My favourite books, Writing

Why I am allergic to most ‘how to’ books on writing

No Plot? No Problem! book cover
… except this one!

I have an admission to make: ‘how to’ writing books make me feel a bit queasy.

You know the ‘classics’ you’re supposed to read? The ones that talk about grammar and style, and how to psychoanalyse your characters to within an inch of their lives?

I have tried to read them. But two chapters in I am overcome with a mind-numbing boredom that drains the life-force out of me. And then I can’t move.

Everyone’s different but for me, these books suck the fun out of writing. Reading them fills me with the kind of joy and exuberance I reserve for filling in my tax return.

For years I saw this as Irrefutable Evidence that I was not, and never would be, a writer. ‘What kind of writer are you? You can’t even read a book about writing without going all weird. You suck. Big time!’

But I’ve come to realise that a) that narky voice can go take a running jump and b) there is a certain type of writing book I can read without actually wanting to vomit.

These books are less ‘How To…’ and more ‘Listen, I’m with you on this, buddy. I feel your angst, I feel your pain, but I’m telling you, there’s a way through this. And darn it, I’m going to take you by the hand and show you it’s possible for writing to be FUN again!’

These are the kind of books that make me want to weep with relief and hug the author.

And the reason I’m writing this post is because I have just finished reading a supreme example.

No Plot? No Problem! is written by Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month – I always wondered what it meant!). If you haven’t read this book yet, I implore you to do so. For it will fill you with the glorious feeling that writing is fun and sexy and eminently do-able.

Chris’s theory is that the biggest stumbling block for writers is not lack of talent or lack of plot but lack of a deadline. By writing “quickly and intensely” (e.g. writing a novel in one month as part of NaNoWriMo), the “roar of adrenaline” drowns out the self-critical voice which usually makes things such a slog for us. Our writing may not set the literary world’s pants on fire, but we will at least have something to work with:

“When your novel first peeks its head into the world, it will look pretty much like every newborn: pasty, hairless, and utterly confused. This is the case not matter how talented you are, or how long you take to coax the thing into existence. Novels are simply too long and complex to nail on the first go-round. Anyone who tells you differently is a superhuman literary cyborg, and should not be trusted.”

Chris sums up his novel-writing technique in two words: “Exuberant Imperfection”:

“The first law of exuberant imperfection is essentially this: The quickest, easiest way to produce something beautiful and lasting is to make something horribly crappy… In the context of novel-writing, this means you should lower the bar from “bestseller” to “would not make someone vomit.” (Vomit seems to be a theme of this post.)

Seriously, I think I may have to marry this guy! (Though he lives in America and I’m pretty sure he has a girlfriend. But glossing over these trivial facts…) Throughout the book you know he’s with you. He cares. He understands. He’s been through the same frustration and self-doubt and found a way to make sense of it all. And so can you.

There are lots of great lines, such as:

“The fear of doing things imperfectly turns what should be fun, creative endeavours into worrisome tasks… [it’s] like trying to ride a bicycle uphill while towing a rhinoceros in a wagon behind you.”

That’s exactly how it feels!


“Liberated from the constraints of writing a pretty and proper novel, we are free to run, naked and whooping, through the valley of our imaginations.”

“Write your joy, and good things will follow.”

“If you spend enough time with your characters, plot simply happens.”

“You’ll be surprised by the quirky plot twists and inspired characters you come up with when you stop worrying so much about being innovative.”

It’s not just a book of feel-good statements, it’s a practical book with a down-to-earth, “just write the damn thing!” message. And there’s a blueprint for doing this.

I could go on but I won’t. Just buy the book. It will make you want to write, I promise.

4 thoughts on “Why I am allergic to most ‘how to’ books on writing”

  1. Thanks Katherine I will check it out. Sounds like the type of book I need I am sure it will be beneficial. I’ll draw the line at wanting to marry him though. Yes it’s me Phil x


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