1. cazann34
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    cazann34 Active Member

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    Are how-to books worth the money?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by cazann34, Jan 2, 2013.

    There are many how-to-write books on the market. I have one myself. What I am curious about is, do you think they are worth the money? Are the helpful or just confusion--do they contradict each other?
     
  2. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    You're right that there are a million of them out there. Most of them are not very helpful, especially the real 'how to' ones, although many of them will contain a nugget or two of wisdom. However, there are still some that are worth a read. I've found that the ones that are more helpful talk about writing in general (as opposed to 'Write Your Novel in 12 Easy Steps or something) or, on the opposite end, talk about one particular part of writing -- how to write sex scenes, or how to build plot, or how to edit. There are several threads on this site that contain books that people on here have found helpful.

    A few of the one's I've liked are Self Editing for Fiction Writers, and the ones by John Gardner, and by the Gotham Writers Workshop. I have a few others I've liked, as well, but I can't think of the titles right now.
     
  3. Mikewritesfic
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    Mikewritesfic Senior Member

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    One book that has been very helpful is Around The Writer's Block I picked it up at my university's bookstore in Sept but did not have the opportunity to delve into it until the Holidays. I am three chapters in and the book is quite impressive. It centers mainly around how to solve writers block as the title hints. Worth a look
     
  4. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    imo, for writing prose, no... though necessary for screenwriting and helpful for lyricwriting...

    and yes, they often contradict each other... the bottom line is that reading about writing only keeps you from writing... you can learn all you need to know about writing prose by reading the best works of the best writers of all time [and 'best' does not always = 'most popular' or 'bestselling']...
     
  5. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Good 'How to Write' books can provide the basics and a place to start, but beyond that, I think their value is limited.

    Reading and reading a lot is important. But reading and paying attention to how an author did something: Dialogue, pacing, plot development, description, etc. is even more important. Studying how successful/published authors told a story, then applying those techniques to your writing style and project is the way to most improve, combined with critical feedback by well-read individuals. It takes more time than reading a 'how to' book, but the payoff in the long run is what counts.
     
  6. Show
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    Show Contributing Member Contributor

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    Most of the stuff in the writing books I've seen has either already been given on this forum or contradicted on this forum. lol
     
  7. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    There are good how-to-write books and bad how-to-write books. IMO, the bad ones are those that make absolute claims, like "this is the ONLY way to write a novel" or "EVERY good story follows this form" or "EVERY good plot is built like this" or the like. The good ones do not make such claims. Rather, they seek to inspire you to create in your own way. John Gardner's writing books (The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist) are, I find, inspirational that way. No hard-and-fast rules, just gentle advice and good coaching. Gardner does not want to you write to a formula. He wants you to become the strongest literary artist you can be, and he uses a very diverse set of examples to show you how varied good writing can be. He cites writers from Herman Melville to Italo Calvino to William Gass. They're not all best sellers, but they are all wonderful writers.
     
  8. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Some are, some aren't.
    The problem is not so much with the how-to-books, but the mentality of the beginning writer
    who buys them expecting some magic formula to follow.
    I'm pretty familiar with this because this was my thought process when I was fourteen.
    It didn't work.
    But, I've become I wary reader searching for tips that actually
    make sense. I read a book on how to create fictional characters and
    found it extremely dry - in fact it was only good if you wanted to churn
    out low-brow romances. What gave the writer away? - her examples
    from her own work which were pretty boring.
    The best advice I've honed from searching lots of books was really quite simple - focus
    on the verb. A great verb = a great sentence. And the great thing about
    that advice is it works for every angle of a story. Now, I wish somebody would
    write a how-to-write verb book!
     
  9. spartan928
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    spartan928 Member

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    When I was 12, my mom bought me a $10 guitar at a yard sale that came with a "how to play guitar" book. In it was every chord, scale and trick I'd need to play like Jimmy Page or Pete Townshend whom I admired so much. I spent a lot of time pouring over that book, but applying what was in it to the neck of that crappy guitar was painful and slow. I'd pluck out a blues scale from the book, but it sounded more like was a sick cat than the blues. I thought I would be jamming in a few months, but it ended up taking years. But by then I was pretty damn good. That came from hundreds of hours pounding away on my guitar. The same goes for writing. How to books give you foundational information but you gotta pound away at the keyboard for a long time to eventually write well.
     
  10. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Very True!
     
  11. live2write
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    live2write Contributing Member

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    I know this is going to sound odd me saying this but it is true.

    I find self help books great for people who are getting into a craft or learning a skill in basic cooking that involves diagrams and written out instructions that are easier to understand than spoken.

    However if I want to learn how to play a guitar or knit or learn a makeup skill...I would search on youtube.


    I find books that are useful are those that need step by step visual aid. I had found a book a long time ago about building your own PC and at the time it was Alot of help and had step by step instructions. There were also pages that taught you how to install a drive or how to replace the video card. Those I found useful because there is not many visual step by step instructions online at the time.

    Another would be cooking books that taught you something different like molecular cooking or scientific cooking.
     
  12. Jon M
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    Jon M Member

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    How-to books get a bad rap. There are some good ones out there. As mentioned, Gardner's books are excellent. King's is okay, a little slim on the mechanics side. Self-Editing is good. Damon Knight has one (forget the title) that I think is excellent. Sol Stein and Lawrence Block also have a few good books on the craft.

    This, I think, provides the basics. Often people will say that one must 'read like a writer', and I agree -- terrific advice. But that ability to read like a writer, to glean insight from what a master is doing on the page, requires a certain level of competency and insight, and you don't get to be there right away, wet behind the ears. At that point you probably don't even know what you're looking for.
     
  13. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    They'll only work if you already have the ability but just require guidance.
     
  14. Lewdog
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    Lewdog Come ova here and give me kisses! Supporter Contributor

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    I always thought that if someone wrote a How-to-Write book an vortex would be created sucking in the entire world and ending everything as we know it.
     
  15. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    In "The Sound of Music", Julie Andrews sang "Doe, a deer, a female deer ..." which is a song about how to sing. No vortices appeared sucking in the entire world. So it should be possible to write about how to write without causing physical or metaphysical problems. Or any other kinds of problems.
     
  16. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    The problem with How To Write books is that most of them contain a large amount of subjective advice (how the AUTHOR prefers to write) and often some downright awful advice. Unless you are already experienced, you will have a hard time telling the good advice from the bad advice and the subjective recommendations.

    If you are sufficiently experienced, you don't need the book in the first place.

    Be particularly cautious with books by well-known writers. Don't be deceived by their fame. Yes, they certainly have "paid their dues", but that doesn't mean they are good teachers or understand writing processes other than their own.
     
  17. Lewdog
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    Lewdog Come ova here and give me kisses! Supporter Contributor

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    I have to agree. Any English teacher can teach punctuation, and style, but no one can teach a writer to write with THEIR 'voice.' The writer's 'voice' is what makes their publications likeable. Punctuation and style are universal, how an individual comes across when someone reads their works is not. Stephen King and Michael Crichton could write about the same subject matter, but come across as two different writers altogether.
     
  18. Jon M
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    Jon M Member

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    Many aspects of writing can actually be taught. Creativity, on the other hand, maybe not.

    But voice, style, POV, diction, denotation / connotation, all of that can be taught. And good writing is just the artful manipulation of those concepts.
     
  19. Wilmeister
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    Wilmeister Member

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    I don't think they're worth the money
     
  20. Oswiecenie
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    Oswiecenie Active Member

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    Of course they aren't. To be a good writer you have to be a creative person above all and that's nothing that can be learned from "How to..."-books.
     
  21. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Of course you have to be creative. But that doesn't mean creativity is all you need to write well. There's plenty of basic stuff that can be learned from books - or at least, the books can help make you aware of important issues. Also, how-to books can be sources of inspiration if they're really good. Don't dismiss all of them out of hand.
     
  22. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    Writing is engineering and creativity. The engineering needs to be learned and the creativity needs to be encouraged.
     
  23. cazann34
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    cazann34 Active Member

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    Thanks, good advice.
     
  24. Bright Shadow
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    Bright Shadow Member

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    They are helpful, but they don't do the job for you. But they are a good place to go for pointers considering that most are written by actual published authors of fiction, as opposed to your friends or family who A) are just as "clueless" as you are and B) may be to polite to tell you your writing sucks.

    Personally I like Jack Bickham. His writing books are really helpful, especially "38 Most common fiction writing mistakes."

    The more you read about writing and learn about the process the more you see it is an art more like architecture than like modern art painting. In writing, there are rules to be followed and system that should he adhered to least everything come crashing down. Anyone who has ever been in a critique group will tell you there is always that one person who refuses to write the outline, raise the stakes, create the character properly etc...and the writing stinks as a result, but you're too polite to say it.
     
  25. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    All the rules are flexible, and there are many, many "systems." I have been in critique groups, sometimes with startlingly talented writers, and often the member whose writing stinks worst is the one who writes outlines and follows character sheets and generally does everything the books say. But they're predictable.

    The problem with following standard rules and systems is that every work of fiction starts to look the same. I've seen enough movies - especially animated movies - to know that three-act structure bores me to death. Quirky sidekicks who serve as a foil for the hero bore me to death. Characters who only exist to provide exposition bore me to death. Etc., etc., etc. These stories don't mirror real life in any meaningful way, so they don't speak to me.

    Writers who break the "rules," who ignore the pre-defined systems, are often the most exciting.
     

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