A “Story Engineering” Success Story: One Writer’s Journey Into Craft

An Interview with James Williams

A guest post by Jennifer Blanchard

I’ve been writing fiction since I was a kid. Now, I’m a writing coach by day and a writer by night (and sometimes also a writer by day and a writing coach by night). But I never had anyone else in my family with the same desire as me: to write a novel.

So I was really surprised a few years ago when my father-in-law, Jim, told me he was writing a novel. He had an idea for a story and he ran with it, sitting down right away to get started writing.

As soon as he told me this news, I immediately jumped on Amazon and ordered him a copy of Larry’s book, Story Engineering. (It’s my belief that anyone who wants to write a novel must read this book. I wish it had existed back when I tried writing my first novels.)

In the note I sent with the book, I let Jim know that reading it would shave years off his novel-writing journey.

All I can say is, I was right.

Not only did he use the knowledge in Story Engineering to write a kick-ass story, but he even landed himself a publishing deal.

I’ll let him tell you the rest…

1. When did you write your first novel? (And is it the same novel that’s being published?)

The book [that’s being published] is my first full-length novel, although I wrote a shorter novella just prior to this book. I completed the novella in August of 2012—it took about two months to write.

I began writing my current novel in September of that same year, and it took about five months to write.

I work two jobs, about 70 hours a week, and write in my spare time.

2. Did you have a plan ahead of time or did you just sit down and write the story?

With the novella, I had no plan. I just wrote it like I was telling a story.

Of course, it may have been a good story idea, but it was a lousy book.

3. How did reading Story Engineering change the course of you writing your novel? What actions did you take after reading the book?

I read Story Engineering while I was writing the novella and it changed my whole approach to writing my novel. The elements explained in Story Engineering made a lot of sense to me.

I realized every book or story I had ever read contained all of those elements. I just never knew what they were called or how critical they are to a good book.

I wrote my novel using an outline that included the Hook, the Pinch Points and the Plot Points. I filled everything in around those items and it made it easy to write the book.

4. How much work did you have to put into the post-draft rewrites of the novel in order to make it publishable?

Because I am a novice writer, my first draft was not written particularly well. Of course I didn’t know it at the time, but the first draft lacked detail and emotion; it was robotic.

Over a three-month period, I sent out queries to about 30 agents with no success at all. I received form rejection letters, daily. So I got feedback from some relatives and I knew it wasn’t good enough.

Without changing the critical elements of the outline, I rewrote the book from the beginning, adding more detailed descriptions and trying to give the reader an idea of what the characters were feeling.

You can do that forever, but I wanted to cap the book at around 80,000 words, because everything I read about agents and publishers said a first novel should not be longer than 80,000 words.

5. How did you find your current publisher?

After the first rewrite, I sent out another 20 or so queries. Still, all I heard back was, “sorry.”

At this point everyone who read the book said it was good, but I wasn’t having any luck selling it.

So I changed the query letter and kept plugging along, sending out a handful of letters every week, and every week receiving a handful of rejection letters in my mailbox.

Eventually, the improved query letter began to pay off and I had a couple of publishers ask for a manuscript.

One day, almost a year after sending out the first query, I was feeling pretty low. I felt like I was banging my head against a wall and getting nowhere.

That evening, I opened my e-mail to find a letter from a publisher, complete with an attached contract for my novel.

James Williams’ debut novel will be available in 2015.

The moral of the story: follow Larry’s Story Engineering principles, write a story that’s publishable.

About the Author: Jennifer Blanchard is an author and writing coach who helps emerging novelists take their stories from idea to draft, without fear, distractions or disorganization. Grab a copy of her free eGuide + workbook: Write Better Stories  (there’s a story structure cheat sheet involved).

11 Comments

Filed under Guest Bloggers

11 Responses to A “Story Engineering” Success Story: One Writer’s Journey Into Craft

  1. William Cory

    Great story. Thanks for the encouragement. I would have been interested in the title of the new book so I could look it up!

  2. Robert Jones

    An excellent story and very encouraging. This right here says it all: “It’s my belief that anyone who wants to write a novel must read this book. I wish it had existed back when I tried writing my first novels.” Why? Because nobody is teaching structure like this.

    I’ve worked with a number of writers in my career as a freelance illustrator. And I’ve picked the brains of all of them with the notion of sitting down and writing my own stories one day. At one time, I even managed to fall into a mentor/student relationship with a novelist who taught me a lot. However, he never mentioned structure, or the key plot points. He does use them in his novels, interestingly enough. Looking back, I wondered if he stumbled onto these things at random–though he was anything but a random kind of guy–or if this stuff fell under the decree of some industry secret back when big publishing houses ruled the roost. So unless you managed to find an agent, or editor back in the day who was interested enough in your work to ask for these modifications in your manuscript, most would-be novelists were stumbling in the dark. Structure was sort of amorphous and rambling, like fog drifting along the surface of a lake, try to catch it if you can.

    Thankfully, we are living in a different time these days. And though the numerous changes can seem frustrating to keep up with, we also have more information available to us…provided you know where to begin. Because like any other change in industry, the door opens up for everyone to pour their two-cents worth into the mix, spreading their tarps in hopes of catching some of the falling manna for baking their own bread. Story Engineering is the starting point, a weeding out point, a dock from which those who are truly looking to sail might launch their ship with concrete bearings. In short, SE is a compass for writers who have grown tired of standing at the shoreline with their nets, trying to scoop in the fog of structure and make sense of the intangible.

  3. Laureli

    Great testament and glad to see it! Could we get the title of it?

  4. @William @Laureli James’ book won’t be available til 2015 and we decided not to share the title because he’s working on edits with his publisher right now and thinks they’re gonna be changing the title. When the book is available I will be sure to let Larry know so he can let his readers know too.

  5. @Robert I love your line: “SE is a compass for writers who have grown tired of standing at the shoreline with their nets, trying to scoop in the fog of structure and make sense of the intangible.” … Couldn’t agree more!

  6. MikeR

    The key benefit of @Larry’s books is that they both give you =definitive= information about the story structure that your novel is expected to have (whether you know it or not), and how the dynamics of the book are expected to operate within that structure. These are both things that you “know,” as the happy consumer of the printed word, but that you do not have to be consciously aware of when =reading= a book.

    You do have to be consciously aware of them when =writing= one. “Given that you intend to develop a commercially-viable product, here is what that product needs to look like, and here is how the consumer expects it to operate.” That’s priceless information. (Well, actually, it costs about $30.)

  7. @MikeR When I first read Larry’s book it wasn’t “Story Engineering” yet… it was a PDF eBook called “Story Structure Demystified” and when I read it, it changed everything for me. It upped my game in a big way. And the most important thing I took away was that all stories must have structure (and not just any structure, but a specific kind–that publishers and readers expect). So now I’ve devoted my life to teaching story structure to other writers.

  8. @Williams @Laureli I just got an email from Jim and he said the publisher confirmed the title of his book. The title is: It Tolls For Thee. Be looking for it in 2015!

  9. Pingback: A "Story Engineering" Success Story: One Writer's Journey Into Craft … | wiseengineering.org

  10. Thanks for the article Jennifer. It was encouraging and a nice reminder to keep on writing and pursuing your goal. I’ll be looking to purchase the book when it’s published.

  11. Congrats, James!

    I’m a mostly reformed pantster working to become a dedicated plotter. Story Engineering has been huge for me too. I’m still working to nail each element of story structure but at least I’m no longer flying blind.