What’s the best way to learn the craft of fiction writing? Should you get a book of exercises and work through it? Or should you just start writing?
Scott posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Hi Randy, freshman writer here. My question is around practicing craft. Do you recommend freshman looking to get started pick up a beginners guide to writing and work through the examples and practice writing prompts or start writing a novel if they have an idea? I have a beginners book that I am working through but I also have some novel ideas I am itching to get started on. Any recommendations would be helpful. Thanks Scott
Randy sez: Good question, Scott. There are any number of ways to learn the craft of fiction writing, but they all boil down to three core elements, which I’ll discuss below.
What’s a Freshman Writer?
But first, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page in terms of words. Scott refers to himself as a “freshman writer.” He doesn’t mean he’s in his first year of high school.
Scott is referring to a classic article on this website, Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Author! In that article, I explain the four basic phases of getting published. Writers who are just starting out are called “freshman,” and their main goal is to develop their craft.
Why craft? Because that’s the foundation of everything else. If you write well, it’s “easy” to get traditionally published. (Meaning that it’s possible.) If you don’t write well, it’s “hard” to get traditionally published. (Meaning that you need to be a celebrity.)
Of course, you don’t have to publish traditionally. These days, anyone can publish their work independently, whether they have good craft or not. But craft still matters. If you write well, it’s “easy” to earn some money as an indie author. (Meaning that it’s possible.) If you don’t write well, it’s “hard” to earn money as an indie author. (Meaning that you will only make money if you find some way to game the system.)
So then, the big question is this: how does a freshman writer learn the craft of fiction writing?
There are three main ways:
- Write the kind of book you want to sell.
- Read books or take courses or otherwise study the craft of writing from experts.
- Get your work critiqued by someone who understands craft AND knows how to give a critique.
Which of these is most important?
I have no idea. They’re all essential. Which of the four tires on your car is most important?
Let’s look at how each of these works.
Learning Your Craft by Writing
If you want to be a good swimmer, you need to swim. A lot. Reading the theory of swimming will help, yes. Getting a coach will help, yes. But you need to get in the water and do it.
Same with writing. If you want to be a good writer, you need to write. A lot.
You need to write the kind of fiction you want to publish. Every successful writer I know agrees with this.
Write and write and write.
By writing fiction, you develop the emotional muscles to move your reader emotively. And that’s what fiction is mostly about.
Make a writing schedule and stick to it. If you’re a beginner, this schedule might be: “Spend 10 minutes writing every day immediately after breakfast.” If you’re a professional novelist, your schedule might be: “Write 2000 words of new copy every day before lunch. No lunch until the 2000 words are written. No exceptions.”
You might think 10 minutes is too little. Actually, no, it’s fine for a beginner. The goal here is not to work yourself to exhaustion. The goal is to create a habit that will carry you through days of low motivation. Once you’ve built the habit, you can ramp up the time.
You might think professional writers can’t possibly get by on only 2000 words per day. Actually, they can. Stephen King writes about 2000 words per day, pretty much every day. That works out to over 700,000 words in a year, which is several large novels or a lot of smaller works.
In fact, 2000 words per day is too aggressive for many writers. I know professional writers who do fine with a quota of 1000 words per day.
Again, doing it every day is the thing that wins you gold medals.
Learning Your Craft From Books and Courses
I learned how to play chess when I was 8 years old. I learned it from a neighbor kid, and he had very little clue on how to play well, which meant that neither did I.
The summer I was 12, I bought a book on chess and worked through it. And that book was dynamite. I learned about a dozen rules of thumb that turned me from a terrible player into a very decent player. When I went back to school in the fall, I could beat every kid in the chess club.
So books have power.
Same thing happened when I started writing fiction. I just started writing without any instruction at all. I had some native talent, but I had no idea what I was doing. Then I bought Dwight Swain’s book, Techniques of the Selling Writer and worked through it. I applied it to my writing. That book was dynamite too.
In a few months, I began writing much, much better.
Eventually, I started going to writing conferences and taking courses with published novelists. Every time I did, I learned new stuff.
Not long after that, I got my first book published.
I continue to study the craft. Because books have power.
That’s one reason I write books on how to write fiction. Because nothing I do in this life will have more influence than the books I write.
Learning Your Craft by Getting Critiqued
There is nothing harder than getting your writing critiqued. I still remember my terror the first time I went to a critique group. And I still remember how I couldn’t sleep that night after getting critiqued.
Getting critiqued is painful.
Getting critiqued is necessary. You don’t know what you don’t know. You can’t be objective about your own writing.
I took a swim class once, many years ago. I had no delusions of grandeur. I just wanted to learn how to swim a bit better. On the first day, the teacher had each person in the class swim once across the pool. In front of a video camera.
The next class, the teacher showed us all every video and did an instant critique on each swimmer. I remember each person saying, “What? I’m doing that? No wonder I’m a lousy swimmer.”
I couldn’t figure out how they could not know what they were doing wrong.
Then I saw the video of myself swimming, and the teacher explained what I was doing wrong. And I couldn’t believe I was doing that. No wonder I was a lousy swimmer.
An objective critique matters. An objective critique by someone who knows how to critique is pure gold.
Back to Scott’s Question
Now we can get back to Scott’s question. Should he continue working through the book? Or should he start writing one of those ideas burning a hole in his brain?
I hope the answer is now clear.
Writing is essential, so make it a habit to write every day.
Training is essential, so study good books on craft and master them.
But there’s one thing Scott didn’t ask about.
Critique is essential, so find someone who can look at your work and give you a little guidance.
A freshman who does those three things will soon move up to being a sophomore.
And then a junior.
And then a senior.
And then an author.
Most of the authors I know are still doing those three things regularly.
For extra credit, pass along what you learn to other writers. I’ve discovered that I don’t really know a subject until I’ve tried to teach it.
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