Tips for Fiction Writing

In Response to Quora Question: "How do you start writing fiction novels and stories? I know this question has a very wide scope but is there any recognized plan or set of steps that can be followed to learn/improve on your writing?"

The craft or mechanics of writing can be studied and learned, but the process of writing - as separate from craft - tends to be very personal, and is more of an ongoing discovery. In my view, there is no formula regarding "how to" for process - it's more about experimentation to see what works for you. For some writers, an outline is absolutely essential. For others, writing random episodes and then stringing them together works well. Some writers never plan the arc of their story in detail, they develop their characters first, then "let the characters guide them." Others have specific ideas about every twist and turn of plot, including the ending, before they sit down to write, and fit their characters into those dynamics. Then there is choosing an environment to write in. I have a friend who can write novels anywhere on her laptop, at any time of night or day, even while surrounded by noise and distractions. I can't do that. I need more structure: a specific time of day to write, a specific place (my office), and lots of quiet. So again, finding a process that works for you is extremely personal, and will likely require experimentation.

As for craft, that's quite a bit easier. You could take a fiction writing class, for example. Writer's groups can also be helpful if they include skilled and experienced writers. Whether a class or a group, however, you will need to check your ego at the door and be prepared for having what you might think is a great story torn to shreds (at least that's how it can feel sometimes). It also helps if you can find teachers and writers who can check their ego at the door...but that's not always the case. Of all the books I've read on writing, Stephen King's "On Writing" and Strunk and White's "Elemenets of Style" have provided the most help.

Having said all this, there are some general guidelines for writing that I've found helpful, and that several writers I've known live by:

1) Write what you know. In other words write from your own experience, or in a style or genre that you really enjoy, or about a subject that resonates with your own interests.

2) Be disciplined. Write every day for about the same amount of time, whether you feel like it or not. You may not be happy with every day's work, but you are strengthening your writing muscles so that when true inspiration hits you, you will know what to do with it.

3) Do not edit while you write: just write. This takes practice, but the point is to let the words spill out of you without constraint. Editing comes later.

4) When you do return to a piece to edit it, be brutal. Cut whole paragraphs. Rewrite whole pages. Be willing to throw out bad ideas, characters that don't work, etc. And, perhaps most importantly of all, be willing to subtract without replacing.

5) Persist. Persist. Persist. Good writing takes time, practice and endurance. I'm pretty sure the 10,000 hour rule applies to the craft of writing in the same way it applies to other expertise. My first novel - and perhaps a hundred short stories - will never be published. I would be horrified to publish them, they are so awful. But I had to write them to arrive where I needed to be as a writer.

6) Seek advice - especially regarding craft - but avoid relying on other people's opinions to guide your creative ideas or process. Letting approval or criticism sway your vision in these areas is generally lethal to any artist, because it keeps us from discovering our own strengths. In this regard, it's more important for you to find your own voice than to echo the voices of others.

Perhaps the most important question to ask yourself, though, is why you want to write fiction - and why novels in particular. People write for different reasons. For one person, it's an absolute creative necessity, like a pressure building up inside them until the words burst forth. For another person, there is a sense of responsibility to recount important principles they have learned, or experiences they have had, or ideas that have captivated them. For another, the idea of "being a writer" just seems compelling...perhaps they want to be seen by others as "a writer," or want to see themselves that way. For another, they're just damn good at writing, and churning out stories for other people's entertainment is as easy as breathing. For another, the idea of writing "the great American novel" is very romantic and exciting, so they want to give it a try. For another, writing is a kind of addiction that stimulates happy chemicals in their brain. For another, writing is a way to create a legacy they can leave behind. For another, family or peers may have pressured them into choosing writing as a career. So why do you want to write? That's an important question to answer, both to understand what you really want out of writing, and so you know how to "check in" with your efforts down the road, to see if you are still on track.

Hope this helps.


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