Congratulations! You’ve decided to take that wonderful, scary step and write that novel burning inside you.
Writing is an art, just like music. A musician wouldn’t expect to sit down at a piano or take up a violin and immediately crank out a perfect rendition of Mozart. Good music requires learning and practice. Good writing is the same way, requiring learning and practice.
Thanks to the internet, free and inexpensive resources are readily available to anyone who wants to write their first novel. This article lists some tips, books, articles, and websites that I found most useful when I started writing.
Join a writing community.
The best money I spent was in joining an online writing organization. Writing groups have informative discussion loops, workshop archives, and sometimes critique groups. Often, published authors are on the email loop to give advice that you can’t read in a book.
I joined American Christian Fiction Writers, which is a large organization that has a lively writing craft discussion loop, extensive workshop archives on all kinds of writing topics, a prayer loop, ongoing online courses, a website discussion forum board, critique groups, smaller regional/face-to-face groups, and an annual conference. There’s a huge wealth of information available to ACFW members.
There are other groups for various other genres, such as Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
If you don't quite want to risk spending the money just yet, there is also Writing.com, which is a free writing website. This is an excellent site for writers who desire feedback on their writing. On this huge site, writers can read stories, poems and articles, post their own pieces, and connect with other writers from practically any genre. There are several tiers of membership, from the basic Free membership to a full Business membership. The site policies, the innovative Gift Points system and the examples of generous community members work to maintain an honest and encouraging critiquing environment. Because the membership is so large, writers get a wide variety of critiques from people who are truly interested in the genre of their piece, and all writers are encouraged to review others in kind. It’s a secular site, so pay attention to the ratings for each piece before reading.
You can see other writing and critiquing sites on my Writers Groups page.
Learn the Basics.
There are tons of good writing books and articles out there. Here are some of my personal recommendations. These are the books that helped me the most out of all the books I've read:
One thing I see often in the contest entries I judge and the synopses I critique is that the storyline doesn't have a strong structure. It might have all the vital elements, but not in an order that will generate maximum emotional appeal for a reader. As a result, the story seems "off" or the middle sags and ending fizzles.
Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain gave me a rock-solid foundation in the structure of a good novel. This will provide a framework for your creativity to build your story on. It gives patterns and suggestions as powerful tools for a creative writer to use to craft their own original, vibrant storyline.
This was published years ago and has become a classic. However, it's also a bit hard to read for the modern audience. I wrote a series of articles based on his book to highlight his principles, called Articles from Swain. I highly recommend these articles to get a good idea of the basics of writing fiction.
Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. Bell breaks down many of the same elements as Swain, in clearer language, with different metaphors and examples. He also goes into some other tools for fiction writers that I found very useful. The key here is simplicity and clarity. Bell's book helps writers understand the basics in order to build their novel with a solid understanding of the craft.
Randy Ingermanson is a phenomenal fiction teacher. His Advanced Fiction Writing website has several articles for beginning writers including “Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Author!” and “The Snowflake,” a structured method for writing a novel.
Many writers learn better by hearing a workshop than reading a book. For those types of auditory learners, I recommend Randy’s Fiction 101 series for teaching the basic elements of craft. Randy’s method is very logical, straightforward, and analytical.
Another great audio workshop series for beginning writers is “Bringing Fiction to Life” by freelance editor and author Donna Fleisher. Donna has a more conversational style than Randy, so which course to buy depends on what type of personality you are, and which type of teaching style you prefer.
Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors by Brandilyn Collins teaches the most unique, comprehensive methods for developing rich, three-dimensional characters. She deals with the basics of characterization like Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, and she also explains nuances of prose and dialogue to bring those characters to life.
GOAL, MOTIVATION, AND CONFLICT by Debra Dixon is a classic characterization book. Many of the character weaknesses I see in contest entries include lack external or internal goals, believable motivation, and/or sufficient conflict to carry the story. This book is not available via Amazon, but you can order it directly from the publishers, Gryphon Books for Writers.
45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt is one of the most-used books in my writing library. It has both character archetypes and also the classic Hero’s Journey, as well as the Heroine’s Journey. Archetypes and the Journeys are tools writers can use to jump-start their own stories.
Writing Tips email group (previously known as FirstDraft): This GoogleGroup is not a discussion email list. Instead, it sends out emails five days a week with links to various writing articles. I learned so much through this email loop when I first started writing. Reading a little bit about the writing craft every day really helped to improve my writing skills quickly.
Good writing is not just learning, it’s practice. Write!
Sometimes writers will write short stories to start. Short stories have the same structure as a novel, just on a smaller scale and shorter time frame. I did a lot of short story writing in various genres to figure out which genre I liked writing. I used short stories as a way for me to explore and experiment in my writing.
But don’t put off your novel, either. There’s a saying, “Most people don’t want to write, they want to have written.” Don’t fall into the trap of wanting to write but not being able to push yourself to do it.
Writing is hard work, and all writers will say the same thing, especially after they’ve completed a few novels. Don’t beat yourself up about having a hard time writing, because all writers will relate.
Force yourself to sit down and start writing. Force yourself to sit down the next day and keep writing. Force yourself to find time to write even a few words each day.
Take it a day at a time, a paragraph at a time. Novel writing is a long, hard journey, but a very rewarding one when you finally write “The End.”
Note: There are LOTS of books on writing that many people have used and swear by. The list above is simply what I found most useful out of all the books I read (and trust me, I’ve read a bunch). If you’d like to know what other books other writers liked, a quick search on Amazon will turn up a huge list, and I’ve spent money on most of those titles. The ones I’ve listed in this article are the ones I thought gave me the most bang for my buck.
I also have another article, “I’ve written a book and I have no clue what to do next,” which lists other books and resources for the revision and submission process.