I Did It My Way (But Why Would Anyone Want To?)

After more than thirty years of writing genre fiction, I will finally be able to answer “yes” to that irksome, miserable question that all would-be novelists get at cocktail parties, “Are you published?” On November 2, 2016, I signed a contract with Five Star (Cengage/Gale) for publication of my historical romance, Love’s Last Stand. Yes, yes, yes, the publication monkey is off my back forever. I am finally a so-called “real” writer. But getting published took so long I thought I’d also answered that other nagging question would-be novelists sometimes get. “If you knew you’d never get published, would you keep on writing?” Lately, my answer has been, “Well, yes, I’ve pretty much done that already.”

I first started writing fiction in 1981, in the most clichéd manner possible. I heard somewhere that Harlequin would give you $1500 for three chapters and an outline. How hard could it be to write romance? Yes, dunderhead, harder than your thick skull. I didn’t get my advance or a contract, so I went to law school. But the writing bug had bitten, and I simply couldn’t abandon that story I’d started. After graduating and working for the Department of Justice for three years, I managed to finish the book, and without ever taking a writing class, reading a book on writing, or attending a critique group. How good could that book be?

Lo and Behold! My classic story of romance took second place (or was it 3rd) in the RMFW contest, way back when we still awarded places. I was a genius! Fortune and fame were close enough to touch. Ask me about my smug smile, please. Alas, it was not to be. The story, which I still love, violated every rule of fiction writing imaginable, especially those of romance writing, and I invented a few new rules to violate along the way. I shudder at the memory. That manuscript will remain forever buried, not in a drawer, but even further out of reach, in the murky depths of Word Perfect 4.0, where no one will ever find it, except perhaps, Robin Owens.

Undeterred, I continued to write. And, more importantly, I found RMFW and my critique group, not to mention my future wife (thanks, RMFW!). I was still not getting published, but it could have been my fear and loathing of rejection, as much as the quality of my writing. I simply didn’t query much. At least not as much as I should have. Not as much as you should, if you’re not already published. I much preferred the writing and, if I wasn’t going to publish, the one thing I could do is win or final in a contest.

And contests I did with a passion. Between 2002 and 2016, I was a contest finalist twenty-seven times. On top of that, I won the RMFW Colorado Gold Contest twice, and got first place in the Crested Butte Writers Friends of the Library Contest (twice), the Southern Louisiana Romance Writers Dixie Kane Contest, the Land of Enchantment Romance Authors contest, the Central Ohio Fiction Writers contest, and the San Antonio Romance Authors Emma Merritt Contest. I was Champion of the Contest World! But I still wasn’t published.

Eventually, I simply read ten pages for Five Star editor Tiffany Schofield at the RMFW conference, and the rest is history. What to make of it? You tell me, please. Was it as simple as not sending out enough query letters? Was everything I wrote “over the top,” as one agent told me? Was it just plain dumb luck? Being in the wrong place at the wrong time all these years? Truly, I don’t know.

Mine may be a cautionary tale, and I can’t recommend my strategy for getting published. What I can recommend is finding a good critique group, continuing to write come hell or high water, and, of course, never, ever giving up. Sorry, there’s nothing new or innovative in my advice.

I may never get published again, but at least now I know it’s possible, even for me. As long as it took, I’m not ready to rest on my laurels. My smug smile has been replaced by one a bit more knowing and patient.

After all, I’m just getting started.

 

When he’s not writing fiction, Steven Moores is an attorney for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In addition to law, he has degrees in journalism and fishery & wildlife biology, and his interests in writing are as varied as his education. He has written contest-winning stories in romance, mystery, young adult, and middle grade genres, and he is currently under contract with Five Star Publishing (Gale/Cengage) for publication of his historical romance, Love’s Last Stand.

Yada Yada Yada: Give Your Characters Distinct Voices

Just like real people, your characters have unique personalities, backgrounds, and worldviews—they should also have unique voices. Newbie authors often miss this lesson, and as a result, all 15 characters in their novel end up sounding exactly like the author. Here’s how I took my writing to the next level by giving my characters their own distinct voices.

There are two layers behind character voice: how they speak, and why they speak that way. Here are a few examples:

How                                                  Why

Big vocabulary                                 Insecure, trying to impress

Big vocabulary                                 Highly educated

Longwinded                                     Used to work as a teacher or lecturer

Longwinded                                     Arrogant

Blunt                                                  Doesn’t care about others’ feelings

Blunt                                                  Comes from a country where directness is valued

Loud voice                                        Lives with a hard-of-hearing relative

Loud voice                                        Attention-seeking

Notice, from the list above, that each how has multiple why possibilities. Also note that some of the whys on this list are personality traits (such as insecurity and arrogance), while others are related to the character’s environment (such as occupation and hometown).

Your job is to first understand your character’s whys, from both personality and environment perspectives. There are many factors to consider: character traits, education, upbringing, location, sense of humor, political and religious views, and overall attitude toward the world. Are they a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty type of person? A leader or a follower? What are they afraid or superstitious of? Do they appreciate sarcasm, puns, or black humor? What kind of local slang or colloquialisms might they be exposed to? What job or hobbies do they have? Are they timid, assertive, or brash? Self-confident or insecure? How old are they, and how emotionally mature?

Next, determine how these whys inform how the character speaks. This means vocabulary, grammar, sentence length and structure, directness and subtext, just to name a few. This also includes verbal tics, similes and metaphors, and references to history, pop culture, etc. For instance, a college professor will likely have a wider vocabulary than a high-school dropout. Someone who studied abroad in France might exclaim “Mon Dieu!” while someone who grew up in Alabama might say “Criminy!” A professional engineer may use words like “delta” and “deviation,” while a hobbyist gardener may make analogies to roots, leaves, and flowers.

Then make a list of each character’s key hows and whys. Your lists might look like this:

Allison                                                                           Xweebob

12-year-old girl from New Jersey                               Middle-aged alien from Neptune

Hates school, but loves athletics and gym               Expensive education, has traveled extensively

Uses lots of slang, sentence fragments                    Speaks more formally, full sentences, big words

Makes references to sports                                        Makes references to home planet

Sarcastic sense of humor                                            Doesn’t understand Earth humor

Once you have a rough list for each of your important characters, do a round of editing just for dialogue. Print out your manuscript and skim through the whole thing, highlighting each character’s dialogue in a different color (you can do this digitally, but I much prefer doing it by hand). Then go back to page one, and read through only one color of dialogue. You’ll notice immediately if that character is repeating himself, saying things that don’t fit his voice, or using a verbal tic too often. Make edits as needed, then go back to page one and start reading through the next color. It’s time-consuming but well worth it.

And remember, crafting distinct voices doesn't mean slathering on the dialect or slang. For instance:

Character A: “Well, hawney, sun’s a-settin’, so yew’d better git on down the road thurr.”

Character B: “Croikey! Is it dusk a’ready, mate? Oi’d better get outta here ‘fore Oi get eaten boi a croc!”

Character C: “Dude, I’ve never seen, like, a real crocodile. That would be, like, super intense, like, you know?”

For one thing, no reader wants to wade through this jungle of phonetics. For another, this is so heavy-handed that the characters come across as stereotypes rather than real people. The art of good character voices is much subtler. Here’s a better example:

Character A: “Gettin’ dark out there. You better get on home.”

Character B: “You’re right, mate. Hope the crocs aren’t out tonight.”

Character C: “I’ve never seen a crocodile—you know, a real one.”

See how these lines give a flavor of the characters behind them, without choking readers with dialect?

As with dialect, verbal tics and pet phrases will add depth to your dialogue, but be careful not to overuse them. If a character says “I dunno” or “Holy crap!” every other paragraph, readers will notice—and not in a good way. Same goes for references, analogies, and metaphors. As with anything, moderation is key.

Hopefully, this gives you a good starting point for your own character voices. Now dive into that story and start talking!

 

Launch Week

Okay, I'm writing this on Launch Week, so my mind is focused on trying to juggle normal life, extra life events (which are part of normal life) and the launch of my second thriller, RED SKY.

The book officially came out on June 13th, so most of the "heavy lifting" for launch was done in the weeks and months prior. My blog "Singing the Book Promotion Blues" detailed how and when things were done, which were the responsibility of my publisher, and which were on me. So what didn't I tell you? Note: I did factor these costs into my overall budget, so I'm not going to break them down here, except to demonstrate the payoff (or lack thereof).

Weeks ahead of the launch.

The likely response and attendance rate to event invitations varies widely depending on the event, the target audience and the relationship of the sender to the sendee. You can expect an 83% RSVP and attendance rate from most wedding invitations, according to RSVPify—a stat borne out by my daughter's wedding in February. Even though she was married in Hawaii (or maybe because of it?) approximately 80% of the invitees attended, regardless of whether they lived on island or on the mainland. That said RSVP and attendance rate for direct mail is more like 2%, according to McCarthy & King. That's two for every 100 mailed.

Just to set the stage, the Tattered Cover-Colfax launch had about 40 or 50 in attendance (depending on who was counting). A great turnout for me, and I was thrilled to learn that I had sold the bookstore out of all but five books. I couldn't have asked for better. To be fair, there was a mixture of family and friends, but there were also a number of people I didn't know that showed up. So what helped the most?

Who knows? Maybe it was the TC promotion (the ad in the paper they always take out, and/or the in-store promotion they do prior to launch), or maybe it had something to do with my efforts. To up the hope that I would have good attendance at TC, I did a couple of things:

1. I sent snail mail postcards to 180 people—friends, family, grade school classmates (I grew up in Evergreen, so we're talking locals)—inviting them to come to one of two signings: TC on June 15th or Hearthfire Books in Evergreen on June 22nd, and adding a personal note. The list can effectively be divided in half for who would come where. Out of 90 postcards sent, at least 10 of the people attending the signing would have received the postcard. That's 11% on a direct mail campaign. Better than the norm for attendance. The cost of that mailing (90 pieces, postage, etc.), meant it cost me $7.16 per person. I needed to sell 26 books to break even. Was it worth it?

2. I did an email campaign. My email list has over 3,000 names on it, so I sent an e-blast about the release and included my signing dates. I have no idea how many people that were in attendance received that, but that comes out to something like .02%, so much lower than the estimate for attendance. Still, how many of those folks bought the book? Who knows? The cost of getting that info in front of that many people totaled about $40, and as a traditionally published person I need to sell 110 books from that mailing to break even. Was it worth it?

3. I posted events on Facebook and to the various writers' list serves I belong to, put notices in the writers' organizations newsletters, etc. Of the group in attendance, there was only one person who would have heard about the signing from ONLY that venue. Of the rest, there were seven or eight others who received at least one of the other type mailings—snail or email. Big plus—this notice was free to send. No reason to question whether or not this was worth it. The answer is yes.

Spreading the Word

That is how one has to think about this. A basic marketing tenant says that someone needs to see or hear about something three times. With some folks, they've seen RED SKY or my name at least three times. With others, you hope they mention it to a friend, who then reads about my signing in TC ad, who then sees the book on the shelf at the Barnes & Noble, and buys it.

What about the people who I didn't know from anywhere? Were they TC patrons? Had they read about the book in a Publishers Weekly, Kirkus or Booklist review? Were they fans of Lee Child or Catherin Coulter, and found me because of the blurb on the cover of my book? (FYI, I've received several emails saying that someone read my book because, "If Lee Child liked this, I knew I would, too.") Were they waiting for the release because they'd read DARK WATERS?

I have no clue. A signing where so many who showed up and wanted books signed, was not the place for a survey. One person, I learned, was an old classmate of my daughter's who hoped to run into her there. He bought a book, so...

The Bottom Line

For me, the promotion is worth it. Locally, it's easier to have a profile. I do a lot of volunteering for my writers' groups—I present workshops, judge contests, participate. The more you give or give back, the more you receive in return.

National recognition comes harder. But I know I'm increasing my profile, if only because more people are offering to buy me drinks at the bar. More agents, editors and "big namers" recognize me. Does it mean I'm ever going to reach "star" status? Who knows? Would I love to have someone make a movie of one of my books so I can complain like every other author I know who has had a movie made from one of their books? Hell, yes!

There's only one thing I know for sure is I am thankful every day for the support of such a wonderful writers' community—thankful for all the pushes, for all the tips, for all the critiques, but mostly for all the friends that I've made. You guys, rock!

Now, however you decide to do this, go forth and tell us your stories!

#Gravity and a Toast to Science Fiction

In the song written by John Mayer and Mike Perry—Gravity—John explains that the words are about making sure you (still) love yourself, making sure you (still) have your head on…because it’s easier to mess up than it is to stay here (successful).”

Another explanation I heard about this song is “…staying up even when you’re melancholy, staying grounded in a fast-paced, quickly-changing world, fighting the gravity of everyday challenges in order to achieve your goals...”

Werner Von Braun said this: “We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming.”

Cameron Diaz let us know her thoughts on the subject: “I’ve been noticing gravity since I was young.”

I too have noticed the results of quantum particles for quite some time. And hey, thanks to gravity everything above my knees is at a whole new level.

Sylvester Stallone had this to say about the topic, “I think that gravity sets into everything, including careers, but pendulums do swing and mountains do become valleys after a while…if you keep on walking.”

Remember the movie, Happy Gilmore? Here is what the character, Gary Potter said which, in a roundabout way relates to Earth and its gravity: “Oh yea. Lotta pressure. You gotta rise above it. You gotta harness in the good energy, block out the bad. Harness. Energy. Block. Bad. Feel the flow, Happy. Feel it. It’s circular. It’s like a carousel. You pay the quarter, you get on the horse, it goes up and down, and around. It’s circular. Circle, with the music, the flow. All good things.”

And he said it with a straight face. You’ve gotta love actors!

This quote is for you Sci-Fi/Military writers: “What’s aerobraking? That’s a way to use the gravity and upper atmosphere of Earth to slingshot a ship either deeper into space, or slow it down to be ‘captured’ by Earth’s gravity.” Buzz Aldrin

As a kid, I used to watch the black and white series, Sci-Fi-Fic; maybe on channel two. The shows made an indelible impression on my mind. People that really know me can attest to that fact.

Just thinking about my first experience with H.G. Wells is, well quite horrifying. War of the Worlds. (Oh crap, is it real?) The Invisible Man (I keep listening over my shoulder.) Of course, The Time Machine is…The Time Machine.

Michael Crichton (and screenwriter David Keopp) are masters of tension—and dinosaurs.

Space Odyssey—Arthur C. Clarke was 51 when he co-authored the screenplay for this movie.

Farenheit 451!  Ray Bradbury scored big with this hit.

Orson C. Scott = The Ender’s Game.

Jules Verne. Need I say more?

Do you know an aspen tree’s anchor root is relatively minuscule when compared to the height of the tree? That’s applicable to particles that make us stick to the surface—isn’t it?

Okay, here’s one for you hardcore Sci-Fier’s. Can any of you explain why rocks in the garden defy gravity? Over and over and over…

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A Colorado native, Rainey, (writing as L. Treloar), has been a RMFW member since 2012 (or so), and is happy to belong to one of the best critique groups ever: The 93rd Street Irregulars. She has self-published The Frozen Moose, is currently re-editing the first manuscript in a political thriller series, and has entered two contests with her 2016 NaNoWriMo Historical Fiction novella. In her spare time, she enjoys organizing anything from closets, to military family retreats, to rodeos and parades. Along with teaching her cat to retrieve, she volunteers at church and The Horse Prote

 

 

Writing Romance – the Warrior Poet

The last romance hero archetype we’ll look at is the Warrior Poet.

The website TVTropes says this about the WP, “He's fought in a battle and is no slouch at war making, but he thinks about the purpose behind all the bloodshed and philosophizes on the meaning of life and death.

Remember the last line of Braveheart?   "They fought like warrior-poets. They fought like Scotsmen. And won their freedom."

This hero archetype isn’t just broody, though he may be broody - he isn’t your Theta or Delta.  He’s a warrior, but not your Alpha.  He’s genuine and courteous, but not your Beta.

The WP is fighting for something bigger than himself.

Here are some more examples from TVTropes

  • “D'Artagnan gets the Musketeers to like him in The Three Musketeers (1993) by tossing out a one-liner. D'Artagnan: I may not wear the tunic, but I believe I have the heart of a Musketeer.
    Porthos: Warrior.
    Aramis: Poet. “
  • Captain America - thoughtful and introspective.
  • Picard in Star Trek with “the heart of an explorer and the soul of a poet.”

Eileen Charbonneau really nails this when she states that “his roots are in the Irish Fianna, an ancient society of professional protectors of the poor and voiceless.”

She points to Robin Hood and King Arthur, and St. George.

This hero may have darkness in his past.  But he has also had light and love to show him the way.

Susan Sarah calls him the M&M Hero - crusty on the outside, soft on the inside.  She notes that he is restrained emotionally but has a deep capacity for love.  Of course, his heroine will bring that out in him, giving him a safe place to be himself.

William Wallace is often pointed to as this Warrior Poet hero.  Real quick, let’s look at his life (in the movie Braveheart, of course.)

  • A father that loves him.
  • An uncle that loves him and takes care of him when his father is killed, raising him to love books and education.
  • He comes home to build a life - take a wife - have a family.  He doesn’t want trouble.
  • He attends the wedding and, in one of my favorite moments, has his eye on Murran but when he’s interrupted by another village girl asking him to dance, he says, “Of course I will.”
  • He falls hopelessly in love with Murran and only goes to “war” when she is murdered.
  • Even though the “war” starts with her death, it becomes something much bigger.  Scotland.  Freedom.
  • This Warrior Poet makes those around him better. More courageous.  He does this with his friend Hamish, Stephen, Robert the Bruce (Unite the clans) and even Queen Isabella (“If I swear to him, then everything that I am is dead already.” And, “Every man dies, not every man really lives.”)
  • He inspired the Scots with this infamous speech

“Wallace: I AM William Wallace. And I see a whole army of my countrymen here in defiance of tyranny. You have come to fight as free men, and free men you are. What would you do without freedom? Will you fight?

Veteran soldier: Fight? Against that? No, we will run; and we will live.

Wallace: Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you'll live -- at least a while. And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom!!!”

Again Susan Sarah:  “In some ways, the Warrior Poet is the most realistic of heroes, the most balanced, the most attainable and familiar sort of hero. He is everywhere, on the news every day, and living in our own homes. He has strength and gentleness, courage and hesitancy, power and tenderness. He’s fascinating, and he can live without his heroine: and therein lies a great challenge and journey for her, and the writer, and the reader too.”

Of my own heroes - I think Daniel Fraser (Book 4 of True Heroes series) is the Warrior Poet.  He’s an ex-Navy Seal - who gave up “Sealing” for the love of a woman.  He’s introspective - his team calls him Professor.  But he’s courageous, kind, and his whole being is wrapped up in helping people.

I hope you've enjoyed this look at our wonderful romance heroes archetypes.  I imagine you might be ready to jump into something more.  No more archetypes, I promise.

Until next month, remember BIC-HOK - Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard.  Scribendo disces scribere.

Conference Spotlight: Critique Round Table Sessions

Greeting from Conference HQ!

Thinking about signing up for a critique round table at conference? Act now, because registration is required and these sessions are filling up! NOTE: Registration for these sessions closes July 15.

The critique round table sessions are among the most popular offerings at RMFW Colorado Gold. Three and a half hours in length, the round tables offer you a chance to receive detailed critique on ten pages of your work and allow you the time to give feedback on the work of the other members in your group. The round tables are a unique opportunity to experience specific critique with other writers as well as an agent or editor. This year, we have 14 sessions to choose from, monitored by an attending agent or editor. Attendees may sign up for one or two round tables. Sessions are offered Friday morning at 8:00 AM and Friday afternoon at 1:00 PM. The tables are open to 8 critique participants and 2 auditors.

Critique Participants: You will submit the first ten pages of your manuscript, plus a one-page synopsis of your story, to be critiqued by the agent/editor of your choice as well as by the other participants at your table.

Critique Auditors: You will only observe; you will neither submit pages nor offer critiques to participants. This is a great way to see how critique works and be a fly on the wall. Hear other authors' feedback on the submitted work and listen as the attending agent or editor shares their insights.

Once registration closes, participants will receive further instructions from RMFW volunteer, Scott Brendel, who manages all the things with Round Table Critiques. He will provide details on everything, including where and how to submit your pages, which will be due August 9.

These sessions are a $40 add-on for participants, $15 for auditors. Deadline to register is July 15. Pages are Due Aug 9.

A Score and More and Still Learning

I’ve been writing fiction for over twenty years, and this week I just figured out how I do it.

For years, I’ve bemoaned my inability to plot. Back when I was required to provide my editor with a short synopsis in order to sell another book, I was always able to come up with something. But the plotting I did seldom helped with the writing. Once I started the story, all bets were off. In fact, I learned it was much more productive to ignore what I’d plotted and simply write “into the mist”.

I am a linear writer. I rarely write scenes out of order. I start at the beginning and follow wherever the story leads—the trail of breadcrumbs along the dark, winding pathway through the forest. If I start to feel I’m getting off track, I may go back and rewrite a scene or two. But I usually find it’s better to keep going and fix plot problems at the end.

Although I’ve developed a sense of what seems to work best, I’ve never really understood the actual process. It’s almost like there’s something supernatural happening. A kind of magic. That may sound exciting, but in fact, that unknown magical element has always worried me. If you don’t understand how something works, how can you make certain it keeps happening? The fear the magic will leave me has always been there.

My faith in my writing process has been especially challenged the last few years. I seem to be much less productive than I used to be. Writing a book takes longer and I get stuck more. The magic seems to have grown fickle and elusive. Maybe I’ve worn it out. Maybe I don’t really have what it takes to create stories anymore.

I started a new book two months ago. Initially, I thought I was well on my way. I already had three chapters written from years ago. I tweaked and edited, but overall I was pretty satisfied. Then it came time to write new pages, and I found myself hideously stuck. Over three weeks I wrote three scenes, but none of them led anywhere. My characters stopped talking and froze on the page.

I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I liked my hero and heroine and was interested in their story. Why did they refuse to come to life? They didn’t seem to know what to do and how to move the plot forward. They were static and cardboard and miserably one-dimensional.

This went on day after day and I started to panic. Maybe I was too old. Maybe the magic is finite and I’ve used up my allotment. For the first time that I can remember, instead of providing me with an escape from the stresses of my life, writing itself became stressful. Like my characters on the page, I froze. When I tried to brainstorm where the story should go next, nothing happened.

I briefly considered abandoning the book and working on another project. I have a closet full of partial manuscripts. Maybe one of them would reignite my creativity. But if I tried writing something else and the same thing happened, I knew I would really be in trouble. I contribute a fair share of my success as a writer to my innate stubbornness and tenacity. No, by golly, I wasn’t going to give up on this book. I was going to will it into life somehow, some way.

One good thing about getting older is that I’m better at problem-solving. I also have more perspective. I told myself to crank down the panic and try to figure out what I was doing differently this time. What had changed?

And then a simple thought struck me. The way I write is to climb into my characters’ skin and become them. I see the world through their eyes. Based on what I see and feel as them, they come to life and start doing things.

I hadn’t done that this time. On paper, I had two fairly well fleshed-out characters, but instead of getting inside them and letting them live the story, I was trying to push them to the next plot point. I was outside of them, manipulating them. They became shadow puppets. Hollow empty ideas, rather than human characters.

So I went back, climbed into my hero’s skin and started writing. All at once, the blood flowed in his veins and he took a breath and then another. And just like that, I knew what he was feeling and what he was going to do next.

I will undoubtedly get stuck again. For me, it’s part of the process. But now I know a little bit of the secret of how it works. It’s still magic. Unreliable. Tricky. Unfathomable. But I’ve finally learned a few words of the spell, the sorcery that makes it all happen.

Novels Are Like Onions

When I started writing, my biggest hang-up was the misguided notion of Writer with a capital W. If I’m a real Writer, I thought, I should be able to sit down whenever I feel like it and write something good—nay, groundbreaking! If I’m a real Writer, the words should magically pour forth from my sweat glands onto the page! Right?

Wrong. And as a result, I spent years just trying to get off the ground as a writer. I would get a spark of inspiration, sit down to write the Next Great American Novel/Short Story/Poem/Whatever, then give up half an hour later when I realized the first draft wasn’t even close to perfect. I would then decide “I’m not a real writer” and quit writing for months—before coming back to repeat the process all over again.

Then a couple of years ago, when I started my current novel, something finally clicked. I was watching Shrek one night while working on my first draft, and I realized that novels, like onions and ogres, have layers. Many, many layers. This applies not only to book-length fiction, but to any form of writing, including memoirs, short stories, poems, and even this blog post. It takes a lot of time, thought, and effort to get all those layers in place and working together, so no first draft is going to be perfect. And guess what? That’s okay.

Imagine building a house: you can’t paint the bathroom until you’ve installed the plumbing. Some budding writers (including me, at one time) think that being a writer means pouring cement, wiring electricity, and picking out drapes all at once. But in fact, writing anything requires multiple drafts so you can put all those layers into place and make sure they’re working together. This, dear writer, is why the writing gods created revision.

Here are some of the many layers I’ve seen in my writing:

  • Premise
  • Plot
  • Conflict
  • Pacing
  • Characters
  • Physical description
  • Emotion
  • Motivation
  • Character relationships
  • Suspense
  • Foreshadowing
  • Voice
  • Tone
  • Mood and atmosphere
  • Setting
  • Worldbuilding
  • Dialogue
  • Body language and facial expression
  • Internal thoughts
  • Themes
  • Symbolism
  • Writing style
  • Word choice
  • Imagery
  • Metaphors and similes
  • Chapter breaks and cliffhangers

I’m sure there are more. But from this list alone, can you see why it’s unrealistic to expect to do it all at once? Start with a single layer, or a handful, then let the others fall into place as you revise.

Which layers to start with? That’s up to you. In my experience, it varies from one writer to another and from one project to the next. My current novel started with a premise and a main character—they were the foundations of the house. Then I added elements that came relatively easily to me, like pacing, foreshadowing, and dialogue. It wasn’t until several drafts later that I finished fleshing out my worldbuilding and added my best imagery and metaphors.

Because there are so many layers, it can be hard to spot the ones that are underdeveloped or missing altogether. This is where critique partners and beta readers come in. If they’re reading for big-picture stuff (i.e., not copyediting for you), they’ll notice if something is lacking. I remember finishing what I thought was the final draft of my current work-in-progress, only to have readers tell me I had left out my main character’s thoughts and feelings. That’s a huge layer to omit—and because I was so close to the work, I never noticed it myself.

So don’t fret over these layers. Start with what feels natural and just keep going, getting help from your trusted readers. Like peeling an onion, let yourself discover the layers as you peel them back one by one. And yes, there will probably be a few tears, too.

When Motivation to Write is Gone

We've all been there. Or maybe we're there right now? In this collective, yet solitary brain-trust known as writing. This hive-mind of almost universally shared desire. It's what we do. Why? Because we have stories to tell. So we spit them out of our heads and onto paper (never mind the mess). But what do you do when the words won't flow? You can call it "Writer's Block" if you want. Soooo cliche. To me, he/she/it (to utilize a sympathetic fallacy) is kind of a mythical super-villain. Not actually real, but we convince ourselves that they/he/she/it, is the cause of all our woes. "I can't write because I'm blocked." It becomes an excuse. And so it rules over our writing lives as an unexploded bomb in the middle of the towns of our minds, soaking up the power that we choose to give it. Well I say, NO MORE...at least for right now.

The fact about writer's block:

Or, as I like to think of it, that irrational, motivational miasma that occasionally slaps you around like a pre-pubescent school yard bully. Regardless of how or when it hits you...it's all in your head. That's right, I said it. IT'S ALL IN YOUR HEAD! This horrible slump, this unfortunate malaise that stalls the swiftness of you fingers, is...All. Your. Own. Doing. So snap out of it already.

But...why?

Well, I can't really answer that. Not definitively, of course. We're all different people. With our own styles, likes, dislikes, and ways of reacting to the world. Maybe we're tired. Mentally exhausted. Maybe we're bored? I don't know. Bottom's your limit.

What to do about it:

Now here's a good question. What DO you do about it? The most obvious piece of advice is: Keep writing. Write anyway. Real writers get words to paper no matter what. They don't wait for inspiration, for the good feels or the muse. They make it happen on their own time and in their own way. There's merit to this, obviously. And this is probably the best advice I can give (even if it can be incredibly hard to follow at times). In fact, I've let myself fall prey to the motivation vampire as I've awaited word on publishing interest in one of my books. But it was, and is, a huge mistake we're all capable of making. Time is not our friend as writers. We need to work. We need to blast words onto paper, and pretend like, above all else, that we know what the hell we are doing.

Visualize:

This one might seem odd. It is a bit esoteric. But visualization is one of the best ways I've found to break myself out of a mental funk. What I mean by this is putting yourself into your character's head and allowing yourself to react to specific situations in the same way your character would. So sit back, think about that character, and really get into how they would react in that instance. Play the scene out in your mind. Don't think about it too hard, just let it unfold as if you are this character. I think you'll be surprised at the new ideas that come up, and the fun and interesting ways it can change or open up the story.

Get excited:

Here's something you probably haven't considered (and I mean really emotionally considered) in quite a long time: You're writing that story for a reason. Something about it, the characters, the situation, the underlying idea, or the motivation behind your drive to write it. Something about that story is so AWESOME!!! (note the triple exclamations) that you just had to get it on paper. This is something we often forget after we've spent long and often torturous hours slaving over the same things, the same ideas, the same characters and situations...over and over, and yes, over again. We forget that there was something so cool and exciting about these characters or ideas that made them worth putting out there for other people to read and invest themselves in. So recapture that! Sit down and ruminate about what makes your story special. What idea, what character, what situation? Really dig into it and remind yourself just how amazing these ideas are, and (here's the key) let yourself get excited about it again! Get back into those ideas and investigate them because they're worth investigating. And this will lead directly into the next point...

Generate new ideas for your story:

Similar to the visualize option above, when you get excited about a story again after you've carefully gone through and thought about some of its elements in a different way from their original conception, you'll surprise yourself by starting to come up with new ideas. These can be simple additions to the direction you're already taking the story, or they can be wholly new and interesting navigational changes, seeing things from the eyes of different characters or entire groups of people. Use these ideas! Write them down. Stay excited about them, and let them pull you back into that story so you can do what you need to do: WRITE!

You know what to do.