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.

Under the same heading, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print  was invaluable in teaching me the craft.

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.









  1. “Don’t call a rabbit a schmerp”

    I did that once. I had an alien animal that fit the “dog category” and a human would have thought it was a strange looking dog. Oops!

    On the other hand, I have this alien critter that fits the “dog category” but resembles a dino raptor.

    Oh, I called it a schmerp. 😉

    1. Well, in my most-recently-finished (finished being the wunderkind word here!) short piece I introduce creatures that LOOK like satyrs but I don’t name them at all: I just describe them. But earlier in the same piece I ID a large game animal as a “Toto” (because “we’re not in Kansas anymore”) when its entire role is to blunder into things before falling down dead. And propel the plot, of course.

      Well, it wasn’t a rabbit, and “Schmerp” wouldn’t have fit…

    2. But you can, with reason, call it a “hop.” (And you’d better underscore the reason!)

      I have used brambleberries, caneberries, and starfruit for three common PNW fruits. You know what the first two are, and the third is the local indigenous term for blueberries. (Which, interestingly enough, is the visually distinguishing feature that separates them from a similar berry that is toxic to humans, but which I think is only local to the South.)

  2. I have a copy of “Techniques of the Selling Writer”. Read it last year after seeing it recommended here. May have to re-read it for pointers again. I also have a collection of books that my mom used for when she was trying to write. Some good, some maybe, others will have to give another look at. When I can read.

  3. Yeah, I’ve read a lot of writing advice over the years, and have only found some of it obviously useful.

    I’ve also found that learning from materials about project management, time management, industrial engineering etc has helped my creative writing.

    A fiction writer is a manufacturer who uses a process to produce a product. There are a lot of things that can be applied to that end. Okay, sure, the learning curve on some of it is bad enough for some people that it is prohibitive.

    There’s a wealth of stuff available. We are all producing different products on wildly different equipment. (Our minds are perhaps our most critical capital equipment for story production.) So we can’t just turn the crank on off the shelf solutions, we need intensive study to develop and identify the right solutions for us.

    1. The biggest thing that I had to learn was to research the people who were giving me advice. When someone who isn’t doing as well as you are, starts telling you how to do things and you don’t know enough to ignore their advice, it really messes with your head.

      There are several ‘This is what works’ tropes in self-publishing that are complete BS, and I’ve gone as far as to prove it, but if you mention that you will be skinned alive in many forums, even if you provide data and spread sheets.

      My father once told me to hang around successful people if I wanted to be successful.

  4. When I was a wee lad my mother gave me how-to writing books. I’d read almost everything else in the house (including the Latin I puzzled through with a translation text and the German comic books). They were hers from when she wanted to be a writer, I suppose. Since they were there, and had words in them, I read them. But they weren’t stories. Not my preferred reading material, but desperate times and all that.

    I wrote a story for class- who calls out nine year olds to write stories anyway? It was only mildly horrible. It had a plot, a few characters, some action, and a conclusion. But I made up a couple of words for an imaginary language and capitalized some things that were important and got a D-. I think it was more of a D+ or C- myself, but eh. It wasn’t what she was expecting, I gather.

    I’ve sworn off writing more times than I can recall, and fallen off the bandwagon that many times again. Each time I have to relearn some things. I read how-to books.

    The ones I remember most (and least useful to me) were I think around the time of Brandon Sanderson’s first successful novels coming out (I think they were his first ones?) and Wheel of Time getting big. So I remember reading a couple that wanted to teach you how to write *those* kind of books. I don’t write those kind of stories. Don’t particularly want to learn how.

    The things that I like learning are how to get the right kind of effect. How to imply grand, sweeping worlds with very little wasted on the reader, how to convey swift, brutal action, how to bring awe and wonder and joy without going all clown makeup or psychotic cheerleader. Because stories, to me, are about taking us on a ride of sweeping emotion, with the author tugging the strings behind the curtain (and he should bloody well remain invisible- of we can tell the author is pulling strings the story falls apart).

    That and how to tell subtle jokes. *grin* Those are always nice to have.

  5. Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. This one’s great value is that it points out the obvious. Or at least what should be obvious. If it’s not obvious yet, y’all needs to work on it. Is that what an epiphany looks like, up close??

    1. His book on characters is also really useful for characterization and poinf-of-view (one character tight, one character not-so-tight, head-hopping).

  6. 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.

    I’ll be honest. I’ve been skirting that edge for at least a year.


    What do you have to lose? A few bucks?

    Isn’t that what libraries are for? If you find it useful, then you can spend the money to have your own copy.

  7. I can recommend Bickham too, who I found because I followed up on Butcher telling me that he learnt from Chester, who in turn learnt from Bickham, and that is how I found Swain.

    Tat’s almost a story in its own right.

  8. Good thing this is a pay week, because I think I’ll be ordering a few of these from Amazon this weekend. My pacing and ‘show don’t tell’ moments are consistently inconsistent; maybe some new reading material will shed some light on why. and how to fix it.

  9. I’ve read most of these and give a hearty thumbs up.

    I would add another – Don’t Murder your Mystery – which is really about line-editing.

    And, for those who like Don’t Call a Rabbit a Smeerp, I recommend the whole Turkey City Lexicon.

  10. One thing that might help is to not limit yourself. Some of the most helpful art books I’ve read were how-to draw manga… and I don’t draw manga. But the stylized exaggerations made it easier to see what point they were making, especially the one on how to draw people from various, specific countries. Oh, that genetic group tends to have this kind of proportions; and that one has those facial structures! Things like that.

    I was once given a scriptwriting book—J. Michael Strazynscki, in fact. The chapter on dialogue had a comment on always reading it aloud, and had a negative example from Babylon 5 where he simply hadn’t thought to speak it, and it became an on-set joke, with T-shirt and everything. Am I ever likely to write a television or movie script? No. (Though I am working on an operatic adaptation.) It’s still helpful, because I can see things from an outside angle and use that information on things that aren’t scripts.

    1. I’ve read some books on screenplay writing, and I don’t intend to write a screenplay, but I find they really help with structure, or at least, give some structures to start with as a beginner until I know enough to wing it on my own.

  11. I read scads and scads of how-to-write books. (Details here:
    and yes, the ones that aren’t how-to-write books actually are. 0:)

    The only ones I think can be ruled out of court as useless are ones that talk about “N master plots” — in many online discussions, I have never found a writer find them useful. “N character types” are almost as useless, but I have heard of one writer who uses them to help orchestrate her characters, so they aren’t all Apollonians, and another who uses them to check her characterization: if she can recognize her main character in a type, she needs to add more facets.

  12. At the risk of looking like a fool, I’ve got to ask: just what DOES an editor mean by a “bigger” book? I’d have sent in a longer one too.

  13. Orson Scott Card’s book on how to w+rite SF&F is the one that did it for me. I had been writing prior to that, but every time I got finished with the story, it just didn’t work. I didn’t know what I was missing. Card’s book did it for me. Literally. I sat down and wrote Children of Steel immediately after reading it. Or rather, I started writing it, (and 20 years later I published it).
    There’s only one other book I ever read I think it was called ‘on dialogue’. It’s not that I haven’t tried to read other books, I have a slew of them.

    It’s just that (IMHO) they sucked.

    When I buy a book on writing, the first thing I look for is SHORT. If it’s over a hundred pages, I’m probably not going to touch it. If you can’t communicate your ideas quickly and concisely, than you’re not a good teacher. Others might disagree, but when I pick up a ‘how to’ book, all I want to know is: HOW TO. I don’t really care for anything else. Tell me what, tell me how, and tell me why. Keep it short and concise. If you start going on about all sorts of other crap, the book is going into the trash.

    If my physics and engineering texts had veered off topic as much as so many how to books on writing do, I’d still be in college trying to read the damn things.

    The only thing at this point I wish I did better, was to outline my plots. If I could sit down and list the chapters with what goes on in each one, quickly and easily, I think I’d be able to write even faster than I do now. Right now I’m still struggling with getting the plot points for each book listed in a clear sequential order. So when I start off, my first 20K words come out painfully slow (well slow for me at least).

    So if anyone can recommend a GOOD book (as in not very long) on how to improve your plotting and outlining skills, I’d appreciate it. I just don’t have the time to go find one myself these days (oh how I miss Powells books with its acres of selection).

    But there will never be any substitute for actual doing. My path to my current success was long and twisted. But I learned a lot along the way while getting those first ‘million bad words’ out. Learning the lessons that you don’t want to learn is always the hardest part.

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