Lighting the Way
This week, in one of the many forums I’m on — and mostly skim, because I’m so bizarrely busy — I came across a question of how many and which writing books you’d read. These are the how-to-write books.
Inevitably, two or three people piped up to say that all books say different things, so they don’t read them.
Does sinal salute.
Yes, I’ve known people who’ve never read an how-to book. That’s kind of like choosing to run with both your legs in a sack. In the old days it could mean you never had a career beyond one or two books, because you didn’t know the lingo that the publishers spoke. Cue my friend who when asked for a “bigger” book delivered a …. longer one. Despite my screaming at her and doing hand motions. Because I read the how to books, and knew what the editors meant.
Perhaps it is because I was conscious of starting this race with both legs and an arm in a sack — ESL or rather English was my third language and only learned as a teen; different culture; completely innocent of the way stories were even submitted — but it never occurred to me NOT to read how-to books.
Were they all useful? Oh, dear Lord, not on your life. Not even the majority of them. And now fewer are useful than ever. I’ll try to make that distinction to you as I go along to save you some of the false starts I had.
However, there were those books — often not the ones you expected — that suddenly lit up your mind like a flare beacon and you saw what was possible. Once you know something is possible, even if the advice on how to do it is all wrong, you can figure out how to get there.
How-to books are like lanterns in a deep dark night. The lanterns don’t pick the path for you (not unless you’re more delusional than the average writer.) They don’t even show you all the pitfalls. Heck, some of them are hung just wrong, so they light up the tree branches but not that big boulder you’re going to fall on. But others will save you from falling off the abyss, or, non metaphorically speaking, giving up altogether because you’re just not selling enough or whatever.
Let’s start on why you need them, and why you need them more if you’re going traditional, okay?
On the face of it, we shouldn’t need how-too books. After all, the examples of our art are all around us, we’ve been reading since we were ye high, and surely we know how to construct a story, how to draw a reader in?
The problem with that is …. not quite individual taste, but individual obsession. Almost all of us were drawn into writing because we are obsessive readers. And even those of us who read far and wide have books we return to, like the tongue returns to an aching tooth. For me? Heinlein, Dumas, Agatha Christie, Heyer, Pratchett, F. Paul Wilson and a dozen more I can’t name in my uncaffeinated state.
It doesn’t take much looking at my list to figure out most of these people were published a while ago (some more than other, and that I have a heavy British bend to my reading.
I’m not the worst, and of course there is no problem with that. It’s just that, let’s say, they are writers for a different generation. (Or several generations ago.) Not to say that a lot of them aren’t read still, and avidly read. It’s just that what you sell is the intersection of your taste and the taste of your public. For you to understand what other people like/will buy, you need to be aware of tastes/ideas and techniques outside your own head.
But — you say — can’t you simply read the bestsellers of the day and see what is selling. Yeah. You can. And as you know, I advise reading widely in the field you’re working in. It’s just that there are two factors that make that a little odd as a learning exercise. First, those bestsellers are often not bestsellers on a level playing field. This is 100% true if you read traditionally published. These are the people who were pushed,a nd whose books were in every store. They are not people who organically found their audience. Left to the wild of indie, they might have disappeared without a ripple.
But, you say, I want to go traditional. And that’s fine, except that traditional changes. The books that were bestsellers because hyper-pushed ten years ago, now might not get a second glance, because the echoes of those bestsellers didn’t do so well and they’re now in a mental drawer in NYC publishing as “this just doesn’t sell.”
Then there is the fact that you’re going to be reading those bestsellers with your own mind, not someone else’s. Meaning, what you notice, and what you actually decide will improve your writing… might not be even close to the right thing. I have a friend who has ruined her writing — which was breezy and light and perfectly serviceable — by deciding what she really needed was more sense of place, and thereby dropping vast, unexamined chunks of description into every.single.scene apropos nothing.
Some of this can be overcome with the right writers’ group (easier said than done) but if you don’t have one, how to write books are your way to get out of your head and examine writing from someone else’s perspective for a while. There are different types of books for different types of career aims, etc. I’ll get into that too.
First, let me tell you that you should not read a writing book and immediately jump to your work and go “Ah, I know how to do this now.” Let the how to book ferment. Re-read a few of your favorites, and see how it changes your perspective. Then, after a month, or six, go back to your own writing. Alternately, write new things after reading the book, but plan to revise them after things settle down.
Now, for the types of books:
There are many kinds of how to books, from basic technique, to books that should be entitled “how to sell to traditional publishing and get push”, to books that just work on specific parts of your craft.
We’ll start with the basics first. I’ve told this story before, but being me, and having read everything I could lay my hands on from a very young age, I knew all the advanced techniques. I knew how far I could push a character. I knew beautiful language. My first rejection was not only personal, but the magazine sent me a free copy, so I could see why my story didn’t fit.
Then why — other than three moves and two babies curtailing production — had I been writing for ten years and only getting rejections? It was a mystery, and being me, I assumed that I was just doing something weird and “foreign” wrong.
Then while we were flatter broke than a raccoon that’s been run over by an eighteen wheeler, I went to a library sale. This library sale had computer paper boxes piled in a corner, which people could use to carry the books. I was lucky. Both boxes I grabbed had a coupon inside that said “This box $5.”
Well, both those boxes were going to be full to the brim, come hell or high water.
The problem is that genre books are mostly bought in paperback and fall apart before library sales. So I filled one box and half the other, and was struggling. I did a pass for history and reference (always good) but there was still room in the box.
This is when I came across Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer.
I was fairly sure the book was way more basic than something someone with 10 years of writing experience needed, but what the hell, it filled the box. So I brought it home, and shelved it and read everything else in those boxes — including The Andromeda Strain — before I read it. And as I opened it, yep, yep, yep, basic. And then suddenly that light went on.
What had I missed? Scenes. Yep, the person with a year past a master’s in literature, and who had cut her teeth on Shakespeare missed scene structure. If I had to take a character upstairs, I had no idea how to cut, so I took him step by painful step. Yeah.
Not coincidentally, the next short story I wrote after sold (eight times, because it killed editors, but that’s not important right now.) That year I also placed second in a local writing contest. And then I started selling regularly, first short stories, then novels.
If I hadn’t read that book, I’d probably have given up, or now be publishing indie and selling almost nothing. I not only highly recommend swain, but I recommend you re-read him every two-three years, because each time it will lead to a different epiphany.
Both my older son and I are “we get the character for free” authors, but my husband is a plot-outward writer, and he also found Dwight Swain’s Creating Characters: How to Build Story People incredibly useful.
Now books like this, or Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies which is now on my TBR pile, and on which I can’t yet give you an opinion, are sort of perennials.
They are craft books, and therefore immortal so to put it. It’s not a “how to sell this and that” it’s not “this is how you do it to catch the eye of the current audience.” They’re more “This is the craft. What you do with it is your problem.” Their examples might not appeal to you, but it’s kind of like buying a 70s book on embroidery. The examples might be orange and very large, but the stitches are the same that Queen Elizabeth learned.
In the same category I’d include: Writing the Thriller: How to Craft Page-Turning Suspense with Instruction from Best-Selling Authors. Not it probably sucks, specifically on how to write the thriller for the current market. But that’s not what I used it for. I used it to study pacing. For that it works fine. You see, one of the first rejections I had was from Donald Maass, later one of my agents, who told me (rather kindly) that my pacing was horrible, and since that’s one of the things you can’t teach, I’d better give up now. He was right. On my pacing being horrible, at least, not on you can’t teach it or learn it (pfui) because Portuguese novels, with which I’d grown up and worse, which I’d studied in high school and college, have a markedly slower tempo and beat. So in my subconscious that’s what was “good pacing.” This book was one of those that helped me overcome that.
Even How to Write Erotica by Kelly, Valerie, which probably sucks as a primer for writing erotica, or at least, you know, I still can’t write erotica, served as a basic writing primer for me, one of those things that lights the way. How? Well, it was the bit on writing through the character’s physical sensations, and taking the reader along for the ride, as it were, instead of telling the reader that character (and reader) wanted this or that. Years and years of “show don’t tell” and this is the book that broke through.
Immediate Fiction: A Complete Writing Course also helped a lot, once I stopped wanting to strangle him for believing that genre fiction didn’t need these techniques, and could be written by people who had never studied the craft. The lies people tell themselves, honestly.
Next in usefulness to those basic ones come “learning your particular craft.” In that, I can’t help you much, because here’s the thing: whatever you’re writing, thriller, or erotica, science fiction or mystery, you’re going to need THE most up to date book you can get. No, I’m utterly serious. Genres and requirements change. Sure, it’s worse if you’re going traditional, but they change anyway. I can’t even tell what is going on with UF and PNR and all of it bleeding into erotica these days.
So buy specific books to the part of the field you’re trying to harvest.
I read — back in pre-history — Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. Back then it was new, and invaluable. Honestly, I don’t remember much of it because I simply integrated it and went on. I do remember “Don’t call a rabbit a schmerp” and if you think that’s useless, let me tell you you’re wrong. I remember it, because it still flashes in my head when I’m about to do something along those lines.
And next we come to those books that people say “everyone has a different opinion” and “it’s all very confusing.”
I got rid of most books of this third kind, because five years ago I decided it was Baen and indie, and if I ever had to do anything else, I’d learn to paint houses for a living, or something.
However, if you want to break into traditional publishing and get the royal treatment, you should read books that are up to date, up to the minute, written by traditional writers or agents, and which if they don’t teach you — as they think they do — how to get to that point, give you clues to what is in the agents’ and publishers’ minds and what they’re selecting for as “the new hot hot.”
Remember it will be somewhat out of date, but the mentality might be still the same, and still useful.
First, before buying one of these books, look at the copyright page. Ultimately you’re trying to play a game with a moving target, and it helps to know where it was one or two years ago, but not so much ten.
The one that I recommend, though it’s old, because it kind of deconstructs the whole bestseller game is: Writing the Blockbuster Novel. Everyone else you read on how to write a bestseller, etc, if they’re aiming at traditional, are pale echoes of Zuckerman, and I highly recommend his book, if that’s the game you want to play.
But on the general: read how to books or not? Read them. Yes, they might be wastes of time, but they will almost for sure not hurt you (not unless you let them.)
I’m told David Farland (whom I always want to call David McFarland, and I’m sure I’ve done it to his face, because my head is weird) advises you read an how-to book a year. I see nothing wrong with that advice. In the many other books you read, a book a year is a small investment, and even if all you take out of it is “Don’t call a rabbit a schmerp” it might be the thing that makes your last book sell, or at least saves it from ignominious failure.
What do you have to lose? A few bucks? Go on, the lanterns exist. You might as well use them. Just remember to pick your way carefully and read the subtext of the books. The lanterns give you light, but they do not pick your path.
That’s up to you.