Books on Writing

So I was having a conversation with someone recently (someone who also writes).  The subject turned to writing, and she told me about a couple of books on writing, particularly novel writing, that she’d picked up at the bookstore recently, and she wanted to know if I had any and that maybe we could read&swap, that sort of thing. I had to confess that the only books to do with writing that I own are a copy of Writers Market (from 2008, I think), and a handful of books that my mother bought me that teach you how to write good college application essays from 5 or 6 years ago. She seemed a little baffled that I’ve been writing for a decade and I’ve not bought (or read, for that matter) one.

From the internet looking that I’ve done, there seems to be a bit of a debate on the issue. Are writers born or made? Do you need to go for the advice of the masters? (Or for those who make a living writing books telling you how to write?) Do they have intrinsic value and will they make you a better writer? Or are they just ways for authors to make more money? (And no, I don’t say that’s necessarily a bad thing.)

The problem, which I know a lot of people discuss independent of books on writing, is that everyone writes differently. Everyone’s mind works differently. My writing process looks bizarre to pretty much anyone who isn’t me, but it works for me. I’ve looked at the snowflake method in the past, and I think it would just irritate the fk out of me, going through all those steps. I’m sure those writing books that I’ve never read have their own methods, which presumably work for the authors in question. But do they work for you? Should a budding writer like myself set out to imitate the so-called masters and learn my own style from there, or should I accept that I’ve got a basic grasp of grammar and syntax and blaze forwards on my own?  (I don’t think there’s anyone out there that really thinks an illiterate person should just be given a pen and paper and expect Shakespeare to be produced).

I’ll take my side, which should be fairly obvious. I’m sure that I’ve stumbled this way and that over the past ten years. But I’ve learned what does and doesn’t work for me. Maybe I could have skipped a couple of steps in this process if I’d read some books on writing. Maybe I’d find that Stephen King’s writing methods are perfect for me. I don’t know. Buying books on writing really isn’t on my list of things to do, nor on my list of things that must be purchased. Maybe my writing’s crap, maybe it always will be (and I’ll be the first to tell you that most of it falls close to that description), maybe I’ll never be published. Call me a purist (and I hate that term applied to pretty much anything), but unless someone can give me a good reason to find/read one of these books (except purely for entertainment value – I’ve heard good things about Stephen King’s On Writing, for example), I think I’ll stick with what does and doesn’t work for me, and evolve as the desire takes me.

In other and totally unrelated news, I’ve stumbled onto what looks like an interesting and fun contest. But the deadline is the 12th of February, so if any of you, my dear lurkers, want to enter it you should probably get thinking on it. Even if you don’t, the associated prompt generator looks an incredible amount of fun.

Peace out, lurkers.

EDIT: if you’ve just read this one and not the follow-up post, please do read it before commenting.



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4 responses to “Books on Writing

  1. I have a handful of them [SK’s ‘cos I love him and, like you, had heard good things; NPNP ‘cos I figured I owed Baty at least a bit of money for all he’s done for me; and a few others that were my required texts for the writing course I took in college to fill in my schedule… and to stare at the gorgeous professor]… Those were my starters, anyway. I have a few more now, but simply because I like reading them to pick up things I might not have thought about otherwise.

    I like my process for writing and editing. The fact that at 23 I have nine completely edited novels under my belt and short stories for sale in a few magazines as well as two different books makes me feel justified in agreeing with you that we can learn by doing and never need to pick up one of those guidebooks at all, even if only to laugh at them.

    But, something else I learned in my writing course and on the NaNo forums is that there are people out there that can, and likely will, write a great story that they’ve had stuck up in their head for ages, but need someone to hold their hand and guide them along, every step of the way. I also learned that I don’t get along with these people very well; I tend not to have the patience to deal with their questions.

    Though, I don’t know whose novel would end up working out better [not just finished quality, but the process of planning, writing, and editing included], but I think that you’re very right in saying that everyone’s process is a bit different and the only way to figure out which is right for you is through trial and error. That said, I do purchase and read writing books… No matter how aggravating some of their suggestions are. [:

  2. Anon

    Sometimes we need to get another perspective on the craft of writing. I don’t look for advice on how to write, I just like to see how someone thinks about their writing as they do it. Stephen King, Ayn Rand, and Orson Scott Card have their own styles and methods, and their thoughts on writing were valuable to me in helping me to refine my craft. I didn’t take everything they say as the gospel truth, but I did consider their words, and learned a lot about the language we use to convey our stories.

    I recommend On Writing and The Art of Fiction to anyone who wants to write good sentences, paragraphs, and, good stories.

  3. kirosl

    I think they can be fairly useful, although I’ve certainly seen people who have gone too far the other way and read every writing book going but never actually practice for themselves!

    I think of it like being an athlete. You might have all the natural talent in the world, but you’re not going to win at a high level if you never take any advice on your technique, pacing, finishing, nutrition, hydration etc..

    Why not try to learn something from people who have years of experience? That just seems like common sense to me. Even the best authors take advice. The most helpful book I read recently was ‘Solutions for Novelists’ by Sol Stein, which has lots of useful tips from an editor/novelist as to how to write publishable novels.

    I also get inspired by reading very good fiction. I’m reading ‘Wolf Hall’ at the moment, which is the best book I’ve read in years, and it’s making me itch to get on with my own writing.

  4. Incandescent

    To be honest, I don’t read them for the advice. I don’t mind it, of course, but it’s not why I pick the books off the shelves.

    In my life, all the writers I know write Deep, Contemplative Lih-trah-ree Fikt-shun (can you hear my snobby accent?). If it isn’t knee-deep in convoluted symbolism and pompous, lofty morals, they have no idea what to do with it. I write semi-tragic fantasy, and dabble in semi-fantastic comedy from time to time. Though there are writers in my area who are quite happy to speak to me on the topic, there are very, very few who approach writing as a hobby with the same emotional pallet as I do. They want the Great American Novel, and they will Suffer For Their Work through the Gauntlet Of Critics And Fools-Who-Don’t-Understand, et cetera. I just want the next Robin Hobb, Anne McCaffrey or George R R Martin, and I’m too damn impatient to wait for them to write the next one on their own. I write to amuse myself; they write For Posterity. You get the point.

    For a while, we can talk. I’ve had hour-long conversations about outlining methods, character development or the agony of writer’s block, and that’s all well and good. It just doesn’t satisfy. I want to “talk” to someone who is interested in my genre, or who at least understands that a story can be well-written without being the opus that they’re trying to pen down. I can’t bounce ideas off a book (oh, how I wish I could!), but it still fills that gap in my mind. It feels like a conversation.

    All told, the only writing books I would loudly recommend are On Writing (King), No Plot? No Problem! (Baty — it’s better when you’re younger, and best the first time you read it) and Sometimes the Magic Works (Brooks). Other books give me methods, plans and lofty advice, which isn’t what I’m looking for. On Writing gets me in the mindset of a novelist, which is damn hard to do — I’m a terrible procrastinator, even with things I greatly enjoy. NP?NP! was the only way I made it through my first two Novembers with NaNoWriMo. Sometimes the Magic Works is the only piece by Brooks I’ve particularly enjoyed, and again, it was mostly because it let me settle solidly into the “Let’s Play Pretend” shoes of a novelist.

    I like reading your blog. You remind me that all aspiring novelists don’t necessarily want to be Faulkner or Joyce, and that’s always a pleasant reminder.

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