Gardeners and architects

I am loving the library this summer. Another free writers’ event today! This one was called Bringing Your Story to Life, presented by local author Aaron Blaylock.

It was sort of a Writing 101 in 120 minutes. Jam packed with well-organized information for two types of writers – gardeners, who plant a seed and help it grow, and architects, who build their novel with a blueprint.

Here are my favorite bits of advice from the session.

On writing:

  • Write, and write often. Daily is best. It doesn’t have to be on your Big Project; you can practice your craft with blog entries, book reviews, short stories, whatever.
  • Learn and live. Do the research and have the experiences so you know what your character is going through.It doesn’t all have to go into the book, but you need to know it so you can write the parts that do go into the book.
  • Write what you love. Consider your audience, but don’t try to match some idea of what will sell. Please yourself first.
  • Work on your hook. The narrative hook grabs the reader, and ideally should be in the first sentence. It absolutely has to be in the first few pages. Start with something that tells the reader something interesting about your main character. You can have a hook at the end of every chapter like Dan Brown does to create the page-turner effect.
  • Characters need to be real and interesting to you. You should know much more about them than what appears in the book. Characters will mostly appear through dialogue; read it out loud to make sure it’s realistic (pay no attention to all those Aaron Sorkin characters on tv). Characters have to have a life beyond what you write. They need to feel real to you.
  • Does this advance the story? In revision, cut it to the bone. Be ruthless, get rid of all the excess fat. But while you’re writing, write. You don’t know what you have till you’ve written it.
  • Theme should appear organically. It’s the view about life and how people behave that comes through your book, but you’ll never actually say it in so many words.
  • Tone is the emotional coloring. Harry Shaw lists three key points about tone: the author’s attitude, the devices used to create mood and atmosphere, and the musical quality of the words.
  • Do what the story requires. If the story calls for a main character to die, kill him. Maybe the stakes need to be raised. Do what it takes.
  • Resolve your plot! If you ask a question, you need to answer it in the resolution. The resolution has to fit the rest of the story in tone and creativity, and solve all parts of the conflict (i.e., the opposite of the ending of Lost on tv). Blaylock calls this sticking the landing.
  • Set goals. Hardly anyone gets to be a full-time writer. Even successful published authors have other jobs, or make their money from other writing-related endeavors. Write when you can. Figure out what you’re willing to give up in order to achieve your goals. For Blaylock, it was sports.

On criticism:

  • Develop a thick skin. If you write, you’ll experience rejection. A lot. Agents and publishers will turn you down, and people at book signings will walk right past you. Art is subjective, and literature is art.
  • Seek and use criticism. Welcome criticism because it will help you improve. Join or start a group. Give your book to people who will give you honest feedback. You don’t have to accept every piece of criticism you receive; some will be untrue and you’ll reject it.

And on selling your book:

  • Get a good edit. Find a trusted, ideally professional, editor to review your book before you start to submit it. A traditional publisher will have a substantive editor who gives you feedback on structure, story, characters, etc., as well as a copy editor, but you need to have your book in the best possible shape before you send it in.
  • Prepare your pitch. You’ll use this even more after you publish. It’s the 30-second, 1-2 sentence bare bones summary of what your book is about. Whether you use a traditional publisher or not, you’ll be promoting your own book online, at book signings, at author events, wherever readers are. Blaylock brought a stack of his books to this event, for example, and sold quite a few!
  • Treat agents with care. It’s a small community, so if you’re a jerk, the word will get around. Find out what they like, what they’re looking for, and what they require. If they reject you, accept it and move on to the next. Research agents, for example on agent, to find the ones that are a good fit for what you write. He follows agent Ann Collette on Twitter (@Ann_Collette); she posts occasional Top 12 lists that show what not to do.
  • Covers matter. People do judge books by their covers. Seek professional help.

Here’s Aaron Blaylock’s site.






Written by Shan
I spent 25 years conducting performance audits of state agencies, looking for ways they could be more effective and efficient. I helped write countless government reports. I worked with the smartest, nicest people in state government, and was honored to be a part of that group. Now, though, I’m writing fiction (yay! adjectives! dialogue!), learning banjo, traveling, hanging out with my fabulous granddaughters, and – big surprise – I’m still not decluttering that back room that was on hold for the past 25 years.