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A friend of mine is looking to get into creative writing, and asked me today to recommend some books. By the time I’d finished collecting thoughts and links, I realized I had the makings of a great blog post. My email to him follows:
The first and most important thing I would recommend is to write. Use what follows to guide your writing, but you can only learn to write by writing. :) It takes time to find and gain confidence in “your voice”.
Second most important: read widely in the genre and form that you want to write. Do you want to write short stories? Read short stories. Novels? Read novels. Historical fiction? Mystery? Thrillers? Read those genres. Etc, etc. Read the classics. Read the best-sellers.
The goal of all the reading is to absorb the norms and conventions of the form and genre. Every form and genre has these conventions, and violating them will throw off your readers. The best way to learn them is to become familiar with the genre.
Third most important: learn how to structure a story. A lot of people these days (especially writing teachers) like to pretend that structure isn’t important, necessary, or even desirable. Commercially successful authors tend to have a different opinion, though. :)
I’ve found that structure and formula are extremely helpful when you’re first getting started. Once you’re confident with your powers, you’ll be ready to break the “rules” in artful ways.
It turns out that stories in the West tend to follow a pretty standard structure:
- There’s a character with a strong desire and a goal to achieve that desire.
- Someone or something opposes that goal.
- The character makes attempts to achieve his goal, and
- Meets disaster after disaster (usually growing worse and worse), until…
- The character realizes the flaw that is keeping him from achieving his goal, and makes the change necessary to overcome this flaw.
- Thus transformed, he achieves his goal and…
- Returns home, a different man.
That’s the classical “comedy” structure. Alternately, in a “tragedy,” the character fails to overcome his flaw and ends worse off than when he began.
Some people call this structure “three disasters plus an ending”. :)
There are millions of variations on that structure. You can leave bits off, or put them out of order, but once you’ve got it internalized, you’ll see it everywhere.
The structure is also fractal: scenes are structured much the same way, in that you have:
- A character who wants some specific and concrete goal.
- Someone or something that opposes him.
- The “scene question”: can he achieve his goal?
- The “scene answer”: “yes, but…” or “no, and furthermore…”
- Which leads into the next scene. :)
Those are my thoughts on the basics, but there’s a lot more to learn as well. Just don’t get lost in the research and forget to write. :)
My top recommendations (novel-heavy, since that’s my focus right now):
- “Writing the Perfect Scene” (especially when you’re first getting started, follow this formula religiously)
- “The Snowflake Method” (the book is very good as well)
- “Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Author!”
- “Secrets of Story Structure” series
- She has a bunch of books that expand on her blog. Every one I’ve read so far has been good.
- She has a great class on “How to Write Flash Fiction that Doesn’t Suck”. Harder than you’d think. :) She teaches a system for writing short-short stories that is great practice.
- She has a trove of good articles on the practice and business of fiction writing.
- His blog is chock-full of useful advice on the craft and business of writing.
- He has a bunch of books as well. While I haven’t read any yet, I have no reservations recommending anything he has to say on the topic.
(He was an extremely prolific author from the 1930s who wrote fun, formulaic adventures and mysteries.)
- He has a classic “how-to” article that describes his formula for a 6,000 word short story.
- Karen Woodward expands on his formula from a contemporary perspective.
- This is a really fun formula to use in your practice!
OK, that was more than I intended on writing initially. I think I’ll re-use this for my blog, as well. :) Thanks for asking, and I hope you find this helpful.