Monday, January 8, 2018

My Problem With Writing How-To

The How To How To Write a How To Book book by Howie Bookman.

If you know what I'm talking about, you're awesome. If you don't, you're seriously Studio C deprived.

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Writing how-to is an interesting animal. It can be very useful, but, in my experience, it can also be very problematic. On one hand, it can be a great way to help you figure out what's wrong with your book. On the other hand, it can cause the idea that there's only one way to structure a story, only one way to create a character arc, only one writing style that's "acceptable," only one basic formula per genre or subgenre, and if you aren't following it, you're doing it wrong, your book is terrible, and no one will ever want to read it.

Maybe it's just my analytical monster that takes writing how-to to this extreme, but when you look at all the formulaic plots and characters that are just carbon copies of other characters, I'm not so sure. Granted, it often happens when a writer has written 50+ books and they just keep reusing their own old plots and characters, but it's not exclusive to those situations. How many times have books gotten the reputation of being a knock off of such and such popular book? Yes, that worked for the original author, but that doesn't mean it's the only way to write a book. That doesn't meant that it has to become the conventional wisdom all the writing how-to spouts off.

Writing how-to can be useful. It can absolutely identify your weaknesses as a writer and give you ideas on how to improve. And that is important. If you're not growing as a writer, learning more about the craft and implementing it well, you may end up with 100 books that are pretty much exactly like your last one, just with the names changed. Grow as a writer. Learn more. Read more books to absorb different techniques and styles. It's a good thing. 

However, often writing how-to trends go too far. They make it one-size-fits-all. Well, I've got news for you. One size doesn't fit all. Yes, stories need a beginning, a middle, and an end. There needs to be a climax towards the end. The plot threads need to weave together to make sense and not just be a bunch of red herrings. (The Quagmires were in the literal red herring, Baudelaires! I saw that one coming.) Sorry. Tangent. 

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But every story doesn't have to follow an exact structure. I've tried plotting by a strict 3 act structure with well defined plot points and everything. That works fabulously for some people. But not for me. It becomes too structured, and feels dry. It's not fluid and natural enough. It feels like I'm just hitting predetermined points and not letting the story take me there. Yet some people act like that's the only way to create a storyline. There are other methods of story structure. And it's okay if your major plot developments don't happen at precise percentages within the book. Did I learn a lot of value from studying that method of story development? Yes. Do I regret it? No. Am I going to be strictly following it in the future? Absolutely not. Because it didn't work for me. That doesn't make it wrong. It makes it a bad writing method for me. And it's just as wrong for me to tout it as a bad way to write a story as it is for someone to tout it as the only right way to structure a story.

Deep character point of view is another thing that's supposedly the only "right" way to write these days. And if your story is set up so that you're supposedly in your main character's head, but you're really not, then you've got some work to do. But just because deep character point of view is one good way to narrate a story, and a popular one, that doesn't mean it's the only way to do it. Look at A Series of Unfortunate Events for example. Lemony Snicket is narrating the events in the lives of the Baudelaire orphans as he found them when he researched it. (Lemony Snicket is actually the penname of Daniel Handler and somewhat of a character in the series, therefore a plot/narration device.) You never actually have, say, Violet's mental process running through your head as the narration of the story. There is no deep character point of view. Does that mean it's badly written? Absolutely not. It just means a different style of storytelling was suited to the series. It simply wouldn't be the same if you were viewing the whole story through Violet's eyes while in her head.

In a nutshell, my problem with writing how-to is this: It gives off the impression that there's only one way to write a book, when really there are infinite ways.

If we all structured our stories exactly the same way...

If we all caused our characters to follow the exact same progression in their character arcs...

If we all narrated our stories in the exact same way...

We'd all be writing the exact same book over and over and there would be no point.

Besides, all the writing tropes that are "right" right now are going to change down the road anyway. They always do.

Yes, learn all you can about the writing craft. Learn from the masters. Learn all the different ways you can structure a story, plan a story, develop a character, narrate a book... But if it doesn't work for you, don't try to force it. Don't try to follow a specific method just because it's "in" or because someone you admire swears by it. You are an individual writer, and you don't need to fit into a box. And who knows, your method may become the next big thing.

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  1. I got the Studio C quote! My sister watches it more than I do, but they've got some good ones.

    I read somewhere, though I've lost the source by now, that you can't learn how to write /books/, you can only learn how to write the book you're working on at the moment, because every story will have its own challenges and ways of making you grow, and such.

    1. Studio C is awesome. :)

      That's very true. Every story is different and requires a different method of writing. And you're going to keep growing. What writing method worked for you at 20 won't necessarily work when you're 30, and what worked for one book won't necessarily work for the next. Which is why as much as I've learned from Helping Writers Become Authors and as much as I appreciate it, it's started to box me in, making me feel like there's this one way to do things and if I don't follow it, my book will be terrible, which simply isn't so. Her method works for her, but it doesn't work for me, and that's okay.


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