I’d love to be able to share some advice with new writers before they begin that first novel. As an editor I’ve run into too many occasions where fiction writers don’t have the necessary understanding of point of view, characterization, and plot development. I also encounter manuscripts that lack substance and flow. I’m including here a few ideas to help writers bring to life a book that entices readers. Although I’m speaking primarily to fiction writers, some of this applies to nonfiction as well.
- “Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” I love this quote from William Faulkner, but to be honest I lean toward seeking out the best rather than reading “the bad.” Find the authors whose works you love. Stephen King said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” A truer statement was never spoken.
- After you’ve digested a wide range of fiction books, it’s time to read extensively in the genre you want to write. Youth market writers need to read books that appeal to that age group. If you want to create science fiction, embrace the best that genre has to offer—Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, and a host of others. Realize as well that the majority of these writers had a strong foundation in classic literature. If you want to be an accomplished writer, the first step is reading great books. Drink in the language. Study the depth and intricacy of plot and character and peruse the material with the discernment of a writer.
- If you don’t have a degree in English, you may want to take a literature class in the classics at your local college or university. Studying literature develops the imagination, enhances critical thinking ability and helps us to understand the common themes expressed through writing.
- Take classes! Look for those taught by writers, not just people who study writing. In the late ’80s, I wanted to get back into fiction writing again and scanned the offerings of the local community college. I found classes offered by a renowned author who wrote in the genre I loved most. Perhaps you don’t have access to a bestselling writer in your own hometown as I did, but now it’s easy to find help from online classes and tele-seminars from authors and publishers. Of course, if you can find a local class taught by an author, nothing compares to the level of direct help you may receive this way.
- Join a writers’ network or attend local conferences. Here in central North Carolina, we have a couple of events. I attended the Triangle Book & Writer Conference in 2016 and was on one of their panels in 2017. I received a wealth of information that would benefit new writers. Conferences can help you find great resources including writing coaches, teachers, and publishers.
- Hire a writing coach. Even if you can afford only a few sessions with a mentor who is experienced in the field, you may benefit tremendously from this kind of expertise.
- Once your writing project is underway, join a critique group. Being part of a group of fellow writers who share suggestions, spark ideas, and spur you to meet deadlines can prove valuable. However, it’s important to find the right group for you. Some may include people who prefer to belittle rather than offer constructive advice. Others may be focused on simply being social or pumping each other’s egos. Neither of these will help you craft quality writing.
- Yes, “write what you know,” but that doesn’t mean giving a replay of your life story. Obviously many authors draw on their lives in terms of setting, characterization, sometimes events and even dialogue, but good writers share what they know within—the wisdom and emotional understanding born of those life experiences. Whether you create a world based entirely on your imagination and people it with creatures from other planets or set your story in your own neighborhood and draw on the kind of people you have known all your life only matters in terms of genre. What is far more important is breathing life into that world and those characters by revealing the depth of your own inner understanding. Write what you know in your heart and in your gut, and your world will come to life.
- Make it your own. Whether or not you agree with Christopher Booker that there are only seven basic plots in fiction, we can recognize that certain themes repeat across the ages of storytelling. Luckily, each of us has a unique voice to share those same comedies, tragedies, odysseys, etc. The trick is finding your voice and your distinctive take on these age-old plots. Here’s an exercise you may find helpful: Read a scene from a favorite book or play and then rewrite it from your own perspective. Use your words, your voice, your heart, and your perspective. See how your version differs from that of the original passage. You probably sound considerably different. Reread both scenes out loud. Listen to the voice of the other writer and how it contrasts to your own.
- Devour and digest the following reference materials. For fiction, you can skip the William Zinsser book if you wish, but understanding the material in the others will bring skill and quality to your work. If you have another great grammar book, that’s fine, of course.
Recommended Reading and Reference Materials:
Orson Scott Card: Characters & Viewpoint (Elements of Fiction Writing)
William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White: The Elements of Style
William Zinsser: On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
Susan Thurman and Larry Shea: The Only Grammar Book You’ll Ever Need: A One-Stop Source for Every Writing Assignment