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:

WPL Reading 1.JPG

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?”

Speaking at WPL Audience Visible 3.JPG

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):

10yo Book WPL 2.JPG

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!):

Handwritten Teen Book Showing Cover.JPG

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!

Speaking at WPL 3 cropped.jpeg

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!”

Weird Speaking Face 4 cropped.jpeg

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.


Predictive Text Chapter

First of all, if you haven’t yet seen Botnik’s Harry Potter chapter written with a predictive text keyboard programmed with all seven books, you should go read it now. It’s the funniest thing I’ve read all year. Then come back and read this post much later, because just about anything will pale in comparison.

I was so inspired that I decided to use Botnik’s app to upload the text of THE TETHERED MAGE and see if their predictive text keyboard could write a chapter of the sequel for me! I didn’t have the time to invest to get good at using it, but here, for your amusement, is my predictive text chapter of an unspecified Swords & Fire novel.

(Note that this will be funnier if you’ve read THE TETHERED MAGE.)

 

CHAPTER ???

I tried another time to leave the Mews without thinking about fire warlocks. I was hoping to find Marcello in the ducal library. Gray walls held nothing more than a perfunctory smile stretching toward disappointment. I maneuvered between rows of sleek men, fishing for young courtiers.

A new voice said, “The Empire depends on our hospitality.”

A disturbing figure that was worse than any doubt of my own limits flicked his fingers through his hair. Prince Ruven leaned against a wall, like a terrible idea.

Ruven smirked knowingly. “I can change your empire.”

I said lightly, “Here I almost missed your presence in my gut.”

Ruven placed a hand on my shoulder, and I gagged. “You should take my kingdom without hesitation, or ambition burns in my heart.”

My throat was nothing casual. “I couldn’t commend you to my mother.”

Ruven chuckled. “So I suppose it could be dangerous to tell her this foolishness.” His heart was done with my mother. He sighed and sipped a little dish of cheese.

My mother glided through the crowd with a spyglass, watching for assassins. Of course she wore a new diplomatic dagger. It seemed designed to keep any trouble from her life, like some foreboding of nine Hells.

I stared at my mother’s things as she sucked down the whole cursed hall. A moment lengthened under the assessing stare of her intrigues.

She smiled faintly at my breeches. “The Mews has secrets, like a terrible idea about your projects.”

She shrugged wearily at my marred design. It seemed designed to tighten my corset without fuss.

I wanted to protest that she knew nothing of my life. “I tried to do something for you. You have no choice about my overly intricate schematics.”

She raised an empty glass. “That must hurt. You should think of Raverra and your duty.”

“You know I wanted to make everything fit in this gown.”

She shrugged. “I could only imagine what you meant. Destruction, undergarments, and your dignity seem bent with powerful magic.”

A moment later, all my friends from Ardence said that my mother was untouchable.

 

***

 

The doge himself occupied my favorite chair at our table. I gestured to the steaming cups already awaiting us on the table, with both hands on fire. It could be anything, at our family dinner.

I stared past the doge, and Zaira lifted her hand in despair. Marcello bowed stiffly, with a grand resignation.

It could never happen that we wanted a quiet moment for private conversation. I wanted to ask him before breakfast to make sure that she wore her own ignorance as a swarm of ants.

The doge said wearily, “A certain unctuous merchant conveyed bodies in his robes to get into your corset.”

My mother would never stand for that.

“You should preclude comfortable trousers,” I said. “Anything that we can spare to keep them from being unimpressed.”

Marcello murmured, “They want to join your family in their ruthless cruelty.” He leaned against my side and hurled a glass of wine from the room.

In my mind, that was mere noises. I said carefully, “To make the empire covered with their power.”

The doge said, “The Empire stands to keep hidden among the Serene Envoy’s mistresses.”

My mind lacked precise control of my anger. I wanted to protest his attention, for his eyes gleamed with a soft echo of his own ignorance. “You should pay more attention to the imperial seal. The imperial palace is not what you truly wish it were.”

Zaira shrugged ruefully. “A few seconds without fear could change the world.”

The doge dictated a long answer. “You’re a trivial terror, for you know why I can hate you.” His elegant disapproval shaped Zaira’s cellars with his bold voice, and Zaira laughed at his face.

She gave me a challenging smile, and Zaira snorted, “I could survive your presence if you weren’t selling meat to the ragpicker.”

He ordered her to make assumptions, or the generals would pounce. His face burned, as if he might argue with her in the foyer of our palace.

Lace cuffs flew out of her coffee, and Zaira hesitated. A moment later, as he gasped in recognition, she tossed a little orphan girl at him.

I stared at war.

Zaira raised her fist and tried to clench the doge in her hand. She slipped a handful of powerful magic in her hair. Fire leaped at his face, as if he expected something simpler than a pure breath.

Zaira yanked the doge from his seat. His brows lifted toward the spreading flames. I tried not to flinch at her reflection, with her dark fire flickering between us.

She tore his heart, fluttering like a pigeon, with her courtly coiffed hair.

Marcello winced as he scooped a handful of shrieking tendrils in his hands. I asked Marcello for a cake, and he spread the city into flame.

Zaira snorted in her hand. Her arm hung over a hundred deaths. A fire gnawed at the stones scattered around the doge’s door.

I was done at last: vulnerability cluttered the floor.


Writing Female Characters

I’ve now had a few variants on the question, “How do you write such strong female characters?” This always makes me blink a bit, because you know, they don’t ask people “How do you write such strong male characters?”

BUT! It occurred to me that maybe I should actually answer this question in a blog post. Because I’m sure there are many writers out there (guys and otherwise) who would really, honestly like to do right by the fictional women in their writing lives, but aren’t sure how.

So here are some handy, friendly tips to help you!

(Disclaimer: This is by no means definitive, opinions may vary, I’m sure I’m missing stuff, etc. This is only a start, and you don’t have to follow every one of these rules all the time. But I like bullet lists, so here you go!)

The 50% Rule:

  • Make 50% of your characters women. This might sound crazy, but is actually how it works in the real world! (And you may be shocked if you stop and think about the overwhelming proportion of movies and books in which this is not remotely the case.)
  • Carry that 50% through to all levels of narrative importance. Main characters: 50% female. Random passerby: 50% female. Etc.
  • Also carry that 50% through all different roles/jobs/etc. Military and political leaders? 50% female. Caring parents, innocent victims? 50% male. Good guys and bad guys? 50% each. Obviously you don’t need to hit exactly 50% all the time—that would be weird—but shoot for it, roughly speaking. If all your generals are guys and all your hapless murder victims are girls, that kind of perpetuates a really creepy narrative.

Great! Just by following the 50% rule, you are already so, so far ahead of so, so many books out there. (Including, to be clear, many I absolutely love.)

Also, I should add that nonbinary characters are extremely awesome to include, too.

Treat Characters Equally:

  • Make your female characters as competent as your male characters. And make them stay as competent as your male characters. Nothing is more disappointing than doing a character intro where a woman seems to be a badass and then she’s just kidnapping bait for the rest of the story. (Glares bitterly at certain anime and also a certain Robin Hood movie)
  • Avoid sexualizing your female characters more than your male characters. (Sure, if your POV is a horny hetero dude, he’s going to be seeing the world through a certain lens, but think about how your female characters are presenting themselves to the world, and make sure your lens as a writer is more objective than your character’s, if that makes sense.)
  • Make sure you have important female characters who have their own role in the story, besides “Mother figure” or “Love interest.” Don’t always define women by their relationship to men.
  • Make sure most or all of your female characters’ backstories and character arcs would work equally well if they had no reproductive equipment. One grows weary of reading womb-and-vagina-based backstories all the time.
  • Relatedly, avoid including rape or sexual assault as a cheap plot device. Murder works just as well to show how bad your villain is or to give your hero a reason to want vengeance. Maybe they could even murder the hero’s male best friend rather than his childhood sweetheart!
  • Avoid sexy=evil (I mean, let’s face it, evil is sexy, but that’s very different than sexiness being a sign of evil). Also avoid pretty=good (and its nasty corollary, ugly=evil). This is not at all to say you can’t have sexy evil people or pretty good people, but make sure it’s not, like, a hard and fast rule in your universe, and that the relationship between appearance and alignment does not come off as causational.
  • Basically, just write your female characters as people. If you could gender swap the character and the story would still work, you’re probably doing a good job.
  • Remember to let your guys be sensitive and caregivers and fashion-conscious and so forth, too, and to portray “softer” male characters in a positive light!

If you’ve written stuff that breaks some or all of these rules, don’t feel bad. These stereotypes have been around a long time, and it’s hard to weed them out of your own brain. Honestly, MOST SFF breaks these rules, including many of my favorite books. (Though not all SFF! A great example of a recent book written by a male author which is fantastic about following these rules is Stephen Aryan’s MAGEBORN, for instance.)

I would loooooove to see more new books that really treat female (and enby!) characters with the same seriousness they treat male characters. If you would, too, perhaps consider these tips as a non-exhaustive starting point to being part of the solution.

GO FORTH AND WRITE AWESOME LADIES!