Monday, September 1, 2014

September 2014 - Don't Shun How-to Books Because—

My pet peeve is the writer who says they don't read how-to books on writing because: 1) they don't want to write like someone else or b) they'd rather learn as they go and just write (the frustrating trial-and-error method).

Okay, so there are how-to books that basically say "write like this and you'll sell a blockbuster." There are also far more how-to books by authors that spout the rhetoric of bygone fiction philosophies. I should know, I've read some 400 how-to books on fiction writing over the years.

For those wondering, my shelves hold a meager forty keepers in the way of how-to books. Those are the books that teach concisely and clearly. Interestingly enough, the best of the best on my shelves are by multi-published authors who teach writing at universities known for their fiction writers. And, hey, good teachers know how to teach. I consider each of those author-teachers to be my mentors.

Which brings me back to the old trial and error learning, the write-as-you-go experience. Trial and error is a time-sucker. It  creates frustrations and causes stories to dead-end or get completely out of hand by going in first one direction then another. Another thing about trial and error is that it actually reinforces bad writing habits. And I know first-hand that bad writing habits are darn hard to unlearn. However, you can't learn fiction techniques if you don't know what they are and, more importantly, why they work and when to use them.

Now, some will say they can get writing how-to's at online blogs and writing websites. Trouble is, the information isn't going to be very comprehensive. The Internet is known for brief blogs and essays, which gives an overview of just an aspect of the device or technique. The best how-to books are tens of thousands of words that cover all aspects of a fiction-writing device or technique. So, the more you know, the better choices you can make for your style of writing fiction. And to know means not just reading a how-to book, but STUDYING the technique and doing exercises to convince your story-telling self to use them in your stories. This is part of "the learning curve."

If you think I spent a fortune on how-to books, well, that's not so. I always go to the local libraries and get a copy or request a library loan for one. If I discover a "keeper," I'll buy myself a copy and study it, adding tools of the trade to my repertoire.

If you ask me which of my keeper books tops my list as the very best one, it is ON WRITING WELL by William Zinsser. It may be billed as a book for nonfiction writing, but it actually changed my thinking and attitude on writing well and telling a story well— and it had advice on writing good fiction.

So, do you read — or do you read, study, and practice — fiction writing techniques from how-to books? If you do, what's the one book that top's your list?

 ***THIS BLOG IS UPDATED THE FIRST OF EACH MONTH - October 2014 - Don't put your whole story into one file because ...

  ***My September and October workshops:

--Candid Characters (what's hidden in the answers to those character questionnaires)
--Writing Believable Dialogue
--Bloopers and Writing Blunders
--Characters, Clues and Creativity
--Prologues–do you really need one?
--The Master Project Bible
--Show, Don't Tell

Information is at —

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Kathy Otten said...

I guess my favorites are Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Browne and King, and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, by Donald Maass. One for developing characters and the other for defining my craft.

Catherine said...

Hi, Kathy - Both those books are on my shelf. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers has the best information on dialogue mechanics and presentation of any book I've so far studied. Maas's workbook is good especially when accompanied by the book Writing the Break-Out Novel. :))

Unknown said...

I just had 'On Writing Well'. It's been in my stash for decades. I would start reading it, then stop for some reason, I don't know why. Then it just sat for years collecting dust. So I decided a week ago that I would just trade that book in at a local Used Book store. Now I find that it's one of the best to use and learn from, and I 'threw it out'! Argh. This is what happens when I collect stuff (or hoard as I have been told). As soon as I get rid of something, very shortly later I find I actually need it.
A problem I have with Self-help writing books is that I spent all my time reading them and learning that all of the things I was doing was wrong. As in they contradicted each other often. So I wouldn't write because Book-A says to do it this way but Book-C says Book-A's technique is wrong and only used by lesser writers.
So I would read the books and spend so much time reading that I rarely ever wrote.
That's the main problem I have with the Self-help books. Reading so much, never writing.

Deanna Adams said...

I have tons of how-to books and they all share several shelves in my library! Each one has helped me in one aspect or another. Plus, they get you writing when you, sometimes, don't feel like it! Thanks for an important post!

Catherine said...

Nikita- Sorry to hear that you had ON WRITING WELL and gave it away! But the good news is that the book has been updated over the years. It might be worth your while to obtain the most current edition-- maybe get a copy from your local library?

Yes, you will find contradictions. It's to be expected-- opinions vary because of experience and what genre the author writes in (or teaches in). There is also the fact that reading isn't enough, you have to write and practice what you're reading about to find what works for you.

Then again, READING is always worthwhile because the more you know, the farther you can go! :))

Catherine said...

Deanna- You're welcome and thanks for stopping by and commenting!

Unknown said...

Thanks, Catherine.
I was able to find a 4th Edition copy of the book. I shall be perusing it.
I feel pretty lucky to have found it and grabbed it. It isn't more recent than the one I gave away, but it should be helpful until I can afford to get the 30th Anniversary Edition.

True about 'The more you know'. I agree.

Thank you for your great blog post.

Catherine said...

It's great that you found a copy!

sibilant said...

I found writing in scenes was one of my weaknesses, so I bought Make a Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld and it did help.

As you say, Catherine, it is important to actually practice the skills taught in the how-to books. It's only a couple of pages, but one of the most important things I learned from Rosenfeld is how to condense time and information. I tend to get stuck going into too much detail of the day-to-day activities, so I'm practicing asking myself, "Does this impact the plot? or the outcome of this scene?"

I find books on craft encouraging and inspiring. So far, none of the ones I've read have made me feel that I'm writing like someone else, or being less creative.

Catherine said...

It's great to hear that you've benefited from Rosenfeld's book on writing a scene and that you're inspired by what you've learned. Keep writing and learning! :)