Fiction Writing Guides for Someone Who Wants to Write
June 29, 2022 12:13 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for recommendations for specific types of books about writing fiction and structuring a novel. I'm doing a content read for a friend who wants to write a novel (I think it's YA, but honestly, at this point I can't tell) and is just...not a good writer. The type of help I'm looking for is different from the usual writery type stuff, so please take a look at the details inside.

My friend has self-published two memoir type books, and I did copyedits for them both (I'm a freelance editor, mostly focused these days on copyediting and proofreading). They were...challenging, because I didn't want to discourage her, but she is just very much not a born writer, and while she goes to conferences and tries to learn about writing skills, she doesn't seem to really make the connection between people talking about, say, how to do good dialog and writing dialog that's not horribly stilted, exposition-dumpy, and unrealistic.

She's now trying to make a switch to fiction. I believe she sees this as YA, but that's not a thing I know much about, and I haven't been doing much in the way of content editing or developmental editing for like a decade or so, and I'm out of the loop.

Because I've been writing myself since I was a child, I've never really paid a lot of attention to how to write books. I've read a few, hate many of the ones that get recommended all the time (seriously, do not tell me I should never use adverbs Famous Writer Man, wtf), and just basically haven't needed to know good ones to recommend to a wannabe fiction writer. Most of my clients write fiction, but they are all experienced and most of them don't really have any recs, either. And when I work with publishers, the editors take care of steering the rewrites.

So I'm looking for books that I could recommend to my friend that might help her understand stuff like structure (for instance, this manuscript started with an interesting inciting incident, and then just...petered out in the second chapter), narrative pacing, and especially how to write engaging dialog. (She seems to want to try to explain everything--literally everything--up front rather than building the story through action and narrative or struggles with how to have a first-person narrator learn about stuff without it being an exposition dump from another character.)

I specifically don't want stuff like Anne Lamott, or Stephen King's book, or Strunk & White, or anything focused on writers ruminating on writing or focusing on mechanics. My friend is super analytical, and I think she struggles with how to convey emotion through narration or develop direction (I'm 70 pages into this thing and I have no idea what it's about, as an example). Books (or websites) that really give a newbie concrete help on understanding how to create a compelling story are what I need. When I was poking around on the web, everything I came across was focused on details that I don't think would be helpful.

tl;dr: Basically, something that tells someone who can't write all that well how to write better and take an interesting idea and create a compelling story, with useful examples.
posted by kitten kaboodle to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I came across something here on Metafilter once and now can't find it, so I'm hoping someone else can provide the link, but it was a method was that you start with three sentences: where the characters start, what happens in the middle, and where the characters end. Then you repeat the process for each sentence, so that the beginning now has a beginning, middle, and end; the middle has a beginning, middle, and end; etc.

This video from Ellen Brock would probably be helpful as well.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:49 PM on June 29, 2022 [2 favorites]

I think that this calls for an actual _class_ with a very good teacher.
posted by amtho at 12:50 PM on June 29, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: These books were ones that were recommended to me in college - enthusiastically so - by another writing-interested student. They're really practical in their approach. (The one called "Plot" is the one that that student recommended to me first, and I liked it so much I tracked down a few others.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:52 PM on June 29, 2022 [2 favorites]

I think a good start for a beginner like you describe could be Dan Harmon's Story Circle. It's super basic, but if she's having the kind of struggles with structure you describe, super basic might be exactly what she needs.

As for the rest... I'm not sure how helpful instruction on writing dialogue would be. I've been writing and reading for a very very long time, and honestly all I've seen anyone really get out of that kind of thing is minor improvement once they already know what they're doing. You kind of need to have an ear for it, because great story dialogue doesn't always sound exactly like people talk. It's more like "this SOUNDS like people really talk... but more interesting/entertaining and pushes the plot forward." That's really a lot harder than just knowing how people talk.

The best way for someone in your friend's situation to improve could be to read a LOT of whatever it is she wants to write, bringing her analytical mind to bear on it. Rather than reccing how-to books, maybe rec novels that are really good at doing the things she's NOT very good at.

In your search for other resources for her, you might also focus on articles/books that deal with trusting the reader. Front-loading all that exposition and info is a clear sign that a writer doesn't think the reader will be able to pick things up "on the way."
posted by invincible summer at 1:07 PM on June 29, 2022 [1 favorite]

IMHO, this approach may not work. I've struggled to write myself. English was not my first language, and I recall having wanted to write a novel for a very long time, and I have a whole collection of books on both writing and screenwriting, enough to fill a small bookshelf. I also have clipped a ton of articles on writing, paid for a few classes, and so on.

The best lesson I've taken away, and I've forgotten where I got it from, was... does the writing make you FEEL something? If the writing takes you to another place, makes you want to keep reading, made you feel sympathy, anger, sadness, adoration, etc. for the characters, and it has a coherent plot, then the writer has done a good job.

I have a feeling that while your friend's technical craft may be up to task, she hadn't put EMOTION into her writing.
posted by kschang at 1:49 PM on June 29, 2022

Best answer: I wonder if Jenny Crusie’s posts about writing would be useful. She gives lots of examples. Here’s the section on drafting and discovery.
posted by paduasoy at 2:45 PM on June 29, 2022 [1 favorite]

It's impossible to turn a bad writer into a good writer if the bad writer is not willing to read a huge amount of fiction. If your friend is not doing that, they are wasting their time (and yours).

Assuming that is squared away, I have seen this ancient, very long forum thread recommended: Learn Writing With Uncle Jim.
posted by caek at 3:11 PM on June 29, 2022 [2 favorites]

I'd second the recommendation for the Elements of Fiction series from Writer's Digest. (They have a sequel series, Write Great Fiction, that features updated treatments of several previously covered topics.) Also, your friend should be reading if she isn't already—both generally and whatever the thing she's planning to write is. (The reading doesn't need to consume a person, but it should be somewhat regular.)

I could recommend books on writing for a good while, but I'll just mention a few that take a solid nuts-and-bolts approach to the overall endeavor of fiction: Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction by the Gotham Writers' Workshop, and The Art and Craft of Fiction by Michael Kardos.

If you think other titles would help, memail me.

Also, I'd push back mightily on the idea that folks are born writers. Has your friend been at this long? I mean, I know we learn to write pretty early on in our education, but writing outside of school is a different thing, and sometimes the best learning is unlearning the bad advice we've been given by teachers who were just repeating what they'd been taught.

And before I get off my soapbox, I think writing with some kind of support—a class, a workshop, even an informal group—can serve as motivation, accountability, and more. If your friend doesn't have that as well, sure, she can improve, but I think that process is accelerated in a social context (which, I know, seems counterintuitive).
posted by xenization at 5:05 PM on June 29, 2022 [1 favorite]

I read Sol Stein's Solutions for Writers at a young age and it taught me so much - it really breaks things down in a very practical, granular kind of way which was so helpful for then-Me, a teenager without a clue.

Other musings: I read a friend's writing once; it was erotica and it was so horrible it made me feel queasy. But then I actually read some published erotica and realised... My friend hadn't done a bad job emulating that kind of thing at all. She'd actually done it quite well! It was what it was supposed to be, it just was not my thing. Can your friend share with you a few examples of the kind of books she likes? It may be that she actually enjoys reading the kind of writing that she has produced. And if she doesn't read much of the kind of thing she wants to produce... recommend that she start doing so.
posted by unicorn chaser at 5:06 PM on June 29, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Although he has become persona non grata in the past several years, two books by Orson Scott Card taught me a lot about writing: Characters and Viewpoint is part of the Elements of Fiction series mentioned above and is good, while How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy discusses how to build a fictional world that feels lived-in and realistic.
posted by tacodave at 5:37 PM on June 29, 2022

Has your friend tried dictating instead of using a keyboard/pen and paper? It won't especially help with plotting and structure, but it may help the dialog come out more naturally.

The one book I've read about dialog, and which honestly changed my writing, was Tom Chiarella's Writing Dialog. I honestly don't know if it's the best one out there, but I know I loved it.

She might be able to learn a lot by getting into a critique group, either real-time or online. Having others read her stuff, and having to read and critique their work, might help her...though it could be rough on her as well (which may be what she needs).
posted by lhauser at 7:11 PM on June 29, 2022 [1 favorite]

I can't find my notes from a particularly excellent class I took - if I track them down, I'll let you know - but I *think* I can manage to explain one general concept about dialogue I wanted to mention.

It was that, when dialogue isn't working, it's often that the writer is trying to put TOO MUCH in. They're trying to write out entire sentences. We rarely speak aloud that way, and when written, it needs to be even more concise. We need to just say the important bits, the absolutely necessary ones.

This is the tip of the iceberg, but it's ONE point that might help. A reminder that they should think of themselves as ONLY giving out what the reader really needs to know RIGHT NOW... and keep everything else back for them to discover later.

It's possible, though, that your friend understands the concepts, but has a tough time following through and putting those concepts into practice. It's even more likely if they're not an avid, fluent reader.

Your description of your friend's writing suggests that they could still use a great deal of craft practice. A couple of good ways to obtain that - without you, and potentially your friendship - being the sacrifice would be 1) writing classes in the community or at the community college level that are focused on fiction or creative nonfiction, with a GOOD instructor and workshopping with peers, or 2) a writing workshop group, either in person or online, preferably that uses construction criticism sandwiched between positives. The third option is that your friend pays a developmental editor or coach, and it doesn't even sound as though friend is ready for that, though I'm sure friend could find someone to take their money.

If you could successfully encourage your friend to access some sort of workshopping, it would both help take the heat off you, AND allow them to have more eyes and viewpoints on their work. Additionally (and perhaps even more importantly) they would be workshopping the writing of others, which is often just as or more helpful for learning craft than critiques of their own work.

If need be, plead lack of time or burnout to reduce your friend's dependence on you and encourage them to seek the workshopping. I really believe that would be the best route given the skill level you've described.
posted by stormyteal at 10:19 PM on June 29, 2022

Best answer: Dialogue and story structure are especially important in screenwriting, and so you might suggest some books aimed at screenwriters. Many years ago, I read Linda Seger's Making A Good Script Great and found it very helpful. Nowadays, many people recommend Save The Cat, although I haven't read it myself.

Screenwriting books can get pretty formulaic -- "your hero must receive their call to adventure by page 10, but not accept it until page 15," or whatever. I'd normally discourage a writer from replacing their unique story instincts with whatever formula a book is peddling. But it sounds like your friend doesn't yet have any story instincts, and a formula might be the perfect training wheels until they develop them. You can suggest that they look up the average word count for their genre, and then do some math to translate the screenplay book's recommendations. EG, if the call to adventure happens on page 10 of a 120 page script, then it would happen 1/12th of the way through their novel. If they're writing a 60,000 word novel, that would work out to 5,000 words in.

You asked about books, but if your friend is open to podcasts, I highly recommend Writing Excuses. There's 15 seasons worth of podcasts, and you could recommend the ones on whatever subjects you think your friend needs most. For example, here are all the episodes tagged with story structure.
posted by yankeefog at 2:02 AM on June 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

I came across something here on Metafilter once and now can't find it, so I'm hoping someone else can provide the link

I think you're referring to unSane's comment on Ask.
posted by dobbs at 11:06 AM on June 30, 2022

A fanfiction writer I enjoy (who is also a published fiction writer) has a podcast which discusses the writing process fairly often, amongst other topics.

She also did a short series (7 episodes) that was originally on Facebook until she fled, but has been reported with her regular podcast. The series is called Story Building: The Novella, with specific episodes on plotting, central theme, character building, GMC (goals, motivation & conflict), etc.

A more conversational tone might work better for your friend absorbing the content than books. Possibly.

Anyway, the first episode is here:

I can't remember this series specifically, but the regular podcast is regularly littered with profanity. Just to warn you. She probably tried to tone it down for something intended for Facebook, but I don't know how successful she was.
posted by timepiece at 8:09 AM on July 6, 2022

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