The Irascible Indie. Part 1: Writing By Feel, or Why I Hate Reading “How To Write” Books

As I read blog posts and discussions by writers, both indie and trad, I notice recurring topics: It’s not enough to write your book and put it out there. Your book will not sell itself. Writing is a business. You must know your market. You must position your book in the correct category. You must use social media. And so on.

While I recognize the value of this advice, inevitably, I consider, mull over and often question. I thought I would turn my musings into blog fodder. The result is a series of posts about “writing right.” Not so much the writing, but the presentation — of both the writer and the written works. I admit I often have a contrarian reaction to advice. Maybe it’s just a reflex reaction; maybe it’s because I’m sort of lazy (I considered calling this series The Indolent Indie). Does that mean I’m a (gulp) Bad Writer?

So here goes —

Part 1: Writing By Feel.

Confession: I have never taken any courses in “creative writing.” But I have written all my life — essays in school, term papers in university, memos, reports and documentation at work, a journal for many years, hundreds of blog posts and five (soon to be six, I hope) novels, four of which I have published.

I often end up arguing with the advice given by “how to write” books and falling into “angry child” mode (kicking and screaming — metaphorically, of course). It’s possible I secretly fear that my writing won’t be good enough, that I won’t be able to incorporate all the advice, and therefore FAIL.

Selling one’s writing may be a business, but creating it should not become an arena of failure. Writing should flow, not jerk along with the writer consulting a handbook between paragraphs and questioning the correctness of every sentence. (All right, it may help to bring the book out at the editing/rewriting stage, but first drafting goes best when it’s unfettered).

I also resist a formulaic approach to writing, given the huge element of subjectivity in how it’s judged by any individual reader. (Readers vary tremendously; consider the difference between a casual reader, a critique group member, an editor, reviewer or writing teacher. Each of them reads for a different reason, which colours their evaluation of a piece.)

Consider too that reading books about writing may be a great way to avoid doing any writing yourself. There are so many of these books you can’t hope to read them all, which means you may never set pen to paper (or, more likely, fingers to keys).

But then there’s Stephen King’s On Writing. I did read that. Unlike many of King’s novels, it’s a slender little book. Far from provoking my usual cranky reaction, it inspired me to start writing. It was magical — suddenly this thing I thought was impossible was the only thing to do. But then, I’ve been a fan of King’s writing for decades. In fact, reading and re-reading his novels (and those of other authors) helped me learn how to write.

That’s the thing: I believe the best way to make yourself into a good writer is to read — read A LOT — feel intensely, fall in love with an idea, a plot, a character, and WRITE. Then find a group of people (maybe writers) you trust, who will read your work and tell you what they think. Then rewrite (or not!). Keep doing all this stuff long enough, and you will probably produce at least something worthwhile. But don’t rush to publish prematurely. It’s better to take longer and produce a really good piece of writing than to quickly crank out a bunch of mediocre efforts. Setting a manuscript aside for a few months is a good idea too; you will return to it with the sort of objectivity that leads to improvement.

Time for writing is so precious, I hate to waste any of it reading “how to write” books. Okay, maybe if I was between writing projects, with time to spare, a book about writing written in a style I find engaging might be worth reading. Not as a paint-by-numbers manual, but as something that could be stashed in the brain attic to mingle with all the other stuff up there, possibly to improve my next writing effort without my even realizing it.

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2 comments

  1. I have a simple rule in life: don’t read ‘How to Write’ books unless they’ve been written by someone I’ve heard of. Milan Kundera, Kingsley Amis pass the test; the rest are just clickbaiting sales people. Read just one page written by Peter Ackroyd and you soon see why a lot of amateur ‘how to write’ advice is pure ignorance.
    Chris

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