If you’ve been reading my blog long enough then you know I feel very strongly that writers need to grow in their writing ability by reading fiction how-to books.
Back in the days when I was first writing seriously (about twenty years ago), I devoured every how-to book I could get my hands on. I filled notecards with all of the things I was learning. And as I wrote, I’d flip through my notecards to help me remember everything.
Incidentally, I still have that stack of notecards and occasionally still read them. And I still regularly read writing craft books (usually when I’m between projects so that I can refresh myself and find new inspiration).
Now I realize not everyone agrees that writing craft books are helpful. Some people become overwhelmed by all of the information. Others feel stifled. Some even get discouraged to the point of quitting because they can’t seem to do things “by the book.”
Then there are those writers who don’t want anyone else telling them what to do. They feel that writing is an individualistic, subjective expression of our creativity (just like all of the other art forms).
Some may even say they can learn all they need by reading well-written novels, and that the rhythm of story and structure is picked up through saturating themselves with a variety of genres and stories (including the classics). Such writers might say things like, “Story trumps technique.”
The fact is, writers can come up with any number of excuses for why they don’t want to learn the basics of fiction-writing. And sometimes those excuses may even be valid, because after all, most excuses usually have a hint of truth to them, don’t they?
The truth is yes, sometimes we can try too hard to follow the rules and in the process get discouraged or end up with sterile writing. Sometimes we’re at risk of losing our individuality and creativity when we try to make ourselves fit into a prescribed structure. And yes, those of us who are avid readers may have a leg-up on how to tell a good story. Indeed, the story itself is critically important.
But the other truth is this—very few people are born as writing geniuses. I certainly wasn’t. Most of us have to learn how to write fiction similar to any other subject like typing, reading or algebra. And while there are many ways to learn how to write, one of the best ways to learn anything is to STUDY and then PRACTICE.
Here are few suggestions that might make the process of learning about writing fiction less painful and frustrating:
1. Wait to read a how-to book until after completing a first manuscript. Often we don’t know what we need to work on until after we’ve had some firsthand experience. Besides, there’s something about giving ourselves freedom with the first book to explore, be creative, and to nurture our imagination.
2. Check out several fiction how-to books from the library. When I’m able to browse through a book first, I’m able to see whether it contains information that will help me. Different books will speak to us more or less depending upon where we’re at in our writing journey. If we’re not selective, we might give up on how-to books too easily instead of continuing to search until we find one that meets our needs.
3. When reading, take notes on specific things to work on in the next novel. I usually read a how-to book when I’m in the pre-writing plotting phase, which helps inspire ideas and reminds me of what I need to incorporate.
4. Don’t try to work on everything all at once. That’s a bit like having too many cooks in the kitchen—a recipe for disaster (or at the very least discouragement). Trying to do everything perfectly or too much to soon can zap the joy out of writing and lead to writer’s block.
5. Look at writing techniques as guidelines not rules. I examine the “why” behind particular guidelines. What is the point of a technique? For example, plenty of books advocate against using adverbs. Why? Because the modern reader doesn’t want to be slowed down by wordiness. They want a succinct, tight read. But does that mean we can’t use any adverbs? No, if I’m doing my job at keeping the story moving, then if I drop in an adverb here and there, it won’t bother the reader or slow my story.
6. Find a balance. We shouldn't focus too much on technique at the expense of the story or it will end up lifeless. But we can't ignore the building blocks of good fiction because we think we have an awesome best-selling story. We might shoot our chance with an agent, publisher, or reader simply because they can't see past our mediocre or even poor writing techniques.
How about you? Are you taking enough time to work on your fiction techniques? What writing book has helped you the most from a practical standpoint?