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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

How to Learn the Craft of Writing Fiction

“Sorry, but the writing is just not strong enough.”

As a writer, those are the last words I want to hear on a rejection letter. If you tell me you don’t like my characters or my plot is full of holes, I can fix that. But the writing? Where do I begin to fix that? How does one learn to write stronger?

Here are few things I’ve learned in my quest to learn the craft of writing fiction:

Read Everything and Study Everything You Read: Obviously, you should read in your genre, but it’s important to read outside your genre too. Your outside interests might provide the distinctive elements that make your story feel fresh. And study what you read. Notice how the writer handles story structure, hooks, conflict, backstory, and setting descriptions. Don’t forgot the non-fiction how-to-write books. There are hundreds of them, but the two I hear mentioned most are Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, and Goals, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon.

Surround Yourself with Writers: The problem with being a new writer is that you don’t know the right questions to ask. Alone, you might fritter away hours on misguided efforts. Other writers can help direct you. They’ll help you discover your strengths and weaknesses. They can point out opportunities to grow as a writer. Find a critique group, join a professional writing organization like RWA, take a class, or go to a conference. Most conferences make recordings of their sessions. If you can’t make it to the conference, you can always borrow or purchase the recordings. If you are a historical romance writer, Hearts Through History offers interesting classes at reasonable rates.

Find your personal Yoda: This is harder than it sounds. We tend to speak of “great speakers” and “great teachers”, but it’s more complicated than that. It’s not enough to find a writer you admire who is a good speaker and has years of publishing experience. What you need is to find someone who reasons the same way you do. When she explains something, it immediately makes sense and sticks in your mind. You will know you’ve found this person when you see a writing problem, and your immediate response is to quote this teacher. That’s your Yoda, stick with him, and you will make progress. Every writer on this board has a teacher like that, somebody they quote when things get rough. The rest of us may roll our eyes and groan because we’ve heard that teacher’s name so many times, but it’s an excellent way to learn how to put writing lessons into action.

Star Wars: A Musical Journey - Press View

Free yourself with knowledge: One of the best things I ever got from a writing workshop was a list of rhetorical devices and their definitions. I discovered there were names for techniques I used intuitively. Now when someone criticizes me for repeating words, I can justify my work. It’s not repetition, it’s conduplicatio or anadiplosis. That knowledge liberated me to write freely, without fear of criticism.

Write, Write, Write: The writing comes first. Plan ahead to write every day. Set a time and stick to it. The more you write, the more likely your writing will flow naturally.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received? What do you do to make your writing stronger? What classes or books have significantly improved your writing?Please leave a comment and share your experience.


  1. Gail: another great blog, filled with helpful insights.

    The best piece of advice I ever got came from my husband. For years, I'd write in spurts and hide my work. Yet, I longed to write seriously.

    "When I see that you've stopped treating your writing like a hobby, where you take it out and write for a few weeks, then put it away for months... and instead, treat it like a profession, where you write with discipline, every day... then I'll take you seriously."

    I still struggle to be productive, and tend to write in adrenaline bursts, followed by exhaustion. But I do write every single day.

    I see the act of writing, of struggling at times -- much the way athletes train rigorously. Sometimes, the muscles hurt or the weather isn't right. But you write, whether in the rain, whether your kids are smashing lamps (well, I exaggerate) or there's a meal to prepare. Oh, and laundry. That's an ongoing torture.

    Find your golden hours, or when you feel mentally sharpest and the words flow. You only discover your “golden hours” when you write throughout the day, for a sustained amount of time. Until it's a habit. Until it's almost like breathing.

    Yes, all superb advice, finding a Yoda, (or in my case, several Yodas), finding supportive writing groups. I’d also add that finding two or three really good writer friends is important. These are the folks you e-mail at 3:00 a.m. after a stinging rejection, commiserate with… lick your wounds. You need a place to go when you feel demoralized or humiliated. Good times are easy, the champagne bottles burst open, everyone's cheering. The low moments are when you need true friends who are on the battlefield with you. These are the friends who let you whine, feel sorry for yourself for 10 minutes…. Then, move forward. NO wallowing. Persevere.

    Learn to toughen up and keep going. Everyone in the publishing business has taken it to the chin. DO NOT QUIT. Keep writing and submitting.

    Finally, the only thought I’d add, is find writers whose strengths are opposite to yours. Exchange chapters with them, and vice versa.

  2. An addendum, Gail.

    Right now, I’m taking a Margie Lawson class and it’s fantastic. www.margielawson.com Her lecture packets are extraordinary.

    Must-haves or writing How To’s: Noah Lukeman’s “The First Five Pages,” James Scott Bell’s “Plot and Structure” and “Hooked” by Les Edgerton. As a big-time pantser, I struggled with plotting before reading Bell’s book, and assumed other people were gifted as storytellers. Not true. Some of us are right-brained, others are left.

  3. My best writing advice came during a sound design for movies class. We were talking about what to do when feeling creatively stumped on crafting unique sounding effects for surround sound and the professor went on to basically say - You know the mechanics of how to make it, so just do it, and creativity will come eventually. While I tend to sit and work on one project beginning to end, his advice helps me to work through those creatively blocked times. Occasionally I'll jump to another project until the creativity really hits me, but it's the advice that keeps me going and writing.

    I've never really worked on my writing. I've never really taken it seriously until this year. I've started listening to writer podcasts, and I'm challenging myself to read writing books. I've been to one writing workshop at TCC and I'll be going to the DFW Writer's thing in April. I'm also part of a critique group that grew out of NaNo, and I think it really helps that these writers are now some of my best friends.

  4. Great post, Gail! Fantastic advice! I certainly have my own yoda - everything she says clicks for me and helps me grow as a writer. I would say the best advice I ever read was the Nora Roberts quote "I can fix a bad page, but I can't do anything with a blank page." Or something to that effect. That's what made me start writing in the first place - it's what gave me the courage. And it's what I think about every time I don't feel like writing or it just seems too daunting.

    As for what I do to make my writing stronger - I read. I attend conferences. I write in other genres. I occasionally take online workshops. I kind of do what I feel I need to do in the moment.

    Great post!! :)

  5. The best advice I ever got was at a lecture on writing. Someone asked the author about the best time of day to write. Somebody else asked if she did her first draft on paper or the keyboard. Did she plot or storyboard? Journal? She got impatient and said 'Just pick up the @#&# pen and WRITE!" Any time I have writers block I think of this.

    The best class I took was Margie Lawson's on editing.

    The best tip I got was 'writeordie.com', a free site where you can set a timer and word count and go for it. Great for rough drafts, breaking writers block and forcing you to focus. You just have to remember to copy and paste your stuff to your own file. (It goes away once you click 'done.') You can use different settings---normal, evil, kamikaze---to get 'reminders' when you stop writing. (Word of caution. On 'Kamikaze' if you stop to think of the 'perfect' word, the computer will give you about three seconds and then start eating all your lovely words, one by one, until you start working (i.e., typing) again!) This is a great tool---really.

  6. Thanks for the comments, everybody! We're getting some great advice here. I appreciate your taking the time to make recommendations.

  7. I've always written for as long as I knew what a story was. I think one of the best keys to building strong writing is simply to keep writing. Even when you get those first few contracts, those books won't be your strongest efforts. In fact, chances are, you'll want to hide them from the world and hope people forget about them LOL

    The more you write, the stronger you'll get and you'll find the voice that's unique to you.

    The best piece of advice I ever got? Write the damn book and don't worry about the what ifs of the piece. If you have passion behind your project, you'll succeed with it no matter what. :-)

  8. This is a great blog , Gail. I've struggled with being able to afford classes and conferences, so instead I've armed myself with knowledge from books on the craft, and with my personal Yodas. LOL. I highly recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Even though it is about the editing process, I've found ways to work it into my writing process as well. Another book that has worked its way onto my keeper shelf is Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyon. I'm working my way through Novel Shortcuts by Laura Whitcomb, and finding it to have some unique techniques that I'm going to try to employ.

    Candace Havens offers a free series of writing workshops at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Write_Workshop/. They have proven to be very helpful. I particularly love that they are free since I'm unable to afford to take many writing classes otherwise.

    I took a Creative Writing class in college, that, while I was writing poetry at the time and not fiction, taught me so much about writing in general. That was the class that convinced me I could become a writer, and my professor convinced me I could write novels. (And yes, he was my first Yoda.)

  9. I learn more each time I attend a conference and am able to attend workshops and such. And, it is also beneficial to speak with writers outside of your own critique group to get a new perspective. Conference are what I benefit the most from.

  10. Hi Gail,
    I take online classes that have helped bunches, have crit partners, read how to books, but I have to say, the one book that realy freed me up my voice was Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird. She is so wonderfully honest in her approach to writing, life, and teaching writing that you want to jump up and yell "Yes!" at every page. When I can't sleep at night, I slip into the living room and open the book at random...still want to scream "Yes!", but at 3 am...well, you get the picture. Nice blog, thanks.

  11. I wish I'd taken a Creative Writing course--even just one little one. I hate it that I did what I needed to do rather than what I wanted to do. I was a nursing student and our courses were laid out for us completely. I love English lit and history and wanted so much to fill my hours with such courses but it was not to be. Well, now I'm a nurse...and a fledgling historical romance writer. I wrote long before I became an RWA member and didn't even know about it for the longest time! (Imagine that, I ask you!) A year ago I was brand shiny new to RWA and now I've submitted to the GH. Gulp... Absolutely nothing helped me so much as learning to apply my butt to my chair and getting to it. I loved the research required to write my mss but not as much as the writing itself. I learned something new about the art and craft with each one I wrote. Thanks so much for a great blog. It's been helpful to read what has worked for others.

  12. Kathleen,
    That sounds like a great book. I'll have to try it.

    Donna, Good luck in the GH!

    Thanks to everybody who commented. I think these are all some of the best suggestions I've ever seen.

  13. Hi, Gail! Great blog. The best writing advice I ever got was, "Write! Don't think." Because I tend to agonize and over-think every word in the first draft stage, and it hamstrings my creativity. I'm still trying to train myself to let those awful first draft sentences stand, move on and finish, and come back to fix them later, but it's tough.

    As for instructors, there are several I recommend highly, and I recommend writers take every single class they offer: Margie Lawson, who has already been mentioned here several times. Mary Buckham. I adore her and take every class she offers, including as many live ones as I can get to. Laurie Schnebly Campbell, who has singlehandedly transformed me into a successful plotter for the first time in my life. Plotting has always been my Achilles Heel, but it's not anymore! Unfortunately, she's not offering her Plotting Via Motivation class again until early next year, but mark your calendars - if you need plotting help, take the regular class, then take the Master Class. For me, it was the best time and money EVER spent, hands down, and I've taken a billion plotting classes. Everyone will click with their own process, of course, and I know lots of people who clicked with the other plotting classes that I did not personally find helpful, but Laurie is awesome.

    For books, I highly recommend Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat!" Yes, it's for screenwriters, but it contains some of the best pacing help I've ever seen, for novelists as well as screenwriters. Mary Buckham and Dianna Love's "Break Into Fiction" to be read after "Save the Cat!" It will make it all so clear, and the movie examples are fun and helpful for sparking your own creativity. "The First Five Pages" by Noah Lukeman for editing.

  14. Oh, man! Great blog, Gail. Why do I always have to follow you? Who came up with this schedule???

    I have taken several on line classes and read many books on craft and learned a lot. However, the one thing I've done that has been the best move ever was joining a critique group. I didn't even know where to start in navigating the world of publishing, and I've learned much from reading their work and having their feedback on mine.

  15. I want to second Samantha's comment on joining a critique group. A new member of my local chapter asked me this week my stance on critique partners - my answer "Critique groups - yes; critique partners - no." At least for me. With a group you get a much better idea whether or not something works. As always, that's just my opinion.

    I am an auditory learner. So I get the most out of hearing people talk at workshops or conferences. I never take notes. Whatever needs to take root in my brain does. I'm very strange that way, I know.

    But since I am an auditory learner, I take all the information from my own personal Yoda, Claudia Dain - who I think is utterly brilliant, and mentally file it away in permanent memory until I need it.

  16. Great advice, and I love the "free yourself with knowledge" one.

  17. Gail, another great post and responses. I don't have a lot to add other than what I've learned this year is to try to write every day, even if it's just a paragraph. It does add up to something.

  18. I reread THE WRITERS JOURNEY by Chris Vogler almost every time I start a new project.