Monday, January 19, 2015

What a Beginning Writer Needs to Know

By DeAnna Knippling

The task of learning how to be a writer (or, in general, a creative type) is an enormous one, a lifelong project. Lately I’ve been pondering, as I look back on what I’ve done and what I wish I’d done, the elements that helped me become a writer. What helped? What was a waste of time? What should I have done sooner? And what was pushed on me that I didn’t need?

In no particular order, what I’d advise a beginning writer to do and learn:
  1.  Establish in your heart of hearts that stories are important, so that you don’t have to spend time spinning your wheels asking yourself if you’re wasting your time trying to be a writer.
  2. Understand that there’s a difference between plot and story. Plot is the ordered events of what you actually read; story is what sticks with you afterwards. Lots of people (including writers) confuse the two. Walking through the woods with your grandfather is a story--but it is not a plot.Writing poetry will help you write communicative, emotive sentences in fiction.
  3. Grammar is the algebra of writing: it’s hard and seems random and constrictive and pointless. But once you have it, you can solve all kinds of problems with it.
  4. Get in the habit of looking things up, on your own, without having to be linked to them. The dictionary, a style guide, the library, the Internet. A writer has to have a great deal of general knowledge about the world in order to lie convincingly; this is one set of research skills, ongoing research. A writer also has to have the ability to get in, get one piece of crucial information in five minutes, and get back out without losing focus on what he's writing; specific research.
  5. Look up the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It applies both to you and your critics.
  6. Read widely. Read books that you normally wouldn’t read. Read in depth. Read books on a certain theme, subject, genre, etc. Read constantly. Read scripts as well as watching the movie, seeing the play, reading the comic. And never be ashamed of what you have loved to read, even if it doesn’t hold up well later. 
  7. Type others’ words in the same way a composer practices other people’s music.
  8. Look up Heinlein’s Rules. Consider that nobody is perfect, but that attempting to achieve ridiculous goals is often more effective than attempting to achieve a bare minimum.
  9. Look up the 10,000-hour rule. This is not everything you need to do to become a professional writer. 
  10. Read books on writing, listen to writers’ advice, find out how your writing heroes put together a career. If you spend $15 on a writing book and take one tip out of it and toss the rest, it was probably worth it. If, however, you are taking advice from people who don’t write and publish, then it probably costs too much at any price.
  11. Analysis and critical thought don’t kill your writing ability; they just teach you which rules are the most fun to break. Likewise, emotion and sentiment don’t drown books, but infuse them with flavor and perfume that endure long after the book is gone.
  12. Write every day. Not necessarily creative writing at this point, but honest writing. You’ll know it’s honest if it’s ugly.
  13. Make notes of what you like and why--characters, stories, settings, sentences.
  14. Spy on people’s conversations. Writing down a conversation turns it a good deal of the way into dialog. Not all the way, though.
  15. It is perfectly acceptable to dislike any given “classic.” It is nevertheless useful to have a sense of the history of writing, especially in your favorite genres.
  16. Areas of general interest:
  17. Develop the ability to gather information and the ability to resist using it all in the same story.
  18. Study other writers’ techniques by typing things in first, then applying different methods of thoughtful analysis picked up from various writing books and other sources.
  19. Practice techniques by writing and completing new stories.
  20. Practice honesty.  Do not censor language, emotion, memory, or taste in the first draft.
  21. Gather a multitude of opinions on any given subject, so that you do not persist in errors, including the error of not forming your own opinion, apart from your mentors.
  22. Area of technical focus:
  23. Writing clearly and in an interesting fashion.
  24. Reproducing natural-sounding dialog.
  25. Creating characters who are driven by their nature, rather than by authorial necessity.
  26. Writing plots that allow the most interesting, memorable events to happen in a logical fashion.
  27. Making settings that allow the reader to step aside from their current existence: at this point, focus on making the setting logical, consistent, and used in every scene at multiple points.
  28. Set up conflict that the characters cannot resolve immediately or simply, yet that must be resolved.
  29. Start thinking about the feel of a story, with whatever terminology you choose: theme, mood, atmosphere, emotion, etc.
  30. Make a commitment to take care of yourself. Death comes easily to creative types, death and drug abuse and, even more pervasive, forgetting that you are more than a disembodied carrier of stories. Your body and mind are fragile, and so are your relationships. If you isolate yourself from the world, your fiction will be the poorer for it.
  31. Criticize the work, not the writer. No matter how little one likes another writers or their stories, they are still more allies than enemies. Anyone who tells you otherwise just likes drama, which admittedly is an issue among writers. Look up the Dunning-Kruger effect again and bite your tongue.
Admittedly, this is both a lot of work and just the beginning.  Beginning writing is the area which most writing books and classes focus on:  for some reason, people seem to want to tell beginning writers that a) it will be a lot of work, yet b) hide the amount of work it will actually take once the basics are mastered.

Here are a few of my favorite reading and research suggestions for beginners:

  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M. Williams
  • The works of Bill Bryson, whose works constitute a general education in and of themselves, but especially A Dictionary of Troublesome Words and The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way
  • Nightmare Magazine's list of Top 100 Horror Books, or the top 100 list of any particular subject you'd like to write on
  • The Telegraph's list of 100 novels everyone should read, or any other cross-genre list of excellent books
  • The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron
  • Any given book on writing by John Gardner, but especially The Art of Fiction
  • Any given writing book or article by Lawrence Block, but especially Telling Lies for Fun & Profit
  • The Chicago Manual of Style
  • The Writers' Digest Write Great Fiction series, which has separate books focused on dialog, character, plot, and description/setting
  • The best-of-the-year anthologies in any given genre; the years' best lists on various sites
  • The bestseller lists in the NYT; the bestseller lists in USA Today.  A comparison of the two is also interesting and productive
What are yours?

About the Author: DeAnna Knippling started freelancing in May 2011 and wouldn’t be able to do it without her wonderful family and friends, especially her husband. In fact, she owes a lot to Pikes Peak Writers for helping her be a better writer, especially through the Write Brains, both in the lectures and in meeting lots of other writers.

Her reason for writing is to entertain by celebrating her family’s tradition of dry yet merry wit, and to help ease the suffering of lack of self-confidence, having suffered it many years herself. She also likes to poke around and ask difficult questions, because she hates it when people assume something must be so.

For more kicks in the writerly pants, see her blog at or her ebook How to Fail & Keep on Writing, available at Smashwords, B&N, Amazon, and OmniLit.

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