Learn to Write Fiction 1: Get Started

start-road-1668916__340_pixabayI explained in my last post why I didn’t start writing fiction till my late 40s. Sometimes I think my life’s motto should be, Better Late than Never. Anyway, once I decided to give this whole making-up-stories thing a try, I had to figure out how to get started. Just put some words on the page? Well, OK, but as I said in my last post, creative writing is a craft. And crafts have to be learned. So, how does one learn to write a novel? Especially if one has a day job and doesn’t want to spend a couple of years and many thousands of dollars earning an MFA?

How I got started writing fiction

As I mentioned in my last post (Have I plugged that thing enough yet? Maybe my life motto should really be, Shameless Self-Promotion for the Win), I literally started by Googling “how to write a novel.” Yeah, I know. I’m an academic librarian, a professional searcher with the universe of published knowledge at my fingertips, and I started my creative writing career with a lame-ass Google search. Truth be told, I wasn’t very serious then. I did that search on a whim.

That whim and that search led me to the Snowflake Method by self-proclaimed Snowflake Guy Randy Ingermanson. By pure luck (or fate or law of attraction or whatever you want to call it), I found an approach that meshes nicely with how my mind works. I read through Randy’s pages, and the magical phrase that has so often sent me on life adventures clanged through my work-addled brain:

I can do this.

Learn the craft

I’ve said it before, but it’s important enough to repeat: Creative writing is a craft. Not magic, not some gift that only a rare few people are blessed with. And crafts can be learned. But they aren’t learned automagically or by osmosis or by standing under a full moon at midnight and sacrificing a live chicken. They’re learned through study and practice.

So that’s my first piece of advice if you want to learn to write fiction: study and practice. What does that look like? Here are 3 suggestions:

  1. If you want to write, you have to read. If you want to write romances, read good, successful romances. Ditto for thrillers or mysteries or whatever your chosen genre is.
  2. But reading other people’s stories isn’t enough. After all, you can’t learn to knit just by wearing sweaters. You have study the craft itself. So get some good books on the craft of fiction writing and start reading. At the end of this post, I list the books I found most helpful as a brand-new writer, but your mileage may vary, as your approach may be different from mine.
  3. Practice. For me, practice took 2 forms:
    1. Doing exercises in writing books. They help you apply techniques right as you’re learning.
    2. Working on my own writing. I started planning, then drafting, my first novel right after I discovered the Snowflake Method. As I read books about the craft, I tried to apply what I’d learned to my own work.

Books for Getting Started

There are a zillion books about fiction writing with a zillion different approaches. You may need to read widely to find a few that work for you. The ones listed below worked for me. The first two can help you structure your novel and get started writing it. The third will help you avoid common newbie mistakes so your writing sounds polished and professional. Note: these are Amazon Affiliate links that will throw a few pennies my way if you use them to purchase.

      1. How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method – Randy Ingermanson. The book that started me on my journey. It’s for people who want to impose some structure on their novel but don’t want to make a detailed outline. This process worked very well for me as I planned my first novel.
      2. Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between – James Scott Bell. Like the Snowflake Method, Bell’s approach is a compromise between hardcore outlining and winging it (or plotting vs. pantsing). He provides enough structure to help you get started without overwhelming you.
      3. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print – Renni Browne and Dave King. And if you want even more books to read, check out The Best Books on Writing Ever, a recent blog post from Browne’s Editorial Department blog.

     

How about you? Are you new to writing or an old hack? Do you have any favorite resources to help new writers get started? Share them in the comments and help out your fellow scribblers.

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Talent is overrated

Insecure Writers Support Group BadgeThis is my first ever post for the Insecure Writers Support Group Blog Hop. On the first Wednesday of each month, participants, “Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling.” Today I’ll use this opportunity to talk about why I didn’t start writing fiction till my late 40s, even though I’d always dreamed of doing so.

I’ve been a bookworm since forever. I still remember one Saturday afternoon when I was about 6 or 7, and my mother was too busy to stop right.that.minute and read me The Wizard of Oz for the 472nd time. Yes, I was quite the Oz fangirl. I picked the book up, tried to read it myself, and discovered I could. The first time a kid reads a chapter book on their own should be a milestone celebrated with fireworks. And cake. Lots of cake. But I digress.

I started journaling not long after that and fantasized about becoming a fiction writer. So why didn’t I? I am going to tell you, and you are going to think I’m an idiot.

When I was a senior in high school, my English teacher told us to write a short story. That’s it. Write a short story. We had spent exactly zero time talking about how to write fiction. We’d read plenty (thanks, Mrs. Rainer, for interrupting my senioritis with Heart of Darkness), but we hadn’t studied a dang thing about how to write anything other than essays and term papers.

So I wrote a short story. And it sucked. Big time. It sucked hard enough to create a black hole that threatened to consume the entire planet. The planet survived, but I got a lousy grade and assumed I didn’t have any “talent” for writing fiction. And splat went my dream like a bug on a windshield.

I majored in English as an undergrad, but I avoided all the creative writing courses, because I didn’t have any “talent.” Of course I didn’t, because I couldn’t produce a decent short story with no training whatsoever. I told you, you’d think I’m an idiot. Instead I wrote boring literary criticism, got my degree, became an English teacher, hated it, went to grad school, and became a librarian. All the while, I kept writing. I even won a student paper contest in library school, but I’m pretty sure I won by being the only entrant.

As a librarian, I wrote and published journal articles and book chapters. I blogged. I struggled with how to channel my compulsion to write into actually getting an audience. I read about how fiction writers got started and ached to have the “talent” to write fiction.

And then I approached 50. My boobs went south, my blood pressure went north, and I began to reconsider my dreams. There’s something about knowing ~2/3 of your life is over that makes you think long and hard about how you want to spend the last third.

Around that same time, I reread Diana Gabaldon’s account of how she wrote Outlander (tl;dr: she wanted to learn how to write a novel, and decided that the best way to do that was to actually write one). I read about how other authors started their careers. And one slow afternoon at work, I Googled, “how to write a novel.”

That was in 2014, and I’ve been writing fiction ever since. I won NaNoWriMo in 2014 and finished the first draft of my first novel a few months later. I’ve spent the years since revising it from almost black-hole-level suckitude to something almost worth reading. I’ve written a couple of short stories. I’ve read books and articles and blog posts about fiction writing. And I’ve learned two priceless lessons that, had I known them 30 years ago, might have changed the course of my life:

  1. Talent is overrated.
  2. Creative writing is a skill, and skills can be learned.

Why are those lessons so important? Because “talent,” is some mystical magic bestowed on the very few, probably those born at midnight under a full moon in a witch’s side garden or something. But learning is something we control. We have the power to get better. It’s hard work, yes. Lots of reading and learning, and lots and lots of practice, practice, practice. But those things are under our control. We can choose to do them. We can’t choose to be born in a witch’s side garden at midnight.

So if you’re discouraged, if you look at other people’s writing and wish you had their “talent,” remember: You can learn it. You can build it. You can choose to invest time and sweat and blood and tears in yourself, and you’re never too old to start. The power is yours. Claim it.

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Monthly reading list: August 2019

bookcoverLike most writers, I’m a voracious reader. I consume books like an unsupervised 7-year-old consumes Pop Tarts. I read all kinds of books and in all kinds of formats (unlike my Pop Tart habit. There is only one kind of Pop Tart worth eating–Brown Sugar Cinnamon. Fight me.) I’m also one of those nerdy people who is highly motivated by measurements, so I do the Goodreads Reading Challenge every year. I just logged in to view the list of books I read in August and was horrified to find that I’m 2 books behind my annual goal. I guess I know what I’m doing for the rest of today. The vacuuming will have to wait–I’m behind on my reading.

So here’s what I read in August. Hopefully September’s list will be longer.

Books about Writing

The Writer’s Lexicon: Descriptions, Overused Words, and TaboosKathy Steinemann and Stuart Aken (Kindle ebook). This book was depressing, only because it revealed just how much is still wrong with my novel in progress. My characters nod, smile, and laugh pretty much constantly. This book provided some great tips for turning those characters into something other than bobbleheads on happy pills. And if you want more practical advice on improving your writing, there’s a volume 2, which I just started reading, plus Kathy Steinemann’s excellent blog. See, for example, her two posts on Writing Rules: When Can You Break Them? (Rules 1-6, Rules 7-10)

How to Tell a Story: The Secrets of Writing Captivating TalesPeter Rubie (hardcover from the library I work in). I found some excellent advice here on plot, character, point of view, and more. My favorite quote: “The story is not what happens. The story is who it happens to.”

The Author Blog: Easy Blogging for Busy Authors –  Anne R. Allen (Kindle ebook). This book inspired me to create an author blog! This author blog! Allen offers excellent practical advice for creating a blog and building an online identity and reputation. I plan to return to her book many times as I tiptoe into the author blog-iverse. Allen’s own blog is an excellent resource for writers. My favorite recent post is The Decline of Mainstream Fiction: Why Authors Need a Genre in Today’s Fragmented Publishing World, in which Allen provides astute insights into changes in publishing and which types of fiction do best as indie-published vs. traditional.

Your Novel, Day by Day: A Fiction Writer’s CompanionMary Anna Evans (print, purchased). This book contains 365 essays, from the very short to a page or two. It’s designed to be read while writing the first draft of a novel, a page a day for one year. Evans talks about craft, but what I loved most about this book was the feeling of having a kind (but stern when necessary) mentor keeping me company as I wrote. I didn’t read the book as designed, but I may do so when I start my second novel.

Fiction

The President is Missing – Bill Clinton and James Patterson (audiobook from Overdrive, courtesy of my public library). Fairly formulaic thriller but a fun read. I enjoyed seeing Patterson employ various plot techniques I’ve read about.

Final WitnessJames Scott Bell (Kindle ebook). James Scott Bell is well-known in the writer world for his excellent books on fiction writing, so it was interesting to read an example of his fiction. The book was well-plotted (I would expect nothing less) and an entertaining read, though I didn’t always fully engage with the characters. There’s a good bit of overt Christianity in the book as well, which may be off-putting to some non-religious readers.

Carte Blanche (James Bond – Extended Series #45) – Jeffery Deaver (audiobook from Overdrive, courtesy of my public library). I love Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme novels, and I’ve been a James Bond fan since college, so I was excited to listen to this one. It took a little while to get into, but once I did, I really enjoyed it. It has a great classic Bond villain and puts Bond in modern times. Fun read.

Fatal Voyage (Temperance Brennan #4) – Kathy Reichs (audiobook from Overdrive, courtesy of my public library). I just discovered Kathy Reichs this year (yeah, I know, I live under a rock), and I love her storytelling. This one took me a little time to get into–a problem I seem to have with audiobooks more than print–but was worth the patience required.

Same blog, new focus

2018-12-28 17.06.06 maddieWelcome to my revamped blog! New and improved! Get it while it lasts!

OK, seriously… For those who don’t know, I’ve been teaching myself how to write fiction since 2014. I’m happy to report that after 5 years of significant effort, I suck a little less than I did when I started. I’m working on what I hope will be the last round of revisions before I send my newborn novel out to beta readers. (It’s a time travel romance – did you know that’s a genre now? Thanks, Outlander!)  According to various Writing Experts, now is the time I should be building an online presence and readership, so…

Rather than create yet another blog (I have several, most of which haven’t been updated since my son still thought I was cool), I decided to repurpose this one. It contained a few political essays, most dating from the 2016 election (shudder), so I removed them, tweaked the look and feel, and, voila, I now have an author site! Isn’t the internet wonderful?

So if you subscribed to this blog for my scintillating political observations, I pity you I hope you’ll stay for my scintillating observations about writing and the torture adventure of finishing a novel and trying to get it published. And if you’re new here, welcome! Pull up a chair, grab a drink, pet a greyhound (that’s Maddie in the picture, modeling my husband’s Call of Duty cap), and hang out.

Christmas with Mom

christmasThe Crum family Christmas spirit this year could best be summed up with a hearty, “Bah, humbug.” One of our dearest friends died this year, Tony is recovering from his fourth major surgery in less than two years, and my mother is in the late stages of dementia, meaning this will probably be her last Christmas. Our decorating consisted of buying a tiny live tree from Home Depot that I’m pretty sure is mostly dead now. Our shopping consisted of replacing the refrigerator that died right after Thanksgiving, along with the microwave that died a week later. So it’s Christmas, and we aren’t feeling it. I plan to cook our traditional roast beef dinner and visit my mom. That’ll be the extent of our holiday cheer.

For those who don’t know, my mother lives in an assisted living home here in town. She’s almost 91, and over the past decade dementia has taken most of what made her, well, *her*. Her body, however, keeps humming along, seemingly oblivious to the fact that her brain left the building sometime in the late oughts. I visit her, of course, a ritual I have come to dread. Each time I wonder what new piece of her the disease will have taken. At least she still knows who I am–most of the time. Today being Christmas, of course I will visit. So I stick a Santa hat on my head, paste a smile on my face, and clomp up the stairs to do my filial duty. Tony, ever the supportive husband, tags along.

We walk into a Hallmark card. Christmas tree bedecked with lights and candy canes next to a cozy fire with snowflakes falling softly outside the windows and a Hallmark Christmas movie on the TV. It checks every box on the American Christmas fantasy list. Martha Stewart would be proud. Almost grudgingly, I admit to myself that maybe we should have made a bit more of an effort at home.

I get out my knitting, and my mother and I attempt what passes for conversation these days.

“How have you been, Mom?”

“Oh, fine.”

I start knitting and listening to the Hallmark movie.

“I’m so glad to see you.”

“I’m glad to see you too, Mom.”

LeeAnn Rimes is the female lead in the movie. Some generic clean-cut businessman-type guy is her love interest.

“I’m so glad to see you.”

“I’m glad to see you too, Mom.”

LeeAnn sings some made-for-the-movie Christmas song. I don’t catch many of the lyrics, but her voice rings clear and powerful through the scene. The woman’s got some pipes. I wish I could sing like that.

“How are things at home?”

“Oh, not bad.” I tell her about Tony’s latest surgery–again. It’s been less than 15 minutes since the first time, but she’s forgotten. She probably forgot about three seconds after I told her. I tell her about our son’s upcoming trip to Portland.

LeeAnn sings. LeeAnn tells her fictional love interest she’s turned down a job across the country to stay in their fictional town. He looks appropriately lovestruck.

“I’m so glad to see you.”

“I’m glad to see you too, Mom.”

Someone else in the movie is singing now. “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.”

Tears prick the corners of my eyes. “Silent Night” has always been my favorite Christmas song. So many memories. Playing it on my flute for middle school concerts, singing it to my son as a lullaby when he was small enough not to care that I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.

“Round yon virgin…”

I hear my mother’s voice, almost a croak, more chanting than singing, so quiet I doubt anyone else in the room can hear over the person warbling on the TV.

“Mother and child.”

I join in. I sound almost as croaky as she does, forcing the notes past the lump in my throat. How long has it been since my mother and I sang together? 40 years? 45?

“Holy infant so tender and mild.”

I wipe the tears away quickly, hoping no one sees.

“Sleep in heavenly peace.”

We manage one more off-key line of our impromptu duet before the movie cuts away from the song, and the moment is gone like a snuffed-out candle flame. I fish around in my purse for a tissue and wipe my eyes as unobtrusively as I can. I blow my nose and mumble something about allergies.

“It’s so nice to see you.”

“It’s nice to see you too, Mom. Merry Christmas.” And I mean it with all my heart.