How-To Books and You: A Concise Guide to Whether or Not You Should Read a Book on How to Write

Okay, it’s pushing past 4am. The Benadryl I took to settle my allergy has long since kicked in, but the email I decided to write to pass a few minutes turned into a monster, and so I’m going to recycle it here.

A friend writes:

I wanted to see if you thought that a prospective writer should read a book on writing a novel if he were going to take-on such a project?

And here’s my typically verbose answer:

It certainly wouldn’t hurt to read books about writing novels. Notice I said plural: books, not book. I’m fascinated by the creative process, so I enjoy reading them… to a point. But here are some problems that I see with the whole how-to book thing:

1) It inhibits the reader because a lot of times, the authors of these books are so in love with their own process, that they pass it off as THE WAY to write a novel. It ain’t. THE WAY to write a novel is what works for you. That’s why they call it the writing process.

Speaking from experience – I always got discouraged when I read a writing book when it said thou shalt outline before writing thine novel. Earlier on I had made the discovery that I never ended up writing any project I outlined first, be it short story or novel. That’s because, for me, part of the writing process is one of discovery, and if I start with an outline, that takes the fun out of it. When I start a novel, I usually have an opening scene, an ending scene, and an idea of what takes place in the middle. Then I outline as I go.1

So it’s okay to read “how-to-writes” by others, but keep in mind most of those methods are not being freshly carried by Moses off of the mountain top. That’s how it works… for one person. I remember starting Desperate Measures (the first novel I actually finished): I sat down and said, “I don’t care if I’m not a professional writer – I’m going to write a book without outlining.” The book just had to come out, see, and I was willing to throw conventional wisdom out the window to get it done.

The best book on writing a novel I’ve ever read is Lawrence Block’s Writing The Novel: From Plot to Print. It was a liberating read for me because he was the first to say “the way to write a novel is what works for you.” I wish I’d found the book earlier. It would have saved me a lot of psychic grief.

And you should know that I’m one of the heretics who doesn’t think much of Stephen King’s On Writing. There’s some good stuff in there, but it’s strictly Writing 101. In typical King fashion, the book is way too long2 and, I feel, overrated for what it says. Maybe the reason people rave about it is because they’ve never been told this stuff. Shame on their high school and college English and writing instructors. Or maybe they never listened to their teachers and ate this book up because it came from Stephen King. Shame on them, then.

2) Some people get addicted to the processes they read about and make such a big deal out of trying out new things that they never finish anything. There reaches a point where you’ve just got to apply pants to chair and beat the book out of yourself, discovering the process of how you write a book as you do.

3) I believe the creative process is an organic thing that evolves. If I had written a how-to-write book in, say, 1990, it would no longer be true to what I do today. And I think that’s the way it should be. Some people might write books in the same old way they always have, and that’s fine. But we should have the chance to evolve, too. And the way I work certainly has. And I kind of hope it never stops. I don’t know of any writing books that reflect this.

As of now, anyway. I’m too busy trying to write to read anymore how-tos.

4) There should come a point in every writer’s career when they walk away from how-tos and start putting words on a page. It doesn’t matter how the words get there. The writer has to find the process for him/er self.

I believe (or should I say, I agree with Lawrence Block) that every novel is a first novel since you haven’t written it yet.3 But those early novels can be tougher, I think, because you’re in the process of learning how you work. Once you do, the sitting down part gets easier.

When I become world dictator, one of the laws I will pass is a disclaimer that every how-to author must put on his/er method book:

Caution: The principles in this book are those that work for its respective author. Your results may vary.”

  1. On a panel once with the great Lois McMaster Bujold, she looked horrified when I said that. That’s because working that way would absolutely not work for her. Viva la difference!
  2. Yeah, I know, it’s probably his slimmest tome ever – but it’s still full of unnecessary stuff.
  3. Janet Evanovich and John Irving being the exceptions to this.

4 Responses

  1. Write your first novel and then read a book about how to do it. That way you’ll have some grasp of what the guru is talking about and you’ll have a better idea of when he’s talking nonsense.

    Your first novel will need extensive re-writing anyway, so there’s nothing to lose.

    Time spend worrying about how to write is time spent not writing.

  2. I want you to know that I took careful notes and will now make a religion out of your how-to blog.


    This is great stuff though – and it confirms what I’ve always believed. That there is not one standard creative process for writing a novel. It’s almost self-evident isn’t it? It’s like saying “there’s just ONE way to paint a picture……ONE way to sculpt….one way to act out a scene….” The list is endless.

    I can only imagine: if the powers-that-be dictated that there was only one valid way to write something, the resulting books would be boring as hell.

    I’ve yet to complete my first novel. For me, it’s not a matter of process so much as it is a matter of focus. Which is why I’ve entered the NaNoWriMo deal. It’s a motivator: I get to force myself to sit down every day and squeeze out a chapter or two, until the end of the month.

    (Great imagery, huh?)

    On the way to my first book I’ve read hundreds of novels, all of varying types. You can’t do that without getting a real feel for how the authors got to the end of their stories. The one who really intrigued me was Tom Robbins (Jitterbug Perfume). I learned, from reading another author who sat down with Robbins as he was writing yet another book, that his style was amazingly different than from what you’d expect. I’m pretty sure he didn’t use an outline, and I’m almost 100% positive he had no idea how his book would end. He deliberated over every sentence, molding it as he liked, erasing and re-stating, until he was happy. And then he moved to the next sentence. The observer noted that he never went back to edit after that. Amazing. And almost certainly NOT my style (though maybe it should be, as I tend to write entire chapters, and then go back and edit and re-edit until….I lose focus and put it away for a few months).

    Anyway – great blog Joe! Glad you wrote it. (And I’m not going to apologize for writing a blog-iike comment either. It’s a big topic.) :)

    • It sounds like Robbins works the same way that Lois McMaster Bujold and Lawrence Block work – agonizing the first time through and minimally editing after. I’m the opposite. I have this race to get the book written as quickly as I can, and then it goes through an extensive series of edits while taking shape.

      You also make an excellent point that every aspiring writer should know – that the best way to learn how to write a novel is by reading the novels of others.

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