The Pyramid that’s Crushed more Writer Souls than Egyptian Toes

Aside from being an effective paperweight, what does a pyramid have to do with writing a novel?

The answer is both simple and complicated, and not something well communicated to new writers. The pyramid represents the different layers of technique to be learned with writing. They’re not all the same. There’s different types of bricks that need to be heaved up, for different uses. You can be a master at one and a disaster at another.

Before I start explaining, let me give credit where credit is due: this concept was inspired by a couple of lines in the enlightening book ‘Don’t Sabotage Your Submission’ by Chris Roerden. Originally a book written for mystery writers, it won the Agatha Christie award and was later revised for genre writing more broadly.

So now that I’ve given credit, and built up your anticipation to a fever pitch, what is this simple but powerful concept? Ms. Roerden makes the simple but elegant point that there are actually three layers to writing skills, which require different skill sets and resources to address. I would also add that the different layers also involve different amounts of time and effort, making the pyramid an apt metaphor.

This is the simple graphic that represents the pyramid: (FYI, I believe my categories vary slightly from Ms. Roerden’s, but the general concept is the same. Again, feel free to buy her book and compare):

story pyramid

There are books dedicated to the top of the pyramid (how to plot and outline or revise on a very big picture level, such as screenwriting classic Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder), and books on the bottom (how to manage grammar and word choice, the classic being Elements of Style, by Strunk and White), but Ms. Roerden makes the very wise point that most agents and editors reject submissions based on the middle layer, which isn’t nearly as well covered in the forest of writing craft books. I would agree, and that is what makes her book so helpful, especially as it applies to the first chapter, where most agents and editors reject submissions.

But while Ms. Roerden noted this point, and moved on, I think that it’s worth stopping and dwelling on the concept of the writing pyramid for a second.

While I obviously won’t get into the minute detail of each layer (there are full books on each, as noted, which means that that would make a very long post), I thought it might still be helpful to give some broad examples, to help clarify the layers, particularly as they apply to submissions for agents or editors. So here we go:

The Peak of the Pyramid: Story Premise and Structure. The Big Picture.

Does your pitch promise an exciting story, start to finish? Do you have a Raiders of the Arc storyline, with Harrison Ford lighting up the pages? The peak of the pyramid is the quick pitch, the big picture of character and plot, what the back of the book promises. A cranky professor and relic-hunter tries to rescue an old flame and prevent the destruction of the world, by tracking down an ancient artifact while pursued by World War II Nazis. Sounds good to me!

If your original story package isn’t strong, you might have the most smoothly crafted, lyrical writing in the world, and most agents aren’t going to care. Your baby is going to be tossed into the rejection bin (or they’ll hit the auto-reject and delete buttons, to be completely accurate).

I know, ouch, but… isn’t it better to know? And improve?

The Base of the Pyramid: Picking the Right Words.

On the other end of the spectrum, you might have a decent story premise, but if your English is weak, your words misspelled, and you flip between spelling ‘Indy’ and ‘Indie’ every second line, because you didn’t proof read your work… well, that poor editor’s assistant is going to think about how much work it’s going to be to edit your manuscript and…

Delete again. Maybe not as quickly as if you had a dud of a story idea, but you’re still digging yourself out of a hole. My guess is that most editors won’t go the extra mile in this situation. Why not? Mostly because of all the times I’ve heard agents coo about how much they want to discover a fresh new voice, one that grabs them from the first word and doesn’t let go.

You know what’s a major part of voice?

You got it. Word choice. If you can’t do that, those agents aren’t cooing about you.

The Middle of the Pyramid: Scenes, Tension, and Turning the Pages:

Ms. Roerden’s point is well taken. This is where most mid-level writers go wrong, where they get a form reject, and don’t know why, after reading all the books above, pruning their language, and bouncing their work off critique partners. This is where the high-potential writers start to separate themselves, by catching the editor’s attention, building tension, keeping the scene moving. By not letting the editor hit the delete key. Indeed, by making them want to read more.

Easily described. Not so easily accomplished. Trust me, I realize. But knowing what you don’t know is half the battle, for the dedicated and talented out there, who have the potential to succeed, given the chance.

But more specifically, what kind of stuff does this entail?

“Indiana Jones scratched his beard in front of the class, squinting as soft sunlight reflected from burnished wood desktops, slightly warm and bubbled, reminding Indiana of the long  bath he’d had that morning, with scented carmine bubble bath. It was a long drive to the University and the cold wind of the changing season played havoc with his knees. As he’d been soaking, his thoughts had drifted back to his first professor, a grey-bearded man who had once…”

Um, did I lose you? I might have glazed over  myself. I’m working hard at establishing setting, character, a bit of backstory. And I haven’t hooked anybody to keep reading. My great pitch paragraph will only keep an editor reading so long before they conclude that, again, it’s too much work to teach me these intermediate mechanics, and she’s better off not taking the chance.

So what does it all mean?

I don’t mean this post to be depressing, but I think that there’s a couple of important things for a new writer to take from this post, from the pyramid way of looking at things. First, writing is more than one skill set, just like playing soccer is more than just running fast, or golf learning the perfect grip. To be top of the heap, to get published, you have to hit your stride on all three levels of the pyramid. And, to repeat Chris’s point, they require different writing books for each. So don’t focus on one layer to the exclusion of the others.

Another take away, and something I find quite frustrating myself, is the huge variance in time invested for the different levels. The peak of the pyramid doesn’t take much time, relatively, even if it’s a week or month to plot out your book. That’s only a small fraction of the time to finish the scene and sentence level work following. But…

If your story premise and opening suck, no-one will ever read it. No-one. Except your Mom. (PS, Aren’t Mom’s great?)

Uplifting thought, isn’t it?

Cold comfort it may be, but it’s not time wasted. The lower levels of the pyramid are important too, and those skills need to be polished. But still, don’t waste years of your life trying to perfect sentence level issues, when it’s your premise appeal that’s the problem. Not unless you don’t care about commercial success.

That’s not me.

So there you go. Research. Practice. Hit your stride on all levels. Be a master bricklayer, from top to bottom.

Just don’t drop any on your toes. That hurts.


The image here is another quick project. I had originally planned on the feature image being another painting, a little dragon that I’ve been working on the last few weeks, and is nearly done. But then I realized that the dragon had absolutely no relation to the topic, and there was no reason to delay this craft post any longer. But you should be seeing the dragon soon. Because this site definitely WILL have dragons… :)

Sometimes you want to listen to the ancient snake charmer with twenty cobras and an enigmatic smile…

…and sometimes you want to listen to the beardless assistant with a  single sickly-looking snake and lots of bandages on his arms…

I do have a craft post coming (already written, but I was hoping to do a small graphic which has delayed things), but I had an interesting experience today, which ended up being indirectly motivating to my efforts on this site, even though it was somewhat humbling.

The trigger was a critique on my current WIP (‘work in progress’), that was insightful, helpful, and impeccably courteous, but (inevitably for a useful critique) humbling too. It made me realize that my work wasn’t perfect (I know, shocking huh?) and there are areas of technique where I still haven’t reached my full potential.

This had two immediate impacts. First, I revised the timeline on my WIP, adding another six months to its finish date. Oddly, this was depressing, but slightly liberating, as I’d been pushing for a year-end submission, which was looking more and more unlikely, even before this critique. At least now, I know there’s no hope of meeting that deadline So there’s less pressure to grind it out over the holidays. I can enjoy my family time a bit more.

The second impact was that I immediately started researching resources in the area of craft that I wanted to improve on (POV and internalization, as it happens) and I came to an interesting realization. Some of the best material on the topic, giving insight and direction, came not from pros, who were likely too busy writing or publishing themselves, but advanced beginners like me, often a little before their first published book, or just after, running a blog and hitting the same roadblocks and revelations. I found one post that I could have written myself, today, from another author on the same topic.

Which isn’t to say that I didn’t buy a couple of published books on the topic as well. I did, just to keep my facts straight. But I still realized that I could gain a lot from following people like me. Not rank beginners, but not rarified atmosphere pros either. So I deleted one of my publishing blogs on my Feedly (a blog aggregator, for those not familiar) and signed up instead to a couple of blogs written by advanced beginners instead. I’m not following only beginners. And I’m not following only pros. I’m finding some balance in between.

So why is that motivating for this site? Because my first reaction, on realizing I had shortfalls (again, shocking, I know), was to question what value there was to me sharing my knowledge through a blog. Who would come to this site rather than read top-rated publishing how-to books?

And then I realized it was me. People like me. Learning and growing. Trying to knock the wicker basket off the snakes without their wrists getting turned into mincemeat.

People who might be smart enough to listen to the guy with no beard and bandages before stretching out their hand…


(PS, the featured image is new art done for today’s post. At roughly an hour’s work, it’s not that polished by my standards. But it might be useful to have this kind of rough image available for impromptu posts. We’ll see how I like it after some due consideration!)

The Reasons are Legion…

While this isn’t a book review site, I couldn’t help but shout out how much I enjoyed Brandon Sanderson’s Legion, a 19,000 word superhero (ish) story. While my youth was spent reading more fantasy than comics, I still enjoy when they’re well done, as well as a cool idea in any genre, and this qualifies on both. Highly recommended.

The featured image is also from that teenage era, a one-off urge to give homage to that powerful style. I should warn you that my old art stack isn’t infinite, so the site won’t have new art all the time, but there’s still a few pieces left to dust off, so enjoy it while it lasts. :)

I’m grinding into the home stretch on my own edit, a 65,000 word fantasy YA, complete but undergoing some tedious but necessary polishing. Hopefully done soon!

Holidays are coming, have a safe and happy break, and may we all have a rewarding 2014!



The Counterman from Hell (or ‘Writing Craft Books’)

Like many others, visit this site I suspect, what is ed I have had many stops and starts in the development of my writing career. Writing is an intimidating, difficult, and soul-searing thing (but misery loves company, so please, join me!). :) I remember in my first couple of decades, acquiring a couple of writing books, reading them, and ambitiously writing my first novel (sci-fi, if I remember, although I don’t remember a lot about it, and all copies are lost). In any event, it was callously rejected, although thinking back, I may have gotten a personally written note on one of the rejections. For those in the trenches, you know that’s a good thing, to be treasured. But oh well, instead, I was crushed, demoralized, and went another decade before I wrote again.

But this blog post is not about my first manuscript, whatever degree of quality it may or may not have been, or even the process of submitting it, which has evolved a lot since then (hello email). Rather, I want to talk about those first writing books I bought, and an incident that happened a few years later, which stuck with me.

In my late twenties, I lived in an apartment, with a couple of other guys in my masters program (not an MFA) and with limited living space, so I decided to clear out of some of my many books (long before e-readers became popular). So I took two boxes of books to a local second-hand book store, to see if I could earn a few pennies, and feel like I wasn’t tossing something valuable into the garbage.

The store was cramped, musty, and had several crooked towers of books behind the narrow counter. The goateed guy behind the cash took my boxes and said he’d pick out which books they were interested in buying, and for what price. While he did that, I browsed.

When he was done, the counterman called me over and offered me money for roughly a third of the books. He had a question for me too, though. Pulling my two writing manuals out of the stack, he looked at me curiously. “Did they work? Did you publish anything?”

Taken aback, I shook my head. After I mumbled I wasn’t writing much anymore, he nodded knowingly. “I’m not surprised. These sell well, but they don’t do any good.”

Even at the time, I balked at agreeing to that statement, although I didn’t invite an argument by saying anything. I’d only given him only two of the three books I owned on writing. The third one (Writing to Sell, written by Scott Meredith, who agented some of the science fiction Greats in the mid 1900’s), I still thought worth keeping. I still harbored dreams of success, even if many of the counterman’s customers had given up (or maybe just he had?).

In any event, I’ve thought back to his comment frequently over the years, whenever I delve back into my writing craft books, and I think that he drew the wrong conclusion from his observations, as factual as they may have been. So a few years later, I’m going to make a few points that I think are worth considering:

A – Good writing books are like diamonds in a coal bin, rare and surrounded by worthless imitations (and, possibly stretching the anecdote too far, not always easy for someone in the dark to tell apart).

Lots of people have published How-To Writing books. Arguably too many people. The publishing industry may be its own worst enemy here. They will publish any book that makes a profit, but the proliferation of bad, or even mediocre, writing books hurts the quality of their fiction product by making it hard for emerging writers to learn their craft. (PS, I recognize the irony of making that statement, as a yet-unpublished author posting writing tips. Sometimes I make myself laugh).

I was originally planning to say that the best defense is to look at books written by people with evidenced mastery of craft, but I changed my mind, even though I think that these people are worth listening too. The problem is that that test fails for some very legitimate books, at least in my mind. For example, Syd Field, the author of Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, was, as far as I’m aware, at best a midlist screenwriter himself, but he was red hot as a big picture plot thinker and story doctor. He worked in that capacity for Disney for years–and you can’t argue with the success of the Lion King! So I would adjust my advice to say instead that accomplished writer books OR referrals are probably the best screening tool for quality writing advice. As my skills have improved, I’ve found that I like many of the same books that my favorite writer/ bloggers do.

B- Writing is a leveled craft.

Writing has levels of technical difficulty, just like any other study or sport. Stephen King described this as having different tools in the tool box, for different levels of difficulty. I might use another example: my toddler is learning ice skating right now, and one of the first things that they teach young skaters is to stand up straight with their arms out at their sides, so that they can have the pride and achievement of standing unaided on the ice, and help their balance if things start to go wrong (along with a massive sticker-laden Darth Vader helmet for when the child inevitably pitches over).

I don’t know about you, but I don’t see too many NHL players skating around with their arms stretched out like a bird.

My personal experience is that I pick up different things from the same writing book at different times. Even though I might have thought I understood what the author meant the first time, the comment often gains more relevance and resonance as I ‘level up’ in my writing. For example, conflict is a concept hammered home from Day 1 in almost every writing book, but there is a difference in having a murderer invade your home as a premise (story conflict on a very broad level) and having conflict in quiet conversational scenes, with no enemies in sight (usually spiced up through tension created by conflicting goals). The more subtle tension is more difficult and arguably more important to maintain.

C- It takes a long time to master a conscious knowledge of the craft.

I actually believe in the talent of overnight successes. I think Stephanie Meyer (as I understand it, Twilight was her first manuscript, although feel to correct me if I’m wrong) is incredibly talented and a strong writer, for tension, character, and plot twists. There are other first books (as in the writer’s first completed manuscript) that I love. But some of those writers (and in this case, I’m not talking about Ms. Meyer) don’t maintain the same high level of quality.

I believe that some people are instinctually good writers (a strong storytelling ability combined with lots of reading to give an instinctive feel for how stories should go) but, I suspect that not having the same conscious mastery of the craft (ie. relying on instincts instead of analysis) makes it harder to maintain a high and consistent level of quality, simply because there is less understanding of how that high quality product is achieved. It is the same reason why good natural batters can still benefit from a batting coach in the major leagues–even if that coach never achieved the summits of success that their pupils did. Natural talent and good coaching are more powerful together, than either alone.

In summary, a somewhat involved post triggered by a fairly simple comment, but one I think is useful to consider for beginning writers. In my belief, just because one writing book doesn’t make you a published author, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t buy the next one. I think you should. Just try to buy ones that actually help, and aren’t just another piece of dusty coal in the bin.

As an aside, that trip to the bookstore was memorable for another reason. I parked on the busy street outside the store while ducking in, thinking I’d only be there for a minute or two. In other words, I didn’t feed the meter.

The goateed counterman gave me twenty dollars for my books.

The parking ticket was fifty.

Going… Going… Mine!

I was planning on  a writing craft post next, but I couldn’t resist publicly chortling my triumph at winning a Janice Hardy critique in an auction last night, on author Kat Brauer’s worthy Crits for Water fundraising effort. I’m excited; Janice Hardy’s Other Side of the Story is a blog I follow and enjoy considerably, and she’s one smart cookie (unless she hates my book, of course, har har). So a good cause and a great outcome. I suspect I’ll use the critique for my manuscript that is more fully polished and close to submission. The first three chapters are crucial and I’m sure Janice will have a great eye for any flaws that I may have missed. Hopefully minor, but if not, still better to know than not, before it’s sent out into the world!

The icon/ image here is an old one, and admittedly not that appropriate for the post content, sorry. I was hoping to get some new art for my icons (which won’t be original every time, but  hopefully have enough variety to satisfy any desire for eye candy). Hopefully still enjoyable, though, and we’ll try to get some of the art/ content kinks ironed out as we go–and I get some new art off that dusty old art table in my basement.

I’m going to check my email now to see if my congratualatory email has arrived (along with a request for payment, I suspect!) Best,