7

I built and sold a business during my first decade of adulthood. During that period, I read a lot of business books published by the popular press. However, I didn't begin to succeed until I apprehended that the authors didn't write books to teach people how to successfully manage businesses; they wrote books to sell books (go figure). By definition, a person ignorant of a given topic doesn't know about that topic, and so s/he can't judge whether statements about that topic are true. Consequently, the feelings a given business book elicits seem to affect its sales much more than the efficacy of the methods it propounds affects them. If I could re-live my first decade of adulthood, I'd forgo most of the books that I read during that period, and read case-studies instead.

Moreover, it seems that successful fiction authors don't write books about writing fiction. Presumably, if the methods these books propound worked, their authors would be successful fiction writers. Nevertheless, even if some successful fiction authors do write these books, I can't think of anything, other than altruism, that would motivate them to share their fiction writing methods. Especially given that they're protected from accusations of dishonestly by the fact that we don't know whether they actually use the methods they propound.

In other words, do we know whether the methods propounded in books about writing fiction actually work; if so how do we know that?

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    At least some of these books are written by successful authors; I know someone who swears by Stephen King's On Writing, though I haven't had a look at it myself. – evilsoup Dec 7 '14 at 19:13
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    I hope you're aware you're asking this question on a site dedicated to 'how to write fiction' advice? – Standback Dec 8 '14 at 10:05
  • There is a multitude of writing advice from writers of every degree of success. Obviously, some is wretchedly bad, but some is brilliantly good. And since writing has a lot of art and subjectivity to it, different writers will find value in different advice and different approaches. – Standback Dec 8 '14 at 10:14
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    Lastly, writers can be a pretty altruistic bunch. (Heaven knows, they'd better not be in it for the money...) They care deeply about the art and craft of fiction; it's their passion. Plus, writers operate under a certain assumption that people will be interested in reading stuff they've come up with... – Standback Dec 8 '14 at 10:20
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    Why the downvote? SE encourages explaining downvotes. – user5645 Dec 8 '14 at 16:59
9

Writing is definitely a craft, and as a craft it definitely has technique, and technique can be described and taught.

Writing is also all surface. There is nothing hidden underneath. All the techniques that an author uses are there on display, and so you can figure them out for yourself by reading with attention. You don't need the classes or the books, but they may help.

But the real question is not whether writing is a craft. It clearly is. The question is, is there an element to successful writing that is not craft? And I think it is pretty clear that there is. That element is seeing. A great writer, in the end, is someone who has seen something that the rest of us have not seen, and has the writing skills to show it to us.

I have read a lot of work by aspiring authors and very few of them lacked adequate writing skills. They simply had not seen anything worth telling. Their stories were not told badly, they just had nothing to tell. This, it seems to me is the limit of writing classes, critique groups, and sites like this. They may improve your writing technique, but they can't teach you to see.

So, the writing books may not be bogus, exactly, though some of them surely are, but they may not be enough, because they can only teach you technique and technique is not enough.

  • Wow. Great answer. (Answered all the parts of the question and gave me a few things worth thinking about.) Thank you. – Hal Feb 10 '17 at 19:01
6

Mark Twain did not learn how to write by reading a book about how to write. Neither did Hermann Melville, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Goethe, Proust, etc.

Buying and (maybe) reading how-to-write books is a symptom of procrastination. Wannabe writers have shelves of them. And every time they feel afraid of starting to write and making mistakes, they go and buy another one (or post questions on forums such as this one), thinking that before they can begin their masterwork, they need the secret knowledge that all writers share and that will enlighten them and turn them into a writer. But they are mistaken. There is no secret to writing, just as there is no secret to walking or speaking, only that

you have to do it until it becomes second nature.

And that is all the truth there is to it. You learn writing by writing. And by making mistakes.


Of course there are writing books (and answers to questions on the internet) that tell you this simple truth, and most of those are even written by successful authors (because they have been there). So, obviously, those books (and those questions) do provide the relevant methods for learning how to write. Unfortunately, no wannabe writer ever believes this method, because it does not appear secret and esoteric to them (and also it is a painful method that takes a lot of effort, and most wannabe writers are averse to hard work and don't have the self-esteem to survive failure), or if they believe it, they find themselves unable to implement it, their fear of failure and their perfectionism quickly muddling their thoughts and covering every insight they might have had with doubt.

I could give you an endless list of names of professional and accomplished visual artists, musicians, writers and other artists who have said or written (sometimes in how-to books or classes they taught) something like "practice makes perfect"; I could post an overwhelming number of comparisons between early and later works of authors and artist that prove that even the greatest among them began with failures (though, admittedly, some of them began making those mistakes at a quite early age); and yet, those that buy how-to-write books will no believe their eyes and keep waiting for some divine spark to "inspire" them.

And most of them will never finish a book in their lives, feeling misunderstood and tortured until they die.

  • I like that first chunk. It's really good. I know, you should write a boo-- ;) (kidding aside, +1) – Mac Cooper Dec 8 '14 at 15:54
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    Well, it's certainly true that it would be a very rare person who could read a book on how to do something and then be an expert. I wouldn't want to be operated on by a doctor who had just read a book about surgery and had no other training or experience. But surely on any subject, including writing, there is useful information and advice that the person who is good at it could give to the beginner. – Jay Dec 9 '14 at 15:08
5

This comment:

 Moreover, successful fiction authors don't write books about writing fiction. 

...is false. Le Guin, Bradbury, Card, Block, King all wrote books about writing fiction, and they are all successful to one degree or another.

And this comment:

 I can't think of anything, other than altruism, that would motivate 
 them to publish their methods of writing fiction.

The author gets paid to write these books. Money is a good motivator.

  • 3
    There are authors who are paid to write books?! Wow. – Jay Dec 9 '14 at 15:06
  • I know -- color me shocked as well! – bryanjonker Dec 9 '14 at 16:00
  • @bryanjonker Regarding the second comment: I presumed most successful authors had more stories in mind than they could possibly write, and that they'd make more doing so. – Hal Feb 11 '15 at 23:32
  • @Hal Stephen King has said in interviews he has a constant supply of stories to write, and is always thinking of more stories to write during the writing of a given story. I think what you are missing is that successful authors, like King, have become so wealthy with tens of millions of dollars that they no longer care if they are writing the most profitable thing they possibly can; and instead are often absorbed in writing the most personally interesting thing they have thought of. King wrote a how-to explicitly to counter what he considered bad advice in other books. Altruism, maybe. – Amadeus Oct 23 '17 at 15:06
5

Meebo gleeb owt anso gilf?+ Don't you agree?

+I'll explain in a moment.

Question Heard Around the Writing World

Can a book teach you to write?

Well, of course not. For no matter how great the book, the pupil herself may be completely obstinate and impenetrable to the lessons.

What Would A Book About Writing Teach? "Furthermore," the cynic says. "What would a book about writing teach anyway? Would it teach me to write a John Grisham best-seller?"

Answer: Of course not. Only John Grisham can write a John Grisham novel.

Isn't It All Subjective?

That's the real question that writer's around the world want to know.

Isn't teaching someone to write fiction just a subjective exercise which cannot be measured?

Answer: No, not everything is subjective, but yes, much is.
If you are writing the fictional equivalent of my first sentence, you are not going to have many readers, because they simply cannot understand you.

I'm An Artist and An Idiot

I may tell you it is art and you may tell me I am an idiot and we both may be correct.

I've created this exaggerated example to show you that there are certain foundational things that can help your fiction writing and help make you a more successful fiction writer. You can learn these measurable things and determine if your writing is actually better (more pleasant, easier to read, conveys your message properly, etc) or not.

Reader Expectations You see, there are expectations of readers. Some of these are obvious such as grammar and using a language that is understood by your readers. There are other less obvious things that a book can teach (and hopefully provide examples of) which can make your writing much easier to read because they fit your audience's expectations.

Obviously something makes writing good or bad, because readers know when writing is good or bad.

I Can Prove This With An Example

"Promises are like babies: easy to make but hard to deliver." ~anonymous

Example 1

Not so good:

George was nice man.

Better:

George looked at his watch and saw it was already 7:45am. Going to be late for the meeting and Mr. Murphy is going to kill me. He pushed his front door open and ran out toward his car. As George pulled the door open on his Jaguar X45 he heard a faint whimpering sound.

He dropped his brief case into the car and walked around to the passenger side and looked under the car. Nothing there. He looked at his watch again and felt a pulse of heat travel down his back. He heard the whimpering sound again and walked around to the back of his car and looked down at the storm drain. He held his tie back so it wouldn't get dirty and he looked into the drain and saw two eyes looking back.

The small dog he was now looking at let out a louder whine and he knew he'd have to get it out of the drain. He reached down and was just able to grab the dog by the scruff of the neck and hoist him out.

He pulled the dog close trying to calm it. "Hey little fella. How'd you get stuck down there?" He looked at his watch again. Murphy is going to fire me. He looked back into the puppy's eyes and said, "Well, I guess you can comfort me on those lonely days when I'm looking for my next job."

You see? This is the show don't tell principle working itself out before your eyes. As a writer, which tells the story of George better? Probably the second one. Again, notice that I even mark these as "Not So Good" and "Better", since in reality it is still subjective.

100s of Lessons Which Help You Learn More Quickly

There are 100s of other lessons that you can learn the fast way (by reading a well written teaching book like my all-time favorite Make Your Words Work, by Gary Provost -- amazon link) Why learn slow when you can learn 100s of shortcuts to Reader Expectations very quickly?

Is This A Guarantee? Will any of this guarantee that you are a professional and world-class fiction writer? Of course not. If you want a guarantee become a trash collector. You'll always have work in that line of business.

Conclusion All readers have expectations. Many of those expectations are formed by cultural influences which generate a large group (your reading audience) that expect certain things from your writing. The faster you learn of those expectations, the quicker you can go about setting them up so that your writing WORKS THE BEST IT CAN. Then you can even bend the expectations with complete knowledge and understanding at the right time. Which is probably how you transcend and become an Artist.

3

Not my mother tongue, so bear with me :)

In my eyes, 'writing' consists of (at least) three areas of abilities and knowledge.

  1. The creative (what does happen in my, for instance, novel?)
  2. The structural (When/ in what order should it happen for the most effect and to satisfy readers expectations?)
  3. The craft (how do I physically act to transfer the image from my head into the head of the reader?)

To get better in these areas (from my [limited] experience)

  1. Read other books (not how-to-books), observe etc.
  2. Here How-To-Books can help a lot in my opinion.
  3. Mostly practice, but some advice can help (adjectives etc.)

So (good) how-to-books wont hurt, and I do not agree, that writing alone will make you better at writing. It can work, but some good books, deconstruction of novels and so on can speed up the process.

In my opinion however, knowledge is not the main hurdle (the interwebz are full of tutorials and good and bad advice) for aspiring writers, but motivation and persistence. This is something only few (or no) books can help you with.

2

Sure, you could say this sort of thing about any how-to book.

Just yesterday I saw an ad for a video titled, "How to get your message across in 30 seconds!". In small print it says, "Running time: 45 minutes". Apparently the people who made the video didn't see the irony.

It's a common joke that people who write "how to get rich books" get rich by selling these books, not by doing any of the things that their books say to do. If I was going to read a get-rich-quick book, I'd want to find one that was written by someone who got rich before he wrote the book.

Now that I think of it, you could say the same about any book at all. Some are written by people who really know the subject and who are skilled at conveying this information, and some are written by people with little or no knowledge of the subject and/or who are terrible writers. Some of anything is great and some is junk. In real life, you have to sort out the good from the bad.

2

On this site and many others that exists to support aspiring writers, there are widely recognized common mistakes from beginners. The first listed common mistake from that link is "unclear speaker attribution". Can the skills be taught that will help someone avoid that mistake? Yes - as a quick search on this very site will show. So, if at least some writing skills can be taught, then it follows that a (good) how-to-write book should be able to teach many of the skills needed in writing.

With or without how-to-write books, the author, of course, still has work to do! There are no guarantees, but being a better author can only be helpful in becoming a published author and a professional author, and how-to-write books can help people become better authors.

It therefore seems to me that a how-to-write book will only be "full of it" if it either (a) fails to teach the reader how to become a better writer, or (b) misleads the reader about what else will be involved, beyond writing well. Such books may be "full of it"; but others may not, as it must be at least possible for a useful how-to-write book to exist.

(Speaking for myself, from my own experience and the feedback I get from my test readers, my writing ability has been transformed since reading books like Stephen King's On Writing; Robert McKee's Story; and Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey. I feel very confident in declaring I am now a vastly better author than I was before reading those books - when I re-read my early stories, I find they are dreadful in comparison to what I can write now! Of course, how good I am now in absolute terms, I leave to others to judge; and so far, I've only had one short story published. In any case, I honestly don't think I'd have managed even that minor achievement without learning some of the craft from how-to-write books).

1

There are some really, really great books and blogs out there. And a lot of mediocre ones. And a lot that are self-help books about motivation and getting over "writer's block" that is really constant editing instead of banging out your chapter.

  • For craft, nothing beats K. M. Weiland's Helping Writers Become Authors blog and books. The blog has entire sections on structure, character acts, and scenes.
  • Bell's Writing Your Novel From the Middle is fantastic, and Conflict & Suspense, and Plot & Structure are both great.
  • Larry Brooks (story physics), Scofield (the scene book), Vogler (on the hero's journey), and Maasss all have great books.
  • Cut to the Chase is great for Screenplays. I despise Save the Cat, but many people find it very useful.

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