Time To Throw Away the “How to Write” Books

How-To BooksI recently interviewed the Irish author, Peter Murphy, who’s just published his second novel Shall We Gather at the River with Faber & Faber. The novel – while being a rollicking good yarn – is also a rather experimental book. The plot is oftentimes surreal; it has a main protagonist, but a lot of the book focuses on other minor or incidental characters; the narrative is non-linear – it jumps back and forth through time and place and person.

When I asked him how this came about, he said:

“[The book] did make itself apparent that it wasn’t going to be what we’d call “traditional narrative” with one protagonist all the way through going in a sequential, chronological fashion. I’d love to write a book like that because there’s beauty and elegance in simplicity but it just became apparent to me that the only way that this was going to work was in that fashion. And, you know, the novel is an extremely wide universe … it can accommodate many, many different types of books. And I do get a bit annoyed when I see schools of criticism that seem to be stuck in the 18th century that say the novel has to be written the way that Henry James or the Bronte sisters did it. The methods are as disparate as the subject matter.”

When I asked him if it was difficult to sell this kind of an experimental novel to an agent/publisher, he said:

“It depends on how good the publisher is. I mean, I got an amazing response from Faber when I submitted the manuscript … they were pretty gung-ho, they were pretty evangelical from the start about it. Which I was relieved and surprised by. But, at the risk of sounding glib, to me you just write the best possible book you can and if it’s good, it sells itself.”

Bearing all this in mind, let’s look at some of the responses that authors often receive from agents/publishers when submitting their novels:

  • Too many characters; needs to have one specific protagonist
  • Too many flashbacks pull the reader out of the main story
  • Anything under 80-90,000 words is too short
  • Needs to be one definable genre

Now, I think we all know that even a briefest perusal of the “New Fiction” shelves at your local bookstore will show that some novels break many – if not all – of the commandments laid out above.

So, what’s my point? Well, my point is simple. Had Peter Murphy listened to all of this advice, he never would have published his novel (a novel which, having read, I believe will go on to win awards). Now this is not to say that a writer shouldn’t listen to feedback, criticism or advice – we most certainly should. Every writer – whether established or beginner – is always learning, and feedback and advice from our peers is essential. However, I think sometimes we can listen a little too much and get led up a blind alley.

Perhaps, it’s time to stop listening to the “Don’t”s – don’t have more than one protagonist; don’t use flashbacks; don’t fall short of the suggested word count – and, instead, focus on “doing”. Write the story you want to write in the way you want to write it and, as Peter says, “If it’s good, it sells itself.”

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9 thoughts on “Time To Throw Away the “How to Write” Books

  1. Hi Derek!

    It’s been forever since I’ve been to your blog. Sorry about that. 🙂

    I must say I really agree with this post, for the most part. I think writers can get so caught up in the “rules” that the story suffers. I know some National Book Award winners that broke rules (Bastard Out Of Carolina comes to mind) and were all the better stories because of it. I also think that trying to conform to rules stifles creativity.

    I don’t, however, agree with if the story’s good, it’ll sell itself. I wish that were true. I have some writer friends whose work is phenomenal and they haven’t been able to find a publishing deal. I also know of some other books that were published, won awards, but ended up being commercial failures.

    Anyway, lovely to see you again. Cheers, my friend.

    1. Hi Shelli!

      So lovely to see you round these parts again. I know what you mean about books not selling themselves. Indeed, Peter did preface that comment in the interview with “at the risk of sounding glib…” We all know, of course, that it’s not quite THAT easy! I just think if you stay true to your story and not try to write to a set of guidelines, you will end up with a better story in the end.

  2. I don’t think the don’ts are strict guidelines on what not to do – but they are guidelines as to how hard you might be making it to sell your work, because as you’ve pointed out, all those things can create resistance.

    I don’t believe any rule can’t be broken, but before breaking it the writer needs to a) understand the rule and the reason it exists and b) what he or she achieves by breaking it. If breaking it doesn’t add something, then it’s probably unwise to break it, because you have no selling point for those things that might make your book harder to market.

    1. Hi Ciara

      Absolutely agree with your comment, “If breaking it doesn’t add something, then it’s probably unwise to break it”. That’s why I used the examples I used, such as having more than one main character or coming in under a certain word count. Sometimes you just HAVE to tell the story from more than one perspective or sometimes you’ve said everything you needed to say in 70K. In that case, I think it’s better not to worry too much about breaking the rules. Yes, it may make your book harder to sell, but isn’t the alternative a lesser book?

  3. A book may sell itself, but only to one person, or a very small group of people. Selling it to a larger audience and garnering as much widespread appeal as you can, that’s a boatload of work. Sounds like this particular author was one of the lucky few who found a good match for his work fairly quickly. It doesn’t happen often.

    The message of this blog post is sound though (even though just the thought of following the advice of the title of the post makes me cringe). Don’t get caught up worrying about what your work should and shouldn’t be, and just make it what it is. If you’re worried how to market the thing before you even finish writing it, it just won’t work. Really the #1 rule should be “Don’t expect any success without working for it”… of course, there are even exceptions to that one as well.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      I will say one thing about the title (the thought of which has you cringing ;)) I spent a year or so reading “How-To” books before I started writing seriously. I realised later, I should have spent the year just writing! That’s the No. 1 way to become a better writer. I also read Stephen King’s “On Writing” some time later and realised that was pretty much the only book on writing I ever needed to read!

  4. Great post!

    Once you really understand the thread of your story, there are so many ways to tell it. Dracula was surprising and innovative in its use of journal excerpts and letters between characters, news clippings, etc. constantly shifting POVs.

    Cloud Atlas also has an odd structure, time jumping and choosing unlikely characters to see through.

    Stephen King, among other masterful techniques, uses head-hopping subtly and brilliantly, showing why 3rd person omnipotent still requires the most accomplished writing and story-telling ability as well as a certain level of wisdom to be used to great effect.

    I understand limiting writers when they first start out, so they aren’t overwhelmed with choices. A first book can be written in first person present to connect the writer to the mechanics of the story, but as the writer grows in ability and can keep more balls in the air, release the Kraken! Use the full array of narrative techniques!

    Ha, ha… I got Kraken in there!

    1. You and that Kraken! 🙂

      I think you used some very interesting examples. One wonders how easy it would be for Dracula to be published today, given that it doesn’t have a single main protagonist? And Cloud Atlas is another perfect example of the type of book I’m talking about which DOESN’T adhere to any of the rules!

  5. Excellent, Derek! Can I add my favorite rejection to this list? “I loved your book and will buy it when you get it published, but selling mult POV’s is hard to do, so I’ll pass.” LOL That’s ok. Someone will love it.

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