Let’s Talk Agency

Every first draft I’ve ever written has had agency problems. Which sounds like a bunch of guys in suits with dark glasses should be pulling up in a black van and hustling my draft into the back, but it’s nowhere near that exciting. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite of exciting.

Agency is, basically, your character’s ability to affect the plot in pursuit of their goals. It’s something I think a lot of writers struggle with, and I think it can be especially difficult in fantasy because a lot of our favorite tropes steal agency from the main character. Fantasy tends to have the plot kicked off by a villain doing Bad Things, and often that villain continues to drive the plot forward doing More Bad Things, and all our character can do is run around putting out fires and trying frantically to stop Yet More Bad Things from occurring.

This feels pretty natural, right? For me, at least, when I first come up with a plot, it’s often a series of nasty surprises the characters must deal with. I love the “OH SHIT!” moments SO MUCH, and I often build my plot around those to some degree—and they can turn out to be some of the most intense moments in the book. But there are some problems that come with lack of agency.

One of the most important is that it undermines character. Moments of choice are vital to defining character; but if I’m too busy dodging assassins and following prophecies as if they were cake recipes, I’m not making any important decisions. Having goals and motivations is also central to character, but if all my goals are created for me by the villain (stay alive, save my friends, protect the village, etc), they don’t illuminate much about who I am, and what inner drives propel me forward.

For this reason, lack of agency also sabotages the story’s through line. The main character’s pursuit of their goals is the thread running through the entire story, the current that pulls the reader inexorably onward and keeps them turning pages. If our hero doesn’t have personally significant goals to actively pursue, and is just reacting to a series of events—no matter how exciting—the story falls flat between those events. Like, WOW, thank goodness we escaped those assassins! Now we’ll, uh, sit around drinking tea and talking about what a close call that was and how we wish we knew who was trying to kill us until the NEXT exciting surprise happens, I guess. (My first drafts are often SUPER GUILTY of this.) This drops the tension on the floor, leaving the reader with nothing to draw them onward.

So, okay, agency is important! How do you check whether your main character has it? Ask yourself these three questions, both in general and on a scene-by-scene level:

Does the character have a personally important goal (with something at stake and serious consequences if they fail to attain it)? This doesn’t even have to have anything directly to do with the main plot. Maybe the main plot is to defeat the dark lord, but what our hero really wants is to find her missing sister, or for her parents to finally accept her, or to show the world that her invisibility device can WORK, dammit, so they’ll never laugh at her again.

Are they taking actions to pursue that goal? We need to see them doing stuff to try to get what they want, and not just sitting on their hands hoping someone will hand it to them, or letting some mentor figure drag them along the path to victory.

Are the actions they’re taking having an effect on the plot? This doesn’t need to be the effect the character intends, mind you. Their plans can go horribly wrong, thereby saving you from a premature happy ending on page 75. Unexpected twists can derail or reroute their efforts, or their actions could even make things worse because they didn’t understand the true situation. But things should be different because they tried.

If you realize your character lacks agency in some or all of your book, don’t despair! Not only can you fix this, but fixing it often will take your book to the next level.

For instance, let’s say you have a plot point where your character gets captured. How the heck can getting captured be a result of them pursuing their goals? Well, maybe instead of getting captured when they’re jumped by kidnappers while walking down the street, they get captured when they’re in the midst of sneaking into the castle of Count Sardonico, looking for murder evidence, and WHOOPS he’s unexpectedly ready for them! Or someone in the party HAD to try to steal the thing behind the magical alarm wards, or there was this clue about your MC’s missing sister that she HAD to check out even though there were guards patrolling that area, etc…make it character-driven, so the choices your characters make are important. (Just make certain those choices are relatable and not plain old stupid. No one likes that guy who throws himself on the enemy’s swords because DRAMA.)

Or let’s say you need to drop a big stunning information bomb on your characters. (Your missing sister IS the dark lord! There is a traitor among you! Your entire world was MADE OF CHEESE all along!) Instead of having some mysterious figure swoop in and announce this, or having them stumble across the crucial info, have them obtain it in a hands-on way while pursuing their goals (even if it’s not the info they thought they were getting). Maybe they actively go spy on the bad guys to overhear their plans, or retrieve the ancient world-cheese artifact from antiquities smugglers, or trick the info out of the Dark Lord’s sinisterly charming lieutenant at a fancy party. It’s cooler if they have to work for it.

Some of my favorite moments in my own books have come from a realization that I needed to increase agency. It’s hard to give specific examples without getting spoilery…But for instance, there’s an, uh, decision Amalia makes at a party around the end of Chapter 4 in The Defiant Heir which has a huge effect on the course of the book. In my very first partial exploratory draft, this was a decision her mother made for her. But I quickly realized that it would be SO MUCH COOLER if she made it herself, and that one change made the entire book SO MUCH BETTER.

Obviously the antagonist’s actions are also still important, and it’s okay for our heroes to be caught completely flat-footed sometimes. But overall, it’s important to make sure our main characters are propelling the plot forward, not being dragged limply through it. Sometimes they may accidentally roll their Sisyphus boulder off a cliff instead of up the mountain (oops), or it may slip in their grasp and run them over as it tumbles back down the hill, but they need to keep trying. If Sisyphus takes a nap, the tension is gone, and we put down the story.

 


Floon and Flying

My second published book, THE DEFIANT HEIR (sequel to THE TETHERED MAGE), is now out! YAAAYYYY!!!!!!!!!!! I absolutely love this book and am so thrilled to share it with the world. I am super proud of it!

The process of writing it was very different from my previous (usual? former?) writing process, mostly because deadlines change everything. Before, I could revise and polish to my heart’s content before showing my book to anyone, and go at my own pace. Now, I had to finish my first draft and each round of edits by a specified date, no matter what.

There’s a myth out there that you can’t force creativity. That you have to wait around for your muse to show up. HA HA HA HA HA HA HA oh, wow, if that were true, let me tell you, I would be SO SCREWED.

Luckily, being creative on demand works just fine after all—at least for me. If the reviews I’ve seen (and my own feelings) are to be believed, THE DEFIANT HEIR (which I wrote under heavy time pressure) came out even better than THE TETHERED MAGE (which I initially wrote at my own pace).

So, yeah, I learned a ton from writing my first deadline-driven book. One of the things I learned was about the strange and complicated relationship between creative enthusiasm and creative success. Spoiler: IT’S REALLY WEIRD and doesn’t work at all like I’d thought it did.

First of all, I need to define a term. In one of my circles, there is this fantastic word for creative energy, inspiration, and enthusiasm: floon. When you’re all fired up to work on a creative project, you have floon for it. When you stare at your screen like ugh, and wander off to catch up on laundry instead, you’re low on floon. Or you might have floon for a specific thing, like dinosaur floon or drawing floon.

Every writer grapples with the capriciousness of the floon fairy, whether they use the term or not. Some days you sit down to the keyboard bursting with electric enthusiasm, and other days…not so much. Or you might be staring down a deadline on Project A when you actually have huge floon to work on Shiny New Project B.

It’s easy to believe that if you’re not feeling it, your writing will be crap. That maybe you should just wait for an hour or a day when the juice is flowing freely, or you’ll wind up writing uninspired sludge.

Well, when you’re writing to a tight deadline—as I was with THE DEFIANT HEIR, for the very first time—you don’t have that choice. You have to write anyway, floon or no floon. And I learned a couple of interesting and seemingly contradictory things:

Thing 1: It’s a myth that your writing will be crap if you force it when you’re not feeling it. You can write great stuff on days when you’re dragging each word out over a bed of nails, and you can write garbled drivel on days when you feel like you’re channeling the primal font of divine inspiration.

Thing 2: If you’re feeling persistent reluctance to write a particular section, listen to it. Your instincts are trying to tell you something.

This second one turned out to be really important. With both THE DEFIANT HEIR and with my first draft of Book 3 (which I just turned in last month, wooo!), I got pretty far in—like 50K words—and hit a wall. I had absolutely no floon for the thing I needed to write next. I had plenty for stuff later on, and for stuff earlier, but this whole big middle section was proving to be torture.

In both cases, I stopped and listened to my own reluctance, and realized that I was instinctively digging in my heels because I was trying to force the story in a direction it didn’t want to go. There were structural problems I needed to address before I could continue. With a deadline looming, it’s hard to make yourself go back and rewrite, eating up valuable weeks, rather than forging ahead to finish a draft—but that’s what I did, and it was a huge relief. It made the story so much better, and I could continue with much more momentum.

On a day to day basis, however, I’d often wake up and feel like I couldn’t possibly write—the kids and pets were being too distracting, I was too tired or stressed, I wasn’t feeling the passion I needed. I didn’t have the floon. But I made myself write anyway, because AAAAAH DEADLINE is a great motivator, and more often than not it turned out just fine.

So when the embers of floon are burning low, ask yourself: Why is this hard? If it’s just the blahs, or self-doubt, or stress, you can keep going (unless you need a break for self-care, in which case absolutely take that). Your writing will not automatically be crap just because you feel like it’s crap. If you can’t light the fire, travel in the dark, and you can still make it to wonderful places.

But if you’re reluctant because your instincts are resisting where you’re taking the story—if your feet are dragging because they don’t want to go into the writing swamp ahead which you could avoid if you backtrack and take that bridge you saw—then listen. Figure out what the problem is, and fix it before you continue.

Of course, figuring out which is which can be tricky. But if it’s just a vague “eh, I’m not feeling it today,” don’t let that stop you!

Weirdly enough, you don’t actually have to believe in yourself to fly.


So Many Notes

I just finished my first full draft of Book 3 of Swords & Fire last night (yay!). This morning I’m making an edit triage doc, and I thought it might be fun to make a quick writing process post on how many notes I make while drafting. (Spoiler: A LOT.)

For this draft alone (and there will be many more drafts), not counting the two restarts I did along the way (one of them 60K words in to the draft), I had the following supplementary notes files:

Initial brainstorming doc (20 pages): Contained rambly brainstorming, basically talking to myself on paper, with sections titled things like “Maybethot” and “Ruminating.”

Initial outline (26 pages): Contained an outline, to do list, and schedule, but also quickly deteriorated into pages of notes on ideas for ways I might change the outline.

Revised outline brainstorming (5 pages): Starts with a weird little poem in which I tell myself to get my act together and figure out what this book is really about, then some more really deep thoughts about theme and character arcs (This came before the pivotal moment when I restarted at 70K words and was kind of a mid-book crisis on paper).

“Midway Notes” doc (19 pages): Lots of brainstorming (lists of scenes, talking to myself,  character arc notes, through line notes, scene ideas, you name it), mostly focused on rewriting the first third of the book.

Version 3 Outline (20 pages): More organized list of scenes and what needs to be in them, with a space at the end to make notes about edit ideas I didn’t have time for now but would have to get in a later pass.

That’s 90 pages of (single spaced) notes for a 386 page (double spaced) draft. And there will be many more pages of notes for revisions, oh yes, let me assure you. (Like this edit triage doc, which breaks up edits I definitely want to get in before handing in this draft to my editor on Friday versus edits that can wait until next round.)

In writing this book, I found it particularly useful to talk myself through important scenes on paper before I wrote them, so my notes will be like “OKAY. So she walks in thinking X, and then Y is there, and it’s like OH NO! And then maybe Z happens, AAAHHH! And then she’s like OH NO YOU DON’T and then BOOM! Everything is on fire.” (Not an actual quote from my notes or scene in the book, but you get the idea. I like capital letters.) Then I have the major beats of the scene clear in my head before I write, and my first pass at it is less flail-y. So a lot of the page counts on my notes are me thinking through scenes or plot arcs to myself like that.

This all ties into how I answer the classic “plotter or pantser” question. I’m a plotter, in the sense that I make these pages of notes and outlines, but I’m also flexible and constantly reworking the outline and changing my plans as I go.

Everyone’s process is different, and mine even changes from book to book. But that’s been mine for this draft, anyway! And remember, kids, if you have a mid-draft crisis, never be afraid to restart. For me, at least, it always leads to a better book.

 


Isolating Plot Arcs for the Win

People often ask if I’m a plotter or a pantser, and the truth is I plot like crazy in advance, but also am always rethinking and editing my outline as I go. As I’m working on Book 3 there are a couple of tricks I’ve found really useful for refining my outline in mid-draft, and I thought I’d share them with you.

Today’s technique: separately plotting individual arcs! This has been SO HELPFUL for me in identifying places where the story is weak and needs a bit more.

I was plunging into the second half of Book 3, and wanted to figure out what exact senes needed to occur to resolve the remaining plot. I had an outline, and I could tell something was wrong with pacing or stakes (or possibly both) in one large section of it. But I couldn’t figure out what.

So I pulled out each of the four major plot threads and made lists of the remaining scenes or moments in each thread, separate from the rest of the outline. This showed me the structure of each thread standing on its own, without all the other stuff cluttering it up.

And here’s what I found for one of them, generalized to avoid spoilers (each bullet point is a scene):

  • BAD THING HAPPENS! OH NO!!!
  • Yup, still bad.
  • That bad thing? STILL SO BAD.
  • Hey, that bad thing is still out there, in case you were wondering. Being bad and all.
  • AHHHHH BAD THING COMES TO A CRISIS AND SUPER DRAMATIC RESOLUTION!!!!

I hadn’t noticed when it was all mixed in with other plot points and scenes, but I had this big dramatic plotline that just didn’t move at all for a long stretch despite having a feeling of urgency and a lot of emotional importance. I had scenes planned that would punch the sore spot, as it were, but they didn’t change anything or move the plot forward.

(As a side note, I think this particular structural pitfall is a REALLY common and seductive one for writers. We have a great idea for dramatically kicking off conflict and another great idea for dramatically resolving the conflict, but we are way more vague on what happens in between these two points.)

Once I spotted this problem, it wasn’t too hard to fix—I just had to think of what could change and what could be at stake in those middle scenes. But I couldn’t see it until I pulled it out from the rest of the outline and looked at it on its own.

This trick was also really useful for checking the through line of each separate plot, making sure that each action naturally set up the next one and that there was a compelling flow from beginning to end. It made it easier to make sure that the relevant characters for each thread were changing and having an inner or emotional arc that paralleled the plot arc. And it made it super easy to spot redundant scenes.

Once I’d cleaned up each separate arc, I could weave them back together into the outline, paying careful attention to the overall through line to make sure I had a coherent, smoothly flowing story and not a patchwork of unconnected pieces. I’m sure it still needs work, because this is an early draft, but wow, it’s a lot better than it was!

I’ve also sometimes done this for major characters, pulling out the scenes or moments that are important touchstones for them in their personal arc through the story, and I think it can be very helpful in making sure your characters have compelling and coherent personal arcs. It’s especially useful when you want to strengthen an important non-POV character like a BFF or love interest who you might otherwise wind up seeing only through the lens of how they fit into the main character’s story.

I think this can also be a really useful thing to do between drafts, when you’ve got the basic story down and are trying to figure out how to hone it into its sleekest, deadliest form! (Uh, well, maybe not deadly if you’re writing, say, a cozy romance? I dunno, I like stories with murder in them, what can I say.)

I hope that’s helpful if you’re struggling with structure! GO YE FORTH AND MAKE BULLET POINTS!


Going Viral

After I got my kids off to school on the morning of January 31, I knew I really SHOULD be working, but instead I guiltily took half an hour to post a silly Twitter thread I’d been wanting to do for a while on swordfighting in ballgowns, using Disney princess dresses as examples. (Look, what can I say, I think about these things a lot.) I fired it off and went back to work, hoping it would amuse the, like, I don’t know, six people who also think swordfighting in ballgowns is awesome and badass and might like to know more about it, presumably for writerly reasons.

I learned something that day.

I learned that the internet is not just a labyrinth of evil trolls. It is also an awesome place full of excellent people who totally get how awesome fighting in ballgowns is (or at least who find my babbling about it to be amusingly weird, and hey, Disney princess gifs).

The thread went viral. My notifications lit up. Tor.com posted a cool article about it comparing my observations to corresponding ones made in a really neat post by Marie Brennan about doing karate in a Victorian gown (we both agree, it’s the sleeves that get you). I woke up the next morning to find my thread was an official Twitter Moment in several countries. And it only got bigger from there.

An editor from The Mary Sue contacted me asking if they could do this piece on the thread. (I said yes, and was super excited.) Then my sister-in-law linked me to this Daily Mail article about it, which I laughed uncontrollably about for like a day. Somehow, they found a picture of me in costume on some dark corner of the internet and posted that as the lead photo…and after performing this impressive feat of investigative journalism, they got my book title and state of residence wrong (they at least fixed the book title later). OH HEY GO AHEAD AND BLOW MY COVER AND REVEAL ME AS AN EVIL FAIRY QUEEN, DAILY MAIL, IT’S OKAY BECAUSE ALL THE HEROES SEEKING TO VANQUISH ME WILL GO TO MICHIGAN.

Having that tweet thread go viral was way more fun than I could ever have expected, and I loved some of the replies and quote-tweet comments so much. A really fascinating range of awesome people talked about how this corresponded with their experience in doing everything from stage fighting to martial arts to actual ballroom dancing (which, surprise surprise, also requires a certain range of movement) in gowns. Several dads posted about sharing this knowledge with their daughters so that they could kick butt in fancy dresses (cue my melting heart). People with greater historical knowledge than I chimed in with really cool and interesting information, anecdotes, and links to relevant articles. Everyone just seemed so excited and into it, and the comments were amazing.

I also had to giggle a bit whenever someone quote-tweeted saying something like “Wow, look at all the scholarship and research that went into this thread!” YES. SO MUCH SERIOUS RESEARCH. I AM NOT JUST A NERD WHO HAS ACCUMULATED YEARS OF PRACTICAL EXPERIENCE AS A SIDE EFFECT OF MY SUPER GEEKY HOBBIES. I DID IT ALL FOR SCIENCE.

Maybe the best part, though, was seeing creative people from writers to video game artists talk about how they were going to use this information to add more badass ladies fighting in dresses to their work. Needless to say, I am totally here for this.

As I said to my husband when the thread was in full viral swing: So, I guess my brand is swordfighting in ballgowns now.

You know what? I am very much okay with that.


Worcester Public Library Event Photos

I had a lovely time at the Worcester Public Library on Tuesday! They have a really beautiful space, and it’s a great library with a ton of books run by wonderful people. We had a nice crowd including readers, writers, and friends, and my awesome friend Beth kindly took a ton of photos for me, so I can share some with you!

Here I am reading THE TETHERED MAGE in front of the backdrop they set up from these cool exhibit panel thingies they had around the library:

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And here I am answering questions from the audience, which luckily did not include “Do you realize you’re wearing the same shirt as in your author photo? Do you even HAVE another shirt?”

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I started out the “talk” portion mentioning how hard it is to answer questions like “What was the first book you wrote?” or “How many books did you write before you got published?” when you’ve been writing since you were a kid, complete with samples from my foolish youth. Here’s the Gargor Eats People page of the actual first book I ever created (at the age of 3 or 4), which I think I mention in the interview in the back of THE TETHERED MAGE:

Gargor Eats People WPL.JPG

And here’s a (very) thinly disguised Pern fanfic I wrote in a blank journal when I was 10 (LOOK I WAS REALLY PROUD IT WAS A BOOK FULL OF WORDS OKAY):

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And here’s the big binder full of hundreds of pages of the book I wrote by hand, in pen, as a teenager (WHO NEEDS SECOND DRAFTS WHEN YOU’RE 15? YOU DON’T RULE ME YOU CAN’T MAKE ME EDIT!):

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I had a great time taking a lot of really wonderful questions from a fantastic audience. Some great questions about everything from developing your own narrative voice, to the cover process, to questions about THE DEFIANT HEIR and what’s next beyond!

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Here’s my favorite pic from the Q&A segment. I have no idea what I was saying. Maybe “You want to be a WRITER?! WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT TO YOURSELF?! FOR MERCY’S SAKE, ESCAPE NOW WHILE YOU CAN!”

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Thanks to the WPL and everyone who came by on a cold night!

 


Writing Goals for 2018

Whatever else 2017 was (and oh, wow, it was a bunch of things), it was my debut year, and that was an amazing experience. I am so grateful for everyone who helped make it happen, and helped make it wonderful.

I do goals instead of resolutions for the new year, because a goal is something you can keep working toward even when you stumble along the way, while a resolution is more brittle and tends to shatter when cracked. So! Here is a big, beautiful year stretching out in front of me, like snow without footprints! Here’s what I’ll strive for this year in my writing life:

Find a better work/life balance. 2017 was my first year writing to a deadline on top of working, parenting, doing publicity stuff, and managing a household. And hey, you know what? It turns out that there are only 24 hours in a day! And no matter how hard you work and how efficient you are with your time, you can’t actually make more hours! Is that bullshit, or what?

I wound up having to dramatically curtail my social life and spend less time with friends and family, and while they were all wonderful and understanding, I want to make sure that in 2018, I always save time for the amazing people in my life. And also for sleep.

Read more. I used to devour multiple books a week in my carefree youth before I had the aforementioned two careers plus family, and while I probably can’t get back to that glorious time until I can quit my day job or my kids move out, I can certainly move in that direction. My TBR pile is full of amazing books I am DROOLING over and desperately want to read. I need to start making it smaller while still adding more books! Giving myself license to read as an important part of my job as a writer, rather than thinking of it guiltily as a fun thing I’m only doing for myself, will hopefully help.

Write Book Three! I am so excited to write the third Swords & Fire book and finish out my first trilogy! It’s going to be EPIC.

Start a new book! I’m eyeing the book I had just started when THE TETHERED MAGE sold (which is a multi-POV thing with politics and murder and magic because WHAT I LIKE POLITICS AND MURDER AND MAGIC THESE ARE YUMMY FLAVORS). But I’m not going to worry too much about what’s next until Book 3 is done.

And that’s probably enough. I do like my goals to be attainable, after all.

Happy new year! And may all your creative endeavors this year be fruitful, satisfying, and most importantly, awesome.