A roundup of resources and a big dose of encouragement for new writers (part 1)
Since 2009-ish I’ve read everything I can get my hands on about writing: craft books, publishing books, books on genres I don’t even write. I love reading about writing, and thinking about writing, and the amount of pleasure I get from starting with a blank page and ending with a full length novel is absurd.
Over the years I’ve sent countless articles and blog posts to friends who want to start their own book, or who finished a book and don’t know where to begin if they want it published. Awhile back I realized I kept reinventing the wheel with each email I sent. So I decided to round them all up in
a blog post two blog posts. The first one is about writing the book, the second one is about getting it published.
The below resources aren’t all encompassing. This is the big stuff, like different approaches to writing a book. The important stuff, like avoiding tropes and harmful writing. Everything that follows is centered around writing novel length fiction. (If you write or want to write nonfiction, I can’t recommend Thinking Like Your Editor enough.)
These are things I’ve read that helped me write a book, or fix a book, or that taught me something critical about the craft. These are resources that helped me develop my own creative process, and hone my own voice.
If you ever wanted to write a book, or if you’ve written one and don’t know what you want to do next, this round up of resources is for you.
If you want to write a book, but aren’t sure where to start
Telling the story you want to read is a magical thing. The world needs more art, more stories, and your story matters. Say that to yourself now, and repeat it as you write. Doubt is part of being a writer. There will be times when absolutely no one gives a shit about your writing but you. You’ll read other writers and weep because your words seem so plain and trite in comparison. Some people won’t like what you write because there are a lot of people on this planet and it’s ludicrous to think they would all like the same things. The world does not respect creative people and artists the way it respects bankers and lawyers and engineers. You have to kindle your own fire and consistently fan your own flames to write a book, and to keep writing books.
So where do you start? I like what Laini Taylor said here and I find myself returning to her advice time and time again when it’s time to start a new project:
Know what you love. Try imagining the book that would light your heart and mind on fire if you came across it in a bookstore—the one that would quicken your pulse and keep you up all night reading. What would it be? Details, details: when, where, what, who? Think it up, imagine it fully, then bring it forth. That’s the book you should be writing.
Every writer is a reader first. What book do you most want to read?
This Toni Morrison quote is one of my all time favorites:
If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.
Once you know the book you should be writing, I suggest you think about out how you want to approach starting your book. What is your creative process?
There is a simplified way writers explain their approach to writing – a panster versus a plotter.
A panster writes as they go, seeing where the story leads. This is also called being a discovery writer. This approach is perfectly fine, and for some writers, completely essential. Some writers need to be surprised by the story and the characters just like the reader, or the writing loses its joy. If you’re that kind of writer, embrace it and learn how to work with it. The downside to this approach is you might end up writing a whole lot of words you can’t use later, but that’s a risk with any approach, honestly.
If this appeals to you, try taking a spin in a character’s voice. Write a chapter and see what happens. If the blank screen and blinking cursor of your computer intimidates you, try writing longhand in a notebook or legal pad (I’ve written whole drafts this way on lunch breaks).
A plotter outlines. There is no one way to outline. You can be as detailed or as bare bones as you like.
This post from Terrible Minds is a go-to of mine for laying out all the different ways you can outline a novel. There are 25 different approaches explained, so you should be able to find one that works for you. If you’re unsure which of these you want to try, pick two or three that sound interesting and play around with ideas. Or pick your favorite novel and use one of the techniques and outline it, paying attention to what it reveals about the way the story is structured and paced.
I tend to take a tentpole moments approach (the third method on Wendig’s list), combined with writing a query first to see which of my ideas has a plot that can hold up for at least 70,000 words (see part 2 for a detailed explanation of what a query is, but basically think of it as the back cover of a book – the short, hooky summary). I’ve learned from experience that I do better with at least a bit of a map.
Once you know how you want to write your book, you just have to write your book. It’s that easy, even though most days it probably won’t feel easy at all.
I think one does well to remember this advice from V.E. Schwab – there is no right way to write a book.
Terrible Minds, mentioned above, is a valuable resource for writers looking to understand and develop their own writing process (bonus: creative cussing). When you’re getting started, you’ll want to read this post about 25 thing you should know about writing a novel, this post on story structure, and this breakdown of what you need to know about writing the first chapter. When you get halfway through your book and want to chuck your laptop out the window, you’ll want to reference this post on how to fight your story’s mushy middle. If you want to stick to a writing schedule, I dig this one about The Big 350 as I find it one of the more realistic of the write every day approaches. And if your story has a big bad guy, this is one of my all time favorite posts about writing antagonists.
Don’t get too wrapped up in the idea that you have to write every day, or believe that your value as a writer is tied to a daily word count goal. Writers take time to day dream; stories need to stew and simmer.
It’s a privilege to have a life and schedule that allows writing daily. Maybe yours doesn’t. Maybe you work two jobs, or you have small children, or you’re struggling with health issues, depression, or anxiety (you wouldn’t be alone – lots of writers do), or after a long day at work you have to battle street harassment and micro aggressions just to get home and you’re exhausted. If it’s hard for you to write, and long months pass wordlessly, you are still a writer. I hope you can find the space to write, because the world needs your story.
Writing is an interesting craft – there isn’t a lot that’s linear about it. You write a story. You get the first draft (or the zero draft) down on paper. That’s your ball of clay. And there are approximately 1,572,345 approaches you can take to molding that clay once you have the draft.
There’s a lot a writer needs to think about during revisions, and the right approach for your book depends on how you wrote your first draft. Maybe you will need ten more drafts to tell the story you want to tell. Maybe you need twenty. Maybe you wrote from an outline and cleaned up your first draft as you went, and you only need two or three round of revisions to finish the project.
Whatever the case, books are born in the first draft but they grow up through editing.
Editing is more than just ensuring your story is plot-hole free, checking for improper use of it’s/its, and making sure your internal and external conflicts make sense. Editing is literally everything you do between the first draft and the finished product to make your book not suck. I like Wendig’s suggestions about editing, and this list of four editing steps is a nice big picture summary. I cannot stress enough how illuminating it is to follow #4, reading your work out loud. Reading your work out loud will alert you to an embarrassing number of typos. It will also improve the rhythm of your writing, particularly your dialogue.
Editing is also where you should be turning on your critical eye to read for areas you inadvertently fall into lazy and stereotypical writing. Did you inadvertently make the only Black man in your story a criminal, or the only Black woman a sassy sidekick? Did you write a dystopian future where every single character is straight, white, heterosexual, and able bodied?
As a writer you have a responsibility to know tropes, and to avoid or subvert them. Anything else is bad writing.
If you are a person writing about a person in a marginalized group of which you are not a member, you have a lot to think about.
Daniel José Older wrote about what he considers to be Twelve Fundamental Steps of Writing “The Other” (And the Self). I think writers should pay particularly attention to number four – can you write about yourself? If you cannot write honestly and openly about being a member of a privileged group, how do you expect to write honestly about the marginalized perspective?
For all the time spent talking about “writing the other,” we neglect the very real problem of writing the self. Privilege survives by invisibility and silence. Privilege also blinds us to who we are and how we are perceived in society, and we have a stake in the game of self-representation. So we see so many god-like, perfectamundo white savior types, or men that do everything “right” and know exactly how to act.
If you’re more worried about the criticism you might receive for getting it wrong than the hurting someone part, step back and reflect before you keep writing that character.
Young adult author Justina Ireland often comes up as a person to follow (on twitter and her blog) for her sharp analysis of marginalized voices in publishing. This is for good reason. She’s written some extremely important (and accessible, which not everyone can do) posts on the topic, like this 101 introduction to the diversity discussion, and this 101 on writing people not like you. If you want someone to give you cookies and hold your hand, her blog is not the one for you. If you legitimately care about your craft, your representation, and not harming others, her work is critical.
Don’t make the mistake of assuming Justina’s blog only needs to be read for “diversity stuff”. Like I said, getting your representation right is just a part of developing your craft, just another thing you address during revisions. Justina’s posts on editing and some of her other resources, like classes, posted here, are not to be missed.
It’s easy to see why, for most writers, the longest period of time they spend on a book will be the editing phase. That’s because in editing you do everything from asking yourself important questions about your work, to moving whole chapters around and changing the story structure, to reading line by line at a sentence level and examining every comma.
When you are done with editing you have a polished book.
And now you have to decide what to do with it. Maybe you wrote this book just for you. That is absolutely fine. Do not let anyone tell you every piece of art you create must be shared or consumed (I learned this from one of my favorite nonfiction writers, Trudy). Maybe you’re still finding your voice as a writer and you know this book was a necessary part of your process, but it’s not something you would publish. That’s okay, too. We call those desk-drawer books. They can come live with mine; they’ll have plenty of company.
But maybe you do dream of your book in the hands of readers. You want to publish.
Stay tuned for Part 2.
Some of my favorite books on craft:
- Wired for Story (Lisa Cron)
- Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (Lynne Truss)
- Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Readers (Barbara Baig)
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Stephen King)
- Writing the Breakout Novel (Donald Maass)
- The Kick Ass Writer: 1001 Ways to Write Great Fiction, Get Published, and Earn Your Audience (Chuck Wendig)
And here are links to buy the books of some of the awesome writers I referenced above:
- Daniel José Older
- Justina Ireland (note her amazon page doesn’t show this book which whoamygod I am excited for)
- Laini Taylor
- Chuck Wendig