Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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September 30, 2011

How Writers Learn What They Need To Know

The Guinea Pig Diaries: Novel Edition
by Piper Bayard

I wrote a novel. For five and a half years, I wrote a novel. I didn’t just write it, I rewrote it, rewrote it, and rewrote it again. I ate it, slept it, drank it, and then I found some betareaders, and I rewrote it again.

Now, you would think that, during this time, I would have learned to write a novel. . . . You know. . . . Taken classes, read a few books, talked to some writers. . . . Oh, no! I mean, I was a born novelist, right? I had a technical writing degree already so why would I need to box in my creativity by learning about . . . *gasp* . . . novel structure?

I hope you’re laughing at me right now. I certainly am.

To my credit, I did hire a writing coach to help me with my query letters and my pitch before I went to the 2010 DFW Writers Conference to shop my “masterpiece,” my post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, Seeds, that would be the second coming of The Hunger Games.

That’s where I met Kristen Lamb. Always one to prefer a small group over a large one, I sought out the back patio, where I found her expounding on log lines. My first thought was, “What’s a log line?” . . . Oh, yes. I had pitched to an agent just that morning. *crosses agent off list*

To make a long story short, Kristen adopted me from the Writers Shelter to become her guinea pig. Why she chose me, all shivering and soaking wet with my matted fur pasted across my eyes . . . I’m a sheltie guinea pig–the kind with long hair . . . Well, it’s a mystery to me.

Kristen first used me to test her social media theories. She had to drag me squealing from my nutrilog at the beginning, but with much bweeping and honeytreating, she finally got me blogging. Then, she recruited me to her first online Warrior Writers Boot Camp program. I, in turn, recruited Holmes, and we began a spy novel while I still shopped around Seeds.

After a couple of lukewarm responses from agents . . . How could this be? My baby! . . . I reluctantly decided to show my work to a real editor who had helped bestselling novelists before. I hired Kristen to take a look at my first 100 pages.

When I first talked to her about the job, she said, “Oh. I know what’s wrong with it already from what you’ve said. . . .” I didn’t know how that could possibly be, but I was learning so much through WWBC that I sent it on and waited to hear how brilliant I was and how I just needed to tweak a couple of things. *cracks up laughing* . . . . Right.

To condense a five hour conversation . . . Yes, five hours. . . . I had the Cecile B. DeMille Cast of Thousands Syndrome, and I was missing a little thing commonly known as conflict. And tension? Hey. I’ve worked all my life to eliminate that. Why would I want it in my book?


I was ready to shelve Seeds and move on when I got a nibble from an editor at a publishing house who wants my full manuscript. Great! Just when I don’t have one any more. . . . So Holmes and I put our spy novel on a back burner, and I started from scratch to rewrite Seeds. (Now titled Godfire.)

The great thing about Kristen is that she didn’t just give me her Death Star blast, she backed up her WWBC program with me and started me over with my rewrite. It involved extensive character profiles and an outline that constitutes a first draft with everything but dialogue. . . .

I know all of you pantzers out there are throwing up steel walls at the mere thought of an outline. . . . I feel your pain. . . . But I was actually able to pantz to my delight and get it out of my system to find the real story in all of it.

So why am I telling you this now? I’m happy to say that, after months of adjustments, Kristen passed my draft with praise and only a few suggestions. Now, I'm close to the end of the full manuscript. All 115,000 words of it. Not only that, I no longer hide in my nutrilog when I hear words like “antagonist” and “character arc,” and my hair is clean and dry and lightly fluffed.

So the point of all this? There’s what we know, and what we think we know. What we know is always subject to change, and what we think we know only gets in the way of learning what we need to know.

I thought I knew how to write a book, and for five and a half years, it kept me from learning how to write a book. My eternal thanks to Kristen Lamb for adopting me and smacking me on the head with a rock to knock loose what I thought I knew.

You can check out Kristen Lamb at her blog, where she will teach you the things she’s taught me about writing and social media for authors. She will get even the shyest guinea pig going on a platform.

When has what you think you know kept you from learning? How have you been humbled by it? Have you ever had a mentor who genuinely changed your course in life?

All the best to all of you for finding awesome-dipped-in-glitter mentors.

Piper Bayard–The Pale Writer of the Apocalypse

Piper Bayard was once a happy and normal aspiring writer. She spent her days cleaning guns and belly dancing in between shuttling her children to and from school and crafting stories of spies and sci-fi adventure. But she felt there was more. Then, out of nowhere, White Sands beckoned with shocking visions of mushroom clouds and annihilation. Something called to Piper day and night, whispering, “The end is near.”

Piper left suburban safety and trekked through the New Mexico wilderness in search of that apocalyptic explosion. But, alas, she stood too close. Armed only with a ball cap, sunscreen, and her Maui Jim shades, Piper wandered through the desert for 40 days and 40 nights, wondering, “What the hell am I doing?”

By day, Piper followed mirages, leaving sand angels instead of footprints. By night, her nightmares returned. Mad Max and the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, until one night, the voices finally gave her the answer she sought . . . the key to the identity foreshadowed in her visions of the annihilating blast. “...and there came a Pale Writer....”

The next day townsfolk found her, tube of sunscreen in one hand and a dried rib of saguaro cactus in the other, Piper scribbling madly in the sand. “Who are you?” they asked in wonder. “And why aren’t you sunburned?”

To which Piper replied, “I am the Pale Writer of the Apocalypse.”

0 comments on “How Writers Learn What They Need To Know”

  1. Wonderful Post, Piper - I too learn the hard way - by throwing myself in the pool, and figuring it out after swallowing a LOT of water. I've chastised myself for it for years, until I just accepted that it's my method, and I can't change it. I wrote my first novel the same way you did!

    This way works - IF you're willing to keep your mind open to what you don't know, and be willing to learn. I have a wonderful mentor - not for writing - for life lessons. Because I use The-deep-end-of-the-pool method there, as well.
    I wouldn't recommend it to those watching at home, but it's sure made for some interesting stories!
    Thanks for posting.

    1. Lol. I'm a deep-end-of-the-pool type in life, as well. In fact, I swallowed so much water they thought I'd drowned. Fortunately, it was very cold water. Nothing like material. 🙂

  2. Good post, Piper. I don't think there's any right way to write a novel, as long as you end up with all the key elements. Some write quicker than others, and some writers are constantly tweaking their process. Finding what works for you is the key. My first novel was written COMPLETELY by the seat of my pants and is WAY too long. It's collecting dust. Light and Dark was written from a loose outline and the first fifty pages went through several rewrites as I fleshed out the rest of the book. It's almost ready to query. And my new book, The Prophet, is benefiting from my experiences with the previous two. Anyway, I think writing is a constant journey/learning process.

    1. I love what Allison Brennan said at the recent Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference. The best way to write a novel is the one that gets the novel written. I'm paraphrasing, but that's pretty close. And I may not be an expert author yet, but I do know this from a lifetime in dance. The art is always above us. People who don't know that are fooling themselves.

  3. I've got ...wait, gotta take off my shoes to count (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 6.35...extra toes in there) unsaleable novels or partials that should never EVER see the light of day. I think we all learn the hard way and some get the benefit of a Kristen earlier rather than later to shine a light on the pathway.

    Here's hoping the current fictioning project will be muchly improved.

    1. Thank you, Amy. It's already improved by removing about 68 of my 75 favorite main characters and adding a plot. 🙂 I know it can always be better, though, and if I ever forget that, Kristen reminds me. My meeting Kristen reminds me of a saying from some Eastern religion. "When the student is ready, the teacher appears." I wasn't ready before.

  4. Thanks for sharing. What a great post! I think I'm just a poor listener sometimes. I want to try it my way first. I almost always have to fail at something before I'm willing to listen to someone else tell me how to do it. I'm not sure that's always a bad thing, though, because the lessons seem to stick much better after I've been thoroughly humiliated. 😛

    1. Lol. Isn't that how it is? Will Rogers is known for saying, "A very few folks learn by being told. A few more learn from observations. The rest just have to pee on the electric fence." I don't know if he actually said it, but he's known for saying it. 🙂

  5. Very cool to hear your story. If I had known back in 2007 that learning how to write a novel would be this hard, I wouldn't have tried. I'm a born pessimist and usually I quit before I start. However, I now have too much invested to quit, so you're seeing the result of that. Keep on rockin', Piper. 😀

    1. It's so true. I'm actually glad I didn't meet Kristen sooner, because it was overwhelming enough to realize what I was up against after writing the words, "The End." You're an awesome writer, Catie.

  6. Piper.. this post is great... and very inspirational. Very proud of you! I inherited the procrastination gene from a long line of lazy bastards... needless to say (but I'll say it anyway!) I need to be accountable..

    Loved this post! 😀

    1. I hear you on that accountability score. Kristen and my family help out with that. Also, I find that, now that I have wonderful readers such as yourself, I have developed expectations in the public arena. I would hate to disappoint, so that is a powerful motivator, too. Glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂

  7. Fantastic post. I really appreciate hearing about your hindsight. Other than Kristen's blog, what are some of the best craft books y'all recommend - the ones you WISH you would have read before you started your WIP?

    1. More than anything, I wish I had read more current fiction. I'm a fan of Dumas. I actually read the unabridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo and loved it. Talk about a bad template for modern fiction!

      As Kristen explained to me, and I believe Bob Mayer explained to her, the things we read are like our DNA pool for our own books. If we don't read at all, it shows right away because we write narrow, inbred books. In my case, I was trained as a technical writer, and I read scads of non-fiction. I almost never read fiction. As a result, my first manuscript read like it had been written by a technical writer. Of course, Kristen saw that right away. Now, I read current bestselling authors all the time, and I'm learning so much from them. Trust me. It's reflected in my writing. So I'm not the best person to ask about craft books. I say go out and live. Be and meet the people you write about, and read, read, read.

  8. Piper, I've been blessed by geography to be part of a writing chapter that gets amazing speakers.

    I've seen Christopher Vogler define the Hero's Journey, Stephen Cannell explain 3-Act structure and Blake Snyder explain Save the Cat. Some of that information I'm just now processing many years later but it all goes in and percolates.

    I went to writers conferences long before I was ready to pitch and went to all the workshops. And I learned - about Craft AND enjoying the journey. Kristen Lamb, myWANA peeps and the gals here at WITS have also taught me a tremendous amount and we are all finally in that magic place you're in where there are books to be shopped. It's exciting and scary all at once.

    Thanks for the guest post...i can't wait to see your response to these great comments.

    1. It is exciting and scary. Exciting when we have successes, and scary because we (or at least I) wonder if it was just a fluke.

      Thank you so much for inviting me here today. It's an honor. 🙂

  9. It just goes to show that there really isn't a right way nor a wrong way to 'write a novel'...there's only the way that's right for you. Yes, outlining helps. Yes, beta readers help. Yes, mentors help. But surely the worth of a novel is the journey undertaken to reach its (sometimes bitter!) end? Thanks so much for sharing--all writers love to hear how other writers got where they are.

    1. I think you're onto something there, Martin. We are each on our own journey, and while we can get help from others, the steps we take are our own. Glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂

  10. Excellent post Piper, I am near the end of Kristen Lamb's book, "We are Not Alone," and I noted something familiar in this blog, your very curious and witty bio. As you can see, I remembered this bio of yours! And I too, have been writing my novel for as long, but I've let fears and committments get in the way. A work in progress (it's a journey, right?), I have been involved in numerous workshops, read all sorts of books on craft and method, and discovered, I am Not Alone!

    Best wishes on the road to a swift publication and blooms of dedicated readership.

    1. Lol. Indeed that is my bio. Glad you enjoyed it.

      It is difficult to keep fears and commitments from stopping us. Every day I quote Finding Nemo to myself. "Just keep swimming."

      Thank you for your support. 🙂

  11. Hi, great guest post – and thanks for sharing your story. Inspiring – and a story, too, of hope. I know what you mean with the re-writes! As various people have have commented, writing's a constant learning curve. Always.

    All power to your creative writing pen & good luck with your novel(s).

    Matthew Wright

  12. I'm so happy I have met you, Piper and Jenny otherwise I wouldn't have seen this post and read your story. I think anyone who spends over 5 years dedicated to one project is sure to succeed as they always say 95% perspiration and 5% inspiration...or something like that. You go girl!

    My story is that I started a blog first and I wrote about the travels and life as an expat. Then started working on my first novel about 6 months later. I thought it would be a good idea of have an anonymous blog where I only talked about writing. Then after I was about 35 pages into writing my WIP, I discovered Kristen Lamb's blog. Then everything changed: I stopped my "writer's blog", I read craft books and more fiction books, I joined ROW80 Round 3 and I started writing my novel from scratch after learning all of the sill beginner's mistakes I was making. Now I hope the rest is history and that I'm on the road to...greatness? 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your story. Very inspirational.

    1. It's a pleasure to have met you, too, Nicole. I love your travel blog. You take such great pictures that it would be a shame for you to write about writing, even if you do an awesome job of it. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Thank you.

  13. It's good to hear your story, Piper. I was also that soldier. Having completed two action adventure novels and papered the walls of my guest room with rejection slips, I was half way through number three when my partner called time and sent me for a sanity check. Two great irish writers - John McKenna and Suzanne Power - became my mentors over a three year period of learning. It took about two of those years to find my voice and trust it. I no longer write action adventure but dark thrillers, which was what I really had in mind all along.

  14. Very cool to hear the story of how yours and Kristen's relationship all began. 🙂 Wishing you all the best, Piper! I'm glad you got on the social media train, because you are one of my fav Twitter Peoples!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

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