Posts Tagged ‘fiction writing tips’


As I began the fifth chapter of my third book, I realized I had no idea where my story was going. That is a strange thing to admit, but it’s true. Obviously, I had a rough idea, but that’s all it was… a rough idea, and I’ve learned that, for me, a rough idea is not enough to keep me going. It seems strange that a person would sit down to write a novel with only a vague impression of the outcome, but that’s exactly what I did. Again.

I’ve been through this before, and you’d think I would have learned my lesson. I was taught that as your story is being written, you need to constantly be moving things in the direction of the end. I had my setting down, I knew the characters, I knew the basic premise… but somehow, I had no idea where I was trying to go. This explains why it has taken me so long to get this project going.

One of the most valuable things I learned from my mentor very early on was that I need to know my ending first. This may not be true for every writer, but for me, it’s absolutely essential. Without a known ending, I am like a blind rat in a maze, bumping into things and following dead ends. (It’s just that I get so excited to write new stories and utilize the knowledge I’ve acquired that I forget many of the fundamentals!)

I’ve spent many many hours these past few weeks trying to iron out the wrinkles in this storyline and trying to decide what it is that I am ultimately trying to say, and finally, this morning, I figured it out. My mentor told me to develop my theme. This, all of a sudden, sounded like a foreign term to me, which reminded me just how much of the basics I had forgotten. According to Wikipedia a theme is: “a broad idea, message, or moral of a story. The message may be about life, society, or human nature. Themes often explore timeless and universal ideas and are almost always implied rather than stated explicitly.” Fair enough.

I turned the story over in my head and finally decided that what I’m really trying to say in this current novel is that sometimes, in order to appreciate the people around you, you have to see the profound greatness they’re capable of~ and that good and evil exist all around us at all times, but within all of us is the voice of reason, and the power to do to great things. Sounds good, right? Not really. It’s too complicated and unclear.

So we went a layer deeper. And another layer deeper after that. Finally, I concluded that my theme is this: A human being with faith has as much power as any of God’s angels. Knowing my theme then paved the way for the rest of the story. For the first time since I began writing this book, I have an absolute idea of what I want to say, and how I need to get there. There are still some issues that need a bit more thought, but I finally believe I can sit down and write this book without feeling overwhelmed by the fact that I am completely lost.

If I can do this right, I believe this story could easily be my best one yet. If I do it wrong, however, I think it could easily come off as being amateur, juvenile and an embarrassment to my capabilities. Right now, I can see it going either way. The beauty of writing though, is that you can always re-write, and having a clear vision of where you’re going with a story is the best place to start… even though it isn’t where I started. Again.

On that note, if I had any advice, it would be this: First develop your theme. Know exactly what you want to say. Define it as clearly as possible and then work backwards. Figure out the end… and begin at the beginning, making sure that every move you make along the way leads to that end. This is the most priceless piece of knowledge I was given, and despite my attempts to bypass it, I find myself coming back to it. Again.

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Of the various steps a writer should take before handing his or her query letter or manuscript over to an agent or publishing house, probably the most important one is getting raw, honest feedback from a few trusted readers. These lucky folks are called Alpha and Beta readers.

An Alpha (Alpha meaning first) reader is the first person who gets to see your work. This person has the responsibility of stopping you from further embarrassment before anyone else gets to see it. The Alpha reader should therefore, in my opinion, be your strongest critic. This person must be wholly comfortable telling you what sucks about your manuscript and what doesn’t. An education in English and Grammar is also a plus.

In my case, my Alpha reader is Kim William-Justesen, author of My Brother the Dog, The Hey! Ranger series, and co-author of Love and Loathing. Kim acquired her MFA (Masters of Fine Arts in Writing) from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2003. Not to mention, she has been circulating throughout the literary world for a good number of years, so she kind of knows her stuff – and, as it should be, she is probably harder on me than anyone else.

Kim is really the only person who gets to see my work in its most unpolished and unrefined state. However, knowing that she will be reading it, I work hard to keep it clean and neat, and to follow the rules of writing fiction, which automatically puts me in better shape. A typical page that’s been critiqued by Kim usually comes back to me with plenty of issues. Unnecessary words are called into question, 90% of all adverbs are slashed, question marks indicate a characters inconsistent voice or behavior, and of course, misspellings, grammar issues, and improper English is marked. Not to leave out issues with paragraph breaks, timing, dialogue, too much exposition, tense shifts and logic flaws. The point is, at first sight, the returned pages are often intimidating and discouraging but this is probably the most important part of the process.

After the necessary changes are made, my wife Heather is next in line. Heather isn’t really an Alpha or a Beta reader really, but (even though I am her husband), she is honest with me. Heather has a keen eye for small details that often get overlooked by me (little things like a murder scene in which the victim falls the opposite direction he should have after having been struck by a pissed she-vampire!) This is Heather’s strength and it has come in handy many times.

After Heather, my manuscripts go to a few trusted friends. Some of them are writers and some of them are not… but all of them are avid readers who know why something does or doesn’t work. These are my Beta readers.

Beta readers are, in some ways, the most important of all, because they are not looking for grammar and spelling issues. They are literally sitting down with your book and reading it front to back, and giving an opinion of the overall feel of the story. And it’s amazing sometimes what a Beta reader might catch. For example, it was my sister who caught a major discrepancy in time while reading The White Room. Speaking of sisters, family will often want to read your work, and that is good. But keep in mind that often times, they are not going to be as forthright with you as someone who is unrelated to you. That being said, I have received quite a lot of good feedback from family and close friends. Still, for purposes of critique, I rely more heavily on people who didn’t change my diapers and see me through that nasty adolescent stage!

Having Beta readers is fun too, because you get to revisit your story with a new eyes, so to speak. Right now, my friends Tom and Sherrie are in possession of The White Room. Tom is freaking out about the spider in Gretchen’s hair (a scene I’d pretty much forgotten about) and I am cracking up because I can’t wait to see how he acts when he gets to the other spider scene (insert evil laugh here).

After a manuscript has been through several hands, professional and unprofessional alike, a writer can now submit his or her manuscript to an agent, editor, or publisher without fear of being rejected due to sloppy errors and lazy plot holes. Now, when you receive your rejection letter (and you will), you will have the confidence to continue submitting, knowing that no matter what anyone else says, your story is a good, strong one… and one day, the right person will see that.