For Writers

The story of how I learned to write fiction

Some say writers are born. That’s probably true, but writing is a study too. When I first started writing, I had great novels in my head, but when I began typing them out on the computer, my scenes just didn't live up to what I had in my imagination. I usually gave up after a chapter or two. Then I began reading online interviews with famous authors. In interview after interview, I read the same repeating idea. Many of the authors said that, in one way or another, they’d learned to write by imitating other great writers.

So I set off to learn through imitation. I made a list of techniques I wanted to master – dialogue, story hooks, action, emotion, character, setting, conflict, humor, details, romance, relationships, point of view, language and more.

For each technique I found two or three scenes from my favorite authors that stood out as stellar. I pulled the scenes apart, finding out what made them work. And then I would write a scene or two of my own, only focusing on that one technique.

At the end of the year I actually liked what I’d written. I started on my first novel. I wrote 50 pages and showed them to my mother. She’s my biggest supporter, but is also unflinchingly honest. She gave me lukewarm praise and a lot of suggestions. I knew I wasn’t there yet.

More determined than ever, I started studying writing books and my writing journey went progressed.
  • Noah Lukeman in The First Five Pages suggested taking a page I’d written and cutting every adjective and adverb. Replace them with strong nouns and verbs, he said. If an adjective is essential, twist it so it’s extraordinary. I took his challenge and the revised page was so much more alive. The writing flowed.

  • He also reminded me that I was painting images in words for my readers to see. I needed to use the senses so my reader would smell what was cooking, hear the bells echoing across the courtyard, would feel the coarse cloth against the character’s skin. My writing became more tangible.

  •  Donald Maass in The Breakout Novel Workbook told me to take an important scene and freeze it in time. Slow it down, make the details larger, more dramatic, emphasize how that moment was different from all other moments. The drama in my scenes increased.

  • But probably the best advice I got, and a number of authors from Stephen King to Davis Bunn had written it, was to finish the first draft. No matter how terrible the writing is, how full of plot holes or inconsistencies it is, just finish it. Once you’re done, they said, you can go back and fix it, but if you spend precious days revising each page, you’ll never finish. I’d spent over a year writing the first sixty pages. I wrote the next three hundred in six months. It was true. It was much easier to revise well and revise quickly once I had the whole plot down.

  • joined a writing organization, where I learned the business side of writing, but probably the best thing that came from joining was finding a critique partnerChristine Lindsay. We were at similar stages in our writing journey, and were a perfect match as we combed through each others' writing, helping each other to round out themes and characters and cut away the dross. Perhaps more importantly, we became fast friends online and continually encouraged each other to stay the course in a challenging career. 

  • I sent fifty pages off to an editor for hire. She told me to cut. New authors want to make sure they get the idea across, so they tell it, they show it in dialogue, they show it in thoughts and physical cues. Repetition lowers the tension (and tension is essential). Show it once and the idea is stronger. I cut 10,000 words from my novel, and the story not only moved more quickly; some of the scenes which had felt too dark became lighter.

  • When I first started writing, I had a ton of physical cues to show emotion: “She swallowed” or “a chill raced down her back.” I realized when I read good books there was little of that. Action and dialogue are the strongest cues to emotion. I cut many of my cues and learned to make my dialogue and actions more vivid.

Am I there yet? Probably not, because I don’t think writing is a craft where you ever arrive. I’ve noticed writers I read tend get better with each book. Because the best writers are always working to improve their craft. And truthfully, I love the idea. What could be better than always learning, always inventing, always improving?

Favorite Writing Books

Book About the Writing Craft:
Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman
The Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass (This has excellent, excellent exercises to do before you write or with what you’ve already written)

Books About the Writing Life:
On Writing by Stephen King