I Don’t Know How To Write

Reading & Writing


I’m not a huge believer in How To Write guides. I’ve tried to read several books on writing novels, but the only one I enjoyed was Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’, because it’s more of a pulpy, bouncy memoir about being a popular writer than a proscriptive list of dry rules for story structure academics. In a way though, even Mr King doesn’t see clearly about his own talents, and I’m not sure any of us do because our work is too close and personal to fully explain.

I consider myself a ‘creator of imaginative fiction’, and mention this because of ‘Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide To Imaginative Fiction’, by Jeff Vandermeer. Now, Mr Vandemeer sells wonder. He makes very beautifully designed volumes and very astutely edited compendia, from collections of time travel stories to strange tomes about freaks and cabinets of curiosities and Steampunk. He produced a superb volume called ‘The Weird’, which covers the entire spectrum of weird writing, which you can only read on Kindle because it’s too big to carry about. It’s understandably more US-centric than Alberto Manguel’s dazzling ‘Black Water’ and ‘White Fire’, which gathered together the greatest international fantastic fiction, much of it translated for the first time.

So, a flick through ‘Wonderbook’ and you’re sold; it’s filled with imaginative, colourful graphs and maps and diagrams illustrated in the style of fantasy novels. It features dozens of writers discussing characterisation, structure, plotting and the creation of worlds. It features ideas about the ‘protantagonist’ and ‘contamination beats’ and ‘tonal modulations’ and ‘subjective interpretation’.

I’ve now tried reading this book six times, and am getting no further into it. The problem must be mine, because the pages are filled with many award-winning authors talking about how to write. Now, there are clearly some world-class tipsters here, including insights from the estimable George RR Martin, whose ‘Fevre Dream’ I was pushing onto people through the pages of my Time Out column many years ago, but does knowing how successful authors work help the novice in any way? Surely everyone evolves their own method of writing?

Looking at the book again, I’ve decided that the problem may be two-fold; one, it’s based on a specific, analytical and uniquely American form of thinking about imaginative fiction, and in that sense feels completely alien to a European mindset. Two, and this is a less kind thought; it may just be that volumes such as these, no matter how prettily they’re tricked out, are for fans who fantasise about writing but read an awful lot about the idea of writing instead, looking for some kind of holy grail of technique that will magic a novel onto their desks.

I personally know a number of people who never stop talking about writing their big novel, and somehow never start. They never even complete a short story. It might be that ‘Wonderbook’ is aimed at them, because I’m just about to begin a fantasy novel (I haven’t written one since ‘Calabash’) and I can’t find anything in these 300+ densely packed pages that’s of any help at all. Either that, or I’m simply not attuned to understanding it. Because even if I’m able to make head or tail of any one of these diagrams, that won’t be the way I want to tackle my book.

Thoughts on writing guides?


8 comments on “I Don’t Know How To Write”

  1. Peter Dixon says:

    Elmer Leonard, possibly the greatest American writer since Hemingway and Hammett wrote 10 rules for writing fiction; here are the first four:-

    1 Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

    2 Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”

    3 Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

    4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.

    If you read a number of books from the 1930’s to 1950’s you often find the phrase ‘he ejaculated’, not because of some sexual reference but because it was an alternative to ‘he said’. Biggles ejaculated to Algy and Ginger quite frequently. Nowadays it belongs to a different kind of fiction altogether.

  2. Vivienne says:

    Well, I’ve read a few books lately, and I’m afraid I didn’t even notice whether anyone used an adverb to add to said, or if anyone whispered, shouted or mumbled. I agree about prologues but, being English, don’t mind a bit of weather first. I have this feeling that if I wrote a book it would be rubbish, but don’t think a how to write book would get me over this.

  3. George Mealor says:

    You already write books that we buy, so I doubt a book on writing would be of much use.


    I purchased this book a couple of years ago because it is a beautiful book. It doesn’t help me write, but I have spent many happy hours looking at it. That is where its value lies for me. This is not a serious how-to-write book even for an American, and since that’s what I am, I speak with some authority. This book is a curiosity and a fun one at that.

  5. admin says:

    Thanks Kristen – the key word is ‘curiosity’, which Mr Vandemeer conjures well.

  6. Wayne Mook says:

    The Vandermer book looks lovely, I almost bought a copy but didn’t have enough pennies on me at the time. I always thought of it as a coffee table book, lovely to look at.

    The Lester Dent formula, a master plot for 6000 word pulp story, he even gives pointers on faking local colour, in the first 1500 words 1. first line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble…..
    Second 1500 words 1. Shovel the grief onto the hero….

    It’s a splendid thing to behold.

    Since the best advice to a writer is to write and since you do it so well, I don’t think you need to a get a how to book.

    On your say so I’ve got the Stephen King book on writing, I’ve been meaning to for sometime,


  7. Helen Martin says:

    That cover is vaguely familiar or is similar to a another piece by the same artist. It looks interesting and might be useful if what you were writing didn’t feel quite right. Useful to beginning authors in other words.
    I was just in Powell’s Books in Portland and discovered a shelf of Staff Recommendations which contained Full Dark House. The staff person had unexpectedly loved it. In spite of that American cover, I suspect. Do you realise how much those of us familiar with the “real” covers despise those cartoony American ones? I know, I know, the people who know say that these sell better than the originals, but we really have to pay a lot extra for the ones we prefer.

  8. admin says:

    The King book is fun, Wayne, although typically the early chapters seem to be about farting babysitters and throwing up. That’s the side of King I never really got to grips with.

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