I believe that there are certain phases we all go through in the writing life. We all start by imitating the things we love – the books, the movies, whatever – and that goes on for a long, long time, until we get impatient with ourselves and decide that we need to start learning this craft thing we keep hearing about. That’s when we start with the writing books.
And I’m going to admit, right up front, that I’ve had a problem over the years with this, because I grew up with the firm belief that when you needed to know something, you reached for a book, and that book told you what you needed to know. You look it up, and you’re good. So over the last thirty years or so, I’ve been looking up a lot of things in a lot of books about writing, and over that time I did indeed learn something.
I learned that most writing books are awful. Useless. Damaging, even, if you’re serious about trying to become a better writer.
Once again, I’m going through my personal library and deciding which of these books really need to live in the office, which ones can safely be moved to the house library, and which ones can – painfully, reluctantly – be released back into the wild.
And so, I thought I’d take a few minutes today, procrastinate on that job, and talk about all the various genres of bad writing manual that I’ve been a sucker for over the years. With some luck, maybe I can keep you from spending good money on some of them.
The Writing Lifestyle Guide. Here’s the sad truth: there’s a much, much bigger market for books on “being a writer” than on actually learning how to write. Everyone feels, deep down, that they have a bestselling novel in their heart, if only they can find a spare weekend to knock it out, and they’re the ones this book type is written for. They’re mainly motivational self help books. Beyond that, they’re fairly useless.
Writer Memoirs. Oh, man. My feelings on memoirs are really mixed. Every writer, especially every successful one, has taken a unique road that will never be repeated. There will never be another Stephen King. No one will ever retrace Hemingway’s steps. So while the life stories of your literary heroes may prove interesting reading, they’re also not going to tell you how to complete your own quest.
The best memoirs I’ve read – such as the letters of Flannery O’Connor – give an insight into how that writer thought, while also making it clear that they thought in absolutely unique ways that you will not successfully emulate. The best memoirs aren’t really about you at all, but rather, they get across a sense of desperate dedication to a craft that the author knows they will never truly master.
Most of all, don’t take a memoir as a writing bible. Yes, everyone loves King’s On Writing. But King himself says in the book that his advice shouldn’t be taken overly seriously.
The Elite Theorists. I’m going to say, right now, that I hate John Gardner. I always have; he was almost as bad as Ayn Rand. While Gardner’s Art of Fiction has some useful things to say – I’m not calling him an idiot by any means – he was also a condescending, elitist prick who believed that no one outside of the Ivy League upper crust should be writing books. To Gardner, his way was the only way, and he destroyed his career by making sure that everyone knew it.
We all go through a phase where we become obsessed by theory, with the logic that once we have a sound theory, the rest of the work should be easy. And I’m sorry, but it doesn’t work that way. Every literary theory is a recipe for writing a specific kind of book or story. If you want to attempt to write a Gardner novel, follow Gardner’s recipe and just try not to piss everyone off.
Read the theories, explore their limits, take what works, throw the rest away.
Get Rich Quick Manuals. Obviously, if you’re serious about becoming a better writer, skip any book that tells you how to write a bestselling novel in thirty days. These are kind of the mirror image of the Elite Theorists. You’re still going to get paint-by-number arrogance, only a lot more simplistic and with an overall veneer of populist rah-rah and motivational blather. These are always terrible.
How To Write Movies. Unless you actually plan to move to Hollywood and try to break in to film, these books will have nothing important to tell you. At best, maybe, you’ll learn what the three act structure is (which you should probably learn, but you can get that off Wikipedia). But you won’t learn how to write a good story by learning how to write a screenplay. Pick a lane and stick to it.
Robert McKee’s Story is in sort of both the Write Movies and Elite Theorist camps. It’s a good book, has some useful things to say, just don’t let it anchor you straight to the bottom.
The Plot Wheel. These are books, like Story Structure Architect by Victoria Schmidt, which claim that there are only X number of plots, and that storytelling is about knowing how each plot works in terms of the various players and how they connect. They look really, really useful, and they are really, really not. The truth is, there are exactly as many plots in the world as you’re willing to find, and if you are striving for an interested reader, you’re going to have to figure out a way to do your own thing.
Everything’s The Hero’s Journey. No. Just no. The second you see mention of the Hero’s Journey anywhere on the cover, bail. These books combine the worst of Plot Wheels and Elite Theorists.
Joseph Campbell wasn’t about finding a universal method of writing fiction. He was an anthropologist with a generalized theory about mythology in ancient cultures. It was George Lucas who took that ball, ran with it, and convinced everyone that the only path to writing success involved the intercession of an aged mentor and a road of trials. If you want to write a Hero’s Journey, by all means, write one. But not every story is a damned Hero’s Journey and anyone who says otherwise hasn’t read enough books.
Workshop In A Book. There are too many of these to count, though Writing Fiction by the Gotham Writer’s Workshop comes immediately to mind. Good books, yes, but I’ve never found the workshop perspective all that helpful, because it generally leans on creativity by committee.
And this kind of leads to a major gripe I have about many writing books: they examine the craft from a reading perspective, not a writing one. Any book that teaches story by explaining the difference between characterization and theme is approaching craft from the angle of literary analysis, not writing craft. You’ll probably become a better reader, but not necessarily a better writer.
These books attack the writing problem from the outside, as a task of assembling parts into wholes. When you are sitting down and trying to make a piece of writing work, you’re on the inside, where the whole is the entire thing. There are no parts on the inside, and the entire challenge is in fighting to maintain that unity from beginning to end.
I feel like most workshop books are useful mostly in teaching people how to run writing workshops.
There are many other kinds of bad writing books, but I think you probably get the point. So, if all of these writing manual types are bad, which ones are actually worth reading?
I strongly recommend journalism guides. They won’t teach you how to write literature – you’re going to have to figure that one out for yourself – but they will teach you how to economize language and to ruthlessly streamline structure. Jon Franklin’s Writing For Story got me published for the first time. Anything by Roy Peter Clark is exceptionally good. William Zinsser’s On Writing Well got my head straight about what the job actually is.
These books are not going to teach you how to write novels, short stories, or movies. But they are going to teach you how to write consciously, deliberately, and on deadline, and they’re written by people who have spent their careers doing exactly that. They don’t peddle a lot of bullshit.
Beyond that, my advice is to look at every writing reference out there from a scavenger perspective. Pick it up, check it out, take what seems useful today, move on. Avoid the temptation of theory. Don’t get overly attached to the siren song of authority. When something stops working for you, chuck it and move on to something that does.
And seriously, skip John Gardner until you can comfortably read him from a place of disinterested hostility, because that’s exactly what he thought of you. And you’re better than that.