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Self-help books for writers. Do you need one?

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

This month I’ve been casting my mind towards books. Not books in general, but the self-help style ones aimed at authors and, in particular, the ones that try to teach a method or system to actually get your thoughts onto the page. I had an acquaintance on Twitter some time ago who was struggling with their ability so, having a few copies of one that taught me the basics, I sent it across to them with encouragement to at least try it. Surprisingly, they emailed me soon after it was received, berating me for even thinking about using one. ‘Ish,’ they opined, ‘I’ve been told on good authority you can’t learn to write from a book, it has to be a natural, organic thing. Thanks for thinking of me but I’ve given it to my cat.’


Forgetting the obvious ripostes - such as ‘Well, I guess the whole writing and reading thing’s been an evolutionary dead end, we should all do only what our guts tell us’ - it’s difficult to accept their position. At one stroke they’ve discredited every single university course, every single learning event for authors. A clearly ridiculous position, made all the more ironic as they haven’t managed to find a publisher, let alone a reader (or beta reader if I think about it), for their last five novels, together with their reliance on (and consistent rejection of) advice from their writers' group.

I’ll admit I’m no natural born writer; I needed the resource to let me get what was in my head onto paper. Admittedly, the more I write the less I rely on it, but that’s how it should be. In my other life I spent ten years at university - the first two relying on the works of others to gain knowledge and skill, the next three to the end of honours starting to strike a path of my own, and the last five cutting my own, virgin path where no one had tread. And so it is with writing. At some point you go your own way, but at the start? Well, we all need help, support, a framework if you will, some more than others perhaps.

So. As a long lost friend of mine once said about her beauty regime, ‘Ish, if the barn needs painting ...’, and I couldn’t agree more. Those authors among us (and they are out there) who have been able to sit in a locked cupboard under the stairs on some inaccessible mountaintop and crank out magnificent novels in absolute solitude are few and far between. For most of us it’s the opposite. We need help, at least at the start, and maybe for much longer.

Don’t believe me? Believe Stephen King and Barbara Cartland. Stephen King is open about the years he spent hammering away on failed manuscript after failed manuscript until, eventually, he cracked it (and big time too, most of us would grant him). Usually he is held up as an archetype of what persistence in the face of failure can achieve. But that’s not the whole story. Each rejection, each failure came with feedback, a little pointer as to why it failed. If he simply took my Twitter friend’s attitude and ignored the advice, waiting for it to come to him ‘organically’, his famous nail on the bedroom wall would have to have been a marlinspike ten feet long to hold his failures - and he’d never see a single one of his manuscripts in print.

Then there’s Barbara Cartland, the Queen of Romance, author of around 720 (no typo here people, seven hundred and twenty is what it says) books that sold between 750 million and 2 billion copies. Although lambasted (quite unfairly) by ‘serious’ authors in her lifetime, her books and success remains. Google ‘most successful author of all time’ and you’d be surprised - in sales she’s third only to Shakespeare and Agatha Christie, and in terms of numbers of books written third only to Corin Tellado and Enid Blyton.

Her mainstay? Formula romance, books written around a plot system she devised, repeated and replicated. Talented writer? Undoubtedly. Fully organic? No, she never could be, never was. What’s more astonishing is the fact she actually wrote ‘the playbook’ on romance novels, one Mills and Boon have honed to fine art - and through them many, many successful authors have emerged.

Don’t need a book to tell you how to write? Organic effort enough to be successful? I don’t think so.

Self-help books for writers? Do you need one? You tell me.

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