How To Write Books Books

On my book shelf is a collection of maybe ten or fifteen ‘How To Write Books’ books. In the boxes under my bed is maybe another five or six and I’ve lost count of the ones handed into charity shops over the last decade.

Why do I have so many?

Because for the decade I didn’t write, I read books about how to do it.

Last weekend I finished writing my first novel. I started writing it, in essence, almost ten years ago, when I was 18. Having dropped out of college after only 3 weeks and returning home in shame, I decided to plough ahead with my published writer dreams. I had always excelled at English, been a student journalist, read non-stop since I’d learned how and everybody I knew – parents, relatives, English teachers – agreed that I could write. So surely all I had to do was write a book-length story, get an agent and then sit back and relax while other people turned me into a bestselling novelist and Oprah started asking around for my phone number.


I bought a flat-pack desk in Argos, sat my computer on top of it and started to write my first novel, a painfully terrible thriller set in the world of Formula 1 (my latest obsession at the time). The only good things about it were the title (Chequered Flag) and the fact that as I wrote my main character – a hot shot F1 driver – I could fantasize about Jacques Villeneuve. After a few chapters I decided that wasn’t working and started another thriller, this one featuring a murder, a detective and New York City, because I’d just been there on a 10 day shopping trip and presumed this qualified as research.

After that there were a few more stops and starts, and then a breakthrough: I wrote a non-fiction book. A whole one. Not long after that, a miracle. (A miracle that involved me quitting my job, renting a holiday home for 2 months and doing literally nothing but writing every day I was there but still, a miracle.) I wrote a novel. Chick-lit with a bit of a bite (I hope), that’s the novel I finished last week.

Once it was done, I realized something: 90% of those How To Write Books books I’d feverishly read for the last ten years had been utterly useless. What I learned just by sitting down and writing the thing had eclipsed the usefulness of their advice combined. Choosing and buying and reading those books had just been another form of procrastination.

But there were exceptions.

Stunning, life-changing, diamonds of exceptions.

There was the book that helped me plot my novel. There was the book, written by an agent, that told me how to convince an agent to take me on when I was done. (We’re still testing that one, actually…) There was the one that convinced me that, since I wouldn’t dream of making any of its 101 common mistakes, I could actually write. There was the one that made me laugh until my stomach hurt and seemingly encouraged me to drink lots of alcohol and eat lots of crisps.

There was the one I came across in a public library that had tears streaming down my cheeks as I read the first chapter. The author – a former editor and now author and agent – must have been inside my head; she was describing me. All the things I thought meant there was something wrong with me were in fact just common traits of writers. That book changed my life.

So since I’ve spent ten years reading this books and have pretty much read them all, I thought I’d save you the bother. All next week I’ll be counting down my Top 5 How to Write Books Books, starting Monday with number 5.

If you’ve read them and you agree/disagree with my choices, please comment and let me know. If there’s any you feel are missing off my list, tell me.

I’m always looking for more ways to procrastinate.

4 thoughts on “How To Write Books Books

  1. Olive says:

    Looking forward to your Top 5 How to Write Books books. I’ve learned too that something there’s nothing better than sitting at your desk and actually writing. But there are some books worth mentioning like Maeve Binchys Writers Club for eg.

  2. catherineryanhoward says:

    We’ll just have to wait and see, ladies, won’t we? I’ll keep track of all books mentioned and if they’re not in my Top 5 I’ll add them to the last post as runners-up. But I think we’re all on the same track so far… 🙂

  3. Rebecca Brown says:

    Fantastic post again, and so true! I’m still at the stage of reading about writing instead of writing and have lots of admiration for your perseverance. And how many of the books on your shelf do I recognise?! Looking forward to your top 5!

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