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My Writing Success:The ONE Thing That Helped Me Most

Monday, March 21, 2011


Over the course of my writing journey, I could point to any number of things that have helped me achieve publication with a major CBA publishing house and the subsequent successful debut of my book, The Preacher’s Bride.

Many years of hard work, five practice books now stuck in a closet, writing contests, feedback from critique partners, conferences, perseverance, patience, Providence. The list could go on and on.

And yet, if I had to narrow down one specific thing that has helped the most in my quest for publication, I’d have to say this: My careful, ongoing, and thorough study and practice of writing techniques has been the single most beneficial aspect of my writing career.

In other words, I read writing craft books, studied fiction-writing basics, and then put what I learned into practice. All the studying has been the number one thing to help me in my writing career.

I recently read a post by writer, Aimee Salter. She talked about how others had encouraged her to read books on fiction-writing techniques. At first she pushed aside their advice: “I'd really rather just keep writing and getting feedback and work it out on my own. Study and research of the craft seemed like a lot of hard work for dubiously unknown gain. I wanted to 'learn on the job' . . . I thought I'd spend a lot of time studying (dry, boring, uninspiring reading - *Yawn*) when I could be writing (creating, exploring, doing something I'm passionate about - *Cheer!*).”

Aimee goes on to conclude that after approximately two years of writing and rejections, she finally acted upon the counsel and started studying fiction-basics. “Really studying the craft gave me tools and expertise I couldn't have found any other way . . . In four months of study and rewriting . . . my book has come further than it did in the sixteen months prior.”

Interestingly, I’ve heard many writers voice the same opinion Aimee originally had—that studying about writing is stifling, boring, unnecessary, and a waste of time. That to get better all we really need to do is keep writing. I’ve repeatedly heard things like “writing ‘rules’ impede my creativity” or “writing is an art form of individualistic expression.” Such statements imply that if we study fiction-writing, we’ll lose the freedom to express ourselves.

But I can reiterate what Aimee finally came to realize: Nothing, and I do mean nothing, can replace learning and mastery of fiction-writing basics. When we learn the foundations of crafting memorable characters, cohesive plots, or page-turning conflict, we unleash our creativity and our passion. We give ourselves an even bigger canvass on which to paint with our words. And we’re able to utilize more tools and mediums to express ourselves.

So what can we do to push ourselves to study about writing, even when we don’t particularly want to?

1. Check out writing craft books from the library.

2. Watch for recommendations from other writers you respect. (For four books I highly recommend, see my sidebar.)

3. Narrow down the books that hone in on the things you need to work on the most.

4. After reading the most helpful books, buy them, if possible. Then you can mark them up and re-read them to refresh yourself.

5. Slowly build up your writing library (the above picture is one shelf of books I’ve collected over the years).

6. Take notes from the books on specific things you want to practice in your writing.

7. Then put those notes next to you as you write. Consciously work on implementing them.

8. Go slower until the new technique feels natural. Once it becomes second nature, you won’t even think about it, and your speed and flow will increase.

9. Between books or projects, go to the library again. Check out more fiction-writing books.

10. And start the learning process all over.

Believe it or not, I still go through the above ten steps every year. Yes, I check out technique books from my local library, read/skim through them, and take lots of notes. I usually do this when I’m between writing projects as a way to review and prepare myself for the next novel.

The conscious studying of the craft has been the MOST helpful thing to my writing career. And because I want to continue to be a better writer, I’ll keep on studying and learning.

What’s your opinion? Do you think fiction how-to books are a waste of time or a benefit? And if you’ve found them beneficial, what’s been the most helpful book you’ve read, one that really helped you forge ahead in your fiction-writing ability?

P.S. For more writing craft suggestions, check out Roni Loren’s post from last week: 9 Writer Woes and the Books to Cure Them.

58 comments:

  1. Fantastic advice and great links - A good reminder to me, it's not enough to buy the books on writing, I have to 'read' them too. :-)

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  2. Oh my goodness, I couldn't agree more! I helped out with Genesis this year and judged a few entries and the number one advice I had for the entrants was recommending certain craft books.

    I know for a fact that without reading all the craft books I've read, I would not be where I am (landed a 2-book deal with Waterbrook Multnomah, a division of Random House). Not even close. Two summers ago I immersed myself in craft books. Seriously read like 6 in two and a half months. It's not a coincidence that the book I wrote AFTER that summer (Beneath a Velvet Sky) is the book that got me my first contract.

    Like you, I continue to study the craft and I continue to improve. From a craft standpoint, ever story I write gets better and I hope to keep it that way!

    Great stuff, Jody. :)

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  3. No I don't think they're a waste of time, but it's the application of what I learn that is hard and that takes more time than reading the book.

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  4. I'm in two minds. As a bookseller, I can safely say that too many books have clearly been written by people on creative writing courses or using technique books. They can end up being so formulaic or trying to hard. The Reading Group we have at the shop is quite hard to please, and few of these books pass the test.

    But as a writer, I know that you must continually strive to improve everything - technique, style, ideas, and voice. As with any other profession, it's all about training and practice.

    And of course most books deal with the current idea of what is good writing: remember that styles & techniques change. A hundred years ago it was all 3rd person omnipresent narrators, which you rarely see today. Maybe that will come back?

    The trick is to achieve all that while still being different from everyone else.

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  5. At first, the thought of reading a craft book made me yawn, but now I'm hooked. They're actually FUN to read. It's exciting to learn new ways to make my writing better.

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  6. I eat books on craft.

    Reading a good one now: The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing.

    ~ Wendy

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  7. I think these types of books can be very helpful, however, I also think it can be easy to get caught up in reading book after book with essentially the same information. If that happens, you may never actually get to the business of writing your own stories.

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  8. I wholeheartedly agree- we have to study our craft in order to get better. If there were a mechanic or a surgeon (gulp) out there practicing without study and training, they'd be fired or be liable for a lawsuit, or worse- they'd be practicing and putting others at risk.

    We shouldn't willfully put our readers at risk (of boredom, bad writing, put them off Christian fiction), and if we take our work seriously, then we must study.

    The other side of this for me, is that so many of my novel's problems get worked out if I dig back into a craft book. This last weekend I was at a seminar and something one of the presenters said answered a question I'd been having trouble solving on my own. I don't just need to learn for the sake of my writing, but I need to learn so that I don't get hung up on something in my novel that could easily be solved by a little reading.

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  9. Great post, Jody! I have an ever-growing library of craft books. Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook is one of my favorites.

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  10. Great post, Jody, and thanks so much for linking to me! :) Obviously, I'm hooked on craft books and I couldn't agree with you more on their importance. No matter what book I pick up, I always learn something. Even if someone's technique doesn't work for me exactly, there's usually some tip or different way of looking at things that helps me.

    Writing is like anything else--yes, on the job training is going to be the majority of the learning process, but you have to have a foundation to build that learning on. I never would've progressed without taking time out after that first "practice" novel to really bury myself in learning the craft. :)

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  11. Hi Jody,

    Finished you book this week *drool* Just my cup-of-tea. fantastic book!!

    I also read Aimee's blog entry. I agree with you both that learning how is so important. I am a new novelist. I know you don't just start of being able to play the concerto in the national orchestra, you start with scales and 'twinkle twinkle, little star.

    once you progress you learn how to use those scales in 'proper music.'

    THEN and only then, when you know the basics can you learn how to mix it up. How to put the syncopated beat into your writing.

    In other words: learn and practice your craft before(or while) you do the whole writing thing. you can't neglect this important step, unless you are Mozart.

    Once you know the rules you can break em. (where have i heard that before...)

    Great post, Great book!

    Regards,
    Sarah Ketley

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  12. A great post! thanks for the reminder to keep learning, not merely by writing but my studying also. This came at a perfect time for me, when I realized I am utterly unprepared to write! I need a little know-how.

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  13. Hi Jody,
    I've just scheduled a blog post about this for Tuesday www.kangaroobee.wordpress.com since I found out I won the new book from Cheryl B Klein Second Sight yesterday. So excited to add it to my collection. I think for those people who find it boring, they should read these kind of books between projects, between awesome reads and not think about it too much. You never regret it afterwards for sure. I'll definitely do a book review on my blog of Second Sight once I've read it. No doubt your books are so awesome from all that studying Jody. The detail is fantastic.

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  14. I absolutely agree! I began to read them before I started writing but I had a hard time absorbing the information...I couldn't relate. However, now that my first draft is done, I am understanding concepts and techniques better.

    I like the idea of taking notes and having them beside you when you write. That is easier than trying to flip through books.

    So glad you posted this and thanks for sharing some good books on your blog. Happy Monday!

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  15. This is interesting advice. I've also read writers who say forget the craft books and just read the great authors. Hmm... might part of the answer for the best course in preparation be found in the learning style of each particular writer and their chosen genre?

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  16. Sarah Ketley said: Finished you book this week *drool* Just my cup-of-tea. fantastic book!!

    My response: Sarah, I'm SO thrilled to hear that you enjoyed it! Thank you so much for letting me know! Always brightens my day to get such a nice compliment! :-)

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  17. Great tips, Jody! My books on the craft of writing have been irreplaceable to my journey into writing. Stephen King's book, On Writing, was my introduction to the craft.

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  18. Cassandra said: "I've also read writers who say forget the craft books and just read the great authors."

    My response: While I do feel there's incredible value in reading great books both within and outside our genres (including classics), I would have to agree with what Diccon said above "styles & techniques change."

    In other words, we can learn from great books (like Little Women for example). But we cannot replicate the style and hope to publish in today's market.

    We can be the most prolific reader (of everything), but the ease of reading does not translate to the painstaking process of writing. We will still have learn HOW to put words together and shape characters and understand plot basics.

    Even though I could probably analyze other fiction books to see how the authors are doing this (and I do to an extent), I've found it most helpful to read craft books that break all of these areas down and give examples and suggestions for applying the techniques.

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  19. Absolutely, Jody. The same thing happened to me. It was only when I applied some advanced plotting techniques to my work that I earned my contract with TN.

    I think if there's one area in which I repeatedly see unpublished books break down, it's plot.It's hard to overstate the importance of learning to plot, and yet still allowing for organic developments in a novel. I recently asked a tremendously talented, very young author whether she was willing to learn to plot. My comment to her was: "You need to learn this very technical aspect of the craft if you want to be published. How badly do you want it?"

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  20. I have found books on the craft of writing to be VERY helpful. My tendency, though, has been to keep soaking up the advice but postponing my own writing, thinking I might miss some advice my story can't do without. I have studied writing for years (teaching high school English and taking occasional writing courses taught by published writers), but now must be the time to finish some of my own writing. But I will definitely keep my writing books handy!

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  21. What I find helpful is: Go ahead and write the lousy first draft, then read the craft book. My writing Bible is: The Writer's Digest Handbook of Novel Writing. I find this approach helpful because I can actually see my writing mistakes after I've made them, then go back and correct them. It's sort of like the Math teacher who gives homework on problems that haven't been covered in class yet. The student is allowed to struggle through them on their own, so when the teacher explains them the students can grasp the concept a little better because they've already become familiar with the problems.

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  22. Linda Jackson: Both you and Hallie brought up a similar but GREAT point. Newer writers should write the first draft BEFORE reading writing craft books. Just write the book and complete it. THEN pick up a few craft books. Because as you said, Linda, we'll be able to understand the techniques so much better because we'll have already grappled with them.

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  23. excellent advice. great post.

    I woke up Sunday a.m. to find my blog, my 500 plus followers, my 100plus author interviews, and my 200 plus reviews gone. Blogger gave no explanation, but I think the account was hacked. Change your password often!

    I have reloaded the interviews and reviews, plus redesigned the blog. But if you could, please hit the "follow" button so I can reclaim the fellow bloggers I miss. I'm still following you, as my account remained--thank goodness!
    http://kellymoranauthor.blogspot.com

    Thank you!
    Kelly Moran
    XO

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  24. Learning the craft of writing is essential. During my first two years of writing, I wrote and read craft books. I improved with each story I completed, but I knew I had a long way to go before I'd have a marketable manuscript.

    I took a year off from writing to study craft, after which I chose the most promising of my five stories and rewrote it, putting into practice what I'd learned. That story sold, but I'm more aware than ever of how much I have to learn. There's always room for improvement.

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  25. I think a lot of writers have felt the same as Aimee, I know I have, but I've been making a conscious effort to go back to the basics, and re-read some of my craft books.

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  26. Amen, amen, and amen! But then, I'm always amen-ing what you say ;)
    Thx for the encouragement.

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  27. I try and teach myself something new each day. The craft of novel writing is so wide I don't believe the learning will ever cease.

    Love, Sol Stein's "On Writing."

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  28. Jody, your referral of PLOT & STRUCTURE was THE biggest boost to my writing skills. As I read through it, I actually plotted my novel. What a huge difference it made.

    I do think there needs to be balance, though. I can see how a writer could be caught up in ONLY reading craft books, and not actually writing. Like you said, as long as we learn, and put in practice those lessons, we're pressing forward.

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  29. Brilliant advice, Jody. It's sad that so often the thing that can be of the most use to us is the thing we least want to do.

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  30. Reading craft books is great, but please don't discount the apprenticeship process. On-the-job apprenticeship takes a lot longer, but it is the best way to achieve mastery. Most people want short-cuts. If they don't see success in under two years, they find an easier route. They read craft books to write a marketable novel and then the true apprenticeship happens only after finding an agent or publisher. Maybe that's the way it should be? Maybe understanding craft is the way to prove yourself a worthy apprentice? I don't know. Just thinking it through.

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  31. I love books on writing! I think they're very helpful. When I buy them, I always highlight important tidbits as I'm reading.

    I think my two favorites are "The Right to Write" by Julia Cameron (it's more an inspiration/motivation/encouraging book on writing rather than an instructional book) and "The Art of War for Writers" by James Scott Bell. But it's hard to choose a favorite! I've gotten a lot of good things out of many book on writing.

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  32. This is such great advice! We so often hear that writers have to be readers (which is of course, so true!) but I've always felt that's only part of the equation.

    Someone who wants to be a painter could appreciate thousands of paintings, but he won't necessarily pick up on the skills unless he takes a course focusing on the technique. The same can be said for any art form...so why is it not often said about writing?

    I majored in Creative Writing in college and am so grateful for those classes. A lot of people will argue that great writing can't be taught, but I think there are a lot of aspects of it that definitely can (and should) be taught.

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  33. I don't understand the reluctance to learn writing craft from those who have mastered it ahead of one, whether by book or in a classroom setting. If every person entering every other profession thought that way, we'd cease to have universities and everyone would be constantly re-inventing the wheel.

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  34. Great blog. This has given me encouragement to take a step away from my writing and reflect. I'm a believer in reading a variety of styles of successful writers and learn from their approach and I have not read a 'book on writing' for a year or so. Maybe its time to buy another from your list. I have found subscribing to the magazine 'Writer's Forum' another useful was of updating skills though -in bite sized chunks that I can enjoy for my night time read. Thanks for the post though
    best wishes Diana

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  35. Truly helpful, professional books are invaluable tools...as long as your brain doesn't spin with information overload to the point it paralyzes you.

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  36. There are absolutely essential and helpful in every way! Reading my first novel before and after I read "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" is like night and day. Even with just one read I saw some huge errors and weaknesses I'd made with my manuscript, and that book alone helped me to tighten it up. I also think that this wonderful blogosphere has helped shape me as a writer. I get to read other writers' advice (just like yours, Jody!) and apply it as well. Other than that, the biggest influence on my writing has been constant reading. I can definitely see my writing progress and get a little tighter the more I read. :)

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  37. Fantastic post, Jody! I am in total agreement. I was kind of like Aimee at first, spent the first couple of years with doing little more than reading blogs on writing--which were helpful, but it wasn't exactly studying either. Greatest move I made was picking up several books on writing over the next few years.

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  38. I find it odd that someone who is passionate about writing WOULDN'T want to read books about it. I don't find them boring at all (although of course some are better than others) because I'm excited to learn more and get better.

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  39. Jill Domschott asked: They read craft books to write a marketable novel and then the true apprenticeship happens only after finding an agent or publisher. Maybe that's the way it should be? Maybe understanding craft is the way to prove yourself a worthy apprentice?

    My thoughts: Hi Jill! I actually think that our apprenticeship happens long before we get an agent or publisher. We need to couple our study of the craft with the writing. They really go hand in hand. We can't learn without writing. And we can't really improve our writing without learning.

    When we've been through this intense process for a while we'll begin to notice an improvement in our own writing. And it's at that point others will start to sit up and take notice too.

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  40. Great post and comments...

    You don't know what you don't know until your craft gets to a certain level! And includes the great agent/writer blogs.

    For learning more in the YA fantasy field, my current goddess is Holly's Black's Tithe -- the first of her fab paranormals. And for clarifying and deepening my WIP, it's Manuscript Makeover by Eliz. Lyon.

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  41. Yes! Yes! Yes!

    Writing craft books finally gave me the understanding I needed to write decent books. And it's funny, but studying has never felt like a chore. I enjoy reading craft books. I've found too, that I need to review techniques often. It's kind of like chemistry--I could never remember the periodic table!

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  42. I agree. Although I don't have the same "published" experience you do, I see the value in this advice. I took excellent correspondence classes some years ago; they taught me to continue learning through books and courses, etc. Always, always something to be learned!

    Good post. :)
    Blessings,
    Karen

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  43. My very first thought was the same as that of Lori Benton.

    In what other WORK field would one expect to succeed without applying oneself to learning the craft? Even in other artistic fields, such as acting, the best among them take classes on an on-going basis.

    Certainly, in the same way a person could end up talking all the time about writing rather than writing, one could focus entirely on reading up on the craft and never produce anything. It's a balancing act, obviously, between reading for pleasure, reading to learn the craft, writing and talking up our projects. (That puts me in mind of the old plate-spinning acts...)

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  44. When I jumped on the writing road I told my husband I was going to school. The school of learning the craft of writing. I am constantly adding to my library of writing books, they are gold to me. I sometimes check a book out of the library to check it out first. If I like it I will purchase it.
    Right now I am reading Brandilyn Collins' Getting Into Character and I am on page 49 and already I have notes on how to implement the information into my novel. This is a library book but it is definitely going to be one I purchase.

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  45. Wonderful advice, Jody. Thank you! This is something that I really need to do more of, so I've already put your recommended books on my Amazon wishlist (my Kindle is on it's way as we speak!).

    But I appreciate your personal take on this part of your writing career. I didn't train for this profession; I'm a scientist. Now, I couldn't possibly write the type of fiction that I do without my science background, but I'm sure I could use a real refresher on fiction-writing basics. I seem to be faking it sufficiently well up to now, but the second book in our series is starting to form in my head and there's always room to learn more to make that book even better. This is definitely going on my 'must do' list!

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  46. I am slowly but surely bui8lding up my library and have 1/3 of a shelf full. Sometimes I read craft books and get motivated, and then sometimes I read then and get overwhelmed with all there is to know. I have to remind myself that all the knowledge I'm accumulating will surface as I purposefully put my pen to paper and spin more and more stories. It is all a process, isn't it? :)

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  47. I think it's so important to learn the basics before you attempt a full length novel. It's so much harder to try and apply skills after the fact. That being said, you have to keep up your own writing as you learn in order for the skills to really sink in. Read, then do some practice writing to make those tools part of your personal repertoire. Otherwise you'll read and read and read but it won't flow organically out of your pen (or keyboard) when you finally pick up your own work six months later.

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  48. This is such a lame post. Only shills of trad pubs speak like this. Reading how-to writing books and taking classes only make you write the same drivel as anyone else.

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  49. Well said. I tend to rebel against 'rules' of any kind, so I like to think of any writing advice as 'techniques' that have proven themselves over time because they engage readers. Like learning to paint or play tennis, it helps to have lessons to learn what you're doing and then practice, practice, practice. Then, once those basics and more advanced techniques are second nature, it unleashes your creativity to flow in a manner that will engage readers more effectively. Then, if you want, you can experiment with pushing the boundaries intentionally.

    Great post.

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  50. Fiction how-to books are indispensable! I have a shelf bursting with books that I've acquired since writing my first novel.

    Other writers ask me me your question, which one book would I recommend, and I have to say there isn't one specific one but at differing stages in our learning process we benefit by focusing on different areas of need. Some of the most appreciated books are those that encouraged my creativity and self-confidence as a writer.

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  51. Thanks for reminding me to reread and learn from my shelf full of wisdom from successful writers. You have such great information on your blog. You are appreciated.

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  52. This is interesting to read. I have been struggling with my writing. Eventually I gave in a shared with beta readers. They were/are wonderful. Then I hauled out all my study books, and started over. Three years I have worked on my book, and now feel I am getting somewhere.

    Studying the basics is also helping me find courage to experiment with my characters.

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  53. Great post! I'm glad to read your advice because I have always loved reading books about writing--now I can enjoy it AND know that at the same time it's helping me be a better writer! Thanks so much!

    p.s. came over from Hallie's Write For Me blog, heading back! :)

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  54. Hi Julia,
    Thanks for swinging by from Hallie's! I need to swing over and check out her post! See you over there! ;-)

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  55. Well said! I think the best thing writers can do for themselves is to always be learning. Always searching for a tidbit of advice that works for them, something that makes them go "ah-hah!" Constantly reading books inside and outside of your genre and taking advantage of all the great how to books you can find. I very much recommend James Scott Bell which my friends have recommended to me.

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  56. Boy I cannot agree more. Learning from books, blogs and other writers has made such a difference in my own path.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

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  57. As a fledgling writer over the last couple of years I have been reading everything I can get my hands on about the art of writing. I now feel I have a good grasp of what, theoretically, should consitute a good novel. My problem is a lack of confidence to get started...I keep feeling I just have to read a bit more about character, or plot development before committing myself and end up procrastinating for another month.

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  58. Seaview, Thanks for adding to the discussion. I can see your point. Sometimes we let the "rules" inhibit us from actually delving in and just writing. But I really think learning happens with a combination of practice and study. The more we write, the more we see exactly what we need to learn. My encouragement would be to just write something, even if you don't think it's very good to begin with. It sounds like its past time to set aside the books for a while and just immerse yourself in writing. :-)

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