Writing is a funny old business. Writers probably learn most by reading. You are what you read. Reading develops your ear for tight prose and snappy dialogue. Without even thinking about it, you learn about character and plot. The difficulty comes when you have to put all the innate skill you’ve probably already learned into practise, and put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. I sold my first short story in 1998, but I didn’t sell my first novel until 2013.
When I started to write my first book way back in the 1990s (the one that’s still in the bottom drawer) I did it in omniscient point of view, head-hopping from one character to another, jotting down their thoughts and emotions randomly. Then I read my first ‘how-to’ book which was Plot by Ansen Dibell. It was a revelation. There was a chapter called ‘Would You Trust a Viewpoint with Shifty Eyes?’ which crystalised everything down to basics – single viewpoint versus multiple viewpoint, and how to transition between multiple viewpoints. (Hint: not mid paragraph.) What an excellent book for a beginner to stumble upon. It covers a lot of the basics, plots, openings, exposition, sub-plots, set pieces, transitions and framing devices, as well as the valuable advice, ‘When you come to the end, stop.’
A few months later I found ‘Self Editing for Fiction Writers,’ by Renni Brown and Dave King. It took me a step further along the road to considering the novel as a whole, including the invaluable advice: see how it sounds. Yes I always read my work out loud as the (hopefully) last thing before sending it off. My mouth picks up errors that my eyes do not. Clunky sentences and repeated words are exposed in time to be corrected.
I have many books on writing. These two taught me the basics.
The one that kicked me up a gear was ‘Writing the Breakout Novel‘ by Donald Maass. I’m not just saying this because Don is my agent. In fact, I read the book before he was my agent. His recent book ‘The Emotional Craft of Fiction‘ is also excellent, but take note, these two are not for beginners. They introduce writers to subtleties that really make a difference.
Writing Rowankind, the third book in my Rowankind trilogy, confirmed what I learned when writing Nimbus, the third book in my Psi-Tech trilogy. Sequels are difficult, and sequels to sequels are doubly so. For the final book in a trilogy, you have to pick up a story which already has the first and second books published (so no retrospective continuity shifting allowed). Without giving away too much of what happened in your previous books, you have to make it possible for someone who hasn’t read the others, to read this as a standalone. At the same time you have to tie up all your loose ends and deliver an ending that will satisfy both your new and your long-term readers.
I’m terrible for overexplaining things, so much so that my beta readers often scrawl, Yes! We KNOW already! In the margin. Beta readers are a wonderful resource. I’m part of a small critique group called Northwrite and we will often beta-read for each other. I also attend Milford SF Writers’ Conference (Covid permitting) which is a full week in the heart of Snowdonia with fifteen like minded (published) writers who come together to critique each others work. It’s not only brilliant to have your work critiqued by other professional writers, but you learn an enormous amount critiquing other people’s work as well, and then listening to what other people said about the piece you just critiqued. Sometimes it’s as if all fifteen people read something different into the same piece. Fascinating and instructive.
But before Northwrite, and before Milford, back in the mid 1990s I joined a usenet newsgroup called misc.writing. The folks there were generous with their knowledge. I didn’t even know what manuscript format was when I started. But I think their most valuable piece of writing advice was something like this: Apply seat of trousers to office chair and fingers to keyboard and write. Revise as necessary. Finish what you write. Polish it. Send it out. While you’re waiting for it to come whistling back, write something else. Rinse and repeat.
I’ve learned an enormous amount, but there’s always more to learn. Maybe that’s the biggest lesson.