The Hidden Truth About “How-To Write” Books

There’s a story I recall about Mickey Mantle, the legendary New York Yankees centerfielder. “The Mick” was blessed with talent bestowed upon him by the baseball gods: he could hit home runs a country mile, had a cannon for an arm, could run as fast as a deer, and possessed an innate feel for hitting. During one season, around the All-Star break, he had the chance to chat with Ted Williams, the Boston Red Sox’ legend, and arguably baseball’s greatest hitter. “Teddy Baseball” couldn’t help but give Mantle some pointers about hitting. Mantle needed to drop his hands some, spread his legs out more for a wider stance. Mantle wasn’t about to argue with The Splendid Splinter’s advice; after all, Ted Williams was the last baseball player to hit .400, so if Ted Williams gives you advice on hitting, it’s because Ted Williams knows what he’s talking about.

Right after the All-Star break, once the second half of the season got underway, Mickey Mantle excitedly takes to the batter’s box with all the knowledge Ted Williams has dispensed…and proceeds to go on a prolonged slump. Mickey just can’t seem to buy a hit.

Mantle realizes what’s wrong here: his swing is totally off, because he’s taken Ted Williams’ advice to heart. There wasn’t anything wrong with his swing; he was naturally gifted, after all. So he went back to basics, regained his timing and mechanics, started hitting the shit out of the ball again, but not before running into Ted Williams.

“With all due respect, Mr. Williams, that was terrible advice you gave me!” the Mick told Teddy Baseball.

So why am I telling you this story? Writing, like hitting a baseball, involves timing and mechanics. When you’re hitting well, or when you’re writing well, it just comes naturally to you. You can’t explain it. You have no idea why how or why you’ve been able to crank out 10,000 words in three days. Just like you have no idea why you’ve been able to tear the hide out of the ball lately. But when you’re slumping, just like when your writing has hit the hall, you’ve got a thousand theories as to why you suddenly suck. So now you grasp at straws, or in my case, you grasp at the nice collection of “how-to” books that are staring, no, laughing at you. Read me, they’re all whispering in unison, and they’re all chock-full of wisdom, and all you want is a spark to get your writing going again.

Instead, what happens is your head is filled with more ideas as to why you’re suddenly failing. You know you can write. Those books are like Ted Williams, full of wisdom dispensed with the best of intentions, but maybe it’s not the best advice for you.

Okay, enough with the baseball analogies.

I’ve always wanted to write, and I’ve known I possess a strong understand of the basics of writing. I’ve written several short stories, and there’s husks of manuscripts lurking about, many of which will never see the light of day. Right now, WIP #1 is stalled, in third draft mode, and I’ve been tinkering with WIP #2, just to kind of get me away from what’s ailing me from WIP. Kind of like being in a hitting slump, and bunting to get on base.

(Oh, shit, I did say I’d stop with the baseball analogies, right? Okay, I’m done, promise.)

I wrote recently about The Plot Whisperer, and how it’s been something of an eye-opening experience for me. I’ve come to understand the importance of mechanics when it comes to building your novel, and it’s both a frustrating and awakening experience, one that I’m glad I’m able to take in now as opposed to when I was younger, more arrogant, less willing to accept help. The Plot Whisperer might be chock-full of New-Age speak (the whole “Universal Story” theme is a bite eye-roll inducing) but it keeps things simple. What I need is simple; The Plot Whisperer has exposed my WIP #1 as being overly complicated. It’s all over the place.

The problem I’ve found lately is that while I’ve written some compelling characters, and there are many well-written scenes, the plot sucks, frankly. I’m having a hard time getting the plot (superhero takes a fall, superhero rediscovers his purposes, superhero redeems himself) and the subplot (his personal life, and the satirical content involving the other superheroes he used to work with) to really gel with one another. The Plot Whisperer is helping me see what’s missing, but it’s also muddying the waters. The problem I’m having with the Plot Whisperer is that it reads like an instruction manual, and I don’t have the patience for it. The back cover of the book calls The Plot Whisperer “a foolproof blueprint.”

And there’s my problem right there: a “blueprint” suggests a whole lot of work. And writing a novel shouldn’t feel like work. I already work for a living. I deal with project plans and blueprints and other “work”-type buzzwords that are making me chafe. I’m reminded of that line from Animal House:

BOON: I gotta work on my game (golf).

OTTER: No, no, no, don’t think of it as work. The whole point is to enjoy yourself.

I haven’t been enjoying writing. Because it feels like work.

 

I also picked up – actually, downloaded on my Kindle – a copy of 2K to 10K: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love, by Rachel Aaron. It was only .99 cents, and, frankly, I didn’t harbor much expectations; I figured it wouldn’t reveal anything I didn’t already know about writing. I was wrong. 2k to 10K has been nothing short of a revelation for me. It’s a short read – 64 pages, tops – and I devoured it in one sitting, and, let me tell you, it’s blunt, funny, concise, and the advice Rachel Aaron gives you is simple (you might even say obvious), logical, and extremely useful. For example, a better way to boost your writing numbers on a daily basis? Sketch out what you have in mind what you want to write. A few sentences, some snippets of dialogue, whatever works. Have a little something to build on. Okay? Now start writing. Guess what? 2,372 words later.

Duh.

Some more guess what? Writing was a lot more fun this time around. Right now, I’ve taken WIP #1 and started storyboarding it, using her recommendations, and I’m finding that I’m enjoying writing it a lot more again. As for the editing part, Rachel Aaron’s got some extremely useful advice for that as well, which I hope to dispense for you in a later blog. I really can’t recommend 2k to 10K enough.

So if you’ll forgive the baseball analogy, I didn’t need to rebuild my swing. I just needed to take a lot of the movement out of the swing, and simplify it.

A caveat: “How-to” books can be tricky, though. I brought up the Mickey Mantle-Ted Williams story at the beginning for another reason; sometimes the advice a “how-to” book can be given to you with the best of intentions, yet can wreak complete havoc on your writing, your confidence, and your psyche. So tread carefully. “How-to” books, like self-help books, are not “one size fits all.” Some “how-to” book simply dispenses terrible advice.

Some “how-to” books will mess with your mechanics. Don’t let them mess with your mechanics.

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17 thoughts on “The Hidden Truth About “How-To Write” Books

  1. I found that my best productivity comes from outlining my scenes first. That way I know what I want to build on. So I agree with Ms. Aaron’s advice. But you’re right–too many writing books can be too much of a good thing, especially if they keep us from writing because we’re so busy reading them!

  2. It comes down to what works for you, Gus. I’m glad you found the one that helped you get moving. You have to have fun with your writing, but it will still drive you nuts sometimes. Keep at it!

    • See, I don’t mind it driving me nuts, but I hate it when it feels like it sucks the joy out of it. Some of the “how-to” books come across more like shameless self-promotion (which Rachel Aaron’s is a little guilty of) and makes you feel like you’re just not good enough. So you start to question yourself. Then writing feels like a chore rather than a calling.

      Writing should never feel like a chore. That’s the first thing Rachel Aaron’s book says. Writing should be fun, always fun. Otherwise, why do it?

  3. Thanks for another good blog. I wonder if you think switching from fiction to nonfiction writing is nothing more than another delay tactic when my original intention is to write novels? I’m not talking about writing nonfiction in order to pay the bills, but as a form of rationalizing. i.e., I can rationalize that I’m still writing when I’m actually procrastinating on writing fiction which is my desire and goal.

    • I wouldn’t call it a delay tactic. After all, you’re still writing, even if it’s not what you’re intending to write. But you’re still flexing your writing muscles. Eventually, you need to get back on the path of attaining your goal; how you get there is up to you.

  4. A thought-provoking post, Gus. I waffle a lot about how-to books. On the one hand, they often feel like ways to make yourself *feel* like a writer while not actually writing. OTOH, I’m not vain enough to think that I know everything about writing a novel. And I KNOW I don’t know enough about revising them. So I keep looking, and what you say about Rachel Aaron’s book makes me think it might be worth a look.

    I know that various discussion of books an other people’s approaches in general have led me to actually work on planning and outlining my next book. I’ll know in a few months it that’s helpful 🙂

    • In some regard, “how-to” books dispense way too much talk on “theory” while failing to recognize, or at least acknowledge, that writing is mostly a mental battle. You and I both know we can write; we’ve mastered some fundamentals on story and structure, creating characters, writing scenes, etc. The more we write, the better we become at our craft. But we’re our own worst enemies when we doubt our abilities. Books like “The Plot Whisperer,” as well-intentioned as they are, can be a real monkey wrench to people who might have a tendency to gnash their teeth a lot when they write.

      • Right. And when I looked at “The Artist’s Way,” to me it involved a lot of time spent doing things that wouldn’t move my writing ahead–mostly designed, as far as I could tell, to convince me I could actually write. Though I still think that my idea to revise “morning pages” into evening pages and try to do a core dump that will let me go to sleep might be good. If I didn’t tend to just fall into bed at the end of the day and fall into a coma anyway 🙂

        • I have “The Artist’s Way,” and it’s sitting in my office. I think I read the intro, and not much else. I’ll probably read it eventually, but for now, I’m laying off it because it’s likely going to tell me something I already know. And I don’t really need to have my time wasted.

  5. Hey Gus.

    Fine post, and I liked the baseball analogies. Just coming out of the woodwork. It’s been a slow process. Some good days…some not-so-good.

    I read so many how-to’s, I’ve been crapping ebooks. After a while, they all seem like they’re saying the same thing…different styles. And they are. Just like Mickey and Ted. Both hitting, just different stances and forms. I take what I need and leave the nonsense behind.

    I have that book by Rachel. I got it during a 99¢ one-click shopathon stupor I went on one day. That one and many others. Still have to read it, but your advice puts it at the top of the list. And at 64 pages, I can read it while I’m crapping out another ebook.

    Great to see you again.

    • Inevitably, the message is the same, as you’ve pointed out. What I’ve learned is that all these books will dispense advise, but unless you’re willing to commit to the countless hours it’ll take to writing and writing and more writing to make yourself a better writer, this advice is useless.

      Rachel’s book goes straight to the point and bypasses the bullshit and the flowery prose. In simple language, it’s “either you can do, or you can’t. It’s up to you.” Easy. Totally can get behind that.

      Good to see you as well.

  6. Pingback: NaNoWriMo CheckPoint, Week One, Or: Fun With Secondary Characters | Out Where the Buses Don't Run

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