Ditch the Craft Books and Write!

cory bio picture~ By Corrina Lawson

Note: This post originally appeared here

You don’t need a single craft book to learn writing.

It’s entirely possible to write a compelling story without ever picking up a book that teaches the craft of writing.

All that’s needed is to have read great books. Period.

I know, those who have gained so much by using craft books are looking at me sideways right now. I don’t wish to take those books from those who are helped by them.

But not all writers learn the same way.

Some writers learn by osmosis rather than craft advice. These writers learn by reading books they love over and over again. They read books with similar storytelling methods or they watch movies or television shows and subconsciously absorb that three act structure. The trick comes in applying that knowledge consciously.

For example, take flashbacks.

I have an unusual story structure in my new novel, Phoenix Inheritance. I weave a reunion story in the present day with a flashback story detailing how my hero and heroine first fell in love. For the first two-thirds of the book, the story jumps between falling in love in the past and the problems in the present.

When I decided to use this structure, I didn’t read any advice on how to write flashbacks, though I did see a lot of advice that flashbacks were the wrong way to write a story.

Instead, I re-read a book I loved that told a reunion story in the same manner, Donovan’s Promise by Dallas Schulze. (A great book, sweet and wonderful, with an older couple on the brink of divorce. Go read!)

I also watched several television showed that used flashbacks in a way I loved. This included the first season of Arrow, the first season of Lost, and all the seasons of Person of Interest. What I learned when studying these flashbacks is that even when the flashback scenes didn’t have a direct parallel to the present-day scenes, they had a thematic parallel.

The entire first season of Arrow in the present is about Oliver rediscovering his life and coming out of PTSD. The flashbacks show how young, naïve Oliver turned into the taciturn, dangerous and haunted man who showed up after missing for three years. At the end of the season, present-day Ollie has learned to live again, while past Ollie has begun his descent into darkness.

The flashback episode that deals with Locke’s past in the first season of Lost is perhaps one of the best hours of television ever. Scenes with Locke in the past as a loser are interspersed with present-day Locke, a leader among the crash survivors. We see past Locke try to change his life by taking a journey, only at the end to be let down hard because it’s not possible. Why? The reveal in the past is that this man savors life is confined to a wheelchair. In the present, we see a cured Locke, renewed, invigorated, as the camera pans to reveal his broken wheelchair. The two stories meld and connect to form a great whole.

And in Person of Interest, the flashbacks serve to give the Machine a narrative voice that it would otherwise lack. Sure, the flashbacks show the pasts of Finch, Reese and others but as the show builds to the brilliance of this year, it’s also clear that the flashbacks are the Machine’s story and without understanding that, the present day events make less sense.

I didn’t need a book to come to these conclusions and apply them to Daz and Renee’s story in Phoenix Inheritance. All I needed was the ability to ask why the flashbacks worked and sort out how I could use the same methods in my own work. I concluded that I needed scenes in my flashbacks that related thematically to the present day scenes. I also needed flashbacks that, at some point, would connect to make a whole with the present day story. And I needed hints of yet another story being told underneath it all, like the one featuring the Machine.

I also learned what not to do from watching bad flashbacks. The current season ofArrow only uses flashbacks to fill it bits and pieces of backstory that are missing. That makes them boring and without resonance.

Try it yourself. For example, say you want to learn the craft of writing romantic suspense.

Put the craft books down and read a pile of successful romantic suspense novels instead. Pick out the ones you love. Sort out what they have in common: is it characters? Pacing? Worldbuilding? How do they handle description? Fight scenes? Take them apart sentence by sentence and figure out why they work, if that’s what it takes.

When you’re done, you’ll have learned by osmosis how to write. Craft books need not apply.

* What books/movies/shows have influenced your writing?

Corrina is a former newspaper reporter with a degree in journalism from Boston University. A mom of four, she now works from home writing romance novels with a geeky twist and as the Content Director and co-founder of GeekMom.com.

4 thoughts on “Ditch the Craft Books and Write!”

  1. Great post, Corrina!

    I am half and half on craft books. I think for sure you learn best by doing, but I do think craft books can help improve. I just read On Writing by Stephen King—great book. More so you see by the WAY he writes, how to write well, which basically is the same as reading constantly. But there are some things that I think can really help.

    I love TV as well—I’m currently binging on Lost right now!—but there is so much that can be shown in TV that doesn’t work as well in books, IMO. Flashbacks in TV are great. I think they have to be done really well in books though. Sometimes I think the problem with flashbacks in books are that they can be used kind of as a shortcut, and that’s when they bug me. Also, in TV you get different perspectives, but in books as I mentioned in response to Barbara’s comment—bleh I hate head hopping. One POV per scene or chapter, please. Especially in romance. My $.02 🙂

    Great post!

  2. I used to love the idea of craft books. I would buy them and devour them, but at some point I realized that I was actually just procrastinating. Rather than writing, I was trying to figure out the “right way” to write. What’s been more helpful than anything else for me is stumbling through, making mistakes, and opening myself up to feedback from beta readers who also write and can offer a perspective. And, of course, as Corrina said, sometimes the most important thing is reading great books.

  3. My first published book (a novella-length story for middle grade readers pub’d under a different name) was written before I knew about craft books. I haven’t read it lately, but I think it’s a pretty good little story, and it was written by the osmosis method.

    Then I got involved with SinC and RWA, and started reading craft books and listening to advice. I learned lots of good stuff that way, but the more I write, the more I discard the advice that doesn’t work for me. One thing that does bug me is that I’ve gotten so I can’t headhop even if I think it might be useful. I’ve read lots of books with insertions of a secondary character’s POV for a few sentences, etc. — Georgette Heyer comes to mind — and it never, ever bothered me until I was told it would throw me out of the story. NO, SORRY, IT DOESN’T! I wish I could let myself slip into another POV, but I’m so entrenched in either the hero or heroine’s POV that I simply can’t. It feels all wrong to wander — but maybe it isn’t, depending on the story and the context. So frustrating. 🙂

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