Breakthrough as a Writer

How to breakthrough as a writer

Always a semi-pro and never a pro.

Well, that’s no good.
And we’re not going to let that happen.
So what to do about it?

Give yourself permission to be yourself.

Not only do I hear this a lot from other writers, but this was huge in my career. I came into writing with a preconceived idea about who I was — not only as a writer, but as a reader, wife, mother, friend, and woman. And these pre-formed identities fit about as well as you’d imagine. They chafed. Itched. Nagged. I was angry under the surface in so many parts of my life that I couldn’t say out loud because it wasn’t safe.

I was afraid to be who I was in my day to day existence.

What made me think I could write with authenticity for all the world to see?
But as I wrote, the stories themselves became a veneer that allowed me to start processing these false identities I’d forced on myself. Themes emerged in my stories. I began to joke that someday I’d put my stories together in a collection called, “Vaginas in Space.” The reality is that through my fiction I was exploring my identity as a woman and what that meant to the relationships around me.
When I finally found the confidence in myself to be the woman I wanted, to start shedding those societal skins of sweet, soft, pretty, nice, normal, my stories began to take a different shape. The narratives became less traditional, the characters more torn, more angry and confrontational. Their struggle came out of hiding too.
From a technique perspective, I’ve told you that active characters who confront their struggles make for more interesting stories, right?
Well, I didn’t consciously do this.
But as I dug into a more honest place in myself, and I wrote a more desperate, honest part of my psyche, my stories innately did just that: stories of women confronting their demons, both internal and external, in desperate struggles for survival. I wrote about heartbreak, loss, deception, the fear of being alone, the hope of something better.

And I wrote my way to a better life.

I was scared as hell every step of the way. But if a story didn’t feel raw and vulnerable in some way, I knew it wasn’t real.

You can’t write like anyone else.

And maybe what you like to read, isn’t what you’re good at writing.

True story:

My first writing instructor was Orson Scott Card. No pressure, right? I was accepted into his audition-only Literary Boot Camp with the first thing I’d ever written. I applied on a whim and couldn’t believe I got into the workshop. And of all things, I was accepted as an alternate.
He made it a point to let everyone know I was an alternate. There were a couple alternates that year who had slipped in at the last minute. We weren’t quite good enough to be there was the subtle message. Or at least, not good enough as the rest of the room.
I busted my ass. All week. I’m competitive. I always have been. And if this science fiction master was going to say I was the alternate, I was going to prove that I was good enough to hold my own at least. So I worked relentlessly on my short story for that week. And I cranked out an 8,000-word story overnight. It was the fluffiest, purplest thing you’ve ever read. It had plot holes galore. One big cliche after another. But hey, it was only the second short story I’d ever written. And I wrote it ONE NIGHT. For a brand spanking new writer, that’s no small feat.
So I show up for the session the next day. We go around the room critiquing, and everyone is praised. This person has undoubtedly penned the next great American sci-fi hit. This person’s story is so amazing they’re going to sell it before we leave the room.
I can practically feel the pat-pat-pat on my little head.
…..I’m charming….
Maybe I can write for Harlequin someday.
Let me caveat this by saying that romance is a 3.8 BILLION dollar a year industry and it would be an honor to write for Harlequin. But at that moment, in that room, writing romance was not given out as a compliment.

But I tried for YEARS to write charmingly. I tried to write romances. Because a multiple Hugo and Nebula winning author told me I WAS A CHARMING ROMANCE WRITER DAMMIT.

Well, to hell with that.
I write horror.
I write literary fiction.
I write dark fantasy.
I write scary shit.
I write about women being anything BUT charming.
And it resonates. Because it’s real. It’s honest. It’s fiction, but it matters.

Finding your niche

You might love to read science fiction, but find your work resonates with mystery readers. You might see yourself as the modern-day Tolkien but your real strength might be in juggling complex relationships between large groups of characters.

The point is that it’s only when you completely drop the expectations you’ve set for yourself can you find the stories that are truly your best.

Never in a million years would I have believed you if you’d told me my writing style would lean literary. I never knew I was good at voice either. But I grew up in the South and I was into the theater for most of my life. So taking on another persona, including an accent, mannerisms, and a backstory, was just part of what I did for one part or another. It came very naturally to me when I was writing to do this for my main characters.

Confession: If I’m interrupted when writing a story with a pretty heavy voice, I quite often speak in that accent/dialect. Call it “method writing” if you want. Hey, it works. And my kids think it’s hysterical.


When you combine emotional honesty with the right niche, that’s when I believe you make the leap from average stories to stories that matter. You’ve just added another layer of meaning and resonance to your story. Just like the creation myths that speak of deities breathing life into clay, when you put yourself into your stories, you breathe life into the characters.

Now, I don’t think you should write “but it happened just like this!” You’re a writer. But there’s an authenticity of experience that happens which is why the great writers so often only become great after they’ve aged a little.

Keep writing. Keep learning.

Over the course of this process, I kept writing. I had a writing partner and we sent each other stories to critique on a regular basis — sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly. But the bottom line was that I was always writing.

And the more I wrote, the better I got.

Writing is a learned skill just like anything else. No one goes off to the Olympics saying, “Yes, Coach, I ran around the house once a few weeks ago. I’m ready for that marathon now.”

Yeah. No.

If you don’t put in the time, you won’t get better. And you MUST finish those stories. Endings are the hardest part of a story. But endings are what leave a reader feeling satisfied. If you never finish your stories, you’re not practicing your endings.

And if you don’t practice, you won’t get any better.

A million half-written stories will never make you any better at endings.

A million half-written stories will never make a single sale.

A million half-written stories will never make you a professional writer.

ONE finished story is not enough.

When I started selling consistently on a professional basis, I had probably twenty or thirty stories out on the market for submission at once. That’s not counting the semi-pro stories I’d already sold.

You must write. And write a LOT. Consistently. And with discipline.


Editing is every bit as hard to learn and to do well as writing. I could even argue it’s a different skill set altogether.

Developing an editorial eye took years in the slushpile reading broken stories. The more bad stories you read, the more quickly you’ll be able to recognize the mistakes in your own stories.

It’s nice to think, oh, once I sell my story, the magazine will edit it for me.

Well, maybe, if they don’t have anything better to do. Or if they don’t have any perfectly polished stories in the slushpile already waiting to be snapped up. Because who would want to buy a story that requires a ton of polishing when the story next to it is gleaming and beautiful?


That’s what happens.

That’s why unedited or poorly edited stories don’t sell.

Actually, that’s not true. I’ve seen them picked up at lower tier publications where the submissions are sparse.

But this isn’t why you’re on this thread. These are not the sales you want. These might be the sales you’re getting. The difference might be in editing.

At FFO, we take the top 15-20 stories from the slushpile and put them in winnowing for a second look. Quite often, a story will be rejected even though the staff agrees it’s a good story, has a lot of potential, could be great, but it would require too much editing.


Now, your turn to hit me with questions. Head on over to the Forum and I’ll answer the best I can.

%d bloggers like this: