Today, while Googling P.D. James to find out about her book Talking About Detective Fiction, I inevitably ended up on the Amazon site. What struck me, after finding the book in question, was the little moveable bar of book covers at the bottom entitled “customers who bought this item also bought”. Here I found dozens of other instructional books about writing detective and thriller novels. And, when you expand the search to writing instruction in general, you open it up into the thousands. The screenwriting section alone is enough to stock a warehouse of shelves.
This started me thinking about the ubiquitous nature of the how-to genre of books. Why are we so drawn to these books? How many people actually learn something from them? How many people go on to successfully write a novel, screenplay or sit-com, based on the techniques espoused in these volumes? And here’s the biggie: Do they work? Is it just a big scam, or can anyone follow the ABC’s of any given book and become a successful writer?
As a creative person, I kinda want to believe that not just anyone can do it, but I wonder if that’s true.
Certainly not every person who attempts it is going to make it happen, but there are a lot of obvious reasons for this.
1) You don’t start.
2) You don’t finish.
3) You don’t possess the technical fundamentals required to write coherently.
4) You lack the imagination and research skills required to create engaging and believable people and environments.
Even beginning an undertaking like writing a novel is challenging. I’m sure there are many who purchase a book on writing who never manage to pick up a pencil or sit down in front of a keyboard. Perhaps they are big dreamers, who buy the how-to book to feed their daydreamy reverie but lack the discipline to hunker down and do the work. Then there are others who are simply too overwhelmed by work, kids, and the many other hurdles and tragedies of life to ever get going.
And, if one does make the start, finding the time, energy and pure stubbornness required to finish the job is no small feat, especially if it is a creative endeavour as large and difficult as writing a novel or screenplay. As someone who has given his life to writing, performing and drawing I have seen many projects through to the end. However, there are many more I’ve attempted that hit dead ends, or petered out, or were simply beyond my abilities at the time.
Finishing something that big is hard, man!
And, for many who finish the job, the result is ineffective because they are trying to lift big, heavy barbells without having gradually developed their muscles. Imagination, research and the technical understanding of language are crucial in the creation of a readable piece of fiction. Like any muscles, they must grow slowly over time, until they expand to the required strength to do the job. You’ve got to know your spelling, grammar, plotting and other rules of the road, and you must have the discipline required to create an engaging, readable whole. No small tasks, these things.
I have many instructional books in my library. I own several on writing and dozens on drawing and painting. Many artists and writers I know have similar books in their collections and many of these books are excellent. I have learned a great deal from reading them, but I have also followed through with the practical exercise and constant creative exploration required to build up my muscles to a pretty good size.
I often hear writers spouting the old saw: “If you don’t have to write, if you aren’t utterly driven and compelled at your very core to write, then just don’t do it.”
Well, that’s all very dramatic, and makes for a good sound bite in interviews, but I don’t think it’s really true. Personally, I think wanting to write is enough. If you approach it intelligently, diligently and sincerely, and you remain committed, I think most people are capable of writing a good story, doing a good drawing or giving a good performance. They may not become a Hemmingway, Rembrandt, or Nicholson, but they may be able to garner some joy for a job well done, and perhaps even make a living into the bargain.
So, I’m going to cast my vote for the how-to book, with the caveat that one’s dedication to the process must be absolute. If so, the instructional book can start you off quite well and take you pretty far.