I’ve read a good many self-help writing books, and a lot of them cover stuff that either I already knew or that wasn’t necessary. The rest of them give good advice but terrible examples to go with it.
With two exceptions.
Now, if you’re seriously considering writing as a career, On Writing will probably be on your shelf already (and if it isn’t, it should be). So I won’t spend much time talking about it. The book I really want to talk about is Bell’s. It’s not very well-known, and nor is his fiction, but the advice that he gives out is solid gold – especially if you’re the kind of writer who George R R Martin would call a ‘gardener’: you like to plant an idea and just see how it grows. It’s a great book by a man who knows his craft because he went to a lot of effort to learn it himself.
You see, in the introduction, Bell talks about confronting the Big Lie, which is that people who are writers are born writers, and if you don’t have the gift, you aren’t gonna make it (which is obviously total bull). He talks about how it restricted his passion for writing for years, until one day he decided he was going to learn – and found out that it was simple. This is a great message for all beginning writers seeking help, because the fact is that 99% of us aren’t good in the beginning, and while my first recommendation would be to get lessons from a writer who is already published and – importantly – knows why they got published, the second best thing you can do is have a reference book that you can go to for advice as and when you need it. That is what James Bell provides: a book that is split into helpful sections, each containing quick and easy-to-remember tools for overcoming the uncertainties you’re likely to run into.
One thing I will say about it: it is advice for writing novels, not short fiction, and that is how it should be taken. Another thing: it gives you all the things you need to make a perfectly sensible, working novel – but that’s it. If you’re already an experienced writer, you won’t find any flairs or flourishes in this book. It sets out to lay down the basic nuts and bolts of the novel and that is what it does, and does well.
On Writing, on the other hand, is useful for other reasons. Stephen King has some very interesting philosophical ideas about writing, and approaching writing (my favourite is that you shouldn’t keep something in your story simply because it’s good. Of course it’s good, Stephen King says, it’s your job to write good stuff, everything should be good. (I’m paraphrasing). This really impacted the way I viewed the craft of writing and editing as a whole), but it also provides a thorough example of his points in the biographical sections. They are compelling. You want to read them. And then you realise that is because he’s using the techniques he’s telling you to use.
On Writing also provides you with an insight into the life of a writer. For me, On Writing is the book you should read once you have some of the ability but none of the savviness. Stephen King shows you what it’s like to live in the world of fiction, first-hand, and there are some good life experiences in there.
I’ll leave it there. I hope this post was useful to you, if you’re a new writer, or mildly entertaining if you’re not.
See you guys soon.