Don’t Just Paint By Numbers – Fan Friday with Guest Author Richard Mabry

There are just some people in this world that make you smile. Richard Mabry and his wife Kay are two such individuals. Meeting them last fall was a true gift. I am excited to introduce them here on my blog. Dr. Mabry has graciously offered to send a signed copy of Stress Test to someone who comments below.

Richard Mabry headshot 2Dr. Richard Mabry is a retired physician, past Vice-President of the American Christian Fiction Writers, and the author of four published novels of medical suspense. His books have been finalists in competitions including ACFW’s Carol Award and Romantic Times’ Inspirational Book of the Year. His last novel, Lethal Remedy, won a 2012 Selah Award from the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference. His most recent medical thriller, Stress Test (Thomas Nelson), was released in April, and will be followed by Heart Failure in October.

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Kay Mabry's Painting

Kay Mabry’s Painting

My wife, Kay, is a talented painter. I admire her work, but can’t begin to reproduce it. The closest I’ve come is completing one of those “paint by numbers” kits…and the end result wasn’t something you’d hang on your walls. Good painters don’t paint by the numbers, and good authors don’t write “by the numbers,” either. I’d suggest that in our writing we’d do well to follow the painter’s example.

First, lay out the colors in your palette. For a writer, this means populating the story—not necessarily every character, but certainly the major ones. Just as some colors predominate in a painting, some characters take center stage in a book. For Stress Test, I chose to go with a male doctor as protagonist, but paired him with a strong second lead, a female attorney.

Second, sketch in the rough outlines of the painting. Since I write “by the seat of my pants,” I don’t have a detailed outline of the story flow. However, I always know going in how it will open, the general story arc, the mid-point surprise, and the ending. Everything else is subject to change.

Third, fill in the painting, making changes as you go. For a painter, this might

Richard Mabry's New Release

Richard Mabry’s New Release

involve putting in a tree, moving a cloud, or otherwise altering the rough outline from which they started. In the case of a writer, sometimes the characters make us go in a different direction. I’ve even been known to kill off a character, one I had no intention of harming, in order to get the effect I needed. Painters and authors have to be willing to change to improve the final product.

Fourth, apply the finishing touches. The painter will add shadows, touch up one area, insert highlights in another. The author goes through the entire story, often more than once, deepening emotions, involving the senses, and sometimes even changing a character’s actions or motivation until the whole thing holds together.

Fifth, add the proper frame. The frame can set the tone for the reception a painting gets. For a book, what the potential reader sees first is the cover, both the image and title. Publishers have control over both these areas, but the author can have a voice. It’s wise to be prepared to give input in these critical areas.

Writers, do you painstakingly go through these steps, or are there times you take the easy way and produce something formulaic, sort of “painting by the numbers?” Readers, can you tell in a book when that has happened?


About Michelle Lim

Author Michelle Lim is the Brainstorming/Huddle Coach with My Book Therapy Press and the Midwest Zone Director for American Christian Fiction Writers. Michelle’s romantic suspense is represented by Karen Solem of Spencillhill Associates and has gained contest recognition in the Frasier, the Genesis, and the Phoenix Rattler, winning the Genesis in 2015 for her genre. Michelle writes devotionals for The Christian Pulse Online Magazine and Putting On The New. Since her nonfiction book release, Idea Sparking: How To Brainstorm Conflict In Your Novel, through public speaking and online chats Michelle helps writers discover the revolutionary power of brainstorming to bring new life to their stories.

14 thoughts on “Don’t Just Paint By Numbers – Fan Friday with Guest Author Richard Mabry

  1. JaniceG says:

    I loved the analogy using painting compared to writing.

    Novels do need uniqueness to make them stand out and not be a run through the standard obstacle course. I think it depends on the writer’s and the reader’s experience level as to how much writing by a formula is apparent. It seems that those who write “by the seat of their pants” would not fall into formulaic writing as easily, however, if they are always wearing the same pair of pants when writing, they may have to be careful because that pair of pants may be getting worn out! 🙂

    Would love to win a copy of the book. Thank you for the opportunity. This is always an interesting blog to visit.


  2. dtopliff says:

    When I was a kid receiving a paint by number kit delighted me and stretched my skills. Sadly, my art never progressed far beyond that but in fiction I love the application of these principles that fit so well and can definitely tell when someone is writing “by the numbers.” And both of my sons are MDs. Would love to win a copy of Stress Test. Great article. Thanks.

  3. Thanks for the comments so far. I was surprised when the similarity between painting and writing struck me, and the more I thought about it, the more it grew on me. Glad you all like it, too.

  4. BJ Hoff says:

    What a clever, creative post, Richard. Really enjoyed the comparisons and contrasts between the two arts. I’m no painter, but I could easily substitute music for painting when thinking about similarities.

    • Michelle Lim says:

      BJ, thank you so much for stopping by to comment on my blog! I just wanted to say I’m a big fan! I’ve been reading your books for years and have to admit I was really excited to see you post here!

  5. As a potter I often see similarity between the making a vase and creating a story. In making a vase, I have to have the clay centered, create a strong foundation that will hold up the walls and finish off with a flourish. It’s the same way with painting, I would imagine. Great post. I love Richard’s books!

  6. Hi Michelle – and Richard! Ohhh, I love the cover of STRESS TEST. I need to look into this book. It looks like my kind of story. Richard’s metaphor of using a paint-by-number kit with our writing is one that will stay with me because it’s VISUAL, and things I can see stay better imbedding in my memory. Awesome! I’m teaching a class next month on HOW TO WRITE FAST and hope to include this visual if it’s okay with Richard.

  7. Jackie Smith says:

    I am a reader…..and not talented in painting! Enjoyed the post and so anxious to read Stress Test…..have read all Richard’s book so far and loved them.
    Thanks for the giveaway.

  8. Diane Turner says:

    Wonderful analogy between writing and painting, similarities that probably exist between writing and almost any other art form, too. Thanks for the great post.

  9. Thanks for the great comments. Appreciate them.

  10. Eliott McKay says:

    Richard, thank you for your post. I recently attended a seminar that broke down novel writing into fifteen beats. I like the paint by numbers approach, but I also appreciate your “fly by the seat of your pants” method as well. It seems an excellent combination for adding structure while encouraging creative license. Thank you for sharing.

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