I am not going to write this book.

I have no intention of writing a how-to book. No time, no interest. I do read them, however, and usually I’m irritated. I imagine the author sitting in front of the keyboard chuckling to himself. Knowing he’s tying aspiring authors into knots. Good, he thinks. Too many damn books out there as it is.

Which really, who could argue? There are hundreds of books I’d like to read and haven’t got to yet, and more every day.

But. If you’re going to write a how-to book, your heart and your mind should be in the right place. Which is rarely the case, so most of those books aren’t worth much, in my opinion. And of course there are exceptions: I do like Bird by Bird, for the author’s sincerity and generosity of spirit and sense of humor. There are some nuggets of wisdom in there, but it’s not a book that sets out to teach you anything concrete about how to write. It’s more about how to approach the act of writing. The other is Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, which is the best book I’ve ever run into for simply untangling the mechanics of storytelling. There are also some good books on very specific topics. While I find most how to write properly books (shall I say) full of crap, there are some great books that look at very specific and focused issues, such as how to write a good erotic sex scene or how to approach personal narrative.

I am wondering what you think about this. Especially if you are writing with the hope of being published at some point. Do you read how-to books? And if you read them, do they help, or hurt, or do nothing at all? Do you actually learn anything from them that you can use?

And here’s a question: what would you like to see in a how-to book you’ve never seen before?

15 Replies to “I am not going to write this book.”

  1. I liked Steering the Craft by Ursula K. LeGuin and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg; the first is aimed more at the technical details of craft while the second tries to get you writing, get the hand moving and everything else will follow.

  2. How to Write books had me so confused (the advice was contradictory and went against how I was comfortable writing) that they turned me off trying to write a novel for a decade and I satisfied myself by continuing with the safer fanfic where no one cared “how” I wrote my stories.

    Useful would be advice books that offered many possible ways to approach writing so when things don’t work, the reader can get ideas of other things to try. And the word “should” should never appear.

  3. Shelly — I do think there are some ‘shoulds’ — but then, you and I will have to agree to disagree on this topic.

  4. OMG, some of the women in my critique circle swear by these how-to books. Granted, some new writers could really use the advice on how to better master more effective sentences, etc. But they rely on them so much that they lose their own narrative voice or inhibit its development in the first place. I believe that authors’ styles are supposed to be idiosyncratic (which is why I read X but don’t care for Y), and that how-to books only present one opinion about how to write. Grain of salt, and all that…

  5. I am one of those unpublished writers and I have to admit I have never read a “how to” book on writing. I don’t want to come across as if I know everything because I certainly do not (when you know everything, what’s left to learn — and wouldn’t that be boring?) but there IS one thing I know for sure — my style of writing is my style of writing and I don’t think anyone can teach me anything about that. I’m not talking about mechanics here or grammar or using too many prepositional phrases (smile!) — all of that is good to know and worth delving into on occasion. I just think a writer’s inate style is something that is his or her very own and, if you try to change it, something special and individualistic definitely gets lost (maybe the reader would never know that but the writer always would).

    I don’t want to be the next Rosina Lippi/Sara Donati or Diana Gabaldon. Though I admire their work very, very much, I simply want to be the next Lynn Irwin Stewart. No, not the next. The one and only. I don’t want to be compared to anyone — if someone hates — or loves — my writing, I’d rather they hate it or love it on it’s own terms — not in comparison to someone else’s style or some style that I have been “taught”.

    I know there are some things I do when I write which I need to “fix” but they all have to do with using certain words too much, inserting the word “that” too often and saying things such as, “she got up and switched on the light” instead of just saying, “she switched on the light.” But, all of those I have recognized all by myself — though I’m sure someone else could point out a lot of other mistakes. Still, those are all mechanics, if you ask me, not style.

    I have actually thumbed through a few “how to” books but have never felt compelled to buy one. Maybe I should. Maybe I would learn something important — or, at least, make me think about something I hadn’t thought about before. But my gut feeling is that I would be wasting my time reading them when I could be, well, writing.

  6. I think y’all have made some important observations here. If everybody used the same books religiously (or attended the same MFA programs), the result is going to be some degree of homogeneity. Which really, not the point at all when it comes to storytelling.

    On the other hand, if you can read how-to books with a good amount and keep your perspective, there are sometimes useful things in them. I learned about the one inch frame idea from Bird and Bird and it is still useful. And will always be useful, I think.

  7. I sort of agree with Lynn, the post before mine. I haven’t read any how to’s because, they go into the tech part of writing not how to get that story out of your head and onto paper.

    I read once that Laura I. Wilder use to write her first draft on “Big Chief” tablets. I figure if it’s good enough for Laura it’s good enough for me. I don’t really use “Big Chief” but you get the idea.

    When I write I try to just write. I don’t pay any attention to spelling (My big downfall) or to grammer rules, (my second big downfall) and I hope that my beta (an editor in otherwords, for fan fiction) will catch those pesky sound-alike words, (boulder, bolder, sense, since,) which I always miss.

    If I stop to think about things like that the words stop and I lose the flow. Then I lose the feel of the scene I’m trying to write.

    After some 50 years of reading all the time I hope I have a ‘feel’ about what works and what doesn’t. While I’ll never be anywhere near as good as those real authors I admire, I do satisfy my creative need. They say that you write the kinds of stories you want to read. LOL I have no idea who ‘they’ are.

  8. This is so funny. I took a continuing education course just recently titled ‘How to Build Your Book’, the instructor is a published author and I enjoyed the class. What was funny was on the first night a student asked “What was the formula that Dan Brown used for the DaVinci Code? He must have used some formula, that’s all I want to know.” Needless to say I had to chuckle thinking that if the instructor had the ‘formula’ she’d be using it and not here teaching this course, needless to say that student didn’t return. I guess she’s still out there searching for the ‘formula’. If there was a secret formula wouldn’t books be boring?

    I found that you take away from a writing book what you need and the rest you disreguard. I do have a book that was very helpful, ‘The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes’. This book tells you about archetypes and then what happens when two archetypes interact, it can really help you if you are trying to work out a characters goal, motivation and conflict especially as it relates to another characters GMC. Happy writing.

  9. I have a lot and there comes a point where they start to kill your creativity as do online writers lists. Inspirational books are a little different. Natalie Goldberg and Julia Cameron are good to get you going again.

  10. Alot of people dislike creative writing teachers and How To books. Nobody dares admit to taking a writing course or buying a How To book yet somebody has to be doing just that, they don’t hop off the shelves by themselves right? I don’t agree to the rigidity of some methods, but nobody is forcing me to follow along, there are alot of different roads to Rome after all…

    Its the idea that writing can be taught that bothers people. Writing is writing they say, its a natural talent, you either have it or you don’t, those who can’t teach. Right?

    If I picked up a violin for the first time would I be able to create my own compositions? Yes. Would they be anything anybody would want to listen to? I hardly think so. You have to learn the basic techniques first, walk before you run…

    But writing is different.

    Maybe. Alot is inspiration that’s true, plus you do absorb alot from all the books you have read in your life, but you have to practice and one of the great things about these books and classes are the exercises you must do at the end. I’m not reading these books expecting a miracle but if I come away from them with one or two little tips or tricks I can use myself or a better understanding of a topic then I’m happy.

  11. I’m with you in thinking that most “how-to-write” books are really full of malarky. I don’t believe you can learn to write from a book anyway. You can use them for motivation, inspiration and support though, which are all vital parts of the writing process. I do occasionally pick up a writing book when I have hit a brick wall and just want to get the juices flowing again. My three favorites for this are “Bird by Bird” which you mentioned, “Wildmind” by Natalie Goldberg and “Poemcrazy” (I forget the name of the author, but I’ve found some of the exercises in here are great when I’m just struggling to get anything down on paper and past the point of caring if it is any good or not as long as that page isn’t blank anymore!)

  12. I’ve read most of the how-to books — Bird by Bird, the one by Rita Mae Brown, the one by Ray Bradbury, and various “be creative! everyone can write” style books whose titles I can’t remember.

    The very first one I got was long, long ago (I think I was 12) written by an agent, Scott something or other, that I swore smelled of cigars which must of course have come direct from the author. Very impressive.

    Far and away the most helpful and thought-provoking books were written by John Gardner — Becoming a Novelist, The Art of Fiction, and On Moral Fiction — and finding out that he hadn’t been published until maybe his third novel was a revelation.

    But when I skimmed his novels, I didn’t like them. I also tried Rita Mae Brown, and didn’t really like her work either. Should I take the advice of people whose work doesn’t do anything for me? And at the time I read Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott had two or three nonfiction and maybe one novel published, so I thought, who does she think she is anyway, telling people how to write?

    So I stopped reading how-to books. I think it was a necessary beginning phase, but after a while, it’s a lot like writing discussion boards: you have to be really careful how much time you spend with them or talking/reading about the process will substitute for time you should be practicing.

    I still do think Gardner’s work is the best, and I also did buy “Good Bones and Simple Murders” by Margaret Atwood chiefly because the one thing the book doesn’t say a word about is how to write.

    Things that have been published here about craft have been very helpful mainly because they weren’t aimed at beginners.

    In real-world terms, however, I learned a great deal more about writing (chiefly what not to do!) during the time I spent critiquing sf novels and stories as a member of Critters than from books.

  13. I don’t really care for ‘how-to’ books. What I do enjoy are books which detail the writer’s own methods–how they write and what works for them. These I find fascinating. One I liked in particular was Stephen King’s “On Writing”. The funny thing is that I liked this book a lot better than I do his novels.

  14. This is interesting, i am a visual artist which means i have had years of experience on buying how to books and references. From my perspective i would agree with Elizabeth, I would love seeing the mechanics from each author’s view, to me that would be more interesting. One thing that i found interesting was from one of your earlier blogs, when you were discussing one of your professor’s classes on prose. (i think that was the subject.)

    A friend across the street, she is a teacher and she had a children’s book published for her sons, i think perhaps self published. She took a course on Storytellling, with Storytellers, people who go around and just tell stories to groups. i did not know at the time that such people existed, the whole class, sounded fascinating, i checked into it and it was sold out months before the course. I finally moved on and forgot about it. The groups that came to my children’s schools were really great on capturing the listener’s attention. boy, did i get too, far off subject here? i have always highly admired and been envious of a person who can verbally or in written word, tell a great story.

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