A Tiny Pocket Guide for Writers

I met a woman at a party recently who was excited about introducing me to her seventeen-year-old daughter, who hopes to be a writer. At another party, I met a lawyer who is researching an interesting case that he plans to craft into fiction.

A thousand things run through my mind when I’m pondering what to say to a person who shows an interest in writing. If I can share some advice, I’m happy to do it. But I always wish I had something more to give them than just a few encouraging words and a pat on the back.

I wish I could pass along some secret code or passkey that would unlock the mysteries of the craft. (Now that would be a MacGuffin worth having.) But there’s no secret key to writing well that you can simply pluck out of your pocket. Instead, there are so many wonderful references, you’d need a bucket to carry them all.

Writer's Tips from Carla NortonMy first advice to any aspiring writer is to read. This seems so obvious that you’d think it wouldn’t need saying, but I’m sometimes surprised by the responses I get. Enthusiastic readers make the best writers, period.

Writers are sometimes shy souls, but it’s great if you can find a community of like-minded souls. Congratulations if you’re one of those lucky individuals who has already found a trusted writing group. It seems ideal to meet over wine or coffee to share your writing, but there are pitfalls, too, that may not be apparent except in hindsight. Once your friends get to know you, and they see how much work you put into your writing, they might hesitate to share realistic criticism.

So, it’s also good to venture out into the larger community, join a national association, and start going to conferences. I belong to several organizations, including ITW (International Thriller Writers) and MWA (Mystery Writers of America), but there are groups for historical fiction, romance, fantasy, and most genres.

On a smaller scale, sometimes libraries and bookstores host events. And speaking of books, there are many written for those who have a passion for writing. I’d like to recommend a few of my favorites.

Bird by Bird by Anne LamottNeed inspiration? Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, is great for getting the wheels turning. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King, is well worth reading. And my personal favorite, The Writing Life, is a slim and lovely book by Annie Dillard.
• Of course it’s important to read, read, read, and Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose, will help you get more out of each and every book.
• Those interested in improving story structure can learn plenty from screenwriters, and the good news is that there are several books to choose from: Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee, and The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver or any of several books by the late, great Syd Field.
• I suppose the bible on technique must be Notes on Craft for Young Writers, by John Gardner. For a more modern approach, you might like Writing the Breakout Novel or The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great, two good books by Donald Maass.
• The best resources for self-editing that I’ve come across are by Chris Roerden: Don’t Murder Your Mystery and Don’t Sabotage Your Submission. Get one or the other, because they carry essentially the same sage advice.
• After you’ve done your best and your manuscript is finished, it’s smart to find a professional editor. And once you’re satisfied with your book and you’re ready to get down to business, a huge number of resources await, starting with these: 2014 Writer’s Market, 2014 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market, 2014 Poet’s Market, 2014 Guide to Self-Publishing, and so on.

I confess that I’m not the most scholarly writer you’ll ever meet. I can’t quote Aristotle’s The Poetics. I’ve scarcely glanced at Henry James’s famous essay, “The Art of Fiction,” or James Wood’s How Fiction Works. In fact, there are plenty of terrific books on craft that I haven’t yet cracked, including those by James Scott Bell and Nancy Kress.

So, what’s your favorite book on writing? Please share it with the rest of us. Leave a comment, and maybe the next time we’re asked to give advice, we can all just refer to this as our Tiny Pocket Guide for Writers.