I’ve never gone for how-to books about writing.
I love Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, but that’s because it’s a wonderful book by Anne Lamott, not because it’s a book about writing. I got a lot out of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, perhaps because it has chapters titled “Fighting Tofu” and “Don’t Marry the Fly.” Fellow blogger Kourtney Heintz has put together an excellent resource list of books on writing, which includes Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Paste Magazine has a nice little top 10 list, too.
Part of me has always been suspicious of guides to good writing. Despite the fact that I took classes as an undergraduate and graduate student in creative writing and journalism, I harbor a fear that revealing—and instructing others in—the mechanics of writing will suck the life right out of it.
Following a guide feels kind of like creating a paint-by-numbers work of art: put the cerulean here, the azure here, and your masterpiece will emerge. Where’s the intuition? The creativity? If everyone can brush on color #17, how can you tell the real writers from the posers?
So what possessed me to pick up from the library a tiny tome called The Writer’s Little Helper: Everything You Need to Know to Write Better and Get Published by James V. Smith, Jr.?
Maybe it was that the title riffed on the Rolling Stones song “Mother’s Little Helper.” Or maybe it was that I am right now struggling through a second revision of my manuscript.
Now, pacing is not something I think about consciously every day when I’m writing, but it is one of the most significant factors in good writing. Poor pacing can hamstring even the most exciting story. When I edit fiction, I often make changes because something about the rhythm of the story feels off. That feeling indicates something is not right about the pacing.
Rather than relying on intuition, Smith’s approach gives you a way of actually measuring pace. I won’t divulge the details since, as he says in the intro to the chapter, “…nobody has told you how to measure pace. Until now.” I’m sure he would rather you bought his book than have me reveal his method here. It involves a formula that uses the reading ease statistics from your word processing program to measure the pacing within a scene or chapter—writing, you might say, by the numbers.
I’m a sucker for numbers, so I ran one of my scenes through the formula.
The “data” matched my intuitive feel about the passage’s pacing. In addition to the formula, Smith gives advice about how to adjust pacing. Like much good counsel, his advice seems obvious once you know it (use shorter sentences and active voice to speed the pace, longer sentences or leisurely scenes to slow it).
Despite my initial resistance to the idea, I’ve decided to use Smith’s method as a check on some of my chapters. I’m not sure if a writer without an intuitive feel for pacing could simply apply the formula to create page turner, but as a check and balance on an existing piece of writing, it’s a useful tool in the editing tool kit.
What tools (or books) have you found helpful for improving your writing? Have you ever completed a paint-by-numbers picture?