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Saturday, 19 March 2011

We'll Teach you How to Write

One school of thought insists that you either have it or you don't, that you can not be taught to write by a teacher or textbook. Then there's the other side that claim that the craft can indeed be taught and indeed the teaching of the craft is a big money business. Personally I feel that you can be taught technique, but you do need that spark of creativity inside you and this can not be acquired no matter how arduous your studies.

The fact that teaching people to write, is such a money spinner has always soured me on, "How To Write Books", but at the same time there are some great titles out there in which masters of the craft share their considerable knowledge with the reader. Now, that can only be a good thing, no matter how natural the talent burning inside the would be bestseller.

The fact is though that there are many how to write books out there that are best given a wide berth - written solely to turn over a few quid, and filled with grand promises to mould you into the biggest seller of them all. All you need do to transform yourself into a writing powerhouse is buy all 927 books in this series.

Stephen King's, On Writing is my all time favourite how to write book, and maybe because it is almost an anti-how to write book - this is a short book because most books, King writes, about writing are bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don't understand much of what they do - not why it works when it's good, nor why it doesn't when it's bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit.

Mind you given ol' Stevie's penchant for page busting paragraphs, On Writing does end up as a rather long, short book. The average length for these type of books is around 300 pages and yet Steve's comes in closer to 400.  That's not a complaint, though - I enjoyed every word in, On Writing. Ironically because it disdains the conventions of how to write books, it tells us much more about the craft and does take us closer to the man that is Stephen King. The author is painfully candid when writing about  his drug and drink addictions.

More conventional in its approach, but another favourite of mine is Writing Crime Fiction by H.R.F. Keating. I first owned a copy of this book when I was in my teens, and being a snobby nosed working class ruffian, the name of the author impressed me greatly. He had three first names, all of them presented in initials that sounded impossible grand to me. I had friends with names like Billy, John, Smithy and here was someone called, H,R.F - I pictured the author as this playboy writer who drove an Aston Martin and drunk bubbly out of the shoes of leggy birds with Russian names.

Ahh well - I've read the book again recently and enjoyed it just as much. The author,the creator of the bestselling Inspector Ghote series, not only outlines what he sees as the mechanics of the craft but delivers an insightful look at the history of that genre and what makes it work. Not only that but I've discovered the writer actually looks more Captain Birdseye than James Bond.

Incidentally the first Ghote book will be reissued soon as a Penguin Modern Classic  expect a review on the Archive soon.


David Cranmer said...

King's ON WRITING is the only one I read from cover to cover.

Charles Gramlich said...

I actualy didn't find on writing to be very helpful. Telling lies for fun and profit by Lawrence Bloch was pretty good. I would recommend "write with fire," of cours. :)

Chap O'Keefe said...

As Gary points out, you've always needed to be selective with "how to write" books, just as with any other. What works for others, might not work for you.

And I'd agree with Charles about Lawrence Block. Just yesterday I finished reading a Robert Hale Ltd hardcover reissue of John D. MacDonald's Gold Medal classic The Damned. On the jacket's back cover, among many others was this fine quote from Block:

"He took enormous artistic chances, and did his readers the ultimate service of writing what he most wanted to write and striving always to please himself."