Do you write fiction?
Want to improve your craft?
For more information on the Writing Craft series…
Writing quality fiction is hard.
But not as hard as we make it on ourselves.
Beginning writers are exposed to a lot of bad advice by people who aren’t professional writers, but expert readers who are great at analyzing and criticizing a book from a reader’s point of view. They may have a degree in English and still know no more about the craft of writing than a movie reviewer necessarily knows about camera lenses.
And even a published writer in other areas than fiction writing can have no idea on what’s appropriate for fiction.
One of the best things you can do as a fiction writer is stop listening to feedback on your craft from people who aren’t publishing fiction writers.
You can and should take feedback from readers about why they like your stories and why!
But maybe don’t listen to people who aren’t active, working fiction writers about how to tell stories.
Readers who aren’t working fiction writers don’t necessarily know how to write.
Instead of listening to well-meant but confusing, inappropriate, or flat-out inaccurate advice from people who don’t themselves know the craft of creating a story, why not sharpen your instincts against the masters of the craft—long-term, professional, best-selling career writers?
And I don’t mean reading Stephen King’s book On Writing. Although it’s a great book, it won’t teach you how to pull apart fiction into usable chunks…or how to use the same writing tricks that King uses in his fiction, in yours.
Let’s get started by finding out where you are as a writer…
Nobody is a born writer, because nobody is born with telepathy and a doctorate in neuroscience, along with up-to-date marketing, publishing, and business skills.
In short, we all have issues with our fiction writing in general.
And when it comes to writing quality fiction, we all start out thinking we know more about how it actually works than we really do. It’s a mental bias based on our familiarity with reading, and I think we all have it to some degree–at first!
Because it’s so difficult to remove a mental bias, this checklist won’t ask you to self-assess on how well you write, or how well you understand how to write!
Issues with craft may look something like the following:
- Recurring writer’s block or resistance to sitting down to write.
- Spending more time world-building or researching than writing.
- Getting stuck at the beginnings of scenes.
- Getting stuck at the ends of scenes.
- Feeling like you’re “missing something” in a scene (or the book overall) and not knowing what it is.
- Spending more time editing your work than writing.
- Sneering at successful writers’ books for being “not as good as yours.”
- Being unable to share your work out of fear that it isn’t good enough.
- Readers saying, “I liked your story but it was confusing.”
- Readers saying, “I couldn’t finish your story, and I don’t know why.”
- And, finally, readers saying, “I like your work,” but they aren’t excited about picking up the next book.
While some of these issues might point toward several problems, they at least indicate that you don’t feel secure with your level of craft.
Please note that it can be just as valuable to your craft to find out what is working as it is to find out what is not.
And also note that while not everyone is going to love your work, even people who hate your work should be able to understand what’s going on in the story. Comments about something being confusing should always be taken seriously. You should never give a response of “if you were smarter or more attentive, you would have understood.”
It’s the reader’s job to allow you to use their powers of imagination to escape the real world and disappear into your story. All the reader should have to do is be willing to read.
It’s the writer’s job to do everything else.
I recommend my own Writing Craft series because I believe in it. I am not going to be telling you about what a great writer I am, I promise! Instead, we’ll be looking at some of the underlying principles of writing fiction (like structure, how to handle information, and what kinds of details to use), along with many examples from past masters of fiction. (I had to pick ones that were out of copyright.) I will show you how to start stealing from current masters as well.
But here are some other craft resources I recommend:
- The Writing Excuses Podcast. All around good writing advice.
- Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M. Williams. Writing clear sentences.
- Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain. The art of making the reader turn the page.
- The online dictionary at Merriam-Webster (for U.S. writers). Is it “anal retentive” or “anal-retentive?”
- The Chicago Manual of Style. The style manual that applies to fiction–not the AP Style Guide.
- The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner. On big-picture writing questions.
- The Liar’s Bible, by Lawrence Block. Essays on making other people pay you to write.
- Adventures in the Screen Trade, by William Goldman. Essays on making other people pay you to write.
- WMG Publishing Lectures & Workshops, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith. Advanced classes in writing.
Follow this plan if you’re looking for a minimum-effort, maximum-reward strategy for the short term:
- Turn off your grammar/spell checker immediately.
- Commit to writing a minimum of 15 minutes a day. Set aside more time if you have some. Write badly for 15 minutes, editing nothing, and continue if you feel like it.
- Do not edit until you have finished your draft.
- Run your draft through a spell-checker.
- Edit, but only for inconsistent details, like “This character’s name is spelled three different ways in this story.”
- Do not edit for anything else.
- Hire a fiction editor who works on published authors in your genre, either traditionally published authors who are selling well, or indie authors who are selling well—either is fine.
- Tell the editor you’re looking for some coaching. Ask them to tell you what you’re doing right as well as what you’re doing wrong, and to make you fix any issues.
- Study up on the areas the editor tells you are weak…and pat yourself on the back for what you’re doing right!
One of the main struggles that writers face is over-editing, that is, being overly critical and judgmental about their own work as they edit.
Before you know your craft at a professional level, you can’t assess what’s working and what’s not working in your own work, and it’s very difficult to assess what might or might not work regarding other people’s well-intentioned advice.
There is a lot of bad advice out there that will keep you frozen in place. The biggest thing you can do for the quality of your work is to start listening to:
- Your own instincts.
- Professional writers and editors.
If you’re able to take a fiction-writing class held by professional writers who are willing to give you feedback, that can be even better than talking to a professional editor.
Lifelong Learning Plan
If you’re ready for a longer-term, slow-but-steady solution, or you find that you can’t face the thought of holding your work up to scrutiny to even the most compassionate editor, then start here:
- Budget time to write on a regular basis, and make sure that nothing other than you can infringe on that time. If you can’t make time to write (or make other people respect that time), you may need to look at the “You’re Not Getting Writing Done” section, too.
- Spend the first fifteen minutes of the time you budget for writing on studying.
- Pick a long-term, bestselling author in your genre who publishes at least a book a year (and it still publishing), one you regularly read.
- Read or reread that writer’s most recent book. (You may want to start at the beginning of a series; just don’t go back further than 10 years if so.)
- Every day, type in 1000 words from that book.
- Jot down any notes about what you noticed while you were typing.
- When you’re done, spend the rest of your writing time writing, counting at least 15 minutes of bad writing as a success, or longer if you feel like it.
Study the masters of the craft.
This is the recurring theme of the Writing Craft series.
Don’t study people who aren’t masters of the craft. There are a few exceptions such as editors and agents who are used to shepherding writers to success. For the most part, however, don’t study anyone else: even writers who are recent bestsellers of a handful of novels may not have their craft under control yet.
This doesn’t make them bad writers! But it may mean that they have bad habits that you don’t want to pick up.
In short, however, the easiest, quickest, gentlest way to study is to type material in and let it percolate through your subconscious.
It’s not romantic, it’s not thrilling—it won’t help you network or stoke your ego.
But, like the scenes in The Karate Kid where the master tells the student to wax all his cars, practicing the basic moves will make you more of a master than you know.
Note: for about the first 10,000 words or so, you may find yourself unable to escape the story at all. This is normal. Master fiction writers work magic on us to distract us from the boring parts of their craft. But the boring parts are what makes their fiction great!
(Here’s a tip on learning a new skill: whenever you’re trying to learn a new skill, look for the boring parts and copy someone who’s a master at them until you can do the boring parts in your sleep.)
Writing Craft Volume 1 contains a more in-depth look at how to study fiction, along with a reading plan to help you get started finding the right books in your genre if you’re not as well-read as you would like.
Books, Blogs, Guides, & More
The Writing Craft site has resources for learning more craft, with more to come.
- Writing Craft Volume 1: Are You Ready to Publish? & Other Burning Questions
- The Writing Craft Newsletter, with monthly nerdy articles.
- The Writing Craft Patreon, where new Writing Craft sections go live approximately every week.
- Writing Quality (Craft) posts on my blog.
Thank you for reading!