My rebuilt kitchen bench

Recently I accidentally poured boiling water on my timber bench top. It buckled and warped and bits of timber fell off. I had to take all the pieces off, glue them down again, sand them, putty the gaps and apply several coats of varnish.

At the time it struck me that this whole process was like a metaphor for what I was going through with my current work in progress.

I have written the first draft of my YA psychological thriller, but at the moment it’s just a series of actions on paper – a plot expanded into 60,000 words. It’s telling a story, but it’s not really showing one – it’s not going to draw the reader into the main character’s world – at least, not yet.

I need to pull my manuscript apart and re-glue it so that the plot is stronger and the conflict is more powerful. I need to fill in the missing bits and to polish it till it shines.

If you read my blog post, 2012 – The Year of Possibilities and Learning, you’ll recall that one of my major goals for this year was to learn  – to hone my writing skills. Writing is a lifelong apprenticeship and I don’t believe you ever stop learning. This was confirmed for me at last year’s LA conference when I saw bestselling authors sitting in on the workshops of other bestselling authors.

Molly goat goes camping

In pursuit of my ‘learning goal’, I started 2012 by doing an Active Setting course with Mary Buckham – and it was amazing. Setting has never been one of my strong points. It has always been something I put in my work to help the reader visualise where they were, but thanks to Mary, I realised that setting has to do so much more.

It has to:

  • orient the reader in the story.
  • evoke feelings, images and emotions for the reader. In other words, have sensory detail.
  • show character
  • be part of  the conflict in the story
  • how back story
  • reflect the main character’s point of view
  • show the emotions of the main character in response to conflict and action

I’m feeling so inspired after doing Mary’s course.

With my new understanding of setting, I believe my writing is so much better:)

Scene from Chapter 9 of my WIP


Someone was definitely following me.

After the movies we headed to the Pancake Parlour and ordered our usual short stack and a thick shake.

Next we had a game of chess, another routine instigated by Jess. She  was a whizz at chess, so Steve and I always teamed up against her, but  we still never won. We lived in hope that it might happen one day.


As we walked through the darkened street, the half moon flicked a  Hansel and Gretel path through the trees.

A moth fluttered past my ear.  As I shook my head, the rustle of my hair seemed amplified.  My fear caught between the strands. I stopped and the footfalls behind me stopped too. I resisted the urge to glance around.

“Come on.” Jess pulled me towards the Pancake Parlour and we ran  

As we escaped the cool air, our breath came in dragon bursts, like smoke.
Jess took her usual seat in front of the chess table. Steve and I  
squashed in together on the other side of the wooden booth.

What have you learned recently that’s going to change the way you write?

I’d love you to share with us in the comments section of this post.


Don’t forget, if you’d like feedback on 150 words of your manuscript, send it to me, Dee*at*deescribe*dot*com*dot*au For more information, check out Friday Feedback

Happy writing:)






  1. Mary Buckham is hands down my favourite writing instructor. Glad to hear you got a lot out of your time with her. If I were farther along in my story, I would have done her classes again, this year, just to be in her inspiring company.

    So much depends on how a writer approaches writing. Being neither a plotter nor a writer who writes by the seat of whatever she’s wearing, I pull everything apart as I’m working on the internal logic of the characters and the story, before I start to write. I have a pretty good sense of what’s true and what isn’t as I’m figuring out the ideas. When it’s going in the right direction, there’s a definite sense of excitement. However, I don’t avoid writing down the wrong directions. I tell myself that by writing everything down, good and bad, I get all of it out of my system.

    I don’t anticipate having to pull apart my plot, once my subconscious tells me it’s worked out the narrative and is ready for me to start writing it. I never get to write a “quick, first draft,” because everything concerned with consistency, logic, etc., has to be thought through, first, before any writing can take place. But it also means that when I’m ready to write the narrative, the writing usually flows quickly and requires only minor revisions.

  2. Well, this is going to sound silly, but it’s a scheduling decision. I spent most of this winter so far catching up on art commissions that I’d started before the weather set off my arthritis. I worried myself sick because I was late on them and overexerted when my back was screaming for me to stop, because I’d just moved here to San Francisco. When I hit the wall, as usual I lost weeks of sick days and fell behind on everything.

    So next year I’m going to save up and give myself some slack in the winter months. Try to get everything shipshape before the start of November and treat winter as Writing Season. If I hadn’t been running around to the grocery and other necessary outings, I could have just stayed in, taken it easy physically and done quite a lot of work editing my novels.

    Instead I drove myself into the ground trying to catch up and then eventually starting to catch up. But the first year in a new state is going to be like that no matter where I move, so I’m not too concerned over it.

    Winter in San Francisco is writing time.

  3. Thanks, Tina,

    Funny you should say that about goats in stories. I have just had a story accepted by Icewater…and it’s about a goat:)

    Thanks for your tips on rewriting.

    Hope your rewrites are going well.

    Dee x

  4. Hi Shelley,

    Thanks for sharing the way you work. Mary is amazing, isn’t she? I’m really looking forward to doing her Pacing course this month.

    I really enjoyed the insights you gave us into the way you write. I think there’s a lot of merit in taking more time with the first draft and reducing the number of revisions you have to do later. This is still something I’m working on. I always worry if I don’t get the ideas down quick enough, I’ll forget them:)

    Happy writing:)

    Dee x

  5. Hi Robert,

    Thanks for sharing. What a great plan! I think that’s definitely something we need to do more as writers – make our writing fit in more with our lifestyle and not worry so much about other people’s ‘rules’ like ‘writing daily’ etc.

    I’m sorry to hear you have been so sick, and I hope you will nurture and care for yourself like you do your creative endeavours.

    I love your beautiful artwork and I’m sure people will be prepared to wait for it.

    Enjoy your next winter in San Francisco.

    Happy writing:)


  6. Dee,

    I write everything down in a journal form. I create a folder in my project and open a new page for each day. It’s something I learned from reading an essay by Sue Grafton last year called The Use of the Journal in Writing a Novel. I put down all the ideas I have and if narrative comes to me, I write that on my journal page as well. But because I process the narrative subconsciously (something I’m no longer afraid of saying out loud because I’m in the company of writers like Arthur C. Clarke), I have to wait until my subconscious tells me the narrative is ready to to be written. I know when that is because the first line comes to me in a flash along with all the bones of the piece and usually the last line or something approximating it. When I wrote articles it was easy. Once I had the idea, I simply let my subconscious get on with it while I did other things, until one day it announced the said first line and gestalt of the piece and I was off and running. With a novel, it’s much more difficult because novels are much more complicated than one thousand-word articles! So now I do many of the things Arthur C. Clarke described as his process: notes, characters, descriptions of setting, plus I work on the internal logic of the characters and I look for the entire plot through the characters’ history–past, present and future. xxxs

  7. This sounds fantastic, Shelley,

    I imagine it gets you right inside the heart and world of your novel. Sounds like you get so deeply immersed in the characters and their world, and while you are writing everything down on a conscious level, your subconscious is quietly brewing your novel.

    I can’t wait to read the results:)


  8. Dee,

    It was a relief to stop looking outside of myself after years of trying to squeeze my process into the more traditional way of structuring a novel; i.e., to use plot points to develop the story; or even to “pants” it–which sounds less structured but all it means, in reality, is putting off the imposition of plot points until later.

    I got into a fairly loud disagreement last year with a well-known instructor who advocates the four-act story structure. I was told that everyone processes the story subconsciously, and that the reason I couldn’t make the four-act structure work is because I didn’t understand it properly. And that once I did, I’d be able to write a novel-length story. Luckily, I didn’t buy into the belief that the problem was my lack of understanding the three- or four-act structure. And while everyone does process story subconsciously, obviously, we all do that, not everyone’s subconscious is “quietly brewing the narrative,” as you so beautifully put it. Nonetheless, I kept trying to understand why I couldn’t wrap my brain around the three- or four-act story structure that so many experts seem to be enamoured of, these days. I remember having long conversations with Lia, in which she would try to help me with my understanding of it. But I simply couldn’t make my brain work with it. Trying to creative a narrative by figuring out inciting incidents and plot twists, first, was a square peg, round hole, experience.

    It was only after listening to some interviews by J.K. Rowling last Summer, while I was ill and didn’t have enough energy to read or write, that I realized what I had been doing wrong. After that, everything changed. Since then, there’s almost never a day when I wake up and I’m not inspired to work, even when I’m not sure what part of the story to work on (which is quite often). xxxs

  9. Also, Dee, thank you for this fantastic conversation. While I’m not alone in the way I process writing, I’ve also come to realize that this way of working is not talked about much, if at all. And it isn’t the most common way to write. Which is one reason it took so long to trust myself more than any of the methods in most craft books. That’s also what makes someone like Mary so rare. She really understands writers and helps them with whatever way they process the information. She and I had a long talk about this, when we met in 2010, at a weekend workshop she led in New York. She told me that one day I would figure it out, and that, until then, I had to trust myself, no matter what other people’s beliefs were.

  10. Shelley,

    As far as I’m concerned there are different ‘methods’ that people use to write their stories but no one method is right. Every writer has to do what works for them and be true to the story in their heart.

    I find that the way I write can change from story to story, depending on how it comes to me and what the story is about. I have a friend, Sandy Fussell, who writes the most amazing books and I think she’s an instinctive writer. I think like you she writes from her heart and her subconscious and her plots always seem to work, not because she has carefully planned things, but because that’s how the story has come together organically. And I think if you read a lot, you absorb things about writing without having to actually study the ‘theory’.

    I’m so glad you had Lia and JK Rowling to help you out and that you’re now in a writing zone that works for you…and clearly keeps you inspired.

    Thanks so much for sharing your journey with us.


  11. Shelley,

    I think you’re right. Writing styles that can’t be analysed, put in categories, have rules applied to it, isn’t talked about much, and it needs to be. Trusting in yourself as a writer is hugely important.

    I have just started Mary’s Pacing course and I know it’s going to be as fabulous as the Active Setting one I did with her. She is absolutely right about trusting yourself.

    At the moment, the YA I’m working on breaks all the rules, but it’s the way I want to write it and I think it’s stronger writing because of it.

    Wishing you all the best with your novel and I hope you will continue to share your journey:)


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