Sunday, November 22, 2009

In Defense of How-To-Write Books

by James Scott Bell

It's shameless self-promotion day here at TKZ.

This week my third how-to book for Writers Digest releases. It's called The Art of War for Writers and I think, in my own unbiased fashion, that it's going to help a ton of writers, not only those fighting the battle get published, but also those who want to stay published.

But more on that in a bit. In order to keep this from being completely self-referential, I feel a need to say something in defense of how-to-write books.

Every now and again I hear some author putting down how-tos. "You can only learn to write by writing," they'll say. "Don't waste your time studying writing books. Just put a page in front of you and write!"

Which strikes me as making as much sense as saying, "You can only learn to do brain surgery by doing brain surgery. Don't waste your time studying brain surgery. Just cut open heads and go!"

Uh-huh. Excuse me if I show a preference for a sawbones who has studied under the tutelage of experienced surgeons.

Another trope is, "No one ever learned to write by reading about writing." Really? Isn't that a bit cheeky, unless you've interviewed every published writer out there?

The writer I know best – me – absolutely learned to write by reading how-tos. I had been fed the bunk that "writers are born, not made" while in college, and I bought it, in part because I took a course from Raymond Carver and couldn't do what he did. (I didn't know at the time that there was more than one way to "do" fiction. I thought everybody had to pass through the same tunnel.)

When I finally decided I had to try to learn to write, even if I never got published, I went after it with a club. I started gathering books on writing, read Writers Digest religiously (especially Lawrence Block's fiction column), took some classes, and wrote every day. Living in L.A. it was required that I try screenwriting first, so I wrote four complete screenplays in one year, giving them to a film school friend, who patiently read them and told me they weren't working. But he didn't know why.

Then one day I read a chapter in a book by the great writing teacher Jack Bickham. And I had an epiphany. Literally. Light bulbs and fireworks went off inside my head, and I finally got it. Or at least a big part of it.

So I wrote another screenplay, and that was the one that my friend liked. The next one I wrote got optioned, and the one after that got me into one of the top agencies in town.

All because I finally got it from a how-to book.

That's not to say I might not have gotten it some other way (like trial and error over ten years), but at the very least this saved me time. And that's the reason I write my how-to books – to save writers time, and give them the nuts and bolts they need to make it in this racket. I want to write the sort of books I was looking for when I was wandering in the darkness.

"But you cannot learn to write fiction. . ."

So how did the writers of the past learn? Many of them had a great editor, like Max Perkins. Some had an older writer who read their stuff and suggested ways to make it better. Some, like the great writer-director Preston Sturges, learned from the how-to books available in his day. (In Sturges's case, it was the books of Brander Matthews.)

So a good how-to book is like an editor or teacher. Is there not some value in that?

Now it is quite true you can't just read how-tos and get better without practice. You have to write every day, and apply what you're learning. But if you write blindly, without correction and education, you're most likely going to be turning wheels like that rodent in the cage. A lot of effort but getting nowhere.

I am a firm believer in how-to books, and write them because I want to give back something to the craft I love. I know they've helped writers get published. Here's one testimonial from NPR.

Now the publisher's blurb about The Art of War for Writers:

Successfully starting and finishing a publishable novel is often like fighting a series of battles - against the page, against one's own self-doubt, against rebellious characters, etc. Featuring timeless, innovative, and concise writing strategies and focused exercises, this book is the ultimate battle plan and more - it's Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" for novelists. Tactics and exercises are provided on idea generation and development, character building, plotting, drafting, querying and submitting, dealing with rejection, coping with envy and unrealistic expectations, and much more.

So what about you? Have you ever been helped by a how-to book on writing? Or do you consider them a waste of time?


  1. Your "Plot & Structure" and "Revision & Self-Editing" books were a huge help to me. I'd been writing blindly for years. I agree it's practice that makes a writer better, but you need to learn **what** to practice. I also like how you decided the whole "writers are born" speal is a bunch of bull. It was inspiring. Thanks and keep writing how-to books!

  2. I have both of your books too, Jim. They have been read and re-read dozens of times, and I appreciate this opportunity to personally thank you for writing them.

    For me, how-to books (and I hve dozens of the them) have been an invaluable source of information and learning material, as have workshops, online classes and conferences.

  3. Jim,
    This is a great companion to your two earlier books. THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS speaks as much to those who have already mastered the basics of writing as to those who are just getting started on that road. Besides that, it's fun to read. Nice job!

  4. I'll say that how-to books can be helpful for novelists if they're written by an experienced fiction writer. Unfortunately, they're often written by people who haven't written fiction.

    I used to never think that was a big difference until I got to my writing critique group. We had best selling non-fiction writers in the group who wanted to write novels. They thought it would be easy to dash a novel out, and after struggling through a handful of chapters, they found it so difficult that they gave up. And these are the people telling us how to write novels?

    These books often add in freelancing or other tips that aren't appropriate for novels, but are treated as fact. The worst is the many of these books rehash sometimes incorrect information. It's either true for freelancing but not true for fiction, or taken as truth from the last ten that mentioned it. I saw one where the writer was trying to define thriller, and it was pretty apparent that she'd never read one. She started out with something like it needed to be a best seller, and it only went downhill from there.

    For me, I probably should have always been writing omniscient viewpoint, because it's a natural viewpoint for me. But I kept reading all those how-to books, and every one says, "No one uses the viewpoint any more. Don't use it." So I never tried. When I finally did, I found that I can't even get critiques because all the other writers rehash what the how-to books say. Everyone's so busy restating this as fact that no one's noticed that there are best sellers in omniscient. Sad to say, the only way I was able to learn how to write omniscient was to read writers who used the technique and write. The how-to books didn't have a single thing that was helpful, and most were particularly unhelpful.

    Now I always look to see the background of the author writing the book. Most often, I end up not buying it.

  5. Lorel, David, Richard: Thanks so much for the kind words. I greatly appreciate your encouragement. Keep writing!

    garridon makes an important point that I'd like to echo, with one minor addition. First, you do have to watch out for "rules" laid down as iron clad in critique groups. Each group is different, and some may be dominated by "rule enforcers." I have no doubt groups can be helpful, but watch it.

    As for books, absolutely. Experience needs to be there. Unless one has been through the crucible of writing a novel good enough to be published, it's hard to trust that author to teach you how to do the same.

    My one addendum to that is not to make the matter of "huge success" the measure. Two of the best teachers, Dwight Swain and Jack Bickham, published genre novels that did okay, but that was it. Yet their insights into the process are masterful.

    Here, the measure ought to be this: how many writers have they helped get published? That's the real key.

    It's sort of like Lee Strasberg in acting. He was a low level actor who turned to teaching, and started turning out great actors. He knew what was going on.

    Great point, garridon.

  6. I agree. I have "Plot & Structure" along with "Revision & Self-Editing" and love them both.

    "P&S" is well worn and is one I recommend to other writers all the time.

    I have many, many, many books on writing. At last count I had over 20 on just writing novels. And while many of the things in them don't work for me, (meaning methods - note cards, forms, strict outlining, etc.) I've managed to take something away from each one and apply it to my writing. But again, it's the putting the knowledge into practice that's so important.

    Can't wait to get the new one:-)

  7. Anon, thanks, and there's another great point: almost any book on writing can give you a tip or insight, or a new way of looking at something you know. My philosophy as a writer is that if I can take away just one thing of value, one thing that helps me improve, the purchase price is worth it.

    I have two bookcases full of books on writing. I can think of only two books over the past 20 years out of which I got absolutely zilch. I shall not name them. But that's a pretty good return.

  8. Yes, both practice and study are important. I think I'll read The Art of War for Writers.

    For myself, I need to be careful not get psyched out that I'm not "doing it right" all the time. I am finding my voice through trusting my instincts, in concert with a few good tips I've picked up from reading a lot of instruction. I also believe reading good-quality fiction is important to soaking up the art.

    I appreciate authors like you who take the time to encourage and teach aspiring authors. Sometimes the littlest things you all mention click in a big way.

  9. I'm going to buy it and the first two. God knows I can use all of the help and good advice I can get.

  10. I also have both "Plot & Structure" and "Revision & Self-Editing". Your tips on dialogue alone are worth the price of the book. I plan to order "The Art of War" right away.

    Another reason I have my shelves lined with "how to" books is that they motivate me to write. I read them and think about how I could apply that technique in my manuscript. They function as a pepper-upper many, many times.

  11. Elisabeth, another great point. You CAN get "psyched out" by constantly thinking of all the "rules." It's sort of like golf in that way. If you think too much of the mechanics of the swing, you're not going to be free on fluid. Yet it's working on those mechanics over and over that gets you to that point.

    When you write, then, don't think of the rules. Just write. Analyze it later, and learn, and then things will start to become more natural.

    Thanks for the thought.

  12. Thanks, Miller. You can teach me about raising chickens. My neighbors here in L.A. will love that.

  13. Teri, I'm the same way. I view my books as "friends" who I can visit whenever I want to. I'll pull a volume down and look at my highlights. It is indeed good motivation.

  14. I'm another who absolutely did. I was a published script writer, so when I turned to novels, I could do one thing well. Dialogue. Big whoopie. TI knew nothing else. Through books on how to write, and a couple of dedicated mentors, I learned how to craft the rest. You can be a born storyteller and not know how to write. :)

    Thanks to you and a few others I learned. :)

  15. How-to books can be a major help for a writer struggling with the mechanics of various aspects of writing, even if the book just gives some hints on ho to be a more critical reader. New writers can be helped enormously, though the benefits dwindle as the writer's style and voice become more set, since much of what's in a how-to may apply differently to different styles.

    It's important to remember, if a writer wants to read some how-to books, read several, bu different writers. No one book, or one writer, has everything you need to know. There is no single right way. Get a range of opinions and see what works for you.

  16. Thanks, Ane. Nice to hear that from you.

    Dana, quite right. It's a melding of voice and craft, talent and instruction.

  17. Great post, Jim. Congrats on the new release. May it sell a bazillion copies.

    Alas, I am one of the people for whom The Big Lie is The Prevailing Truth. Books about writing have never resonated with me. I'm also one who gets nothing from webinars or correspondence courses. I glean knowledge from reading, but I learn skills and craft only from watching and trying. It was as true back in my firefighting days as it is today with writing skills.

    I wonder if it's one of those styles-of-learning things--the root of all those notes to my mother from teachers who had trouble keeping my ass in my chair.

    One principle that I preach loudly and repeatedly, however, is that there are no rules in a creative endeavor. Just as readers are attracted to different styles, so are writers, I think.

    I just ordered my copy of THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS.


  18. I think they can help focus and structure a writer's work. I have certainly found Elizabeth George's Write Away inspiring as well as useful.

  19. John, I do think there are different styles of learning. Thanks for order, though. Hope you like it.

    Clare, I like Elizabeth George's book too, especially the THAD idea: talk head avoidance devices.

  20. Looking forward to reading The Art of War for a Writer. Your other how-to books are prominently sitting on my shelf along side other great writing books by Stephen King, Robert McKee, Sol Stein, Donald Maas and others. Keep ‘em coming.

  21. Both of your writing books have helped me a lot! You're absolutely right. One has to practice what they learn as well as study it. I am soooo very glad that Gail Gaymer had recommended me your writing books. They are awesome! I always recommend them to other writers. Always will:) Looking forward to your new one.

    I think the best part that I will never forget is how you mention that writers can learn the craft. You don't have to be born knowing it.

    Thank you so much for always sharing your thoughts with me when I have a question. I will always appreciate you and all that you do for writers.

    Hope your new book becomes a best-seller! I am sure it well be well-deserved to be one!

    Can't wait to read it!!!!!!!

  22. Mark, heady company indeed. Thanks!

    Martha, thanks for the kind words. Write on.

  23. Congrats on your new book! I will add it to favorite books about how to write. Like your books, the best how-to-write books provide me with inspiration and reminders about craft. When I'm stuck in a rut, the right suggestion or reminder about technique is worth its weight in gold.

  24. Thanks, Kathryn. Ditto about inspiration.

  25. A little late, but wanted to chime in that I thoroughly enjoy your two books.

    I enjoy reading how-to writing books for pleasure and find inspiration where I least expect it.

    I wrote my very first short story since high school after reading the challenge in Stephen King's "On Writing."

    I took that story and joined a critique group. It sucked - of course - but only from a technical standpoint. My story premise was solid. Since then I've sold a few shorts, joined a more sophisticated writing group, attended a writing conference, and am slogging through dreaded first rewrite of the dreaded 'first manuscript.' On top of that, I have my disabled brother hacking out a pot-boiler western for his own pleasure and amusement.

    So, in my case, I owe a small 'how-to' book everything. . . . can't wait to read the new one. Who knows what nugget of inspiration I'll unearth?


  26. You go, Terri. And many thanks for the kind words.

  27. Looking forward to your book, and congratulations on its release. I'm also a fan of Revision & Self-Editing, and have given copies to members of my writing group, who have also found it helpful once they were in the revision stage.

    I completely agree with your comment that if you can take away one valuable lesson, it's well worth the price and time spent reading. I feel the same way about workshops, book festivals, readings, and facilitated discussions. Words inspire me. It will be a sad day if I ever feel I've learned all I can from other writers.