November 18, 2012

Mastering My Onion...Oh, I Mean My Writing

Note: This post is also at Indie-Visible as Building an Onion

Mastering the craft of writing is like building an onion from the middle out. You start with a core idea and layer on skill and practice and knowledge over a number of years. With every layer you cry your eyes out over failures, successes, and sheer exhaustion, until you build it big enough and with a tough enough skin not to stink anymore, all with the hopes that someone will love it. Okay…breathe.

My onion is getting there, at least to a point it resembles what it’s supposed to look like and has managed to attract a few admiring glances its way. But it still needs more layers. An editor told me at an event I attended last week, “You have all the basics down, your writing is solid, the manuscript marketable, just work on deepening some layers.”

So, I’m embarking on revisions with that keyword “LAYERS!” chanting in mind.

The event I attended was “Story Masters”, where I had the pleasure of hearing Christopher Vogler, James Scott Bell and Literary Agent Donald Maass speak over an intense 4 days. One whole day we discussed The Hunger Games, going through each chapter of this popular novel to identify aspects of story structure, plot, and character. We also identified important symbols woven throughout. Symbols are the universal language, from the most fundamental unending circle to a complex tree that reaches its arms to the heavens and roots its feet deep into the earth.

Symbols bridge language barriers, instill within us associations about certain objects, and when used in storytelling, help us connect on a deeper level. Hence, more layers. Take the apple. Not only is it a tasty fruit, but it represents temptation, the end of innocence, and love. Hmm, anyone ever seen the cover of Twilight? The apple also plays a role in The Hunger Games, as do birds and bread and fire. In Harry Potter, Harry’s scar is a symbol. Lightning represents power, battle, and illumination. The mask in Phantom of the Opera is a symbol of the anti-self or alter-ego. I also recall another sort of mask on the cover of Fifty Shades Darker.

Most readers haven’t a clue as to the depth (or lack thereof) of symbolism occurring in the books they read. I usually don’t. But I do know when I become bored or disconnected versus when I’m fully vested in a character and eager to find out what happens next. The stories that hold me captive are the ones that speak to me on a deeper level (uh, layer), and one tool an author can use to connect to his/her readers is through the use of symbols.

When I wrote my first manuscript, I knew nothing of using this tool, though I managed (quite unintentionally) to incorporate some fitting symbols. I think all writers will do this to a point because symbols are a part of everyone’s subconscious. Using them purposefully, however, can really deepen and refine their effects. With my current (third) manuscript, I did write with a more purposeful attitude about symbols, and I believe it helped. Hopefully, once I add a few more layers (and maybe a little honey) my onion will rival an apple.


  1. We need to get everyone together to catch up, and discuss all the things we learned from workshops and conferences! There were rumors of a holiday potluck schmooze, but I never heard anything more about it.

    So glad to hear you made some breakthroughs, and I can't wait to read that book!

  2. You'll make me cry with your layers, I just know it! - Rachel