My Love Affair (with How-to Books!)

- by Elaine Isaak

I have a terrible confession to make.  While I am a professional, published novelist, I am also an illicit reader of how-to manuals about writing.  I read beginning ones (anything. . . For Dummies), I read advanced ones (Between the Lines, by Jessica Page Morrell), I read those specialized for my genre (The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land), and those for other genres, just in case!

I read new ones by authors I admire (Take Joy, by Jane Yolen) and ones by authors I don’t admire, but who seem to be good at what they do (name withheld, just in case).

In short, I read every book on writing I can get my hands on!

The ones I like most are those recommended by other authors. I just picked up Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder (recommended by Mercedes Lackey) and Techiques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain (recommended in Debra Dixon’s Goal, Motivation and Conflict–so that’s like a two-fer).

The Snyder is a pretty quick read, by an author who is convinced he’s got it all worked out and if you just do exactly what he does, you can, too!  The Swain is its polar opposite, a very dense work with lots of analytical passages and an author who doesn’t believe that writing can be taught at all, but in case you needed a reminder, here’s everything he knows about the process.

Some books have lots of exercises where you can practice the techniques described–which Swain believes is utterly pointless.  Others contain many quotations or references to published works to illustrate the points.

One of my favorites, How Not to Write a Novel, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman, incorporates passages from two or three atrocious invented novels that entertain the reader while providing useful references.

So what’s the point?  I’m already published, I have an agent and a publisher and all that stuff–don’t I already know?  Sure, I know a bunch of stuff, and I know the way that I do things.  But perhaps the most important thing I know is that I can get better.

Sometimes, I know precisely in what area I want to improve (if not how to get there), and I can find a reference in my library or in a new how-to that might give me the advice I need.  Sometimes, I’m just curious about how other people do it–which is one reason the books by authors I admire (or despise) can be engaging.

But what I get really excited about are the books that articulate something I never quite put my finger on.  Aha!  That’s what I’ve been trying to do!  Or, better yet, that’s what my book wants to do–and this author can help me to do it.

Even when the insights are not immediately useful, the act of learning more about my art helps to keep me engaged in the meta-process of writing, to assimilate ideas or approaches that might emerge later on when I really need them.  There is always more to learn–and new how-to books on the shelves to fill the need!

Comments are closed.