• Matt Davies

Books on writing – useful or a waste of time?

I love reading books on the craft of writing. I think it’s because part of me is always looking for that one thing – that one piece of advice – that will fill some gaping hole in my knowledge that I didn’t even realise was there and turn me into a brilliant writer. Or at least make some elusive aspect of craft fall into place, rendering the whole process of writing a book that much easier.


But I don’t love them all. I’m over books on structure, for example – they all seem to say the same thing, only in different ways. They label the stages of the hero’s journey using new terms the author has made up to make it sound new and insightful, but, really, it’s the same stuff – the hook, the first plot point, the second plot point, the confrontation, the resolution. I don’t want to be told that the inciting incident has to play out at the 12 per cent mark and that the climax should begin at the 88 per cent mark. If it feels right, it probably is.


My favourite books on writing


The books on writing that I gravitate to are the ones that make me think more deeply about some particular aspect of craft, like subtext or emotional resonance or poignancy. I find it most useful when the authors provide examples, so they are showing me what to do rather than just telling me (show, don’t tell, right?).


I do return to the classics – Stephen King’s On Writing and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott – but my favourites are Donald Maass’ books – Writing the Breakout Novel, Writing 21st Century Fiction and The Emotional Craft of Fiction. He has others (The Fire in Fiction and The Breakout Novelist), but I haven’t read them. One of the things I like most about Maass’ books is that he does that thing that I find most useful – he includes examples from published novels and breaks them down. That, for me, is the best way to learn.



The best writing advice


I get something new out of these already-read books on craft each time I read them. It’s amazing how I’ll read a piece of advice and think, That’s brilliant! I wish I knew that before! But, of course, I did, because I’ve read the book before. Sometimes I’ll even find that same piece of advice written in a notebook somewhere, but when I come across it, it still feels new. That’s probably because we get different things out of books on writing depending on where we are along the continuum and what we’re working on at the time.


Here’s an example.


I found a great piece of advice the other day when I was re-reading the free e-book Pixar’s 22 Rules of Writing Analyzed by Stephan Vladimir Bugaj (I’d forgotten I had it. I found a hard copy I’d downloaded when I was cleaning out my filing cabinet). He was analysing rule 13 – the one about giving characters opinions – and he had this to say about stakes:


Weak characters lower the stakes and are less engaging than characters whose drives and decisions are both what gets them into trouble and out of it.

That resonated with me at this particular point in my WIP where I am trying to raise stakes and find ways to get characters in and out of strife in ways that both builds character and progresses the story. I made a note about it in my Writing tips notebook, interpreting it as:


Use a character’s weaknesses/flaws/unhealed wounds to get them into trouble, and use their strengths, convictions and values to get them out of it.

As I’m writing this now, that all sounds very obvious. But I tend to get so wrapped up in a manuscript when I’m mid-write that I can’t see the forest for the trees. It’s simple advice, but it’s good to keep in mind and came along at the right time for me.


Gifts that keep giving


I will often go back to these Donald Maass books after I’ve finished a first draft of a book – Writing 21st Century Fiction and The Emotional Craft of Fiction mostly. I’ll read with only my latest manuscript in mind and I find things that apply to that manuscript specifically that I may have skimmed over before. This process also reminds of some of the basics that I may not have thought about when writing that particular manuscript – Is there tension in every encounter? Does every scene progress the story? Are the stakes high enough?


I do know that there is no one piece of writing advice that’s going to make it all click together. But I also know that all the bits of writing advice – the ones that apply today and those that might not apply until book number five – are contributing to my education. It’s all part of developing as a writer, along with talking to other writers, listening to interviews with writers and, the most valuable of them all, getting personalised feedback on my writing.