I’m mentoring a graduate student in writing right now, and together she and I have put together a course on worldbuilding. In addition to having her read several SF/Fantasy novels that demonstrate various approaches to creating worlds or embedding magic systems in our own world, I have also assigned some reading in a couple of books on writing.
No, I didn’t assign her any readings in the Magical Words How-to — it always bothered me when my college professors did that; I believe it’s unethical. Instead, I assigned her several chapters in Melissa Scott’s Conceiving the Heavens: Creating the Science Fiction Novel and Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. But while I didn’t have her read the Magical Words book, it did occur to me as I was working on the syllabus just how many books on writing are out there. In our genre alone, you can find, in addition to our book and the two I assigned, books by Gardner Dozois, Stanley Schmidt, James Gunn, Paul Di Filippo, and R.A. Salvatore, to name just a few. There are several collections of essays on writing in our field, as well as a series of books edited by Ben Bova (of which the Stanley Schmidt volume is a part). And I haven’t even mentioned two of the most famous titles at least tangentially connected to our genre — Stephen King’s On Writing, and super-agent Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel. Add in books about writing in other genres or geared for generalists (including the Eudora Welty book Edmund mentioned in Friday’s post), and you’ve got enough instructional texts out there to keep an aspiring writer reading for so long that she’ll never actually WRITE anything.
As a founder and dedicated contributor to this site, and a co-author of How To Write Magical Words, I would never tell you that instructional sites and books are useless. They’re not. But I would caution anyone who is buying such a book or even subscribing to our site to keep his/her expectations realistic. You can memorize every word of Donald Maass’s book, but doing so won’t guarantee that your first or fifth or tenth or hundredth novel will actually “break out.” You could read all of the books I mentioned, devoting a year or two of your life to doing nothing but studying the techniques and recommendations of every writer and editor represented on that list, and still not figure out how to write that novel burning a hole in your chest. Or, conversely, you might ignore every How-To title ever written and still manage to create the next Hugo and/or Nebula winning title in SF/Fantasy.
There is no one right way to do any of this. I know you’ve heard that one before, but it seems particularly relevant for this conversation. No one writer can tell you everything you need to know about writing. “Writers” claiming otherwise (and I’m not implying that any of the authors I’ve mentioned do this) don’t know what they’re talking about. You can read several books and find yourself receiving contradictory advice. In fact, you can read just OUR book and receive contradictory advice, which is sort of the point. Because as we know, (everyone join in) There Is No One Right Way To Do Any Of This.
So then is there really any use in reading an instructional book on writing? Absolutely. Again, the key is not to expect too much. Reading about the creative processes of other people can be enormously useful. Those of you who come to this site every day or every few days know this. The point, though, is not to have any one or two or six people tell you how to write. Rather, the point should be to get you thinking about your own creative process. In other words, the value of these books (and of this site) rests in the conversations they spark, the self-reflection they inspire.
No one can teach you to write your book. No one can whisper secrets in your ear and turn you into the next J.K. Rowling. Art doesn’t work that way. (And, may I add, thank goodness!) But if reading Melissa Scott gets you to think about worldbuilding in a new way, that’s fantastic. If Stephen King’s words about writing lead you to an epiphany about your own character work, then the book was a steal no matter the price you paid for it. If something in How To Write Magical Words helps you establish a working relationship with an agent or editor, then all of us who contributed to the book will feel that we’ve done our jobs.
There is also a flip side to all of this, the dirty secret that the authors of writing How-To books don’t want you to know: The similarities among all of these books far — FAR — outweigh the differences. I’ve been reading the Scott and Card books along with my student, and I’ve been amazed by how much Melissa Scott (a progressive, openly gay woman who writes almost exclusively hard SF) and Orson Scott Card (a socially conservative mormon man who writes fantasy and comparatively soft SF) have in common when it comes to their writing technique. Their novels are nothing alike; their processes on the other hand are more similar than not. I’ve noticed as well, that their advice sounds a lot like what we MWers offer in our book and posts. There may not be any one right way to do this stuff, but there are several well-trod paths.
Which brings me to my final point. If instructional books about writing are most useful for the discussions they prompt, if there is value in thinking about writing collectively, in sharing ideas and methods, then it follows that ALL of us have something to contribute to those conversations. And so I would ask all of you to teach me something about writing today. What is the single most important thing that you have learned about what you do when you sit down to write? It doesn’t have to be something you learned here at MW. In fact, it would be far more valuable to me if it wasn’t. (And, after all, it is all about me . . .) Imagine that a writer with less experience than you have has just asked you for a single piece of writing advice. What would you tell that person?David. B. Coe http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://magicalwords.net
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