Painting with Disappearing Ink… Or ‘Setting’.

Darkness swirls around, heavy as the great stone slabs of the prison, cold and rough under your feet. Straw cracks as you lean forward, the hair of your neck lifting. You freeze again, slivers of moonlight from the barred window pooling along the blade of your sword like white fire.

You’re not alone.

Can you picture it? Sight, touch, sound. The white space of the blank page painted with words to create an illusion of setting, a set built not on any stage, but in the walls of the reader’s mind.

But as words are necessary to paint it, so they are also necessary to keep it in place. Or else it starts to fade, disappearing in the reader’s mind, even if action and dialogue continues, until the scene seems somehow unrealistic, disembodied voices and actions floating in a void. Which isn’t to say you’ll necessarily lose the reader’s interest. The reader may still be fascinated with your voices and actions, the twists of plot. But what you do lose is the illusion of reality, the suspension of disbelief. And the reader’s connection to the story will start to diminish, their worries and tensions recede, because the stakes seem less real.

The power of the story drains away, almost unnoticed.

So what can you do? It’s actually pretty easy, once you know what to look for it. Dab a few fresh splatters of paint here and there, bolster the walls and floors, turn on the wind machine. Keep your characters firmly anchored on the stage you’ve built, and don’t let them drift into empty space.

Not that there aren’t risks. Because if you spend too much time fixing your stage, having your handyman run around painting walls and plugging in wind machines, the story is going to slow. Pace slackens. Tension diminishes. And you’ve lost the reader again, albeit in a different way.

It’s a balance. So how do you know how much setting work to do and when?

I wish I had a better answer, but I think it’s feel.

You are your story’s first reader, an experienced reader, and—in my experience–your gut should twinge. There are spaces when action slackens, or the background changes, and it just feels natural to touch up the set.

Despite my vague answer, I actually think that this is one of those things that is easy to get right, as long as you’re watching for it. If you put a little care into your story, and make this a box to check in one of your revision passes, I think you should be fine. Which is good, because then you can focus on the action.


With a howl, a beast explodes from the darkness. Claws flash. Pain burns your wrist and the sword spins away, swallowed by darkness. The cold wall smashes into your back, even as your fingers plunge desperately into a furred throat…

Action’s the fun part. So keep your paint fresh and enjoy it….


This image is also old, from the teenage years. I liked to play with light and shadow, and actually wouldn’t mind getting back into it now. I was going to do a new image for the post, but ran out of time, and this one didn’t seem too far removed, so here we are. I’m starting to have more draft posts than appropriate images, so there may be the odd mismatch until I have some more generic paintings worked up to bridge the gaps… As usual, we’ll figure it out…

Oops. Or wonderful distraction.

Um, Oops.

I actually have a post brewing somewhere about not getting distracted by the internet, and keeping the monster (me) in the cage. And what did I do?

Found a wonderful book and blog (Sky Jumpers and Peggy Eddleman)… And links from her blog to other wonderful blogs… And…

Gulp. My Feedly is pretty full!

As I may have mentioned, between the job and the Hooligans, I don’t have a whack of free time. So, I might have to do some blog pruning soon, to balance  shiny and informative blog posts with actually typing stuff in my manuscript, which is growling at me angrily.

Today was another bad day, as I got a panic attack that Yahoo (my personal email provider) would disappear overnight and all my story ideas–which I tend to email myself for convenience–would disappear and I would throw myself off a bridge. So I spent a good two hours compiling, polishing, and saving them to a file on my laptop. Whew.

Good use of my time? I have no idea. 🙂

On a plus note, in the last week, I have done about ten pages of rewriting the manuscript in a tighter POV and… wow. It’s hard to know if something is better or not when you’re so close to it, but I’m pretty sure I feel a new power in the changes I’m making, more potency to the pages. It’s a bit worrying in case I screw this whole thing up, for example from overworking the manuscript, but I’m still pretty excited. I feel like I might have levelled up (oh yes, antiquated arcade game post coming up, he he).

Craft post coming soon!


This image (the devilish baby) was done for this post, which delayed the publishing a bit, but I was hoping for an icon I could use for more random procrastination-related posts, and decided to put a bit more time into it, as it might be reused. The time investment falls somewhere between the snake and the little dragon, and I’m not sure yet whether it was worth it. I’ll see how I feel with the benefit of time, which is usually what happens with my art. I have no objectivity immediately after finishing it, and can better evaluate things a couple of weeks later. And, yes, that’s common for writing too… 🙂

Because I promised dragons…

Here is the little dragon I was working on. I was thinking of doing a few dragon paintings as more regular site icons, with text added, although there is some balance between more polished pieces and the time taken and freshness of the site artwork. Oh well, I’ll figure it out. 🙂

In the meantime, enjoy the image…

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!)