View Full Version : Need Help (getting started)

11-16-2009, 07:02 AM
I'm sorry if this thread's been made. Close it and refer me to previous threads.

I need help getting started as a novel writer. I know you'd say something like "read more books" or "dissect books by your favourite author" but I need materials to learn from.

I want to writing structure, style, tone and everything else qualifying me to write better. I don't want to spend huge amount of time editing mistakes that I could've avoided simply by learning a little bit.

If you have links for such materials, please share. If you only have books addressing the subject, then also share. Although, I'd very much prefer links.

I want the ability to critique my own work to a fair degree. Right now, I write whatever I see fit, but without proper guidance it's like playing golf without knowing the rules or something like that.

11-16-2009, 06:13 PM
Go to 808.2 in your local library. They'll have books on it.

My particular favorite, perhaps because it made something blindingly clear that I didn't even know wasn't clear before is, chapter five of Writing Novels That Sell, by Jack M. Bickham.

11-16-2009, 07:45 PM
I've always thought that becoming a novelist is a matter of learning and experience and there is no short cut. If there were, of course, the work you put out would look like it and you might not get published. Catch-22. As far as avoiding mistakes-- a semester spent at a community college (probably no more than a few hundred), especially taking a real grammer class, is worth its weight in gold. You go a long way when your sentances make sence. I also don't feel I really began to "write" until I took a class in substantive technical editing. Strangely, if you learn to pick out the mistakes, you also end up avoiding them. You may find some low cost used books on half.com.

11-17-2009, 01:19 AM
Thanks for you both. I guess I do need a book. I'll try the one you suggested, bonitakale.

I don't know about courses, though. I'll try finding one online.


L.C. Blackwell
11-20-2009, 06:56 AM
You know, this is a difficult question to answer. So many of us write the way that some people (and I'm one of them) play piano: by ear. And for writers that grew up into the craft over many years, and can't begin to tell you how they really got there, it's almost an impossible question.

From reading your post, I would guess that you have a flexible, comfortable command of language and writing terms; and that you like to approach things in an organized way. I'm going to recommend a book for you that is actually an instructional book for secondary-level writing teachers. It contains strategies, exercises, etc., for developing skills in newer writers. You can try:

Inside Out: Strategies for Teaching Writing. Kirby, Kirby and Liner. (Third Edition.)

In the end, the exasperating thing about writing is that it's actually more about connecting with your audience than about doing it "right." There are guidelines and suggestions, not rules, that will help you to make yourself clear and have a better chance of reaching more people. Agent blogs, forums, and writers' magazines can help you find the guidelines. If you can take community college classes, make the most of them. The library will be loaded with books on how to write fiction and non-fiction. Or if you live near a big bookstore like Barnes and Noble, check out the how-to aisles.

But: you will receive conflicting advice, and you need to be sufficiently familiar with what works for you in literature, and why it works, to be able to trust your gut instincts. What's more, honing those instincts involves a certain amount of stumbling, messing up, and re-writing that's just unavoidable, no matter how much you study the theory.

Best of luck! :)

For a wise comment on following the rules (once you learn them), you can read this post by Wendy Lawton at Books and Such.


11-20-2009, 09:17 AM
Thanks for your reply, L. C. Blackwell. I do prefer to tackle new fields systematically and in an organised way. Funny how you mentioned playing Piano by ear is what most do. I have tried playing Piano by ear, but I guess I don't have much of a musical ear.

I think guidelines might work. I know writing novels only takes two things. Good command of the language and imagination. I have both. I just need better knowledge of how to put the two things into a working novel.

I'll check out the books you have suggested. Thanks again.

11-20-2009, 08:55 PM
Thanks for your reply, L. C. Blackwell. I do prefer to tackle new fields systematically and in an organised way. Funny how you mentioned playing Piano by ear is what most do. I have tried playing Piano by ear, but I guess I don't have much of a musical ear.

I think guidelines might work. I know writing novels only takes two things. Good command of the language and imagination. I have both. I just need better knowledge of how to put the two things into a working novel.

I'll check out the books you have suggested. Thanks again.

If you prefer to tackle new things systematically and in an organized way, then you need more than good command of the language and imagination. You said it yourself. You also need "better knowledge of how to put those two things into" a novel.

I've got a scientific mind. I was an engineer in a previous life. Well it was this life, but years ago. Someone like me gets anxiety attacks when confronted with a messy pile of creative ideas. You might be the same way if you have an analytical mind. It's like you have a concrete mixer and a few tons of wet concrete stirring around inside and you have NO IDEA how to turn it into the nice straight columns of a building.

You're probably the type writer who needs to learn how to outline your novel first. There are a bunch of books telling you all sorts of ways to do this. The value of reading these books is not so much to pick one of the ways and follow it to the letter, but rather, to gain the insight for the need to build your structure. For the building with concrete analogy, you need architecture and engineering blueprints and you need to build frames and forms and place rebar. THEN you know where to pour the concrete and it ends up as a strong, organized structure.

In the intro to The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, Evan Marshall tells the story of a workshop presented by a NY editor: "Novel Writing 101: A Hands On Approach."

Her presentation was certainly thorough. She covered such topics as dialogue, viewpoint and characterization in admirable detail. But when she finished speaking and opened the floor for questions, everyone in the audience just sat there looking confused.

Finally a man raised his hand. "That's all well and good," he said, "but how do you know when to do each of those things?"

The editor paused, clearly struggling for an answer. At last she replied, "Well, you do them all at the same time."

A woman near me threw down her notebook in exasperation.That story hit home with me. "How do you know when to do each of those things" was the MISSING part in all the other advice I'd ever received about writing.

In the intro to Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell talks about the Big Lie: Writing can't be taught. The Big Lie says that novelists are born with some genetic talent that the rest of us don't have. I bought it for about 30 years, because I could not get my novel written. I had no idea of overall structure, and I had a perfectionist inner editor that stifled my creative flow such that I couldn't even get the concrete mixed up in the truck. Like I was trying to add the ingredients in brick-sized increments, and trying to make a perfect little block of concrete before I could make any more of it.

Learning to outline was like getting the engineering done, and building the forms and placing the rebar.

NaNoWriMo has finally showed me how to mix the concrete. This contest gives you 30 short days to finish your entire novel. You don't have time to try to create and perfect every small brick, you must just dump all the cement, aggregate and water in there and start it mixing. (Unless you are a very experienced novelist - I can see how you'd get much better and faster at it with practice.)

So, I read a bunch of books about outlining. No one of them is right for me so I created my own outlining style, but all of them together helped me understand the concept. Now NaNo is forcing me to mix up the concrete, so I expect I will finally, maybe, be able to pour the mix into the outline and produce some sort of novel.

About your comment about not wanting to spend a lot of time editing mistakes. Well..... there are novelists who polish as they go and don't spend a lot of time going back to rewrite and edit, but I think the majority of them write first drafts, and expect to do major editing on a second and third pass. I highly recommend you get Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Read it through, and then keep it handy as you write.

For me, I can see now that it is an iterative process. My concrete analogy breaks down a bit because actually, in mixing the concrete (writing my NaNo novel), I am generally following my outline (you can write an outline before the starting gun). I guess you could say that I use the right type of ingredients and mix the right overall amount, so I do have the whole picture in mind during the creative flow. But things are also pretty jumbled around. When I go back to edit, I'll be able to rearrange everything like in another thread I compared it to a jigsaw puzzle. But for analytical, organized people like us, you need to have the overall picture in mind FIRST. Some say they can just do it in their head, but for you I recommend you figure out a way to outline your novel on paper.

11-20-2009, 10:08 PM
Here are a couple more ideas. First, start reading this thread (Learn Writing with Uncle Jim) from start to end, because it's full of amazing insights into writing. http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=6710

As you're reading through that thread, take a break and go to the "Share Your Work" section of Absolute Write. Find the genre that best fits what you want to write. Read what others have posted and study the critiques to learn what works and what doesn't. Then you may be able to learn from other people's mistakes without having to make them on your own. Good luck.

11-23-2009, 06:03 AM
Roshie, I'm glad you could understand me. I find alot of what you said - having an analytical mind and the need to know how to mix those ingredients - apply on me. I get frustrated whenever I read those rather abstract guidelines with no means of determining when and how to apply them. I laughed at what you quoted. The story hit home with me when that fundmental question was asked.
I'll check out the book you suggested as it may hold the answers I need.

Also, wheelwriter, I like your suggestion and will try it. Even though it's more of a trial-and-error kind of method (which I dislike.)

11-23-2009, 06:30 AM
I like the idea of taking a college grammar class to be sure you're getting basics right and what not, but I'd also take that a step further and recommend a college writing workshop if at all possible. I know for some people they don't really work...they don't for me for a lot of reasons, the main one being I have a really hard time being constricted by rules. I know that sounds just pigheaded, but I often break rules or change them up or twist them a bit when I write without even meaning to, and then I feel like I'm not able to write creatively if I'm forced to follow them.

Having said that, my very first writing experiences were in school years before college and a workshop level and I credit them with teaching me much more. So I think it depends on who is teaching it and the style, and also what you're looking to get out of it. For someone like you, I think it might be perfect.

It would teach you some rules about writing and what not. You would cover things like tone and dialogue, etc. The best part of a workshop, however, is that you basically write and share your work with the rest of the class and get critiques while critiquing other people. This means that things in your work you haven't noticed are being pointed out and you're learning to improve them, but it also means you're learning how to apply it with a critical eye toward the work itself. And often you learn as much if not more from critiquing other people that you learn from your own work.

It would give you the kind of personal and direct experience that you just can't get from a book. I know some places even offer just weekend or week-long creative writing workshops if a full class isn't possible.

11-23-2009, 07:27 AM
Any chance I might find one online? It's kinda hard for me to find one offline - considering where I live. The things you described got me all tingly inside, lol. That's what I need and I wish I could find a class or workshop online. Thanks, Kaitie!

L.C. Blackwell
11-23-2009, 07:48 AM
Ah, Rushie! I'm glad you're here. :) I have not got a scientific mind, and never will have, but the hero of my current WIP is a professor of electrical engineering. He's also a Soviet KGB officer, but that's a minor detail. ;)