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.
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.
Welp (that’s a “well” plus a gulp), I just slapped down the fifty-dollar admission fee, sealing my decision: I’ll be heading back to Seton Hill University to get “F”ed.
I completed SHU’s Writing Popular Fiction master’s program to earn a Master of Arts in genre fiction writing in 2006. DEATH PERCEPTION was my thesis. They’ve since upgraded the program to an MFA, so I applied again and was accepted. I’m going back for the F in January.
The extra 27 credits will center on the teaching of creative writing and writing about popular fiction—something that I want to do more of in the coming years. I also would like to teach at the university level someday.
The program consists of two week-long residencies, one in January and the other in June. If all goes well, I’ll finish the program around this time next year. Since SHU is only forty minutes away, I’ll commute and save some dough.
I attended Seton Hill University’s In Your Write Mind writing conference June 28-30, 2013. It was the third time I presented, this year on “Self-editing for Publication,” which was well-attended.
Matt Dowling of FCTV’s Going LIVE, a variety show focusing on arts and entertainment, was there to interview many of the authors. Here, I share the spotlight with the fabulous Sally Bosco, author of The Werecat Chronicles.
Asylums once used to confine those deemed mentally unfit to linger, forgotten behind trees or urban development, beautiful yet desolate in their decay. Within them festers something far more unnerving than unlit corners or unexplained noises: the case files left to moulder out of sight, out of conscience.
Stephanie M. Wytovich forces your hands upon these crumbling, warped binders and exposes your mind to every taboo misfortune experienced by the outcast, exiled, misbegotten monsters and victims who have walked among us. The poetry contained in Hysteria performs internal body modification on its readers in an unrelenting fashion, employing broad-spectrum brutality treatment that spans the physical to the societal, as noted in Stoker Award winner Michael A. Arnzen’s incisive introduction.
GREENSHIFT is a tale set within the world of AMBASADORA.
Mari’s rare eye color makes her a pariah within Upper Caste society, which is why she prefers plants to people… except David, the former Armadan captain who shuttles scientists around on a refurbished pleasure cruiser.
But someone else is interested in Mari and her distinctive look—an obsessed psychopath who tortures and murders women for pleasure.
When the killer chooses Mari as his next victim, the soldier inside David comes alive, but it is Mari who must fight for her own life and prove she isn’t as fragile as the flowers she nurtures.
Sometimes a battle between good and evil doesn’t look much like the ones they show in movies. The good guys don’t always wear white, and they don’t always walk away with the win.
And sometimes you’re better off with the devil you know.
The last time Preston went down to the crossroads, his best friend died and he nearly lost his brother. But Old Scratch doesn’t take kindly to fools, especially not those who come knocking at his front door. And before all is said and done, he’s going to teach Preston a thing or two about what it really means to sacrifice.
And the winner of the DEATH PERCEPTION giveaway is…
What a release party it was! On Facebook from May 15–31, 2013, I posted special offers and trivia questions for prizes, including DEATH PERCEPTION magnets, signed limited edition postcards, coffee mugs, books, and… a Kindle Paperwhite!
Winner of the Kindle is Meg M. of Michigan. Congratulations, Meg!
I will be sending out prizes this week. A BIG THANK YOU to all who participated and purchased a copy of DEATH PERCEPTION! All trivia contents on the Facebook events page are closed as of May 31, 11:59 pm.
I’ll be reblogging the guest posts hosted at various sites over the past two weeks. Thanks to everyone who hosted me.
I’ve gained about 50 new Twitter followers, and over 100 new followers on my Facebook author page. THANK YOU, everyone, for your growing interest!
You made the release of DEATH PERCEPTION a special and exciting time for me. I hope you enjoy the book. If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear from you personally, or in a review on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, or my book page.
Supernatural Thriller DEATH PERCEPTION Now On Sale!
At long last! DEATH PERCEPTION—my latest novel full of supernatural crime, horror, and grim humor—is now available for Kindle, Nook, and in trade paperback from a variety of sources. (See “Purchase Options” below.)
In celebration, I’m throwing an online release party. Want to win nifty prizes?
*Once your PayPal order is received and payment clears, your file will be sent by email (or paperback posted) to the address that was used to purchase within 48 hours. 7% sales tax is collected for residents of Pennsylvania (6% +1% Allegheny County tax).
About DEATH PERCEPTION
DEATH PERCEPTION is a supernatural crime story corrupt with horror yet preserved by a sprinkling of dark humor like those mini marshmallows in your Lucky Charms.
Nineteen-year-old Kennet Singleton lives with his invalid mother in a personal care facility, but he wants out. He operates the crematory at the local funeral home, where he discovers he can discern the cause of death of those he cremates—by toasting marshmallows over their ashes.
He thinks his ability is no big deal since his customers are already dead. But when his perception differs from what’s on the death certificate, he finds himself in the midst of murderers. To save the residents and avenge the dead, Kennet must bring the killers to justice.
“Dastardly devious, cleverly conceived, and just a whole lot of fun to read, Death Perception is Lee Allen Howard on fire and at his finest. Rife with winsome weirdness, it’s like the mutant stepchild of Carl Hiaasen and Stephen King, mixing a truly unique paranormal coming-of-age story with a quirky cast of offbeat noir characters into a novel that’s simply unforgettable… and hilariously original. A supernatural crime story, blazing with creative intrigue… don’t miss it.”
—Michael Arnzen, author of Play Dead
“Lee Allen Howard’s Death Perception is a red hot union of Gothic crime thriller and grim humor that burns with supernatural tension. Beneath the sickly sweet scent of caramelized sugar lies the wildly entertaining tale of a man who delivers justice to the dead while fanning the fires of the living. Ever hear the expression, ‘laughing in a morgue’? Death Perception feels just like that. Howard has a gift for crafting eccentric characters and clever plots. This is dark fun at its best.”
—Jason Jack Miller, author of The Devil and Preston Black and Hellbender
“Death Perception has officially made me envious of Lee Allen Howard. It sings like a choir of angels, yet weeps like a ghost in winter. Everyone should have this in their collection.”
—Trent Zelazny, author of To Sleep Gently and Butterfly Potion
“Part ghost story and part murder mystery, Howard’s clean prose and spot-on timing make for a compelling read. If you enjoy ghosts, revenge tales and mysteries this book is for you.”
—Jennifer Barnes, Managing Editor of Raw Dog Screaming Press
“Part crime novel, part supernatural thriller, part… funeral pyre ‘n smores (I kid you not), this is Howard at his very best—putting you in the front car of the roller coaster, careening you past memorable characters, jostling you through hairpin plot twists, and trying his darndest to scare the bejesus out of you while managing to satiate the most macabre of sweet tooths. …A really fun read!”
—Mike Mehalek, Writing is Tricky
“Lee Allen Howard has seamlessly joined the characters in this book, and you find yourself hoping that good prevails and that Kennet doesn’t meet the same fate as some of the customers he cremates. I highly recommend this book to anybody who is looking for something a little bit different and offbeat. Lee Allen Howard is definitely going on my favourite author list!”
“Lee Allen Howard’s Death Perception is a novel in the likes of a mellow Stephen King.”
—Bruce J. Blanchard
“This is enjoyable and dark—a real good read.”
—Sandra Scholes, SF Site
“Outstanding! … Death Perception is a brilliant twist of the paranormal. It has everything a reader would desire, suspense, twists and turns galore. I urge you to read this one.”
Over a decade ago, he began writing a column for Hellnotes journal called “Instigation,” which provided not only creative—but darkly creative—writing prompts for writers. He continued this tradition at Gorelets.com and in his Goreletter (totally worth subscribing to). Arnzen has expanded his original collection of prompts and revised, updated, organized, and supplemented it into a terrific resource for creative writers on the dark side.
I recently downloaded INSTIGATION and gave it a spin. I’m so glad I did.
In “Here Comes the Fork: An Introduction,” Arnzen discusses writer’s block and creative desiccation, and how writing prompts can get the imaginative juices seeping again.
One trick to getting started is to sidestep the burden of coming up with ideas or a plot first. That’s what a prompt does — it challenges the writer to respond without having to worry too much about premise or plot. It hands you a deck of cards and maybe even the rules too and encourages you to simply start dealing them out.
Yet for the writer of dark fiction, most writing prompts fall short, providing only inspiration. “Rarely,” he says, “do they push you to do something truly weird, taboo, goofy or unthinkable (ergo, original).” Sure, your plot and writing may follow typical form, but Arnzen believes that “the best genre fiction always marries convention with invention.” And that’s where his envelope-pushing prompts slither in.
Arnzen suggests successful usage in “How to Use This Book,” while advising that, when writing, the best counsel is, “Do whatever works.” This may involve journaling or freewriting.
“365 Sick Scenarios” lists a story starter for every night of the year, with prompts like: “Create a numbered list: ‘Rules for Human Hunting'” and “Clot a wound or make a tourniquet with an unexpected object.”
“Spurs: 31 Turns for the Worst” includes prompts for works in progress—when you need a jab in the flank by your demon rider to “take things in an unexpected direction.” Like “Torment with temperature” (a creative way of saying turn up the heat on your character).
“Resurrections” are prompts that will help bring your story “back from the dead” during revision. This will come in handy for me soon.
“Memoir Mayhem” is a collection of journal prompts to inspire you beyond the realm of dark fiction.
The D.I.Y. section, “The Devil Made You Do It Yourself,” enables you to customize his prompts or come up with your own writing exercises. I particularly like “The Monster Mash” and “Weird Sins.”
All these sections are numbered with a scheme so that you can do a random search to pick a prompt out of the skull cap.
INSTIGATION concludes with a few short articles to help you overcome writer’s block. (Which makes me think of a chopping block. “Stick your neck out and write, or just stick your neck out.” How’s that for inspiration and encouragement? You only have me to blame for this prompt, I’m afraid.)
Arnzen encourages INSTIGATION users to write their own material and drop him a line to get a link to their work posted in his “Instigation Showcase.”
Mike Arnzen is also the creator of “The Refrigerator of the Damned” magnetic poetry kit. Take down your kids’ drawings and post a horrific poem about how they cried. Get your kit at Raw Dog Screaming Press.