In praise of craft, craft books and the writers who write them

All those craft books. A waste of time? Can anyone—regardless of teaching credentials or editorial experience or millions in books sales—teach me something about writing that I can’t learn just by writing?

For the first few years in which I, nailed to the mast of my internal resources, sought the snowy whale of Writing Fiction Well—emphasis on well—my fiction writing was bad. And if I, in my ignorance, knew it was bad, it was bad. Very bad. Horridly, sickeningly, head-bangingly, why-do-I-even-try atrocious.

I’d occasionally identify a bit of bad by myself and, in trying to correct it, would fish up yet another miscreant from my ocean of fiction-writing intuition. Fortunately I retained the ability to recognize that even my changes, though different, were not for the better.  Desperation brought me to a hard truth: I was a Helen Keller of fiction writing. I needed to have my hand held under the pump while a generous soul spelled into my palm, W-A-T-E-R.

This is, oh so, T-R-U-E.

I can’t say that I now write fiction well—I’ve yet to finish a novel and place it out there for the jury—but I can say, thanks to the souls who’ve gifted us with their knowledge, insight and experience in books on writing well, that my fiction has improved. So has my writing life.

Why do I praise craft books?

  • First, they are their writers, talking to us. And from these been-there-done-that writers, we learn to write better fiction. We truly do.
  • We also discover these writers are inducting us into their society. Their society!  Stephen King, John Gardner, Elizabeth George, Orson Scott Card, Dean Koontz, EM Forster, Ayn Rand, Anne Lamott, John Truby, Robert McKee, Sol Stein and OTHERS are talking to US. They are mentoring us. They are giving us their best. They are urging us on. They care about US. Damn. Who’d have thought?
  • Not only do they induct us into their society, but they enter ours. When we’ve read their words, heard their voices, felt their sincerity, become familiar with their thoughts, moods, and dilemmas once similar to ours, these writers peer over our shoulders while we write; they hover like muses, sometimes—if like Stephen King’s muse—taking a cigar from their mouths and saying, “Yeah, right here, remember what I said about . . .” Once we let these writers into our lives, we never work alone. Who’d have thought?
  • They become our knights and ladies, elves and wizards, unafraid to dive into our seething ids of uninformed intuition and wage battle with our weak and wrong syntax, our adverb infestations, adjective uprisings, our psychotic paragraphs, our monsters-from-Mordor structures. We have a world of good on our side.
  • The magic does not end there. These writers do not always agree. An earlier, less-informed-by-the-greats me would encounter discrepancies in opinion and practice and darn-near run screaming into the wilderness, tearing hair and feeling obliged to decide, to take a side. But I’ve learned. I’ve absorbed from these forbearing souls that what works for one does not necessarily work for everyone. And all of them, except maybe Ayn Rand, admit this. I’ve learned that the craft of fiction-writing is not a camp divided according to experience and opinion, but a body of knowledge that encompasses all methods and opinions and choruses, furthermore, “Good for us.”
  • Back when I began reading books on craft, my intuition, as usual, kicked in and I did feel compelled to take sides. Should I listen to John Gardner or to Leonard Elmore? Does Robert McKee contradict John Truby? Shall I toss Ayn Rand from the collection because she says do not use foreign words and Arthur Plotnik of Spunk and Style says you can? I was dealing in opinions and distinct experiences. I was still operating from my own mind. But, after reading more thoughts on writing by more writers, I stopped noting the differences and began seeing the whole. I moved from an acquisition of discrete facts pertaining to fiction writing to an acquisition of fiction-writing intelligence. T-R-U-E, it may be a rudimentary intelligence, but vastly more than I began with.
  • And good craft books engender gratitude. Also a precious thing.
  • Perhaps even lovelier is I now have shelves filled with souls I love. I smile when I see the photo of Ayn Rand looking like Robert Vaughn of Man from U.N.C.L.E. She tickles me. I think she even tickled herself. I adore John Gardner. His Art of Fiction mapped much of the terrain I must conquer. John Truby and Robert McKee with their insights on structure saved my story. If I didn’t fear burning down my small writing room, I’d light incense to them.

Good books on the craft of writing are well worth their price—about the same as a Big Mac menu and this includes postage if one buys paperback “used-good” from Amazon. All my books were purchased this way and almost without exception none appeared to have been opened before I got my mitts, notations, highlighter and mad kiss imprints all over them.