When you’re trying to solve a problem, the natural reaction is to get advice from friends and colleagues. It’s the same when you’re learning to write, and that’s where writers’ how-to guides come in handy. They’re cheaper than enrolling on a writing course and can be easily found in bookshops and online. Inside them, you’ll find a plethora of information on how to plot and structure your novel and how to make your characters lifelike. But here is where the problem arises – how much good advice is enough?
When I first started out as a writer, I naively read as many writing guides as I could get my hands on, and tried to take on board everything each one said. But soon I started to notice a problem. The advice of different books was beginning to conflict against each other. One book would tell me that I needed to have a murder happen on the first page of the book to grab the reader, but another would tell me not to do that as the reader needed to feel sympathy with the victim and could only do that if they knew them. I began to get very confused and almost ruined my first novel by trying to follow all the advice at once.
Now I have a set stock of books I turn to when I’m feeling blocked or in need of some friendly advice and you can see these on my new ‘Recommended reading’ page.
Too much advice – even if it’s from well-intentioned people – is never a good thing and at some point you have to step back and let your writer’s instinct take over. Now I have a few rules, which I use when trying to decide whether a writing guide will work for me:
1. Is the author of the writer’s guide also a good writer of books? – There’s no point in taking advice from someone who’s never written a book in their life but a little bit of research should help you find out about them. I did this after discovering a book called ‘How to write a thriller’ by Scott Mariani. I’d never heard of Scott but managed to find one of his Ben Hope series of books, and that man can really write a thriller! Well worth reading both the guide and the series of books!
2. Try before you buy – make the most of the writing reference section of your local library. I’ll often borrow a book and have a scan of it before I’ll decide to part with my hard-earned money. This way you don’t end up with a shelf of useless books!
3. Read analytically – you don’t have to agree entirely with what the books tell you especially if it doesn’t match up with the novels you’re reading in your genre (which is also part of the writer’s learning process). Remember it’s only advice and how much of it you choose to use is entirely up to you.
The biggest thing to remember with writing guides is not to spend so much time reading them that you don’t get around to doing any writing of your own. Practice makes perfect, as the old adage says, and the more time you spend practicing the better your writing will get.
Which writing guides do you swear by? Or do you think they’re a waste of time? Has reading too many writing guides ever got you into trouble? I love hearing your comments and if you want to receive regular blog updates, make sure you subscribe.