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Sorry if I use the wrong terms or make a wrong assumption. I consider myself a beginner, and I know that I still have to learn a lot in the field.


I write as a hobby. I do it when I have the time, after work or during free weeks. Even though it is amateur stories, I try to do everything the right way. That means I try to follow the precepts I see from experienced writers, read about writing (here, on blogs, reddit...) and try to always improve myself. Finally, when I think my story is good enough (let's be honest, it is not), I post it somewhere to eventually receive feedbacks from kind readers.

But here is the problem: I never learned the basics of writing.

It strucked me the first time I heard about first drafts. At the time, I had to search what people meant when they used this vocabulary, and even today, I am not 100% certain of what is is... Now that I know it is one of the most basic thing about writing, I am wondering if I am not missing something else that could drastically improve my writing.

It is not that I have no notions, but rather that I do not know what I do not know. For example, I don't have a methodology when writing. I basically just think of a story layout in my head, begin writing, and make modification on the starting idea as I advance, perhaps with some editting in-between. In this particuliar case, I feel like I am missing the opportunity to use a common methodology that I have never heard of, and that would make my life so much simpler.

And this also apply to the more advanced concepts.

If I do a lot of research, there will be a point where I will be relatively certain to know the basics, mostly because they are all over the internet. But it's a complete different matter if I want to become more professional, and pass the stage of beginner. This is where it becomes extremely hard to find new information. Where can I learn about the methodology of storymaking and worldbuilding? Where can I learn to develop memorable characters? Or how can I even know what to search for? There is plenty to learn about building a scenery in a novel, yet so little information out there.

With a bit effort, I can find paid courses that threat that sort of things, but I am not willing to spend so much money for my hobby. And, while it might be okay to remain clueless when publishing my writing online, it is a 100% chance of failure faced with an editor.

Therefore my question is: where can I learn about the basics of writing ? And where can I learn more advanced concepts and techniques ?

TL;DR: What's in bold.

  • 1
    "I try to do everything the right way." Sometimes the 'wrong' way gets you way more interesting results ;) – Totumus Maximus Nov 30 '18 at 9:50
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    You may find this post useful: writing.stackexchange.com/questions/17717/… – Adam J Limbert Nov 30 '18 at 11:37
  • I'm not sure this is the best type of question for this site, because you could get a whole list of equally correct resources--or just a link to the Amazon page for "Reference > Writing, Research & Publishing Guides > Writing" amazon.com/Best-Sellers-Books-Writing-Reference/zgbs/books/… (with subsections for general fiction, scifi, etc.). But I'll throw my hat in for one of my favorites: Wrede on Writing. And you can find large portions of it on her blog for free. – user3067860 Nov 30 '18 at 20:24
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    @TotumusMaximus "If it's stupid and it works, it ain't stupid" right? – corsiKa Nov 30 '18 at 22:56
  • I agree with Totumus Maximus' comment. If you don't have the basics, trial and error produce the best results, mostly if you have a bunch of beta readers available who can give you good feedbacks. Also, I can not recommend enough this book: How not to write a novel, which is fun to read and really helpful. – kikirex Dec 1 '18 at 19:33
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There is no special secret technique to writing. No methodologies that you must follow. No "right way". The best ways to learn about writing are reading and writing.

When you read, you are exposed both to ideas, and to how those ideas are expressed. Take note of how things are done, try to understand what the author achieves. This can refer to how characters are introduced, how a scene is set, how an event is foreshadowed, etc.

When you write, read what you've written, see what doesn't work, change it until it does. When you're not sure what exactly isn't working, or how to repair it, ask a friend, or a writing group, or this Stack Exchange. Anyone who reads, not necessarily someone who writes, can help you spot a problem.

If you look through the questions here, you will notice that many are answered not by "you should do X" but by "author A did X in a similar situation, author B did Y, author C did Z. X, Y and Z appear to have N in common." Which goes back to reading. Similarly, when people talk of structures, like the Three Acts model, or about tropes, those are extrapolated from writings - they are not rules that someone set in stone. The "rules" are descriptive rather than prescriptive. It can be helpful to be aware of them, but you don't have to formally learn.

Two sources I find helpful, though again, not strictly necessary, are TV Tropes and The History of Middle Earth. TV tropes is a source on common tropes, with examples of their utilisation in stories (written, filmed, etc.). Having read a book, you can look at it through the TV Tropes prism, break it into components, understand a bit better how it all comes together. As for The History of Middle Earth, it is a discovery writer's journey towards a masterpiece. The early drafts, the ideas that got scrapped - it's all there. Which helps understand the process, a bit, but mostly, for me, it's just really encouraging - you can see how the first drafts are rather meh, but at the end there's one of the greatest masterpieces of literature.

As for the process, "think of a story, begin writing, and make modifications" is pretty much what all of us do. Some of us put more effort into the "think of a story" part, with full detailed outlines. Others just have a beginning and proceed to discover where it leads them. Everyone edits and makes modifications. Some do things in a particular order that works for them, but might not work for you. Writing is not a violin, where you must first learn to hold the bow. You already know the "hold a bow" part - combining words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs. Now go ahead, make music, and learn to make better music as you go.

4

I don't want to discourage you from learning anything you feel you should have learned, but I want to distinguish writing advice from process descriptions.

Let's understand where generalisations about writing processes come from. Take first drafts, for example. We'll get to the bottom of that through a process of elimination:

  • It's not because anyone made it a rule, without which your writing is automatically rejected or at least loses points.
  • It's not because English or any form of it, such as the novel or poem, was designed backwards to make first drafts necessary.
  • And it's not because any scientific study has found first drafts are either inevitable or useful.

It's because, among writers and their colleagues in the business, a subset have tried to observe what the process looks like in practice, and first drafts have frequently, if not invariably, been found to arise.

This is also where we get ideas like the monomyth and a handful of basic story types, or protagonists wanting something, or stories coming in three arcs. If you've written a story that apparently doesn't fit such ideas, (i) that wouldn't make your story bad and (ii) there's a surprisingly good chance you only think your story didn't do it.

If you want to learn more specific details that seem to impact quality, such as the most common ways unpublished writers trip themselves up, or the things that bother readers (at least the ones who've bothered saying what, which is sadly an unrepresentative sample), there are any number of writing-guide books out there. Much of the content is available online, with or without copyright infringement. You'll find after reading a few such resources there's a lot of overlap in what they say.

So there are processes that seem to just happen because of the psychology of writers, and there are things for which a practical case can be made. In between there are practical recommendations on how to handle the process, such as including a song about what the protagonist wants if it's a musical, or doing this, that and the other when you're redrafting the first version of the story you right. You'll find the aforementioned resources give a lot of advice on those too, though at times it can be more personal. There are writers who've described how they redraft in great detail, but everyone seems to do it a little differently, so you may find you borrow bits and pieces from such approaches and find some of them work better for you than others. Now that is an it-just-happens fact about processes.

4

I want to share a piece of advice I found very helpful from author Beverly Cleary (author of The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Henry and Ribsy, and many others).

It comes in the form of a comment in her Newberry Medal winning book Dear Mr. Henshaw. To put it in context, the main character, sixth grader Leigh Botts, has just won honorable mention in the Young Writer's Yearbook and is meeting a real (fictional) author. (Bolding added.)

"Oh!" said Mrs. Badger. "So you're the author of A Day on Dad's Rig!"

Everyone was quiet. None of us had known the real live author would have read what we had written, but she had and she remembered my title.

"I just got honorable mention," I said, but I was thinking, She called me an author. A real live author called me an author.

"What difference does that make?" asked Mrs. Badger. "Judges never agree. I happened to like A Day on Dad's Rig because it was written by a boy who wrote honestly about something he knew and had strong feelings about. You made me feel what it was like to ride down a steep grade with tons of grapes behind me."

"But I couldn't make it into a story," I said, feeling a whole lot braver.

"Who cares?" said Mrs. Badger with a wave of her hand. She's the kind of person who wears rings on her forefingers. "What do you expect? The ability to write stories comes later, when you have lived longer and have more understanding. A Day on Dad's Rig was splendid work for a boy your age. You wrote like you, and you did not try to imitate someone else. This is one mark of a good writer. Keep it up."

Now, you have lived longer than a sixth grader, and hopefully you have more understanding. But the advice still applies.

What I learned from this was that it's more important to write than to write a story.


Another author, from the era of the pulps, commented that no writer knows whether or not he has a style until he has sat down and written a couple of hundred thousand words. And then from that writing, a style would probably emerge or be detectable.

That couple of hundred thousand words was intended as a couple months' worth of work, not years, to give you an idea of the quantity that is meant by the oft-heard advice, "If you want to be a writer, you should WRITE."

Remember also that the writers in the days of the pulps wrote their manuscripts on typewriters. That meant if you wanted to revise a section of your story, you would have to retype the whole page.

My advice to you is: Stop worrying about drafts, stop worrying about revising, stop worrying about what people online think or how other people write, and write enough quantity to find out how you write.

1

To learn if you are missing any steps or techniques, look at "writing workflow" of other authors. Find a workflow that makes perfect sense to you, then add those steps to your workflow.
Plus, as Wildcard says, quantity is the best teacher. There is a story about a ceramics teacher who tried techniques on 2 different classes. He told one class they would be graded on the quality of their pieces. The other class would be graded on the quantity of their pieces. At the end of the semester, the quantity class produced better pieces that the quality class. A direct analogy that can apply to any field.

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