Adventures in writing … thoughts on those how-to guides

Coming to the end of what has been a great summer holiday, writing is proving somewhat difficult. It’s too hot, my head is still firmly stuck in Cumbria, and I have so much to do I don’t know where to begin.

I’m waiting on a book to be finalised, cover chosen, printed, etc. I sent it out to some beta-readers (whatever that means) and they picked up a few tiny problems. The editor said this would happen, that the more people who read it the better. Anyway, all being well, it should be out by the end of September 2014.

Two different publishers have accepted two other books of mine for publication. So, I’m happy. Of course I am. It doesn’t mean I’m Lee Child, but at least I’m getting out there. All being well, another three books published by the end of this year will see my tally growing to 18 published works.

Then I receive an email and all of this euphoria is dashed.

It was one of those junk-mail things; you know the ones I mean, the same sort that used to come through your door in the days before the Internet, or which were stuffed inside the Radio Times. Well, it’s the same thing. A host of stuff you simply have no interest in whatsoever. This one was a little more interesting, but extremely annoying.

It was from Kindle. You may have heard of them. They ambushed me with a long list of books and every single one of them offered me the chance to ‘Write a mystery book that sells’, or discover ‘The Easy Way to Write Fantasy’, and even, ‘Make money through writing fiction!’.

Okay, I know there is a whole army of people out there now who want to write a book. So they do. And Kindle gives them all the tools. And now, here we have every guide known to man, written by established authors, all of whom want you to achieve great success and earn heaps of money.


Mm…Okay, let’s just backtrack a little here.

First, there is nothing wrong with wanting to write a book. In fact, it’s great. I am forever encouraging people to write. The mechanics of writing means, simply put, hard work. To write 100,000 words takes a lot of graft. BUT, if you want to do it, you can. However, you need to know one or two painful truths. One, I do not believe story telling can be taught. WRITING can, but not story telling. Anyone can write. Anyone can learn grammar, syntax and all the rest. Cool. But is that creating stories which make your jaw drop to the floor, which have you crying like a baby into your pillow, or laughing aloud like a hyena on crystal-meth? No. I do not believe anybody can be taught how to tell a good story. It’s not just about structure, the snowflake, starting from the middle or the end, or from wherever you want to start from. It’s something, which lives inside you, something which will not let go, which dominates every waking moment of every single day. If you can’t tell a story, there is no point in picking up a how-to book. So, if you do have the knack, if you can hold people’s attention with tales of daring-do, why not pick up one of these guides?

Because they don’t work.

Because they all say the same things.

And it makes my blood boil, because there are probably thousands of people out there buying these things. And they are selling more than I am, and that hacks me off too.

No, I believe the only way to learn how to write is…to write. Write and read. Then read some more. Get a publisher who believes in you, and an editor who can fix the stupid grammar bits you missed. I’m forever getting mixed up with past and passed. And I’ve been told off more than once for using ‘started to’ or ‘beginning with’. So, I’m not going to use those again. But my editor doesn’t tell me how to plot. She doesn’t order me to change scenes and characters, etc. The reason they accepted my book in the first place was because the story was damned good. The grammar was okay, but that is easily fixed. A bad story can never be fixed.

I looked up some of the authors of these guides, see how they were doing with their own books. Well, one or two were doing fine, but most were not. And the reviews they were receiving left a lot to be desired. So, have they written these guides to make money, to prey on the dreams of aspiring novelists, by offering them the ‘Teach yourself How To Be An Author’ way to fame and fortune?

Of course they have. And people buy these things! Why not join a writing club, get down to your library, read your stories to kids, or even adults, sign up to Authonomy or YouWriteOn? Get some feedback, do the leg-work, learn the craft.  And when you’ve written one book and you’ve submitted it, write another. And keep writing! That’s the key, not a secret to be found in the pages of a 75 cent guide that is shooting up the charts all because so many have swallowed the bait.

I keep saying it; writing is not a get-rich-quick scheme. But it seems as if not many prospective wannabe Harlan Cobens out there have quite come to terms with this fact yet.

For news of my latest books and when they are available, keep checking out my website.

Thanks for dropping by, and don’t worry, I won’t be writing any guides to getting published…not now, not ever.

Keep reading!




Filed under fiction writing

11 responses to “Adventures in writing … thoughts on those how-to guides

  1. disregardeddreams

    Absolutely love this! I always hated those “easy” ways to write books, or articles. Even at the age of eight when I was writing my first ‘book’, I’d look at those articles and think, “But that doesn’t help me at all! I already knew that!”

    • Isn’t that just the truth! You hand over your cash, thinking here is the secret, or at least a few insights…but no! I haven’t bought any of these (and there are a lot of them!) and I have no intention of doing so. BUT, I’m afraid, many do.

      • disregardeddreams

        If anything, they’re telling you how to write a certain way, so the result is multiple stories of similar style or voice (not saying this is a bad thing, but it’s so much harder to connect to a story or character when the voice seems like it’s being forced by the writer). It also limits your experimentation with writing, because you feel like you have to stick to what the book says “because it works.” I mean, if you need an entire book to teach you step-by-step how to write a story, should you be writing at all? Shouldn’t it come naturally (not all the time – THAT would be a blessing if there was never any struggle – but at least that instinct)?
        I myself, have Stephen King’s On Writing, which I wouldn’t necessarily call a ‘How-To’ book, although I’m sure there are others who’d disagree with me! It’s interesting to hear his process, his struggles, and pick up a few little tips or inspirational quotes along the way. I never felt like he was saying, “This is how I write, so you should write like this too!” – which is why I don’t consider it a ‘How-To’ book.

  2. Wow, absolutely! Stephen King is very dismissive of formulaic writing, and that is precisely what these guides seem to be offering. I’m with you. The story comes from within. It grows, takes on a life of its own…it cannot be, or should not be, forced or prescribed. If you are not a story-teller, no amount of books, tricks, guides or whatever will give you what it takes. The desire to tell stories, that is what it is about. It annoys me that so many of these guides exist. But what annoys me more is that people buy them. Stephen King’s book is very different. It’s a journey, with some pointers, some signposts, but in the end it is up to you to choose which way to go.

  3. Great post, thank you! I am new to fiction writer and feel as if I am pulled into a million directions as I read writing advice from the internet and blogs. I have finally decided that I am going to mold this advice, leaving bits here and there, to form the writing process that fits me. And I believe you are completely right, a successful writer is a storyteller and you can’t learn how to be one from a book. Thanks again! 🙂

    • Hi, and thanks for dropping by. If I can give you any advice, it is this. Write. Do not get hung up with the best way of doing things. You read, you have immersed yourself in stories, and sometimes, a tingling begins along your spine and you are inspired to put something down on paper. Inspiration comes from anywhere. A smile, birds soaring across the sky, music, dreams … it doesn’t matter. What matters is you want to do it. So, you sit down and you write and you don’t care about anything else. Write your first draft. Go for it and do not stop. Once you have that story down on paper, then you can begin to really look at it, read some guides, watch Stephen King on YouTube, listen. I often think about great modern writers, the ones I love. Harlan Coben, Henning Mankell, John Harvey … have they ever written a guide on how to write? Did they EVER read one? The answer to both questions is ‘no’. And yet, they write. Pick out your favourite authors and read them, this time with a critical eye. This can be hard sometimes as the story simply washes you away! I tried this once with Cormac McCarthy, and in the end I gave up trying to understand his method and simply let the story take me to another world. That’s what great writers do. They invite you into their imagination and you are so enthralled you simply do not notice the grammar or the syntax, the plot or the characters. All of that simply IS. Elmore Leonard talks about words intruding on the reader’s imagination. Once the reader has to stop and question something, they are lost. And once you, as a writer, stop and say ‘damn it, how can I say this?’ you too are lost. It should be seamless, without effort. Writing is very Buddhist in that respect. Write. Do not worry. All of that will come later, when you’re published!

      • Thanks for the great advice, I really appreciate it! I am a plotter by nature, so I am trying to find a balance between my outlines/character charts and the creative writing act itself. I will get there! 🙂

  4. I normally try and write down a very rough, 10-step plan…but it is very rough. It is only when I have started writing that I seriously think about the fine-tuning of the plot, but I need to feel comfortable with the story first, know where it is going and how it will end (although the end often changes). So, I’m not really all that concerned with characters, etc, they tend to develop as the story does. The whole point revolves around getting your first draft done. THEN, when it is finished, you can begin to smooth out the wrinkles, develop your characters and the like. But get the first draft finished. This is vital.

  5. Reblogged this on The Writers Room and commented:
    writing life

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