Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

The Best Book About How To Write is Free (yay free)

I have some strong opinions about “How To” books by and for writers. One opinion, really: They usually do more harm than good. They contain opinions from authors about what worked for those particular authors on the particular books those authors wrote. Which would be great, if those authors had time machines and could send copies of their “How To” books to themselves twenty years ago. As guides for the rest of us, though, they usually suck.

Using the time machine and sending “here’s how you will write” books to themselves would still probably do more harm than good. The process that got them to the level of success that warrants a “How To” book certainly included about a million valuable mistakes. It also probably involved a lot of reading—real books, with well-developed characters, interesting plots, and compelling dialogue, instead of douchey how to manuals. Novels that showed them what good writing is, instead of telling them how to construct the “Next Bestseller” or a “Blockbuster Novel.” A compelling narrative is not an IKEA bookshelf, and no assembly manual will ever tell anyone – other than the person who wrote it – how best to assemble it.

Outlining is an example I’ve used before. Ken Follett advises a complex 25-40 page chapter-by-chapter outline, including plotted biographies of each character. Stephen King, on the other hand says an outline “freezes it, it takes what should be a liquid, plastic, malleable thing to me and turns it into something else.” He’s even gone so far as to say, “it’s the difference between going to a canvas and painting a picture and going out and buying a Craftsmaster paint-by-the-numbers kit.”

Who’s right? Both are, with respect to how they should write. Neither is, with respect to how anyone but Ken Follett and Stephen King should write. If he hates doing it, Stephen King is not going to write a better novel if he’s forced to create a forty-page outline first. Ken Follett obviously works best with that kind of preparation and structure. The Pillars of the Earth would not improve if Follett decided to say “what the hell” and just start winging it.

[Note to Mr. King: Writing your own outline is not like buying a kit someone else created. By your estimation, every finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in the last two years and virtually every Nobel Laureate do “paint-by-the-numbers” fiction. The difference is more akin to doing a sketch before putting the brush to canvas, which hacks like da Vinci and Rembrandt did, than paint-by-the-numbers, which kindergarteners do between naptime and snack.]

The best book a person can read to learn how to write is the fifty best books in her genre. Period. There is no substitute for doing that. Even to the extent there are worthwhile things to learn from books about writing, getting any real value out of them requires that you already be immersed in good writing. If you aren’t immersed in the craft itself, books discussing it theoretically aren’t going to do jack shit for your writing.

The First Five Pages is a fine book, but until you’re ready to conceive and give birth to a novel, it won’t do you much good. Self Editing for Fiction Writers is certainly a helpful, hands-on craft guide, if you’ve created something to edit. Save the Cat and Scene & Structure certainly explain how to structure a narrative, but without the formed context of what your own narrative should be, the result will be more akin to what King was warning about than anything Rembrandt ever produced. After immersing yourself in the specific type of book you want to write, the core elements and themes should become self-evident—with or without a handy checklist of core elements and themes.

But I promised a recommendation,

and I intend to deliver. Not a douchey “all” (Here’s a list of 500 novels I think everyone should read) or “nothing” (Craft books? We don’t need no stinkin’ craft books”) recommendation. An honest-to-god recommendation.

Some of you know me well enough to know what I’m going to say. If you found this blog because “Michael J. McDonagh” is the number one result when you Google “Anton Chekhov’s bitch” you’ve probably got a pretty good idea as well.

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Physician, comedy writer, grandson of a serf (read: Tsarist Russian slave), and master of the short story, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov provided the most helpful and useful writing advice I have ever found anywhere. Not just “write with your heart” platitudes, either. Direct, craft-oriented advice. Advice that could never come from someone fattening her wallet or stoking her ego by hawking a book to aspiring writers. Advice that comes almost entirely from letters the patient, dutiful mentor wrote to people he was emotionally invested in. Loving, fatherly advice about how to do something from someone who was a master at doing it himself. Not given as grand proclamations or even for posterity. Straight-up advice to people asking him for help learning to write better.

As a doctor, Chekhov went out of his way to help the poor (who were not particularly hard to find in Tsarist Russia). As a writer, he evolved from a popular “lowbrow” comedic writer to a literary figure as venerated as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. But, always, he studied the craft the way a scientist studies anything, with a deep need to objectively understand the world, even if, as a writer, it was a often world of his own creation.

His letters are fascinating. They are also public domain, which means 100% free (yay, free!). Creighton University has collected many of the key sentences and paragraphs about the craft of writing in one place (so, I guess, “Here’s your How To book”): Anton Chekhov on Writing. If that taste makes you want to read a much larger, less focused, but richer collection, check out either The Letters of Anton Chekhov to his Family and Friends or the Project Gutenberg version of the same book (yes, still public domain, which means, yay, still free).

Even Chekhov’s papers are no substitute for exposing yourself to good writing in a deep, meaningful way. But if you want to experience something that is as close to sitting down for the night with the great masters and a bottle of scotch as any of us are likely to get, buy a bottle of scotch and start reading. Those collections are a goldmine. They are arguably the greatest wealth of writing tips in existence, and completely free.

So there’s my recommendation. Screw all they quasi-mysterious “keys to the craft” bullshit, and read some damn books. Then read how a true master, who isn’t shilling his own crap to make money, talks to an aspirant. It’s concrete stuff, but it isn’t a checklist. Because if the bullshit checklist craft books worked, nobody would write anything but brilliant narratives. Plus all of our books would look the same, and who the hell wants that?

Get back to me when you’ve had a chance to check out those links. I am thinking of expanding the “Anton Chekhov’s Bitches” organization. If that’s not a convention worth flying to, I don’t know what is.

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5 thoughts on “The Best Book About How To Write is Free (yay free)

  1. Thank you very much for posting this. I’m working on the first draft of my first novel and often get discouraged by the number of problems I see in it. I understand that writing crappy stuff and seeing what needs improvement is part of learning to write. However, the sheer number of problems sometimes seems overwhelming, and I can’t wrap my head around how to fix them all in a coherent, well-written way.

    I get even more discouraged when reading the works of great authors in my genre and cannot imagine writing as well as them. It’s pretty jarring to go from reading their polished work to my awkward, flawed first attempt.

    I’ve read a few books on writing but, as you described, many of their recommendations are too formulaic. I just read half of that Creighton page, though, and I like Chekhov’s advice a lot. It sounds very genuine and more broadly applicable than a lot of the books out there.

    I have a question: When reading novels in your genre, do you read carefully and mark them up, always trying to observe and learn from the author’s writing? Or do you just try to enjoy the book and hope to learn by being exposed to these works?

  2. I’ve always thought that, as long as you’re seeing the difference between their more polished work and your own, you’re fine. Maybe not quite there yet, but you know where “there” is, so it’s only a matter of time. The writers that worry me are the ones who don’t feel that frustration because they (incorrectly) believe they’re “there” when they don’t even know where “there” really is. I think we all feel that frustration. At least those of us who know we can do better.

    I’m happy to answer your question, but what works for me may not be what would work best for you, so take it with a grain of salt. I’m a slow reader, so I think I’m better off just reading. Paying more attention than a casual reader, certainly, but still just reading and enjoying it. I may read a book with one thing I want to look at (like I recently read Pratchett’s Going Postal primarily to read the way he does omniscient POV), but I don’t make notes about it. I’m better off reading two and paying attention than having a bunch of notes about one.

    Thanks for your thoughts and questions!

  3. Linda on said:

    Thank you for introducing me to Chekhov! I think I’m in love. I’ve bookmarked his “advice” and am now reading through his letters. So far, I’m partial to the ones to his siblings…but, I’ve got many more to go. So much to learn. Again, thank you!

  4. I am so happy you’re enjoying them! It’s such an incredible resource. That combination of beautiful artist/brilliant scientific mind discussing our craft in personal hands-on advice to people he cared about just can’t be beat, on any level.

  5. Hey Michael, after following your blog and enjoying your posts, I’ve decided to nominate you for the Liebster Award. Please visit the link for information. Congrats 🙂 http://endlessedits.wordpress.com/

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