How many ‘How to Write’ books is too many?

Over the years, I’ve read some great books on writing. Particular standouts are not just the ones everyone mentions, namely On Writing by Stephen King and Bird by Bird from Anne Lamott; Chuck Wendig has taught me a lot of practical and humorous things in the Kick-Ass Writer, and Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook is basically a workshop in writing everything from characters to whole worlds. As a companion to her amazing podcast (as mentioned in a previous post), there’s also Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing, with plenty of exercises to try.

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These are all great books, and there are plenty of others. It’s good to try a few, because every writer’s style and work method is different – you need to take some time to figure out which writer, or combination of writers, most closely resembles your own writing style and practice (note that this can change over time or per book). Then there are the fiction books you need to read in order to learn – read widely, most advice-givers will tell you, and know your own genre well enough not to insult your likely readers.

But there’s only so far reading can take you. In the end, it all comes down to writing, and more writing, and figuring out how to improve (or simply abandon) your writing. Finishing your own stories is more important than finishing that great (writing) book.

Which is, of course, exactly what I haven’t been doing lately. While I’ve done a bit of writing (not to mention my daily professional work), I’ve substituted practice with reading and considered it work. This is a dangerous pattern to fall into. If you’re reading about writing, reading books for research, doing nothing but plotting, or just even staring at the screen, then you’re not writing. I’m not writing.

A lot of this can be explained by imposter syndrome, and the idea that as long as I’m not writing I’m not actually failing at writing. It’s also to do with feeling burned out after a long day of writing mostly boring work stuff. However, I’m trying to change this, and hopefully writing this blog post will be the start. Time to implement those lessons other writers have been trying to teach me, and get some more words down on (digital) paper!

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The first word’s still the hardest

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MST3K: At least my writing isn’t that bad

I have recently started watching the new series of Mystery Science Theatre 3,000 (MST3K) on Netflix and I’m enjoying it. It’s funny and aware, I love Felicia Day, they have some great guests, and the robots are adorable. I would like to make clear that I am in no way suggesting that I could be even half as funny as the writers for that show.

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That said, the whole premise of the show is to watch really bad old movies, and boy are they bad. The acting is bad, the ‘monsters’ are bad, and the writing… I have no idea how they got away with so much crap back in the day! Sure, the amusing banter from Jonah and the robots is a good distraction, but not enough to make me forget just how badly made these old movies are, even disregarding all the limitations of the time-periods.

For one, there’s a whole lot of sexism and either casual racism or simply the whole erasure of race (such as the whole ‘only white people go to space’ yuckiness that has pervaded scifi for far too long!) going on. And in general, all characters tend to be paper-thin, with no backstory or deeper motivation or anything. The bad acting doesn’t help either (even Christopher Plummer manages to look bad! Though I blame the writing for that one – episode 6 Starcrash if you want to see for yourself).

Then there’s the plot. I get it, budgets were tight and monsters are expensive, so you can’t show them for very long. And yes, people were more used to a slower pace back then. But oh my gods things move so slow! Nothing happens for minutes, except people walking, or random scenery, or SPACE (which I guess was an impressive thing to film back then, even as fake as it possibly could be). They often blatantly reuse footage to stretch things out even further. There’s no sense of continuity whatsoever, with the plot either dwelling on something too long or skipping something altogether, with no apparent in-between. In short, nothing to write home about.

Anyway, I could go on like this for quite some time, but you’re better off just checking out an episode or ten for yourself. My main take-away from watching is not, as you might think: “Oh my gods there is so much bad writing out there!” – although the thought did cross my mind. No, it’s that people believed in this shitty content enough to invest lots of time and money into it. These things got made, and released, and people might have even watched them in a non-mocking way.

Surely we can do one better? If we believe, and put the time and effort in, we can surely make a story better than these guys got away with back in the day. And if they could get other people to invest in it too, there’s hope for everyone. So, I would suggest that if you’re feeling down about your creative efforts, go look at a terrible movie (with or without amusing MST3K commentary) or read a terrible story. Not only might you gain some tips on what not to do, but it will hopefully give you renewed vigour and confidence in your own work. Just don’t use MST3K and other suchlike things as procrastination, because really you (and I) should be writing!