More than your ordinary ‘How To’ writing manuals

Three writing manuals – with a difference…

Yes – there are hundreds of them out there – the ‘how to write a bestseller’ genre has many bestsellers of its own. Some are genuinely helpful – and there are books to suit writers of all stages and experience.

And, of course, there is no definitive book and no single right way to write. As a writer, you have to be selective in the advice you take – as in all walks of life. I find that most of them have at least a couple of helpful items – but, as in everything, you have to be true to yourself and ultimately trust your own judgement as to what works when communicating with your readers.

One of my favourite ‘how-to’ books is Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ – precisely because he advocates following your own instincts as well as knowing the tricks of the trade and he combines the instruction part of the book with a bit of autobiography on his own writing life.

That all being said – I’ve recently come across three book for writers with a wee bit of a difference to them that are also enjoyable reads in their own right.

First – ‘Becoming A Writer’ by Dorothea Brande (published by Macmillan). This was first published in 1934 – yes, you read that right. The edition I have – and I believe it’s the most recent was issued in 1996 with a foreword by Malcolm Bradbury. It’s surprisingly fresh – even in the 21st century. Brande refers of course to typewriters rather than laptops – but that just adds to its charm. And the advice is clear, concise and useful. And she advocates unreservedly being true to oneself.

The second volume is not a book aimed at writers at all – well, not at book writers at any rate – and it’s ‘Writing Short Films’ by Linda J. Cowgill (published by Lone Eagle). As the title suggests this book is aimed at screenwriters. It looks at story and character development in particular – I found it very useful when I was bogged down with the plotting of my work-in-progress. It’s good to get a fresh take and a bit of an ‘outside’ view on constructing a story and the book is stuffed with excellent tips and examples. There are sections on:

  • How to hook an audience from the first image
  • How to establish relationships in a quick and insightful manner
  • How to build dramatic tension
  • How to resolve your story in a powerful and satisfying way.

The third book is not really a manual at all – it’s more of a ‘pearls of wisdom’ kind of a thing. It’s called ‘The Secret Miracle’ and is subtitled ‘The Novelist’s Handbook’. It’s by Daniel Alarcon and is published by Henry Holt. I was alerted to this book by Allyson Armistead on her writing blog . She gives a superb account of the book – with some excellent examples from it – Go visit her blog for yourself. The book brings together many outstanding writers such as Paul Auster, Roddy Doyle, Mario Vargas Llosa and Anne Enright – to name only a very few and has them discuss in a round table format all the many aspects of the writing process. Chapters address Reading and Influences, Getting Started, Structure and Plot, Character and Scene, Writing, Revision, and finally – The End. It’s a ‘dip into’ rather than a straight through read but it’s inspiring and motivating when the going gets tough.

So if you find yourself in a bit of a writing wilderness and needing a map, or, at least, a couple of signposts, you could do worse than consult one of these three resources.

So You Want to be a Writer – Five Steps to Writing Heaven

First draft is just the beginning

1. So you’ve decided to be a writer of novels. You’ve maybe taken a class or a course. You’ve read a couple of  ‘how to’ manuals. You have an idea for a story. You understand about ‘character’,’ plotting’,’ setting’  ‘point of view’ and ‘voice’. You go for it and over weeks, months, years you get the story written. You write ‘The End’ and put it away for a month or so to let it ‘drain’ or ‘simmer’ – (pick your metaphor). 

2. Then you retrieve it. You share it with other writers, get feedback – and on this point I can’t recommend highly enough having one or two writing buddies. That is other writers with whom you have a mutually supportive, but above all honest relationship – people who will tell you painful truths like ‘get rid of that character, that plotline – they stink!’ Or who will push you to extend yourself when you need it and who will praise and encourage you when you deserve it. 

3. And finally you revise, redraft and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.  And now it’s ready to submit to agents and publishers, right? 

4. WRONG! Please, please consider getting your manuscript professionally edited. Word of mouth recommendation is best – as with most things – but if you can’t make contact that way, then there are professional bodies for editors  – in the UK the SfEP website is a good starting point – and they are worth investigating. Yes it costs money BUT you should see it as an investment – in yourself and in your writing. I can personally recommend my own editor, John Hudspith,  who also happens to be an excellent teacher of writing. 

5. THEN – take the editorial advice and rewrite AGAIN. Now you might just might be ready to seek publication.  

There are a lot of  ‘how to’ manuals out there – I list several on the ‘Writing’ page of this blog – but one of the best – if not the best – that I’ve discovered so far is one first published in 1934 – and still in print and that’s Dorothea Brande‘s book ‘Becoming a Writer’. 

See you in Nirvana aka on the bookshop shelf… 

The 3rd most beautiful bookshop of the world!
Image by stukinha via Flickr