Mailbag: Writing Self-Help, Drugs of Choice

It’s time once again for my mailbag series, in which I respond to reader comments and emails. If you have a comment or question about creative writing or you have a topic idea that you’d like me to talk about, email me and let me know! Today I’d like to go back to a post I wrote about Why That Writing Improvement Book Won’t Help You. Readers agreed, noting that most of these books will teach you how to plug variables into a formula, but won’t actually help you improve craft and technique. Anita Simpson said:

Darn! I was certain that the book “How to write a bestseller in 10 days” was going to help me achieve my lifelong dream of being published! Seriously, though, you make a good point. It’s easy to get suckered in by books that claim to mechanize creativity. What an oxymoron!

Anita makes a good point about this strange, somewhat oxymoronic quest we’re on — making something that is artistic more systematic. If we produce great art in our writing one day, how can we reproduce it again and again? The important thing to remember is that the best, freshest writing isn’t the stuff that came out of thinking, “I’ll just copy what I did yesterday.” The best stuff is from original thought and exploration, and the writing improvement books can’t teach that.

Next let’s go back to a post I wrote, wondering what your character’s drug of choice was. After all, we may not all be addicts, but there is something that all of us just can’t live without, something that we feel is part of ourselves. Charlotte Dixon said:

This is a great question! My drug of choice is coffee, wine on the weekends, and writing. But as for my character, hmmm, I’m going to have to think about it. Opens up all kinds of avenues of thought.

Thanks, Charlotte! I think coffee and wine are probably pretty high on the list for many people, particularly writers. I encourage all my readers to think about their own drug of choice and what their characters just don’t feel themselves without.

Finally, a while back I wrote a post about running two stories, big and small, side by side. It’s a common technique in television shows and it works very well in short stories, too. Readers agreed, or as Liz Allen said:

My personal opinion is that all stories should have at least one subplot. Otherwise the story is very one-dimentional and uninteresting.

I would still say a vividly-written single story can be enough, but this is a great technique to use because it makes each single story seem more interesting when it is contrasted and paralleled with another. Thanks, commenters, and keep those writing thoughts coming! Next week, I’ll be highlighting reader’s responses to that big question I asked recently — why do you write?


  1. Tom Rinkes says:

    Why do I write? To gain more knowledge of people, places, things and vocabularies, but mainly to relax. I find it’s more fulfilling to wile away the evenings, especially in the dead of winter, than staring at the boob-tube all night. Plus, I feel better when I pen something that someone else likes.

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