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How to write a book: resources for the first time novelist

best writing craft books

When I tell people I write fiction, sometimes they say ‘Hey, I’d like to write, too!’

Then I geek out on recommending craft books, resources to change ‘I’d like to write!’ to ‘I write!’, and their eyes glaze over because hours have passed & my enthusiasm has turned scary.

This page is a restrained list of the resources I most often recommend.

It’s a list for first-time novelists. I love reading about craft & have a teetering sub-list of other, nerdier writing books I adore, but I’ve kept this batch broad, & applicable to any genre.

Note: this is what I needed when I was starting out. At that point I’d been practicing & going to writing classes enough to know I could write a few thousand decent words, but had no clue how to turn those into a novel.
You might be at a different stage. Or you might prefer a different book on the same subject (though I’m willing to bet it will be the same advice, just in a voice or style that’s more you).
If none of these appeal, ignore me. Just start writing, and keep reading other people’s fiction until you can figure out what they are doing to bewitch you.

Important: Don’t stop writing while you’re reading: keep your hand in with some kind of practice along the way. It’s easy to trick yourself into feeling productive because you’ve read about doing something, instead of actually doing it. Most of these books have exercises to follow: use them. It’s the best way to learn.

My top three desert-island, heavyweight champs of writing craft books:

The Breakout Novel Workbook, by Donald Maass. Skip the accompanying book & go straight to this workbook.  It’s full of exercises to make what happens in your novel matter.
Save The Cat, by Blake Snyder. For when you don’t know what’s supposed to happen next. This is classic on how to structure a story (though you could easily substitute Weiland, Bell or Hawker’s books on structure for it (see below), this is the one I read first, & I wish I’d found it sooner).
Spellbinding Sentences, by Barbara Baig, advanced reading & practical exercises on how to make clever, beautiful sentences.

Other strong contenders

Structure & outlining

Outlining your novel by KM Weiland. KM’s books are always friendly & sensible. Good for beginners on where to take your baby idea next.
Take Off Your Pants  by Libbie Hawker. This is the outlining book I refer to the most. before and during writing (despite always getting Blink 182 songs stuck in my head).
Super Structure by James Scott Bell.  Another simple explanation of story structure that gets you up & started, quickly.
(Psst, if you’re writing romance, supplement these with Gwen Hayes’ Romancing The Beat)

What the hell is a scene, anyway?

How to Write Page Turning Scenes, by Holly Lisle

Revision

How to Revise Your Novel by Holly Lisle. I have no other resources for revision because this mammoth online course covered everything. EVERYTHING. And taught me a huge amount about novel writing in general, not just revising.

Editing

Before You Hit Send Another online course, this one for gussying up that revised novel. Run a few times a year by a thorough & well-respected editor who answers questions personally in the forums. Take notes, as you only have access to course content while you’re enrolled.
The Emotional Thesaurus and The Fiction Thesaurus will help you to show not tell, & the actual thesaurus, Rogets, will give you a hand when you’re absolutely sure there’s no other word to describe your character than ‘nice’ or ‘good’.


For remembering writing is fun, & staying in touch with your creativity:

(‘step away from the beat sheet, ma am’)
Use A Writer’s Book of Days  and How to Be a Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play for prompts & exercises that will get you playing around with words, & remembering why you thought writing a novel would be a good idea in the first place.

The Artist’s Way is what you need if your brain is playing up & talking crap about you & your creativity.

Last but not least, you’ll need:

All of your favourite books, and some you dislike.
Tear yourself away from the plot & characters & examine how they transport you, or turn you off: How much of the page is dialogue? How much is description? How is sensory detail used? How does the setting reveal detail about the characters? What is irritating about the books you don’t like? Why don’t they suck you in, or how do they let you down?


There. C’est tout. For now. Happy writing!

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Reading update: Spring into Contemporary YA

ya-fiction-contemporaryNearly halfway through the year – how’s your reading going?
Here’s my reading so far:

2017 Reading Challenge

2017 Reading Challenge
Rhian has
read 26 books toward
her goal of
50 books.
hide

UPDATE – ugh, there’s supposed to be a fancy grid of book covers here but I can’t get the coding to work. Apparently Goodreads doesn’t play nicely with WordPress. 🙁

So, instead I need you to imagine a pretty grid of book covers here, and head over to my Goodreads if you’d like to check the titles out. Visualise some graphic novels (one with a cute-but-sad robot on it), a couple of Fancy Literature covers (looking all serious), and a glut of YA Contemporary.

Yup, you read that right: Contemporary. I read a few books in a row that had NO magic in them: and I liked it! (They would have been even better with magic in, though. Just sayin’…)

My favourite? It’s hard to choose – The Sun is Also A Star was gorgeous, but the Holly Bourne books & Beautiful Broken Things were more relatable because they mirrored my own teen experiences with food, friendships & feminism. They are funny, & sensitive, & I wish I could have read them when I was still in school. Also, Holly’s Spinster Club idea is AWESOME, so, with stiff competion, Am I Normal Yet wins. Go forth & read it!

Right now I’m reading Lady Midnight (back to the magic & demons for me!). Not my favourite Cassie Clare so far, partly because I don’t need all the Shadowhunter background info-dumps, having read them all loads of times, but the more I read the more interesting it becomes.

Emma reminds me of a female Jace, and I love poor, tortured Mark. Will there be anyone I love as much as Tess, Clary, Will or Simon, though? Maybe not – but here’s hoping.

Which read has lit you up this year? Let me know & I’ll add it to my TBR list!

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Buffy the sedentary lifestyle slayer

Two things happened yesterday: I woke up gleeful, cos it was a writing day so I could spend hours snuggled under a blanket with just my notebook, dictaphone & pens for company; and then I saw another infographic on how a sedentary lifestyle is the worst thing everrr.

Ouch. Don’t my disintegrating hip-flexors know that sitting down, alone, indoors is one of the best things about being a writer? Grr.

I already own a laptop riser for standing while I type, but my writing process these days is as offline as possible: I write scene sketches in my notebook, then dictate them, no keyboard interaction at all. Dragon Naturally Speaking transcribes the audio to text files, & I’ll batch-edit them later.

This process stops me fiddling with newly written words & keeps focus on scene/word production instead. And I love how tactile writing by hand is. But it’s dangerously easy to do from my bed or sofa.

Since I want to live longer & write more, while still writing by hand, I needed to get creative. Without wasting hours of writing time on ‘research’ (aka Amazon/writer forums), which would only end with either a lot of money spent or an aspirational new Pinterest board on Dream Office Setup.

Ten minutes later, my exercise step, a spare bookshelf (never know when you might need one) and sturdy box-sets of two fantastic tv-shows turned into a makeshift standing desk.

And the writing? It went great! Turns out working while standing-up is very conducive to a shimmy, so I got some dancing done along with my wordcount. Fingers crossed I can make this a habit…

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Spring Science Fiction Recommendations

science-fiction films novels writingBefore Spring comes for real and I have to Go Outside and step away from the remote, I curled up for a long overdue sci-fi love-in. Just me, my kindle and Netflix, oh, and an assortment of aliens, robots and time-travellers.

Read on for book and film reccys (that everyone else watched ages ago).

First up, Lauren Beuke‘s short story collection Slipping. This was hit after hit of what I like best about her writing: sly, sharp digs at who we are, who we want to be, and the tricks we fall for, all with a gritty, near-future cyberpunk backdrop.

If you already like her writing, you’ll like this – if you haven’t read her yet, start here or see my review of Zoo City. I’ve seen this collection hailed as satire but it read more like fortune-telling to me – the future is written, and Instagram is going to kill us all.

Ex-Machina Alex garland robotThen, my brother added me to his Netflix account (because our mum made him – thanks Mum!), and I streamed Ex Machina immediately.

I’d wanted to see this since the Alex Garland interview on the Geeks Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

I love Alex Garland’s novels, but I hadn’t heard him speak before. Swoon! Who here isn’t a sucker for a deep-voiced guy talking knowledgeably about John Wyndham? Not me! So I needed to know if I’d enjoy his films as much as his books (read The Tesseract if you need a book you can’t put down til its finished).

Ex Machina was dreamily shot, cleverly written and has a satisfyingly un-saccharine ending. Most everyone I’ve mentioned it to has already seen it & gushed about how good it was, so I’d file it under Clever Arty Sci Fi Your Clever Arty Friends Will Like (But Saw Without You).  Also, Geoff Barrow from Portishead contributes to the soundtrack.

lucy-luc-besson Netflix’s hypnopowers then made me watch Lucy. It’s a fun Luc Besson caper that I refuse to link to the trailer for because it spoilers most of the film.

I’d give it 8.5/10* for satisfying my particular RhianFilm tastes: cheesy gangsters, sci-fi time babble, gunfights, car crashes & a solid Vincent Cassel-alike. [*.5 deducted for tenuous monkey link]

looper bruce willis time travelI finished up with Looper, which I’m glad I’ve finally seen but is my least favourite of the three.

It had its highlights: I find that Bruce Willis improves most things, and the future-noir world-building is detailed and believable. I’m not convinced by the time travel rules, though.

long way small angry planet becky chambersNow, this was all great but you might have spotted there are NO SPACE SHIPS in these films. And you can’t have a sci-fi jag with no spaceships. Which led me nicely onto a novel I’ve meant to read for ages – A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers.

I started reading this in bed one morning & was somehow halfway through by lunchtime, in that magic way reading=timetravel sometimes. The good thing about not starting this series for so long is that the sequel is already out, hurrah!

If you (like me) now want to write your own sci fi stories, I’ve done the legwork and found us a course on Cat Rambo’s site, taught with Ann Leckie. Yup, Hugo, Nebula & Arthur C Clarke award winning Ann Leckie. It’s called ‘Space Opera and Beyond‘, and it’s only $29, and I am 100% enrolling once I’ve finished editing this novel & am allowed to play on other projects.

If you also (like me) now need to read more sci-fi, here’s a good article that’s swelled my TBR pile: 9 Modern Women Science Fiction Writers You Need To Be Celebrating.

Send me any of your own sci-fi recommendations and I’ll be your bestest friend (I accept email, Twitter, Facebook or futuristic robot morse code)

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