I’m an author, and as such, sometimes hang out with other writers, some of which are new to the whole writing thing, some even brand new, with not a clue where to start. The fact alone that they made it to the kind of places I hang out at proves their dedication and motivation, but that alone is not enough to produce a complete book.
The problem with picking up anything more complex for the first time, is that you don’t even know yet what you don’t know, and that’s very much the case with writing, too. There’s sources on the net that help you get started — but the problem is, there’s just so many of them, and they all give different advice, that it can be confusing and frustrating digging through all of it to find what you really need to know.
I’m not a creative writing teacher. I teach German and English. That means that, while I don’t have experience teaching people how to write, I know how to teach in general, and the problems people have when starting out, and a second or third language is on par with, if not more difficult, than learning to write.
Writing is partially an intellectual skill, and partially a physical activity, quite like using a language. The intellectual part needs to be learned, which means you need to really understand the concepts well enough to be able to explain them to someone else. That’s a pretty solid level of knowledge, but it’s quite doable.
Then there’s the physical and mental part. Writing is physically exhausting. Ask any professional chess player how much weight they lose during a typical tournament, and you’ll be tempted to pick up chess as your new weight loss program. I won’t tell you how to deal with that. The mental side is yet another facet of the whole writing thing you’ll have to figure out by yourself, since we’re all different, with different personalities, lives, habits, needs. I would recommend you take a look at the NaNoWriMo page and read a bit through their articles and pep talks by well-known authors, a look at their forums might be helpful, too.
Now, with all that out of the way, let’s get to the meat of this posting. Learning the craft is the part that has to be learned and understood, and then trained in order to use all that knowledge without having to think about it all the time. Kinda like you have to use the same grammar point a few times before you can use it in a conversation without thinking about it.
YouTube writing channels
People recommend YouTube channels a lot lately, and sometimes they name “authortubers” I don’t like, whose writing I don’t like, and who give very generic advice you can find in better, more precise and more concrete form elsewhere. And because Youtube is such a nice way to get your feet wet, get some first impressions without having to pay a cent, this is where I’ll start my list of ResourcesYouNeedToKnow(TM).
The first channel I’ll recommend is not about writing, at least not direct. Isaac Arthur runs a channel about futuristic concepts and science fiction. I love him a lot, and named the First Administrator of the Terran Unity Party after him. You need to think about propulsion, ringworlds, van Neumann probes, black holes, AI, Isaac has you covered. There’s awesome videos on his channel, sometimes discussing SF books dealing with the subjects of his videos.
There’s some more channels useful to SF authors, but I’ll stick to those that are directly writing-related now. The first one I’d like to recommend is Diane Callahan. According to her channel info, she’s a developmental editor and author. All her videos have good examples for whatever it is she’s explaining, and she’s concrete. No wishy-washy like “show, don’t tell” or “no passive voice” you’d find in every second thread on Reddit. When she tells you to show something, she explains what, how and why.
The Tale Foundry is not directly a craft channel, and you won’t learn techniques, but there’s some nuggets of wisdom to be picked up here, and the videos are done well and explain in detail.
Derek Murphy has some great advice on many topics for self-published authors. You learn self-publishing here, not writing, but that’s a facet you should work at, even if you don’t plan to self-publish. Knowledge is power, and Derek gives it away for free in spades, whether that be regarding book cover design or ads on Amazon/Facebook. He even has some advice on how to plot and edit, which is always nice to have on video, even though I’ll do some book recommendations later, and those books are what I find mandatory, whereas YT videos are a bonus.
Another good channel with a lot of advice is Reedsy. They also have a website with lots of cool stuff like name generators, and a tool to assemble your ebook. I’m actually using that, even though I could do it with Scrivener or Calibre, but I really like it. Anyway, their Youtube channel is all about the craft. How to do things, with very specific explanations and examples. Reedsy is pretty close to a textbook in scope, and I’d say check it out and see if they have videos about a topic you’ve been having trouble with, I bet they can help.
The last channel I’d recommend is good old Brandon Sanderson. People recommend his channel as some sort of one-stop-shop, and I believe even Brandon himself would raise his hands in shock and tell you to not think his seminar videos can make you a writer. They really can’t. His videos are, however, insightful and show light on aspects in typical Brandon Sanderson manner, and while I’m at it, I’d recommend his podcast “Writing Excuses“, too, which is way, way closer to an actual “masterclass in writing”, even though it, too, lacks in several departments, but no worries, the books I’ll list now will cover that.
My top 4 book recommendations
There’s a number of books I believe to be more of less mandatory to learn the craft, and then there’s some I find nice, because they teach you specific things, or take a different approach to teaching certain topics, and you might find that helpful. Let’s see.
The very first book I’d recommend is Understanding Show Don’t Tell: And Really Getting It. This one will teach you what “show don’t tell” means, why people throw it in your face even when they themselves don’t actually understand what it means (because they’ve seen it mentioned so often, lol), and how it works. Why it works. What narrative distance means, and how and why you would want to control it, and how it informs your decisions on whether to show or tell something in your story. Great book, quick read, explains the topic well without overloading you with other stuff you don’t need or want to know right now. Perfect first book for new writers.
The second book I would recommend you read is Save The Cat Writes A Novel. This is based on a book for screenplays, adapted for novelists, and talks about how to plot a book. Even if you’re a “pantser” (or “discovery writer”, if you prefer that term), knowing how to design a plot, how to hit certain beats, and why you would even want that, is valuable knowledge. Ignorance might be bliss sometimes, but not when it comes to a craft, and writing is craftsmanship as much as it is artistic pursuit. STC definitely teaches craft. It gives you tools you can then use or not, but if you choose not to, you’ll be aware of what you’re dealing with.
Now that you know what “show don’t tell” means, and you’re able to create an outline, you might want to learn how a scene works, how you write actual events, their emotional impacts, and how that relates to conflicts and reactions. The book Techniques Of The Selling Writer teaches exactly this, and more. What else it teaches, other books talk about in equal detail, but for scene writing techniques, this is the best book out there hands down. You will not find anything that comes even close. This is what people think about when they talk about “learning to write”. You’ll learn to write here. This is actual formal teaching of writing prose.
he next book on my list teaches you about the monomyth and other interesting stuff you might or might not use later, but the reason I recommend it is its chapters about characters. Archetypes, webs of relationships, roles like “fake ally” or “mentor” are explained in detail, and the author uses a lot of examples to really drive his points home. The name is Anatomy Of Story, and similar to STC, it was originally written for screenplays — but that doesn’t matter, because everything he writes about characters in this book are true for novels as well. This is the last absolutely mandatory book in my opinion. Now come a bunch of honourable mentions.
Other nice reads
How Not To Write A Novel is a fun book about mistakes authors make, and how to avoid them. Worth buying and reading.
How To Write Funny and it’s 2 sequels are interesting reads, even if you don’t write comedy. Not even because it tells you why certain things are funny, but because it gives you various related insights that help you understand how to work with emotions.
Take Off Your Pants is a different approach to STC and might work for people who don’t like STC. It teaches you to do outlining using different techniques, mostly based on questions, not beats.
2k to 10k has some useful techniques to help you plan your writing better, even if you’re more of a pantser type. Better planning leads to less brooding while writing, which speeds up your process. There’s a blog post, google it, it’s basically the tl;dr, but if you want it in more detail, get the book.
Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is another book by the author of Understanding Show Don’t Tell. Awesome teaching, very useful, and almost on my list of the mandatory reads, but the other books on that list got that covered already. Great as additional read, to really make it clear though. Janice Hardy is just all around great, and I recommend checking her out on Amazon.
So no Stephen King’s “On Writing”? Yeah, no. On Writing really is more of a memoir, not really what the title states, and what’s in it about writing is so generic and vague, it’s not really usable as a textbook. And Stevie should know, he’s a teacher, too. It’s a nice read anyway, if you’re a SK fan. If not, then why bother. It teaches you nothing the books I listed don’t.
And that’s basically it. Watch the Youtube channels above when you can’t sit down to read and study (and this is a proper subject that requires studying, you don’t learn this without working for it, trust me on this — there is no shortcut). Read the books when you can devote the time to really think while reading, and when you have the time to process what you read.
What’s next? Maybe join Nanowrimo next November. Teaches you to make some time to write every day and helps you form good habits. Whatever you do, write and don’t stop until you’re finished. Then edit it later. Finishing and editing is what teaches you more than any other stage of your writing, so starting 10 books and writing the first 10k words, only to then abandon them, is not going to help you much. You’ll learn how to start books, but that’s really just a fraction of what you need to know.