Writing, Rewriting, and Craft
By Elena Hartwell
As a novelist and playwright, I’m often asked where I get my ideas. Almost every writer I know gets this question, and I think we all feel the same. Ideas are never the problem. That’s the easy part. Ideas are a dime a dozen. The hard part, the magic part, is turning the idea into a polished, final manuscript.
The writing process varies wildly from author to author. Some write extensive, detailed outlines. Others sit down with an idea and write scenes on the fly. A number of writers fall somewhere in between, while they may not outline, neither do they sit down and write completely organically. They might write a synopsis or outline a chapter in advance.
The various combinations of these methods all work, depending on the writer and the project. There is no “wrong” way to write a novel. The “how” a writer works isn’t why their manuscript sells or doesn’t sell. The primary reason an author’s work has not yet sold is a lack of craft.
People who lack craft skills rarely sit down to write a novel. Or if they do, they can start, but never finish. Or if they do finish, they don’t rewrite. Or if they do rewrite, they quit after a single pass. Or, if they do continue to rewrite, they aren’t aware enough of craft to recognize the flaws in their own work. You get the picture. The problem is the writer stops too soon.
As a writing coach—I do one-on-one manuscript critiques as well as teaching workshops—there are some fundamental issues I see repeated in early drafts, over and over. These same issues show up in my own work, and probably on some level, in the early drafts of every writer out there. So the first thing aspiring writers can do to increase their chances of writing a successful manuscript, is learn how to identify these problems.
The first is a lack of clear objectives, obstacles, and stakes. It’s not enough to have a dead body to write a mystery. Someone has to investigate the murder. The person investigating the murder has to need to solve the crime. If they don’t need to solve the crime (objective) there’s no tension about the investigation. If the solution doesn’t matter to the investigator, it won’t matter to the reader.
The sleuth also can’t solve the crime easily, that’s not dramatic. Various impediments (obstacles) have to appear, one after the other, to prevent the protagonist from catching the killer. The more the investigator has to overcome, the more satisfying to the reader when they do.
Lastly, it has to matter (stakes). For example, the protagonist with an internal struggle, coinciding with their investigation, is far more interesting than someone who simply goes through the motions of solving a crime.
The more important solving the case is to the protagonist, the more dangerous or difficult the journey, and the greater the importance to find the guilty party, the more invested a reader will be. That’s what keeps a reader turning pages.
Complex protagonists will also have personal objectives, obstacles, and stakes to go along with their investigation. For example, a crumbling marriage, a child in danger, or overcoming an addiction are common tropes within the genre. When we know an investigator has to choose between catching a killer and saving their marriage, the stakes are high and we breathlessly turn each page waiting to see what the character chooses.
Another common error I find is a lack of structure. All stories have an underpinning structure. While there are variations to that structure, for the most part, especially in crime fiction, we start with the world as we know it, which is disrupted by a specific event, followed by rising action, where events pile one on top the other, each more important than the one that went before. This ends with a climactic scene, with the maximum danger to our hero or heroine, followed by a glimpse into the new world order for our characters.
If any of these parts are missing, the story can feel unfinished. For example, if we don’t have some sense of what the character’s life was before the intrusion, we don’t know what they are putting at risk. The “world before” can often be well hidden, it might not appear in the first chapter, but later in reflections the character makes as the story progresses, but usually a reader can identify it if they look for it.
The middle of a manuscript might falter if a lot of exciting things happen at the beginning, then nothing exciting follows. Rising action is important, because it builds dramatic tension, making it impossible to put the book down.
Lastly, an ending can feel unsatisfying if we have no sense of the outcome. Readers don’t need everything tied up in a bow, but they do want the primary threads to be resolved enough to know what the character’s lives will be like after they read “the end.”
Dialogue can also be difficult to master. One of the most common problems I see is when authors have their characters say exactly what they feel and exactly what they mean. That doesn’t ring true. People lie all the time. We lie because it’s expedient, it benefits us in some way, it keeps us from hurting others, or we don’t want to get in trouble. We rarely say what we mean, we obfuscate, we dither, we agree out loud when disagreeing feels like a mistake. Dialogue works best when each character speaks distinctly from the others, through word choice, sentence length, grammatical accuracy, and the use of slang.
If a writer can identify just these specific problem areas in their own writing, their next draft will be a much tighter, more polished manuscript. It can feel overwhelming to try to identify and fix all the issues I’ve outlined at one time. My recommendation for writers is to choose one aspect and rewrite just for that. Heighten the stakes in one rewrite. Focus solely on dialogue for the next. Breaking down the process into smaller chunks can make each rewrite a more successful venture. This will help the writer get through a series of rewrites rather than attempting one and feeling like the mountain is too high to climb. My final piece of advice. Don’t give up. That’s the only difference between a published author and an unpublished one.
For fans of Julia Keller and Sheena Kamal, All We Buried disturbs the long-sleeping secrets of a small Washington state mountain town.
Deep in the woods surrounding the Cascade mountain range, a canvas-wrapped body floats in a lake, right in Elizabeth “Bet” Rivers’s jurisdiction. Bet has been sitting as interim sheriff of Collier after her father’s–the previous sheriff’s–death six months ago. Everyone knows everyone in a town like Collier. She has made it her duty to protect the people she’s come to see as family. And she intends to hold her title in the upcoming election, but she’s never worked a murder investigation on her own before and her opponent and deputy, Dale Kovac, isn’t going down without a fight.
Upon unwrapping the corpse, Bet discovers the woman is from out of town. Without an identification, the case grows that much more puzzling. Determined to prove herself worthy, however, Bet must confront the warped history of Collier. The more she learns, the more she realizes she doesn’t know the townspeople of Collier as well as she thought, and nothing can prepare her for what she is about to discover.
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THE OMTE ORIGINS
Nestled along the bluffs of the forested coast lays the secret kingdom of the Omte—a realm filled with wonder…and as many secrets.
Ulla Tulin was left abandoned in an isolated Kanin city as a baby, taken in by strangers and raised hidden away like many of the trolls of mixed blood. Even knowing this truth, she’s never stopped wondering about her family.
When Ulla is offered an internship working alongside the handsome Pan Soriano at the Mimirin, a prestigious institution, she jumps at the chance to use this opportunity to hopefully find her parents. All she wants is to focus on her job and the search for her parents, but all of her attempts to find them are blocked when she learns her mother may be connected to the Omte royal family.
With little progress made, Ulla and Pan soon find themselves wrapped up in helping Eliana, an amnestic girl with abilities unlike any they have ever seen before—a girl who seems to be running from something. To figure out who she is they must leave the city, and possibly, along the way, they may learn more about Ulla’s parents.
Q&A with Amanda Hocking, author of THE LOST CITY: The Omte Origins, Volume 1
- There’s been so much excitement and anticipation for more books in the world of the Trylle and Kanin. What made you decide to revisit those worlds now in The Omte Origins trilogy?
I knew as soon as I wrote Ulla as a small character in Crystal Kingdom (the final book of the Kanin Chronicles) that I was going to write a trilogy about her, but it was just a matter of when. After the Kanin Chronicles, I wanted to take a little break from that world and visit others – which I did with Freeks and the Valkyrie duology. By then, I was so ready to dive back into the world and answer some lingering questions I had left for the Trylle and Kanin.
- Why make this the final trilogy?
With the Omte Origins, I feel like I’ve been able to say everything I want to about the worlds. Through the three trilogies, I spent time with all five tribes. Wendy’s mother is Trylle and her father is Vittra, and her story has her visiting both kingdoms. Bryn’s mother is Skojare and her father is Kanin, and her trilogy shows life in the Kanin and Skojare cities, as well as travelling to others beyond that. I won’t say who exactly Ulla’s parents are (that would be spoiling the story) but her journey takes her through the troll kingdoms, with interesting detours through the Omte, Trylle, and Kanin tribes.
- What are the most challenging aspects of writing a new trilogy that can be read independently, but is set in a world–the Trylle and Kanin–that you’ve written about before?
The hardest challenge is getting new readers caught up with the world and the lingo without feeling repetitive and boring to longtime fans of the series. I try use this an opportunity to show characters and situations from different angles. The Wendy the audience meets at the beginning of Switched is vastly different Wendy than the that Ulla knows in the Omte Origins. So for new readers, they get introduced Wendy as she currently is, and for repeat readers, they can see who Wendy has become and who she appears to be through the eyes of an average citizen with Ulla.
- What’s the most fascinating thing you researched while writing The Lost City?
With the Omte Origins, I really looked back at the course of troll history, and their past has dovetailed with the Vikings and other artic peoples. So I did a lot research on early Vikings and indigenous arctic people, primarily the Inuit and the Sami. My favorite parts were reading their folklore. I even got an Inuit cookbook, and I attempted to make Bannock (a traditional Inuit bread). It did not turn out well, but I blame that entirely on my cooking skills (or lack thereof) and not the recipe.
- The “Glossary” and “Tribal Facts” sections at the end of the book are fascinating and really help create a layered, fleshed out world. Was putting those together as much fun as writing the novel?
It was so much fun. It’s been over ten years and nine books (and several short stories), so I have spent a lot time of thinking and doing world-building. I honestly have enough information for a history book about the worlds of the Trylle, but I don’t know there’s a demand for fictional textbooks. The Tribal Facts were actually one of the first things I wrote for the Omte series, because I went through and get myself reacquainted and made sure I had all my important facts straight.
- Was your writing routine affected by the stay-at-home orders due to the pandemic?
My routine itself hasn’t been too affected, since I write from home, but I would say that the stress has a negative impact on me, the way it has for many of us that work in creative fields – or any field at all, honestly. My husband has been working from home, and my stepson had been doing long distance learning before summer break, but that hasn’t really changed too much for me. I usually work after they go to bed and stay up late into the early morning hours.
- Were there any favorite songs or music you listened to while writing this book?
Yes, definitely! I listen to so much music when I write, and I even have curated playlists to go along with my books on Spotify. open.spotify.com/user/127756215 Some of my favorite songs to write to were “Ella” by Myrkur, “Wild World” by Cat Stevens, and “Delicate” by Taylor Swift. I also listened to a lot of Wardruna, who are this Norwegian band who make traditional Nordic music with historically accurate instruments. For the soundtrack to the Omte Origins, I wanted it be a blend of traditional Nordic music, mellow seventies folk to go with the trolls delayed pop culture tastes, and pop music that gets through with the trendier younger generations of trolls.
- Do you think the music you listen to has an influence on the stories? Or do the stories influence the music you choose?
I think it’s both, honestly. When I’m picking songs for the playlist, I definitely choose them based on the kind of emotions I want to feel and the tone I want to set for whatever I’m writing. Sometimes I’ll put particularly romantic songs on repeat when writing a love scene or an angry fast-paced instrumental for a fight scene.
- What books or authors are you reading or excited to read lately?
I’m super excited about Faith: Taking Flight by Julie Murphy. It comes out the same day as The Lost City, and it’s about a plus-size teenage girl who discovers that she can fly. I recently read A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Rosanne Brown, and I’m counting down the days until The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna and The Project by Courtney Summers.
- Any hints you can share about what’s coming next after The Omte Origins Trilogy?
I’m currently working on a stand-alone fantasy inspired by Greek mythology, but I don’t know when it will be out yet. I’ve got ideas for dozens of projects after that, and I’m working hard (and having fun) getting through them all.
Several of her books have made the New York Times Bestsellers list. Her zombie series, The Hollows, has been adapted into a graphic novel by Dynamite. She has published over twenty novels, including The Kanin Chronicles, the Watersong quartet, My Blood Approves series, the Valkyrie duology, and Freeks .
Her next books are the Omte Origins, a trilogy set in the world of the Trylle and Kanin. The first book The Lost City will be out July 7, 2020, and the second book The Morning Flower will be out August 5, 2020.
For more info about her and her books, here are some other places to check out and ways to contact her:
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Is there a sociopathic killer on the loose and murdering prostitutes in New York City? NYPD’s top cop, Homicide Commander Lieutenant John Driscoll, believes there is. Someone who calls himself “Tilden” and claims to have been sexually abused as a child by his mother’s john. But what could have triggered Tilden’s rage that has him on a mission to eradicate all the women of the night in The Big Apple?
Q&A with Thomas O’Callaghan for Benjamin Thomas’ The Writing Train
How did your early reading habits lead you to become a writer?
After graduating with a liberal arts degree from Richmond College I landed a job with Allstate Insurance Company as a sales agent. When the company opted to take their sales force in another direction I decided it was time to retire and find something else to do with my time. I spent much of that time reading. On the beach in summer and on the couch in winter. One day I picked up a copy of HELTER SKELTER, by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. This is an often used adage, but I couldn’t put it down. The author’s attention to detail fascinated me. After that, I was hooked on novels depicting murder, mayhem and suspense. I soon discovered such notables as Thomas Harris, John Sandford, Lawrence Block and Ed McBain, just to name a few. Unlike, HELTER SKELTER, where the storyline was based on an actual murder, Harris, Sandford, Block, McBain and company, created murder and the intrigue that surrounded it. I was enthralled all the more. Read on, I said, and so I did. After I finished reading my twelfth 87th Precinct novel, I thought: I could do that! And so, on a gloomy, rain-soaked Friday afternoon, that happened to follow Thanksgiving, I began writing NIGHTKILLS, which would later become BONE THIEF. Looking back, I’m happy with the course my life had taken me, bringing me to what has become my life’s passion: Writing!
Was it a journey developing the confidence to write, or did it come naturally?
It was a journey that had begun at a slow pace. Aside from essays in college I’d never written in a narrative fashion. When I took an early retirement from Allstate I was 49. With a great deal of free time on my hands a very good friend suggested to either take on a new job or devote time to a hobby I’d enjoy. My first venture toward that end had me wandering through Prospect Park in Brooklyn, NY armed with a 35mm camera taking photographs of nature-in-the-raw. That interest waned after four or five weeks. I then enrolled at HB Studios in NYC to study the art of ‘acting’. It was fun, but after two months I began to lose interest. Since I enjoyed reading mysteries and thrillers, my trusted friend suggested I write one. Me? Write a book? I haven’t a clue as to where to start, I argued. She suggested I write
an opening chapter similar in style to what I liked to read. And so I did. After she read it she asked me what I had in mind for the next chapter. This went on for several weeks at the end of which I had written the opening of a story that only she and I had read. I didn’t think it was very good but she encouraged me to call a friend of hers, a “writing coach” of sorts, which I did. His name was Stephen Ohayon. He had once taught the art of writing on a college level and offered to work with me to turn my feeble attempt into a saleable novel. We met weekly in his office in Manhattan where his day job was as a psychotherapist. He scheduled time for me between patients. I brought him a typed chapter and during a one hour session he helped me push that chapter from first draft to second, third, fourth and fifth. When we reached Chapter Last I set out to market the book. It sold close to 100,000 copies and was translated and published in Germany, Slovakia, Indonesia, the Czech Republic, China, and Italy.
What do you enjoy most about writing?
I enjoy writing for a number of reasons. One that comes to mind immediately is that writing allows me to escape the hum drum of everyday life. Another reason is that creating characters for the sole purpose of performing in a story that I’ve set in motion is exciting. I’m fueled by that. And, because it’s fiction, I’m motivated to weave memories of times in my life, some good, some regrettable, into the back story of my characters. We all have chapters we wish never to see published, but, with the right finesse, the theme of those blunders can and do add human authenticity to fictional entities.
What are the most challenging aspects?
One of the most challenging aspects of being a writer is constantly competing with an inner voice that tells me what I’ve written isn’t very good. That, of and in itself, drives me to be a better writer. Writers write. Rewriters get published.
How has your writing process developed over the twelve years it took to become published?
The writing process as outlined above continued in the same fashion, day after day, week after week. Those weeks became years as I needed to convince a publisher my work was ready for print. That involved submission after submission of query letters and partial manuscripts to every single literary agent that specialized in my genre. When I reached the end of the line, so to speak, and any further submission would be repetitive I took the advice of a few well intentioned literary agents along the way to have a professional editor have a look at my manuscript. After working for two years with the late Dick Marek, who’d edited The Silence of the Lambs for Thomas Harris along with nine of Robert Ludlam’s books, Kensington Books agreed to publish my debut novel.
What are some ways working with an editor has helped you?
Aside from learning that a tightly written novel reads very quickly, thereby keeping the reader engaged, working with a professional editor taught me a wonderful lesson: a writer, especially someone starting out, often feels his or her work is sacrosanct, but the editor is keenly aware of what a publisher is looking for and what sells. It’s best to accept that reality and be open to change. It will increase the chance of having your work published.
How important is rewriting when working on a manuscript?
Extremely important. I begin by writing a first draft of a chapter which entails typing without concern for spelling, punctuation, or cohesion. The point is to get the thought on paper as quickly as possible without listening to that inner voice telling you “Oh, that’s not good,” Once that’s done, I’ll go in and rewrite the chapter over and over again, until I have what I consider perfection. In essence, one must write drunk and edit sober.
If we were to meet NYPD homicide cop John Driscoll, what kind of person would we meet?
In short, he’d be a taller version of me. He’s an Irishman with a sense of morality who tries to do the right thing. A compassionate soul who tries to be kind to friends and foes alike. Yes, Lieutenant Driscoll is flawed. But, then, who isn’t?
Do the John Driscoll mysteries employ a certain theme?
Yes, the theme is that good prevails over evil. They are psychological thrillers which detail the fictionalized onslaught of heinous murders perpetrated by a madman, or in the case of THE SCREAMING ROOM, a set of demonic twins, using New York City as a killing field. Lieutenant Driscoll is brought into the equation intent on putting a stop to the madness.
If you were John Driscoll in, No One Will Hear Your Screams, could you solve the case?
Absolutely! The Lieutenant is a resourceful investigator who, with the able-bodied assistance of two professional and ingenious associates in Margaret Aligante and Cedric Thomlinson, evil can’t triumph.
What are you currently working on?
My current work in progress introduces Richard Singleton, a bestselling author suffering from writer’s block. When he becomes the owner of a beach house where a heinous murder had taken place, he finds stimulation and is able to put the pen to paper again. His manuscript is progressing well and his faltered career is looking bright again, that is until he gets an anonymous call from the former owner of the house who had perpetrated the aforementioned murder who has plans of his own regarding what this bestselling author should write.