Can books on writing really help us with our art? Will they result in the dreaded ‘formulaic’ novel? Will they stifle our creativity? Are they a good use of our time compared to actual writing?
These are all great questions, and I plan to answer absolutely none of them in this blog post.
But they’re a good jumping off point, right?
Whether or not people like to read books on the craft of writing is totally subjective. I’m willing to bet that there are bestselling authors out there who haven’t read a single one. I’m also willing to bet that there are quite a few who have read them all (hyperbole). So I’m not here to give a definitive answer one way or the other.
I will say, though, that I personally enjoy reading books on writing. I don’t do it ad nauseum, but if I spend 20 hours writing a week, and 20 hours reading, I probably spend about 2 hours reading books on craft. In my opinion, they help immensely.
I’ve figured out techniques and ways of writing that would have taken me years of reflection and self-editing to understand on my own. And at the same time, they get me super excited to actually write, which is one of my favorite things about them.
Two of my favorite books on writing are actually by the same author (Donald Maass), and at this point they’re so worn and dog-eared you would swear I’d read them a hundred times (it’s more like 2 or 3). These books are The Fire in Fiction (my favorite) and The Emotional Craft of Fiction (my second favorite). I also really enjoyed Stephen King’s On Writing, though it has less practical advice than other books and is more a meditation on the art itself.
The catalyst for this post is that I’m currently reading Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody, and I’m loving it. On the surface it’s just another of a thousand books that teach and preach the three act structure (you know, where to put rising and falling action, twists, the catalyst (I already used that word in this paragraph), the climax, etc.). But beneath all that it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.
It’s also one of the books that probably gets called out a lot for turning novel writing into a formula, which is actually something the author calls attention to several times. She does a great job explaining why certain beats need to be in a story, and why they don’t actually stifle creativity or lead to formulaic stories. I mean, that would be like saying that advising somebody to put a climax in a book is too formulaic.
One of my favorite parts of the book is that once the author lays out her sheet of the 15 story beats every good novel requires, she actually takes popular novels and shows how they include each of the fifteen beats, breaking down stories as diverse as The Girl on the Train and The Kite Runner. This is an extra level of advice that I really appreciate.
(To be clear this book is an adaptation of the screenwriting book penned by Blake Snyder, which the author has translated for lazy novelists like me.)
Anyway, if you don’t like books on craft, power to you! Figuring things out on the fly is very impressive.
If you do like them, and you haven’t checked out The Fire in Fiction, The Emotional Craft of Fiction, or Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, I highly recommend you do so (no I’m not being paid to say this, but I wish I was).
Anyway, it’s time for me to go read another 20-30 pages of the book, then get down to more writing!
What about you guys? Do you like books on craft? Why or why not? And if you do, which one is your favorite? I’m always looking to add to my stockpile.