Every aspiring novelist knows that if you want to learn to write—to learn the art of storytelling—you must read lots of books. Libraries of them.
And you do—that’s part of it. The ability to recognize an excellent story when you come across it—to get sucked into worlds so real that you forget about life and stresses and time because you have to read just one more page, one more chapter—is an important part of the novelist’s journey, of understanding what makes a good, juicy book.
But what happens when you’re ready to write your own story? That idea’s been fluttering around in your head and you feel like you’ve got something special in the making. Maybe it feels like magic. So you’ve decided you need to sit down and put in the work and bring your story to life. It’s incredibly daunting, sure, you’re choosing to open yourself up to vulnerability and criticism (mostly your own), but what’s next? How do you approach an undertaking such as this?
Well, apart from just plopping down and writing the damn thing (the preferred method for many), there are a number of practical resources you can look at to get a better idea, perhaps some pointers and tips, to help you be more successful as an aspiring novelist. Resources that can help strengthen your writing and share a bit of insight—maybe even encourage and inspire you.
At the time I’m writing this—November 2019—I can happily say I’ve finally finished the first draft of my Fantasy novel. Is it perfect? Oh, hell no. As it currently sits with my developmental editor, I already know the vast majority of what all is “wrong” with it. When he comes back to me in 4–6 weeks with his Immediate Reaction Notes (IRNs) and critical feedback, I’m not going to cry and take it personally. Yes, it will suck. But want to know why I won’t be utterly crushed, throwing my hands in the air, and just give up? Because I’ve been spending a lot of time reading and researching what comprises a great story. From the books I’ve read this year, I can clearly identify where my major story problems are and how I can go back and fix them. To a certain degree, I know what to expect. Everything else is just frosting on the cake. Because guess what. My editor’s feedback and all these books I’m reading about the storytelling process will only strengthen the foundation of my novel. My book has been written—the hard part is done. I can only make it better with the feedback from my editors and beta readers and my own gut feelings.
If you’re looking for some excellent advice to help you through the writing process—whether it’s writing more powerfully, creating a better story, setting yourself with good daily habits—check out the following recommendations. You may pick up some bits of advice that will send you on your way more prepared than I could have been!
- On Writing by Stephen King This is the most entertaining, no-nonsense, simplistic take on the writing process that I’ve come across. King doesn’t bullshit you. He doesn’t dictate the exact methods you should be using when you write your own novel; he’s simply sharing what he’s done all his life. I’m one of those people who get a rush of inspiration when I read about the personal experiences of those who’ve put in the work and manifested their dreams. I revisit On Writing a few times every year because I feel like it fans the flames of the story burning inside of me, urging me to bottle that little bit of magic before it snuffs out. And in the drudgery of writing as a craft, holding onto that magic is vital if you wish to see your story finished.
- The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White Don’t get wound up in penning the perfect sentence during your first draft. Remember: the point of the first draft is to get the story down as quickly as possible before you lose its spark or sense of urgency. This book is an excellent resource for the subsequent phases when you’re tightening up grammar and polishing your prose. I refer to it often when I’m editing my work. It has suggestions on everything from the Oxford comma to dialogue tags to adverbs and word choice.
- A thesaurus (or a dictionary) There’s a certain kind of satisfaction that comes over you when you find that perfect word. And when you’re 34, like I am, it’s doubly true. Over the last five years, I’ve noticed that my mind struggles to recall various types of information—names, places, movie titles, the right word. It’s frustrating. It’s really frustrating when you sit down to write a book and you feel like you’re constantly having to stop and go look for the word that’s eluding you. I always have thesaurus.com open in my browser during writing sessions. If I can’t find the word I’m looking for within a handful of seconds, I type an obscure placeholder word—something that I’d never use in the context of my story, that I can easily command + F to find and replace later-like hippopotamus. Then keep chugging along. Sometimes I just want a stronger word. Instead of writing very tall I could use towering. The right word can punch up your scenes and help set the right mood.
- Story Genius by Lisa Cron This book offers a third solution to the eternal debate on pantsing versus plotting. Rather than focusing on outlining scenes or writing whatever you feel should happen next, Story Genius instructs you to figure out your characters first—their origin stories, key moments in their past that further cemented their misbelief about themselves and the world around them—and let that drive the scenes and build the blueprint of your novel. I wish that I had read this book before writing my Fantasy manuscript. I’ve already been able to identify weak blocks in my story and characters that will need to be rehashed and rewritten. Give it a read—I highly recommend Story Genius and I know you could benefit from it, too.
If you decide to pick up one or more of these books, I hope you’ll find as much value in them as I did—and still do. They’re extremely helpful resources whether you’re just starting out on your author journey or even if you already have a couple of books under your belt. I may add another book or two to this list in the future, depending on my own journey and sets of needs, but I’ll be sure to share any updates here.
Keep on reading and absorbing everything you can, and best of luck as you sit down to write your next story.