‘If abundant instruction would make us into novelists, the people of England ought to be a Nation of Fieldings’

Sara Bailey

‘If abundant instruction would make us into novelists, the people of England ought to be a Nation of Fieldings’ (Daily News, London 1895 – Review of How to Write Fiction).

From the above it can be seen that ‘How to Write’ books have been around for some time and have, it seems, been critiqued by reviewers with much scepticism. However this doesn’t seem to have hindered sales or reduced their popularity. So what is it the reader is looking for? And who is the reader?

None of the texts used in this study have promised outright to teach the reader how to write, although many infer that they can make your life richer, in much the same way that a diet book suggests that if you buy it you will lose weight and be a happier person.

Julia Cameron’s books are a classic example of the ‘Self Help’ creative writing book. They are loosely based on a twelve step recovery programme (used by alcoholics and addicts) and suggest that the reader has lost their creative way and needs to be ‘rediscovered’ as an artist, and that by implication, they will also discover themselves as a useful and active members of society. There are many references to God or the ‘Great Creator’ and the book unashamedly declares itself as ‘a spiritual path, initiated and practiced through creativity.’1Michelene Wandor’s article ‘Creative Writing and Pedagogy1: Self Expression? Whose Self and What Expression?’ sees this therapeutic approach to Creative Writing as problematic (to say the least) as it becomes entwined with the spiritual development of the writer, and that ‘one must recover into and through creativity, and thus be ‘healed’ – implying that students of writing must, by definition, be ‘ill’ in this way.’2

Like all ‘Self Help’ books, which is where most of these texts can be found in bookshops, the ‘How to Write’ book is dependent on a catchy, exciting and seductive title. A good example of this is ‘How to Write a Blockbuster’ which is published by Teach Yourself and has a good serious look to it, with a front cover that shows a label clearly marking out the content in bullet points which are:

  • Choose the right genre for you
  • Learn the secrets of best-selling writing
  • Find out how to get published

The authors declare their credentials on the back of the book, one is the ‘founder of Cornerstones, a leading3 literary consultancy’ and the other is ‘an editorial consultant and author of a number of teenage novels.’

The prospective writer having been persuaded to buy the book by the vaguely academic look of the front cover, and a contents box which also includes, as well as the bullet points, the headings, ‘Goal – satisfaction and success’, and ‘Category – Creative Writing’. The back of the book asks if, “you would like to be the next Dan Brown4? Write pacy action and tips on finding an agent and a publisher.” The authors have declared themselves as authorities on the subject who must know the craft and understand how to convey the secrets of writing a book to the fledgling author due to their professions as Literary Consultant and Author.

The reader opens the first pages and reads the forward, and there it is - the ‘get out’ clause.

“ While this book isn’t prescriptive to producing a blockbuster - after all, a book only becomes one once it begins to sell successfully – it does aim to explore how to write sparkling commercial fiction, and then how to submit it to agents and publishers in a professional way. You should always aim high and strive to perfect what you have, for although talent can’t be taught, it can be honed and shaped.” p.xii5

There is a semantic argument here about the difference between being taught/learning and teaching yourself.

‘Bestseller Secrets of Successful Writing’ by Celia Brayfield, is another highly commercial book of the genre. Written by a successful author6, it doesn’t attempt to appear in any way scholarly; the tone is much more chatty - ‘how I did it’. As the advice and tips in this book are given by a best selling novelist, the reader/potential author may well feel that this is a more useful text. After all, who better than a successful novelist to tell you how to write a bestseller? Because isn’t that the bottom line? However much we try to side step this issue, the huge growth in Creative Writing courses (both in universities and community colleges) and the proliferation of ‘How to Write books’ has to be related in part to media coverage of large advances given to bestselling authors. After all, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."
Samuel Jonson , Boswell: Life7 and we live in an age where we have been encouraged that it is not ‘genius’ that is needed, but simply the desire.

Celia Brayfield also has her ‘get out’ clause (just in case your desire isn’t strong enough) and these clauses begin to look like a legal requirement by publishers.
‘To write this book, I analyzed what I do when I write a novel. Because there is much comparison of methods among writers, I know that we are all different. What I find easy, others find hard; what I find awesomely clever, others find commonplace. There is a classical structure to most stories, which this book defines, but there is no one way to interpret it, only the way you choose. There is no one way to write a book, only the way that will work for you. This book is designed to help you find that way.’ 8

This is an acknowledgement that the book cannot make you into a bestselling author, perhaps not even into a writer of any sort, as there are things the potential author will need to bring to the process. Which brings me to the more practical collection of ‘How to Write’ books. I love these, they have an ‘under the counter’ feel to them of illicitness – which is difficult to explain. Perhaps it is because there is absolutely no attempt by the authors or the publishers and marketing departments to make these look anything like a serious texts, they come with workbooks and are not written by any authors seen on general fiction shelves – in fact many of the authors seem to be agents or business people who are turning their management skills towards the creative market. These books are so obviously sensationalist in their marketing9 – the larger than a paperbook size, the bright colours, the emotive or quantitive titles ‘Writing the Breakout Novel: Hands on help for making your novel stand out and succeed’. ‘Writing for Dummies’ cartoons AND bright yellow. ‘First Draft in 30 Days’, bright yellow and green with dates scattered across, and ‘No Plot? No Problem’.

This last book is part of the Creative Writing phenomenon that appears on the internet every November is the NaNoWriMo, or National Write a Novel in a Month. Created by Chris Baty in America in 1999. Since then it has become international and you can see would-be novelists tapping away at laptops at the Festival Hall and British Library all through November. Last year the event was widely publicized in the media, and various authors and agents either supported or decried it. One agent, in an echo of the 19th century reviewers of ‘How to Write Fiction’ openly bemoaned the encouragement of people with no talent to think they could write books, simply by sitting down and doing it!10 She declared her dread of the prospective slush pile this activity would create and condemned the entire exercise as a waste of time and begged the public not to suffer any delusions that a readable novel of any sort could be written in a month.

Two years ago, I devised a course based on Chris Baty’s method. The plan was to use his method as a basis for teaching and guiding a group of students through the process of writing a first draft in a month, and to work alongside them writing a first draft of a novel as well. The course booked up very quickly. That promise of having the whole thing done in a month was such a great selling point. We all want time related goals!

By this time, Chris Baty had caught on to the marketability of his idea and written a book - ‘No Plot? No Problem’ A low-stress, high-velocity guide to writing a novel in 30 days.11 The book could also be bought with a ‘Treasure Chest of Tools, Tips and Righteous Gear to Help you Bash out a Novel in a Month’. The treasure chest was reminiscent of primary school enticements to ‘play’ and included a wall chart with gold stars, a badge, stickers, tips cards and an affidavit for the writer to declare their intention and sign. From this a five-week writing module was based around the aims ‘No Plot?’ outlined, and the wall chart was used to create a worksheet for students to fill out, showing the daily aim of 1,66712 words alongside a column for students to fill in the actual number of words achieved. Some found having the worksheet helpful and encouraging, especially the days they beat the quota, others, who had difficulty keeping up the word count, unsprisingly, found it inhibiting.

During class, the students would spend three 15 minute slots writing and the rest of the class time was spent going through different writing techniques, in much the same way I would do in any Creative Writing class – techniques on narrative and story line, plotting, character, dialogue, use of language, pace and tone. It was a lot to squeeze into five weeks.

Quality vs Quantity

The hardest part was doing the actual writing. Over 1500 words a day is a lot. The only way to do it is to not think too much about what you are actually writing and to just get the words down on the page. This, I discovered, can be an exciting way to work and because I was going through the same process as the students, I began to understand the fears and concerns they had. By keeping a journal of the writing experience and asking the students to report back each week on their progress, I noticed that the first anxiety was ‘is this any good?’ How could it be any good written at such speed, with no editing and no planning?

It can’t, is the simple answer, and once past that, there is an understand that writing a ‘good’ book isn’t the aim of this process, it is much more about individual writers finding their own voice, discovering the way that they think and write.

By comparing this book to a novel written during and just post the MA in Creative writing, I was able to see my own voice changing dramatically, a much freer looser style was emerging from the process. The plot was frankly ridiculous and characters appeared and disappeared without any reason, but there was a storyline emerging and there was drama. Students who persisted and kept up the word count were finding the same thing, and by week three those who were on schedule were beginning to relax and let the words flow.

At the end of the prescribed 50,000 words the ‘book’ was given to a ‘friendly’ agent for comment with the clear understanding that this had been an experiment. The feedback was useful. There was a book there, somewhere – this was very much a first exploratory draft. I wasn’t surprised or disappointed. My expectations hadn’t been to write a publishable novel in a month and I had made it clear that the students shouldn’t have that expectation either. Chris Baty states on the website and in his book that this is a first draft exercise.

But is it more than that? I think it is. Of all the ‘How to Write’ books, this is one of the few that actually says to the reader: ‘sit down and produce this many words today’.13 The pressure of writing something that others want to read is taken away.

What has this to do with research and academic qualifications in Creative Writing?

Firstly it is almost directly opposite to what we are doing when we sit down to write for a PhD. When you are producing creative work for the purpose of an academic qualification, you will be doing the best work that you can, which means an ongoing editing process has to take place. The author is now under pressure to write in a prescribed fashion, to feel that their work is adding to a body of knowledge, either by content or style. What does this do to the creative process? The Creative Writing PhD student is going to question constantly what they are writing and refine it over and over and over to make sure it is the best that it can be.

There is nothing wrong with that, but it is not the only way, nor should it be. The books that teach ‘How to Write’ are not on most university reading lists for Creative Writing, because for the most part they are still considered ‘light’ reading and not regarded as helpful. They are not objective accounts of the process, they are not academic, they do not direct the reader to further research or base their beliefs in tested and examined experiments with graded results - they simply haven’t been studied, examined and the results of their precepts and advice quantified. This is the focus of my PhD. The novel that I am writing is a product of the advice and exercises found in a selection of ‘How to Write’ books and I am keeping a journal account of how I feel about the effectiveness of writing processes and exercises prescribed.

Writing to a method

Of the 25 students in the first year of the ‘Write a Novel in a Month’ course, 17 of them completed 50,000 words in 30 days. All of them wrote more than they had ever done in their lives before and over half signed up for further writing courses.
No one read exerts or brought them to workshop. The quality of the writing wasn’t the point – it was the writing – the physical activity that was the aim for all of those people. The process produced people who believed that it was possible for them to tell a story. For me, it gave me access to my own writing ‘voice’. I had no time to think about whether or not it was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or what anyone else thought about it. There was no opportunity to workshop and get feedback, which is what usually happens in a writing class. We simply wrote everything and left the editing to another time.

In complete contrast, Karen S. Wiesner’s ‘First Draft in 30 days’ practically forbids you to write anything remotely creative. This is a book dedicated to the planning of your novel.

‘Imagine you could write the first draft of a novel in only thirty days. Imagine you could figure out how long it would take to complete each step down to the day – that you could set accurate goals that would allow you to maintain a constant momentum in your writing career. Imagine writing quality novels – each and every time – that no editor in his right mind could turn down.’ 14

A big premise. However, the introduction goes on…

‘Not everyone will be able to complete a first draft outline in exactly thirty days on the first try….this method, like all methods requires a sufficient amount of practice.’15 There we are, the ‘get out’ clause. Despite the stress on the number of days each section takes and the overall premise as dictated by the title and front cover of the book, this process will not guarantee results and we didn’t really expect it to. What it does is make suggestions and gives the potential author guidelines and grids to fill in with storylines, character development, research needed etc. In many ways it is like Ewan Marshall’s ‘The Marshall Plan’16 and Donald Maass’ ‘Writing the Breakout Novel.’17

All of these books have Worksheets for the student to fill in which take the writer through the story arc process and encourage them to write backgrounds for all the characters and get to know them inside out; a process that happens in a more organic way when writing a novel straight through. It attempts to quantify the processes involved in creating story. This method can give the potential author a sense of achievement, but it doesn’t actually involve creative writing. Participating in a course based on this method, my observations are that it appeals to the list maker and procrastinator in one. The exercises are stimulating and function around answering questions on story outline. In this respect they are useful, but limiting - there seemed to be no way of just letting things grow naturally. In my research, I have only found two students who completed their outline and then managed to write a book from it, both of whom were working on genre novels for Mills & Boon. This would imply that the formulaic quality of ‘genre’ novels leans more naturally towards this method of pre-planning a novel. I also noted that once they had written their outline both students went straight into a ‘Novel in a Month’ course in order to complete their books.

In conclusion: How useful are these texts? Can they be used by creative writing teachers and students, and is there any way of discerning which are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad’?19 Dismissing them as light reading is too easy and no longer an option. These books have to be taken seriously and researched as part of the body of creative writing literature, not only because of the massive sales they generate but because, like it or not, students of creative writing are reading them.

Notes

1 The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron. (PAN Books. 1994) Page. xi (I will be examining Julia Cameron’s books in more depth in the paper for Bangor Postgraduate Conference June 2008)
2 International J. for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing’, Vol1, No.2 2004. Page118.
3italics mine.
4Not sure if this helps or hinders sales!!
5How to Write a blockbuster, Helen Corner & Lee Weatherby (Hodder, Teach Yourself. 2006)
6By which I mean that she has been commercially successful in the marketplace
7Found on internet site http://www.samueljohnson.com/writing.html
8Bestseller, Celia Brayfield (Fourth Estate 1996) p3
9Who are the target audience for these books? Creative writing students? I don’t think so, despite the proliferation of new BA and MA Creative Writing courses across the country, somehow I don’t think that this is the target audience, after all they tend not to be on course reading lists.
10Carol Blake on Radio 4’s Today Programme.
11No Plot No Problem, Chris Baty (Chronicle Book LLC . 2004)
1230 days times 1,667 is 50,000 words which is the aim of the plan.
13Vikki King also does this in her ‘Write a Movie in 21days’. (Harper Rescource, Qiuill. 2001)
14First Draft in 30 Days: a novel writer’s system for building a complete and cohesive manuscript. Karen S Wiesner (Writers Digest. 2005)
15Ibid p.2/3
16Ewan Marshall’s ‘The Marshall Plan’ (Writers Digest 2001)
17Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass, (Writers Digest 2001)
18Out of a class of 30 students in the first year and 20 in the second.
19There is also the issue raised by Prof. Harper regarding the assumption that writing a novel is a linear experience requiring a process of ‘organised actions’ which is problematic and as any writer knows, not usually the case.

Bibliography

Baty, Chris. No Plot No Problem. (Chronicle Book LLC , 2004)

Brayfield, Celia. Bestseller ( Fourth Estate 1996)

Cameron, Julia. The Artist’s Way (PAN Books, 1994)

Corner, Helen & Weatherby, Lee. How to Write a Blockbuster (Hodder, Teach Yourself , 2006.)

King, Vikki. Write a Movie in 21days. (Harper Rescource, Qiuill. 2001)

Maass, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel, (Writers Digest 2001)

Marshall, Ewan, The Marshall Plan. (Writers Digest 2001)

Marshall, Ewan, Novel Writing, 16 Steps to Success. (A&C Black 2004)

Wandor, M. (2004) Creative Writing and Pedagogy 1: Self Expression? Whose Self and What Expression? New Writing – The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, Vol 1:2, pp. 112-123.

Wiesner, Karen S. First Draft in 30 Days: a novel writer’s system for building a complete and cohesive manuscript. (Writers Digest, 2005)

http://www.samueljohnson.com/writing.html

Copyright Sara Bailey 2008

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