Review: Several Books on Writing

A few days ago, I linked to a pay-what-you-want bundle of ebooks of writing advice, on the principle that all the writers were, if nothing else, people who managed to earn (in many cases very good) livings from writing, and so for the price there would probably be something useful in there for writers.
Now that I’ve read all (but one) of the books (not as impressive as it sounds — many of them would be better described as e-pamphlets rather than ebooks), I thought I’d post a quick… not so much a review, but a look at which ones I find helpful and which I don’t, and what they cover, so if you’ve decided to spend ten quid or whatever on the books, you’ll know which ones, if any, to bother with.
Now, these books are aimed at a particular audience, and written by a particular type of writer, and that colours everything about them. Put bluntly, many of the people involved (though not all) are what most people would term hacks. Many of them have made millions of dollars from writing, but much of that writing has been things like Star Wars tie-in novels (which apparently routinely make the New York Times bestseller list, astonishingly…) or writing additional volumes to dead writers’ unfinished series, that sort of thing.
That might put off anyone who wants to be the next Joyce or Hemingway — and it’s not the sort of thing I read either — but there are skills there that are definitely worth having. I certainly can’t throw any stones — my upcoming novel is, after all, part of a Doctor Who spinoff series, and the short story I recently had published is a crossover between that Who spinoff and Sherlock Holmes…
But this colours the writing advice in all of these. These are guides to pulp writing, to “telling a rattling good yarn” and writing a “page-turner” (and looking at this sentence, aren’t those scare quotes telling? I still have a touch of literary snobbery when talking about books that people actually want to read…).
And to do that is itself a skill, and one that I, at least, could do better at. I’ve been trying to write more fiction recently, and in my own estimation I’m pretty good (better than that actually, extremely good) at voice, and pretty decent at theme, but absolutely lousy at plot (I still cringe at the submission I put together for an anthology last year, which I shouldn’t even have sent it was so poor), description of environments, and at the sort of nuts-and-bolts storytelling one needs to write an actual novel, rather than a Menippean satire. These books won’t teach anyone to be a great artist, but they might teach some good craft tips.
That said, which of the books are worth reading?

Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing by David Farland told me very little except that Farland really likes Tolkien, and thinks that his work resonates well. Farland was apparently Stephenie Meyer’s writing teacher, and is a best-selling author himself, so presumably knows plenty about writing saleable fiction, but I got nothing out of this that I didn’t already know.

Million Dollar Productivity by Kevin J Anderson has some advice that may well be useful to some people — things like dictating a first draft rather than typing it, so you don’t worry about cosmetic problems like punctuation. Most of the things he suggests are either not for me (I can’t talk nearly as fast as I think, so dictation is right out) or are things I was doing already (working on multiple things at once so you don’t get bogged down in the boring bits of a project and never finish anything), but other people might find it useful.

Killing The Top Ten Sacred Cows Of Publishing by Dean Wesley Smith is a collection of ten of his blog posts, lightly revised. Basically, it amounts to a long-form argument for Heinlein’s rules (write every day, finish what you start, never rewrite unless at editorial request, keep stories in the mail until they sell somewhere). While I disagree with a lot of what Smith has to say about the value of publishers (while I self-publish my nonfiction I intend to at least try to get all my fiction traditionally published) he makes a very good case when aimed at the type of writer who fiddles with stuff and never finishes it. To be taken with a pinch of salt, but some worthwhile stuff in there.

The Pursuit of Perfection and How it Harms Writers by Kristine Kathryn Rusch says basically the same thing as the Sacred Cows book — don’t overpolish your story, it’s for editors, not you, to say whether it’s good enough.

Million Dollar Professionalism by Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta collects a lot of advice that one would expect to be obvious — keep your deadlines, don’t send abuse to editors or agents who reject you, don’t send your serial killer novel to a publisher of Christian non-fiction, don’t act like an arsehole at conventions around fans and editors. You would expect it to be obvious, at least, if you don’t read blogs like Query Quagmire which collect some of the horror stories of publishing. Sadly, it would appear that this book is necessary, though whether those who would profit by it will ever read it is a different matter.

Shadows Beneath by Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler, is an interesting one. It’s a collection of four short stories, all more or less in the fantasy genre, along with transcripts of the authors’ podcast Writing Excuses, in which they first brainstorm the stories together and then analyse draft versions. Drafts of the stories are also included — multiple drafts in some cases — allowing one to examine how the writing changed between drafts. I suspect that how useful this is will depend on one’s opinion of the various stories included. Personally, I really enjoyed one, found another interesting, and couldn’t bring myself to finish the other two, and I found my interest in the analysis of the stories similarly skewed.

Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland is… weird. Parts of it are what you’d expect from a very clean-cut writer like Farland (who teaches at Brigham Young University, which should give you some idea of his writing style) — there’s a section when he cautions against giving a teenage protagonist a “masturbation problem” because “You should recognize that each time you associate some vileness with your protagonist, you create a barrier between that protagonist and your reader… Some kids never even think of masturbating, and they’d be horrified to learn that others do.”
But then on several occasions he’ll talk about using experiences from your own life in your fiction, and gives examples from his own life and… well, if he’s telling the truth, he has a very, very interesting family, and the book should come with trigger warnings for, among other things, animal torture, domestic abuse, suicide, and multiple murders (none of these committed by Farland, incidentally, who seems a very nice man indeed. But this is one of those “…and I thought my family was bad…” books).

21 Days to a Novel by Michael Stackpole is the book from this list that I found most useful personally. It doesn’t tell you how to write a novel in twenty-one days, but how to spend that time preparing so that after twenty-one days you’ll be able to just sit down and write, with all the background work done. His notes on character creation and outlining have helped me fix some problems with the novel I’ve been working on, and I suspect some of the tricks in here will be useful to anyone trying to write fiction.

Charisma +1: The Guide to Convention Etiquette for Writers, Geeks, and the Socially Awkward by Jessica Brawner is another guide to stuff that shouldn’t need a guide — have a shower every day if you’re going to be in a cramped space with lots of other people, no the “booth babes” don’t want you to stalk them even if they did flirt with you when you were at their stand — but which, again, all too many people apparently *do* need to be told. I don’t, and I hope you don’t either, but it might be the clue that someone else needs.

The Freelancers’ Survival Guide by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a book I already had (though in the first edition — this is the third. I’ve not reread it to see what the difference is), and is definitely worth reading. It’s basically a guide to running a small business, aimed at writers (and specifically at writers in the US), but applicable to anyone.

500 Ways to Write Harder by Chuck Wendig is pseudo-Gonzo from someone who thinks Gonzo just means swearing a lot. It reads like Mr Agreeable from the old Melody Maker, who I thought was pathetically unfunny even when I was sixteen. Your mileage may vary.

And I didn’t read The Non-User-Friendly Guide for Aspiring TV Writers by Steven L. Sears because I have no interest in writing for TV. Sears seems to have a lot of experience in (US) TV though, so it may be of use to those who want to do that.

Overall, about 10% of the stuff in these books was of use, while 90% was padding, irrelevant to me, flat out wrong, or all three. But then, Sturgeon’s law says 90% of everything is crap, and there’s no reason to expect anything else from a selection like this. But that 10% is actually useful, and 10% of 12 books is still 1.2 books’ worth of useful information. Bear that in mind when paying for these, and they might be of use. For me, it was worth it for Stackpole’s book, with everything else a nice bonus.

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3 Responses to Review: Several Books on Writing

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    “… things like dictating a first draft rather than typing it, so you don’t worry about cosmetic problems like punctuation. Most of the things he suggests are either not for me (I can’t talk nearly as fast as I think, so dictation is right out)”

    Can you type as fast as you can think?

  2. Mike Taylor says:

    Lots of million-dollar books in there — you’d think they’d have conferred a bit about titles.

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