Author Insights: 7 Tips From a First-Time Novelist (+ an Autographed Book Giveaway!)

Happy New Year, writers!

We’re kicking off a new year here at Called to Write with a new author insights series featuring book giveaways. I’ll be introducing you to writers who’ve taken their writing all the way to the finish line of publication, and they’ll be sharing their “lessons learned” stories with you. There’s nothing quite like learning from a writer who has made to the other side.

Plus, if you leave a comment at the end of the post before Tuesday, January 17th, you’ll be entered to win an autographed copy of the author’s book in a random drawing. (You must be located in the United States to win.)

Meet Donna Baier Stein, author of The Silver Baron’s Wife

Let me introduce you to Donna Baier Stein. Donna was a member of my Called to Write Coaching Circle in 2012 when she was working on establishing a writing habit to help her complete her first book. And the proof is in the pudding, because, ta-da, her book The Silver Baron’s Wife came out in the fall of 2016. So exciting! 

I asked Donna to share her greatest insights from writing the novel.

Seven Tips From First-Time Novelist Donna Baier Stein

Donna Baier SteinI chose the historical figure of Baby Doe Tabor as the main character of my first novel thinking her fascinating, event-filled, roller coaster life provided its own ready-made plot. I’d been writing stories and knew that my strength was language, not narrative structure. I’d even spent time in two radically different writing groups—one focused on literary fiction (heavy on characterization and language) and one focused on more plot-oriented genre fiction. I, rather arrogantly it turns out, preferred the literary focus. I was definitely a pantser rather than a plotter.

So I decided to write about a woman whose life story had already been the subject of an American opera – The Ballad of Baby Doe – and several other books. There were so many events to choose from her life: her work in the silver mines of Colorado and first marriage to a philandering opium addict, a second marriage to a man worth $24 million when they married at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC, with President Chester Arthur in attendance, her years writing down her dreams and marking visitations of spirits on her wall calendar at the Matchless Mine in Leadville. All I had to do was write what had happened in Baby Doe (Lizzie’s) life, I mistakenly thought, and voilà, I’d have a novel.

So I started my research. I researched for years, taking occasional stabs at writing early chapters. But the writing of the novel was far less easy than I’d naively hoped it might be. Here’s what I learned from my mistakes:

  1. A writer can do too much research. I had boxes of hard copy files and dozens of folders on my computer. And in early drafts, I put far too much emphasis on describing the physical details of clothing, furniture, food of the era. I’d say “Bluchers” when saying “boots” would have sufficed, for instance. It was only in the final drafts that I realized I could focus only on the items that the characters came into direct contact with… and see them as they would see them, not as if they were described in a museum catalog.
  2. Narrative arc is key. I discarded many early chapters about Lizzie’s childhood because they didn’t serve to tell the story I ultimately wanted to tell. I had to choose certain episodes of her life, ignore others, and create new ones in order to show the change in Lizzie I wanted to reveal. The novel, unlike a biography, wasn’t just about re-telling Lizzie’s life. Its purpose was to reveal a theme and a transformation in my main character.
  3. When writing dialogue, be inside your characters. At first, I felt intimidated by them. How could I talk like a 19th century woman talked? I did find some historically current slang phrases to toss in, but mostly I wrote dialogue as I heard Lizzie and other characters saying it in my head.
  4. Be inside your characters as they move through a room, too. It was like being an actress on a stage. Instead of seeing Lizzie from an outside view camera, I had to metaphorically go inside her. See what she would notice in the rundown mining cabin in Dogwood or the extravagant villa in Denver. And feel what she might have felt living in such radically different environments.
  5. For me, writing in first person really helped me inhabit my main character. An agent once told me that third person limited narratives were easiest to sell. I rewrote the book that way and though it came close, it didn’t sell on that go-round. I went back to the first person voice I felt most comfortable writing in, and I’m happy with the result. That was the way I wanted to tell Lizzie’s story from the beginning.
  6. It’s hard, though certainly not impossible, to give adequate attention to every phase of someone’s entire life. The next novel I write will focus on a much shorter time frame than 81 years.
  7. Don’t be obsessive about rewriting until you’ve got your story down. I must have rewritten the first pages of the novel fifty times. I thought, mistakenly, that I had to have it exactly right before moving forward. This is not the way to get a novel written.

I’ve already started writing a new novel, and I’m grateful to have the first under my belt. I’m sure I’ll learn new lessons this time, too!

About The Silver Baron’s Wife

silver-barons-wifeKirkus Reviews called the The Silver Baron’s Wife “an artistic, sympathetic imagining of the life of a 19th-century woman who made headlines for all the wrong reasons.” Foreword Reviews gave it five stars and said, “A unique portrait of a time and place populated by fearless people, this reimagination of an uncommon woman is powerful.”

The Silver Baron’s Wife is available on:

About Donna

Donna Baier SteinDonna Baier Stein is the author of The Silver Baron’s Wife (PEN/New England Discovery Award), Sympathetic People (Iowa Fiction Award Finalist), and Sometimes You Sense the Difference.

She founded and publishes Tiferet Journal. She has received a Scholarship from Bread Loaf, a Fellowship from the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, three Pushcart nominations, and prizes from the Allen Ginsberg Awards and elsewhere. Her writing has appeared in Writer’s Digest, Virginia Quarterly Review, New York Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, and many other journals and anthologies.

She is currently completing a new collection of stories based on Thomas Hart Benton lithographs. You can find Donna online at

Enter to Win a Copy of The Silver Baron’s Wife!

Donna has graciously agreed to give away 3 autographed copies of her book to my readers. Leave a comment on the blog about one of your own writing lessons or something you learned from Donna’s insights before Tuesday, January 17th at 5 p.m. Pacific Time and you’ll be entered in the random drawing. You must be located in the United States to win.


6 Takeaways From Rewriting “The Seventh”

I can’t believe it, but I’ve worked on two different screenwriting assignments this year, all while taking care of my little toddler, who just turned two in May. It hasn’t been exactly easy, but it’s been incredibly inspiring. There’s nothing quite like working on a screenplay with a deadline to shift one’s motivation into high gear. ;)

I recently shared that I’d overhauled my character profile template in the course of working on this latest assignment. Now I want to share some of the other things I learned through the process of working on this gig. This was a rewrite project, so it was almost like being hired as a script doctor, but since I’m also sharing writing credit for the project it’s a little different than being a true script doctor, which is often uncredited work. The project is called The Seventh, and it turned out to be incredibly fun to rewrite someone else’s work (not at all like rewriting my own!).

Here are six unexpected takeaways I gained from working on this project:

  1. Reverse-outlining pays off. Before I dove into the actual rewrite, I reverse outlined the entire script. I exported it from Final Draft into Scrivener and then into Numbers (the Mac version of Excel) so I could have a spreadsheet I could easily study all in one place. I like the Navigator in Final Draft and the outline view in Scrivener, but for this, I wanted something I could easily see in one place and control in ways that I wanted.

    Once I had the scene headings from Final Draft imported into Numbers, I went through each scene and summarized what happened in a few short sentences. Then I made notes about issues I noticed as I worked through. I also numbered the scenes. The beauty of doing this work is that it highlighted story issues, pointed out plot holes, and helped me get clear on the natural story breaks and sequences, and how well they were working, or not. Since I like to work in mini-movies (approximately 15 minute sequences) it helped me to see how well the script was working with that pattern and showed me where I needed to tweak it.

    What made this so fun was that it was like being a sleuth, digging in, finding what was working and what wasn’t. Very satisfying!

  2. Backstory matters. I knew this before. But now I KNOW it. Working on someone else’s project gave me more courage to dig deep into the how’s and why’s of everything. I couldn’t write it unless I understood it. With my own projects, I’ve been more cavalier about understanding where everyone comes from and why they’re doing what they’re doing, thinking I’d figure it out along the way (and of course I learned more about these characters even as I worked with them).

    But there was something about delving into all the details and leaving no stone unturned when it came to even the slightest motivation or plot hole to get our story strong and straight. This is, of course, particularly important with a complex sci-fi world such as the one in The Seventh, but as I’ve watched and read other stories lately it’s gotten crystal clear — the characters exist before they come onto the scene in our stories. They have histories. Issues. Relationships. And all those come to bear on the decisions they make and the motivations they bring to the scenes they’re in.

    We went through several different iterations of the backstory, and the feeling of finally getting a lock on it was thrilling, particularly because we didn’t give up on it until it truly worked.

  3. Having a rewrite plan helps, but it’s not set in stone. We went into the rewrite knowing we had a certain number of days to accomplish it (40 days). And we calculated approximately how many days I could spend rewriting each 15-page section of the script to hit our deadline. But as we went into it, we found ourselves spending more time on the backstory and world building than we’d anticipated. QUITE a bit more. Which meant that I had to compress my timeline.

    The other unexpected variable was that the script got longer, due to a variety of factors. So my calculation of a number of pages per day didn’t exactly match what I actually had to write. So again, I adapted.

    A third monkey wrench was what one of the writers in my program calls a “black hole” section, where the whole thing just takes a lot longer than expected to sort out. Not all 15 page sections are created equal, after all!

  4. Tracking progress helps keep the ship on course. Despite the shifts in the winds of rewriting, because I carefully tracked my progress, I was able to see where I was, and where I needed to end up. In the graphic below, you can see my revision plan in the upper table, essentially starting on June 3rd. We’d intended to start much earlier, but as I mentioned, the backstory and world building work ended up taking 14 days. In the lower table, you can see the number of pages I worked on each day or block of days.

    This is one of those things I geek out about — watching my progress build, seeing how I’m staying on track (or not) helps make it exciting and fun and keeps me from getting lost in the “I’ll never make it” doldrums my inner critic likes to dish out. And I could easily tell my writing partner how close I was to being on schedule at any given point.
    The Seventh Rewrite Process

  5. Having a great writing partner is huge. I was thrilled to work with my co-writer on the rewrite, the original author of this script. I did all the rewriting work, but we worked closely together throughout the process. It was a huge source of fun and delight for me to have someone to bounce ideas off, run problems by, and generally dig deep into the story together. My co-writer was particularly good at keeping his ego out of the way and working hard with me on making sure the story improved. It was inspiring and impressive. Plus it turns out it’s just wicked fun to help make someone else’s writing that much better.
  6. Screenwriting every day for 40 days was empowering. Since having my second kiddo, I’ve been interspersing stretches of screenwriting with other writing (blogging, course writing, product writing, etc.) and while that’s been easier for me to manage, it’s been a little disorienting. I loved the feeling of ending each day feeling like I’d really USED my brain for my truest deepest calling — writing fiction. That expression “die empty” felt very apropos. Each evening, as I went to bed, I felt complete in way I don’t feel when I’m not writing fiction. It was amazing.

Interestingly, when I was first offered this writing gig, I turned it down, based on my level of busyness as a mom, as a writer of my own projects, and as an entrepreneur. But in the end, it was a delightful experience all around and one I’m truly grateful to have been asked to be involved in. I can’t wait to see what happens with The Seventh as it continues to evolve!