There’s something alluring about reference books for writers. You know the ones, lining the shelves at your favorite local bookstore. They beckon, encouraging us to come closer, to flip through their pages to discover their secrets. They promise to teach us everything we need to know about creating compelling characters, powerful plots and revealing dialogue. They offer to give us a glimpse into the writing life as experienced by those who have earned some modicum of success. These guides are filled with information, tips, anecdotes and motivation. They are filled with promise.
They get me every time.
I’ve always been a bit of a research geek. When I want to learn something new, I tend to go all in, diving into the topic quickly and deeply. Some would claim this fascination serves as a distraction, a way to procrastinate from the hard work of putting words to paper. I’ve read many blog posts cautioning us to abstain from the allure of the writer’s reference book. You must practice the craft, not read about it. “These books are yet another way to put off the actual work. Research isn’t writing.” And I agree with this sentiment.
To a point.
I believe that any activity that lures us away from honing our skills falls in this category. My weakness is weeding out closets. When I’m stuck–or afraid to tackle a project–I tackle a drawer instead. I’m a master at this method of delay. If I’m engaged in de-cluttering the closet, it’s probably because my mind is too cluttered to move my story forward.
It is the writing reference guide that actually draws me back to the page. These books become the bridge that helps me return to the work at hand.
My current favorite is Alexandra Sokoloff’s Screenwriting Tricks for Authors. I keep Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing and Stephen Pressfield’s War on Art on my desk, close enough to guide me through a tough stretch of writing. They keep me pushing forward when dealing with the messy middle of my manuscript. I confess to sometimes spending too much time searching for that perfect formula when I should be discovering the path through my own practice. Still, I rationalize this habit as one that encourages me to come back to the work rather than giving up on it entirely. And isn’t that what these books really offer? The hope, the gentle push to continue our efforts. And if they serve as a crutch now and again, well, that’s okay.
I just call it research.
What are your experiences? Which writer’s guides are your favorites, and do they help or hinder your daily word count?