Why most books on how to write a novel aren’t very useful…

I have read… a lot of books on writing.

Perhaps the most useful general book on story.

I started back in pre-Internet days towards the end of university when Writers Digest books appeared on the shelves of the now-defunct book floor of our local Forbidden Planet.

A handful of these books helped me — I’ve dotted this post with their covers. Most — in hindsight — just served to confuse me. Looking at various writing threads, I can see I’m not the only one. For example, paraphrasing, somebody posted; “This book said not to write about a character’s childhood, but I’m writing about somebody whose traumatic childhood overshadows their present. Help!”

Without naming names, here are some of the things wrong with most of the books in this category.

No or wrong writing credentials

Author is not really a writer of novels.

This man does have credentials!

Yes, I’ve only been doing this a year and a bit, but I am a professional author working to contracts from real publishers.

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of books written by “creative writing teachers”, editors and agents — who, yes, being the gatekeepers have insights but not being writers can only really talk about the what, not the how — short story writers, and people who once wrote a book.

Inspirational content

The book is intended to inspire or free up the wannabe writer’s imagination.

Useful book tackling the technicalities of the genre. (Can’t say I like OSC’s politics, though.)

Books like these make a good comfort read, actually, or at least are nice to leave lying around in the bathroom. However if you want to be a writer, it kind of follows that you are already overburdened with inspiration and that your imagination roves freely. Surely you are better seeking out more specific inspiration through art and non-fiction focussed around your genre?

Pep-talk content

The book is an extended pep-talk encouraging you to adhere to BIC (Bum In Chair), to burn through “resistance” and writer’s block, and use a variety of techniques to maintain discipline.

Though it’s useful to have the requirements of professionalism spelled out, a just do it attitude can merely lead to frustration and chasing your own tail as the years roll by. Just do what? You need some kind of leverage before it’s worth putting your all into the task.

Wordcount obsession

The book is all about upping your daily wordcount.

One of the most practical of all books on writing. However, Pulp-era and focussed on shorter stories.

OK it’s good to be able to churn out the words. However, what actually matters is your average wordcount over the life of the project.

If I write 20K words this week, delete 10K next week, write another 10K then spend two weeks editing the resulting mishmash, the average wordcount is (20-10+10)/4 = 5K a week.

Might it not be equally or more effective to write the right words in the first place, thus saving on tinkering time?

 

Objective focussed

The book is entirely focused on what objectives the your novel should meet.

So, it tells you that you must have theme and conflict, and that the pacing should be right and the characterisation good. However, it doesn’t really tell you how to get there.

It’s as if I put  a sword in your hands and said, “A Zornhau should be fast and secure. Go fight!”

Blooper catalogue

The book concentrates on cataloging what bloopers to avoid.

Blooper lists are great fun. However, there are a zillion ways to get things wrong, and very few ways to get things write. Knowing the near infinite list of things not to do far less useful than learning the handful of things to actually do.

Really just a list of rules and tips

The book is full of rules and tips but is presented as a manual.

Granted tricks of the trade writing tips are useful, and I’m always glad to hear these from other writers. However, they become dangerous when presented as if they formed a coherent whole. A catalogue of punches and grapples is not the same as a martial art!

For example, that “don’t mention childhood” rule we saw above) doesn’t always apply. For this reason, most such books tend to include the spectacularly useless advice that it’s OK to break the rules when it works! 

Better, I think, to understand the way narrative works and thus the purpose of backstory in your particular novel.


Storyteller Tools, my book on outlining and plotting, is much, much shorter than each of the useful books I’ve linked to. But would you rather spend your time reading about writing, or actually writing?

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One comment on “Why most books on how to write a novel aren’t very useful…
  1. Geoff Hart says:

    I think you have to look at each book in terms of whether it answers your specific needs, which vary greatly among writers and among situations. For example, I can see how the conflict diagrams in your book work for you, but they don’t really add anything to my repertoire; conflict and plot have never been my problems.

    Most books that emphasize a single approach rather than covering a range of approaches that may work best in different situations or for different people. The latter approach is far more effective because it helps the writer to see what their specific problems are, and provides a range of solutions. For me, the most useful writing deals with a single problem with a narrow scope and explores that problem in depth. YMMV.

    I’ve also read a bunch of books (more often essays) on writing, and it’s rare for me to not come up with some useful advice that expands my arsenal of tools and makes it easier for me to solve problems with my writing. Even when I disagree with an author’s recommendation, I can usually learn something from figuring out why I disagree.

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