Building a Better Battering Ram

Building A Better Battering Ram

Last night, a new writer who is preparing his first novel asked, “When do I begin approaching agents?” I get that question at least once a week, and my answer is always the same: “When your novel is done. And by that I mean, well done!”

I think that it is human nature to be eager. When we are working on a novel, and we’re excited about it, and the end is in sight, it’s very common for the writer to look ahead and try to figure out how to beat down the doors of New York Publishing, or Hollywood.

Very often, they will ask me to do it for them, but that won’t work. I can show you where the doors to the publishing house are. I can introduce you to some of the gatekeepers. But when it comes to storming the castle, what you really need is a great battering ram—and that battering ram is your novel. You see, all of the gatekeepers have their own orders: allow only those with powerful novels.

Nothing else matters as much as your novel when it comes to getting in doors. You can have a charming smile and a great family lineage, but that won’t break down doors.

Building A Better Battering Ram

Now, if you’ve read Lord of the Rings, you might understand a bit about how battering rams were made. As a young man, my father was once asked to help a neighbor knock down a barn. My dad decided to get a log and use it as a battering ram, so he took a fallen tree from the forest and had me, my brother, and some other men try to use it to knock down the barn. Well, even that old barn was stouter than it looked, and we shredded several trees trying to knock it down.

With real castle doors, you needed something strong. A battering ram is built from a young, strong tree, not an old rotten log. The builder then would take the tree and wrap it in bands of steel or brass to help strengthen it, and they’d fit a metal front to the log so that it could withstand impact to the castle walls. In Lord of the Rings, the Dark Lord Sauron went so far as to forge a special metal front to his ram that was inscribed with magical spells for breaking the castle gates, and thus “Grond crawled on.”

So what does that have to do with your manuscript?

Many authors that I meet haven’t finished their novels, yet they want to beat down that castle door right now. But they’re just not ready. They’ve got nothing to show.

Sure, you can talk to the gatekeepers. Editors and agents often hear great pitches for novels, but are almost always disappointed to find that the novel itself falls short of its promise. So the agent or editor can’t accept your unfinished novel. They won’t even look at it, in most cases. To do so is a waste of their time.

You need to realize that your novel is a battering ram. It is what will break open the doors to the publishing world for you. It’s not your strong shoulder that will do it. You can’t break down the doors of publishing by force of personal will, or by flashing a dazzling smile. You need a powerful novel.

A lot of people don’t understand that. I recently had a client who brought an unfinished novel to me and asked that I break down the doors to New York and Hollywood for him. That doesn’t work. I insisted that the client finish the battering ram before we even try.

If you’ve got a novel that every editor has seen and rejected, think of it as an old dead tree, rotting away. Maybe it’s time to try something fresh.

send in your first draft to an editor

If you want to send in your first draft to an editor, ask yourself, “Is this book powerful enough to break down the doors of the New York publishing industry?” Often it’s not. Often you need to strengthen it, do the equivalent of wrapping it in iron bands and casting an iron front for it.

How do you do that? By rewriting the novel. Study it carefully. Search out its weaknesses and fix them. Maybe your weakness will be poor descriptions, or a plot that has a flimsy third act. You have to mend those weaknesses, reinforce the novel. And still, that probably won’t be enough.

Go beyond looking for obvious weaknesses and figure out how you can add new strengths to your novel. You want your novel to be powerful, not “nearly adequate.” This might require you to look closely at your writing and create a compelling new voice for your protagonist, or perhaps go through the entire manuscript and add engaging new hooks to the beginning and end of every scene.

It’s only when your battering ram is finished, when it is the modern-day equivalent of Grond, that you dare approach those castle doors in New York and Hollywood. Yes, even with a great battering ram, you might need to slam it hard into a few doors before you knock one down, but at least you’ll have the tool you need to do it.

Want to build a stronger story? Check out our new course, The Triarchy Method, for proven approaches that will have you developing a solid story.

(And once the content is solid, often the lines follow much more easily.)

Previously Published


The Triarchy Method of Story: by September C. Fawkes will be closing soon.

This amazing class will teach you how to improve your story. Sign up before it’s too late. Class starts March 7.

Craft your best book by focusing on what matters most: The “bones” of story.

This content-focused course will help you:

  • Brainstorm better and more relevant material
  • Evaluate what ideas most belong in your story (preventing you from writing hundreds of pages that need to be scrapped), and
  • Craft a page-turning plot with compelling characters that sticks with readers long after they’ve closed the book (. . . and hopefully leads them to preorder your next book).
  • And more

This live, online class is limited to 10 students. Classes start March 7 and run Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:30 pm Mountain Time (8:30pm EST) for a total of 23 classes. Classes ends on May 25.

For more information, visit https://mystorydoctor.com/the-triarchy-method-of-story/
About the Instructor

September C. Fawkes has worked in the fiction-writing industry for over ten years and has been editing stories for longer. She has edited for both award-winning and best-selling authors, as well as new writers. She has worked on manuscripts written for middle grade, young adult, and adult readers, and specializes in fantasy and science fiction.

For seven years, she worked through New York Times best-selling author David Farland, providing feedback on his workshop students’ assignments, editing their manuscripts, and sometimes, even editing David’s own books.

When not working, she is running an award-winning writing tip blog. She has also served as a writing coach on Writers Helping Writers and teaches at writing conferences. Some may say she needs to get a social life. It’d be easier if her fictional one wasn’t so interesting.

📌 The Scoop About This Past Week on Apex’s Strategy and Mastermind

The week of Feb 20, Apexers got to:

  • Deep-dive on how to capture our story brilliance—plan, structure and organize, with Brenden Pugh – WRITE YOUR NOVEL WITH NOTION,
  • Learn about MAKING YOUR MAGIC MATTER and how with C.R. Rowenson & Michael Thayer; and
  • Understand WHY WRITE SHORT STORIES with John M. Olsen.
  • and have a dialogue started about SHARPENING YOUR SHORT STORY SKILLS with Lyn Worthen on the Apex Writers Facebook group. Lyn will be presenting this topic at a later date.

STRATEGY (2/20/23) Brenden Pugh showed us more about what Notion can do for organizing, structuring & writing your novel with his Storybook: Master Novelist | Notion Template for Writers, which he created and he is giving Apex member a 40% discount bringing the cost of this dynamic multi-page template to $15. For more information click. The coupon code is APEX.

Notion is another tool available for writers, companies, project managers, etc. It’s a lego-block all-in-one workspace where you can write, plan, collaborate and get organized. There are many templates and tutorials on the web to get up to speed and Brenden recommends THOMAS FRANK EXPLAINS YOUTUBE CHANNEL to get you going if you’re stuck.

MASTERMIND (2/20/23)C.R. Rowenson & Michael Thayer talked about the importance of having your magic baked into your story, not bolted on, and why doing it right means paying attention to clever ripple effect and more. Some of this presentation’s highlights include:

  • How to connect the magic to multiple obstacles, conflict, theme, the cost, characters, etc., along with giving concrete examples along the way.
  • Ways to tap into ideas and inspiration for your own magic systems with some simple questions like: “Wouldn’t it be cool if…..?” AND “I only I could….”
  • Resources like Sanderson’s Laws of Magics
  • And a list of don’ts and the whys.

MASTERMIND (2/25/23) Due to a scheduling conflict, Lyn Worthen wasn’t able to make it but John M.Olsen stepped in with WHY WRITE SHORT STORIES. This presentation covered all writers from the unpublished to those making a living doing so.

Some of the examples included:

  • more networking,
  • learning to get to your point quickly and with an economy of words,
  • it’s fun,
  • get to experiment with different styles,
  • accumulate fans and have your name published with big names
  • and more.

John gave us some resources to find where to find places to submit to and stressed the importance of creating some some of tracking document or spreadsheet so we know what’s been submitted, when, and payment. The presentation elicited some fantastic questions at the end!

Replays are either up or will be soon.

Sharpening Your Short Story Skills Discussion.

Because of a scheduling issue, Lyn will be presenting at a later date but in the meanwhile she is opening up short-story related questions (in general, not about a specific story) on the Apex Writers Facebook group. She opened the conversation with:

    I don’t mean how to type reasonably grammatical sentences, but learning to create characters who become so real that readers feel like they know them, want to spend time with them (or avoid them, as the case may be). Create settings so rich and vivid that we can feel the twin suns on our faces or taste the salt spray of the surf crashing on the rocks as we zip down the coastal highway.

    And I’m not suggesting padding your prose with a lot of vague description. An acquisition editor (and a reader) will see through that in a heartbeat and move on to the next story in the queue. Study technique, study theory, and then practice learning to write characters and settings by reading lots of stories and writing lots of stories. You’ve got to put in the time, just like you would if you were learning to play a musical instrument or excel at a sport.

    Whether you’re writing a story set in the present-day, real-world or one set on a world entirely out of your imagination, if you can make me believe it, make me feel like I’m there, I’m much more likely to keep reading. And the longer I keep reading, the more likely I am to buy it.

Join in the conversation! Lyn is a great resource to tap.

📌 On Deck for Next Week:

Monday’s (3/6/23) Strategy Meeting – Mark Leslie Lefebvre – PUBLISHING WIDE specific talk, title forthcoming

Monday’s Mastermind, (3/6/23 at 7 pm MT/ 9pm ) – Savannah Gilbo – How to Write Compelling and Well-Structured Scene!

Savannah Gilbo is a certified developmental editor and book coach who helps fiction authors write, edit, and publish stories that work. She’s also the host of the top-rated Fiction Writing Made Easy Podcast, where she delivers weekly episodes full of simple, actionable, and step-by-step strategies that you can implement in your writing right away. When she’s not busy crafting her own stories, you can find Savannah curled up with a good book, a cozy blanket, and her three furry partners in crime.

Savannah Gilbo

Saturday’s Mastermind (3/4/23) – Tim Storm – Taxonomy of Tension

Tim Storm is an award-winning writer and teacher whose work has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including Black Warrior Review, Copper Nickel, and Literary Hub. His passion for storytelling and its inner workings informs his teaching, editing, and mentoring. He runs an online writing school (stormwritingschool.com ), which offers articles, courses, and a monthly writing craft club, all geared toward helping writers create engaging and moving stories.

Taxonomy of Tension

 📌 PLUS, we have a great line-up coming up:

  • Lisa Cron, story analyst, speaker and author of WIRED FOR STORY and STORY GENIUS will be presenting “Hardwired for Story” on Monday, March 20.
  • Donald Maass, literary agent and CEO of the Donald Maass Literary Agency and author of the BREAKOUT NOVEL and THE EMOTIONAL CRAFT IN FICTION will be presenting “The Emotional Craft in Fiction” on Monday, April 10.
Fiction Writing

WANT TO SEE WHO IS ON WHEN?? Check out the links below.

Mastermind at a Glance

Strategy at a Glance

Partial reprint from email from last week announcing all the winners.

Our First Place winner— Jen Bair, Congratulations!

It is our distinct pleasure to introduce Apex’s new official logo!

Apex’s new official logo

Apex’s Sff Topic for the Week (2/28/23 at 5:30 PM MT / 7:30 ET) Is:

Apex’s Sff Topic for the Week (2/28/23 at 5:30 PM MT / 7:30 ET)

Naming things …. how we use names for characters, places and anything else to world build but mostly to make it easy for readers to read. In other words, ‘what’s in a name when writing fantasy and science fiction’. What tools do we use to name. What do we think works and what doesn’t.

And ‘if’ we have time: How do you find the right literary conventions to attend? Who should you try to connect with? and why.

To learn more about SFF and/or how to join, contact Monica or Jan.

Reading for Writers (An Apex Affiliate Group)

The next two meetings of Reading for Writers are:

March 16th–Octavia E. Butler: Dawn.

April 14th–Naomi Novik: A Deadly Education

Dawn is the first book in Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis Series. This is a 1987 classic Science Fiction novel of note, and the Xenogenesis series is seminal. A powerful exploration of identity, humanity, and race, this is a book well worth reading.

From the back: “Lilith’s children will inherit the Earth and stars. But they will be more—and other—than human.”

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik is subtitled as Lesson One of The Scholomance. Released in 2020, this is an example of contemporary, mostly well-received YA from a best-selling author. Universal studios have optioned the series. There has been some criticism of poor diversity representation, and that could be interesting to explore in our conversation. However, it is possible that offending material may have been already removed from our current editions. The fact that readers can express concern and text can be altered so quickly is another topic worthy of discussion.

From the website: “With flawless mastery, Naomi Novik creates a heroine for the ages—a character so sharply realized and so richly nuanced that she will live on in hearts and minds for generations to come.”

Handy Links

📌 Shout-out to Some of Our Apexers for This Week!

  • To C.D. Lombardi and Jamie Sonderman for achieving their official Farland Fiction Coach certification!
  • To Bill Eckel for his 5 out 5 star review on Amazon for his book, HARD KILL!
  • To Joshua Dyer for signing a contract for one of his dark fantasy short stories! The anthology’s release should be this summer. More info to come as he’s able to share.
  • And to Mike Wyant Jr for completing his final book in the #anisianconvergence!

📌 If you have success news you’d like to share about yourself or another Apexer, please email Tammy  and have Apexer Good News in the subject line. We’d love to do a shout-out!!

Every week Apex members have informative meetings with two Mastermind interviews/presentations with industry experts, Strategy meeting to give the tips and tools to better serve your authoring life, Accelerators meeting focused on how to up your game, along with group meetings featuring craft and marketing discussions, writer rings, networking, support, accountability, sprints, and more. Plus, there are hundreds of hours of Teachable videos.

Visit https://www.apex-writers.com for more information.

And, to participate in these events, all you do after joining is to click on “Upcoming Events” for the zoom links.

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