Posted On October 8, 2012 by Print This Post

Crippled by Craft. (or Story, story, story) by Barbara DeLeo

Good morning! We’re pleased to start the week off with author Barbara DeLeo. Welcome, Barbara!

I’d never thought myself a slow learner until entering my seventh year as an unpublished author. I mean, I’d graduated high school and college, received some degrees and diplomas, I could even program the DVR to work, most of the time.

So, what was I getting so terribly wrong? Why was I able to finish six manuscripts, win competitions, even get to the revision stage with editors, but never be asked to sign on the golden dotted line?

Well, although I obviously didn’t know it then, I’ve been pondering some possible answers since my first book, Contract for Marriage, came out this month, and I’ve formed a little theory.

I think I was crippled by craft.

My undergraduate degree was in English literature and much of my time as a student twenty years ago was spent analyzing novels. I wrote essays on conflict and theme and conventions of the period; I could discuss symbolism and imagery, and often I’d compare techniques between books, or between authors. So, when I sat down to write a romance novel I focused on what I knew. Of course I’d always loved reading romances, but instead of focusing on what it was about the story that I loved, I began feverishly learning about elements of craft.

I took courses on conflict, did practice exercises on writing dialogue, I could see a clunky point of view change from a hundred paces. And all of this took time. With each manuscript I’d feel as though I was mastering a different aspect of craft but the minute I’d have a handle on one thing, some new tip would pop up and off I’d go with that.

And what suffered? My story.

This quite possibly seems so simple to you. So logical that it’s laughable. But I really believe that in my quest to “write right”, I lost focus on the organic beast that was the story at the heart of my book.

“And where do I find this elusive organic story beast,” I hear you ask? “I’ve been hunting it for a few years and it keeps dodging behind trees for me too,” you say. What should you do?

Well firstly, I’m definitely not suggesting you throw your craft books out, or cancel your subscription to some of the brilliant courses there are out there. Craft IS important, but it’s worthless in a story vacuum.

There are probably a hundred ways to approach finding your story, but I’ll tell you what works for me. I get a comfy pillow, lie back and close my eyes, and try and “see” my story in my head before I put fingers to the keyboard.

I imagine that my brain’s a movie screen, my eyes the projector, and instead of being the director (as I have been over and over again) I’m merely the viewer. Popcorn tub in hand, I wait for the story to play itself out in my head.

It’s often slow at first. The characters might be hazy, the setting generic, but when I practice this at the beginning of each writing session I usually start to “see” my story take shape. I might only spend five minutes or ten doing this, but I find it helps me hang onto the heart of the story, and when I lose my way, I’ll go back to that movie theater and either watch the next installment, or rewind and start again.

Dialogue, too, keeps me rooted in the story. I’ll often only allow myself to write dialogue in a scene. No tags or narrative, just dialogue between characters, and it’s amazing how elements like internal conflict and back story reveal themselves in the most natural ways. Once the dialogue has been written and the heart of the story has shown a little more of itself to me, then I’ll go back and think about point of view and emotion and sexual tension. And the funny thing is, the more I focus on the story, the more confident I become in my craft.

I’d love to hear if you think you might have the same issue as me, or whether you recognized it and addressed it. If you haven’t had this experience I’d love to know how you hunt down your story beast!


RU Authors – are you craft book addicts? Have you scheduled so many craft classes you don’t have time to write? What’s the secret to finding your story?

Join us on Wednesday for another terrific post from Sara Megibow!



Barbara DeLeo’s first book, co-written with her best friend, was a story about beauty queens in space. She was eleven, and the sole, handwritten copy was lost years ago, much to everyone’s relief. It’s some small miracle that she kept the faith and is now living her dream of writing sparkling contemporary romance with unforgettable characters.

After completing degrees in Psychology and English then travelling the world, Barbara married her winemaker hero and had two sets of twins.

She still loves telling stories about finding love in all the wrong places, with not a beauty queen or spaceship in sight.

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40 Responses to “Crippled by Craft. (or Story, story, story) by Barbara DeLeo”

  1. Hi Barbara,
    Thanks for your post. I am feeling a bit crippled at present. I wrote my first novel feverishly, not really caring about POV, dialogue tags, other amateurish errors. It was fun. Novel #2 has been a challenge – I’ve done a few writing courses so I constantly have an inner critique in the back of my head as I write. Thanks for sharing your experiences,

    Posted by Alison | October 8, 2012, 4:20 am
    • I know “exactly” how you’re feeling, Alison, and I know it’s not pleasant! The great thing is that you’ve recognised it’s happening and can perhaps start looking at strategies that “allow” you to get that freedom feeling back again. I know it’ll come, and when it does you’ll be off and racing again.

      Posted by Barbara DeLeo | October 8, 2012, 8:14 am
  2. Sadly…my main comment is TWO SETS OF TWINS?! How are you still (relatively) sane??? I’ve got one set (18 m/o) and they’re driving me batty.

    Seriously though, I totally get your devotion to dialogue. 🙂

    Posted by Tory Michaels | October 8, 2012, 4:30 am
    • Tory! I didn’t say I wasn’t completely nuts after the two sets of twins…in fact I often plead “twinsanity” {;o)

      Yep, love me some dialogue! It’s amazing how characters can suddenly “pop to life” by the things they say, isn’t it? I’m often completely unprepared for what they DO say and it can take me down a whole new story path. Best of luck with the twins, it truly does get easier (until you have the next set lol!)

      Posted by Barbara DeLeo | October 8, 2012, 8:18 am
  3. What a brilliant post, this really resonated with me! I have a technical, structured background (and mind), so learning the rules is my comfort zone. I find I have to stop the plotting and, like you, try and ‘see’ my way. For me this means really getting into the head of the heroine, being her so I can understand what makes her tick and where the story should really be going. A session on the exercise bike at the gym sometimes works wonders!

    Posted by Susie Medwell | October 8, 2012, 5:09 am
    • Thanks so much for dropping in, Susie. The exercise bike at the gym? Fantastic. There must be some sort of connection between exercise and freeing up that organisational/left brain part of our psyche as I often find a walk will restart my story loop when it’s stalled.

      And I completely agree about the heroine — getting into her skin so that readers will recognize and empathize with her is so important. I’ve found that when I lose sight of my heroine I’ll very likely have lost sight of my story.

      Posted by Barbara DeLeo | October 8, 2012, 8:26 am
  4. I love that you lie back and shut your eyes, Barb.
    I was troubled last year with a plausible reason to get my heroine on a yacht with my hero and everything that came to mind was naff. Then one day I got into our new pool and floated on my back for a while. The water in your ears really strips away the outside world. And as I looked up into the sky a plane was flying really high overhead. Suddenly, cushioned in that underwater vaccum, it came to me. She was a writer with writers block and an adventure with the hero was her way of shaking things up.
    After weeks! of trying to find a way, it just came to me lying in the warm tropical water of my swiming pool!
    I often wonder if the plane had anything to do with it? I wonder if it hadn’t gone overhead would the same thoughts have popped into my head?
    Interesting (if rather pointless) to ponder 🙂

    Posted by Amy Andrews | October 8, 2012, 6:06 am
    • Amy, that’s fascinating! I’ve been reading a bit lately about different people’s creative processes and the influence of “water” comes up a lot. Whether it’s brainstorming in the shower, taking a swim, or having a tropical fish tank with flowing water- as I have in my office —water seems to figure prominently in the writer’s creative process. So could have been the plane, or the lying back, or the water!

      Posted by Barbara DeLeo | October 8, 2012, 8:34 am
  5. Barbara! That’s happened to me too. There was a time when I began reading a lot of writing how-to books and it literally stalled me in my writing. I became too focused on the craft that it hurt my story.
    I still want to grow in my writing but I’ve learned to take it slower and pick and choose one thing at a time to work on in my craft.

    Posted by Jennifer Shirk | October 8, 2012, 6:25 am
    • So lovely to see you here, Jennifer! It’s funny, isn’t it? I certainly don’t think I’d be published if I *hadn’t* learned so much about the craft of writing, but I was just one of those people who got so focused on that side of it and, like you, I lost sight of the story.

      I still love taking workshops and listening to wonderful writing teachers but I always try to keep story front and centre now. I like you plan to take things slower, too!

      Posted by Barbara DeLeo | October 8, 2012, 8:38 am
  6. Hi, Barbara –

    I think WE might be twins separated at birth! 🙂

    This is a realization I’ve come to in the past couple of years, that maybe I was trying so hard to be a good writer that I left behind what made me want to write in the first place. I still think craft is important, but I’m no longer trying to cram it all in or take a ton of classes.

    I’ve found a 15 minute twilight zone nap mid-afternoon or walking the dog is a much better way to spend my time than beating my head against the desk when something’s not working.

    Thanks for being here at RU!

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | October 8, 2012, 6:47 am
    • A nap in the middle of the afternoon? Oh, Kelsey we ARE twins separated at birth!

      And I’m with you on walking the dog, too, but I STILL think “No, I won’t walk the dog, I’ll fix this plot pig instead” and then the dog looks at me with her sad eyes and so I go for the walk and I ALWAYS fix the plot pig (told you I was a slow learner!).

      I totally agree that craft is important—no, VITAL— but for people like us, a reminder to keep our eyes on the story is important too.

      Posted by Barbara DeLeo | October 8, 2012, 8:43 am
  7. Morning Barbara!

    I love taking online classes and reading craft books, but I do agree – they can totally stall you. Been there, done that. So badly in fact I quit writing for a long time. But there’s other classes – and I’ll toss out a little plug for our own Laurie Schnebly – that when I take her classes? My brain just kicks in to high. Ideas come out of nowhere, little snippets seem to flow and I connect with my characters like I never had before.

    Lately, what’s worked for me is listening to the RWA tapes in my car while driving to work. It’s only a 20 min drive each way, but I get a good 15 min worth of plotting/dialogue in!

    Thanks for posting with us today!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | October 8, 2012, 7:46 am
    • I so agree, Carrie. I still LOVE craft books and excellent craft teachers And that’s a wonderful tip about listening to tapes in the car. Employing more of those senses— touch for Amy, sound for you, sight for me, a whole lot for the dog walkers —seems to really help jog new parts of the creative process when we’ve lost that essence of story.

      Thanks so much for having me!

      Posted by Barbara DeLeo | October 8, 2012, 8:47 am
  8. Hi Barbara,

    Focus is the key. So many ideas jumble up in my head, I write jibberish. Step back, take a breath, and write.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | October 8, 2012, 9:06 am
    • You’ve hit the nail on the head, Mary Jo. Focus.

      I have writer friends who seem to have never had a problem with it, but like you, I need to get the space so that the story comes into sharper focus.

      Step back, take a breath and write. Love it.

      Posted by Barbara DeLeo | October 8, 2012, 9:16 am
  9. I can TOTALLY relate to this! About a year ago I realized I was reading so many books and attending so many workshops on craft that I’d lost confidence in my ability to WRITE. I was completely bogged down, trying to make sure my stories followed all the rules.

    Did I need those books and workshops? Definitely! But it’s been hard to learn to trust myself again and, as you stressed, focus on the story instead of worrying about doing everything “right.”

    I tell myself to let loose and set the story free in the first draft – I have a NaNoWriMo mentality – and fix the details on the rewrite, but it’s hard to let go. I’m working on it!

    Thanks again for this excellent advice!

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | October 8, 2012, 9:07 am
  10. Hard to let go? Oh yes, Becke, you put it beautifully. Just between you and me I’m a little like that in other areas of my life too (though I’ll never admit it to my dh) and it is a hard lesson, isn’t it? Writing does require a significant degree of self belief and we need to hold on tight to it, protecting that core story at all costs.

    Like you, I DEFINITELY needed the craft books and workshops—I still do—but now I understand how to recapture the heart of my story if it starts to slip, I can use them with more confidence.

    Best of luck with letting loose!

    Posted by Barbara DeLeo | October 8, 2012, 9:31 am
  11. Thanks – I’m trying to break out of a moving-inspired writing slump. I’ll keep this in mind!

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | October 8, 2012, 11:13 am
  12. Hi Barbara, loved your post! Whenever I write I struggle to get my teacher’s voice out of my head, looking over my shoulder and critiquing my craft for me. Sometimes I want to beg her to leave me alone and let me tell my story my way! But you’re right, we need the buildong blocks of craft lessons before we can put the house together. You sound like you’ve thought very hard about this – I’m looking forward to reading your book!

    Posted by Helena Fairfax | October 8, 2012, 11:15 am
    • Thanks so much for your comment, Helena. I suppose I have thought hard about this (and I have to remember that thinking too hard is what often gets me into trouble…!) but it was quite a lightbulb moment when I realised that I’d forgotten the thing that had got me “started” on writing—story. Best of luck with whipping that teacher into shape!

      I hope you enjoy Contract for Marriage.

      Posted by Barbara DeLeo | October 8, 2012, 11:40 am
  13. *building* blocks (my crazy dog started barking as I was writing this!)

    Posted by Helena Fairfax | October 8, 2012, 11:17 am
  14. Barbara, Great ideas, thanks, and they clearly resonate with many writers. I intend to try it. I’m a journo who has done endless craft courses and find both disciplines – focus on facts and craft – can freeze the flow. Thanks, Rae

    Posted by raeroadley | October 8, 2012, 12:30 pm
    • Thanks so much for popping in, Rae. That’s so interesting that you’ve felt the freeze from facts as well. I’m fascinated by how different for each person the writing process can be. All the best with your stories.

      Posted by Barbara DeLeo | October 9, 2012, 1:20 am
  15. Great post! Recently I came down with a terrible case of Craftitis. Some of the symptoms were Flat Characters Fever followed by Never Use an Adverb rash and ending with This Story Really Sucks tummy ache. I was up to my eyeballs in craft while sacrificing what writing is really about–Telling a great story. The cure? Lie on the floor in my office with the dogs, take a deep breath and let the universe whisper ideas. Then brainstorm with a friend, Donnell Ann Bell and lastly Use The Gift.



    Posted by Cheryl Gorman | October 8, 2012, 1:09 pm
  16. Hi Barbara,

    I feel like you wrote this post just for me!

    I remember the days when I’d snap up craft books and overwhelm myself with workshops in hopes that it would improve my writing. Although I picked up a few pointers, I discovered that nothing helped my writing more than just writing.

    Once I banished thoughts like “I can’t do this” or “I’ll get pilloried by a contest judge if my character says that,” I felt less “crippled”.

    The genre is chock full of rules, but I realized the romances I enjoyed reading were written by authors who colored outside of the lines and pushed the boundaries. The rules paralyzed my writing.

    As writers, I believe we have an internal GPS that eventually leads us to the core of the story. Unfortunately, for me, it doesn’t usually happen in the first draft.

    I seek advice from my crit partners, but in the end no one knows the story better than I do. Learning to trust my own instincts took time and and a lot of practice.

    Thanks so much for being with us today.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | October 8, 2012, 1:13 pm
    • I’m so glad my post resonated with you, Jennifer. I certainly know plenty of writers who’ve never felt this loss of story direction, but for those of us who do it can be a very difficult thing to shake. I love your GPS analogy and I guess it goes side by side with that self confidence and super thick skin we need to develop as writers. And the writing to improve writing mantra is one I really believe in. Thanks so much for your comment.

      Posted by Barbara DeLeo | October 9, 2012, 1:27 am
  17. Hi Barb
    A great post!
    I go with the internal GPS and write write write. I hate to say it… but I think doing courses takes away from your voice and is a great time sucker.
    My personal belief is that my years and years or reading honed my craft.
    My biggest problem is turning off the internal editor as I write and letting it flow.

    My book Holiday Affair was written in one dirty draft and then went straight to my editor!

    Posted by Annie Seaton | October 8, 2012, 4:07 pm
    • Lovely to see you here, Annie! Protecting the voice is another whole thing, isn’t it? I do still love to do craft courses but am much more protective of my story core than I was before. Reading will always be one of my greatest craft tools, too. Congrats on the success of Holiday Affair!

      Posted by Barbara DeLeo | October 9, 2012, 1:32 am
  18. Lovely post! I have two degrees in British Literature, and what you’ve described is *exactly* the problem I had trying to write back while I was in school. The bad news was, it took another 15 years to get it figured out (with large breaks for life). But the good news–as you pointed out–is that this is a curable problem! Congratulations on your sale!

    Posted by Sarah M. Anderson | October 8, 2012, 4:24 pm
    • Thanks so much for dropping by, Sarah! I love your stories {:o) I’ve talked to a few people like us—people who’ve studied fiction in the “literary” world and it seems to be a common problem. Getting back to the nitty gritty of what moves me in a story was quite a challenge and then applying that to my own work even harder. Now that I’ve discovered how to hold onto the heart of my stories I’m not letting go! Thanks so much for the congrats.

      Posted by Barbara DeLeo | October 9, 2012, 1:38 am
  19. Hi Barb, what a great post! This is a subject I agonized over for a very long time until I decided to write from the heart and let the head worry about structure during editing. Like Annie Seaton, I have difficulty turning off my internal editor, which is why sprints in 50K in 30 Days worked well. I didn’t have time to think too deeply on it, I just wrote.

    What I always have at hand though is Valerie Parv’s The Art of Romance Writing with it’s useful profiling tool.

    Thank you for sharing this piece of encouragement and good luck with your new release 😀

    Posted by Juanita Kees | October 8, 2012, 6:28 pm
  20. Oh, I can relate! I joined a fabulous craft loop that analyzed the technical parts of manuscripts perfectly. Best-seller after best-seller came out of that loop. Except…me. I actually stopped writing. Every time I put fingers to keyboard, I questioned every scene, line, word…my choice of POV…setting…EVERYTHING. I finally stopped even lurking, and started writing again. And trusting my writing and my instincts. Now I have an agent and things are moving forward. Good luck–and trust in yourself!

    Posted by Rowan Worth | October 8, 2012, 7:15 pm
  21. So lovely to see you here, Rowan, and congrats on the agent! Another thing I’ve learned through my writing journey is that the writing process can be SO different from person to person. What a a tough experience that must have been for you in that group. TRUST in our process seems to be such an important part of making progress, doesn’t it? Not believing that you have to write like person A or plot like person B, or even market like person C. All the very best with your books.

    Posted by Barbara DeLeo | October 9, 2012, 1:42 am
  22. Love this. I’ve felt that way after plunging headfirst into the writing community online, trying to find and absorb every tip and helpful hint I could so I could “get it right.” Took me a long time and years of frustration to figure out that I needed to free myself to simply write. Even now, when I find myself trying to plot perfectly, I have to stop and breathe, and often resort to simple pen and paper, to forget all the craft and stuff and just write.

    Posted by PatriciaW | October 11, 2012, 9:24 am
  23. HI Patricia! You sound so similar to me. I remember speaking to a very well known editor at a conference once and she said she believed she could tell when someone was being “crippled by craft” in their writing. Interesting. The pen and paper strategy works for me sometimes too.

    Posted by Barbara DeLeo | October 11, 2012, 10:10 am

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