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A guide to fiction writing

note

This still needs links to the books listed.

I thought it might be useful to gather together the books, articles, and advice I've found useful and inspiring over the course of my writing career.

Books#

I am not going to make this a long list. I'm of the belief that one should only read a limited number of "how to write" books, experience being a far better instructor. That said, I present here a few books that are useful in priming the writing pump.

General#

Take Joy by Jane Yolen

On Writing by Stephen King

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

Short story writing#

Storyteller by Kate Wilhelm

Creating Short Fiction by Damon Knight

Technique#

Writing Fiction by Gotham Writer's Workshop

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King

Talks#

Here are a few talks that I return to regularly to keep me inspired.

Ursula Le Guin's National Book Foundation acceptance speech

An Evening with Ray Bradbury

Neil Gaiman's Make Good Art speech

Ira Glass on The Gap

How I got started and a recipe you might follow#

I started with fan fiction and came late to the game, at that. I was in my late 20s when I started making up stories about a galaxy far, far away. I was fortunate to meet fellow fans who were more established, better writers than myself and they generously passed on what they knew and took the time to critique my writing and help me improve. It was the best education I could have asked for.

As I began developing original work, I started with short stories (watch that Ray Bradbury talk above for why) and began developing my voice. I also took an entire year and read a short story, an essay, and a poem every single day. [You can still see the record of that effort here: Uncle Ray's Reading Diet

That same year, I took on the task of writing a short story every week (for transparency, I was unemployed and had time on my hands) which, besides being a massive achievement, did wonders for my craft. I didn't take many of these stories to completion and most are still first drafts in a folder on my hard drive. Whether they were finished or not made little difference. I grew accustomed to sitting down and turning out stories, a skill that still serves me to this day.

When I have trouble writing, coming up with story ideas or getting words on the page, it's usually a sign for me that I'm not reading enough. In my experience, reading widely and frequently leads to more and better writing. If I'm not reading, I'm not writing. My advice on writer's block is that you're likely not blocked. You may be working on the wrong story, or writing from the wrong angle and also, how much have you been reading lately?

If you're just getting started, my recipe for you is thus:

  • Try reading a short story, a poem, and an essay every day for a period of time.

All can be very short, if you're pressed for time. Your local library will be a good source of material so you can read a wider range of authors than your wallet might otherwise allow.

The length of this project isn't so important so if you can only do it for, say, the length of a week's vacation so be it. The longer the better and feel free to repeat the exercise as often as you like.

  • Write a lot of things

Do not worry if they don't come out the way you envisioned (they likely won't). Take whatever comes and mold it during the editing process or let it be a jumping off point for something else.

Keep it short so you can play with character, tone, voice, subject matter, genre, etc. Digging into a novel will box you in before you know who you are as a writer.

  • Find someone to read your work honestly, but kindly

You can try writer's groups, but a trusted friend is often a better choice for your first-reader. Find out what they liked or didn't like in the story, find out where they had to reread a passage before it made sense.

  • Learn basic grammar, what active voice is, and how to edit well

Editing others' work is a great way to learn how to write. If you have the time and energy, working as a slush reader for a short story magazine is a great way to get this experience. Learning the basic mechanics will help you know what the rules are so you can break them intentionally instead of accidentally.

  • Have fun

You may want to be a professional or you may be happy writing fan fiction (and you may be anywhere in between) but regardless of your ambitions writing can and should be an enjoyable, satisfying process. Even when it's hard and you're writing something personal and you're crying. There are a million authors in the world so be sure you're writing for yourself and your own joy first and foremost. If you love doing it, your audience will love it, too.