Sunday 13 March 2011

Take my advice

I enjoy reading “how to write” type books. Whether they're on fiction, screenwriting or plays, by established writers explaining their method, or by somebody you’ve never heard of revealing their secret formula for instant success. I find the subject fascinating — but just because their system works for them doesn’t mean it’s going to work for me.

I tend to write all night, with plenty of coffee and hard boiled eggs for sustenance. At dawn I stop everything and go jump in my private lake, cutting through the water like a fart-powered  torpedo.
—Stephen King

The problem with most of these sorts of books is this: when I was at school the teacher would put up a mathematical equation on the board (algebra, trigonometry, something like that) and then proceed to solve it. The example would be very basic so the students could easily see what she was trying to explain. X goes here, Y goes here, slot in the numbers, answer comes out there. Everyone understood the concept.

Then, you would go home and at some point reluctantly take out your textbook to do the homework assignment. You look at the question, then at the example in your notes, then back at the question. Yes, they were similar, an X, a Y, a square root, a to the power of, but now you had an (X-1) and one problem had a Z in it. The teacher’s example didn’t help at all.

All the teacher had really done was to show us how to do the example, not how to apply it to much more complex equations. While it is obvious she did that to make things simple enough to be understood by everyone on a basic level, it wasn't enough to make maths geniuses of us (although once we figured out you could buy the teacher’s edition of the textbook with the answers in the back, it got a bit easier).

I get up at five a.m. I write at a small wooden desk in the corner of my bedroom, using a simple pencil and  pad of paper. Then I wake the kids and make them breakfast, which they eat in solid gold bowls with spoons made of unobtanium.
—J.K. Rowling

Most books on the craft of writing make a lot of sense. You read them and think you have an understanding of what they’re saying. A lot of them make the same basic points and provide examples from famous books and films to make things clear. They draw graphs that correspond to exactly when the inciting incident happens, when the crisis point is reached,  and have beat sheets for you to fill in. Very convincing. But for every example that perfectly fits their paradigm, you can always find one that doesn’t, or even contradicts it, sometimes in the very book they used to illustrate their point.

Getting from the general concept to your specific concept is not always that straightforward. These books only have limited space and are outlining the principle that the writer needs to adapt to his own specific needs, but if the writer was able to instinctively do something as sophisticated as that would he really need the ‘how-to’ manual in the first place? Everyone improves over time as they learn from experience, but that’s the thing about experience, it’s hard to learn from your own, and almost impossible to learn from somebody else’s (especially if they’re older than you and tell you they don’t want you making the same mistakes they did — the ones they ended up learning from).

Me like pretty words.
—Stephenie Meyer

If you take the the famous authors who write these kinds of books and then look at their own books you will find they break many of their own rules because the skill of working with a tool is  not only  in knowing how to use it, but also when not to use it. It very much depends on the exact circumstance — and the variables are infinite. That’s hard to put into a book, unless it has a huge appendix. 

My approach is to keep reading things with an open mind and every now and again something clicks and gets put in the vault. Maybe it'll get used at some point, maybe not.

I work all morning then take a break around eleven to sacrifice a chicken to Satan then another couple of hours writing and then it’s lunch (usually chicken).
—Dan Brown

Then again, that’s the thing with the Internet, it does have a huge appendix. Footnotes. References. Feedback. In truth, I think the best book to teach you how to write well is any novel you enjoy, but it’s hard to analyse a book like that because you just get swept up in the story. Maybe if there was a site where a bunch of writers all read the same book and then stripped it down one chapter at a time to see how it worked. I don’t mean like a book group, I mean a dissection with scalpel and bone saw to identify techniques used and where the rules were broken to good effect, maybe that would be the best way to learn. Anyone know of such a site?


Botanist said...

That is such a great observation. I was always good at maths at school, and could happily throw X's and Y's around the place with total confidence, but then I hit group theory and that all went out the window. The rules made perfect sense, but when it came to using them I had no idea where to start.

I see a lot of the same going on with these rules of writing. That is why I thought I'd try to tackle it slightly differently in my series on writing tools, and start from the question "what are you trying to achieve?" The theory is that if you can relate to the outcome, and see it in your own situation, then the use of the tool should be obvious.

Whether that works, or not, is up for discussion :)

Back to your question, though, I have not heard of such a site. Sorry.

Steph said...

Hmmm, I have never read a how to write book... I think it is time that I do, and this was a great read for me before I delve in!

Mysti said...

I read them now and then, but I've found it more helpful to read books in my genre and to read and crit my crit buddies' work. Every now and then, like you said, there may be a gem or two in the books that I can take and run with.

So far, Stephen King's "On Writing" has been my favorite.

mooderino said...

Yeah, I think King's book is pretty good, although I wasn't that interested in the memoir stuff. He also goes on about not using adverbs (fairly standard proclomation) but his books are full of them, like, ridiculously.

Karen Lange said...

I don't know of such a site, but I think it's a great idea. I wonder if there isn't some kind of course for writers that does something like this.

Thanks for stopping by my blog and following. It's nice to meet you!

Happy Monday,
Karen :)

Brent Wescott said...

I, too, like to read about writing. I used to do the reading part exclusively, without any writing to see if I was getting any better at it. But now that I'm writing again, I find my mind going back to certain passages in certain books and trying to make sense of them as it pertains to my own work.
I think your math class analogy works, but you should also take into consideration that the class should be teaching you ways to problem solve, so you can solve the more difficult equations as you go on. I think books on writing do that, too.
It Just Got Interesting

Arlee Bird said...

I don't know of a site like what you're asking, but I agree with much of what you say. I have a lot of books on writing, but I don't think I've finished more than a couple. They're good for picking up some ideas here and there, but like you say the best way is to read and then to write and come up with your own style and rules.

Glad you joined the A to Z Challenge!

Tossing It Out

Anonymous said...

I don't know of a site but I thought your post was really great. It is hard to write keeping everything you read about writing in your mind at the same time. What I'm trying to do is write the rough draft and then go back and add those details that would help your story in several revisions. Not sure if it will work, though.

Tin Cup said...

Great point about learning to write by just reading a favorite novel. Ive always felt this is a great way to improve your own writing. If you really study the writers use of metaphors, character development, plotting, etc., there are great takeaways. Great blog. I'll be following. Keep up the good work and feel free to drop by my blog.

HowLynnTime said...

I love the quotes - Dan Brown - ROF! I just ate chicken!

KJ Kron said...

Good post - I like how to books and some are much better than others. It helps to know it, see it in other writing and then apply it in me own - at least for me. Good luck

Brianna said...

I do read how to write books on occasion but much prefer to read novels from genres and styles I like and learn from their techniques.

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