Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Saturday, 5 April 2014

Are 'how to' guides helpful, or a hindrance? by Jenny Harper

You know the kind of thing – 'How to write compelling stories', 'How to plot', 'How to make your characters real'. They're endless. And some of them are very good. They might come in the shape of a book (there's enough of these to build a city from), or they might be blogs.

Here are links to a few.
The secret to crafting high stakes
Character arcs
Writing the perfect scene
First or third and how to decide
How to plot a novel

Some of them are great, there's no doubt about that. My problem is, I've found that I simply cannot adjust my thinking to such formats. Take Randy Ingermanson's blog on scenes, for example. Each has to set out the Goal, Conflict, Disaster. Sounds simple, doesn't it? I try. I then spend hours trying to decide if I have included all three elements successfully, and what I should do if I haven't.

Or again, take Suzanne Lakin's analysis of how to up the stakes. It's perfectly clearly explained – but how can I get my heroine's stakes to rise as high as Amy's in Fly Away Home? And if I can't, how can I possibly move forward?

I love this map of the relationships between characters in Pride and Prejudice. Boy, could I waste hours drawing a similar one for my books! Or then again, I might just get depressed about how inadequate mine looks in comparison.

I've tried every method known to writers: plotting and panstering (or writing into the mist), but experience has taught me that if I try to get too analytical it seems to kill my creativity stone dead.

I look at the lovely Vermeer portrait of the lady writing (top) and rather envy writers who sat with a pen and paper and produced, well, books. Without the aid of 'how to' books and blogs. But then again, they must have been very gifted people – I need aids. Or do I?

I'd better poke around on a few more blog sites and see if I can find the perfect answer to my needs. ... Or maybe it would be better just to get on with some writing!

Do you learn from blogs or books, or do you think just getting on with it is best? Please let me know!

12 comments:

  1. Having read this, Jenny, I realise that I generally don't use guides to writing. I have plenty of books on my shelves and have read a fair few blogs, but I can't write to a formula. Either I write or I don't and either it works or it doesn't (sadly, it's often the latter). But I do have a soft spot for diagrams, and feel tempted to draw a Pride and Prejudice-style on for my current wip, just to see what it looks like. and think how much time I could waste doing it!

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    1. I'm sure it works, Gill, and it's a whole lot better than just reading the guides!

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  2. I'm not a writer but I imagine you do so out of talent first and foremost but I do have talents in other ares where I could use guides if only I didn't treat them as instruction manuals. Meaning if only I have tried everything else under the sun and nothing works do I go looking for a guide. I think you should do the same. Trust your own intuition and talent first before relying completely on what someone else thought. I don't know, I could be in denial and maybe that's why then I'm still not a writer lol.

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    1. You're absolutely right, Wendy. However, writing is a craft and an acquired skill, just like silversmithing or wood turning or golf. You can't do it unless you have a natural talent and flair, but you can benefit a great deal from instruction and practice! Thanks for dropping by.

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  3. Interesting post, Jenny - I've just been talking about writing books on my blog this week! I've come to the conclusion I can't use 'how to books' as it's just one more type of procrastination, but I do keep a few favourite books I mention.

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  4. Ah, that old writers' plague, procrastination! I'll pop over to your blog and take a look.

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  5. Jenny: Boy! Do I ever relate to your post. But here's the skinny: When someone analyses a book--it has already been written! We can't crawl into that author's mind whether the author is plotter or panster. Every single editor I've ever had in pback and ebook has said to me, "We want stories like (name any bestselling romance author)." Hey, darlin', if I could write like her, I wouldn't be under contract to you!" So, now I'm an indie author and I write my way. Sink or swim. I'm good with it.
    Jackie Weger
    eNovel Authors at Work

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    1. Glad I hit the spot, Jackie! Mind you, if you wrote stories like [whoever]. they'd probably tell you they're looking for an original voice! Do you enjoy being an indie? I have two books recently out.

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  6. I have a shelf of those 'how-to' books, Jenny and I did learn lessons from some of them but I think I've learned more from reading novels. As for the diagram - it terrifies me. I couldn't begin to make something like that.

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    1. Good thing we're all different, eh? I couldn't begin to set up health programmes in Afghanistan! I know I should read more novels - a good writer can set my own imagination racing.

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  7. I'm in two minds about 'how to' books. Heaven knows I need plenty of advice - but they can't all be correct, can they? I end up more confused than ever! Great piece, Jenny!

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  8. I used to be indecisive, but now I'm not so sure... Quite. Pick what's useful, but above all, don't waste good writing time!!

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