Sunday 19 January 2014

Learning to Write - my journey in How To books

IKEA manuals. Mmm.
By Candy Gourlay

My husband often makes fun of me because I like reading instruction manuals. Before I can even begin to take the packaging off a new kitchen appliance or family widget, I'll be poring over the instructions.

I can't help myself. There's something gripping about a good step by step.

So when I became serious about writing novels, I set out to read all the How to Write books I could get my hands on.

In the beginning, I obsessed about the parts that made the whole. Setting, Characterisation, Dialogue, Viewpoint - with viewpoint perhaps the trickiest thing to master.

Viewpoint was chapter two in The Craft of Writing a Novel by Dianne Doubtfire, my first writing bible. No matter how many books you've read, viewpoint (as in first person, third person, omnisicient, etc. - not to be confused with Voice) can be bewildering.

'If this isn't properly understood, the whole edifice of your novel will disintegrate,' Dianne Doubtfire writes. 'Ask yourself whose story it is. The answer to this question is vital to the planning of your book.'

Doubtfire suggests you experiment before deciding what your approach to viewpoint will be. 'Your choice will depend on the kind of novelist you are and on the demands of your story.'

Doubtfire's book had chapters on Planning, Plot, Mechanics of Improvement, Theme ... but as a beginner novelist I remember being entirely focused on isolated components of the novel like character and setting.

Perhaps I wasn't ready to think about my story as a whole yet.

Writing a successful novel demands not only talent and determination but also a high degree of craftsmanship. No textbook can supply talent or determination, but craftsmanship is another matter. The Craft of Novel-Writing by Dianne Doubtfire

The first time I heard of the 'inciting event' was when I read How to Write a Damn Good Novel II by James N. Frey (for some reason, I never did read Part One).

Frey starts by exhorting the writer to transport his or her reader into the 'fictive dream'.

'As a fiction writer, you're expected to transport a reader. Readers are said to be transported when, while they are reading, they feel that they are actually living in the story world and the real world around them evaporates.'

Before this book I often read interviews with authors claiming that they 'wrote for themselves'. Frey made me realize that a novel was a two way thing, a relationship between the author and her reader.

It was also the first time I realised that a novel had to be a chain of cause and effect. It was the first time I read the words 'the inciting incident', that initial event that sets the story into motion.

So how do you get the reader from sympathy, identification and empathy to being totally absorbed? The answer: inner conflict ... Inner conflict is the storm raging inside the characters: doubts, misgivings, guilts, remorse, indecision ... It is this participation in the decision-making process, when the reader is feeling the character's guilt, doubts, misgivings, and remorse, and is pulling the character to make one decision over another, that transports the reader. How to Write a Damn Good Novel II by James N. Frey

Skimming through it now, I realize that a lot of this book went over my head. Why? Because at the time, I was doing more reading than writing. It was only when I was immersed in writing that I began to understand what the hell all these How To books were talking about.

It was at about this stage that I bought Story by Robert McKee - a fat book if there ever was one. The introduction was fantastic, with statements in boldface like:

Story is about mastering the art, not second-guessing the marketplace.


Story is about respect, not disdain, for the audience.


Story is about archetypes, not stereotypes.

Brilliant! But the rest of it ... well, I found it hard to read. It dazzled me with jargon - the Structure Spectrum, Character Revelation, Ironic Ascension ... and I'm ashamed to say I gave up and put it aside for a year or three.

I had written three novels before I picked it up again. I'd done some time at the coalface - walked into all the blind alleys, took all the wrong turns, wrote and rewrote the words that refused to come to life. And reading Story again, things that confused me before began to make sense. It turned out that practical experience was necessary to really get the most out of the book.  I had found another bible but I had needed to live my craft before I could make use of it.

'Show don't tell' is a call for artistry and discipline, a warning to us not to give in to laziness but to set creative limitations that demand the fullest use of imagination and sweat. Dramatizing every turn into a natural, seamless flow of scenes is hard work, but when we allow ourselves the comfort of 'on the nose' narration we gut our creativity, eliminate the audience's curiosity, and destroy narrative drive. Story by Robert McKee

Even though I wasn't ready to read McKee, I was learning a hell of a lot from other books.

I had a major eureka moment while reading Solutions for Novelists by Sol Stein. It might seem obvious to some of you but it wasn't obvious to me then that a novel is an unfolding. What you don't reveal will drive the reader to keep reading.

As a journalist, I had been trained that it was imperative to state the 'So What' of a news story within the first paragraphs. I had to forget all that.

'The engine of fiction is somebody wanting something and going out to get it,' says Stein. 'And if you let him get it right away, you're killing the story.'

If you build a scene, don't let the reader's emotions rest. Salt your buildup with ominous detail. At the end of each chapter, be sure you are thrusting the reader forward to the next chapter, then don't take the reader where the reader wants to go. Solutions for Novelists by Sol Stein

I am embarrassed to admit that it took me a long, long time to face the fact that I needed to learn how to plot. How I wish I'd started thinking about plot earlier. It would have saved me a lot of years of aimless writing.

I thought I understood plotting. I thought my years as a reader had taught me all I knew. Plotting was story wasn't it?

But there was more to plotting than I thought and I only really focused on figuring it out when I attended a workshop taught by Lee Weatherly on writing synopses.

Lee was trying to show us how easy it was to write a synopsis if we simply built the synopsis on the framework of the three acts of our story.

Lee showed us a  graph that looked something like this one I found on Sara Wilson Etienne's website.

What's missing in this diagram is somewhere near the peak should be labelled 'the rug-pulling moment'

Three acts? What three acts? If I had read Story by Robert McKee, I would have known by then that novels and screenplays were built in acts. And I would have know about rising tension, that the stakes had to become higher with every scene. That at some point, the character reaches a crisis - Lee called it a 'rug-pulling moment' - when everything seems lost.

It took Lee Weatherly's diagram to tell me that I needed to get on top of plotting.

I bought Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. 

Bell starts the book with his own journey story. He was a lawyer with an itch to write novels. But he decided he couldn't write because he was told 'Writing cannot be taught'.

But the itch wouldn't go away so he set out systematically to learn the craft. And discovered that 'Writing cannot be taught' was a big lie. Because he was learning.

It was through Bell's brilliant book that I learned about the three act structure, about how you move from one act to another the way you move through doors - doors of no return. And I learned that if a reader is to read on, stakes must rise, things must get worse.

Fiction is forward moving. If you frontload with backstory - those events that happened to the characters before the main plot - it feels like stalling. Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell

Thinking about plot led me to 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias. There are lots of books that try to reduce plots to the lowest common denominators - they say all the stories in the world can be reduced to seven basic plots, or ten, or 12 ...

'The trick for any author is to find out what works for him and then do it. The same is true when it comes to plot,' Tobias says. 'How many plots are there? The real question is, "Does it really matter how many plots there are?" Not really. What matters is your understanding of the story and how to create a pattern of plot that works for it.'

I was after a quick fix when I was looking at books about plot. I chose Tobias' book because of the simplicity of his structure. He would outline the basics of a particular plot structure and then provide a checklist on how to develop the story. The checklist for the maturation (coming of age) plot for example includes the following:

1. Create a protagonist who is on the cusp of adulthood, whose goals are either confused or not yet clarified.
2. Make sure the audience understands who the character is ... before an event occurs that begins the process of change.
3. Contrast your protagonist's naive life (childhood) against the reality of an unprotected life (adulthood

... and so on.

It sounds stupid and obvious, reading it like this. But when you're immersed in creating a story, you are easily overwhelmed by the world of your imagination.

These books have transformed me as a writer and yet I haven't been a loyal friend to them, hiding their covers when I'm reading them in public places - because it's embarrassing isn't it, to be seen with a How To book in public. It's an admission of ignorance - you're no author, you're a  learner.

Ah, but allow me to quote Neil Gaiman quoting his friend Gene Wolfe for the nth time on the subject: 'You never learn to write a novel.  You only learn to write the novel you're on.'

Anyone who is setting out to write a book asks herself, 'What is my story?'

We could always use a little help finding the answer to that question.

Visit my author blog on - in my latest post, The Writer is You, I ask why it's so hard to give others permission to pursue their passions.


  1. Thanks for this , Candy. When a writer like you admits to liking how-to manuals, I feel less embarrassed about my Shelves of Shame. You'd think I should know after an MA - pah. All I know is how little I know.

    1. I love them but on the tube I am careful to conceal the cover behind a packet of ham.

  2. I love 'How To' books. They reassure me when I'm feeling wobbly.

    1. I'm always fearful that I'm being led down a cookie cutter path ... but as McKee says: archetypes not stereotypes!

  3. I read instructions carefully when I buy something new, but am not much into "how to write " books, though I do have a few, which make some useful suggestions. Reading a how-to book means I'm delaying the writing itself. I do like one writer's chapter on writer's block. She suggested loosening it by writing something beginning with "I remember..." You can't very well be blocked on this. Mostly, I like introductions by Stephen King and other writers, such as Roger Zelazny, who had himself got a writing idea from Hemingway.

    1. I know what you mean. But the more you write the more you discover what you don't know and I think these books accelerated the process for me.

    2. My own revelation is that with the best books like Story by McKee, I had to (1) be truly writing and (2) I had to be at an advanced stage of development as a writer before I could truly get it.

  4. Great list, Candy, thanks. I'll definitely fill some of the gaps on my How To shelf with your recommendations. I bought John Yorke's 'Into The Wood' after Hillary Mantel mentioned his name recently. Lots of good stuff in there, too.

    1. I've got that book too! Haven't had time to read it yet though!

    2. Definitely one for fans of the genre, rather than beginners, as it kind of amalgamates ideas.

  5. There are some wonderful books out there and I too find them a comfort read at times. However, I think it's really important that before you start writing you FORGET EVERYTHING in them. Just write. The technical stuff will be there in your sub-conscious, now it's time to let your own voice flow.

    1. To be fair though I haven't actually read a How To book properly for a few years. I've been too busy actually writing books. But I heartily recommend skilling up before anyone gets on with that opus. Saves time.

  6. What a fab list, Candy. I had the opposite approach to you - I wrote for years and only in the last couple of years have I picked up a 'How to' book - none of the ones on your list, but Stephen King's 'On Writing', Dorothea Brande's 'Becoming a Writer', and Anne Lamott's 'Bird by Bird' - all very wonderful and very different books.

    1. Thanks, Abi - I loved Stephen King's On Writing but it came too late for my particular learning to write arc/ Have just acquired Dorothea brande's Becoming a Writer ... and thanks for the heads up about Bird by Bird which I haven't come upon before.

  7. This is a great post! I've got Bell’s book already but have added 20 Master Plots to my to-buy list. I find that reading How To books fuels my imagination and suddenly I'll come up with a great character when I should have been reading about endings!

    1. I've always read them in dribs and drabs according to the need of the moment!

  8. Great list, Candy! I'm currently reading Dorothea Brande and have several of the books you mention, as well as currently on a Creative Writing MA. Phew! Am feeling like Jackie - if you try to hold too much in your head, you become so self-conscious you never write anything. But those books are great for 'foggy' moments. (PS - loved to read Philip Ardagh's review of Shine in Saturday's Guardian. Congrats!)

  9. Ooh, Candy - a review by Philip Ardagh in The Guardian?! How fantastic! Congratulations!! Am going to find that right away. And loved this post too - totally agree with what you say about the how to books accelerating the learning of the craft, but you have to be doing the craft for the books to be really valuable. Thank you for another great post.

  10. How apt and timeous! Before plunging into my rewrite, I'm devouring "how to" books - reading Plot and Structure, and How to Write a Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. Have read 20 Master Plots and Story is in the pile - though looks daunting! I'm having a lot of "Aha!" moments! Thanks for a great post!


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