On the writing list of The Internet Writing Workshop one of the members asked for advice about creative writing books and wrote the following:

Now that I have finished my first novel (71,000 words) and have not found any agent or publisher, I figure it is time to actually learn the ABC of how to write as a published novelist :-).

I basically wrote my novel because I am passionate about the issue.  I never read any book or took any class on creative writing. And I seldom read novels: most of them are so boring to me, even the best sellers. Don’t ask me why.

So please kindly let me know what book(s) I should read to get a crash course in creative writing. I am not a very patient person. So I hope that book you recommend is short and sweet. Also I want to write liteary (but not abstract or boring) novels, novels that people will like, but not commercial novels, romance or fantasy, etc. In other words, what book I should read to become the next bestselling author :-).
Hmm, doesn’t like to read novels, but wants to write one? Wants a crash course in creative writing, but isn’t a patient person. That the writer completed a 71,000 word novel is commendable. I read part of it and it does need a lot of work, but still kudos to him for putting the time and effort.  However, it’s a little troubling to me that the writer doesn’t read (or really isn’t interested in reading) and assumes that by reading a book on writing will get him on his way to the bestseller list.
I don’t belittle anyone who wants to have a bestseller. And if I had the formula to write a blockbuster believe me I would have used it long ago when I was struggling with my thesis on the Economic Viability of a Palestinian State (please, if you ever happen to come across it, DON’T READ IT! Terribly written. It’s embarrassing.)
Unfortunately, there is no magic formula that will turn anyone’s prose into gold. To become a good writer takes time just like everything else. And if it were that easy then we’d have every schmuck writing a book (well, that’s sort of true) and having it turn up on the bestseller list.
Did I bother to reply to this writer? Yes, and I sort of lectured him and I suggested a few books. Will they lead him to the New York Times bestseller list? That all depends on how much of the advice I gave him he follows and how hard he works. The thing is that if you work hard at your craft anything is possible. However to get to that point, there aren’t any short cuts (and I am the QUEEN of the short cuts, so again the proof is in the pudding. You don’t see me on any lists, do you? Maybe a few blacklists, but that’s another story.) If one is looking for instant gratification, fortune, and fame, don’t count on a writing career. You’re better off going to law school (or getting a Ph.D. in Economics from a good school. Your chances of winning a Nobel prize are better than writing a bestseller, and you make more money.)
Am I being cynical? No, just realistic. A few years ago, I had a friend who wrote a book and received a hefty advance. The book promised to be a bestseller. What happened? It got noticed by some of the women’s magazines, and slammed by reviewers of the top newspapers. Was it a bestseller? It didn’t make any lists. So you see even with an interesting premise (this was a send-off on Miramax) there are no guarantees even with a hefty advance (and if you don’t make your numbers the possibility of getting another big advance is much smaller).
So at the end of the day or evening, this is what I have to share: Read the good, the bad, and the ugly. Write every day. Some of it will be crap and maybe some of it will be pretty good. The only way to get better is to keep writing. There’s no fairy dust, magic wand, or secret formula. Like everything in life, it’s all a crapshoot. And there you have it.


  • You tell ’em Rebeca!

    I did read the whole novel of the writer in question. It had its merits. Lots of passion (melodrama? purple prose?) but John Gardner says there are worse flaws for a writer to have.

    It’s like watching an orchestra and thinking “I want to play upright bass like Volkan Orhon does,” then buying a how-to book and a bass, and thinking you’ll sound like Volkan after practicing nights and weekends or as your 80-hr work week as a lawyer permits.