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Teaching What Can’t Be Taught

The ambivalent wonders of the how-to-write book

There is a law of diminishing returns in most things, and this is abundantly so with that curious genre, the how-to-write book. I’ve lost count of how many of these I’ve read over the years. I was about to say I’d read most of them, but that wouldn’t be true: there are hundreds, probably thousands by now, and they keep on coming. Look in any issue of Writer’s Digest or The Writer and you’ll see the adverts for this or that latest guide to how to plot, how to write dialogue, how to research your novel, how to revise it. Everybody, it seems, wants to be a writer.

Such books were once (mostly) written by hacks. (How many authors of writing books have you ever heard of?) With the growth of “creative writing” as a university subject, academics have got in on the act too, with recent offerings such as The Art of Writing Fiction (2011) by Andrew Cowan, which pretty much allows you, at a fraction of the cost, to reconstruct Professor Cowan’s classes at the University of East Anglia. (From the back jacket: “Topics covered include: writers’ routines; overcoming writers’ block; creating convincing characters and memorable settings; writing believable dialogue; structuring short stories and novels; editing for style and originality; workshop [sic] in creative writing.”)

I don’t think any book can teach you to create “convincing characters and memorable settings,” let alone to have “style and originality,” as I suspect Professor Cowan would agree if we asked him. The never-spoken secret of the creative writing class is that writing simply isn’t – at any level beyond the basic – a set of teachable skills that anyone of moderate intelligence can pick up over a semester or two. If it isn’t in you, it isn’t coming out. So are classes a waste of time? Not necessarily. They can teach you discipline. They can teach you about the industry. They can help you make contacts. They can set you on your way. But you don’t need classes to be a writer, and too much time in them is harmful if it makes you depend on a teacher’s approval. Young people who want to be writers should – if they go to college at all – consider subjects such as history, politics, philosophy, law, medicine, or science, all of which may make you a better writer, if only by giving you something to write about. (I exclude literature, which, as an academic subject, has largely been ruined by critical theory. Besides, if you don’t already read novels, poems, and plays on your own time, you’re never going to be a writer.) Think of the use Iris Murdoch made of philosophy, or how Maugham’s medical training shaped that clear, unsentimental, almost diagnostic way in which he describes his characters. It’s not as if there’s that much to learn about how to write. It comes down to (a) instinct and (b) practice.

Still, I would be lying if I said I had gained nothing from all those how-to-write books. Which ones? The first observation to make is that most books of this kind say more or less the same few things again and again. The second is that the how-to-write book is, in its deepest essence, a form of comfort reading: its purpose is not so much to teach anyone anything, as to allay the anxieties of the would-be author. The books which make the most impression on us are likely to be the ones we encounter early on – when the typical content of such books seems new to us – or find just at the time when we can benefit from the advice they offer. Some, however, are certainly better than others, and one or two even say things you won’t find anywhere else. Lists of the “best” are ineradicably personal, but here – in my personal order of preference – are five how-to-write books which have been valuable to me. I’d recommend them all.


DOROTHEA BRANDE, BECOMING A WRITER (1934). The source, so far as I’m aware, of the “freewriting” and early-morning writing later advocated by high-profile creativity coaches Natalie Goldberg and Julia Cameron. Here, you get it without the New Age topspin. Brande wasn’t a fiction writer herself, but she was a teacher of some brilliance. This is, by a mile, the best book to read if you want to write and don’t know how to start. I never do the exercises in books like this – the very prospect makes me feel bored and tired – but I did do Brande’s and they do work. It has been said, more than once, that this is the only creative writing book which is actually helpful. This may be true. Sample quotation: “Throughout your writing life, whenever you are in danger of the spiritual drought that comes to the most facile writer from time to time, put the pencil and paper back on your bedside table, and wake to write in the morning.”

COLIN WILSON, THE CRAFT OF THE NOVEL (1975). Colin Wilson was an eccentric and prolific English writer who became famous as sort of philosophical boy wonder with his first book, The Outsider (1956). Later he was widely derided as a charlatan, especially after he started writing books about the occult and UFOs. Wilson was, for many, the sort of writer one went through a phase of reading in one’s (of course) alienated youth, but then didn’t much read again. I’ve always had a lot of time for him. He was cleverer by far than most of his detractors; he was marvellously fluent; the range of his reading and reference was vast. The great thing about this book is that Wilson asks what novels are for and why they matter. Along the way, he gives you a crash course in the history of the form. Sample quotation: “The basic impulse behind the novel is the need to create a ‘desirable’ reality: that is, to project an image of the life you would like to lead, and the sort of person you would like to be.”

LAWRENCE BLOCK, WRITING THE NOVEL: FROM PLOT TO PRINT (1979). This book, by the well-known American crime writer, is terrific because it is so practical. So you want to write a novel? How, then, are you going to do it? How, in step-by-step terms, does that sort of thing actually get done? Some might deride Block’s approach as “commercial.” Maybe so; but more importantly, it’s pragmatic. Writing is work, whether you’re writing Ulysses or I, the Jury. Even Virginia Woolf complains in her diaries about the “drudgery” of producing that most ultra-literary novel, To the Lighthouse. Those evanescent skeins of sensibility weren’t reeled out in a rapture of inspiration: day after day, Woolf bashed at the typewriter. There is a lesson here. For the precious, artistic type of would-be writer (I know, because I used to be one), Block’s book is a necessary kick in the pants. Sample quotation: “If you do undertake to write a first novel, I strongly urge you to finish it. Whether or not you lose faith in it along the way. Whether or not you’re convinced it stinks. No matter what, stay with it a day at a time and see it through to completion … you’ll learn infinitely more by finishing a first novel than by casting it aside.”

HEATHER SELLERS, CHAPTER AFTER CHAPTER (2007). One of the few recent books I’ve come to value highly. Sellers (who sounds like a genuinely inspired teacher) is particularly good on the focus required to write a book-length manuscript. Sample quotation (Sellers hits here on one of the key problems for many a would-be writer, not to mention many a writer-writer trying to write another book): “When you’re working on your book, you will undoubtedly be tempted by Fresh Start Sirens. Gorgeous, tantalising new book ideas will arrive, making juicy promises … The Sexy Next Book idea always promises that it will never be difficult; it will never be a burden. It says it’s way, way more publishable, plus more fun! It whispers, Take me now. I’m all yours. When this happens: Run.”

CHRISTOPHER DERRICK, READER’S REPORT: ON THE WRITING OF NOVELS (1969). The author was a publishers’ reader and writes, as it were, from the bottom of the slush pile. He’s seen it all and is frequently very funny, notably in his long catalogue of types of novels publishers’ readers have had too many times (it would be an amusing exercise to try and update this). Like Block, he’s pragmatic. You don’t need to think about art when you’re trying to write. You need to think about craft: if you’ve got any art in you, that will take care of itself. Sample quotation: “The student pianist may look forward to his first recital at the Festival Hall or the Lincoln Center: he knows very well, however, that this day won’t come quickly or easily, and that there will first have to be many long years of study and practice, with endless scales and exercises that won’t in themselves be worth listening to. But the corresponding fact about writing is easily overlooked.”