I am an aspiring writer who feels blocked in terms of writing a novel because I am lacking knowledge of craft.

I have taken two continuing education type writing courses in the past five years: ED2GO's "Write Like A Pro" and University Wisconsin-Madison continuing studies' "How To Write Compelling Fiction". I have also read Larry Brook's "Story Engineering" and "Story Physics". As an aside, this has served to confuse me, because each source divides plot somewhat differently (such as 3 parts, 4 parts, and 5 parts -- and some with sub parts).

I want to develop characters, outline a plot, and write the first chapter of a novel so that I can submit it to a critique group. But in the meantime I have found several books in the Writer's Digest's "Write Great Fiction" series:

(1) "Plot & Structure" by by James Scott Bell shows you how to develop a believable and engaging plot that keeps readers enchanted from beginning to end.

(2) "Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint" by Nancy Kress delivers proven methods for creating characters readers will believe in with scenes that deliver emotional impact.

(3) "Dialogue" by Gloria Kempton offers advice on writing dialogue that sizzles regardless of genre, ways to fix common problems and more.

(4) "Description & Setting" by Ron Rozelle helps you master the important, but often-overlooked subject of your story's setting and how it's described.

(5) Revision & Self-Editing by James Scott Bell gives you tips on how to successfully develop first drafts into a final draft as well as techniques that improve your chance of publication.

Another interesting book, among others, is Laurel Yourke's Take Your Characters To Dinner" about characterization. All of the above books have exercises, and it would be neat to have them critiqued, but I think maybe critique groups are looking more for book chapters.

I am not sure at this point what philosophy to have: try to have perfect knowledge upfront (at the expense of doing exercises as opposed to writing longer pieces), or writing a chapter (even if it is badly written), and submit it to a critique group to learn how to improve that way. If I were to go the craft book route, who would be available to critique the exercises?

Sincerely, Craig

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    Jun 13, 2014 at 19:21

3 Answers 3


Get out of your own head. Write. Just write.

Stop worrying about whether it's perfect. Stop worrying about which book to follow. You've got a list taller than the coffee table and they can contradict each other. Just write.

Get something on paper. If you're really flailing around, pick your first book about plotting, follow some of the advice there, and put your plot together. Just write.

You cannot edit, improve, or critique a blank page. You need actual text to work with. Just write.

Once you have a novel written, never mind the first chapter, then you can go back and worry about setting, description, characters, a critique group, etc. etc. But until then... just write.

  • 1
    I'm adding this here since answering would just be redundant. I have to agree. As a parallel, you can't learn to swim without getting into the water. I doubt I've ever read a writing style/technique guide (except in school when I've absolutely had to). While technique books can be good (I guess), they are also stumbling blocks. On the other hand, there is a difference between a writing style/technique book, and a grammar/language book.
    – JMcAfreak
    Jun 12, 2014 at 0:07

The biggest mistake that aspiring writers make is believing that writing islike cooking and that those how-to-write books contain the recipes for a successful novel: take 200 g three act structure, mix it with 1 protagonist and 1 antagonist, add a spoonful of stakes, and you got a bestseller.

But a novel is not an object built from parts following a blueprint. A novel is the result, almost a byproduct, of an activity: something you do, and either do well, or don't do well. In that, writing is like drawing or making music. What you have to learn is not the ingredients to the novel, but how to write.

When you start to think about writing as a skill similar to swimming or riding a bike, you're on the right track. Of course watching other people swim will give you a basic idea of what the essential idea of swimming is, but beyond that nothing will teach you to swim but getting in the water and practicing the moves.

Writing is the same.

Great first novels get written by writing ten awful novels first. If you want to learn to write novels, write a novel. And when you're done, analyze your mistakes and do better next time.


Although Lauren and what have pretty much covered it, I also want to add - read. I don't mean craft books, either. I mean, read what you want to write. Read, and read a lot. Hell, read what you don't want to write, so you know what to avoid. Read a lot, and read widely. Writing is so subjective, and you'll find that there are many authors who break the rules - yet you still love their work with a fiery passion.

Don't simply read, either. When you get to the end, pull it apart. What did you like? How did the author make it work? It could be something as simple as the cadence of their sentences or the perfection of their metaphors. Perhaps it's how they structured the plot so everything came together in the end. Analyse how they pulled it off, what kind of methods they used.

Then think about what didn't you like, and why? Perhaps there was nothing, which is cool. But there'll be other books where certain elements grate at you, and you find yourself jerked out of the story or rolling your eyes at things. What is it that didn't work for you? Was it the flat characters or dialogue? The lack of world-building? The awkward sentences?

In the end, you should be writing things you personally want to read, things you enjoy. All the writing craft books, while providing a fantastic foundation, can't give the the answer to that. You need to read a lot to know what you like and what you don't. What styles you like, perhaps even what genres. And that will come across in your own writing as you find your own voice and structures.

And as everyone else has said, don't stop writing. Keep writing, keep churning out pieces even if you think they're crap. After all, sometimes you need to burn through all the crap before you get to the gold. You'll only improve from it, and slowly learn to find your voice.

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