aspiring writer needs tips
June 4, 2009 11:05 PM   Subscribe

What resources would you recommend for a beginning writer?

I can tell stories very well, in person. I'd like to be able to write well. What resources (books, websites, something else?) would you recommend? I'd like to work on writing some fictional stories, sci-fi/fantasy type stuff. I've seen some posts here from a while back, and I see the 'start writing' stuff, I'm on it! I'd like updated opinions/info!
posted by TheDukeofLancaster to Education (26 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
I really liked Stephen King's On Writing.
posted by padraigin at 11:14 PM on June 4, 2009

I've read several books and the best one I've seen for new writers is a book called Fiction Writer's Workshop by Josip-Novakovich.

Unlike the Stephen King book (which is an interesting read and has some good advice), it takes you step-by-step through exercises that will result in a story in your own voice and style if you follow the steps and do the exercises.
posted by rw at 11:23 PM on June 4, 2009

Yes, even people who don't think much of King's work tend to like On Writing. On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardener is considered a classic, but I think a tad overrated. Bird by Bird is a modern classic, and very readable.
posted by Bookhouse at 11:24 PM on June 4, 2009

I'm sorry for the shameless self-link, but I can't think of any easier way to share my favorite writing links.

You will probably get a bunch of people who will suggest to you that the most important thing you can do to become a writer is to write (which I completely agree with); I would like to add, however, READ. Read voraciously. Read those you admire. Deconstruct their techniques. Soak in their voices. Figure out what makes their writing work, and then go about finding your own voice.

Good luck!
posted by litterateur at 11:41 PM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I haven't read the other books so I can't compare, but I highly recommend On Becoming a Novelist. I can't disagree with Bookhouse, because it's the only book of its kind I've read and there are parts that, years later, still strike me as silly, even pretentious. But the I found book's overarching philosophy on fictional writing to be very informative.
posted by Uppity Pigeon #2 at 11:41 PM on June 4, 2009

Hello there. Perhaps the Critters Writers' Workshop would be useful? It's an online forum where fantasy / science fiction / horror writers post and comment on others' work. Generally a friendly vibe. In turn, there are lots of links there to other useful sites.

Re writing technique, I'd recommend John Gardner's The Art Of Fiction on the literary side. The first half is a discussion of literature's aims in general, but the second half is all extremely specific, high quality advice (along with reasons and examples for various pieces for advice). The second half can be read independently of the first. I really enjoyed the tone of the book too -- donnish without being snobbish, and unapologetically elitist (i.e., seeking the highest standards, not seeking to exclude everyone from the club). Am not a published writer (yet), but have just finished a university creative writing course and the advice in this book made my work stand out from my peers.

I'd also recommend Stephen King's On Writing on the populist side, per others' suggestions.
posted by laumry at 11:50 PM on June 4, 2009

Kate Grenville's The Writing Book is beauty. Plenty of exercises to get you writing, plus some good discussion on conventional and more experimental story techniques.
posted by Kerasia at 11:52 PM on June 4, 2009

Ultimately you will need to create a style for yourself. Until you do, you might try referring to one of the classic handbooks on style, "The Elements of Style" but Strunk and White. This book describes the basics of grammar, sentence structure, and classic style. It won't tell you how to spin a yarn, but it sounds like you already know how to do that. It will tell you how to correctly and effectively use the English language. From there, you can play as you like.
posted by bargex at 12:00 AM on June 5, 2009

This book describes the basics of grammar, sentence structure, and classic style.

Oh, no it doesn't. It barely touches on the details of grammar (often getting wrong what it tries to explain), provides a few random and idiosyncratic "rules" regarding sentence structure, and belligerently demands the archaic style of an early-20th-century schoolteacher.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:12 AM on June 5, 2009 [3 favorites]

I suppose if I had wanted to omit needless words, I could have just said "bullshit"
posted by mr_roboto at 12:14 AM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would also highly suggest keeping a Writer's Journal, whether it be a Moleskine, PocketMod, index cards, or whatever. You never know when inspiration will strike.

Also, any information you glean from the Internet, or worksheets you receive from school, etc., cite and keep a hardcopy in a binder as a sort of personalized Writer's Bible. I can't tell you how useful I've found mine over the years to reference again and again.
posted by litterateur at 12:16 AM on June 5, 2009

The National Novel Writing Month is also a great deal of fun. November is the month people all over the world commit to writing 50,000 words in 30 days. The comraderie is helpful and they have famous writers send out great coaching tips throughout the month.

I was quite impressed with the whole thing. November 2008 was my first time (and I "won" by writing the first draft of a 50,000+ novel).
posted by rw at 12:45 AM on June 5, 2009

Learn writing with Uncle Jim


Steve Barnes' writing class

Keep a pen and notebook on you.

King's On Writing is good; McKee's Story has a great explication of plot. But don't get seduced by spending so much time reading about writing that you're not writing.

Write. Every day. You'll resist it like hell. Writers are the ones who overcome that resistance. (The overwhelming majority of regularly producing writers have some specific daily goal of time or number of words.)

Read widely. In genre. Out of the genre. Non-fiction. News. History.

Here's an old guide to failing at writing I wrote. Don't do those things.
posted by Zed at 12:59 AM on June 5, 2009

I've read far too many 'how to write' books and the only two that I really felt were worth it in the long run were, On Writing (and King's advice boils down to - and he's actually quoted this - 'Read at lot, write a lot') and Beginnings, Middles and Ends by Nancy Kress
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 1:50 AM on June 5, 2009

I've heard good things about The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron.
posted by backwards guitar at 2:46 AM on June 5, 2009

I highly recommend seeking out a writers group in your community. Meeting regularly with a group of writers to workshop your material for me has been an essential piece of the process. Granted, I had to weave my way through several groups before I found one that was a good fit for my personality, but I eventually found one that was helpful and honest without being cruelly critical (and those groups are definitely out there). It also helps to see how and what other people are writing and giving them critique helps you refine your own editing skills. Local papers, websites, bulletin boards in coffee shops etc might have postings for groups. Also, ask salespeople are your nearest bookstore. I hooked up with one by calling the English dept. of my local community college and asking if they knew of any, and the one they suggested met in the back of the local Barnes and Noble.
posted by archimago at 2:54 AM on June 5, 2009

I like Stephen King's ON WRITING, but really, writing manuals only tell you what works for THAT author. The only thing you need to start writing are books, an idea and an implement with which to write.

Step One:

Read what you want to write. Read what you don't want to write. Read a lot, all the time.

Step Two:

Sit down and write. If you want a middle grade novel, stop at 35,000 words. If you want young adult novel, get to at least 55,000 words. If you want an adult novel, get to at least 75,000 words. Those are the only guidelines you need.

Step Three:

Repeat steps one and two until you have written several novels. Then start worrying about crit groups, writing groups, conventions, conferences, websites, markets, la la la.

Important Insider Information:

Your first novel will suck. You won't think it sucks. You won't realize until your third or fourth novel, how very much your first baby actually sucked. But believe me. The first novel sucked. Write until you get past it.
posted by headspace at 5:58 AM on June 5, 2009

Writing Down the Bones has some good stuff to get you started writing. It's sort of a hippy writing book but it was helpful to me.

Hugh McLeod's free PDF How To Be Creative is worth a read.

A writing group can be helpful, search one out.

Take everything everyone says with several teaspoons of sea salt.

Prepare to be frustrated at every turn, and remember that real writers are pretty hard core people who sit there and bleed at the skull every day, writing stuff and then wripping it to shreds. I got to be reasonably ok at it, but the process was miserable. I think even among really accomplished writers that's common. A lot of people, when they say "I love to write", you read what they've written and it's pretty awful, because I think for most people the art of writing well is not that pleasurable. Having written well is pleasurable but it's an extremely hard process.

That said, there should be more wonderful writers in the world. I just think it's better going in knowing that the work is hard and there is no reason to do it unless you can't think of anything you'd rather do.

I applied for Breadloaf and got in. It was a really interesting experience. It opened me up to a bigger world of writers and I made some friends that I'm still in touch with there. I'd recomend applying after you have some work under your belt. There are other things like that but it's maybe the gold standard.

Good luck!
posted by sully75 at 6:03 AM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

you might try referring to one of the classic handbooks on style

Of the 30 or so style/reference/documentation guides sitting on the shelf in front of me, I can't think of a worse one than Strunk & White for creative fiction. I might try Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams. It's short, well organized, not insultingly didactic, and focuses on writing principles, not prescriptions.
posted by mrmojoflying at 6:36 AM on June 5, 2009

I'd suggest a significant other or friend who you can ask to bug you to keep writing. It helps if they're patient, honest and even a little blunt.

Of course, you should couple this with a thick skin.

Also a notebook to write down ideas. These ideas will likely not be used, since ideas are easy. But getting in the habit of writing something down succinctly and clearly so that you know what the hell you're talking about later is a necessity and a general life skill. I have several of those little notebooks filled with useless "priest + car batteries, chess across the way" type scribbles.

Finally, a no-frills word processor, Q10, Notepad++ or even just Notepad.exe.
posted by JeremiahBritt at 7:14 AM on June 5, 2009

The most important thing is to read a lot. Read widely, pay attention. How-to books are nowhere near as important as reading actual books, especially those in the genres you're interested in writing.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:53 AM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

I also agree that Strunk and White is useless. If you need a guide on grammar and usage, I would get a manual on usage with alphabetical entries, such as Garner's Modern American Usage. Not only will this kind of manual help you with word choice, it has essay entries that answer almost any question about grammar and usage (e.g., when to use a comma).
posted by crLLC at 8:04 AM on June 5, 2009

I wouldn't recommend books about writing as much as I would writing all the time for any forum you can think of. Write a blog and show it to people. Write long funny emails and send them to your friends. Write fiction and send it to small magazines. Find other writers and hang out with them, either at conferences, workshops, or on the internet. Show them your stuff. Listen to their criticisms, and be aware that the pieces probably aren't any good to start, but that it doesn't mean you can't ever be a writer. You write, you are a writer, so keep at it. Good luck.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:19 AM on June 5, 2009

READ. Read voraciously. Read those you admire. Deconstruct their techniques. Soak in their voices. Figure out what makes their writing work, and then go about finding your own voice.

This reminds of something I heard about Hunter S Thompson. He was a big fan of F Scott Fitzgerald and, when he was young and starting out, used to sit and type out big chunks of Fitzgerald's books ... just to get a feel for how the man's style flowed.

Otherwise, I notice there's lots of good advice here. Two in particular stand out for me because they have helped me along the line:

The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron (she also has a book called The Writer's Way). I'm always kind of embarrassed to recommend this because it's a little on the hippie-dippy side ... but it worked for me, particularly in terms of just getting down to the raw experience of writing, putting words to paper.

Robert McKee's The Story. You usually hear about this from screenwriters but most of what he talks about is relevant to any form of storytelling, and most of what he talks about is related to structure, structure, structure. Not so much the opposite of Julia Cameron as the flip side of the same coin.

Finally, also on the screenwriting tip, there's Blake Snyder's Save The Cat. He takes McKee's structural focus and really runs with it. There's one particular chapter (fairly early on) where he breaks all stories down to 15 basic beats. This is particularly astute.

Good luck.
posted by philip-random at 9:03 AM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

All of Noah Lukeman's books about writing:

The First Five Pages
The Plot Thickens
A Dash of Style

He is a literary agent, and I find these books inspiring as well.

For sci-fi/fantasy in particular, Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy is indispensible. In particular I found the section about exposition to be quite valuable, but he also goes into world building, and making sure technologies and magic systems are realistic and have limits.

A lot of the books that have been recommended so far are kind of... fluffy as concerns actually learning to write; they're focused on the creative process more than the craft of communicating your story on paper. For example, Stephen King's On Writing is entertaining as hell -- and I don't like his fiction -- but I didn't learn much of anything useful from it. It sounds to me like you're already creative, so your attention is probably best focused on more meaty writing books.

Do, of course, read the creative process books if you get stuck or want inspiration or just want to hear from someone who you can relate to. They're absolutely valuable in that sense and I've read a ton of those myself.

I also recommend any writing books by Nancy Cress. She's done a few on characterization that I thought were good. She is a sci-fi writer so she puts notes here and there when something doesn't apply, or applies differently, to speculative fiction. Rather nice, since you'll find a lot of writing books ignore genre fiction altogether.
posted by Nattie at 10:11 AM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Quoting from Wikipedia here. I could have just as easily paraphrased from my memory, as this book has stuck with me since 1990/1991. Here are some direct quotes:

In 1990, Higgins published "On Writing" a book of hard-bitten advice for aspiring writers. The book was notable for its long excerpts of writers Higgins admired ... and also for its unusually blunt judgments ("If you do not seek to publish what you have written, then you are not a writer and you never will be.")

The book's final paragraph might serve as an epitaph for George V. Higgins: "The secret remains that there is no secret. The way to determine whether you have talent is to rummage through your files and see if you have written anything; if you have, and quite a lot, then the chances are you have the talent to write more. If you haven't written anything, you do not have the talent because you don't want to write. Those who do can't help themselves. We do it for the hell of it, and those who raise a lot of hell, and then get very lucky, well, we make a living, too. There are worse ways to travel through this vale of tears than by doing the things you love, and making a living at it."

I hope that is as helpful to you as it has been for me over the years.
posted by SantosLHalper at 12:56 PM on June 5, 2009

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