Talk to any writer and they’ll tell you there’s no formula to writing. Some may try to sell you a formula, but it almost never works out. As writers, many of us have this gut feeling that we know what we’re doing, but there’s just something we don’t quite get yet. There’s got to be a magic bullet, some special piece of knowledge, that will jump-start us into our careers as professional authors.
So, some of us turn to books on writing. I remember the first I ever picked up: How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey. As I read it, I felt like I was absorbing this author’s power, his knowledge and tricks of the trade. But by the time I set it down (unfinished) I realized that nothing in it had really helped me all that much. There was nothing to put into practice – just a whole lot of theories and idioms. To be fair, it’s been years since I read it, so I may read it differently now if I were to pick it up again.
I didn’t read a book on writing for years after. I had this idea about the romanticism of being a writer (which I know now to be a bunch of crap) and the belief that a writer shouldn’t have to get help from others on writing. They should just write, practice, and eventually it’ll all work out.
Then this past year happened. I’ve finished two books in the last year because my drive and passion for writing suddenly picked up when I got tired of hearing myself call myself a writer, despite not writing very often. After enough times, it’s easy to call bullshit even on the lies we tell ourselves. I wasn’t writing, and I thought that one day the spark would just come to me and I’d pen my masterpiece. After all, writing is just the art of playing make-believe and writing it down.
Now is the best time ever to start reading books on writing, especially if you have access to eBooks. Plenty of authors out there (most self-published) just want to share what works for them with aspiring authors. Before the Kindle and self-publishing were big, it seemed like we only had a few wise masters to turn to – Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, and William Zinsser chief among them. Now we have a whole slew of writers of all kinds who just want to help fellow writers, many of them self-publishers who are making a living off of their writing. If that’s not an effective resume, I don’t know what is.
Just to name a few: James Scott Bell, author of How to Make a Living as a Writer; Chuck Wendig, whose blog is a treasure trove of bad words and good ideas that often get compiled into eBooks like 500 Ways to Write Harder; Jim Butcher, a traditionally-published fantasy author who occasionally updates his blog with a lot of helpful advice; Kristine Kathryn Rusch, whose book The Pursuit of Perfection: and How it Harms Writers helped me get through a lot of my anxieties as a writer; and Randy Ingermanson, creator of the Snowflake Method and more recently author of his practical anecdotal incarnation of the same method, How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method – if ever there were a formula to good storytelling, this book is the best place to start.
Before reading a lot of these, I thought that writing was such an individual thing that no one could teach you anything beyond grammar and sentence structure. I’ve since learned that there’s something useful in every author’s book on writing. In fact, I’ve come to think Stephen King’s aptly-titled book On Writing may have been the least useful thing I’ve read as a writer – but more on that in a later post.
You’re never going to find one book that helps you write your masterpiece unless you write that book yourself. The benefits to reading books on writing by other authors are many. For instance, when I’m having a slow writing day, reading someone’s opinions on writing could be just the kick in the ass I need to get to my computer and start creating some fiction. I’ve yet to find a book on writing that I haven’t learned at least something from. Some points may come up multiple times by multiple authors, but these are points you should pay special attention to, and having them repeated so many times can be beneficial.
One thing I regret not doing, though, is writing down important points from each of these books. That may just mean that I’ll have to re-read/skim over these books again and write down any juicy bits, but that’s not exactly a tortuous idea.
To sum up:
- Find any writing books you can
- Read them and take away what you can from each of them
- Make notes on important points
- Find your own writing method
- Keep writing
I’m getting to the point where I feel like I have the knowledge to write my first novel that will start my career as a professional author, and I think that finding the right virtual mentors has helped in that – and it can help you, too.
Just keep in mind that no two writers are alike. We are all as unique as the stories we create, and no one can tell you definitively how to write your novel.