The Itch of Writing Bookshelf 4: Careless People by Sarah Churchwell
Where's the real story? Not where you expected?

How-To-Write books: Addicted to them? Revolted by them?

A while ago, my writer friend Annie Caulfield and I recorded a podcast for the Royal Literary Fund's new series, Writers Aloud. I was just beginning to try my hand at writing radio plays, and Annie, whose fantastic Writing for Radio I knew before Annie and I met as fellow RLF Fellows at Goldsmiths, was trying her hand at writing novels. We had a lot of fun making the recording (hats off to the producer, Kona McPhee, for disentangling it into something coherent!), and now the RLF has turned what we talked about into three 30 minute podcasts.  The first part, which is Annie asking me about how to write a novel, is up now. Click here to download, or listen online

If you're not blessed with a friend who just happens to be a vastly experienced and excellent radio playwright, the next best way to spend a couple of hours, when you're learning to write, is a good how-to-write book. Courses are great (click here for my thoughts about courses), but books are a lot cheaper, and you can read them on the train.There are books on just about everything you could possibly want to explore, and every one of them will have at least one useful thing to say: there are some in my Books for Writers post. Most will have plenty, some will be a revelation. There's a brisk market in aspirational how-to books, but the buyers are people who prefer the idea of being a writer to actually slogging away at the writing. The thing is, a book can't do the writing for you, any more than the DVD can take the exercise for you or the glossy magazine decorate your house.

But I'm assuming that you're serious about writing, and work hard at what the book asks of you. Even so, there is a risk of becoming a how-to-write-book junkie. I know writers who have to keep buying new bookshelves for their how-to-write books, without any discernible effect on their own writing. I know others for whom each new how-to-write book is like a new set of targets for the poor old NHS: just when things might bed down and start to actually work, the government changes the rules and it all gets pulled up by the roots again. As with being a course junkie I think this is a form of insecurity. After all, if you're reading a how-to-write book then you're really "only a learner", which is often a more comfortable self-definition than "saying I am a writer". Yes, you're working with your writerly nature and interests, but of course you're not presuming to say that you know best. Instead, you're checking in constantly with an authority that you're doing it right, aren't you? You're holding back, in other words, from doing the scary thing: writing a complete piece, and saying, implicitly, There. This is my best. Judge it as you will.  

Equally, I know writers who never go near a how-to book, even when they have a very specific problem and there are plenty of books which would help,  whether that's how to write sex scenes, or how to escape the terror of the first (or last) page. They would rather stay stuck than get help from a book. Maybe it's the fear in the writer who operates largely by instinct, that if they take the watch apart they might not know how to put it back together. Or is it the fear of the book making it clear that you're writing the "wrong" thing that no one wants to read, or the clichéd thing everyone is writing. Or maybe it will just show you that you really, really are a bad writer (Why do you think I avoided reading Wolf Hall for about three years?). If books have authority, then how-to books have double authority, at least until you have solid proof that they don't deserve it.

Of course, a book called Lots of Lovely, Inspiring Little Nuggets to Start Off Your First Ever Story (promise it's fun and not that daunting really), is different from one called The Iron-Clad Plotting Book for Postgraduate Writers Who Mean Business (preferably James Pattinson's kind of business). But I still think there are right and wrong times to read how-to-write books. And what spirit should you read them in?

I would always say, do what you can on your own first, both in terms of your development as a writer, and a particular project, before you turn to a how-to-write book. You will always be better able to take what you need, and push aside what you don't, when you have some sense of what kinds of writing are your writing, and how your writerly self works. I understand the impulse, when you're new to writing or are changing form or genre, to reach out for a grownup to hold your hand, but fundamentally the time to read a how-to-write book is later: when your instinct and experience no longer seem to be delivering the goods.

As with more reciprocal kinds of feedback and writerly talk, as you read, listen to your instinctive reactions and be prepared to accept, adapt or ignore  what's suggested. Some writers of such books are better than others at presenting you with alternatives, and with reasons for their advice: sometimes the reason makes sense, but you need to find your own way to achieve the same result. Some are very forthright and uncompromising in their opinions which may be comforting if you feel insecure, but the truth is that no one answer will ever be the answer for everyone and every project. So they may be just plain wrong, for you, at least. For example, many authors will swear that they don't plan, or worry about prose, or think about readers ... which may be true at the conscious level, because their instinctive control is hard-wired. But unless yours are too, you will need to think consciously about these things. So be brave and hold on to what your instincts tell you about you.

On the other hand, sometimes we shrink most furiously from exactly what our writing needs most.  You can rationalise freewriting as a waste of time, but underlying it is fear of what you might uncover when you deliberately stop censoring yourself: might your memoir be much deeper and more vivid if you let the rich and strange emerge? You can tell yourself you must get on with the novel, but you might get on infinitely faster and better if you take a week out to write poetry. To plan seems like gagging your imagination, but have you ended up with a boneless blob of 80,000 words, instead of a book? Maybe understand more about planning will help you to find the right kind of planning for you.

And finally, if you're wondering what writing a how-to-write book is like, this is my desk, as of yesterday, as I embarked on the chapter on Voice in Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, which is due out this Autumn. DSCF0005