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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

Books Are Like Onions Podcast

Episode 3: Writing What You Don't Know

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

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Episode Summary

Whether you’re tackling a new subject matter or are dipping your toes into an entirely different genre, learn a few tips and tricks that can help you successfully execute your story, even if you feel like you have no clue what you’re doing.

Habits and Home (1:14)

Sometimes our ties to an area have a lasting impact, maybe more than we realize. If you live in a different state or country from where you were born, perhaps multiple places offer a sense of home.

Why is that? We humans are creatures of habit. We’re drawn to things and places we’re most familiar with, leading us to eventually adopt routines. In short, we like knowing what’s going to happen. If our schedules are upended, we tend to resist, to hold on to how we think things should be rather than embracing how they are.

Writing habits are a lot like that. We often use our personal experiences to develop plots, and a unique style then emerges from that. Most writers start off that way, and that’s fine. But a dangerous mindset can take over if we’re not careful: If I don’t push myself, I can’t fail. That only leads one place, which is a downward spiral to stale writing.

The Solution: Change (2:46)

Readers don’t just want change; they crave it. In a typical character arc, the protagonist isn’t the same at the beginning of the story as they are at the end. A good book uses that transition to hook readers and keep the plot moving.

As writers, we can’t possibly take our readers on the journey they’re craving if we aren’t willing to take risks ourselves. Sometimes that might mean exploring uncomfortable or uncharted territories.

Writing About the Unknown (3:49)

  • Research, research, research. The more you know, the more prepared you’ll be to write a scene.

    • Interview people who have experienced the topic you’re writing about.

    • Scour books and articles at your library and online.

    • Consider traveling to the area you’re writing about.

  • Look for inspiration—or let it find you!

    Example in the podcast: Personal story about a camel traveling along a local highway . . . in the middle of a snowstorm

  • Read books by authors who write in the genre you’re attempting or who have written about the subject matter you’re including. Doing so can give you a feel for different approaches.

    Example in the podcast: Excerpt from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Berenice”

  • Practice writing your scene. Go ahead and get that crappy first draft out of your system. Don’t expect to get things right the first time; seasoned writers experience this struggle too.

  • Get feedback from others. Even if you’ve properly researched and practiced writing your unknown subject or genre, getting input from beta readers and/or sensitivity readers is a great way to adopt new perspectives.

    • Does the story make sense?

    • Is there any content that could be considered offensive?

    • Are there any cultural inaccuracies, biases, or stereotypes?

    • Could anyone in your target audience read this and have a negative experience?

  • Keep trying! With practice, you’ll improve.

A Quick Note on Comparing Yourself to Other Writers (16:28)

It’s tempting to compare yourself to other writers, particularly those you idolize. But doing so can damage your self-esteem and leave you feeling like it’s not worth trying. Instead, consider this: No one has the same mind you do. No one can tell the same stories you can, because no one has the same experiences or sees the world as you do. By the same token, though your writing is absolutely unique, you can always improve, no matter how good you become.

Quote from George Iles: "Whoever ceases to be a student has never been a student."

Final Thoughts (17:28)

I strongly encourage new and seasoned writers alike to explore the unknown from time to time. If there’s no movement and no growth in your writing, it will eventually grow stale, and you’ll hit that dreaded wall of writer’s block.

It’s good to have a solid foundation in writing by starting with what you know. But sometimes being bold and taking chances can lead to endless new possibilities. Maybe even ones that land you that perfect manuscript and win you an award.

Resources Mentioned in this Episode

Camel Story –

Excerpt from “Berenice” by Edgar Allan Poe –

Quote from George Iles –

Episode 2: The Dos and Don'ts of Writing a First Draft

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Episode Summary

This episode covers the challenges of writing a first draft and techniques for tackling them, including a revised approach to the SMART goal method.

The Dos, Part 1 (1:28)

1. Plan out your book. If you’re not a plotter, no worries. This tip can still be useful to you. By having a skeleton of an outline, even if it’s sparse, you’ll prevent yourself from getting derailed by a side character or subplot. You’ll also be less intimidated by the blank screen at the start of a project.

2. Consider preliminary research. It will make internal consistency easier, and it will likely spark loads of ideas for incorporating subplots.

Internal consistency deals with how the details in your story line up, including:

  • Timeline of events

  • Rules of the universe

  • Character facts

  • Clothing or objects as they relate to the era in your book

Example in the podcast: blog post on internal consistency

A story without facts blended in, no matter the genre, won’t resonate well with readers. To make a fictional world believable, it must be grounded in concepts readers are already familiar with and can relate to.

Example in the podcast: The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins

3. Get the first draft out before you make corrections. If you’re so stuck in the present scene that you can’t move on until it’s perfected, it’s probably time to change your approach. Bottom line: if there aren’t any words on the page, there’s nothing to build upon.

4. Set goals for yourself. Just make sure they’re achievable and realistic.

SMART goals . . . with a twist! (5:15)

Example in the podcast:’s take on SMARTER goals

  • S – Specific: For instance, I will write x amount of words per day.

  • M – Measurable: With measurable goals, you have an allotted amount of time to complete a specific task.

  • A – Achievable: Achievable goals will boost your confidence, and before you know it, you’ll have completed a seemingly impossible task.

  • R – Realistic: Are you setting too big of a goal for yourself? How will you accomplish it? Can breaking it down into smaller steps work better? What approach will work best for you?

Example in the podcast: use of NaNoWriMo to illustrate how setting goals with factors out of your control will lead to inevitable failure

  • T – Time bound: When can you complete your goal? If you need to, break that goal into smaller, more manageable chunks.

  • E – Ecological: Ecological goals need to be relevant to a bigger picture. If tackling these goals is going to hurt your relationships, your health, or are so time-consuming that it’s causing added stress, you might want to rethink your approach.

  • R – Rewarding: What value do these goals have for you? Are they fulfilling and worthwhile? If they’re not, you’ll have a hard time staying motivated.

The Dos, Part 2 (11:10)

5. Use a placeholder for things like facts, names, descriptions, and items you’ll need to add to later. This allows you to focus on the piece as a whole and move forward with the draft.

6. Turn off anything distracting. That means electronics, Wi-Fi, or anything else you might be tempted by. And if you have a hard time focusing, set a timer and write in smaller increments, being sure to reward yourself when you meet that goal.

7. Concentrate on why things are happening in each scene when you write them. It’s easy to get bogged down in mundane descriptions; knowing what’s driving a scene as you hammer out the words can keep you going.

*Bonus pro tip from author April White

8. Know your basic theme. Doing so will allow you to fall into your natural voice as a writer while catering the content to your audience.

9. Prioritize your projects and goals. Staring at a pile of things to do can be overwhelming, so organizing your notes and goals into a single, more manageable list will keep you on target.

The Don’ts (13:24)

1. Don’t be overly critical of the words on the page. The first draft doesn’t need to be perfect; it simply needs to be finished.

2. Don’t blame your lack of progress on writer’s block. We’re our own worst enemies when it comes to sabotaging our goals.

3. Don’t get hung up on the details. It's hard to move past typos, and it's even tougher to set aside a scene and move forward when you know there's some tweaks to be had. But first drafts are the key to unlocking a great writing habit and a great book. Without them, you can't move forward.

4. Don’t wait for the ending to pop into your head. If it’s preplanned, there’s less of a risk of getting lost along the way. Knowing where your story’s going can keep you moving forward.

5. Don’t be afraid to overwrite. For many writers, it’s much easier to take things out than it is to squeeze them in later.

Becoming a “Good” Writer (14:55)

Being a good writer isn't about writing a perfect draft or even pleasing every reader who picks up your book. (Both of which are impossible, by the way.) Good writers simply persevere and push forward, continually improving their craft even when they don't feel like it.

Quote from John Wooden: "If you're not making mistakes, then you're not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes."

Resources Mentioned in this Episode

From Mind to Paper blog post “Why Good Writing Matters: Internal Consistency” –

The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins –’s take on SMARTER goals –

Pro tip from April White as given in the FMTP blog interview –

Quote from John Wooden –

Episode 1: Technical Writing and Adapting It To the World of Fiction

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

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Episode Summary

This podcast is intended to be a supplement to the articles found on my blog From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing. The first episode introduces the theme of this podcast and covers techniques found in technical writing, illustrating how they can be applied to fiction.

What Is Technical Writing? (2:02)

Technical writing is often attributed to items like manuals and textbooks, or other books that explain complicated topics. But the main purpose of any technical piece is to give the reader insight about a particular concept or product in a way that's easy to understand. Fiction writing shares that approach; starting with a solid foundation for a plot gives you the best base for a strong and compelling story. Without it, your story will always fall flat, no matter how many times you rework it.

To build that foundation, here are a few basic questions to ask about your main character:

  • What do they want?

  • What, or who, stands in their way?

  • What lies are they telling themselves that have hindered their success in achieving their goals?

Your answers will provide the basic structure for their character arc, which will keep you from getting derailed from that path.

Further resources on developing character arcs are given in this episode and are also listed at the bottom of this post.

Presentation and Structure (3:38)

In technical writing, structure is everything. Placement and presentation of information can make the difference between that information being helpful or confusing. In fiction writing, structure of a story is key to its success, and worldbuilding can help get you there.

Here are the main questions for worldbuilding:

  • Where does the story take place?

  • Are there any laws or rules bound to it?

  • What’s the weather like, and how does it change?

  • How large is each location in the story, and if there are multiple locations, how to they relate to one another?

  • What kind of structures and materials are found in the world?

Example in the podcast: An excerpt from Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets

Identifying an Audience (6:18)

Whether you’re writing a technical piece or a fictional one, you need to be aware of the subset of people you’re writing for. Doing so allows you to present the story in a way they identify most easily with.

Example in the podcast: When I was asked to create software manuals while working at a medical supply company

Being able to transcribe a technical process onto paper is a skill that many struggle with. This stems from a disconnect between the knowledge that the author has about the process and the audience for which they’re writing. But learning that skill can be beneficial to fiction writing. With an audience in mind, it becomes clearer which elements need to be further explained and which you can leave out, thereby allowing you to hit on topics that relate most closely to your target readers.

Example in the podcast: Learning the hard way about needing to plan for audience, which resulted in mismatched elements and roadblocks in my early attempts at writing

Applying Research (8:25)

In technical writing, research allows you to have a much better understanding of your subject matter, which means you can more easily translate that information to those reading it. In fiction writing, it can add depth and a layer of realism that your story might not have otherwise had.

Example in the podcast: How I've applied research to my current series, The Porcelain Souls, and what kind of impact that's had

Research is crucial to the execution of a story. While fiction does give you certain liberties to bend the rules, I recommend weaving in the most prominent facts and historic elements where they apply to give your piece a sound backbone for everything else that follows. The amount of work you put into your research will show, and readers won’t hesitate to call you out on any flaws.

Resources Mentioned in this Episode

K.M. Weiland's Creating Character Arcs book -

K.M. Weiland's Creating Character Arcs Workbook -

Tips for writing character arcs -

Harry Potter excerpt on -