BEST Writing Guides

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BEST Writing Guides

(Wanted to add this to the Writing Guides thread as I didn't see this mentioned, but the reply box doesn't want to appear!)

The best 'writing guides' are the ones so often ignored by many would-be fiction writers, who instead devour every How To book on the market, go on to regurgitate so-called rules to other wannabees (as if reading these books has somehow made them experts), and think they will now be able to write.


The best guides are stacked in their thousands in every bookshop, in every library under the heading of FICTION. These show (not tell!) a) how it's done, and b) that so-called advice in most How To books is a complete nonsense (particularly those which use sweeping words/phrases like NEVER, AVOID LIKE THE PLAGUE, UNDER PAIN OF DEATH (usually in capitals!).

Seasoned ABCtalers will, I'm sure, be avid readers already, so they can ignore this post. But I'm always horrified at the number of wannabees who read nothing at all, and these are the people I'm addressing.

If you're not reading fiction, start now. And - if you want to be published - make sure your reading includes lots of contemporary fiction. When you come across something you've really enjoyed, go back and try to work out WHY you enjoyed it. It may seem like hard work at first, but that's what being a writer is all about. Hard work and perseverance. There are NO short cuts (unless you're a celebrity, of course!).

Hi romyd. Yes, I agree about CONTEMPORARY fiction. There are a lot of would-be writers who state their major influences as Oscar Wilde, Albert Camus, William Faulkner and Jane Austin. While all these writers are undoubtedly great (apart from Jane Austin, who I've never got along with) their writings don't offer many clues to young writers as to how to sell their work in the 21st century. Personally, I'm a member of the Thomas Hardy Society - but while I enjoy his work, I wouldn't say he is an important influence on my own writing. I think new writers should spend more time reading works by people like Joanne Harris and Ian McEwan, as they offer so much more help on how to sell fiction!
I, too, agree with read, read, read. Anything and everything. Every moment you can find. In the bus queue, on the crapper, waiting at the ATM. Always read. As for contemporary fiction, well... I think it's easy to generalise about these things. Personally, I have to say that a good deal of contemporary BRITISH fiction leaves me dead. McEwan was good a few years ago, but he bores the pants off me now. Amis is a great stylist, but he's never really gotten to grips with plot. And some of those guys and gals on the Booker list... wake me up, please! Graham Swift was good, but is losing it. David Mitchell? If I had to write fiction like his to make money out of writing, I'd lose interest and do something else. I think it's great for him that he DOES make money out of what he does, because he's writing what he wants to write. It ain't what I want to write, though - and if that means I don't make as much dough as he does, I can happily live with that. I've always thought that most of the best modern fiction comes out of the US and Canada: Wolff, Ford, Updike, Roth, Irving, DeLillo, Munro, Atwood, Moore, Phillips, Ellis - just to name the old hands. I'm sure there are plenty of writers that have made a ton of money without having ever read anything by Chekhov or Balzac or Dickens, but any self-respecting and serious apprentice should go to these writers - if only to trace the development and evolution of fiction. No one says you have to write like them, or Hardy, or Austen, or Gogol, or Pliny the Younger, or whoever you care to name. Unless, of course - like, believe it or not, many writers - you do it for personal pleasure (and it has to be pleasurable, first and foremost; Ishiguro's on the record as saying he finds writing a drudge and a slog... well, you don't have to do it, Kaz). Which brings me to the bottom line issue. Gareth seems to be saying (and forgive me if I'm wrong, Gareth) that you can probably ignore the works of Faulkner, Austen, et al (basically, any writer dead, I guess, or at least not writing nowadays) if your primary motivation is to write to SELL. In other words, if your impetus to write is purely commercial, just read what's currently in Waterstone's window display (or, at worst, by the supermarket checkout). So, what are we looking for in contemporary fiction that will best enable us make some of this dough? Is it contemporary style? Is it contemporary subject matter? Is it the zeitgeist? Is it short-attention-span appeal? Is it (Jeez!) genre? This approach seems to hinge on the idea (popularised by Dr Johnson amongst others) that the sole reason for writing is to make money. Well, let me say, as someone who's made a few bucks out of words over the years, that if you're writing primarily to make money, you're in the wrong game, buddy. There are far easier ways of making a living. You write for yourself first off. That's a have-to. If you write purely and simply for dollars, you're doing it for the wrong reasons anyway. It'll be a sad day when people only turn to fiction for its 'contemporariness' - or for thrills and escapism. The issues of fiction - literature generally - should always be (I hope) timeless, universal, cosmic. That's one of the reasons why Shakespeare's still with us, and always will be. As an afterthought, the British book-reading public has just nominated your J K Rowling as 'the greatest British writer' - greatness of course, nowadays, being assessed purely in terms of units shifted and cash accumulated. She's about as 'contemporary' as you can get. She's about the richest writer on the planet, in history, the whole deal. Read her prose, though. Read it somewhere before? Years and years ago? Really?
Hi Snipes. Sort of, I suppose. I actually think that unless your manuscript is going to sell (and sell well) you're guaranteed NOT to be published. I read an article by an agent once who described the process manuscripts go through before being accepted by the agency - first of all the reader needs to like it, then the agent has a read and has to like it too, then the agent goes into board meetings and gets told how many new writers he's allowed to take on, then the agent has to persuade the board that your particular manuscript is the one to go with, so the board need to like it as well. THEN it goes to publishers and goes through a similar process all over again. It has to sell, or it won't be published. I'm not saying it's right (in fact I think it's a shitter) but it's the reality. Yes there may be an occasional exception - a soon to be discovered genius, the new Garcia Marquez, maybe even with writing on this site - who might change the face of European Literature. Good luck, but I wouldn't bet on odds like that! William Faulkner is a fantastic writer - but was (I believe) never popular; there must have been a time when there was room on the shelves for things other than bestsellers, but those days are gone.
I agree with the point about needing to write for yourself, though. That has to come foremost, regardless of how much money you hope to make.
Hi Romyd, It sounds like you’re referring to a thread that I originally started. If so, can I just say that I never suggested on it, nor would I ever suggest, that ‘writing’ is something that can be learned, like origami or cookery, from guidebooks. Of course there’s no substitute for reading. It goes without saying, really. I started that thread merely to point out what were, in my opinion, the most useful books about the writing craft in terms of the advice, guidance and encouragement they can offer to any aspiring novice. None of those books is a ‘How To Write’ book. As far as I know, there’s no such thing. If I ever came across one, I’d probably toss it in the bin. In his own book, ‘On Writing’, Stephen King gives a typically forthright assessment of the genre: “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.” Exactly. (King’s also highly dubious about any form of creative writing class). What the best of the guides do is help you to overcome some of the problems that can beset anyone starting out. None of the ones I’ve mentioned, for instance, tells you the best way to ‘plot’ a novel – simply because there’s no such thing. Anxiety about plotting is, in fact, one of the greatest hindrances to a fiction writer. The Gardner books are a distillation of the teachings of someone who, like King, is a published novelist. Gardner was also the mentor of Raymond Carver – arguably one of the greatest writers of the 20th century – so I’m naturally interested in what Gardner’s got to say (even if I don’t always agree with it). Conversely, I’m often surprised by the number of writers who, whilst clearly well-read and highly qualified, have nonetheless failed to absorb some of the most basic principles of writing. Incorrect spelling, for instance (I know there’s often a very good reason for it, though I’m staggered by the number of times I see the ‘complement/compliment’ confusion, ‘definate’, ‘seperate’, etc in the work of seasoned writers). Other things, though – obvious and confusing grammatical errors, bad punctuation, sloppy syntax, overuse of the passive voice, clichés, clunky dialogue – are all things that the astute reader/aspiring writer should be aware enough of to avoid. Sometimes, though, all the reading in the world cannot correct these errors. The best writing guides are also good at pointing out these often overlooked matters.
I agree, Gareth. But then, of course, as you sort of imply I think, the market ain't always the best indicator. And plenty of entrepreneurs have gone down the tubes through misreading or misunderstanding the market (all hail buyer power!) Jake Rolling's an interesting case in point. Her agent took her on on the strength of the fact that the agent's young daughter wanted to read more than the 3 chapters of HP1 she sent them. The MS then went out to 12 publishers before it was finally accepted. It was rejected by the others for its (their word, not mine) unoriginality, and for the view that 'the market' already had enough of that type of stuff to be going on with, thanks. Even after acceptance, she was told by the publisher to get herself a day job, because she couldn't hope to make a lot of money out of children's fiction. Her advance, too, was pretty small, as was the initial print run. It was word of mouth, plus a bit of shrewd marketing, that started the whole phenomenon off. In the end, she didn't so much buck the market, she CREATED it anew. It was the Beatles and EMI all over again. Of course, she may just be the exception that proves the rule. Helluva exception, though. As for me, a few years ago I self-published a book that I knew was good, despite the fact that countless agents and publishers rejected it as 'unsaleable'. Well... I did okay out of it. Made my money back, and some. No complaints. This is why more and more people are going down the self-publishing route nowadays. Fed up with the publishing houses telling them what won't sell, they're doing the job themselves.
Hey, well done Sniper. Feel free to put a link to it on here, if it's still available. I feel a bout of positive thinking coming on. I'll have a drop of wine tonight and persuade myself we're on the verge of a literary punk phenomenon, where everyone does it for themselves! I'll transport myself (albeit briefly) back to a time before The Eagles ever existed! Back to the writing guides question - I think they all (as I'm always keen on a good generalisation) inspire more than they instruct - which isn't necessarily a bad thing in itself.
Yep. I'll drink to that. Cheers! My book was before the days of 'links', or even the web! Out of print now, but I'm planning another, which'll be posted when it's ready. I've always made more money out of self-publishing than I have out of postage, stamps and begging letters! The guy who wrote 'Shadowmancer' started the same way, ended up with a £100,000 publishing deal - word of mouth again. And check out this guy for an inspiring story:
My God, we must be missing a trick here. Do you get the feeling that agents and publishers aren't best qualified to do their job? Are they there just to STOP people publishing books that people want to read?
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