Another day, another terrifying number of people showing up to read Tuesday’s post about wasting time as a writer. I think it’s the first thing I’ve ever written on this site that got more views the day after it was posted than it did on the first day.
This means I’m still brooding on the whole writing advice thing, moving from point to point like Pac-Man trying to reach a power pellet, extrapolating outwards from the acknowledgement that I don’t know fuck-all. And I’ve realised a few things I should have put in yesterday’s post about processing advice, but didn’t have the brain-space to consider when I wrote it.
SOMETIMES THE BEST ADVICE ISN’T ACTUALLY ADVICE AT ALL
I have a shelf full of how-to-write books that are chock-full of advice. Many of them are really good and I’d heartily recommend them to folks who are looking to develop writing skills, but they’re not the be-all and end-all of figuring this writing thing out.
Advice, by its nature, tends towards the general. It’s someone trying to distil their ideas and their process into something pithy and easy to understand, which hides the fact that process and business are actually enormously complicated.
The most useful books in my collection, in terms of learning about writing, aren’t actually how-to books at all. They’re collections of interviews and biographies and writers talking about their specific process, places where there’s no need to be general. Where the assumption is people are interested in their work, rather than writing in general.
My copy of The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler are among the most well-thumbed pages in my book collection. Not much writing advice there, but there’s so much that can be learned by looking at Chandler’s process up-close, the way he’d think out his glorious metaphors and similies and scrupulously track their usage.
The Art of Neil Gaiman? Fucking awesome book for any creative interested in the fantasy genre, because it’s a writer sitting down and responding to questions about how he does what he does over the course of a whole career. There’s something similar going on in The Writer’s Tale by Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook, which is a meandering tour through Davies thought-processes as he scribed his forth season of Doctor Who.
And it’s not something that’s linked to writers, specifically. I’ve picked up great advice from writing by reading interviews with artists and pro-wrestlers, film-makers and actors. Some of my most repeated writing advice comes from conversation with my friend Allan, where we went looking for common ground between what he does and what I do.
The single greatest resource I have, so far as editing (and, weirdly, editing poetry) is The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, where Michael Ondaatje sits down and talks to the guy who edited films like Apocalypse Now, Ghost, and The English Patient. There’s nothing how-to about it – they basically just talk about whatever shit they find interesting at the time – and because of that it goes into areas you’d never cover if you were putting together a how-to-edit-film thing.
ADVICE GLOSSES OVER THE MINUTIA OF CRAFT AND BUSINESS
That’s great, when you’re starting out, and the minutia is just going to be a distraction. It’s less great, as you advance through your career and start to master the basics of writing. After a while, the minutia is what keeps you going. You want to fine-tune your craft and you can’t do that with larger, clumsier tools that are designed to cut through great swathes of audience.
We are in a business about ideas and making connections.
If you’re serious about writing – hell, about any art – don’t limit yourself to advice and how-to. Look further afield and diversity the points where you’re getting
CODEX: RECOMMEND ME SOME BOOKS/RESOURCES
I’ve put up links to some of my favourite process books above. It’s not the full breadth of my collection – more a representative example – but it does occur to me that it’s very masculine and very white.
And, now that I’ve actually sat down and formalized my thinking on this, a somewhat smaller collection than I’d like.
So…help me out here. What are your favourite books about art and writing that aren’t necessarily how-to guides? Which bios get you fired up and eager to create? Where have you found strange epiphanies about the way you do things? Send me your recommendations, peeps, and I’ll check ’em out.