Thursday, February 11, 2010

Where's the Mothership?

I'm reading a badly-written how-to book on writing. Yes, I'm a masochist, but there you go. Writing, according to this woefully misguided little tome, is described as something like a magical process, largely unconscious, that belongs in the realm of fairies and wizards and sparkly stuff. Over the last thirty pages my state has completely shifted from utter disbelief to appalled fascination. Where are the orcs? I'm actually waiting for orcs to show up.

Oh, well, maybe they're off working on the new Google Settlement.

Odd theories about writing are like fad diets -- everyone tries at least one to see if it works (and, like those silly diets, they generally don't work.) I read this one writing how-to that claimed switching hands while writing to fill out lists of questions about your creativity (or lack thereof) allowed your right and your left hands tell you what they were thinking. Which is what you were thinking. But you didn't know that you were thinking that. That one made me very grateful that my hands generally do nothing but sit around and whine about being achy and cold.

Then there was the one with the breathing method of writing. Little did I know, writing is all about how one uses one's lungs. In with the good writing, out with the bad writing. By the time I got to chapter three I should have been in imminent danger of hyperventilating a novella.

No, really, didn't you know that all wonderful writing springs from great breathers? Don't be a pantser, be a panter. I might develop a similar method and publish my own book about it. I could call it Blow Me.

Seriously, for the most part I like reading writing how-tos, even the ones that are way out there past left field, or whose authors just got off the mothership from the alternative writing universe where books are created by channeling light and dreams and communing telepathically with three-fingered aliens. The wackiest ideas can sometimes be the thing a writer needs to push them through a difficult phase. If telepathic ambidexterity or heavy breathing really do make someone a better writer, or just comfort them, who am I to criticize?

It's like this girl I knew who went on the grapefruit, Ritz crackers and Certs diet. She didn't really lose a lot of weight, but she had terrific breath. Hmmm. I wonder if she's the one who wrote that book . . .

Anyway, I think when you write a book about writing meant for writers, you have to deliver a little more than pixie dust and precious ideas. Frankly, I would love to breathe a book; I breathe all the time, so it would shoot my productivity through the roof. I could even have a coughing attack and not have to work again until 2014. But sitting around and exercising my lungs does not put words on the page. I know, I've tried that. Ditto for the letting my unconscious being take over the work. All that lazy slob wants to do is turn on the bed heater, snuggle up under the covers and snore.

Writing is a job. It's a great job, and at times it can seem almost magical, especially when it's going well. When it's not, it can be anything from mildly annoying to a personal tour of Hell. But to write a story requires words to be put on a page. No alternative method, no matter how pretty it sounds, will do that for the writer.

Every time you write, you go to a construction site in your head. The words are waiting there, like a couple truckloads of loose bricks. They're not going to build themselves into anything, no matter how often you talk to your hands or mouth-breathe or get in touch with your inner Tinkerbell. You pick up the bricks. You mortar them together on a page. You build a story out of them. And that's it. The sweaty, nerve-wracking, non-glittery, unglamorous, orc-free work of writing.

Wait, I think my left hand finally wants to say something to me. It's curling over . . . it's lifting up one finger . . . hey!


  1. What was the book so that we can avoid it?

  2. What? No rohirrim and paladins and magical artifacts? I think I'll quit that career...

    But Im' glad you, too, still read "how to" books. I just picked up "The Art of War for Writers" and so far I think I have the approach of some old Chinese general to writing... I'm really quite strategic. Which I guess is good. I'm always amazed at all the unecessary anguish"young writers" put themselves they have this deal going on with the universe "if I suffer enough for writing, I will surely make it big".

    Uhm, no, not exactly.

  3. I have a whole shelf full of how-to books, but I find myself re-reading the nuts and bolts ones, and ignoring the fairy dust ones. I'd rather brush up on the best way to handle POV or flashbacks or dialog than read about what a sensitive snowflake I am.

    Writing is a job. It's the best damn job in the entire universe, bar none, but that's all it is. It's not a holy calling.

  4. Hilarious post!

    Another blogger reviewed a craft book that must've been this same one. Now I'll doubly avoid it! Fairies are for my 4yo daughter.

  5. Oh, so that's why this book isn't done yet. I've been spending too much time on my nebulizer!

    I do think oxygen to the brain helps, but yep, words must be written down. That's why they call it writing.

  6. You mean I've been waiting to get touched with the magic writing wand and it's not going to happen?

  7. This is hilarious! I wonder what it means if you only use a computer keyboard for you use one hand to type to write down your questions? Because Lord knows if I had to actually write with my left hand, I'd never be able to know what it wanted to tell me. It's not very good at writing, I'm afraid.

  8. I really had to laugh at the right and left hand comments. Mine talk to each other, yes they do! They accuse each other all the time for developing the arthritis that makes them ache. So far though, their creativity has been nil.

    I have only three or four books on writing. More than that and I get way too confused. So I think I'll skip this one too.

  9. Every book on writing gives value, even if it is only to create a baseline that other books on writing can be judged against. Good, bad or fluffy does not matter unless the reader thinks they are the one and only way to write.
    - If you are going to read only one book on writing don't read any of them.
    - If you are going to read at least one, then read at least twenty.

  10. Hell, if I tried in with a fricking pen for anything more than a few paragraphs here and there, the only things my hands would tell me would be:


    Book kind of sounds like the little yellow fluff ball in Horton Hears a Who:

    "In my world they eat rainbows and poop butterflies" or something like that.

    Um... that's not reality.

  11. Oh, priceless! Thanks for the laugh this morning!

  12. You know, your "words as bricks" metaphor is really working for me. It's very inspiring to visualize the words already there, lying around in my brain, just waiting for me to grab them and stick them in the right places.

    Plus, it's WAAAY less painful than the "giving birth" metaphor that's been consistently failing me. (I always chicken out right around the time my muse mentions the probable need for an episiotomy.)

    So, thank you for that. :)

  13. The fairies that do all my writing are really offended by this

    Hysterical!! If those things really help anyone to write I am going to be so pissed. That is soooo not how its getting done at my house. Its all about the work.

  14. My favorites are the writing ads that show you down by the ocean with your pad and papers. What they don't tell you is that the sun's so bright you're squinting, the wind is flapping your pages around, you've got sand where you don't want sand to be, and off-screen your husband's ogling the bikinis and the kids want to go back to the hotel and play Mario. Yep, some writing life.

    My favorite writing book is Rita Mae Brown's, not just because of the pretty sensible advice, but her reading list. If you want to be a great author, you have to start with Suetoneous, preferably in the original Latin, and work your way through a couple thousand years of books. I understand where she's coming from, but I doubt anyone ever really did it (or if they did, was capable of writing a coherent sentence).

  15. I've become a recent convert to the Sisterhood of Discipline Builds Momentum. Lilith Saintcrow is Mother Superior. I'm pretty sure you're a member without knowing it, Lynn. Our number one tenet is, "Nobody else is going to write it for you; sit down and shut up." I've plowed through 100p of novel draft in a bit over two weeks following this one simple rule. Only thing that works. ;)

  16. Your allotment of pixie dust is here to fore rescinded by the Thaumaturgic Writers Guild! No wand for you!

  17. You may think this to be shameless self-promotion (it is), but I based my writing book on, well, writing. The thread and needle of craft. It's Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells.

    For what it's worth.


  18. Rachel wrote: What was the book so that we can avoid it?

    Fortunately it's not been published. I occasionally consult on submissions for an editor friend who needs a working writer to test drive how-tos. This one totally crashed and burned, but it was written by a non-writer entity who has never written novel-length fiction. Except this one. :)

  19. Odd. A writer writing about how to write something he/she has never written.

    Ah, if only I could spend my time writing how to do something I've never done! I'm sure that would go over really well!

    Perfect idea: How to Be a Man (by me!)

    Never done it, never will.

    I've read a lot of books on writing, but most are not helpful. Writing Down the Bones told me I needed to write three pages of journal (by hand, not on the computer) every morning, take at least an hour walk every day, and write out my entire life's history before I could go on.

    What did I do? I stopped reading.

  20. I'm laughing. I'm totally with you.Worse than a fiction writing book written by someone who has never written fiction is a workshop taught by the same. Avoid, avoid, avoid. That's my mantra.

  21. Loved this so much, I wrote about it on my blog:

  22. "like a couple truckloads of loose bricks."
    Oh God, yes! that's it exactly!

  23. This may sound weird but most of the final series books I have read are by Nora Roberts. The two i liked the best were Face the Fire from her threes sisters island trilogy and Valley of Silence of her circle trilogy. I will also add honorable mention for Finding the Dream, Red Lily and Key of Valor.

  24. Oooh, I love poorly-written writing books by people I've never heard of. I devour them with morbid fascination and try not to eat or drink at the same time.

  25. You know, I knew that writing was work before I ever started. But it wasn't until after I wrote my book, revised it and then started to revise again (with a word count that is still a little short), did I really begin to experience the personal hell part. Huzzah!


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