A Writer’s Guide to Writing Guides

By Gwen Florio

Each time I start writing a new book, I drag out a bunch of old books.

I’ve read them again and again, but – faced with the dreaded blank screen, making one excuse after another to avoid those first keystrokes – they’re the literary equivalent of security blankets. Read us, they whisper, and the words will flow.

Even though I know better. The damn words never flow, and besides, that’s not what those books say. Each tells me, in slightly different ways, to get off my ass and write, with focus, with intention, with professionalism.

I’m talking about books on writing, the ones to which I repeatedly turn both for inspiration and consolation, books that set me straight when my plot starts wandering, and reassure me that first drafts are, indeed, shitty, and that that’s okay.

I’ve got a shelf full, some dating back nearly a quarter-century, when I first got serious about writing; others more recently acquired. Some I’ve dipped into and set aside; others I’ve read once and never again.

And then there’s the A Team, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (“Shitty First Drafts,” p. 21) and Stephen King’s On Writing (“Don’t Wait for the Muse,” p. 157.)

I already know both those things. My first drafts practically steam, they’re so shitty. And I’ve learned that if I just put fingers to keyboard, eventually my manuscript will lurch forward, despite my deepest misgivings.

But it’s nice to be reminded; hence, my obsessive return to those books. I’ve got multiple copies of each, stashed in safe places that guarantee I won’t be able to find them when a new manuscript awaits.

There are more, of course, and I take something different from each one. Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art introduced me to the crucial concept of Resistance. Actually, Resistance and I are old friends. But it was nice to put a name to my foot-dragging and insecurity and thousand reasons to avoid writing and, more to the point, avoid writing well. And not just to berate myself for said Resistance, but to declare war on it!
Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, clearly isn’t named at novelists, but it has a lot to say about propelling a story forward. Similarly, on the over-the-top enthusiastic advice of friends, I recently picked up Story Genius by Lisa Cron.

Cron was a tough sell, mainly because in her first chapter she takes aim at my cherished traditions, the myths – myths, she calls them! – of pantsing and shitty first drafts. After my ego recovered, her book made great good sense. Cron basically bludgeons her readers with the obvious: No matter how supple the writing, no one will read your book if you don’t give them a good story.

Likewise, if you spin a great story, they won’t give a hoot about even truly terrible writing. As painful proof, Cron cites 50 Shades of Grey (“There’s no way to pretty up the fact that Anastasia Steele, the spunky heroine, says ‘Holy crap’ forty times,” p. 21), with its more than 100 million copies in print.

Cron walks a reader/writer through the process of getting to a good story and bypassing the craptastic first draft. I don’t know. I kind of like my wandering approach, which leads me down to dead ends, sure, but during which I also stumble across some terrific discoveries that rocket my plot forward. That said, the longer I do this, the more planning I do going in. You know – the whole professionalism thing.

Which, in the end, is probably why I turn to the writing guides, each by someone who cared deeply enough about writing to help other people do it right. They remind me that this is a serious business, not to be diminished by shilly-shallying.

Finally, a daily bit of inspiration came from a note that Octavia Butler wrote to herself. It’s taped up beside my writing chair.

“I will be a bestselling author…” it begins. “This will be my life … I will find the way to do this. So be it! See to it!”

Well? I imagine her saying. What are you waiting for? Then I get to work.

Gwen Florio is a veteran journalist whose Reservations, the fourth novel in her Lola Wicks series – called “gutsy” by the New York Times – will be released in March.

To learn more about Reservations, click on the cover below: