November 3, 2011

Help Wanted

Question Number I-Haven't-Been-Counting on You Haven't Got an Appointment! was asked by Carrie. She wrote

Do you have any good how-to books on writing that you could recommend? On how to write well, or create characters, or anything like that?

On this question I fear I will disappoint, because I am one of those rare people who doesn't use how-to books. Probably more than ninety percent of the writers whose blogs I follow use and advocate the use of books on writing, so I recognize that I am in the minority when I say that I do not like the practice. Since being in the minority is a risky business, I will attempt to explain my position and you can decide for yourself what you think of it.

First of all, writing is an art and must be treated as such. Grammar and syntax may be taught and learning how to use the English language is essential; but being able to trap light in your ink, to capture beauty with words, is not something that can be conveyed through rules. I believe that practice is the best way to excel. Filling your brain with what to do and what not to do can be damaging to the life and voice of your writing because it teaches you to concentrate on the mechanics rather than the spirit. I find this with myself: the more worried I am about "getting it right," the more stilted my writing becomes.

Secondly, many people seem to forget that the idea of self-help books is a very modern and American concept. The literary greats like Shakespeare, Dickens, James Fenimore Cooper, and C.S. Lewis did not read how-to books on the craft, nor is that because they were superhuman and didn't need to learn how to hone their words. They progressed through love of good literature and practice. While it is true that we in the 21st Century can't write in the same style as a Dickens or a Cooper because times have changed, it is not true that we as writers and readers cannot learn from them or follow in their footsteps. If you want to have your words withstand the test of time, it is perfectly reasonable to take lessons from those whose words already have.

Thirdly, there is a quote by Neil Gaiman that I have read in various places and think is quite applicable: "You never learn how to write a novel. You merely learn how to write the novel you're on." Every writer is different, every story is different, and to attempt to write a book that will give The Answer on how to properly write a novel is, in my mind, a little arrogant. Ideas and suggestions can be quite helpful, and I would not say that I have the same antipathy for books that give ideas on, say, how to edit as I do for books that attempt to tell people how to write good fiction (or non-fiction, for that matter). After all, most writing blogs, including this one, are full of suggestions for going about various tasks in the novel-crafting business. But there is a fine line - a very fine line - between saying, "Well, this worked for me and it may help you," and pronouncing, "This is the Way to Write."

My final word is not that all how-to books are the spawn of the Devil and should be burned immediately and their ashes spread upon the wind. I simply say that the best teachers are the ones who have come before, and that the best way to learn is to apply oneself and write. Reading and writing cannot be separated. The more you write, the more your voice will develop, the deeper your plots will be, the more your characters will live and breathe from the page; the more you read, the more you will find that others still stand above you. We'll never attain perfection in this life - and it's a sorry place to be in when you think you have - but in striving for it we get a little better...and a little better...and a little better...

art by shutterhacks on flickr


  1. I mostly agree. Books can help perhaps, they can give a few tips, but there is no better teacher than hands-on experience, and studying the work of masters who have come before you. :D Great post!

  2. I couldn't agree more, Grace. Besides, when you read those how-to-write books and find out that you have broken every single rule in the book, it is VERY depressing.

  3. Thanks, you two! I agree, Londongirl. While there are rules of grammar that should be kept in mind and obeyed, once I start thinking about how I supposedly ought to be writing, I get so bogged down that my writing proceeds to stink. I know other people react differently, of course. There just has to be a balance.

  4. I read Strunk and White's Elements of Style at about 10, and I read William Zinsser's On Writing Well at about 20, then a book called Shut Up! He Explained (about dialogue) just a few months ago. (By the way, this last one has some...ahem...objectionable content and although it is useful from a writing standpoint, I can't recommend it.) I learned some great things, but I think these books were most useful to me because I already had a definite style and direction.

    Abigail, very pertinent points! I agree that the soul of writing cannot be taught. Each of us has a different reason for writing, and that reason changes the way in which we approach our craft. Great point that how-to books are a modern trend; I never thought of it that way, but it's true! I agree with your last statement: Read a LOT and write even more. I was never formally taught how to write, not even in college, but I read books far above my age level and wrote incessantly. Now I teach others how to write. I planted and watered and planted and watered... and God gave the increase! Keep planting!

  5. You make a very good point, Yaasha, that I believe had been floating around in the back of my brain but hadn't settled yet: these books are most helpful after the reader has gained his or her writing voice. I don't recommend them for beginning writers because they are overwhelming and often far too dogmatic, but I will readily admit that they can be useful after you have gained some confidence.

    Elements of Style is great. I pick that up and read it just for fun sometimes. That might be a little bit sad...

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meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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