally did it taught me something. It gave me something rock solid upon which confidence is built. It taught me that I know. I know what I love, how it works. I know. Not everything, but enough to keep figuring the rest out. The great thing about figuring it out on your own is that you really understand things on a very fundamental, mechanical level. You’re not just being told this is how it works, you’ve had to untangle and follow the strings, so you know what they pull. And that feels good. Ask Daniel Jackson..
I often read articles now, not to be told how to do something but to see how they measure against my own take, style, approach. The sense of connection and sometimes, challenge, that can give me, can be very satisfying and surprisingly helpful at times. And if you are going to read books on writing this is probably when I would say is the time, when you have a strong sense of what you want to achieve and won’t be whitewashed before you have a chance to feel secure in yourself as a writer. But you might find that one spark that helps you through a difficult phase or the inspiration to continue when motivation is low.