By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
Writing can be a daunting task, but it can be even more daunting for those who know they want to write, but just aren't sure how to start. What do you focus on first? Should you worry about how publishable the idea is? What's the fuss about query letters and do you need to write one?
It can make you crazy.
So, here is my advice for anyone who's brave enough to pick up the pen and start writing. The things I feel will build a strong foundation that you can develop your skill set on. This also applies to those who are still trying to get their writing legs under them.
Read a Lot
It may sound silly, but one of the best ways you can develop your writer's ear is to read as many great books as you can. You'll start seeing (and hearing) how to put together sentences and what makes a great dramatic scene. It'll also familiarize you with your genre, let you see what else has been done, and make it easier to spot cliches.
Write a Lot
And the only way you can practice those skills, is to write. Don't worry about how good or bad it is, just get it down. You have to start somewhere, and just like you skinned your knees learning to walk, you'll make mistakes and fall down as you start to write. But every time you put words together, those words get better and you learn.
Now for the more specific stuff, because that's what you really want to know, right?
Grammar and Punctuation
Brush up on the proper usage of things like quotation marks and em dashes. Learn how to use commas and semi-colons. Know how to punctuate dialog. Writers break grammar rules all the time, but to do it well, you first have to know what those rules are. You don't have to go back to school or anything, but make sure you're using your tools correctly so you don't develop bad habits that will be hard to break later.
Point of View
I'm a strong believer that understanding POV early on will help you eliminate a big chunk of the common problems many new writers have. It helps you with show vs tell, info dumping, too much back story, makes it easier to know what to describe so you don't have tons of exposition, and helps with goals and stakes. Study what makes a good first person or third person, the differences between limited and omniscient third, how past and present tense narrators work.
Scene and Structure
I'm a framework gal, and I think it's a lot easier to "color within the lines" so to speak when you're starting out. Understanding how scenes work provide structure not only for your stories, but for your leaning process. You have something specific you're trying to do, which gives you something you can check your progress against. Plus, scenes are just the building blocks of a novel, so understanding those gives you the skill set to write good chapters and completed novels. Understand what goals are, why stakes are so important, and how to use both to create a plot that moves your story forward.
Novels are stories first, and the plot is how you tell that story to your reader. Figuring out what pieces go into making a plot go a long way toward putting together a novel that makes sense and a story that unfolds in a compelling way. Not everyone likes to plot out their stories, and that's fine, but understand what makes a good plot and how stories unfold so you know what you're aiming for as you write.
Why I Suggest These Things
Grammar, POV, structure and plotting are all tools that build the novel. If these are weak, it won't matter how well you write on a sentence level, because you probably won't be able to tell a compelling story. And the story is what the reader if after. It's also easier to polish a well-built novel so it reads well that to build a story under too-pretty-to-edit words.
What Not to Worry About
When you're learning your craft, it doesn't matter what you write about, because the goal is to learn, not publish. While we all have that dream that our first novel will sell, it's rare when that actually happens. Odds are your first novel will be your starter novel and where you'll develop your skills. Knowing that going in takes the pressure off. It's just practice, so if you make a mistake, it doesn't matter.
While you'll want to strive to write the best you can, trying to do too much at once is a good way to get overwhelmed. Don't worry about how the writing sounds at this point. The goal is to learn how to tell a story. Once you can do that, you can learn how to make that story read as smoothly as possible.
Only the rare few are perfect when they first put words to paper. And even those who have dozens of books on the shelf still write first drafts that can make your eyes bleed. Writing is revision, and chances are you'll edit just about everything you ever write.
These things are by no means the only things you have to learn, but I think they're a great place to start. Trying to learn it all at once is a lot of information to process. But if you take it layers at a time, you'll build a strong foundation that will make the next step easier to absorb.