Resources that demystify (fiction) writing
December 20, 2018 10:12 PM   Subscribe

Short gist of what I'm loooking for: Detailed descriptions of writing/drafting process, authors releasing a step by step timeline of their various drafts a la Brandon Sanderson, thoughtful discussion of the how writing works, guides to how to break down a piece and figure out what makes it work/tick, things like that.

A second tl;dr at the bottom, summing up the following:

Stuck with my (fantasy) writing, I've taken a break to read (fantasy) voraciously. I am becoming very frustrated, though. (I am open to discussion of other fiction genres, but fantasy is the dominant perspective I'm coming from).

When I did a similar thing with drawing, I was able to come away with a list of things I wanted to try. Specific color juxtapositions, types of angle and perspective, use of shadows, kinds of gesture. Sure, my drawings weren't as good as professional drawings but I felt really encouraged and motivated to improve and saw improvements fairly quickly.

When I read something, on the other hand, if it really works I just sort of stare at it, baffled. "I have no idea how this works or why", I think. "I haven't got any more insight than before I read this piece about how to create the effect I just experienced". I look at my own writing, which is nothing like the polished piece I read, and feel like it's garbage, and have no direction or ideas how to fix it.

When I read something that doesn't work... it's honestly pretty much the same. "This didn't work", I think, "I'm not sure why, and I don't know how to fix it." I can recognize when a story has good bones but is lifeless (both my work and others), but cannot figure out where to make life come from. This makes the prospect of "write a bad first draft and fix it in revisions" very dispiriting to me-- in my experience, when I do this I spiral into a deep loathing of the piece and eventually abandon it, because I can see that it's missing something and cannot figure out how to give it what it needs.

So now I turn to you for help. I'm seeking, somewhat flailingly, resources that will help me figure out the next step.

Things like what I am looking for:
* Brandon Sanderson released every draft of his Warbreaker novel. This was amazing. I could watch the story grow flesh! It was so encouraging! If any other authors have done this or anything like it I definitely want to know.
* An author's blog once discussed plot structure, the various key beats that happen in a story. This was so helpful for looking at a draft and seeing what beats are missing or don't come fast or slow enough.
* Some authors make me really deeply love their characters and I cannot figure out how/why, I'd love to have more insight into that.
*Exercises that would help me "figure out" pieces of writing I really, really liked would be nice, but need to be about learning from them for writing and understanding technique, I'm very uninterested in anything having to do with understanding them in a literary analysis sense, which is the skill I learned in english class. Like I'd love to understand how to use dramatic tension and foreshadowing better, super uninterested in analyzing themes and symbols or whatever.
* I'm not sure, I'm open to things I haven't thought of that might be helpful.

Things I am not looking for:
* Encouragement to just write freely. I already have this (all the books by the author of Writing Down The Bones), and I am actively working on it (morning pages habit of just freewriting for three pages to get the gunk flowing). The lovely tumblr wrex-writes has a lot of this, it's great for when I can't write a first draft at all, but I need stuff for the next stage.
* Anything too extremely detailed and small-focused and technical. Things like "words to use in place of vague descriptions" or "how to vary sentence cadence"

Actually, another, shorter way of describing what I'm looking for:
Imagine that writing is a process with a few steps:

1. Write a "bad" first draft to figure out what happens (like an initial sketch)
2. ????? (fix perspective, do final lineart, block in colors, add shading, adjust colors as necessary so they don't look weird)
3. Refine and polish the details (single strands of hair, itty bitty tweaks and highlights, etc)

I'm looking for all the help I can get with 2.
posted by Cozybee to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
(to slightly refine the analogy to drawing used at the bottom, there's also things it's useful to know in the sketching stage that make stage 2 easier, because you have better raw material to work with. That would also be something I'm interested in getting help with. So anything which helps the messy first draft be less messy and more usable for a second draft, but not things about just getting the first draft out to begin with)
posted by Cozybee at 11:24 PM on December 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Cupidsbow's Formula for Writing Sex Scenes - which also works for any intense action scene.

Link roundup: 102 Resources for Fiction Writers - misc roundup of articles like "7 common character types" and "Novel outlining 101." Some are dead links; they may be available in the Wayback machine.

The Ticklish Pear's Writing resource index, which is heavier on worldbuilding than writing techniques, but some of those are there, too.

The Snowflake Method for novel-writing - website gives the basic; if it looks good, the ebook is $5; there's also software that's normally $100 and is $50 if you jump through a few hoops to get the coupon. I've used this method (I have the book; don't have the software), and found it good for basic plotting but lacking for worldbuilding for F&SF settings.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:54 PM on December 20, 2018

Holly Lisle has some instructional material in which she share her editing of novels. I can't remember which off the top of my head - and I'm about 10 seconds from falling asleep - but if you skim through her info on her site and shop, I'm sure you'd find them. (I am very sorry for the vagueness, but if I go to bed without commenting, by morning I'll have completely forgotten I intended to come back and comment. If you can't find it, message me and I'll figure out out.)
posted by stormyteal at 12:18 AM on December 21, 2018

One more, showing what not to do - How to Say Nothing in 500 Words (pdf)
He is therefore seldom content with a plain statement like “Fast driving is dangerous.” This has only four words in it.

If he is really adept, it may come out:
In my humble opinion. though I do not claim to be an expert on this complicated subject, fast driving, in most circumstances, would seem to be rather dangerous in many respects, or at least so it would seem to me.

Thus four words have been turned into forty, and not an iota of content has been added.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 12:32 AM on December 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

The blog Writing About Writing has posts about the craft of writing, among other things (scroll down for a list of relevant posts).
posted by rakaidan at 1:07 AM on December 21, 2018

Ursula K. Le Guin's Steering the Craft has more focus on style than plot, but some things were quite eye-opening to me. I'd also recommend Stephen King's On Writing - half memoir and half a rambling lecture, it's nevertheless been quite eye-opening.

While script writing is its own branch, John Rogers's old blog Kung Fu Monkey did deep dives into some scripts of his shows that really laid out the bones and guts of the story in a way that gave me a lot because I usually start with characters and then have to find a plot for them. This one is a favourite for some succint imagery of overdeveloped backstory...
posted by I claim sanctuary at 1:14 AM on December 21, 2018

Seconding King's On Writing. He has a section in it where he goes through the exercise of showing you an excerpt of a first and second draft of a short story he's been playing with - and I want to say that he says in the book that "this is something I was working on but decided to put aside, and I'm only dragging it out to give you an example - but the act of working on this has driven me to work a little further."

That story, you can tell, is 1408. So you can also then get the story itself in its published, final-draft form to compare that to it too.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:51 AM on December 21, 2018

Since you mentioned Brandon Sanderson, you may have heard of Writing Excuses, a long-running fifteen-minute weekly podcast about writing as a craft. There's a lot there, but I can recommend you start with Season 10, which is designed as a linear class on writing starting with coming up with ideas and ending with how to get published, complete with weekly exercises to do.

Also, quite a few writers offer online classes these days. I've taken Mary Robinette Kowal's, and it's very good for exactly the stuff you're struggling with. It's easiest to get access to her classes if you're a Patreon supporter, although I'm pretty sure she still offers them to the general public, too.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:19 AM on December 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

I’ve been listening to Tim Clare’s Death of 1000 Cuts podcast from the beginning now after starting his Couch to 80k program. The premise is he reads a submitted first page, then nots out what’s not working and why. It’s been really interesting seeing practically what works well and what feels clunky.
posted by actionpact at 7:49 AM on December 21, 2018

Seconding Writing Excuses. Most of the things I know about story structure, pacing, creating stakes, etc. comes from them.

Whatever your feelings about Orson Scott Card, I remember getting a lot out of his two books about writing: Characters and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.
posted by toastedcheese at 8:16 AM on December 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've been getting a lot out of John Truby's The Anatomy of Story. The process he uses for building a story seems to gel with me.
posted by telophase at 9:37 AM on December 21, 2018

On the fantasy genre, and creating better raw materials: N.K. Jemisin often writes about writing, and compiled a useful Worldbuilding 101 presentation.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:44 AM on December 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's geared more to personal essays/memoir than to fantasy writing, but it has solid writing tips for any genre and exactly the kind of advice you have specifically asked for more of: Naked, Drunk and Writing by Adair Lara. It's also a fun and often hilarious read.
posted by all the light we cannot see at 4:35 PM on December 21, 2018

Thanks everyone, keep 'em coming.

Because podcasts are kind of a vast ocean of hours, I'd really appreciate if you cite specific episodes you found helpful. Also re-emphasizing that I'm specifically looking for resources for the middle stage, where a very very rough draft becomes something better, because that is where I am particularly stuck and have encountered a dearth of materials. (I have two completed first drafts I can't stand the sight of and an unfinished first draft I'm currently too demoralized to continue for fear of it simply joining the fate of the first two.)

ErisLordFreedom, that cupidsbow link was exactly the kind of thing I'm looking for, thank you! I love that she shows before and after of the scenes and explains why and how she made the changes she made for the final version.
restless_nomad, I've heard of and listened to lots of Writing Excuses, but I'll specifically check out season 10, thanks.


I should probably drop a few links of my own, here, maybe others will find them useful.

1. The Massive Outlining and Tracking Tool spreadsheet (which is a combined snowflake and 3-act structure, I think) and
2. This tumblr post
3. This is a useful collection of plot and scene worksheets, which I sort of combined with the above for internal arc related stuff.

these 3 combined were a major turning point for me being able to outline and finish first drafts.

This barebones yet very intuitive and step-by-step guide for writing action scenes really helped me and, having dug it up because I remembered it being useful, I'm probably going to take the opportunity to re-read everything the author wrote, maybe I'll find something else that helps.
posted by Cozybee at 7:58 AM on December 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

May be more time and money investment than you're looking for here but MasterClass has several writing classes with authors like Margaret Atwood, Dan Brown, and (upcoming) Neil Gaiman. I can't point you to specific sections but they're all broken down into individual lessons. And they have a "buy one gift one" on the All Access Pass right now.
posted by abrightersummerday at 12:32 PM on December 22, 2018

The Elements of Fiction Writing/Write Great Fiction series from Writer's Digest has some great nuts-and-bolts stuff. It might not be exactly what you're looking for, but I'd recommend checking them out and see if anything resonates. My personal recommendations are Kress's Beginnings, Middles and Ends and Bickham's Scene and Structure.
posted by xenization at 6:53 PM on December 26, 2018

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