A short time ago, a friend who also happens to be an accomplished poet asked a question on a social media site to which we both belong. It seems she’s thinking about branching out into writing fiction and she wanted her prose practitioner friends to recommend the best fiction writing books/manuals.
I, of course, recommended my personal favorites. But more on that later, what piqued my imagination for this post was one of the responses my friend received to her question. The person in question (who I don’t know) posted something like this: “And did you learn to write your poetry from a book?”
An interesting question. Can you learn to write fiction or poetry from a book? Can you learn how to write from a book, period?
Well, if you’ve ever read an issue of Writer’s Digest, or been to their web site, you know right off that they think you can. Or they have created an industry of selling lessons to people who believe they can. And Writer’s Digest isn’t the only one. There are thousands of how-to books on everything from basic story mechanics, to the details of every genre, to the business aspects of writing.
You might have read a few. I know I have. Do they do us any good? Are they worth the cost of the money we shell out to purchase them and the time we spend reading the advice they give?
Like many things in this life, the answers to any of the above questions are more complicated than simple “yes” or “no.”
Can you learn to write from a book on writing? Sure. But if you have never read a single piece of fiction or poetry in your life, then pick up a book on how to write a bestselling novel, you probably won’t be able to immediately write one. Not a good one, anyway. By the same token, under the same circumstances, taking a creative writing class at your local college wouldn’t help either.
The only way to truly perfect our craft, whether it’s fiction, poetry, or nonfiction, is by reading and studying the masters, then trying to create our own works, using the lessons we learned in our readings.
That being said, we can save a lot of time spent in trial-by-error by learning some general guidelines from those willing to teach us. That’s where the writing guides can come in handy. We could write a hundred stories over ten years of practice before we realize that adverbs are generally not our friends. Or we could read it in a book of writing advice and immediately improve our writing noticeably.
The real value in reading books on writing advice, just like creative writing classes or workshops, is not that they can really teach those who cannot write to write. That is a difficult challenge for any book. The real value of these books is in helping those of us who have already gained a working knowledge of the writing basics to improve our game. Faster. Not all books will help us all. Many will have little or nothing for us, but some will have tips or approaches we have not thought about before.
So yes, by all means, pick up that book of writing tips by your favorite author. It might not have anything that helps you improve your craft, but you won’t know until you read it. Will you?
Now back to the question my friend asked: what are my favorite advice books for fiction writers?
On Writing, Stephen King (Scribner 2000)
Technique in Fiction, Robbie Macauley and George Lanning (St. Martin’s Press 1987)
Fiction Writer’s Workshop, Josip Novakovich (Story Press 1995)
There are others, but these are the three that helped me most. So far.