Learn to Write Fiction 1: Get Started

start-road-1668916__340_pixabayI explained in my last post why I didn’t start writing fiction till my late 40s. Sometimes I think my life’s motto should be, Better Late than Never. Anyway, once I decided to give this whole making-up-stories thing a try, I had to figure out how to get started. Just put some words on the page? Well, OK, but as I said in my last post, creative writing is a craft. And crafts have to be learned. So, how does one learn to write a novel? Especially if one has a day job and doesn’t want to spend a couple of years and many thousands of dollars earning an MFA?

How I got started writing fiction

As I mentioned in my last post (Have I plugged that thing enough yet? Maybe my life motto should really be, Shameless Self-Promotion for the Win), I literally started by Googling “how to write a novel.” Yeah, I know. I’m an academic librarian, a professional searcher with the universe of published knowledge at my fingertips, and I started my creative writing career with a lame-ass Google search. Truth be told, I wasn’t very serious then. I did that search on a whim.

That whim and that search led me to the Snowflake Method by self-proclaimed Snowflake Guy Randy Ingermanson. By pure luck (or fate or law of attraction or whatever you want to call it), I found an approach that meshes nicely with how my mind works. I read through Randy’s pages, and the magical phrase that has so often sent me on life adventures clanged through my work-addled brain:

I can do this.

Learn the craft

I’ve said it before, but it’s important enough to repeat: Creative writing is a craft. Not magic, not some gift that only a rare few people are blessed with. And crafts can be learned. But they aren’t learned automagically or by osmosis or by standing under a full moon at midnight and sacrificing a live chicken. They’re learned through study and practice.

So that’s my first piece of advice if you want to learn to write fiction: study and practice. What does that look like? Here are 3 suggestions:

  1. If you want to write, you have to read. If you want to write romances, read good, successful romances. Ditto for thrillers or mysteries or whatever your chosen genre is.
  2. But reading other people’s stories isn’t enough. After all, you can’t learn to knit just by wearing sweaters. You have study the craft itself. So get some good books on the craft of fiction writing and start reading. At the end of this post, I list the books I found most helpful as a brand-new writer, but your mileage may vary, as your approach may be different from mine.
  3. Practice. For me, practice took 2 forms:
    1. Doing exercises in writing books. They help you apply techniques right as you’re learning.
    2. Working on my own writing. I started planning, then drafting, my first novel right after I discovered the Snowflake Method. As I read books about the craft, I tried to apply what I’d learned to my own work.

Books for Getting Started

There are a zillion books about fiction writing with a zillion different approaches. You may need to read widely to find a few that work for you. The ones listed below worked for me. The first two can help you structure your novel and get started writing it. The third will help you avoid common newbie mistakes so your writing sounds polished and professional. Note: these are Amazon Affiliate links that will throw a few pennies my way if you use them to purchase.

      1. How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method – Randy Ingermanson. The book that started me on my journey. It’s for people who want to impose some structure on their novel but don’t want to make a detailed outline. This process worked very well for me as I planned my first novel.
      2. Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between – James Scott Bell. Like the Snowflake Method, Bell’s approach is a compromise between hardcore outlining and winging it (or plotting vs. pantsing). He provides enough structure to help you get started without overwhelming you.
      3. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print – Renni Browne and Dave King. And if you want even more books to read, check out The Best Books on Writing Ever, a recent blog post from Browne’s Editorial Department blog.

     

How about you? Are you new to writing or an old hack? Do you have any favorite resources to help new writers get started? Share them in the comments and help out your fellow scribblers.

Talent is overrated

Insecure Writers Support Group BadgeThis is my first ever post for the Insecure Writers Support Group Blog Hop. On the first Wednesday of each month, participants, “Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling.” Today I’ll use this opportunity to talk about why I didn’t start writing fiction till my late 40s, even though I’d always dreamed of doing so.

I’ve been a bookworm since forever. I still remember one Saturday afternoon when I was about 6 or 7, and my mother was too busy to stop right.that.minute and read me The Wizard of Oz for the 472nd time. Yes, I was quite the Oz fangirl. I picked the book up, tried to read it myself, and discovered I could. The first time a kid reads a chapter book on their own should be a milestone celebrated with fireworks. And cake. Lots of cake. But I digress.

I started journaling not long after that and fantasized about becoming a fiction writer. So why didn’t I? I am going to tell you, and you are going to think I’m an idiot.

When I was a senior in high school, my English teacher told us to write a short story. That’s it. Write a short story. We had spent exactly zero time talking about how to write fiction. We’d read plenty (thanks, Mrs. Rainer, for interrupting my senioritis with Heart of Darkness), but we hadn’t studied a dang thing about how to write anything other than essays and term papers.

So I wrote a short story. And it sucked. Big time. It sucked hard enough to create a black hole that threatened to consume the entire planet. The planet survived, but I got a lousy grade and assumed I didn’t have any “talent” for writing fiction. And splat went my dream like a bug on a windshield.

I majored in English as an undergrad, but I avoided all the creative writing courses, because I didn’t have any “talent.” Of course I didn’t, because I couldn’t produce a decent short story with no training whatsoever. I told you, you’d think I’m an idiot. Instead I wrote boring literary criticism, got my degree, became an English teacher, hated it, went to grad school, and became a librarian. All the while, I kept writing. I even won a student paper contest in library school, but I’m pretty sure I won by being the only entrant.

As a librarian, I wrote and published journal articles and book chapters. I blogged. I struggled with how to channel my compulsion to write into actually getting an audience. I read about how fiction writers got started and ached to have the “talent” to write fiction.

And then I approached 50. My boobs went south, my blood pressure went north, and I began to reconsider my dreams. There’s something about knowing ~2/3 of your life is over that makes you think long and hard about how you want to spend the last third.

Around that same time, I reread Diana Gabaldon’s account of how she wrote Outlander (tl;dr: she wanted to learn how to write a novel, and decided that the best way to do that was to actually write one). I read about how other authors started their careers. And one slow afternoon at work, I Googled, “how to write a novel.”

That was in 2014, and I’ve been writing fiction ever since. I won NaNoWriMo in 2014 and finished the first draft of my first novel a few months later. I’ve spent the years since revising it from almost black-hole-level suckitude to something almost worth reading. I’ve written a couple of short stories. I’ve read books and articles and blog posts about fiction writing. And I’ve learned two priceless lessons that, had I known them 30 years ago, might have changed the course of my life:

  1. Talent is overrated.
  2. Creative writing is a skill, and skills can be learned.

Why are those lessons so important? Because “talent,” is some mystical magic bestowed on the very few, probably those born at midnight under a full moon in a witch’s side garden or something. But learning is something we control. We have the power to get better. It’s hard work, yes. Lots of reading and learning, and lots and lots of practice, practice, practice. But those things are under our control. We can choose to do them. We can’t choose to be born in a witch’s side garden at midnight.

So if you’re discouraged, if you look at other people’s writing and wish you had their “talent,” remember: You can learn it. You can build it. You can choose to invest time and sweat and blood and tears in yourself, and you’re never too old to start. The power is yours. Claim it.

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