A "How To" Book for Writing

Another CRAP Writing Book

I want to devote a post to something I’m seeing a lot lately – something which disturbs me profoundly.

Of my many writing peeps, there are many who seem overly devoted to books on writing: they buy  10 to 20 of them, highlight them to death, and then insist that those books are the gospel on how writers should write.

OK, peeps – you heard it here, first:

All those books on WRITING (and publishing, and brainstorming), are JUST LIKE all the books on INVESTING. And basically, depending on how you use them, both types of books can turn out to be absolute CRAP and hinder you in your goals.

There. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Another CRAP Investing Book

Another CRAP Investing Book

Now before any of you leave me a bunch of flaming comments, let me explain. I have nothing against books on writing or books on investing. They fill a need for folks who would like to know more about their subjects, to get an understanding of general principles of writing (or finance), and perhaps prepare themselves before they take the plunge into unknown territory. And that’s great – no problem.

Here’s the issue: whether if it’s a book on writing, or investing, or whatever, following any of these books to the letter will NOT help you reach your goals. Instead, I’ve seen people become so concerned with “How do I conform to this model?” that they become paralyzed with inaction. They question themselves so much that they’re unable to reach they’re goals.

So here’s my argument. Books on writing are just like books on investing because:

  • Their subjects are so complex, the books can only spell out their subject matter’s most basic principles (like, “write about what interests you” or “buy low, sell high)
  • They do not – and CANNOT – take into account the fact that people get published (or make their millions) due to a lot of trivial little factors like timing, luck, networking, etc. And they can’t take this into account because if they did, you’d realize their books were NEVER going to get you published OR get you rich, and you wouldn’t buy them
  • Nobody ever, EVER made their millions SOLELY by reading them – whether that’s in publishing or investing
  • The people who write these books DO make millions from them, and they’re the ONLY PEOPLE who do
  • For every major principle these books list, there are untold numbers of people who did quite well for themselves in spite of being contrarian and doing the exact opposite of these books’ recommendations

Want proof? Think of some famous examples from the writing world.

Edict: Never start with backstory. Start as far into the action as possible. Contrarian examples: Memoirs of a Geisha, Outlander

Edict: Don’t insert too much detail. Trim detail wherever possible, or break it up into smaller units. Contrarian examples: The Name of the Rose, The Illuminator, The Namesake

Edict: Don’t have a prologue. Contrarian examples: The Name of the Rose (again), then look at Prefaces and Prologues of Famous Books

Edict: Never begin with a dream sequence. Contrarian example: The Wedding Dress

Edict: Never begin with a flashback. Begin with action. Contrarian example: The Kite Runner

And there are tons of other examples (for each of the other edicts).

How about those books on investing? What do they say? How about:

Edict: Try and time the market so that you buy low and then sell high. Contrarian example: People constantly get SPANKED from trying to do just that, because you can NEVER know what is the rock-bottom “low” or the maximum stock price (the “high.”)

Edict: Diversify your holdings in order to minimize risk. Contrarian example: If you thought “diversifying” meant that you held 15 different stocks, or even 15 different mutual funds, you got SPANKED once more – because most stocks tanked.

Edict: Blue chip stocks are low-risk. Contrarian examples: Ever heard of Enron, Tyco, WorldCom? GM? Hello?

Edict: Real estate is one of the best investments. Contrarian example: Please don’t make me explain this unless you just landed from Mars.

In writing there are some general principles that are good to be aware of and to check yourself against. And it’s certainly true thatyou should always ask yourself how you might improve upon what you do. But at some point, realize that you are the one responsible for your work. It’s your voice, your vision, your story. And only you can be responsible for it.

And maybe that’s the real problem with the way some of us use these books. We can’t diffuse that responsibility. But darned if we don’t try.