The Graveyard

The Lair Of Gary James

How To… Or Not: Writing Guides Which Promise Too Much

Posted by BigWords on December 18, 2010

This post, as you will probably see soon enough, wasn’t the easiest post to write. There are times when ideas and words come together to make a thought concrete, then there are times when the idea refuses to be ignored, yet the words to describe what is happening in my head refuse to cooperate. This is a case of the latter. I started writing this a couple of days ago, and it still feels as if there are places I could have been clearer. Don’t worry, because that is what the comment box is for. If there are any contradictory, nonsensical, or overly-wordy parts which are confusing, then feel free to call me out on it. The things in this post are long-standing bug-bears which have slowly been revealing themselves to me, but I’m not all the way there yet…

There are a lot of How To books out there – in fact, it seems that there is a new one being released every few months – and despite the fact that so many writers pick up these titles I still retain my reservations about their worth. This is something I’ve come back to occasionally, and I have finally worked out a couple of underlying reasons for my feelings about them. I’ve got nothing against them being perused as an accompanying tool alongside websites, forums and other writing tools available on the internet (often at no cost), but to focus on them as an essential part of the writing accouterments necessary to produce a viable novel is flawed. The best of the How To books, and there are good examples, provide no examples of the finished state of a piece of writing.

It may seem counter-productive to say that there are inherent problems with books which are intended to make the act of writing easier, but the fact that so many of these guides offers what amounts to a game walkthrough for novels can harm a unique voice. The standard list of requirements seen in many – opening, escalation, character development, et cetera – is fairly standard, but there are some titles which demand that there be elements added which (depending on genre, the age range of readers, the tone of the novel) might confuse an already dense plot to the point where the original intention of the author becomes muddied. It’s where the first thought towards an explanation of my reticence became apparent:

How many novels adhere to suggestions made in a ‘How To…’ book?

You may think I am being facetious here, but it is a question which may not come to you if you are focused on improving your novel. If you take a handful of books off your shelf and subject them to the recommendations made in the How To book, then would you find that the books (however well received) fail to make the grade as interesting subjects / concise plots / riveting entertainment – according to the book at hand, of course… I tried to square away a few novels against the advice found in three How To books, and quickly realized that – according to the authors of the How To books – there were probably severe deficiencies in those novels.

I actually thought of the second point whilst pondering the separation between theory and practice, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Staying with the thought that there is a certain amount of ‘wiggle room’ in the recommendations, I pondered ways to make the task of extrapolating a generalized (or abstract) statement more specific to help in the writing of a scene. The best idea I could come up with – aside from an understanding and patient Beta – was to look at books which share common themes with the one being written. This presents a few problems, as there are writers who dislike reading in their genre while in the midst of writing their own material.

Yet there is a way to pinpoint possible areas of weakness through the study of contemporary literature outside of the How To book… For those of you who are well aware of my snarky attitude towards Star Trek in particular, and televised and filmic science fiction in general, then the knowledge that I hold David Gerrold in very high regard should be no surprise. His non-fiction title The World According To Star Trek ranks among the very best of published criticism – not only deconstructing the themes of the series, but explaining (in clear, precise terms) why each thing must be a certain way. I use that title whenever I think of a science fiction idea – weighing the concepts I conjure against the logic Gerrold demands of SF.

Yes, there are other books which do much the same thing, but I like that particular reference book. When I have moments of inspiration which points towards the horror genre, I tend to flick open Stephen King’s Danse Macabre – another book about genre and writing which emphatically isn’t a simple How To book. A similar urge to define the rise of YA drove me to seek out books on the Harry Potter phenomenon. While my non-fiction tastes have largely determined the books I have picked up in this vein, I have attempted to read as widely as I can in the study of preexisting books, and this has greatly assisted in asking specific (rather than abstract) questions about my work. It is a halfway solution to the problems of How To books, but one which I feel much more comfortable with than standard texts on novel construction.

The second point, which I mentioned in passing, is one of comparison. Writing a novel is not the same as baking a cake. Though both require a set of ingredients, you can’t mix and match ingredients from one recipe to another in the blind hope of coming up with an entirely new form of culinary excellence. Writing, unlike bakery, is filled with such things. The experimental fiction of the past twenty years alone has introduced new quirks into the repertoire of established and aspiring novelists, and daring releases will only become more common as further self-published titles break through to a wider audience. This is where specific information, rather than generalities, can be utilized to assist a story through the difficult birthing pangs.

The second point is thus:

Writing a How To… book is similar, in may regards, to cold-reading.

For those of you who have yet to experience a live seance, there are a set of probing questions which, if asked in a particular manner and with enough conviction, can simultaneously get participants to divulge information about the deceased and make it appear as if there is communication with the dead occurring. I dislike cold-reading. You may think that this is a perfect manner in which to learn more about your novel, but (just like those phony seances) you will simply be regurgitating information with the illusion of something greater happening before you. There are few real ways that repetition assists in learning – similarly, one of my arguments against introducing greater digital research exposure in schools is the fear that rote recital could replace understanding of subjects.

There is a third reason why How To books raise my suspicions, and it is the one I have returned to time and time again… The points made from one book to another vary so widely that any reasonable and logical comparison of details from one guide to another is impossible. The notion that the suggestions from general titles are universal to all novels, or that genre-specific guides can steer a genre novel to completion with minimal stress, is one I find wanting. With guides to preexisting novels, the themes and plot points can be compared directly and analyzed at leisure – separate from the originating work, appeasing those who do not wish to be influenced directly or indirectly by the writing of another. Yet again, I have to point out that intelligence and discretion be used in such a process.

I come back to the cold-reading comparison with this thought – if you throw enough questions at someone, then there will undoubtedly be questions which register as a “hit.” These instances where the questions seem to directly address you should be weighed against the questions which fall far from the mark.

This post has, through re-writing, ran on longer than I intended. I might return to the subject if there are enough points remaining to be considered, though for the moment this post can stand as something of a final word regarding How To books, and the way in which they should be treated as a supplement to other writing resources.


4 Responses to “How To… Or Not: Writing Guides Which Promise Too Much”

  1. Jamie D. said

    Thoughtful post, as always, with much to think about. Having experienced first-hand (as many writers have) the deadening effects of strict writing rules on my prose (which for me resulted in trunking the novel altogether), I’m pretty careful these days *not* to read or even use writing guides as references while I’m writing. Last time I did that, I ended up trunking the novel I was working on. Following the “guidelines” basically just sucked the life out of my novel. Next year I plan to take a week off writing, specifically to study/read about craft. When the week’s over though, I’ll put the manual & guides away, and go back to writing by feel.

    For me, a lot of writing is done by “feel”. I may not be able to tell you why I think it’s better if a sentence is allowed to run on vs. breaking it up, or why a fragment offers more “punch” in a situation, I just feel it. I really don’t think you can get that out of any book on craft – I think you develop that by reading, a *lot*, and often. I don’t even think the genre is so important, as long as we read widely. I maintain that reading everything one can get his/her hands on is the absolute best way to learn to write.

    You’re wrong about the cake though (understandably…most people don’t understand baking well enough to play with it, hence the misconception). 😉 There’s an underlying structure to baking, of course…just like there’s a basic underlying structure to writing. In baking, as long as you keep the base ingredient type ratios correct, you can, in fact, mix and match ingredients to come up with new and exciting things – just like writing.

    And now I’ve written a post under your post. And procrastinated nicely on my own project. LOL

  2. bigwords88 said

    The baking metaphor seemed to make a whole lot more sense than the other off-the-wall ones I was playing with. I guess I meant that a recipe for a cake and one for a pasta couldn’t be combined to bring something like “caksta” to the world… Or something – this did, after all, go through several permutations.

    It’s interesting that you trunked a novel entirely due to the influence of a How To book, as that is entirely the opposite of their intended purpose. I’ve horribly mangled one draft of the spy novel, and substantially weakened my western by obeying the “rules” of those genres – they aren’t dead yet, merely under review pending my decision on how (if at all) I can return to the inspiration which directly led to their creation in the first place.

    The “read everything” suggestion often gets drowned out under a chorus of “you’re doing it wrong” – which is an annoying and inaccurate way of saying that a story does not conform to a set of preconceived ideas. I think I have mentioned (several dozen times) that preconceived ideas are a problem in and of themselves. And, because I can’t help myself, I have been buying more books, so there is truth in such statements which even the doubters can’t argue with…

    I am glad you procrastinated here awhiles… 😀

  3. I liked the baking metaphor, but took it a different way.

    Too many people, (especially new writers)perhaps because of the books you mentioned, approach it as though they had to follow a recipe to the letter. I’ve seen so many posts akin to, “How many adjectives can I have?” “How many adverbs can I have?” “I have four exclamation points in my novel. Is that okay?”

    There are so many complex elements that go into crafting a novel. It’s not as simple as having X amount of this, X amount of that.

  4. bigwords88 said

    Yes. And yes. The “ratio of exclamation points per square foot of text” bothers me immensely. It precludes the notion that a writer may want to highlight something by taking refuge in the audacity of a largely-reviled practice, and many of the titles currently available make a specific point of avoiding them. The way that I have read posts on their use (one per four books is the norm) is an attempt to weed out authors of ‘limited abilities’ (whatever that means in the ever-changing tastes of an audience-driven marketplace), though fails to take into account experimental fiction. It smacks of the same snobbery which waves away titles which skirt around the widely-held beginning-middle-end norm, though a great number of books deliberately subvert conventions to great effect.

    “Complex elements” should be pasted above the laptop of every author. 🙂 Thank you for your insights.

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