I do vertice modeling. Starting from a “box” is not my style, it kind of thwarts my thinking of how the mesh should look like while building it.
You need lots of accurate references. Even if you don’t “trace” your vertices with a background image, the references are very important to look at while modeling. Many people who C&C your WIPs can tell if you don’t use a reference. (I wonder about those nude meshes posted here?)
I always model with quads (no triangles) because this helps me add rows of new vertices (with one click) when tweaking the model later. In some cases, a triangle is desperately needed.
Most of the time I use EXTRUDE when building my mesh. The Ctrl+LMB usually yields weird coordinates, and I avoid that.
I use “smooth” button in the mesh tools very seldom, and usually as a final tweak. Some people tend to over use it and screw up a perfectly good mesh.
I love SubSurf. So I always plan ahead for this by making sure that sharp edges or corners have ample vertices.
Finally, don’t give up! Your final project can look like crap, but if you keep trying, it will look better. And as usual, your lighting is what ‘makes your rendering’. You’d be surprised that even the noobiest rendering can look great with proper lighting.