Writing Guides

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Writing Guides

I'm ambivalent about writing guides. I don't believe writing can be taught, but I believe it can be made better. The market's flooded with 'How to' guides, many of which are a waste of time and money - as most of you will know. There are also some very useful books which don't take the 'Read this and become a best-selling novelist' line - which offer good, practical advice and encouragement.
Best ones I've come across, in no special order (though Anne Lamott holds a special place for me):

Becoming a Writer: Dorothea Brande - still going after 72 years in print
Bird by Bird: Anne Lamott - hugely inspiring if, like me, you suffer with doubt-induced roadblocks. Funny, too.
On Writing: Stephen King - likewise
Writing Down The Bones: Natalie Goldberg - some interesting exercises; sort of 'Zen and the Art of Writing'
On Becoming a Novelist
The Art of Fiction: both John Gardner - a bit more hard-headed and technique-oriented; for serious students of writing. He was Raymond Carver's mentor - 'nuff said.
Story: Robert McKee - I don't go along with all McKee says, but it's a useful book to have. I find it a bit dry and turgid, though.
The Writer's Journey: Christopher Vogler - mythic structrue in story-telling. A big book for what boils down to quite a basic idea... but it's worth it, I think.

Anyone got any others to add?

Someone gave me a book of Hemmingway quotes on writing once, it's nice to dip into but it's sure as hell not a place to go for encouragement.


* ...I don't believe writing can be taught... * Well that's just about the most ridiculous statement I've read since..oh...slimey went Thai. If writing can't be taught, I'm assuming you're saying we're all born with the ability? Don't be bloody silly, of course it's taught. OK, you probably can't teach someone to be Shakespeare (or even Sheiks Beer), but the fundamentals HAVE to be taught. Spelling, grammar, sentence construction, story construction, plot and how to develop it, the list is endless. After having been taught those fundamentals it's up to the individuals imagination and flair, but to say you can't teach writing..... I'm speechless. Will someone teach me how to speak?


Phew... bet you're glad you got THAT one off your chest, Mississippi! Must have been causing a bit of heartburn. Perhaps I should rephrase my sloppy writing there. I actually meant more or less what you said: that you can teach someone all the fundamentals, sure - sort of goes without saying, really - and you can develop any talent they have. But that's the vital thing. If the talent ain't there to be nurtured... I mean, I read music, I understand the principles of composition, I know about rhythm, melody and harmony, I know how a song is constructed, how chord progressions work, etc. Ask me to write a song, though... It ain't there. That's roughly what I meant. Can you teach someone to be a poet? Really? Can you? I've nothing against creative writing courses - I've done them myself, many times. I believe they can be very useful for a lot of people. But I'm reminded of a quote from Stephen King's book - not that I think of King as a particularly great writer. I think he has a lot of good stuff to say about writing, though: "You don't need writing classes or seminars any more than you need this or any other book on writing. Faulkner learned his trade while working at the post office. Other writers have learned the basics while serving in the navy, working in steel mills, or doing time in America's finer crossbar hotels. I learned the most valuable and commercial part of my life's work while washing motel sheets and restaurant tablecloths... You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself." Well, okay, it sounds a bit flip - and he would say that, wouldn't he... but I'd more or less agree. Talent, determination, dedication... if they ain't there first, all the teaching in the world ain't gonna put them there. That's what I meant. Sorry it upset your day. Hope I've replied with due decorum and without seeming rude in any way. I'm sure you've gotten your voice back now. Over to you. Discussion's healthy. Anyone else want to come in and chuck a few insults at me? Go ahead. I've got a brass neck!
Missi suffers from Older Git Syndrome, which makes him crabby on most occasions. Otherwise, he's alright. I had Goldberg's 'Writing Down the Bones', and spent my early twenties pretentiously hanging out in coffee bars in Seattle, pretending to be a serious writer, doing her 'exercises'. Her book didn't help improve whatever talent I have, not at all, but it did create some very amusing and cringeworthy journals to read, years later! I always love the 'So-and-so isn't a great writer' argument, usually applied to either Stephen King or JK Rowling (I am big fans of both). They've sold more books than any of their critics could sell in their wettest dreams, so whether they're 'good' is kind of a moot point. It depends on whether one prefers plot-driven or technique-driven writing.
Yeah... I'd agree with you there, Archergirl. I've a soft spot for King because he was the guy who first got me interested in reading at 28 - I was a late starter. I loved all his earlier books and still have them. I just think he went a bit verbal vomit in later life (I would have said dia rear - but I can't spell it). Great? Well, I suppose if you're talking of commercial sales, then King and Rowling are great. Rowling is hugely imaginative and a great story-teller - but I don't care for her style. But even in the commercial sector, I think there are far better writers than both. I think King, on a good day, can be better than a lot of literary writers, too. Goldberg, yeah.... I dip in now and then. Can't ever see myself wanting to open a Spontaneous Writing Booth, though.
Gawd, in that case I'm an early starter! I think I read 'The Shining' (still one of my faves) when I was about twelve... and I loved the first few 'Dark Tower' books (I am hopelessly behind by now), but even more than that, I LOVE how he connects so many of his other stories back to the DT series. Like his joint Peter Straub works, The Talisman and Black House, for example. I guess I wouldn't buy a 'how-to' book on writing because writing's not that serious of a passion of mine; I like to dabble in writing, especially poetry (and you are right, I'm not sure poetry _can_ be taught, although some on the UEA creative writing courses would of course disagree with me). Writing guides for me would be pointless, although sometimes I feel I could use some help with endings on short stories, something I have yet to fathom or come close to mastering...
I always find a machine gun helps.
I don't believe I was either insulting or rude to you, but if you believe I was, that's something I can't help you with. My post wasn't the result of heartburn or any other ailment as it happens. I just replied to your post as I read it. If your meaning was similar to my reply, then I agree, your post WAS sloppy. As to whether you can teach someone to be a poet, I guess in the basic sense, yes, you CAN teach someone to write in poetry form, but whether the poetry will be any good is another question entirely. I would also agree that the best and most valuable lessons are self taught. You haven't however, 'upset my day'. This is an adult forum, you need to accept that people vary, and not everyone couches their views in velvet. I speak my mind and tell the truth as I see it, that's all I expect from others. Have a cup of tea instead of polishing your brass neck.


I don't think writing can be taught (although I've never tried). I believe it can be learned (or I may as well give up now). If King and Rowling are great writers just because they sold a lot of books then Boyzone are great musicians and Big Brother is great tellevision (and I refuse to believe that). Sooner or later you have to reject the opinions of the majority and form your own judgements.


>>> I feel I could use some help with endings on short stories ... I started being able to end more short stories when I stopped trying to end them. Try it! It's very liberating! Love or loath my Larry & Mick's, these are a prime example. I go into these with a title... I see where that title goes... it ends when it ends. I seem to have got the impression, from various sources, that a well-planned story is a good story. Personally, I'm a terrible planner. If I plan a story too much, I'm bored of it before I even start. I like to be surprised! So therefore I challenge you, Arch (and whoever else fancies having a go) to write a story, with nought but a title in mind, and see where it goes... My philosophy, generally and very simplified, on the "What makes a good writer?" debate is that writing is about communication, and if a writer has communicated what he/she intended to communicate, and communicated it to a lot of people, then he/she is a good writer. I am also a big Stephen King fan... "The Shining" is also an all-time fave! I think SK does brilliantly what most of us mere mortals could only ever dream of doing... ~PEPS~ “There is no spoon.”

The All New Pepsoid the Second!

Dan actually brings up a good point; teaching v learning. They're obviously not the same thing, but in my experience teaching is very often a short cut to learning, especially for those of limited imagination.


Hi Mississippi, I didn't really think you were rude or insulting - though 'don't be bloody silly' is not a bad attempt, and not really the style for an 'adult' forum. I can see that your style is, shall we say, forthright? Confrontational, possibly? Hmm... in the sphere of international diplomacy, I guess I'd make you more of a George Galloway or a John Prescott than a Kofi Annan. But we can't all be Kofi Annans, can we. Life would be a lot less interesting. All I WILL say is that I'm sure as hell glad you ain't a writing teacher. Okay, you might soon separate the gold from the coal, but you'd destroy a lot of self-confidence along the way. You'd stop a lot before they'd even gotten off of the ground - something that so easily could have happened to guys like Raymond Carver, whose work has so enriched our literature and understanding. It's the difference between demolishing someone's efforts and giving them encouragement to improve. I read a piece earlier in which the writer obviously had very little understanding of basic punctuation or spelling - but the work showed imaginative promise. I could have given her a blow-by-blow account of her technical deficiencies - which might have scared her away for life - or, as I did, suggest things that she could do to improve her grasp of these issues, whilst at the same time offering praise and encouragement for the effort she'd made. Part of that comes, I suppose, from my work as a teacher of adults with learning difficulties. Demolition jobs just make things so much harder. Maybe you might to like to have a nice cup of tea yourself - and smooth down some of those barbs on your pen. Nice talking to you, anyway. I mean it. Nothing wrong with keeping people on their toes.. just so long as they're capable of standing in the first place.
'Don't be bloody silly' is a very mild and totally acceptable phrase for an adult site in this day and age. I guess some may see me as confrontational, but then those that make challenges tend to be accused of that, usually by those they challenge, though I don't believe confrontation and challenging are the same thing. I find your comparison of me with Galloway or Prescott a bit off the mark. I believe I have far more in common with Dennis Skinner actually, but I would hate to be like Annan. He sits in his little empire making pronouncements about how the world should be run but when things go awry he does nothing but whinge. In short, he along with the UN are a waste of space as far as I'm concerned. I have never had any aspirations to teaching, inspite of the fact that I was once asked by the principal of adult education in my part of Essex to be an evening class tutor in my personal field of expertise. I declined for much the same reasons as you describe. I KNOW I would never have the patience or diplomacy to be a good tutor of anything. I don't so much suffer fools gladly, I don't suffer them at all, ( and I don't mean by that that I believe everyone else bar me is a fool). I'm sure you however, are a good teacher, and I admire your ability to cope with those having learning difficulties. I don't actually drink tea but I'll happily have a glass of lemonade. My style however is not likely to change, it's been a problem for me all my life that some people with gentler sensibilities find me a bit rough. I neither apologise for, nor excuse myself. It's the nature of the beast.


_I_ like it rough, Mississippi. Give it to me, baby. My gentler sensibilities are all lubed up for you.
Ah, great stuff, guys. I think I feel the same now, Dr Jekyll. Just a note for Archergirl... sorry if my answer was flip. I think it's interesting - for me, at least - that the short story writers I most admire - Carver, Chekhov, Flannery O'Connor - are the ones who never planned their work. They just started with an idea, or a set of characters, or a situation, and followed it to see where it led. As one of them - I can't remember who - said: 'Sometimes, you have to get to the end of what you're writing to find out what you've written' - or words to that effect. Check out Carver's essays in 'Fires' - especially 'On Writing'; also, O'Connor's essay 'Writing Short Stories' (anthologised in many volumes). Also, a fabulous book to get hold of, if you haven't come across it, is 'The Story And It's Writer', edited by Ann Charters. A real treasure chest of the best short stories, plus critical essays, plus essays by many of the writers. It may not help you with your endings, but it's inspirational stuff.
Thanks for the reference, AB. When I get my short stories out of cold storage in my brain I'll check it out! I haven't been in a 'creating' mood for some months now...I just come on here to enjoy the witty repartee. No worries about sounding 'flip'. You'll fit right in! :-)
Yeah... I know the feeling. The only other thing I'd say regarding endings - I myself work in the way I've mentioned. I just make a start with an idea or some characters or a situation. That does mean, unfortunately, that I've got a lot of stories with beginnings and middles! But one that came off okay - I think, though I wouldn't want to make any great claims for it - was 'An Outing' (posted here). I just started with this guy driving a bus-load of special needs adults on a day out. I knew he'd had an unfortunate relationship in his recent past, but that was it. I wanted to use the conversations in the piece to suggest things about this rather than openly state them. I also wanted the story to say something about these special needs adults - the public perception of them, the very special qualities they have, etc. I got to the point when they pulled up at the cafe - and then got stuck. I couldn't figure what happened next. But I just kept going, writing the bit where the guy in the kitchen catches the protagonist's eye - and then it clicked. The protagonist was homosexual - the reason his relationship had failed. I then saw that the story was all about 'different' people - at least in the way they are viewed by some members of the public. I saw that the story was also - though in a minor way - about signals and symbols, and about how we read them and how people with special needs read them. So I found my ending. As I say, I don't make any special claims about the story's merit - but I guess it's the one I'm most pleased with, particularly as I didn't know the ending until I got there! As some writer - King, I think - said: "If you can surprise yourself, you're bound to surprise the reader." I think, if you know what's going to happen at the outset, there's always the tendency to give the game away too soon. If you get a chance, do check out the Carver book 'Fires' - it should be in your local library. I should have mentioned it in my list. His essays about writing are truly inspirational, and so accessible. He explains that process of 'finding out as you go along' very well, and gives examples from his own stories. Best of luck. Al
really enjoyed reading this thread. I will check out Carver's book. I have just read Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the dead, which tries to answer a series of questions about what is is to be a writer. Though she mainly explores this question through female authors, it did make me aware of, for the first time conciously, the expectations that we carry with the title 'writer' and how that affects the very thing we are creating. It doesn't answer the question but it does make you consider the effect and in that sense helps you to be more objective about your own words. An interesting read if a little slow for me at times. Juliet Juliet


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Just to pick up on something Pepsi said: I've written quite a few short stories based on a title, or a single sentence alone. I'm not the kind of person who says things like: "I want to be surprised by where my story goes"; I know a lot of people feel that seperation between themselves and their writing - personally, I see it as a little pretentious. That's not a dig at anyone, just a view. The way I see it, is it's nice sometimes, if I'm a little bored and have a collection of words in mind that I think form a nice phrase, to write them down and expand them to a story, I generally do that in one sitting, because I am aware that the next day, I may not be bored, so may not continue with it. I like to get things finished, if not edited. This is all very off-track with the topic, so: I did a creative writing course. It provided a similar service to ABCtales in terms of feedback; it was good to learn a bit of writing jargon; I met some nice people; but that's it. And I got a distinction, which made me happy. Oh, and I love Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, it's one of my favorite books, and is, mostly unintentionally, one of the best writing guides I've ever seen. Ben PS Excuse any typos, I'm in a hurry.
Pretentious? Moi? I know what you mean about wanting to finish this kind of story quickly. I'm very prone to getting bored, and having to finish the first edit as quickly as possible - hence why I've not yet had any success in writing a novel! Yet... Although I am presently in the process of writing what is turning out to be the longest Larry & Mick story yet, so watch this space... ~PEPS~ “There is no spoon.”

The All New Pepsoid the Second!

cool. Larry and Mick are DA BOMB! ;) **plays air guitar and does a blues run** There's nothing more mind-teasing than the incomprehensible eagerly avowed - Dennet

There's nothing more mind-teasing than the incomprehensible eagerly avowed -

Here’s a couple of quotes that you might find interesting. The first is from Flannery O’Connor’s essay ‘Writing Short Stories’, when she talks about writing ‘as an act of discovery.’ She’s discussing one of her more famous stories, ‘Good Country People’: “When I started writing that story, I didn’t know there was going to be a Ph.D with a wooden leg in it. I merely found myself one morning writing a description of two women I knew something about, and before I realised it, I had equipped one of them with a daughter with a wooden leg. I brought in a Bible salesman, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him. I didn’t know he was going to steal that wooden leg until 10 or 12 lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was going to happen, I realised that it was inevitable.” The other comes from Carver’s essay ‘Fires’. He’s talking about his story ‘Vitamins’: “I was in the middle of writing a short story when my telephone rang. I answered it. On the other end of the line was the voice of a black man, asking for a party named Nelson. It was a wrong number and I said so and hung up. I went back to my short story. But pretty soon I found myself writing a black character into my story, a somewhat sinister character whose name was Nelson. At that moment, the story took a different turn. But happily it was, I see now, and somehow knew at the time, the right turn for the story. When I began to write that story, I could not have prepared for or predicted the necessity for the presence of Nelson in the story. But now, the story finished… I see it is right and appropriate and, I believe, aesthetically correct, that Nelson be there, and be there with his sinister aspect. Also right for me is that the character found his way into my story with a coincidental rightness I had the good sense to trust.” I agree that talking of surprising oneself to surprise the readers sounds a bit pretentious and precious; a bit ‘Oh, let’s see where the muse takes me today.’ I’m not sure that what O’Connor and Carver describe is quite the same sort of thing, though. It’s that thing of ‘writing as an act of discovery’. That’s what I love about writing – even if it has led me up a few blind alleys!
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