Rosemary Evans argues the self-help books that tell you how to write fiction have nothing to teach you
There is a tendency to treat the realm of fiction-writing as mystical and enigmatic – a place where the celestial figures of J K Rowling and Steven King glide around exchanging literary secrets in hushed tones, while the normal people can only stare up at them in awe from below. Such an approach to writing has been generated by the endless numbers of books and workshops (often produced by novelists themselves) claiming to contain the ultimate answer to the ultimate question: how to write a novel.
Amazon produces 1,272 results in books for ‘how to write a novel’. That is over three times more than the number of results for ‘how to make bread’ and slightly more than the number of results for ‘how to train a puppy’. With such a subgenre of self-help book becoming a major industry, Amazon clearly thinks there is much to learn about fiction-writing: at least far more than there is to learn about making bread. Given how complex it must be with that huge store of information explaining how to do it, anyone who tried writing a book without one of those guides would fail miserably, right? They would produce the literary equivalent of the soggy, pulpy dough that any beginner baker would produce if they ignored the recipe books and tried to make bread.
These how-to guides generate the impression of writing as a mysterious, complex craft, requiring hours of prior research before you can even get started. While they claim to bring the mystical world of writing into focus for the average person, their very existence in such quantities seems to create a barrier between the average, ignorant person and the dazzling, proficient writers they admire: the masses of us who don’t know how to write, and that select group of us who do. While all those hundreds of books on Amazon will claim to carry its readers over that barrier into the magical world where J K Rowling resides, the reality is that they won’t, because such a barrier doesn’t exist at all.
In fact, the more you find out about writers themselves, past and present, the less convincing this impression of writing as a mysterious, highly exclusive activity becomes. Unlike training puppies or making bread (which as the Bake Off fans will tell you, definitely needs a recipe), there aren’t any guidelines for producing a novel. When it comes to writing, the truth is there is no secret.
Nothing illustrates this better than a moment from an ‘in-conversation’ between authors Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mitchell at the Southbank Centre in London last year, during which the two authors discussed their writing processes. Having listened to Ishiguro describe his precise, methodical strategy, involving the careful planning of the entire storyline before the writing even begins, Mitchell was almost incredulous. ‘Well what do you do?’ Ishiguro asked him. ‘I just get started on the writing and see what happens’, was Mitchell’s reply.
I object to the idea that you need to learn how to write before you’re qualified to do it, because the way only to learn is to take the plunge and do it yourself. The way writers master their craft is through practice – something that only perseverance and self-discipline can help you to do. Jane Austen had finished a novel before her 20th birthday, and without the assistance of any workshops or how-to guides. The only thing she had that we as university students don’t is perhaps a bit more time on her hands. In fact, the existence of material that tells people how to write is more likely to be slowing them down: cowed by the daunting prospect of writing an entire novel, a budding writer will find it easier to distract themselves from the real task by burying themselves in these kinds of books under the guise of doing ‘research’. In effect, it’s procrastination, because what they really need is to sit down and actually write.
If you’re looking for patterns in the way writers produce their work, you won’t find any. Charles Dickens and Marcel Proust both worked at night, while Barbara Kingsolver starts writing at 4am. Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up, while Dan Brown claims to write wearing gravity boots and hanging from the ceiling. Victor Hugo once locked away his clothes to force himself to work by removing the temptation of leaving the house (maybe a good revision tip to try?). Friedrich Schiller allegedly worked best with a pile of rotting apples sitting in his desk drawer.
The world of fiction-writing only feels elusive and distant until you join in and start doing it yourself. Ignore what people might say, because there is literally nothing stopping you.