I have finished another draft Phantom Hearts, my intimate/epic steampunk-fantasy with a love story twist. This is a project that has a special love-hate place in my heart. I wrote my first draft several years ago while taking it through an excellent writer’s group ten pages at a time. It was my first writer’s group and one of my first (serious) attempts at a marketable novel. I was in love with the idea, characters, world, and plot, but I hadn’t yet found my voice, my style, or my process.

Needless to say I wrote 80,000 words and learned 100,000 things.

Now I’m getting ready to take Phantom Hearts back to the drawing board. Back to square two (or three) from what I had once thought was a finished/polished manuscript. What happened? I stepped away from it to write Allyson Darke (which actually is entering its polish phase) and a couple other projects. Now that I am opening it back up, I struggled with a lot of things that just didn’t seem to set right with me. More importantly, I gave it to a few objective readers and they had a lot of the same sort of feedback. My first reaction was to be depressed, quit writing, and throw the manuscript away.

Thank God for wives who believe in you 😉

I put it away again, this time for a few weeks. I thought long and hard about what the feedback was saying and what I was feeling. I came to several conclusions about the story, and more importantly about me and my writing.

I wanted to share those lessons.

1. Write Something You Would Read

At some point in the first drafts, I started immersing myself into markets. That’s not to say that I was trying to ride the wave of some fad, but I wanted to know what core elements were working, what weren’t, and where my story fit. Unfortunately, I got so carried away with it that I subconsciously changed my story, shoving in more and more elements from disparate sources to make it more “marketable.” I pulled a lot of elements from stories I wouldn’t even read myself!

Bottom line: if you wouldn’t read it, you won’t write it well.

2. Don’t Emulate Your Favorite Authors (sad-face)

When I stared writing Phantom Hearts I was just going by instinct and telling a story I thought I would like to read. About half-way through the draft, I started reading The Daughter of Smoke and Bone and fell in love with it. Without even realizing what I had done, I twisted my story to fit that story — and they were very different at their cores. Smoke and Bone was beautiful, well-written, emotional, and just left me awe-struck. I wanted to write like that. I HAD to write like that.

Except that I don’t write like that. It’s not just because of my lack of experience, but because I am not Laini Taylor. When I tried, I failed.

I’m not saying don’t learn from your favorite authors. I’m just saying don’t be them. Mix and mash with your own sense of style and story.

3. Set a Contract With Your Reader and Stick To It

The last point flows into this one. Everyone who read my manuscript gave feedback that boiled down to “the first half is awesome, the second half is different.” They were right. The first part was action packed, fast, emotional, and kind of terse. The second half (about my Daughter of Smoke and Bone phase) was slower, lovey-er, and (tried to be) richer in wordplay. They didn’t match. They felt like two different books.

It’s been said that a midpoint should be a turning point that twists the story in two. I agree it should alter the goal of the protagonist and up the stakes. However, in those opening pages, you set a contract with your reader. This is what kind of story you can expect.

You have to stick to that contract.

Where I go from now.

I’m back at the drawing board again. Now that I’ve realized I tried to turn my story into a bunch of things its not, I can strip that fat and tone it into an awesome story.

And I’m really excited!

Be true to yourself. I know it’s cheesy.  But its the truth.

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Chris Michaels

Storyteller. Researcher. Coder. Innovator. I seek to push the boundaries of storytelling and education.
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