As anyone who’s ever sat down with a pen and paper (or a keyboard and laptop) could tell you, writing is hard. Aligning words into a legible sentence, then grouping sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into chapters, and so on, in order to craft an interesting story is quite the chore for even the most creative writer.
Now, throw in the complexities of modern life, such as a normal nine-to-five pay-the-bills job, family life, friends, household chores, Twitter, Facebook, blogging and watching reruns of Mad Men. Just like that, writing a screenplay, a novel or your high school chemistry professor’s bio becomes downright impossible.
What’s a writer to do?
First and foremost, what you want to do is maximize what little time you have available to write. Squeeze the most juice out of that orange as possible. When you sit down to write, you don’t want to waste even a minute on a poor sentence or a messed-up plot. You want to grab your pen and have the words to your first NY Times bestseller pour onto the page.
Because of this, nobody could blame you for picking up one of the gazillion how-to books on writing available at your local independant bookstore (yes, support these good folks- that’s an order). Or for signing up for one of the thousands of online courses offered by various websites.
Let’s stop here for a moment – I want you to go to your bookcase and count the number of how-to books about writing you own at the moment. Go ahead, I’ll wait for you.
Well? How many? Five? Ten? Twenty-five? More? And how many of those have you read?
If you have read, say, half of them, you probably came to the same realisation that I did when I read mine.
They are all the same!
Oh, sure, some of them have an interesting twist, like Save the Cat!, but it’s smoke and mirrors, if you ask me.
When it comes down to the actual advice on writing, every book pretty much covers the same basic points. Once you’ve read two or three, you’ve read them all. There’s nothing new being written about writing, no matter what the blurb on the cover may say. Heck, one of the most recommended books on the craft of writing, Aristotle’s Poetics, was written over 2,000 years ago!!
Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that these books can and do serve a purpose. For people who, like myself, don’t call English their mother tongue, how-to books can be a great help in getting you started.
For example, I recently read Stephen King’s On Writing for the second time. I learned a lot about style and grammar and adverbs and editing from this book.
Just as Sol Stein thaught me a lot about conflict.
Here’s where I take issue with these books: when it overtakes whatever writing time we can muster. Instead of writing, rewriting and working through the kinks in our various creative endeavors, we’re lying in bed reading Syd Field’s Screenplay for the twelfth time. Or sitting at a park bench perusing through the doorstopper that is Robert McKee’s story.
This is what I like to call Writing Porn. We know we shouldn’t be reading it. We are aware that it won’t do much for us.
But we can’t help ourselves. We can’t stop.
Think back for an instant to your younger days, when you had to learn new skills. Like riding a bike. Or driving a car. Sure, you had to sit and listen to your father or mother explain how to stay upright, or how to change lanes on the freeway.
But what were you most interested in? Yes – getting on that bike (or behind the wheel) and actually riding your flaming red rocket on two wheels. And when you fell the first time, you got back on and sped off. Until you fell again. You didn’t go back to mom and dad and ask for another lecture.
Writing should be the same way. Yes, you should spend some time learning the main rules of the craft, like screenplay format, for example.
But once you’ve got that figured out, there’s only one thing to do: sit down and write! Get some words on the page, whatever they may be. Sweat it out. Make it hurt.
Pick it up the next day, then the day after that, and so on, until the first draft is done. Once that is done, then you can pick up your manual of choice, whether it be Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules on Writing or The Chicago Manual of Syle, and refer to it as you self-edit your work.
Think of some of the greatest authors still being read and celebrated today. Twain, Austen, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Victor Hugo, and so on. How many of them do you think spent their long afternoons reading how-to books? None of them were members of a writer’s group on Facebook. I’m pretty sure F. Scott Fitzgerald never intended to sign up to James Patterson’s MasterClass seminar.
Quentin Tarantino is one of this era’s most critically acclaimed screenwriters. Do you know how he developed his unique writing style? Oh, I’m sure he read a few books on the craft.
But, mostly, he watched movies. From his early years, when his mother let him watch Deliverance, to his years working as a usher in a porno theater or a clerk in a video store, QT has bathed in movies. Thanks to them, he learned how to craft a good story, and applied his truly unique voice which has made him a two-time Oscar winner.
The same could – and should – apply to you.
If you aspire to be only half as competent a writer as Charles Bukowski and Albert Camus were, drop that Writer’s Digest issue right now and pick up a pen and paper.
– By Seb Duper – Website