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Writing How-To's (1 Viewer)

Tiamat

Patron
From what I've seen around this site, it seems that we have a fair number of writers that spend at least some of their time reading how-to-write books. I've read a few of them myself, but I seemly to be largely ignorant of the vast majority of how-to books out there.

I've read Noah Lukeman's "The First Five Pages" because I was once reamed in a rejection letter and told in no uncertain terms that unless I read this book I would most likely spend the rest of my life sweeping garbage off the sidewalks.

More recently, I've read "Story Engineering" because a friend recommended it, and that same friend also let me borrow Stephen King's "On Writing" and Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style."

It's from reading "On Writing" that I want to pose a question. King talks about sentences and paragraphs in some detail. He talks about compound-complex sentences and simple sentences and fragments, and also about how some paragraphs are sixteen pages long, while others only consist of one or two words. He talks about pacing and about finding the beat.

It's all rather interesting and I would certainly recommend the book to the other three or four people that haven't read it yet. But it makes me wonder. In my own writing, I tend to vary the sentence length and paragraph length, but I do it all by ear. I write what feels right, and when I edit, I keep what sounds right.

My question is how much instruction is too much? For those reading this thread, do you think about the beat and the sentence length and is-this-paragraph-too-long-or-too-short? I'm beginning to feel that if you try to think about all these instructions and guidelines when you write, you'll be so bogged down that you may never finish, or if you do finish, you'll be half-mad from second-guessing every word you've put down on the page.

It's like trying to open a jar of peanut butter with a physics professor standing next to you explaining about friction and force and inertia and threads and the composition of plastic and the weight and mass of the jar of peanut butter. Meanwhile, you're standing there terrified to make the attempt because there are so many variables when all you really need to know is "lefty loosey, righty-freaking-tighty."
 

dale

Senior Member
i liked king's advice on paragraph length, because he basically left it to "feel". and really? maybe it should basically be left to that.
maybe "feel" is what separates the "good" writers from the "bad".
 

Kyle R

WF Veterans
I'm probably in the high-end as far as how many "how to" books on writing I've read and own.

My current library contains. .. ... ..

The Power of Point of View - Alicia Rasley
Beginnings, Middles, and Ends - Nancy Kress
Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint - Nancy Kress
Make a Scene - Jordan Rosenfeld
Conflict and Suspense - James Scott Bell
Plot and Structure - James Scott Bell
Immediate Fiction - Jerry Cleaver
Writing the TV Drama Series - Pamela Douglas
The Story Template - Amy Deardon
Complete Writer's Guide to Heroes and Heroines - Tami Cowden
Sixteen Master Villain Archetypes - Tami Cowden
The First 50 Pages - Jeff Gerke
Plot Versus Character - Jeff Gerke
Save the Cat! - Blake Snyder
Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies - Blake Snyder
Save the Cat! Strikes Back - Blake Snyder
Writing Fiction for All you're Worth - James Scott Bell
Zen in the Art of Writing - Ray Bradbury
The Plot Whisperer- Martha Alderson
20 Master Plots - Ronald Tobias
My Story can Beat up Your Story - Jeffrey Schechter
Advanced Plotting - Chris Eboch
Outlining your Novel - K.M. Weiland
The 90-Day Novel - Alan Watt
The Anatomy of Story - John Truby
Story Engineering - Larry Brooks
The First Five Pages - Noah Lukeman
Novelist's Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes - Raymond Obstfeld
Scene and Structure - Jack Bickham
Techniques of the Selling Writer - Dwight Swain
The Art of War for Writers - James Scott Bell

That's.. over thirty books. And counting! Every time I go to the bookstore I head straight to the Writing section and attack the books with fervor, looking for the next one that I need. There's always something new and more and more and new that I haven't learned and that I must, must, must!

Of course, I'm being dramatic, but I do love learning about writing. After a while I've noticed much of the advice overlaps and repeats. Occasionally I find new gems though it is becomming less and less nowdays.

It seems that I've reached a point where I've learned as much as I need to, and it's time to stop reading and start writing.

On an interesting note, though, I haven't read On Writing yet, though I don't intend to. I've never really been a fan of Stephen King. *Ducks*

But out of all the books I own, including fiction and non-fiction, I feel I've learned more about writing from short-story anthologies than from any of the instructional books. Seeing skilled writers in their element is the best instruction I've found.

With all the info I've soaked up, I noticed a similar sort of thinking paralysis that can happen.

Okay, am I writing a scene or a sequel here? What part of my motivation-reaction unit am I at? This is after the midpoint reversal, so I have to remember my Hidden Need Triplet. Is this the False Opponent-Ally or the False Ally-Opponent? Does this plot twist relate to my character's internal knot? Does my antagonist correlate correctly with my hero's archetype?

For a short time I was actually thinking this stuff during the first draft, and more! I was calculating percentages to balance between description, dialogue, action, and internalization as well.

It resulted in me not being able to write a damn thing.

So now, what I do is, whenever I can, I write, write, write! As fast I can. Pedal to the floorboard, not allowing my fingers to stop, unless my house is on fire, my neighbors are being attacked by aliens, or a wild gerbal is eating my face.

Only after I've completed a story in draft form like this, do I then go back and identify any analytical components. Where is the inciting incident? How are the scenes? MRU's in place?


I find it's much easier to mold a wet lump of clay by groping blindly with hands and fingers first. Only after it starts to resemble something do I then go in with the tools.

And when I need inspiration, I read the kind of writing that I want mine to most closely resemble. If you don't have any authors whose fiction you aspire to, find them, asap!

Hope any of that helps!
 

shadowwalker

WF Veterans
I've only read a couple - and actually, it was more skimming than reading. At some point, you'll notice that you're getting completely opposite advice (unless you're only reading about grammar, and even that can sometimes conflict), or that some of the best writers are doing it all 'wrong'.
 

josh.townley

Senior Member
I've read a couple that I found for free on the Kindle. There was an interesting one about the struggles that different writers went through to publish their first book.
I did find, though, that my productivity took a nose-dive while I was reading them. It might have been the realisation that there was only a very tiny chance I would ever be published, or perhaps I just starting over-thinking every aspect of my own writing.
I haven't gone looking for any more since, and my writing has become a lot easier.
Maybe I'll take another look once I've got a draft of a novel that I'm happy with to see if there's anything I've overlooked. I haven't read Stephen King's book yet, so I might make an exception for that one.
 

Sam

General
Patron
I must be a naturally gifted storyteller. I've never in my life read a how-to book, a rule book, or any book other than a work of fiction. It hasn't done me any harm. What you read in one how-to book is going to completely differ in another, and for that reason I can't allow myself to take them seriously. The best way to learn the craft of writing, in my opinion, is to read fiction. Not how-to guides or you-must guides. Fiction.

Here's an interesting and relevant anecdote. Everything I know about computers I learned by messing around with settings on an old, virtually dead, laptop my brother gave to me when I was fourteen. I kept tinkering with it until I knew every menu, sub-menu, and folder on that drive. Likewise, when I got my first mobile phone, I tinkered with it until I knew it inside out. No handbooks, dummies' guides, or any other informative literature were ever perused along the way. Through trial and error I figured out how everything worked in relation to everything else.

When I started writing, the same system of trial and error applied. The more I wrote and tinkered with my writing, the better it became. The more I read, the more my vocabulary and syntax improved. I was accepted for publication not because I read Fifty Great Tips on How to Write a Killer Story, but because of hard work and perseverance. I read the masters: Clancy, Ludlum, Forsyth, Higgins. I studied their styles and mimicked them to begin with, until my own voice metamorphosed out of all of theirs. I wrote, wrote some more, and then some more just for good measure. The ideas were good but the writing did not do them justice, so I honed it until it looked and sounded like what you would read in a published novel.

There are no shortcuts in writing, in my opinion. Now how-to book can show you how to write a novel which will never be rejected and become a best-seller overnight. There is no formula. My advice would be to forget the how-to books. Start reading, start writing, and figure it all out for yourself along the way.
 
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Nemesis

The Black Goat
WF Veterans
I'm with Sam on that, all I ever did was read and read and I kind of just absorbed the inofrmation I needed about grammer and descriptions and such. If it felt right then I did it, if it didn't I deleted it all.
 

Terry D

Retired Supervisor
Here again, as in the outlining thread, much depends on the writer's own make-up and what they expect to get from a "how to" book. If you want to find a book that will tell you how to choose the right story, and the right words, and what sequence to put them in to build a bestseller you are not going to find it. Some books breakdown well written works and find patterns within their structure which they try to pass on to the writing-readers. If you want to be conscious of your structure and build a story that way, then those books probably have something to offer you. Great writing can be built like that. The author says to herself, "I want to achieve this effect at this point in my book, so I want to use this technique to make that happen." There's nothing wrong with that, if that is the writer's nature. Many successful writers work that way, so books about those techniques can be helpful.

There are other books, written by successful authors, which try to convey to the reader a "this works for me" lesson. King's book is like that, as is Ray Bradbury's, Zen and the Art of Writing. The mystery writer Lawrence Block has published several including, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, Spider Spin Me a Web, and Writing a Novel from Plot to Print. The one thing they all have in common is that they stress to the beginning writer that there is only one way to write well -- the way that works for each individual.

I use to read everything I could get my hands on about writing and I still have all the books (probably not 30, Kyle, but close!), but I don't use them much anymore. I did finally get On Writing by King and enjoyed it very much, but more for the biographical info than for any writing advice. What reading the "how to" books has done for me is to help me understand why my writing works -- when it does -- and how to build on that.

Like Sam says, most of my writing education came from reading. I never consciously copied anyone else's style, but I know mine has been heavily influenced by the things that work for me in books I enjoy. The analytic side of me likes to know about structure and technique, but when I sit down at the keyboard I'm never thinking about that stuff.

I like to compare the craft of writing to wood working. You don't have to have a shop full of the fanciest tools, or a lot of instruction books, to build a nice cabinet -- you can do it with an idea and a few basic hand tools -- but a bit of advice from someone who's done it well before and some specialized tools can improve the results.

Just my opinion, of course.
 
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squidtender

Space Lord
Patron
*throws laptop at Kyle* You shut up and read On Writing! It's as entertaining as it is informative!

Writing is a lot like poker; there are many styles and techniques, but only you can decide which works best. Whoever said "write with your heart, rewrite with your head", was spot on. Just let go and don't worry about all these how-to books, UNTIL the rewrites. Then you can think about them, use them and see if they help you. But only as a suggestion, not scripture. Pretty sure Hemingway, Shakespeare and Lovecraft did it without these books;)
 

Loulou

WF Veterans
It's like trying to open a jar of peanut butter with a physics professor standing next to you explaining about friction and force and inertia and threads and the composition of plastic and the weight and mass of the jar of peanut butter. Meanwhile, you're standing there terrified to make the attempt because there are so many variables when all you really need to know is "lefty loosey, righty-freaking-tighty."

Ha, great image. And how true. Over analysis can cripple. Writing is so terrifying at times anyway. I try hard to go with what 'feels' right. This may sound all tree-huggy and too emotional but it works for me. Simple as that. I read lots, have read the odd How To book too, and works about an author's experiences of it. Makes sense to hear what other's thoughts are, even if I disagree. Even by disagreeing I've learnt something. But I hate rules. Read or do whatever it takes to write. Simple as that, I think.
 

Robdemanc

Senior Member
I think I can feel what is best for paragraph length and sentence length. The how to books are helpful but I wouldn't use them too closely because I think writing style is unique to each person. I just try to make sure my paragraphs have focus and the sentences are not too long and rambling.
 

Jon M

WF Veterans
Think of the first draft as the performance. You're on stage playing guitar and you're not thinking about the Circle of Fifths, or which key this is, or the notes of the Pentatonic scale. You just do whatever feels right.

Same with writing. Revision is the time you think about all of these guidelines. That is where you craft your sentences, paragraphs; where you obsess over verbs and diction, and generally where you analyze everything and understand it.
 

Tiamat

Patron
That's actually a really interesting way of looking at it. First, just write and damned be the rules. And then, once it's time to really get down to work, worry about the wherefores and whatnots then.

Or, as squid boy said, "Write with your heart, rewrite with your head." I think that line (or something like it) was used in the movie Finding Forrester. Either way, I still think the myriad how-to books present a bit of a conundrum. Stephen King's book is called "On Writing," after all. Not "On Rewriting." I think if you really want to be successful in your craft, you either have to have been born a genius or educate yourself in some way. I'm not about to frown on these kinds of books, especially since I've read a few of them and learned a few interesting things along the way, but as with critiques we've all received on our writing, you take the advice you like and disregard all the rest.
 

bo_7md

Senior Member
That's actually a really interesting way of looking at it. First, just write and damned be the rules. And then, once it's time to really get down to work, worry about the wherefores and whatnots then.

Or, as squid boy said, "Write with your heart, rewrite with your head." I think that line (or something like it) was used in the movie Finding Forrester. Either way, I still think the myriad how-to books present a bit of a conundrum. Stephen King's book is called "On Writing," after all. Not "On Rewriting." I think if you really want to be successful in your craft, you either have to have been born a genius or educate yourself in some way. I'm not about to frown on these kinds of books, especially since I've read a few of them and learned a few interesting things along the way, but as with critiques we've all received on our writing, you take the advice you like and disregard all the rest.

I think the point of How-to books is that a writer is trying to teach you His style of writing, not how to write. So reading a 100 books isn't going to make you better, it's just going to get you confused. Different writers, different styles.

Also, it's good to note that how-to books aren't the best learning method for everyone. Some people prefer tutors, others prefer to condition their brains by reading a lot, and some like to try over and over again until they find something that suits them.

I think the best example of how people learn things is when they buy a new phone, MP3 player, TV....etc.etc

If you start noting how people behave, you'll see that some will grab the manual, some will fiddle with it until they figure how it works and some will just sit and wait for you to learn, then ask you to teach them how to use it.

You just need to figure out which of these are you, and focus on that learning method.
 

Newman

Senior Member
I've read a billion how-tos.

And I've learnt something from each and every one. Not one has been a waste of money.

It's like meeting a billion different people - each contributes to who you are.

But when they start talking about the length of sentences and paragraphs, then I put them down. The style is your domain. That's where you come in. That's where your sense of things should take over.
 

El Chacal

Senior Member
Never read one.

Always preferred the advice of complete strangers on the Internet.

Those guys know their stuff.
 
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Galen

WF Veterans
Tiamat10 -- I appreciate your question.

I have read how-to books to get a more fundamental understanding of the mechanics, the foundation of a story or piece and other insights.

Using the advice I have read on the Writers Forums, as an example, I can say that I have found a piece of advice here and there that illuminated various aspects of writing giving me more insight. Some advice has kickstarted other ideas. So learning from others about writing can be helpful. For me, reading how others perceive various aspects of writing and how they describe it has been the most useful.

One exercise I found useful in a how-to-do book was spontaneous writing. Take a word and write about it for 5 minutes, don't worry about punctuation, spelling etc. just write.
 

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