Packing for a few days’ city break, I’ll be adding a guidebook to my bag. We can just look stuff up on our phones, can’t we? Says my son. I suppose we could—and probably will. Though despite taking up some luggage space (well it says ‘pocket guide’ on the cover, but someone must have pretty huge pockets), it feels reassuring to have it with us.
There is the fallibility of technology to consider, yes; also, in practical terms, everything is in one place with a guidebook: text, maps, a few phrases in the native language… Primarily, there is the fact that someone with knowledge or expertise has done the spade work and selected the key information for you. As the Cambridge dictionary defines it, a guide is a book that gives you the most important information about a particular subject…
This led me to think about other sorts of guidebooks. There is a massive market for—or, at any rate, massive production of—guides about writing and writing novels. It’s an extremely crude test, but simply typing ‘novel writing’ into the Amazon search brings over 100,000 results, not counting the numerous others on publishing and promoting books. Presumably a majority of these are produced in response to existence of self-publishing platforms and huge rise in books published this way in the last ten plus years.
Amongst this abundance, how to find the select few books that we’ll find truly useful to support and help improve our writing? Like others, I have read a few that simply appeared to be jumping onto the bandwagon and whose specialist subject appears to be (to quote Basil Fawlty) the bleedin’ obvious.
The guide you find useful may prove to be a work not originally intended to direct creative writing at all.
I read an interview with novelist Anne Tyler in which she enthused about a Sociology textbook from the 1950s by Social Psychologist Erving Goffman called The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, describing it as “the most valuable book a novelist could read. We are always trying to decipher gestures, or as writing teachers say, how to show rather than tell.” Though without any pretensions or even aspirations to having Tyler’s literary gifts, as a writer of character-driven stories, this sounded interesting, and I ordered an old copy of Goffman’s work from ebay. Well, it appears I don’t possess Tyler’s intellectual gifts either, because I have found it hard going and not yet reached the end. Nevertheless, in terms of emphasis on the significance of human social interaction and on the meaning underlying a character’s gestures of “manner” and their “appearance”, it is food for thought.
Of the books I have had recommended to me, it has actually been one on screenwriting that has proven especially useful: Break Into Screenwriting by Ray Frensham. This is not because I am making a sorry bid to become a screenwriter, but because in terms of structure, plot, and character development, and writing authentic dialogue in particular, considering script writing is so useful. (An article 5 Things Novelists Can Learn from Screenwriters on Writersrelief.com summarises some of the key relevance of screenwriting for novel writing better than I can).
And of the books recommended for a writing course I took a couple of years ago, I found by Mittelmark and Newman’s How not to Write a Novel – 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them useful in its advice and examples of the common pitfalls to avoid. It’s also an amusing read and somewhat excruciating. I can almost guarantee you’ll find an example of the sort of bad habit you have fallen into as a writer in there somewhere amongst the many examples, no matter how much you may pride yourself on your skill and originality.
Still, useful though the above books may be, the essential meaning of ‘guide’ is A thing that helps someone to form an opinion or make a decision or calculation (OED), i.e. it will support you, but not ‘do it for you’. The bulk of the effort is yours. There is a quote attributed to nineteenth-century Hindu monk and teacher Swami Vivekanand: “True guidance is like a small torch in a dark forest. It doesn’t show everything once, but gives enough light for the next step to be safe.”
After all, in tourism, in writing, and in just about anything else, sometimes is good to become lost and find you own way back, your own route, agenda, and way of doing things.
Lisa Allardice, Anne Tyler: a life’s work, The Guardian, 13 April 2012, retrieved 11 April 2019.