Getting By With a Little Help From My Friends

I completed my first manuscript in six weeks, spurred by the ability to have laser-focus when I have a goal. I think that comes from my half-German side. (My half-Italian side tells me to slow down, take a sip of vino and relax a bit.)

I knew nothing about the craft of writing. Not a thing. But I had an enormous love of reading and felt strongly that I had a story in me that was ready to be told.

Fast forward six years, and that manuscript became my bestselling novel, THE MEMORY OF US. But back then, it was a sorry first draft. I just didn’t realize it.

When I typed THE END, I thought, “I did it! I wrote a book!” Countless rejections later, I realized that I needed help.

Sitting in my house in Texas, exhausted by having just given birth to my fourth child, I had dreams of going to New York – the center of the publishing world – and learning how to make my writing better.

Enter a Google search and a saintly husband, and weeks later, I was on a plane to the Big Apple to a conference called Backspace.

Backspace was ideal for what I as was writing and the access to publishers, agents, and teachers – frankly – made me feel like I’d died and gone to Heaven. That is a whole other blog post.

But I walked away with a bonus that I didn’t expect – new, lifelong friends.

Think Writing is solitary_.png

Eileen, Melissa R., a second Melissa R. and Jeanette were all aspiring writers like myself. Eileen says it perfectly: “Next thing I knew, I was spending the lunch break with women who understood why the compulsion to write can keep you up at night, how finding time to write is always at odds with the day job or car pool, and how it always feels like something’s missing when you’ve gone a few days without touching your manuscript. Little did I know when we exchanged contact info and social media handles, that we would one day be attending each other’s book parties, cheering each other to the finish lines of big writing deadlines, offering up prayers for each other, and exchanging publishing business advice.”

Eileen Palma published first, a wonderful book called WORTH THE WEIGHT. It was a different one than she’d brought to Backspace, but speaking for myself, she set the bar high and motivated me to see my own project through to completion. I learned from her that sticking with the goal will make it happen.

Melissa Roske came to Backspace writing self-described “chic lit”, but was later inspired to write a middle grade book. In her words: “I wrote the first draft of KAT GREENE COMES CLEAN in 2011. It was only 100 pages long, but I knew I had something I could work with, so I did another draft. And another. And another. A billion and twenty-five-thousand drafts later (a slight exaggeration), I started querying agents. Within a year I had representation.”

Melissa’s agency is Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. So when I had serious interest in my manuscript from Jill Marsal at that same company, it was Melissa whom I turned to with questions. She was so encouraging and forthcoming with her advice, and I signed with Jill – who is still my agent – a few days later.

Like me, Melissa Romo writes historical fiction. I was immediately enchanted with her experiences of living in Europe and her fascination with a little-known part of Polish history that definitely made for great storytelling. With much marketing experience under her belt, she chose to publish BLUE-EYED SON independently, hiring an editor on her own and even holding a contest among artists to pick a winning – and gorgeous – cover for her novel. She is currently working on its sequel.

Jeanette Schneider had the most magnificent start to a book about a barista, and I hope that one day she will revisit that story. But she had bigger plans, like saving the world in her spare time, so her writing took a turn toward creating a successful website/movement called Lore and Little Things. She writes compelling and honest pieces about women’s issues and started a popular segment called Love Letters – where women write letters to their younger selves and tell them what they wish they’d known then. Her soon-to-be-released book, LORE: HARNESSING THE PAST TO CREATE THE FUTURE, is a work of non-fiction, and I’m certain it’s going to be huge.

We all took such different paths to publishing, and while I’m certain that they would have all gone and done big things regardless, I know how their friendship through this process (and beyond) continues to be so meaningful to me. Thanks to social media and travel schedules that sometimes put us in the same city, we’ve been able to keep in touch.

This is my way of saying that you must find your tribe. Surround yourself with other authors who will lift you up, teach you something, cry with you in your failures, celebrate with you in your successes. Writing can be such a solitary path, but it doesn’t have to be that way. And I would suggest that it is immeasurably better if you walk it with friends.


unnamed Camille Di Maio recently left and award-winning real estate career to be a full-time writer. She’s been married to her husband Rob for twenty years, and they enjoy raising their four children. She has a bucket list that is never-ending, and uses her adventures to inspire her writing. She loves finding goodies at farmers markets (justifying them by her support for local bakeries) and belts out Broadway tunes whenever the moment strikes. There’s almost nothing she wouldn’t try, so long as it doesn’t involve heights, roller skates, or anything illegal. Her debut novel THE MEMORY OF US became a bestseller, and was followed by BEFORE THE RAIN FALLS. Her third book, THE WAY OF BEAUTY will be released on May 1.

Writing About Guns Without Shooting Yourself in the Foot

triggerTrigger Warning (heh): This post talks about guns and how to write about them. If that makes you squeamish, please go read something else. Thanks.

Good writing requires research. If you’re writing a story that involves open-heart surgery, you’re probably going to do some in-depth reading on the topic so you don’t get critical details wrong. If you’re writing a novel about hackers, you’ll likely want to consult with a computer expert or two to make sure you don’t embarrass yourself.

Unfortunately, too many writers ignore this advice when it comes to writing about firearms. Even well-respected authors tend to rely on what they’ve learned on the topic from movies, television and the news media. And sadly, much (if not most) of that is just plain wrong.

You don’t have to be a gun expert to write about guns. In most cases, you’re actually better off being as non-specific as possible. Getting into a lot of details about models and actions and calibers is a sure-fire way to put most of your readers to sleep. When details matter, though, it’s important to get them right. Failing to do so can turn readers off to your writing.

Whether you’re writing about guns or diamond mining or pigeon racing or square dancing, always remember:

Dave’s First Rule on Writing About Technical Details

When you mess up the technical stuff, not everyone will notice, and not everyone will care. But those who notice will care.

I have a friend who is a respected firearms instructor. He’s a walking, talking encyclopedia of firearms knowledge. A number of years ago, a best-selling author contacted him and said, “I need you to teach me about guns.” My friend spent days and days on the range with the author, teaching him everything from gun basics to marksmanship to defensive tactics.

I recently re-read this writer’s series from the beginning and it was easy to tell the exact point in the narrative where the author got his firearms training. First of all, the author named a character after my friend, so that was kind of a giveaway. Second of all, the author’s knowledge of weapons and tactics went up exponentially at exactly that point. A little knowledge went a long way.

The Language of Guns

Words, like guns, are tools … and we all know what happens when you use the wrong tool for a job. If you refer to a Glock 24 as an “automatic,” talk about inserting a “clip” into a revolver or describe a character “cocking” an AR15, you’ll reveal to your readers that you really don’t know what you’re writing about. This intrudes on the willing suspension of disbelief, and can lead to readers abandoning your narrative.

Major Categories of Guns

If you’re going to write a story that involves guns, you should probably know a few of the basics. The following definitions are adapted from the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

Handgun: A weapon with a short stock designed to be gripped by one hand, which fires a projectile from one or more barrels. (Subcategories include revolver, pistol and derringer.)

Revolver: A handgun featuring a revolving cylinder that typically holds five to ten cartridges, each within a separate chamber. Before a revolver fires, the cylinder rotates, and the next chamber is aligned with the barrel.

Pistol: Any handgun where the barrel and chamber are a single unit. Pistols can be manually operated or semiautomatic. A semiautomatic pistol generally holds cartridges in a magazine located in the grip of the gun. When the semiautomatic pistol is fired, the spent cartridge is ejected, the firing mechanism is reset, and a new cartridge is chambered.

Derringer: A small single- or multiple-shot handgun other than a revolver or semiautomatic pistol.

Rifle: A shoulder-fired weapon that uses the energy of the explosive in a fixed metallic cartridge to fire a single projectile through a rifled bore—one projectile for each pull of the trigger.

Shotgun: A shoulder-fired weapon that uses the energy of the explosive in a fixed shotgun shell to fire through a smooth bore either a number of ball shot or a single projectile for each pull of the trigger.

Note that some people call revolvers “pistols” as well—that distinction is not entirely agreed-upon. For obvious reasons, rifles and shotguns are often referred to as “long guns.”

If you’re writing historical fiction, there’s at least one other type of gun you need to know about:

Musket: A muzzle-loaded long gun that was the precursor to modern-day rifles. While rifles are distinguished by the “rifling” grooves that spin a bullet while it travels down the barrel, muskets generally feature a smooth-bored barrel.

Because of their smooth bore (and because the musket balls are often smaller than the barrels they shoot through) muskets are much less accurate than rifles. It’s said that rifles are aimed, but muskets are pointed. If you’re writing about the American Revolutionary War and you describe Redcoat soldiers “pointing their rifles” at someone, lots of your readers are going to laugh at you. The earliest muskets date back to the 1500s, and muskets were still in common use through the U.S. Civil War and even up to the turn of the last century.

Readers of historical fiction tend to be pretty particular about accuracy, so it’s worth doing some research if you want to sound informed.

Firing Action

Another way to categorize guns is by their “action,” which is a component critical to their design:

Fully automatic: A weapon capable of firing a succession of cartridges while the trigger is depressed, until the ammunition runs out or a malfunction occurs. Automatic weapons are considered “machine guns” and are highly regulated under the National Firearms Act and subsequent U.S. gun laws.

Semiautomatic: A weapon that fires a single shot each time the trigger is depressedA semiautomatic uses the energy of each fired cartridge to cycle the action and advance the next available cartridge into position for firing.

Machine gun: A fully automatic weapon that fires rifle cartridges (as opposed to handgun cartridges). Machine guns are usually designed to be shoulder-fired, and generally feature a barrel 14 inches or longer. Larger machine guns may be fired from a tripod or bipod.

Submachine gun: A simple fully automatic weapon that fires a pistol cartridge instead of a rifle cartridge. “Sub guns” are often short-barreled variants of light machine guns. Smaller submachine guns, called machine pistols, have no shoulder stock and are not designed to be fired from the shoulder.

The distinction between semiautomatic and automatic is an important one. Lots of smart people get this wrong. Plenty of famous authors get this wrong. Consistently.

The important thing to know about automatic weapons is how rare they are. They’ve been highly regulated since 1934, when Congress passed the National Firearms Act. It’s illegal for civilians to own any automatic weapon manufactured after 1986. Pre-1986 guns, when you can find them, are extremely expensive—$15,000 to $30,000 at the low end—and they require an intensive colonoscopy from the BATF to acquire.

Semiautomatic guns are a different story. They’re nothing special. In fact, the vast majority of guns sold in the U.S. are semiautomatic.

Calling a semiautomatic gun an “automatic” demonstrates either profound ignorance or an intent to deceive. Smart authors need to stop doing it.

Misunderstood Concepts

Assault Rifle vs. Assault Weapon

selective-fireAssault rifles, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, are “selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between sub-machine gun and rifle cartridges.” The “selective fire” part is the important part: a true assault rifle has a switch to select between semiautomatic and fully automatic modes. (Some assault rifles include a “three-shot burst” option as well.) This is a very specialized type of firearm, available only to military and law enforcement purchasers, virtually impossible for civilians to acquire. Roughly 99.999 percent of the time, when someone on the news is talking about “assault rifles,” they have no idea what they’re talking about.

barrel-shroudThen we have the “assault weapon.” From a functional perspective, “assault weapons” simply don’t exist. This is a purely political term coined in 1989 by anti-gun politicians who needed to classify an arbitrary group of firearms for the purpose of banning them. On both the state and federal level, “assault weapons” have been defined and redefined in contradictory ways. In many cases, the legislators creating the definitions don’t even understand what they mean. This is humorously illustrated by the famous interview with a politician who, when asked if she knew what a “barrel shroud” was, said it was “the shoulder thing that goes up.” (Spoiler alert: It’s not.)

“Assault weapon” is a completely meaningless term unless you’re writing about the politics of gun control.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the “AR” in AR15 does not stand for “assault rifle.” It stands for “ArmaLite Rifle.” (ArmaLite was the company that originally developed the design.) An AR15 is not an assault rifle (nor is it a high-powered rifle). In truth, it’s a garden-variety semiautomatic that shoots a middling cartridge (.223 or 5.56x45mm NATO) that looks a lot like a military weapon but isn’t.

Magazine vs. Clip

mags-clipsThis is another one lots of writers get wrong.

Clip: A device that makes it easy to insert multiple rounds of ammunition into a gun’s magazine.

Magazine: A device that feeds ammunition into a gun’s action. Some guns have internal magazines, while other magazines are removable. The term is often truncated to mag.

If you’re talking about the rectangular thing filled with ammo that pops into the grip of a handgun, you’re talking about a magazine, not a clip.

Bullets, Shells, Rounds

If you buy ammunition for a rifle or handgun, you’re buying cartridges or rounds. Each cartridge consists of a brass or steel casing (or shell), a bullet or projectile (usually lead, sometimes jacketed in copper), a primer and propellant (also called a charge). Ammunition comes in lots of different sizes, and you have to use the right caliber and cartridge for the gun you’re shooting. Some common handgun cartridges include .45 ACP, .40 S&W, 9mm Parabellum, .380 ACP, .38 Special, and .22 LR (which is also a rifle caliber). Common rifle cartridges include .22 LR, .223, .243 Winchester, .22-250 Remington, .30-30 Winchester, and .30-06 Springfield. There are literally hundreds of different caliber/cartridge combinations.

If you buy ammo for a shotgun, you’re buying shotgun shells, or shotshells. Shotshells are measured in gauge, not caliber. The most common are 12-gauge and 20-gauge. A shotshell is generally a plastic casing with a metallic base, which contains the primer and propellant (or charge). A plastic or felt wad helps keep the powder in place. In front of that is the shot (multiple pellets or BBs) or slug (a single, big-ass bullet). Shotshells are subcategorized by the size of their shot, with birdshot and buckshot being the most common.

Incidentally, ammunition is referred to as rounds because … bullets used to be round.

Other Considerations

Counting Rounds

Don’t tell anyone in Hollywood, but guns don’t come pre-loaded with an unlimited supply of bullets. If you write a gunfight, you need to know the capacity of the gun or its magazine, and then keep track of how many rounds have been fired (and where they went). Does your character carry additional mags or speed-loaders? If not, your character is limited to the ammunition already in the gun.

Most handguns, when they run out of ammunition, don’t go “click, click, click” when the trigger is pulled. Many revolvers do this, but most semiautomatic pistols don’t. In most cases, when a semiautomatic handgun runs out, its slide locks open. Pulling the trigger will do nothing.

Oh, and anyone who’s ever bought a gun knows they’re not cheap. You don’t throw your empty gun at the bad guy when you’re out of ammo. That’s ridiculous.

Manual Safeties

A manual safety is a mechanism built into a gun that, when switched to safe, makes the gun incapable of firing. Some guns have them and some don’t. One guaranteed way to make a lot of your readers roll their eyes is to write about a character unholstering a Glock and clicking off the safety. Glocks don’t have manual safeties. Most revolvers don’t, either.

Most modern handguns (including Glocks) do have multiple integrated passive safety mechanisms to help prevent accidental discharges. These include hammer blocks, firing pin blocks, grip safeties and trigger safeties. This type of safety can’t be switched on or off, so if you mention a character flicking a safety, make sure the gun you’ve put in his or her hands actually has one.

Working the Action

You know the scene where the bad guy appears and the cop racks his slide or pumps the action of his shotgun in dramatic fashion?

Yeah, that’s stupid. Just about anyone legally carrying a gun will have “one in the pipe”—a round already chambered. This is especially the case if the person is a law enforcement officer. Working the action with a round in the chamber just ejects a perfectly good catridge onto the ground.

Hollywood does this all the time because it looks and sounds dramatic. But it’s not realistic.

Guns Are Loud

You know that scene where your protagonist runs into some bad guys, exchanges gunfire, and then hides in a closet or something listening intently for footsteps on the stairs?

That’s bullcrap. Guns are LOUD—especially in enclosed spaces. If your character fires a gun without hearing protection, he or she won’t be hearing anything but a nasty ringing sound for half an hour or so. At the very least, your characters won’t be whispering to each other just moments later, because they won’t be able to hear the whispers.


You know that scene where the hit man shoots his “silenced” gun and there’s a tiny little sound like a mouse fart and the target collapses to the ground? Complete bullcrap.

Earlier this year, a prominent U.S. politician tweeted: “When someone gets shot by a gun with a silencer, it’s quiet. Witnesses might not hear. Police will be less likely to track down the shooter.” This is exactly the type of thing you expect from someone who learned everything they know about guns from Hollywood.

First of all, “Silencer” is the name of a specific product created by Maxim in the early 1900s. The generic term is suppressor. Suppressors are regulated by the National Firearms Act, the same law that controls the sale and distribution of automatic weapons.

Second of all, a suppressor only partially reduces the sound created by the rapid expansion of gasses at the muzzle of a gun. It doesn’t do anything for the telltale crack that occurs when a bullet reaches supersonic speed (1,127 feet per second, at sea level). Most suppressors reduce a gun’s noise output by about 30 dB—just enough to shoot without hearing protection and avoid permanent hearing loss.

If your character fires a big handgun (say, a 1911 chambered in .45 ACP), each shot generates up to 162 dB of noise trauma. Suppressing such a gun can “silence” it to around 132 dB, which is still louder than the noisiest rock concert or NASCAR race. A suppressed .22 rifle could be as quiet as 112 dB, or even a little less if low-powered subsonic ammunition is used. But that’s still roughly the same noise output as a household leafblower.

Any gunshot, suppressed or unsuppressed, is going to be heard by the people in the next room—and probably across the street. Suppressors don’t “silence” anything. They just muffle really really loud noises so they’re only really loud.

Most People Can’t Shoot

Seriously—most people can’t hit the broad side of a barn from 50 paces. And yes, this often includes law enforcement.

Shooting is a skill. It’s one that must be perfected through hours of training and practice. A top competitive shooter can blow through 25,000 or more rounds of ammunition in a year. Military snipers will shoot far fewer rounds, though they make every round count. Also, to be fair, their ammunition is much more expensive.

By comparison, most police officers shoot fewer than 200 rounds per year. Law enforcement qualifying tests are notoriously easy to pass, and most departments allow their officers to retake the tests as often as needed. It’s not hard to find stories of extremely poor shooting by law enforcement personnel. In one notorious case, two NYPD officers fired 16 total rounds to take down a single bad guy … while also managing to wound nine innocent bystanders.

I don’t mean to knock LEOs. Sure, they carry weapons, but their primary role is to investigate crimes, not prevent them. Most departments have very little budget for live fire training. Also, most officers never fire a single shot while on duty, and many don’t do much shooting outside of the qualifying range.

If your character is a firearms noob in a high-pressure situation, he or she probably won’t be pulling off amazing feats of marksmanship—especially at distances beyond a couple of yards.

Even in the hands of a trained shooter, handguns are only accurate for so far. You know that scene where James Bond shoots down a helicopter from a moving boat with a single shot from his Walther PPK? Total baloney.

Kinetic Energy

A person doesn’t get blown back 20 feet when hit by a bullet. This may look dramatic, but it ain’t realistic. A bullet just doesn’t have enough kinetic energy to do something like that.

There are plenty of videos on YouTube showing the effects of bullets on ballistic gel (an analog for human tissue) or animal corpses. I won’t post any links here, but it’s really easy to find that kind of thing, if you need to know more.

Shooting to Disarm or Wound

You know that scene where the cop takes careful aim and shoots the gun out of the hand of the bad guy? Pure nonsense. Likewise, the whole “shoot the bad guy in the leg to wound him” thing is complete hogwash.

Anyone with any law enforcement or self-defense training knows that you don’t “shoot to wound.” You “shoot to stop the threat.” If a situation calls for the use of deadly force, a trained shooter will aim for center mass, or the middle of the torso. Aiming for a person’s gun hand only increases the likelihood that a defender will miss and hit an innocent person. It also increases the chance that the shot will miss, and the defender will end up being hit by return fire.

Character Counts

Much of this goes out the window if you’re writing in the voice of a character who doesn’t know much about guns. In the movie “Stand by Me” (which is based on a fantastic novella by Stephen King), Chris Chambers shows his friends his father’s 1911 service pistol, which he’s brought along on their journey. Gordie asks, “Ya got shells for it?” It’s totally the wrong word, but Gordie is a kid and he probably doesn’t know better.

We don’t expect Gordie to know the difference between a cartridge and a shotshell. But when a soldier or police officer in your story uses incorrect terminology, it sets off warning bells. Similarly, no trained shooter who wants to actually hit his target would hold a handgun “gangsta style,” but a gangbanger (or a wannabe who’s watched Boyz N the Hood too many times) might actually do that.

If your characters are going to display their ignorance of guns, it’s a good idea to cue your reader that the mistakes they make are the characters’ mistakes … and not yours.

John picked up an empty magazine and tested the spring. “How many bullets does the clip hold?”

“It’s a standard thirty-round mag,” Mary said, trying to hide her irritation. “Why?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Just curious, I guess.” He picked up the rifle and fiddled with the charging handle. “Is this how you cock it?”

“John!” Mary yelped, pushing the muzzle aside. “Stop being an idiot and put that thing down!”

What to Do?

Are you feeling overwhelmed yet?

No amount of research can equal the experience of sending rounds downrange. If you’re going to write about guns, you owe it to yourself to actually do some shooting so you know what it feels like. And you don’t have to pay a firearms instructor to for one-on-one time at the range. Practically everybody has a friend who’s part of the “gun culture.” It might be that friend of yours who’s a hunter, your cousin in law enforcement, or a neighbor who’s a competitive shooter. Just approach the person and say: “I really want to get a little experience with guns. If I pay for the ammunition, would you take me shooting?”

From my experience, most gun owners love to take newbies shooting. Make sure you go somewhere safe and always follow the Four Rules of gun safety.

Finally, if your story involves a lot of firearms, invite a knowledgeable shooter to be a beta reader. Ask your reader to pay special attention to the gun-related content in the manuscript. Your story will benefit from having an expert double-checking the details.



Postscript: I like to practice what I preach, so I had my friend (the one mentioned at the top of this post) check my work in advance of publication. He made some great suggestions, which I have incorporated into this piece. He also asked me to be a guest on his weekly radio program. You can listen to the program here. It’s the 1-06-18 show. My segment starts around 00:11:50.

David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, shoots guns, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play is published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at

Writing Shortcuts: Dos and Don’ts

In writing, as in life, there are helpful shortcuts and harmful ones.

Life is busy. We all want to save time, get done faster, be as efficient as possible. But sometimes taking shortcuts can backfire. I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried to carry more than I know is reasonable, just to save a trip (and how’s that for an appropriate metaphor?), only to drop and/or break something along the way.

For my vintage business I often have to drive to unfamiliar places around Salt Lake County. To save time I’ve been known to try finding the address without GPS, because the city was built on a grid system and surely I’m smart enough to find my own way—until I become hopelessly lost and have to pull over to consult Google Maps anyway, after I’ve wasted 15 or 20 minutes to save my own stubborn pride.

In writing, sometimes it’s tempting to cut corners to get the dang thing done. Be there are certain essential steps that cannot be neglected.

Writing Shortcuts Pic.jpg

Bad Shortcut #1: Not Polishing Grammar and Punctuation

This is nonnegotiable. Do not submit a manuscript to an agent or editor unless you have done your absolute best to perfect the grammar. Don’t assume they will give you a pass because your writing is so awesome. It’s an instant turnoff and highly unprofessional. If grammar is not one of your strengths, enlist the help of a critique partner, spouse, or friend with mad grammar skills to do a thorough copy edit.

Bad Shortcut #2: Not Using a Beta Reader/Critique Partner

Even after your manuscript has been stripped of grammatical errors, you will need a few people to read your story to analyze plot, character development—all the mechanics of good writing. You, the author, are too close to the story to be objective. A good critique partner is invaluable, especially one who is both honest and kind. She’ll take note of places where the action drags, or the main character’s motivation is not believable, or the villain suddenly becomes left-handed when he was right-handed for most of the book. This is the big stuff AND small stuff we don’t always catch, and there is just no substitute for having a trusted, fresh pair of eyes (or two or ten) read your story.

Bad Shortcut #3: Not Researching Submission Policies

A form query letter mass emailed to agents and editors is not in your best interest, and will simply waste everybody’s time. Send your queries in small batches, and customize them to agents or editors who 1) represent your genre; 2) are accepting queries; and 3) work for reputable organizations.

Now, I do believe there are certain shortcuts that WILL make writing easier and more productive.

Good Shortcut #1: Place Markers

Sometimes my writing stalls because I need to research a topic or I don’t know to proceed with a particular scene. If you’re drafting and don’t want to slow your momentum, simply type “Insert something brilliant or historically accurate here” and keep going. Just don’t forget to go back and fix it later!

Good Shortcut #2: Using Small Moments

So many days I’ve chosen not to write because I didn’t think I had enough time to do it properly. But lately I’ve been trying to take advantage of free moments here and there, just to fill in scenes that are rattling around in my head. This past week I wrote out short scenes while waiting for food at a restaurant and during half time at a Utah Jazz basketball game. It helps to always have your story playing in the back of your mind. When inspiration strikes, you can pull out your notebook and capture those moments of genius.

Good Shortcut #3: ???

Honestly, I’m having a tough time thinking of a #3! There really aren’t many shortcuts to solid, impactful writing. Work hard. Keep at it. Be willing to learn. Polish, polish, polish. And don’t lose sight of your goals. When you put in the time your results, though never predictable, will no doubt be more rewarding.


Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at


So You Want to Write a Novel?

I recently asked friends on social media what they’d most like to know about writing—the most popular response had to do with writing a book. How do you start? What do you do when you’ve finished?

Since we’re heading into NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), the beginning seems like a very good place to start.

Where do you start?

How do you grow a baby idea into a full-fledged novel? There’s no one right way to start; some people start with plot, others with characters. Today on NPR, I listened to Jennifer Egan explain that she often starts with a setting and works out from there. The method you use may vary from book to book.

Starting with Plot

Some people (also known as pantsers) prefer to discovery write their story–that is, they might start with some idea of how they want the story to end, but they figure out the story as they write.

In this case, not much prior planning is needed, but if you get stuck, I find Mary Robinette Kowall’s method for pantsers helpful. She suggests that when your character attempts to do something, ask: what’s the smartest thing my character can do here? Did it work? The answer to this should follow a yes/but or no/and sequence: Yes, but complications ensued. No, and this aspect of the story got worse.

Most writers (aka plotters) use some form of pre-plotting before they write, though the level of detail varies immensely. When I’m plotting, I like to use Dan Well’s seven-point story structure, which gives me enough structure to hold the story together, but still lets me discovery write between major plot points.

Author Jami Gold offers lots of useful beat sheets on her website–these give you basic plot points to help shape the story (and generally an approximate idea of when in the story you should hit these points). They work for plot driven stories and romances alike. If you’re looking for more details on plotting, Janice Hardy’s Fiction University has great posts on brainstorming, developing the idea, plotting, and all kinds of other craft stuff.

Starting with Character

Although most novels have a whole host of characters who make up the pages, when you’re starting with character, we’re really talking about the protagonist(s) and the supporting characters who help or hinder (or both) the protagonist through the story. In choosing the protagonist, you generally want to consider who has the most interesting story to tell–most often, this is the person with the most at stake in the story, but not always. (EK Johnston’s wonderful Story of Owen features a protagonist who is not the main actor in the story, but the hero’s bard).

If you’re starting with the character, you’ll want to flesh out the character enough that you can figure out what the character wants–because your character’s pursuit of a goal will be the backbone that grounds your story. K.M. Weiland has one of the best series I know on building a story around the character’s arc (their growth and change over the course of the story).

Matt Bard at the Cockeyed Caravan has a series of useful posts on building a compelling character. Janice Hardy at Fiction University is currently running a series of posts on building a novel in 31 days: recent posts addressed creating characters and developing the protagonist. The website Writers Helping Writers also offers a variety of posts to help you flesh out and understand your character. And of course, we’ve got lots of posts on character that you can find through the search bar on your right.

I’ve got a story idea. Now what?

Once your plot and character are in place, you write. It’s both as simple and as hard as that. I find that one of the hardest things is pushing forward while drafting and resisting the urge to go back and edit what’s already been written. Everyone’s process on drafting is different, but I see lots of beginning writers (and some experienced writers) get stuck fine tuning early chapters and never finishing. I’m a strong proponent of pushing through the draft until you’re done, and then making it pretty. A first draft just has to exist to be perfect–that’s really it’s only purpose.

If you’re having trouble breaking down the large scale of the novel into manageable chunks, try thinking about the action in terms of scenes and sequels.

I finished a book, now what?

*Let it sit for a while. Really. Put it away where you can’t see it. (Do NOT on any account send it to an editor or agent at this stage.) A significant part of good writing is good revision, but re-vision can’t happen until you have the distance to see the thing clearly.

While you’re waiting, read something that fills your creative well. Or read some writing craft books. Elaine has an excellent list of TToF contributor’s favorite craft books.

Once you’ve gotten enough distance to see your story, revise what you can. Jenilyn has some useful tips on getting through a revision, and I’ve got specific tips for breaking down your revision in terms of plot and scene. Go revisit your earlier notes on your characters, and make sure they behave consistently through the story.

Once you’ve revised what you can, the story is ready to get outside eyes on it. I often tell my students that we write for ourselves, but we revise for others. (I recommend doing some of your own revision first, because otherwise, you’ll do what I did with an early novel–sent it to readers as soon as I’d finished the first draft, and almost to a person, they told me to fix stuff I already knew was wrong with the story. Fix what you know is wrong, so you can get feedback on the stuff you don’t know).

Almost all writers need readers as they revise–but not just any reader will do. You want someone who can point out the places that the story needs work, but ideally do so in a way that motivates you to keep working, instead of crushing your soul.

Some writers work with alpha readers, people who read the story in progress. I’m part of a regular writing group that meets every two weeks to read each other’s work.

Some writers work with beta readers, or people who read the story once it’s drafted and somewhat polished–these people give holistic feedback on the story, what works and what doesn’t work.

If you don’t already have people in your life who can read creative work and give critical feedback, Melanie has some great suggestions where to find beta readers. Brooke MacIntyre also has a pretty comprehensive list of places to look for such readers (on Jane Friedman’s website–another excellent resource for writers).

I’ve revised and polished my book, now what?

Once you’ve revised (usually multiple times–my book that sold had been through 9 revisions before my agent saw it), then it’s time to consider publication.

The first thing you need to consider is publishing options–do you plan to self publish your work? Publish through a small press? A national press?

I can’t say much about self-publishing, not having done it myself, but there are lots of great resources out there on how to approach it. Indie author Susan Quinn has a ton of posts on getting started.

Many smaller presses will allow you to submit your work to the press directly, without needing an agent. If this is the best route for you (particularly if your work is something that appeals to a niche market), then you’ll want to spend some time researching presses before querying them. Robert Brewer has a helpful post considering the pros and cons of small presses.

For most national publishers, you’ll want a literary agent to represent your work. Some presses won’t look at unagented submissions; and while others do, your book might languish in the slush pile for months. Literary agents can typically get your work seen faster and help you negotiate a better deal for your book, in exchange for (usually) a 15 percent commission. Jane Friedman has a helpful post about how to find an agent (and how to evaluate if you really need one); and in this post I talk about my experience querying agents (with links to finding agents and writing query letters, which have much the same function as cover letters for job hunters–to persuade the reader to take you on; in this case, represent your book).

Once an agent agrees to represent your book to editors, you might do additional revisions, or you might move directly to submissions, where your agent sends your book to editors who might be interested in publishing the book.

If you’re lucky, someone will offer to publish the book! If not, you try again, with another book. If this seems like a daunting process–it can be, but it can also be a lot of fun. I find writing a book feels a lot like gardening some days: I finish the work dirty, sore, but deeply satisfied at having created something new, at bringing order from chaos. (The garden analogy is particularly apt if you’ve seen my garden recently–overgrown with thistles and the zucchini has taken over the world. My garden, like my writing, is a constant work in process).

If you’ve written a book before, what sources have you found most helpful? If you’re new to this, what questions do you have?



Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is now available.


The Art of Dropping Breadcrumbs

By Annette Lyon

Imagine that you’re reading an Agatha Christie novel. In the last chapter, Poirot calls the cops, tells them who committed the murder, and goes on his way, saying that of course everyone knows why Jeremy Jones is the one being carted off to jail.

TTOF - Breadcrumbs

After your confusion clears, you’d probably hurl the book against the wall in frustration. (Unless you were reading on a Kindle, in which case, you’d delete the dang thing with a strong click.)

Every story has mysteries and story questions. One of the biggest jobs a writer has is making sure that as the mysteries are revealed and the questions are answered, the reader isn’t confused to the point of book throwing. Continue reading

Six (Sets of) Questions to Ask as a Beta Reader

If you’ve been writing for very long at all, you know that one of the critical tools in any writer’s arsenal is good readers. Sometimes these readers may come in the form of a critique group (sometimes called alpha readers) who read the story in progress. Often, they come in the form of beta readers–other writers and readers that read the entire novel and give feedback on the overall shape of the story. Personally, I think most writers–especially in the early stages–need both. 
But finding good readers can be tricky, particularly since, if you’ve asked another writer to read your work, there’s an implicit understanding that you’ll read theirs in turn. And being a good reader can be even harder. There are lots of blog posts out there on how to start a story. There aren’t nearly as many posts on how to read a story in order to give feedback. My aim here is to give you six (sets–okay, I’m cheating a little!) of questions to help you as a beta reader.

(If you’re reading this hoping to find directions on how to find a beta reader, may I direct you here instead?)
When you’re reading another author’s manuscript, the most important thing you can do is read as a reader–think about how you respond as a reader and try to articulate that response to the other writer. It goes without saying that your feedback should be honest and kind: someone has trusted you with their precious words, and you need to respect that trust. 
Also, don’t overwhelm the writer by detailing everything that you think needs fixing. Try to focus on a few areas that will make the biggest difference in revision. At this stage, you want to focus on big picture issues (plot, setting, pacing, character, mood and voice) rather than local issues (phrasing, grammar, style), since local issues are often things that might change in revision anyway.
Below, I offer questions you can ask as you read someone else’s manuscript to help pinpoint what suggestions to offer. (Alternately, you can also use these questions to guide beta readers who are new to critiquing. This is especially helpful if, say, you’re asking your roommate or partner to read for you. Though I also recommend branching out to other readers!) 

Questions about Plot:

Where does the story really begin?
Is it clear what the MC wants (consciously or subconsciously)–and is most of the action driven by her choices in pursuit of that?
Is most of the action rising action that escalates the conflict?
Where does rising action seem weak?
Where could readers use a break?
Is the ending satisfying? Why or why not?
The Cockeyed Caravan blog also has a great list of questions about plot.

Questions about Scene and Setting:

Which setting was most memorable—and why?
Does each scene have its own arc (goal-conflict-disaster)?
Does the end of a scene make you want to keep reading?

Questions about Pacing:

Where do you find yourself skimming?
Where do you find yourself wishing the author would slow down?
Where did you stop reading the first time?

Questions about Character:

What character do you enjoy the most—why?
What three words would you use to describe the main character?
Where do characters behave inconsistently?
Do you have trouble distinguishing between any of the characters—and why?
If you had to get rid of a character, who would it be—and why?
Does the main character ever surprise you? When?

Questions about Emotion and Mood:

What scenes made you the most emotional?
What scenes felt emotionally detached?
Does the mood shift in meaningful ways throughout the story?

Questions about Voice:

What three words would you use to describe the voice of this story?
Where is the voice especially distinctive?
Where does the voice seem bland or generic?
Note places where the dialogue bogs down or seems unrealistic.

Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at

By the time you’ve answered these questions, you should have some idea of the strengths of the novel, as well as areas where the writer can improve. As a teacher, I recommend using the sandwich method: start your feedback by praising what the author does well. Then offer suggestions for areas that could be improved. Close by returning to the strengths of the paper. Our goal as beta readers is to encourage the writer to improve their writing–not crush them so completely they refuse to write at all. (And though I’ve practiced this my whole teaching life, I didn’t realize how critical praise as until I got my own edit letter for the first time–the praise was the only thing that saved me, in the face of all the things I needed to work on).

If you’re still looking for more tips on giving feedback, you can check out this post on tips for phrasing your feedback to be most effective and this post on other ways to be awesome at critiquing.

Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is forthcoming March 2017 from Knopf/Random House. She’s represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary.