Don’t Just Paint By Numbers

It’s my pleasure to welcome Dr. Richard Mabry, a retired physician and a medical Mabry headshot (2) suspense author to my blog. Dr. Mabry is  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.

Dr. Mabry is sharing a post which originally appeared on Michele Lim’s blog not long ago which was so popular he has agreed to repeat it here. Share your answers to Dr. Mabry’s questions at the end of the post.


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. For Stress Test, I started with a kidnapping.

Third, fill in the painting, making changes as you go. For a painter, this might 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. I did that in Stress Test. 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. The editor has input, but in the end, it’s the writer’s decision.

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?

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About Stress Test:Mabry.StressTest (2)

They may not have enough evidence to convict him, but they have enough to ruin his life.

Dr Matt Newman thought he was leaving his life as a surgeon in private practice for a better one in academic medicine. But the kidnappers who attack him as he leaves the hospital at two AM have no such plans–they just want him dead. Bound and in the trunk of his car, Matt’s only thought is fleeing with his life. He does escape, but at a price: a head injury that lands him in ICU…where he awakens to discover he’s being charged with murder.

Sandra Murray is a fiery, redheaded lawyer who swore she was done with doctors after her last relationship. But when Matt calls, she knows she can’t walk away from defending someone who is truly innocent.

Matt’s career is going down the drain. His freedom and perhaps his life may be next. But with the police convinced he’s a killer and the kidnappers still trying to finish what they started, finding the truth and the the faith to keep going will be the toughest stress test Matt has ever endured.

(To read the first chapter of Stress Test, go to Dr. Mabry’s website.

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            Ordering Information: Stress Test is available via,, or at your independent retailer.


7 thoughts on “Don’t Just Paint By Numbers

  1. I can’t say I do a paint by numbers type of writing, but I can certainly recognize it a mile away.This is particularly true in romances and even in some suspense writers’ work. Just the names and places change in the plot.


  2. Richard:
    Thanks so much for sharing your expertise with the rest of us. What a great post. As a reader, I can tell when I see a plot that is similar to one I read before. I’ve seen this in thrillers and other genres.


  3. Dr. Mabry: Thank you for visiting my blog. As a writer, I try not to be formulaic, but I know exactly what you’re talking about. I’ve read novels recently where the author did the same thing in each book. One book, the heroine had trust issues and the hero was wonderful, the next the hero had trust issues and the heroine was wonderful. I think we all can pick up on this if a writer does multiple books close together.


  4. I loved your comparison of writing and painting. Certainly I try to be original, and hope no reader ever thinks I’m “writing by the numbers.” Thanks for sharing. Wishing you continued success in writing.


  5. Painting by the numbers brought back memories when I was in Art College. My drawing instructor told me, “You draw like Gauguin”. When I put my chest out he said, “Don’t put your chest out, Gauguin couldn’t draw either.” I sometimes feel the same way about my writing.


  6. I like the comparison of writing with painting. Although people don’t like the idea of “formula writing,” which they attribute to Harlequin, a writer needs to consider reader expectation, which Harlequin uses to decide whether to publish a manuscript. Readers like strong women, alpha heroes, conflict between them, growth of characters and a “happy ever after” ending. Harlequin also discourages dark and disgusting themes they feel many readers might dislike. while you need to include the reader expected elements, there is lots of room for creativity and twists on old plots to bring freshness to your writing.
    Carolyn Rae Author – facebook, author of Romancing the Gold, coming soon from Noble Romance


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