Reality Check: When Your Writing isn’t Measuring Up to Your Expectations

I was talking on the phone with a writer-friend a few weeks ago, encouraging her as she prepared to submit a manuscript to an agent. She gave me a rundown of what she had left to do – a list of one-more-things that she needed to finish before she could push SEND.

After detailing all her must-do’s, she said, “I know it’s not going to be perfect.”

Something in her tone made me pause and ask her, “Do you hear yourself?”

“What do you mean?”

“You said ‘It’s not going to be perfect.’ But the way you said it, you sounded disappointed in yourself – like somehow, someway, you should be able to make this manuscript perfect.”

There was a moment’s silence, and then she said, “I guess you’re right. I am disappointed in myself.”

And that’s when I said:

“Writing is not the art of perfection.”

I know a lot of talented writers. Award-winning, best-selling authors. You know what? None of them write perfect manuscripts.

I also know myself. I try to up my game with every novel I write. Even so, writing is about getting better – not about being perfect. Writing is challenging enough without setting my sights on some unachievable goal of flawlessness.

As my friend and I talked some more, I tried to help her readjust her expectations for herself. My advice was something like:

“When you’re done with the manuscript, you have to be satisfied that you’ve given it your best – whatever that is right now – and that makes it good.”

My friend had spent months rewriting her novel, utilizing feedback from both other writers and beta-readers. She attended conferences and even paid for critiques. Yes, I had to remind my friend that there was no guarantee that the agent would decide to represent her. But at some point, she had to submit her manuscript, trusting that her effort was enough, and prayerfully leave the results in God’s hands.

How do you avoid unrealistic expectations as a writer — and accept your best efforts, rather than thinking you have to craft a perfect manuscript?

NaNoWriMo Scene Starter!

[So—like you all, I’m writing a book in month with NaNoWriMo! Just to encourage myself, I dragged out this conversation I had with an aspiring author on how to keep going!

If you want the entire Conversation on How to Write a Novel, check out Conversations with a Writing Coach!]


“How is your NaNoWriMo manuscript going?” I set my coffee down at the table where Sally sat waiting for me, drinking coffee and eating a cookie. A light frost tipped the grass outside, the lake frothy along the rocky shoreline.

“I think my brain is shutting down. I’ve written about two thousand words a day, but I am running out of ideas on how to start my scene.” Sally broke off a piece of her monster cookie, the fresh-baked smell enough to make me wish I hadn’t eaten breakfast.

“Have you done your scene preparation?  Figured out Layer One: what kind of scene it is, and the 5 Ws’?”

“Oh, that’s the easy part. And Layer Two isn’t so hard either. Creating Tension is easy once you understand the equation: a Character we care about who has a goal, as well as something to lose who meets obstacles that feel insurmountable so much so that we fear they’ll fail.”

“Right. The equation is: Sympathetic Character + Stakes + Goals + Obstacles + Fear of Failure.”

She broke off another piece of cookie. A M&M dropped onto her napkin. “But finding the first line and getting going that is stumping me. I feel like the words should just come to me, but…I’m staring at the blank page.”

“I understand. Let me teach you my first line/hook technique that is simple and fast to get you going into the scene. This is Layer Three and it’s simply about making the Hook SHARP.

“S stands for STAKES. What does your character have to lose? What can go wrong? You must have this element or there is simply no reason to have this scene, and especially no reason for your reader to stick with the story. In an Action scene, it’s something that could happen. In a ReAction scene, it might be making a bad decision. To find this, ask: What is the worst thing that could happen to your character right now? What does he/she fear?

“H stands for Hero/Heroine Identification. Why should we care about your character? What about your character makes us understand or even sympathize with him? To find that element ask: What do I have in common with my character? What need, or dream, or situation, or fear, or past experience do we share? And what about that can I extrapolate that fits into my story? Giving your character a realistic, sympathetic situation and realistic emotions is the key to creating that connection between your reader and your character.

“A stand for Anchoring, or Storyworld. Use your inner journalist to create place. By the end of the first paragraph, and for sure the first scene, you should have anchored your character into the scene by using the five W’s. Who, What, Where, When and Why? Then, add in the 5 senses. The Facts and Feelings work together to establish place and evoke emotions. The right storyworld can give us a feeling of happiness, or tension, even doom in the scene. Ask: What is the one emotion you’d like to establish in this first sentence, paragraph, scene? Using the five 5’s, what words can you find that conveys this sense of emotion? Use these in the crafting of your first paragraph.

“R reminds us to start your scene: on the Run. Writing craft instructor Dwight Swain in Techniques of the selling writer says that “a good story being in the middle, retrieves the past and continues to the end.” Your scene should start in the middle of the action, as if drawing back the curtain on the scene to find it already in action on the stage. Ask: How can I start my scene with the characters already engaging the problem of the scene?

“P helps us to identify and weave in the Thematic Problem, or the Story Question, in the scene. You will have one story question, or thematic question that drives your book. This question permeates all the decisions your hero and/or heroine make throughout the story. Ask: What thematic question is my character grappling with in this scene? How can you weave in the theme, or some part of it?

“Once you have identified all these pieces, climb into your POV character’s “skin” (or head) and stand at the edge of the stage, looking at all the activity and ask: What am I (as the character) thinking right now? Not what am I thinking about, but what am I thinking?

“Use this sentence to start your character in the scene. You can change it later, but at this moment, you’ll be in your character’s skin and able to go forward in their POV and write the scene. (Because you’ll know the goals, stakes, obstacles and even the thematic problem they’ll struggle with in the scene).

“What if I get the wrong first line?”

“Sally, there’s no wrong first line. But at this point, you’re just trying to get words on the page. Try it – you’ll be surprised at how the words just start to flow out of you once you figure out these elements.”

“I don’t know. I like to let the scene just . . . flow out of me. Organic. Seat of the pants.”

I looked at her cookie as she finished it off. “When you make cookies, you use the same ingredients for almost every kind of cookie. Sugar. Flour. Eggs. Salt. Baking soda. However, have you ever started making cookies and realized you’ve run out of one of the ingredients? Suddenly you have to run to the store, and your baking is stalled.

“The same thing happens when you are creating a scene. First, you assemble your ingredients. If you skip this part, you don’t know what you’re missing and you’ll suddenly be stalled in your creation process. This way, you’re pulling your “scene ingredients” out of the cupboard (your head) before you start mixing it together. You’re still writing the scene “Seat of the Pants” but you’re using specific ingredients to help you build it. And since you’ve assembled them before hand, you can flow without having to stop and figure out what you’re missing.”

“You’ve been eyeing my cookie all morning haven’t you?”

Truth: Success with scene building and maximizing your writing session is about preparation and gathering your ingredients before you begin. 

Dare: Do your prep work before you begin your writing session. An hour of planning will save you and hour of staring at an empty page!

Have a great writing week!

Go! Write Something Brilliant!

Susie May






Conversations Postcard bigLet’s have a conversation about how to be a published author! (only $4.99 on Kindle!)

“I was so excited to see that Conversations with a Writing Coach contains the lessons and writing aids that took me from being an unpublished writer to published with a multi-book contract. Susan’s talent for teaching the craft of writing is phenomenal. The lessons are easy to understand and will help beginning writers understand and develop their characters, plots and settings. And not just beginning writers—the workbook is a great refresher course for me as I begin my 5th book in two years. Patricia Bradley, author of the Logan Point series”


Hey, Maybe It’s Time To Move On…

Rachel HauckWhile everyone is in the throws of NaNoWriMo, some times we have to pause and take stock of where we are in our current WIP. Some of you… it’s time to move on.

“How do I know when it’s time to move on from a story I’ve been working on for so long?”

Great question! I worked on my first book for two years. I tell you, it discouraged me because I wondered how I could ever make any kind of living if writing took so long!

But it was my learning book and at least half of those two years were spent with me editing the book from a complicated, multi-plot story to a straight up romance.

I sent it out and received rejections. It was in the late ‘90s and there weren’t many options, but the doors I knocked on replied, “No thank you.”

By then, I was tired of the book. I didn’t know what else to do with it. It was time to move on.

Another idea came to me while sitting at a high school football game and I got to work on that right away. It was fresh, fun, alive in my heart.

I also changed my strategy. I decided to write a Heartsong Presents. With the first book, I tried for a Bethany House WWII saga. Rightfully, they turned me down.

So for my skill level, maybe a smaller, more focused story – romance – was the answer.

That story became my first published novel! In e-format. Yep, I sold it to an e-publisher.

By now, the Lord had connected me with a published Heartsong author and we collaborated together to create the Lambert series.

So, I was on my way.

The first book slept peacefully in my closet. Later, when I needed parts of a novel for Love Starts With Elle hero, Heath McCord, I pulled from that book.

So, where are you with your novel? Is it your first? Your fifth? Tenth? Are you struggling to keep going? Do you have vision or a passion for the story?

Is it time to move on?

Here’s some guidelines for sticking with a story:

  1. Good feedback from editors, agents or other knowledgeable writers?
  2. Your vision and passion remains high for the story.
  3. You can see clearly how to improve the manuscript.
  4. You’ve not rewritten it so many times – based on feedback – you can see the original heart of the story.
  5. You final in contests or get manuscript requests from editors or agents.


Here’s when you need to move on from a story:

  1. You’ve changed it so many times – based on feedback – you don’t recognize the original vision.
  2. You’re heart and passion for the story couldn’t fill a thimble.
  3. You have no idea how to improve the manuscript. If you have an idea, you’re not sure you want to do it.
  4. It’s been rejected by everyone you’ve submitted to and your mentors are suggesting a new, fresh idea.
  5. Your contest scores indicate you have a long way to go.
  6. You’ve learned much more about the business and know your book will not readily fit into the current market. That’s cool! Move on.

There are stories all over the map about the publication journey. Author Tamera Alexander worked on her first book for four years before it got published. On the other hand, author Jill Eileen Smith had ten or more closet manuscripts gathered up over twenty years.

Charles Martin had 120+ rejections before he sold The Dead Don’t Dance. Susan Warren wrote four or five novels before she sold a novella to Tyndale. When they asked her, “What else do you have?” She pulled out and polished those closet manuscripts.

There’s no end to possibilities. To closed and opened doors.

What is God saying about the book that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere? It’s okay to put it away and start over.

Here’s what I find on a rewrite – when I try to edit what I’ve already written, I tend to stick with that story and accept the weaknesses. But when I start over from scratch, I craft the story with stronger elements. I work through the weaknesses. The story isn’t as fun or flowing as the first draft because I’m actually thinking through and working out the problems.

So often, when trying to rewrite or improve a first novel, or a well-rejected novel, we can’t see what really needs to be changed to make the manuscript sellable.

If that’s where you are, start over. Sometimes we don’t want to start over because we don’t want to wait for publication. But it could be on the first or rewritten-rejected manuscript, we could find ourselves waiting forever.

Only you can determine if it’s time to set a manuscript aside, but if you do, do so with confidence and give your whole heart to your next work!

Happy Writing.



Weekly Spark: I Tried


Short and sweet advice, right?

Try. Just try.

While many of you are fully engaged in NaNoWriMo, I’ve been pondering whether I have any business writing Christian fiction. This is something I admit I’ve done more than once. However, this time was different. It’s not that writing fiction is too hard. It isn’t. I actually enjoy it. I enjoy engaging in the stories in my head, wondering where the characters are going and why.

Nor was it because breaking in as a fiction writer is hard or I’ve had no success. I’ve done well in the Frasier and was a finalist in two others. I’ve worked on my proposals and just need to rework some of my chapters based on the feedback I received at and after AFCW.

Why, then?

Doubt. I doubted I am good enough. I doubted anyone would want to read what I write. And, of course, I doubted that God wants me to write fiction. You see, ghostwriting and freelance writing, as well as editing Christian living, curriculum and even web content come easily for me and I get paid to do them. As I was working on my revisions, one of my main ghostwriting sources called with work. A lot of work. Good paying work.

I thought, maybe that’s what God wants me to do. See how much there is. That looks like provision. That looks like answers.

Only I’m in this huddle group and we were reading this book called, Rooms by James L. Rubart. It is also one of two books I’ve finished and liked. One of my amazing huddlers somehow gets the author to join our huddle to discuss his book. A book smart, English grad, I know all the answers to all the questions. Yes, I saw that twist. I loved the imagery. And, of course, I understood the inference made on the last few pages. Loved it. Nailed it. Asked a bunch of questions and quietly heard a voice – the one in my soul, saying, “Listen to you. You love this.”

I answer the voice in my head, trying to listen to something brilliant asked by my fellow huddler, “I do. But that doesn’t mean I should be doing it.”

“You’re wrong.”


I return to the conversation. Then, James Rubart leaves us with this one piece of advice. I’m sharing it because you need it. You need it when you, like me, doubt the talent – the gift God gave you. He talked about the Matthew 25: 14-30, the parable Jesus told about the talents.

He said (and now I’m paraphrasing), that each of the servants who tried was rewarded. Regardless of how much they made, when they invested in the talents given – when they tried – they were rewarded. Only the one who did nothing with his talents – who buried them – was not.

Good stuff. But wait, here’s the best part.

When the day comes where James stands before Jesus, he would be able to say he tried.

I didn’t see that coming. My English education at a semi-prestigious not quite ivy-covered university back home didn’t prepare me for that.

He tried while I’m thinking of giving up. And, oh yeah, he likes an idea I can’t seem to let go of for a series. He tried. I’m doubting. Then I’m in tears. Good and bad ones (thankfully he was gone now) because I realize his advice was for me. This was God’s Word. This was a lot. This was the answer. Try.

How about you?

Rejected by an agent, a publisher. A one-star review. Someone say you aren’t good enough. Is that someone you? What are you going to say when Jesus asks what you did with your talent?


A Frasier Bronze Medalist and Rattler and Splickety Finalist, Nick Kording writes contemporary and Biblical fiction with a touch of romance, as well as Christian living, Bible studies, and devotionals. Her books and other writing can be found at where she writes about dreaming out loud.