The resources that taught me how to write

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I’ve been interested in writing for almost as long as I’ve been into drawing and visual art. As a kid I used to staple up wads of paper and write and illustrate my own stories in them. Exciting tales, such as Putrid Puffin (who ate peas and muffins, and wore a very fine hat), and tales of Rainbow Wings, a winged unicorn, and her sisters Sunset and Moonshine. As I got older, I started many longer stories, such as Kara and the Message Stone which made it to a full 86 pages.

Between ages 6-12 I devoured books, both Middle Grade and Adult genres, almost always fantasy though and mainly seeking out stories with strong female leads. When I hit high school, the other kids taught me that reading wasn’t cool. This is one of the saddest things that ever happened to my childhood (yes, I had an otherwise awesome upbringing). So, I almost entirely stopped reading, and writing. Thankfully, drawing didn’t have as much stigma attached, so I kept at that, and found a new love in comic books which were also deemed not-TOO-geeky. I was actually a little obsessed. I wanted to be a comic author and artist, and during this time my skills as an artist increased dramatically from the effort I put in toward that goal. I authored and illustrated five or six single issue comics of different stories, from superhero to fantasy to symbolic.

One of those comic books concepts was Memory’s Wake.

I played with character designs and page layouts, wrote and re-wrote scripts, but before I could start the actual work I hit university and ran out of time, and being close to adulthood, had to start thinking about adult things, like a career that might actually pay me. I decided I didn’t have time to illustrate it, so I took the script I created and fleshed it out into a fairly poor Novella. It then got put away while I went about being an adult. But the story never left me.

So cut to about 2009. Me and my (now) husband, David, are keen movie-goers. We love “story” in all it’s forms and we spend ages discussing the finer aspects of storytelling in the movies we’ve seen. I start reading again, after almost ten years, and Memory’s Wake starts haunting me.  I dig it up and read it and am horrified. It was full of the same sort of plot holes and lame character motivations that I love to pick apart in some other works. I almost put it away forever again, when David put me on the first step to learning how to write for reals when he pointed me to “Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting” by Robert Mckee.

“Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting” by Robert Mckee.
http://www.amazon.com/Story-Substance-Structure-Principles-Screenwriting/dp/0060391685

While this is a screen writing book rather than about novel format writing, at it’s heart what it is all about is “Story”. What is a story, what makes a great story, how a story can be told, what are the important parts of a story, etc. I learned about inciting incidents, darkest moments, handling exposition and creating conflict. It got me excited about storytelling, and with what I learned from it I was able to strip my story down to bare essentials and build back up a working plot line. Some characters got cut entirely, others became real people rather than background cut outs. Exciting new twists were tied together with realistic character motivations and a well developed back-story. It took me almost a year. And when in doubt, I went back to “Story”, to remind myself of how to use conflict, how to structure action in my scenes and keep the story moving. “Story” opened my eyes. I no longer just wanted to write something, I wanted to be a good writer, and I’d already taken my first learning step down that path. I then started looking for where else I could learn.

The Online Writers Workshop
http://sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com/

 

Once I had my plotline structured in detail, I started writing again from scratch. The last time I’d written prose was in high school. Yikes. I started seeking articles online to help me out, and many suggested critique groups. A quick search later and I found OWW. It’s a paid group but has a free one month trial. I think I bought my yearly membership after just a week into the trail. I loved it. I posted a chapter, and learned so much within the first few critiques from peer reviewers I knew it would be worth it. There are other critique groups out there, and they all work differently (eg, www.bookcountry.com or www.critters.org). I personally prefer the way OWW works. Firstly it’s private, unlike Book Country, so only members can read your work. Critters works on a mailing list, and you have to review and review and review and wait for your turn to pop up on the list and be reviewed. OWW lets you post up to three submissions at once (normally a chapter each). You need four review points to post a submission, and you earn those points by reviewing other peoples submissions, so it encourages people to keep reviewing work. It’s an older style site, but works nicely and the people are lovely.

Online articles
The Interwebz via google

Whenever I’m stuck on a particular writing issue (how do I write good dialogue? What’s the difference between Alright and All right?), of course I turn to google. The internet is FULL of amazing articles on writing, particularly on author’s blogs. Go and check out your favourite author’s website and see if they don’t have some tips or links for writers. There are so many articles out there, and normally I don’t bookmark most as I go because I’m looking for a solution and then move on. So this is not so much a source, as a reminder that when you get stuck, just ask Google “How do I do X?” and you’ll find help. But if I must share a link, here’s a collection of about a million decent writing articles- http://socialpolitan.org/d6/articles/category/Writing

Edit Minion
http://editminion.com/

Who doesn’t love minions? Still in Beta (in development), Edit Minion is a simple site where you paste in some text, and it will highlight any errors it can pick up. It’s a great way to suddenly see quite clearly a weakness in your work (So much green? Gah, I’m over-describing dialogue too much!). I also just learned about a piece of editing software available to buy called Editor at http://www.serenity-software.com/ which sounds way more advanced, which I will be adding to my toolkit soon.

More books!
Some to read, some to avoid.

“The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. This is an older text which covers basics of punctuation, grammar and sentence structure. A handy reference for authors (although, the internet and people like Grammar Girl http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/ can be just as good). I did find this an interesting read, sometimes laughing out loud at the dry humour, but I’m not sure how much sunk in. I’m still no grammar guru, that’s for sure.

“On Writing” by Stephen King is a book I won’t recommend, unless you’re just really keen to read a whole lot about King’s life. He opens by telling you how he’ll keep it concise (which he seems to repeat a lot) and on topic, and then the rest of the book reads like an autobiography. There is a point to him doing this. The book is mostly a “how a writer was formed” exploration, with him as the subject. Lots of other authors recommend this book, and lots of people, obviously, read his stories, but I didn’t find anything valuable in this about actually writing.

Apart from actual instructional books, authors of course learn from reading in general, both books with the same genre and market as your own, and books as different as possible. And the bad books you read can teach you just as much as the good books.

And that’s how I learned how to write.

I can’t say I’m now a brilliant writer. Heck, I still forget how to punctuate most of the time and am not the best speller. I’ve only been teaching myself and working to better my skills for about two years now. But I’m still learning and improving, and already made a massive leap from where I started. These resources have helped me out along the way so I wanted to share them. Hopefully I’ll find some more great resources as I keep learning. Do you have any resources that have taken your knowledge and writing to a new level?

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