The forest, the trees, and grooming the path

I have been working on my latest manuscript fairly hard over the last two years and been a bit quieter on the posting side, but that hasn’t stopped me from thinking about craft. In fact, I’ve been inundating myself with it as I edit, like a sponge in a soapy sink (yes, I’ve been doing dishes too).

Now that I’m done the manuscript, I’m hoping to put some of those craft thoughts here, although as readers are aware, my life is a bit of a whirlwind these days, with a demanding job, kids, and a desire to actually finish stories on a regular basis.

So back to craft, what do I mean about the forest, the trees, and grooming the path?

There are different skills in writing. It is not a simple craft, although the accomplished make it seem so, and sometimes it is helpful to be reminded that you don’t just need to master one piece of it. Think of yourself as an owner of a nature park in an uncharted area (owner of an idea that you want to write in some cool genre), but at the moment it is just a tangled mess that would require a parachute to visit (like my kids’ rooms. I mean, a vague story idea). No one is going to drive two hours to see your plot of land, much less pay money for it (buy your book).

So where do you start? You have to get a sense of what you want to show your audience. Do you have a vision of a certain hillside shoulder giving a ten-mile view with an amazing pine-scented breeze, or a cool bubbling creek with smooth onyx rocks that people could dip their toes into? Well okay, you have a couple of cool points on your trail that you can work towards, but also require some investment of time (clearing trees to get up the hill, building a neat pine bridge over the stream). These are events along your story and you can sit down with a pencil and paper and map that out somewhat early. Not to say there won’t be unexpected problems in clearing the path or unexpected magical corners of the woods that will call for detours later. But you can plan the length of the trail and how hard you want the climb to be, and even what subtle signage you might plant along the way (manuscript length, genre, and themes).

These are all things that require time and thought, and writers get better at them over time. But what I wanted to touch on today was the grooming of the trail.

I feel like I spent more time grooming the trail on this last manuscript. And this is an interesting decision to make because it is the most laborious and time-consuming of the steps. You can hack your way through the woods with a chainsaw or you can dig out the stumps, set gravel down in spongy spots, and lay smooth cedar boards on top. Cut back roots that could trip the walker and smooth the rail of the bridge to avoid splinters. These things remove the annoyances that could take your nature trail from getting a four or five-star review to a two or three (or one, if that splinter really stung).

But here is the analogy with a book. It takes confidence to want to groom the trail. To read the words aloud, pick the better verb, avoid clunky repetition, and ensure clarity. If you are a beginner at laying trails and you put the path in the wrong spot, or your view overlooks a four-lane highway with smog that burns your hiker’s eyes, no one is going to care anyway. No one will get past the query pitch. It’s tempting to want to do it AFTER you see how people like the trail. But sadly, that isn’t the road to success.

The experienced trail layers worry less about this. They’ve got the five-star ratings, they know how it works, and are sure the effort will pay off.

I put a chapter of my recently completed manuscript on the Online Writer’s Workshop last year. I was thrilled to get an “Editor’s Choice” from Judith Tarr. Definitely made my week. But I found the accompanying review (or at least how I absorbed it) to be very interesting. It boiled down to ‘interesting story, intriguing premise, but make sure you pay attention to word choice and construction’. In other words, I had an interesting beginning to my nature walk, with a cool view and a nice breeze, but I’d left a root that tripped her and some mud splashed her ankle, things that could be cleaned up.

So in this manuscript, including my edited first chapter, I’ve spent more time on this and hopefully improved it.

The path has been swept. The view is revealed. Hopefully, the hikers enjoy.

Mmm, and how does that make you feel?

In the writing journey, one thing that resonates with me and I have tried to get better at is conveying emotion from the character to the reader.

Early on, I assumed that the emotion of the main character should be obvious. Their mother is just killed. Assassins are attacking them. Aren’t the emotions obvious? But one thing that I keep reminding myself is that the answer is ‘no’. Not all people think the same way. And even if they did, a reader is in a somewhat lazy mental state when they’re reading. They’re expecting the author to feed them the emotions of the character. It helps build the connection, the empathy, the basis for which the stakes are built. And stakes are critical for a reader to connect with a book. Without connection, the reader cares less. So emotion has to be communicated, one way or another.

Picture a psychiatrist on couch as you read your chapters, leaning forward after each major action, eyes narrowed curiously. He taps a pencil lightly against a lip.

“And how does that make you feel…?”


I have to admit, the recent weeks of my first manuscript, StoneDragon, has been discouraging.

I haven’t done any marketing, so not saying it’s entirely surprising, but despite a couple of five star reviews and no bad comments, the book is starting to fade out of view, with little take up unless I run a free promotion. And even those, from what I can tell, involve people stacking books in their kindle hundreds deep, for some future free read. I didn’t want to admit it, but that is part of the mental drain recently. Oh well. It is what it is. So now, I’m going to finish off my next re-write, and likely place it alongside StoneDragon (it is a different series, YA fantasy rather than adult) and then consider if I want to spend some time doing animation, picture book, or middle grade for a while.

I have to create; it’s in my my personality, but one thing I’ve noticed with other successful writers is that sometimes switching gears–and content–can hit a pocket of interest that doing the same thing may not. I’m starting to feel a bit healthier, and have a bit more mental energy, and this YA re-write will take at least a few months, but I thought I’d share some of my own ’emotion’. As much as I’d like to be a thick-skinned always-positive soldier of the pen (or keyboard), doing the same thing and expecting something different is also famously described as the keys to the madhouse. 🙂

Visual Story Skeleton

I’m a visual person. I have come to realize that writing for me is not pure words, but comes with images as well and sometimes the better tool for planning my writing is a combination of words and images. I’m thinking specifically of the broad story plot, or the skeleton that we hang all the characters (heart and brain), action (muscles), and description (skin, yucky image) on. Mixing words and images on paper lets me better understand what scenes are low key, which are BOOMING, where things are dark, what flows in the main story river, and what are secondary islands (I really use hand-drawn text and pictures on physical paper, but have substituted some random font changes here to help make the point).

In revisiting my stories recently, I’ve created a visual story skeleton for both new ideas and one completed book and it’s giving me some new confidence in both editing and forging ahead with new ideas. I can FEEL the story better when I see it in this fashion and I can see holes in story arc beter.

I’d show you an example, but why don’t we wait until I’ve published one of the books first, so the skeleton doesn’t contain any spoilers. 😀 So, in other words, if I have some publishing success, I promise to show the related skeleton (assuming I have one and can find it).

Happy Writing! And if we have a zombie apocalypse in the meantime, don’t let those skeletons get you. 😉

Best, Adrian.

A Swipe Clean of the Chalkboard and a New Start

I’m going to start a new novel. Maybe some animation too. I’d like to do a bit more of a mix of art and story on this one, if I can find the time (art is much harder for me to squeeze in that writing, simply due to logistics of needing an art table). But I’d like to make an effort on combining them, even if not in the final product, but rather as a creative spur. But in any event, it’s scary and intriguing to start a new story. So maybe it’s worth trotting out a process mountain again. A writing mountain was one of my very first posts. But now that I think about it, maybe a different mountain would be useful. A mountain of effort to progress down, but with the importance of the first steps being the most important. Inverse effort and outcome. Something like the featured image above.

I’m starting it now, the premise. The idea. I have one. Hopefully it is worth the effort that follows!!!

You need more than a cool idea…

When I was earlier in my writing habits, I used to keep a folder of cool ideas. Because, I figured, a cool idea is critical for future stories. I just had to write something around it, when I finally had the time. But you know the funny thing? It wasn’t easy. I would stare blankly at the cool idea and think, what the hell am I supposed to do with that? The creative machine sometimes wasn’t even sure what the cool idea meant, much less how to work it into a legible story. But then later, as I learned the value of a strong pitch, I realized that it wasn’t that hard to convert the idea (at the TIME of the idea), into a pitch paragraph. And a pitch paragraph was easily handled in later months or years, even if the original light bulb in my head had turned cold and dark. So now, I keep a list of story pitches. They don’t seem that much harder to jot down, if I put my mind to it, at the time of the idea than the idea itself. Admittedly, there is some kind of overlap, in theme at least. But I look at that list of ideas now and am pretty sure that I could spend the rest of my life fleshing out cool ideas and never hit a drought. Which is a reassuring thought for a writer.

So something worth considering. An idea by itself is one thing. An idea wrapped into a story pitch is something larger, more powerful, and more enduring. And I can’t wait to read what you do with it!


The image is another chapter heading image from StoneDragon. I’m nearing the end of the art for that book. But of course, even this close to the end, I want the quality of everything to be high. So I finally caved and signed up for Adobe’s Creative Cloud (CC) instead of using Pixelmator, which does a large number of Photoshop-like things for a tiny fraction of the price. So why switch over? CC lets me turn things into vectors (a line sharp enough to cut yourself). I want things to look uber professional. Anyway, I will now likely spend a few weeks redrawing a few weaker images, cleaning all of them into sharp black and white profiles, and then putting it all together in Vellum. Close to the end now! Can’t wait…