Can you teach yourself to write a novel through a reading program? I did. Here’s how.
Back in 2006, I earned a master’s in Writing Popular Fiction, producing Death Perception as my thesis novel. But the greater part of my literary training came from self-education, through which I learned many things I didn’t in school.
For over thirty years, I’ve read and studied hundreds of writing craft books, many pertaining to aspects of novel-writing. Some books were better than others, but most offered something to improve my writing. (I maintain a growing list of what I consider the best books at Lee’s Favorite Writing Texts.)
The self-education process
If you’ve never written a novel before or want to improve your current process, here’s a self-education plan to get you started:
Understanding the hero’s journey as a prerequisite for further study
Developing an idea
Structuring the external plot
Mapping the protagonist’s inner story of change (character arc)
Weaving plot and character arc into a properly structured narrative
Writing effective scenes
Incorporating theme to enrich your narrative
Revising your work
Editing to polish your prose
1. Understanding the hero’s journey
Many fiction craft books refer to the “hero’s journey,” popularized by mythologist Joseph Campbell. As a prerequisite to your journey of self-education, I recommend boning up on mythic story structure.
I’ll admit I’ve never read Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Instead, I heartily recommend the latest edition of Christopher Vogler’s 🌟 The Writer’s Journey – 25th Anniversary Edition: Mythic Structure for Writers. Highly accessible, it will teach you what you need to know about the hero’s journey—and provide a basis for understanding the next books included in this self-education program.
(By the way, I followed Vogler’s blueprint for Death Perception, which was well received.)
2. Developing a novel idea
Fashioning an idea into a full-blown plot has been one of my biggest challenges the past three decades. There are precious few books out there that lead you through the process of getting, brainstorming, and developing an initial idea into the basics of a workable plot.
Along with external plot events, great novels include the main character’s inner story of change, or character arc. Character arc maps the lead’s development from a person with an inner need who, through challenges and conflict, learns to become a stronger, better person (or fails to).
Now that you’ve arrived at this point, a book that weaves the hero’s journey, plot structure, and character arc into one how-to is Susan May Warren’s The Story Equation: How to Plot and Write a Brilliant Story from One Powerful Question. It’s a bit convoluted in its presentation and won’t make sense if you read it earlier in this process, but it nicely wraps everything together and will help cement the previous concepts into a workable story.
After thirty years of querying agents, I finally landed one! Here’s the story…
I’ve been working on novel #6, LGBTQ horror/romance, for almost ten years. I submitted it to several dozen agents, none of whom asked for the full manuscript. Last year I submitted it to a dream publisher that took five months to get back to me with a rejection. Sigh. I queried another publisher who quickly declined. (Rejection sucks, but if my work’s going to be rejected, I’d rather know sooner than later.)
A couple of months ago, I sent the book to one final LGBTQ publisher and forgot about it, expecting an eventual rejection.
Earlier this month, I sent the manuscript to my editor, who made comments and sent it back to me. After making revisions, I submitted it to an agent. I decided that if he turned me down, I would self-publish.
A week later, the publisher replied and said they wanted to send me a contract. I was so excited! I told them so, and they sent the contract.
Of course, what agent wouldn’t want to represent a new client who already has a contract offer in hand? I emailed the agent I had queried and, believe it or not, he declined to represent me. Sigh, sigh. So I would have to negotiate the contract myself.
When I read the contract, two clauses made me very uneasy. The publisher wanted me to give away worldwide rights in all translations in every form of media as well as forfeit my intellectual property rights. I asked around, and scads of HWA members told me to not walk but run away from this “offer.”
Needless to say, I was disappointed. I replied to the publisher and declined to enter into an agreement with them. I’d lost an agent and a publisher in one day. Sigh, sigh, sigh.
I resigned to self-publish the book, but a final Facebook comment came in from an agent who offered to look at the contract. I emailed her and chanced asking if she’d consider representing me. Good news is, she said yes!
Yesterday, I signed on as a client with Tabatha Pope of SBR Media. A dream I’ve had for thirty years has finally come true!
Tabatha’s putting together a pitch package to potential publishers for novel #6, The Covenant Sacrifice. I also uploaded my backlist (Death Perception, The Bedwetter, etc.) so that she can try selling foreign publication and other media rights.
Stay tuned for more about #6, #7 (horror/mystery), and #8 (LGBTQ supernatural horror). And if you’re hoping for agency representation, keep submitting and don’t give up. It may take a lot longer than you thought it would, but there’s always hope.
What are writers to do when they have an idea and the ambition to write something they’re not yet skilled enough to write or don’t know how to tackle? How do you know if your capabilities are inadequate or you’re simply not working hard enough?
Kyle Winkler posted these questions on Twitter the other day, and they intrigued me enough to write this post.
When your literary reach exceeds your grasp
As readers first, writers can comprehend and appreciate writing at a level they’re not yet capable of producing. If you conceive an idea and attempt to write the piece but can’t pull it off for one reason or another, you’ve tried but may not have the skills to complete it or to fully realize your intention for it. Or you haven’t yet stumbled on how to approach it.
This doesn’t mean you’re not working hard enough; you’re simply working to the limits of your capabilities at this point in your career. Stephen King wrote Carrie first and The Stand later.
There’s also a difference between knowing something’s not right and knowing what’s not right—and how to fix it. This only comes with experience and continuing self-education and practice.
Enter the writing process
I recently developed a writing process I hope to perfect so that I’m always producing work. The phases I still find challenging are Ideation, Brainstorming, and Plotting—developing an initial idea into a workable plot with a beginning, middle, and ending. (Character development and theme also fall into these stages.)
“Working hard enough” may mean you shelve a piece, continue to write other things and study writing craft—for years or decades—before you get back to the piece with the increased capabilities to identify what’s wrong or what’s needed and then go on to fix it or otherwise fulfill your initial creative vision for it.
Development of a novella
For instance, I originally got an idea for what I thought was a supernatural horror short story back in September 2004 after reading William F. Nolan’s 3000-word story, “Diamond Lake.” The earliest draft of my story I produced, tentatively titled “Kissing Cousins,” was also 3000 words, dated March 2005.
But the story didn’t work, and I didn’t know why. I sent it out for critique and comments, much of which I incorporated in further drafts. It still wasn’t right, and I was at a loss to discern why.
More edits and another critique in 2007. Still not right.
In 2008 I workshopped this story at Borderlands Writers Boot Camp in Baltimore. I got some great feedback (altogether a terrific workshop experience that really boosted my writing at the time—I can’t recommend it enough), but I still couldn’t make the story work. I vaguely remember another participant saying, “The story should be longer.” That was helpful yet simultaneously frustrating because I didn’t know exactly how to do that—should I pour more words into it simply for the sake of making it longer? (This was the beginning of progressing from something’s wrong to what’s wrong.)
One of the many problems with the piece was that I relied on a lot of “telling.” Looking back on it now, it was an indication that, instead of the narrative of an actual story, I had the narrative of an outline of a story. (This is when I progressed from knowing what’s wrong to knowing how to fix it.)
In 2008, I completed a series of worksheets I’d previously developed from helpful writing texts. This got me closer to the story I wanted to tell, which I’d retitled as “Oddington.” From that process, I expanded some of the outlined portions into dramatized scenes and grew the piece from 3000 words/13 pages to 13,000 words/60 pages. I now called it “Dinosaur Rock.”
I was getting closer but, nope, the piece still didn’t come together. I shelved it for over adecade.
The missing puzzle piece
I wrote no fiction and read little in 2020, especially the second half. Terrible time with health problems compounded by COVID isolation. But at the beginning of 2021, I got back into reading writing-craft books and came upon three by K. M. Weiland: Creating Character Arcs, Structuring Your Novel, and Outlining Your Novel. (Character Arcs was new, but the other two I’d had on my shelves for five years and never read.)
What I learned in these books wasn’t new (I’ve read and studied hundreds of craft books in the past thirty years), but it crystallized a portion of my writing process. Along with the study of theme (The Moral Premise by Stanley D. Williams, Writing Your Story’s Theme by K. M. Weiland, and Writing Deep Scenes by Alderson and Rosenfeld), developing a workable process to get from Idea through Outlining enabled me to fill in the story’s holes so I could get to the Drafting stage. I developed many more worksheets/questionnaires that are now part of my Scrivener project template that I copy to begin a new book.
How I proved my writing process
I codified my writing process and cultivated a new idea received January 21 (for which I highly recommend Meredith and Fitzgerald’s Structuring Your Novel) into a Plot with a beginning, middle, and ending. Using the new worksheets I developed from the Weiland books, I co-developed my protagonist’s internal character arc with the external story/plot arc into a somewhat detailed scene-by-scene outline in a month. I spent another twenty-nine days Drafting. I finished April 18 with the first draft of novel #7, a 40,553-word horror/mystery. You can read more about my stats at Novel #7 Finished.
The previous paragraph is here simply to prove (at least to me) my process works.
While #7 gelled before I began Editing, I wanted to get to work on something new. I toyed around reviewing my ideas file but, clicking through my FICTION folder on my laptop, I came across the dusty “Dinosaur Rock,” and a bloody flower budded in my twisted little mind. Forgetting everything about Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown to kick, I reviewed the old worksheets and reread the 60 pages I’d written back in 2008.
I was convinced this piece still had potential and that finishing it was imperative because I had something important to say. (Certain pieces nag you for a reason—don’t give up!)
Even though part of my work was done years ago, in that I’d completed a few worksheets, I went through my entire, newly developed Brainstorming, Plotting, and Outlining stages and completed all of my current worksheets.
Lo, and behold, missing pieces showed up, and I began to see what was wrong as well as how to fix it.
I Outlined those plot holes, Drafted the dramatized narrative, and plugged the results into my Scrivener project. I compiled and printed, Edited it, and sent it off to a beta reader last week. “Dinosaur Rock” finally came out to 17,800 words/71 pages, a novella on the shorter side.
It took nearly twenty years, but because I intended to finish the piece, continued to study writing craft and occasionally worked on the story to apply new things I’d learned, I was able to move from something’s wrong to what’s wrong to how to fix it.
Certainly, I have more revision and editing ahead of me, but this piece is finally realized. And I now have a new perspective on “abandoned” ideas and Inspiration in general.
Knowing your process helps get you from something’s wrong to what’s wrong, and perhaps even how to fix it.
The prescient power of ideas
Second, not to get all religious or metaphysical (well, maybe metaphysical), inspiration takes faith as well as hard work to realize.
Have you ever had an idea for a book, but either didn’t know how to execute it or didn’t get around to writing it, and meanwhile someone else published a book based on that same idea? (I’ve kicked myself more than once over this.)
I believe that Inspiration in the form of Ideas is “out there,” seeking any and every channel to be communicated to humanity. Those with sensitive receivers (a.k.a good old-fashioned imaginations) pick up on these Ideas. Fewer have the capabilities and skills to develop these ideas into a Plot that can be encoded as narrative (Drafted). Others who have studied their craft and developed a process are able to realize those ideas into a finished product (Marketed).
Ideas are like seeds that seek to propagate themes in the soil of humanity’s minds. Inspiration, whether it comes from the Divine or the Collective Unconscious or your own creative brain, needs a process to materialize Ideas into marketable material that can be consumed by the reading public.
Some writers are fortunate enough to realize this process early in their careers. And some are blessed enough to have it internalized. I ain’t one of them.
I took AP English in high school. I earned a bachelor’s in English and a master’s in Writing Popular Fiction. I attended many workshops and conferences and classes, read hundreds of books on writing craft, and wrote a lot of unpublishable stuff. It took me fifty years (I started writing horror fiction in second grade) of grueling work to identify and codify a process to generate fiction from Idea to Market.
Inspiration doesn’t take your present skills into account. If you’re open to receiving an Idea, you’ll get it. Your ambition may outpace your capability at this point in time, but ideas and ambition have a prophetic influence on your career: They give you something to work toward and live up to; they call you to develop your art and skills so that someday you’ll be able to realize your literary visions.
Never criticize your capabilities. They are what they are at this point in time. And that’s good reason to keep working hard, reading fiction and writing craft, studying, trying, burying and resurrecting, and trying again. You can’t force professional development, but you can get better over time if you apply yourself.
How to nurture a big idea
If you’ve conceived a story you don’t yet have the ability or know-how to write, the first thing to do is set your intention that you will write it. If you can’t be positive about it, at least remain neutral; anything else is unproductive.
Recognize it will take a while until you get to it. Know that you’ll need to think about it, consciously and subconsciously, until things percolate. Understand you must continue to study and practice to get to where you can write it.
Then do what you can on the project today, even if it’s creating a folder on your computer, starting a Scrivener project with your working title, and making a bulleted list of possible ideas for the piece. (Again, I recommend Meredith and Fitzgerald’s Structuring Your Novel for its chapter on turning your idea into a plot.)
In some small measure, you’ve moved from thought to materialization. Even if you don’t touch the project for a year or a decade, you’ve begun. As further inspiration comes, be sure to capture it.
Granted, not every idea you receive or generate will become published material. I have a slew of ideas I’ve recorded over the past thirty years that remain seeds. A few will someday germinate; others may never progress to Brainstorming. Some might make it to Plotting, where I’ll lose interest in them.
But there are certain seminal ideas that will not let you rest. They may frustrate or disturb you. They haunt you and won’t let you go.
If you’re in possession of one of these, nurture it. Though you may be unable to fulfill that vision today, don’t give up. Set an intention for fruition. Remain neutral and receptive. Do what you can do today. Develop your writing process. Study. Learn. Apply what you’ve learned. Try again.
One day, you’ll find the missing pieces that let you complete the puzzle and see the big picture.
I just finished reading Kyle Winkler’s novella, The Nothing That Is, and I wanted to tell you about it. I loved it because it’s: 1) Short. 2) Contains delightful similes. 3) Quirky and weird. 4) Set in the 80s. 5) Darkly funny. 6) Mentions food, eating, and chafing dishes. 7) Actually freaked me out a few times.
About this last point: I read mostly horror, and it no longer scares me. Yet I found myself reeling on the brink of terror from Winkler’s descriptions of cosmic horrors, like I was about to lose my grip on reality and become untethered, set adrift in the chaotic void. His narrative is reminiscent of early Ramsey Campbell, the master of paranoiac disorientation.
I adored the characters and characterization. Tension mounts to the point of unbearability (a good thing, don’t you think?). I heart Kyle Winkler because of sentences like these: “I felt like I’d fallen behind the couch of reality…” (me too) and “My red-drenched hands hung at my sides like gore mittens.” Yeah, baby!
And 8) You can’t beat cosmic horror from the mouth of a dead raccoon.
You can enter different projects, such as short stories or novels. I’m in the early stages of working on novel number seven: plotting and outlining. My project page is below. WordKeeper displays my daily target word count based on the completion date I set. It shows daily progress as well as total progress toward my projected word count. It also provides stats about time, sessions, words, writing phases, and locations (which I don’t use). (Scroll down past the image for the rest of this post.)
When I sit down at my laptop to write, the first thing I do is open WordKeeper and start the timer. Then I write for an hour or two, stopping the timer when I’m done. Last evening, I got home late from dinner and only got 50 minutes in.
WordKeeper then displays the Session page, showing my stats for that session: start and end times, any pauses I made, and the duration of the session. If I were writing, I would enter a word count. But right now, I’m still outlining.
WordKeeper is helping me track my fiction writing progress so that I can be more productive.
When I get to the writing phase, hopefully in a week or two, I will start racking up the word count. WordKeeper will keep me on track to meet my deadline.
I like WordKeeper. It’s easy to use and has more features than I have time to explore. It’s $2.99 a month—the cost of a cup of coffee.
If you’re looking to track your fiction writing progress and productivity, you can learn more at https://wordkeeper.app/.
Ideation: This is generating a story idea. I do this purposely several times a week on Twitter. For example:
You open the front door to get the mail. In the mailbox is a severed hand. Who put it there and why. How do you find out?
Brainstorming: Great idea. (I’ll write it someday.) But it needs a little—okay, a lot—of work. Here’s where I go through a process of answering questions about my character and his or her goals. I do a lot of work before I tackle structure. After all, I need events and motivation to plot.
Plotting: I develop character arcs for all my major characters and conform the brainstormed material into classic story structure. More at How to Write Stories that Sell.
Outlining: Here, I sort the information into a sequential scene-by-scene list from which I’ll write. I like my ducks in a row so that when I plant my butt in the chair, I can write without interruption.
Drafting: Using my outline, I write from beginning to end, incorporating all the information from my brainstorming, plotting, and outlining. I use Scrivener to build my manuscripts.
Editing: After one or more days, I’ll print the draft and edit it, making sure all the necessary information is in place and that I’m using the best language to tell a story. I go through at least five drafts before I consider the story ready for the reading public.
Marketing: I now have everything beta read. (If you’re a published writer and are willing to beta-read my fiction, contact me.) After final changes, I submit it to markets. If I don’t place a work after a while, I publish it myself.
This is my process, and I hope to perfect it this year so that I’m regularly churning out story after story, novel after novel. Expect to see more published this year. If learning about my process has been helpful to you, please leave a comment. I’d like to know your process, too.
I’ve been a lover of horror since, let’s see… Well, I don’t ever remember not being a lover of horror.
One of my earliest memories is of my family watching the original Salem’s Lot miniseries when it first aired in 1979. I was five. In the intervening years (no, I won’t tell you how many, and how rude of you to ask!), I’ve delved into every conceivable type of horror there is, and I love it all.
But when it comes to subgenres within the wider genre, I must admit I have a favorite.
Tales of spooks, apparitions, and hauntings really hit my sweet spot. I enjoy other subgenres—vampires and serial killers and werewolves and, yes, even zombies—but ghosts thrill me most.
I’ve written many ghost stories. Hell, I published a haunted house novel, 324 Abercorn, last year, and my latest release, 2B, is about a haunted apartment. I can’t get enough of exploring this subject.
Why, you ask? Good question.
It boils down to my penchant for atmospheric horror over the more graphic. Don’t get me wrong, blood and guts don’t bother me, but when it comes to what really scares me, I favor more subtle things and the ambiguous. Uncertainty and the unknown haunt me, pardon the pun, longer than something more concrete and in my face.
Ghost stories aren’t the only types that employ the atmospheric approach, but they do it most effectively. At least for me.
Ghost stories often start out subtly, with things slightly off kilter, the characters questioning if it’s all in their minds. This early part, when things are uncertain, is what I find the most suspenseful and unnerving, because we’ve all been there. Did I move my wallet from the table to the counter and simply don’t remember? Did the glass fall because it was sitting too close to the table’s edge? Is that noise like footsteps only the house settling? (After years of watching haunted house movies, “the house settling” has become to me a euphemism for “This house is haunted as shit, and we should get out before blood starts pouring out of the walls!”)
In my favorite ghost stories, such as The Dwelling by Susie Malonie and Stephen King’s The Shining, suspense gradually builds and tension tightens as events escalate. Even then there can be ambiguity. Some ghost stories intentionally leave you unsure if the haunting was real, suggesting the main character had a breakdown and was imagining it all. This in itself can be horrifying. I’d rather have an undead spirit in my house than realize I’m losing my mind and my grip on reality.
One terrifying implication of ghost stories is that we can never truly escape toxic or dangerous people. If death cannot stop some folks from tormenting us, then what hope is there?
The flipside is that those we love and cherish may never really leave us and, in this respect, some ghost stories can end on an uplifting note. This doesn’t make them any less horror, as I don’t believe all horror stories must end with the death of hope.
These thoughts are why ghost stories are my favorite horror subgenre and why I keep going back to it.
To see what I mean, check out my new novel, 2B, available in ebook and paperback on Amazon. “When your ex wants you dead, they will take you to the grave with them!”
I’ve read a ton of how-to-write-fiction books including a number of texts on writing horror, but Tim Waggoner’s Writing in the Dark is the best of them all.
It opens with an intro by Tom Monteleone of Borderlands fame demonstrating why Waggoner is qualified to write the book. He’s a prolific writer of both horror/dark fantasy and media tie-ins. In the preface, Waggoner reveals why he writes horror. We’re of roughly the same age, and his journey in many ways mirrors mine. (It’s great to meet a new member of the Horror Family. Weirdos unite!)
He progresses through chapters such as “Why Horror Matters” and “Things Unknown” and turns a corner with “Everything You Know Is Wrong.” He covers various subgenres of horror, generating unique ideas for stories, and building one-of-a-kind monsters. I especially enjoyed the chapters “The Horror Hero’s Journey” (Poor Bastard’s Descent into Hell) and the importance of including an emotional core relayed through immersive POV.
Every chapter is insightful, helpful, and entertaining. Each ends with exercises to enable eager writers to implement what they’ve just learned as well as three or four “voices from the shadows”—accomplished horror writers—who discuss what makes good horror and best advice for beginning writers.
Waggoner teaches college-level writing, so you’re getting a college course in a book. I love to study, so I consider it a textbook that’s also a tasty morsel of how-to darkness.
My rating is 4.6 stars. The book lost a few tenths because the type is so small. As I read through, I was hoping for a workbook that expanded the exercises. Well, Guide Dog Books/Raw Dog Screaming Press recently announced a companion workbook is coming, so I’m excited about that. I’ll be buying it, too, when it comes out. But I hope the type is a little bigger for those like me over fifty.
I can’t recommend this text highly enough. Whether you’re a beginning, intermediate, or advanced horror writer, you’ll get something useful to take your writing to the next horrific level.