“Into the Labyrinth” is Remi Black’s story of her passage to publication. She offers it as advice for new writers just beginning their journey.
I have written stories all my life. I enjoy opening the great door into the unknown of story, each step lighting a path that once was only darkness.
Writers pick up bits of string, tie them together, wind them into a great ball, and
then enter the labyrinth of story, hoping to defeat the monster before it eats them.
Several, several years ago, after I had written a few manuscripts, growing as a writer with each one, I penned Dream a Deadly Dream.
I thought Dream/Deadly would be my break-out novel. I said to myself, “Here’s a story with intriguing characters and a twisty plot and a catchy title. This is the book. This is the first book that will be published by the official big publishing houses.”
I sent out the original manuscript with great hopes.
And it bounced back, usually with a “nice” rejection letter attached.
- I call those rejections “nice” because the comments would be things like “great writing” or “I loved this story” or “I really liked the characters” or something else that gave me hope. Yet just like a journey into the labyrinth, reaching the end of the ball of string and finding the two-horned monster waiting, when I reached the end of the rejection letter, my spirits would be crushed.
- What monster waited for me in that last paragraph? The reason for the rejection. The editors’ statements always varied: This book’s not magical enough OR it doesn’t have enough fighting OR it’s not different enough from the other books in our catalog OR it’s not like the other books in our catalog OR it’s not romantic enough OR it’s too romantic for our readers.
Hopes raised only to be crushed. Replies that confused me when I considered what to do next. I was wandering in the black maze without a light.
After a year of this, I decided to shelve Dream a Deadly Dream. “Later,” I told it.
1st Bit of String ~ Keep writing. Writers have more than one story to tell.
While Dream/Deadly was bouncing back and forth, I worked on Sing a Graveyard Song. I muddled through that manuscript, a slow go, trying to increase the “fighting” and add more “magical” and reduce the “romance” while keeping enough of it to satisfy me. And then I would jerk out what I added in because it didn’t really fit the story. I wrote and revised and trashed and re-wrote and wrote again and again revised.
For two solid years.
Early in the writing of Sing/Grave, I realized that the story of Alstera (one of the two protagonists in Dream/Deadly) would require multiple books.
- She started as a side character in Dream/Deadly, but in Sing/Grave she was taking charge. She had morphed from the archetypal ally side-character into a full-blown protagonist.
- A full-blown protagonist has her own issues and conflicts. And Alstera had a compelling backstory.
And I had an idea for another story with her character. Great Scot! I was writing a series!
2nd Bit of String: A single character can give several novels.
Which meant that I would have to back up to write the opening story.
An unexpected monster, but I knew I could handle the story.
3rd Bit of String: Pay attention to what the character and story need.
Somewhere around the midpoint of Sing/Grave, I ran across Robert Heinlein’s 5 Rules of Writing.
- You must write. Okay, I had that one down.
- You must finish what you write. Okay, I still had a lot of stories only started and half-completed manuscripts, but I was beginning to finish more and more manuscripts. Sing/Grave was giving me fits, but I was writing it, I could see the end, I had another story to tell.
- You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order. But the editorial orders (and agents’ comments) that I was getting weren’t really helping the story. And no contract (the key for this Heinlein rules) was in the offing.
- A handful of years after my first encounter with the Rules, I began reading push-back about them, especially on Rule 3. The best explanation and confirmation about this rule that I received, years after I reached my own conclusion, came from Dean Wesley Smith, which you can read here and also here.
So, continuing Heinlein’s Rules~
- You must put the work on the market. Okay, did that.
- You must keep the work on the market until it is sold. Okay, but I ran out of market.
With Rule 3, though, following other people’s advice wasn’t helping Sing/Grave. I needed to finish it. I needed to finish the story that I wanted to tell. Once that was done, I could let others read it for plot holes and character discrepancies and the like.
4th Bit of String: Finish what you start. Without listening to other people’s comments. Those comments can kill your story.
So I followed my bit of string.. I ignored the rejection letter comments and wrote the Sing/Grave in my head.
- I think quite a number of newbie writers fall into this mistake of listening to other people’s comments about their stories.
- Early on, when I wanted to be in a critique group, I couldn’t find one close enough for regular meetings.
- When I actually found an organization within 30 minutes of my residence, the meetings ran late, late, late when my alarm woke me at 5:30 a.m. Nix that opportunity. Jobs pay bills.
- When I found a critique group that wasn’t going to run late, late, late, I thought the people in the group–as unpublished as I was–a little arrogant when they talked about other writers who were published long-term. They nitpicked little things in a paragraph rather than trying to get an overall picture of the story.
- Then it dawned on me that I wanted publication and here I was listening to people who weren’t published. Bam! Out of this new-found critique group I went. I needed professionals who would give advice about craft and process.
5th Bit of String: First Readers only read finished manuscripts.
The best ones take a hard look at the story, which may require additions and revisions, gutting and enhancing. Listen to the best ones.
So I completed Sing/Grave and its revisions and corrections.
Then I turned the completed manuscript over to my First Readers, people who would critique it, not gush over it or criticize it. I evaluated the MS based on their comments, revised and edited again.
And then, finished, I sent it out again, following Heinlein’s Rule 4 and 5. Sing/Grave began its own journey back and forth with its own growing collection of confusing rejections from editors and agents.
While Sing/Grave journeyed and Dream/Deadly haunted me, I launched into Weave a Wizardry Web.
Weave/Web became a massive undertaking. It drove me crazy for a long, long time. Launching into that backstory didn’t flow as easily as I anticipated.
Early in the draft, another character demanded that her story control Weave/Web. Alstera, for whom this book was being written, had to take a secondary role.
I wrote sketch after sketch. Some scenes had six different versions. Yet this demanding book still refused to come together.
6th Bit of String: No matter how hard the book is, never throw anything away. You may need to take a step away from the book in order to get a handle on it.
My step-away from Weave/Web wasn’t my decision. That was Divine God making me step-away so I could see what needed to be done. I wouldn’t have stepped back on my own.
In life, I was confronted with a true minotaur. It frightened me and broke my heart and re-built my view of self and required sacrifices I had never intended to make. While I fought that beast, I stopped writing altogether.
Then, deep in the battle, out of the darkness erupted a story I hadn’t expected. It burst forth, nearly full blow. Not fantasy with mystery but romantic suspense: Quelle surprise! In one-hour increments I took respite from battling that true minotaur. Gradually, over two years, the novel worked toward completion. Once done, I started a second romantic suspense. Those novels helped me survive the labyrinth and its resident minotaur.
Once the battle ended, though, I didn’t grab hold of my writing. Somehow, in those years of the dark passages, I lost my way. Instead of picking up my writing and going full tilt at hopeless windmills, I just tinkered and poured my creative energies into my day job.
Here’s what I think: I tinkered because the greatest monster in the labyrinth—traditional publishing—barred the gate to the treasure I wanted.
My simple dream, publication of my writing—not riches, not fame, just people reading my stories and wanting more of them—that dream would never be fulfilled. What was the point of starting another blind battle against that monster?
7th Bit of String: Pay attention to the world around you. Changes happen without your noticing.
The change that happened for me? The one that helped me defeat the Trads minotaur that trapped my writing in a black maze? Amazon’s Kindle.
The Kindle Reader revolutionized publishing. Individuals—indies could now publish and sell their works. The early writers who did so discovered a public hungry for books that the Traditional Publishers weren’t buying.
I jumped on board the Kindle revolution late. When I started, I focused first on the novels that God gave me to survive the years with that heart-breaking minotaur of love and obligation. In considering the marketing, I decided that I needed a third book to launch with those two. I gave myself three years to publish those—and I made my deadline.
Then came the turn of my Enclave series: Dream/Deadly, which still haunted me, and Sing/Grave, both ready and waiting. Yet before I published either book, I had to finish Weave/Web.
Weave/Web was its own black labyrinth, a deep cavern of winding passages and re-doubling dilemmas and backtracking abysses. More than determination was necessary to make sense of the chaos of all those rewritten sketches. Patience. Clear thinking. No other work lurking in wait. Nothing unexpected ready to pounce. Persistence. Resolve. Creativity. I needed all of those.
8th Bit of String: Never be daunted. Tackle large projects a step at a time.
I organized everything. And launched the writing in late May. It was a mess. It wouldn’t come together. The writing just wasn’t going the way that it needed to.
I defeated a good portion of the problem when another character chimed in, demanding his own part of the story. I had to backtrack over a hundred pages to add him to scenes and develop him properly. Still, the story was more of a slog than a joy.
9th Bit of String: A story will tell you what it needs. Listen to those small Urgings.
The final step that brought everything together, that defeated the beast that blocked the book and brought me back into the daylight was a fourth character who came to me in a dream—a nightmare. Once I had his voice, I had the key to the whole maze of Weave/Web. The story began flowing, a river rushing out of the unlit passages, flushing out all of the ideas that had hidden in the darkness afraid of the monstrous chaos.
Once I finished Weave/Web (the writing, the editing, and the publishing), I returned to the pure joy of Dream/Deadly. I updated the novel to match the events that sprang into Weave/Web, and then I picked up Sing/Grave for its updating.
10th Bit of String: Don’t let the past hang over you.
In the midst of my struggles with Weave/Web, I uprooted my life, left my job, and moved closer to my beloved mountains. As I packed for that major move, I found that ream of old rejection letters.
And I shredded them. It was a cleansing experience.
For writers, for anyone pursuing the dream that’s haunting you, “Never stop.”
Never stop writing. Get to the end. And continue.
Defeat the monsters in the labyrinth.
~ Remi Black