Writing Goals for 2019

It’s 2019! Woo hoo! A new year!

I like to set writing goals (rather than resolutions, which are WAY too all-or-nothing for my taste) for each new year, to give myself a direction to focus my energies. I know I won’t completely achieve every one of these to the fullest extent, but I’m going to try, and hopefully that trying will create some sort of net positive result.

So without further ado, here are my writing goals for 2019:

1) Build a better work/Life balance: Find a balance that lets me give my family and writing the full attention they deserve while still making enough room for my day job and household tasks…All while getting sufficient sleep and taking decent care of myself! HA HA HA JUST KIDDING THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE WITHOUT TIME TRAVEL. But I’ll do my best to move in that direction, anyway.

2) Try new things and keep growing as a writer: I always want to keep pushing my boundaries and exploring in new directions. One thing I’ll be working on in 2019 with my new book is building a compelling group dynamic for a set of characters who function as a team, something I haven’t done before. I am super excited to play with this new toy. Romantic tensions! In jokes! Bickering! Secrets! Broken yet loving relationships! Loyalty to death and beyond! I CAN’T WAIT.

3) Confront my demons: (Look, that sounded cooler than “Get better at the things I’m bad at.”) Let’s face it, no one’s perfect. I want to keep identifying and eliminating (or at least mitigating) my weaknesses. One big one I’d love to tackle this year is SCENE TRANSITIONS UGH I HATE THOSE THINGS. If I could learn to get into and out of a scene gracefully and effortlessly on the first try, I could get back SO MANY HOURS OF MY LIFE.

4) Put a dent in my to-read pile: I have this stack of AMAZING unread books sitting there taunting me like a full box of chocolates, and I want to nom my way through as much of it as possible! Which will be less than I’d like. BUT STILL! I must read as many books as I can… to make room for MORE BOOKS.

5) Finish Book One of my new trilogy and start Book Two! This one, at least, I should be able to manage (or else my editor is going to be really mad at me). Deadlines: ensuring productivity since…uh…whenever they invented deadlines. But seriously, I am SO EXCITED about this new series, and am having a blast with this first book. I can’t wait to share it with you!

That’s probably enough writing-related goals for one year. If I have too many, it’ll dilute my focus, which is like the opposite of the point.

Happy New Year! What goals have you got for 2019, if you do the goals thing? (It’s okay if you don’t. If they’re not useful for you, don’t do ‘em.)


Writing Year in Review

2018 was my first full year as a published author. A lot of extremely exciting things happened, and also a lot of flailing in panic. Because getting published after a lifetime of striving for this goal is a bit like yearning to be allowed in the deep end of the pool as a kid and then finally diving in and realizing WHOOPS I HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO SWIM.

It was a hell of a year for me as a writer, even if you only look at the biggest highlights:

  • THE DEFIANT HEIR was published! And it got some really lovely reviews and pretty much everyone liked it even better than THE TETHERED MAGE, yay!
  • My swordfighting in ballgowns Twitter thread went viral, which was a bizarre experience with all kinds of unexpected long-reaching and delightful consequences!
  • THE TETHERED MAGE got shortlisted for the Gemmell Morningstar award! I’m STILL in shock!
  • I wrote THE UNBOUND EMPIRE, finishing my very first trilogy!
  • I sold a new trilogy to Orbit and started writing the first book!

I also unlocked a lot of little writer achievements that meant a ton to me personally. Fan emails, hearing I kept people up late at night, fan art (!!!), someone running a D&D campaign based partly on my books, a FAN TATTOO WITH MY BOOK IN IT, hearing my book comforted someone through hard times, a reader’s kids playing Falcon & Falconer, making readers cry, a Halloween costume partly inspired by TDH, people tweeting about their book hangovers after finishing one of my books…This sort of thing is what I always wanted. This is why I write: to bring a bit of story-joy into people’s lives. Every little reader interaction like that makes me squee and smile and tell my family “Someone liked my book!” like it was the first time. (THANK YOU, awesome readers!)

So it was a fantastic year for me as a writer! But it was also a tough year. My deadlines for THE UNBOUND EMPIRE were tight, and it was a real struggle to balance work and life, especially with parenting. I really need some way to wedge an extra 5-10 hours into every day—it would solve a lot of problems. So if you have a line on an available time turner, please, let me know.

Next year looks to be very nearly as exciting—I’ve got THE UNBOUND EMPIRE coming out in April, and will be working hard on the new trilogy. I honestly still can’t believe any of this is happening.

I hope your 2018 had some good stories in it, whether you read them, wrote them, or lived them, and that 2019 is even better!


One Year of Published Authorhood!

Today marks the one year anniversary of the US publication of THE TETHERED MAGE. I’ve now been a published author for one whole year! WOO HOO!

If you want to get in the time machine, you can read my original post about my debut release  (with pictures).

But I thought that in honor of this anniversary, I’d offer you my list of Things That Are Actually Different In My Life Now That I’m a Published Author:

  • When people ask me what I do for a living, I get to say I’m an author! And then they look at me funny and try to figure out what that means and if I’m for real (whatever that means to them), and ask awkward questions, and it’s all needlessly complicated.
  • My fun hobby is now a job with deadlines. LIFE-CONSUMING DEADLINES. HA HA HA I DIDN’T WANT TO DO ANYTHING BESIDES WRITE EVER ANYWAY. THIS IS FINE
  • When I walk into a bookstore, sometimes (usually!) MY BOOKS ARE ON THE SHELF HOLY CRAP!!! THIS NEVER STOPS BEING AMAZING!
  • The default small talk topic at family gatherings has turned from “how are the kids” to “how are the books,” which is actually WAY MORE AWKWARD than you’d think
  • Sometimes COMPLETE STRANGERS make posts on the internet about my books keeping them up late at night or making them miss their train stop and IT GIVES ME LIFE
  • Where the fuck did all my Sharpies go?!
  • I never get to see my friends anymore because DID I MENTION THE DEADLINES (SOB)
  • BUT! My friends are awesome and understanding and POST SHELFIES WITH MY BOOKS IN THE WILD and squee about them with me and are in all ways THE BEST
  • Taxes, on the other hand, are THE WORST whyyyyyyyy so complicated ARGH
  • My teen’s geeky friends suddenly think I’m cool
  • Dread about whether I’ll ever be good enough to get published now replaced by even more crushing dread about whether I’ll live up to the expectations of my readers & publisher with the next book
  • Sometimes I’m just sitting there in my living room and I see MY BOOKS ON THE SHELF and I have to go pet them and sniff them and look, this is TOTALLY NORMAL

All in all, I have to say, it’s been PRETTY FRICKIN’ AMAZING. Happy first birthday to THE TETHERED MAGE, and I can’t wait to see what the next year brings!


Why Completing a Trilogy is Terrifying

Last month I turned in my second round of edits for THE UNBOUND EMPIRE! This means that while there are still more rounds of edits to go, the story itself is more or less finalized. What ultimately happens to these characters I’ve written about for three books is unlikely to change.

I have, essentially, finished the story—completed my very first trilogy.

HA HA HA THAT’S TOTALLY NOT SCARY, OF COURSE. I’M NOT SCARED. ARE YOU SCARED?

(Looks at what happens in Book 3)

…Actually, okay, if you care about these characters, MAYBE YOU SHOULD BE SCARED. MU HA HA HA HA!

But WAIT! There it is. The thing I’m here to tell you about. The thing I didn’t expect to feel on wrapping up my first series.

Guilt.

I started out writing THE UNBOUND EMPIRE like I’d write any other book, merrily puttering along, coming up with various OH NO terrible twists to raise the stakes, like you do. But there was one huge difference in writing this book versus every other book I’ve ever written: I was writing it after the first books were already published.

I had real, live readers already invested in the story.

As I drafted THE UNBOUND EMPIRE, I’d do something really mean to Character X…and then some lovely reader would post something saying “I love Character X and I hope they’re happy forever!” And I’d look at the book like um, wow, uhhh, hmm. Define “happy.”

I finally made my decisions about how things wind up with Amalia’s personal life…and then saw people shipping various mutually exclusive outcomes and was like oh, huh, I guess NO MATTER WHAT some people are going to be disappointed. Eek!

Now, of course I KNOW that the vast majority of readers WANT me to torment their favorite characters, even while at the same time they want them to be happy. Because reading is just weird like that, and it’s probably best not to think about why we’re like “NOOOOOO DON’T HURT MY FAVE” on one level while on another we’re like “YESSSSSSSSS HURT MY FAVE MORE.” I DON’T MAKE THE RULES. THAT’S JUST HOW IT IS.

And of course I KNOW that you have to be true to your story. What we ultimately want as readers is for the story’s ending to be the perfect ending for that story, even if it’s not the ending we wanted. Or thought we wanted.

Writing the ending of a story isn’t giving everyone their own favorite flavor of candy—it can’t be. (THAT’S WHAT FANFIC IS FOR.)

But that doesn’t make it any less intimidating when you realize that chances are good you will let someone, somewhere, down. It’s scary! And it wasn’t something I saw coming. (I can only imagine it’d be EVEN SCARIER if I wrote really grimdark stuff. Hats off to writers who do!)

I know I can’t give everyone the pony they always wanted, even though ALL I WANT IS TO GIVE MY READERS PONIES. Instead of a sparkly snuggle pony, you may get a pony with eyes made of fire and half-rotted bat wings and a mane like the midnight sky…I’M NOT SAYING YOU WILL…but that’s a thing that could happen. MAYBE THIS IS JUST WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I MAKE PONIES, ALL RIGHT? DON’T JUDGE ME.

Look, whether that metaphor actually makes any sense or not, the point is: I adore my readers. I want to give you a story you’ll love.

And it was scary to realize that to do that, I had to push aside everything I might know or be able to guess about what my readers want, or think they want, and instead write the story the way it wanted to be told.

As it happens, I’m pretty happy with how the ending turned out. I hope everyone else likes it, too! But if you don’t, well, feel free to make a different ending for yourself and believe in that one. I won’t mind.

I’m so excited to share this story with you! Is it April yet?


Dramatic Tension

(Yet another in the series of Twitter threads I’m translating to blog posts! Enjoy.)

So I know I talk a lot about how you need compelling conflict and stakes to have a gripping story. But on a line-by-line and page-by-page level, what keeps me reading is their more nebulous cousin, dramatic tension.

Basically, dramatic tension is what gives you that feeling of OMG I HAVE TO KEEP READING. It’s what keeps you up past your bedtime with a really good book.

But the really wild thing about dramatic tension is that it can come from SO MANY DIFFERENT SOURCES!

The obvious one is I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT! This is an especially great one to use with your chapter breaks—ending a chapter when your character has just been stabbed, or the main character’s dark secret has just been publicly revealed, etc.

But there are lots more, like:

  • I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED IN THE PAST (when you darkly hint at the Tragic Backstory Incident for a while rather than just dumping it up front)
  • I NEED TO KNOW WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON (when Mysterious Events are Afoot and we only have glimpses)
  • 

I KNOW A BAD THING IS GOING TO HAPPEN AND I’M DREADING IT (An inevitable confrontation or crushing revelation; an ambush the readers know about in advance but the characters don’t)
  • I KNOW A GOOD THING IS GOING TO HAPPEN AND I CAN’T WAIT (eagerly watching a romance build)
  • I KNOW A THING WILL HAPPEN BUT NOT HOW (In Hunger Games, the tension isn’t really over whether Katniss will win, but over knowing that for her to win, everyone else must die and she may have to be the one to kill them; you NEED to see how that plays out)
  • I KNOW A THING HAPPENED BUT NOT HOW (every mystery ever)

I could go on, but you get the idea…usually there’s something the reader NEEDS TO KNOW about the story or its characters, but what that thing is can be surprisingly subtle or complex.

Sometimes you can create MORE tension by letting the reader in on a surprise, so they’re anticipating it (either eagerly or with dread), than by just springing it on them out of the blue.

Sometimes withholding information for a little while can create tension through mystery (which can be a great trick in SFF to avoid early info dumps).

Ideally, you want your dramatic tension to operate on multiple levels, with different kinds of tension, short term & long.

One thing I ask myself when I’m editing is “What is keeping the readers turning pages in this scene/chapter? Why don’t they put the book down at the end of it?”

If I don’t have a good answer, I need to up the dramatic tension.


Drives and Goals

(This is another lightly edited Twitter writing craft thread which I’m posting on my blog for reference and so people can find it more easily. I hope it’s helpful!)

When I’m shaping a character arc for a book, I try to pay attention to both drives and goals. It’s crucial for a character to have both, and I often have to remind myself that they’re not the same.

A drive is a deep, underlying need that pushes or pulls the character through the whole story. It’s often the core motivating force of their arc.

It’s frequently a more abstract (but compelling!) thing, like seeking acceptance, recognition, love, atonement, justice, etc.

A goal is something more specific, like saving their little brother, defeating the bad guy, getting their crush to invite them to the ball, retrieving the lost artifact, etc. It’s what the character consciously & concretely wants to do and is taking actions to try to accomplish.

Goals operate at a large and small level. You’ve got big book-long or even series-long ones (defeat Voldemort), but also wee little scene-level ones (don’t get caught by Filch before you get back to Gryffindor common room).

Goals can and do change, while drives don’t unless something really dramatic happens to fundamentally change the character. A drive change is a big deal and a major character turning point.

A fair chunk of your character’s goals will be all tangled up with their drive.

Many goals will be a direct and clear result of a drive. Like, my drive is to protect my family, so I’m going to have to defeat the dark lord because he’s threatening them.

But sometimes goals and drives conflict. Like, my goal is to become a master swordswoman because that’s what my mom wants, but my drive is to find acceptance and I tried theater and the cast is my new family and I can’t do both and WHAT DO I DO?!

Or a character might think they want to find the powerful artifact to destroy it so no evil can use it, but really their drive for glory and recognition is pushing them to take it for themselves and they just haven’t acknowledged it yet.

I’ve found that when I fool myself into thinking a drive counts as a goal, the character will lack agency.

(Hmm, what’s her goal? Gaining public recognition after a life of being overlooked! NOPE. That’s a drive. Her concrete plans for steps to get recognition are goals.)

Conversely, if a character has goals but no underlying drives, their arc lacks heart.

(Especially watch out for this with villains! She wants to conquer the world, sure, but WHY? What inner forces push or pull her to do this?)

Conflict is all about drives and goals smashing up against each other, internally or externally. Those conflicts drive your story.

Story is just character in motion. Drives are what put your character in motion; goals give that motion a vector.

And then everything crashes into everything else and makes beautiful explosions!


Editing Process for THE UNBOUND EMPIRE

I just turned in my second round of edits on THE UNBOUND EMPIRE! During the first (structral) round of edits, I posted a Twitter thread about the process. Here’s a lightly edited version of that thread:

When I was young and foolish, I thought revising/editing was just what I now understand to be line edits and copyediting. Cleaning up awkward phrasing, picking stronger words, fixing errors, etc. And that’s all great! But that comes pretty late in the game.

Working with a publisher, I have official cycles of edits where I’m turning in drafts and then I get feedback at increasingly granular levels from my editors. But on my own process was pretty similar, just without hard deadlines at which I had to stop and call it a draft.

The first big phase is structural edits. These include the main building blocks of the story. I’m looking for stuff like:

  • Characters whose arcs need strengthening
  • Weak subplots that need to be expanded, merged, or cut
  • Pacing – major chunks that move too fast or slow
  • Stakes: I can ALWAYS raise the stakes after the first draft
  • Agency: I ALWAYS need to give my characters more of it after my first try
  • Does what everyone is doing even make any sense (given their goals)
  • Relationships: are they compelling & do they develop

I’m looking at the bones, the shape of the story. I try to pull WAAAAAYYY back and squint and see what it looks like.

If my story is a drawing of a dog, this is the part where I make sure it has the right number of eyes and legs and that everything is roughly the right size, and that it doesn’t have a fish tail or bug wings—NOT when I’m doing shading effects and lovely fur textures.

THE UNBOUND EMPIRE is probably, of all the books I’ve ever written, the one where I’ve done the best job on basic structure on the first try. So at the structural edit phase, I also worked on some stuff that I might otherwise hit in a second pass, like:

  • Internality: Making sure we’re immersed in the character’s FEEEEELINGS and I’m not just coldly describing what’s happening
  • Convenience: Removing coincidences that further the plot and making sure everything happens because of actual reasons that are driven by the story

Other things that I often wind up rubbing in deeper in a second pass (after the structural one) include:

  • Voice (especially making sure my characters all sound different when they’re speaking)
  • Clarity (I need feedback to get this right—seeing what readers are confused about)
  • Transitions – I always write terrible transitions from place to place or arc to arc in early drafts and struggle to fix them later!
  • Page-level pacing: tightening rambly bits and drawing out intense bits more
    Setting – making sure it’s immersive & evocative

My drafts used to get much shorter in edits as I found all kinds of redundant or unnecessary stuff I could cut. (I especially had this terrible tendency to write “let’s talk about what we’re about to do” and “let’s talk about what we just did” scenes.)

These days my drafts tend to get longer as I add more emotionally meaningful scenes that advance character relationships and internal plot to round out all the OMG ACTION DANGER! type plot scenes. Draft 2 of Book 3 is probably going to be about 25K words longer than Draft 1. (Update: It was about 35K words longer than Draft 1.)

Only after all this stuff (which can be 1-2+ full edit cycles with feedback from editors or beta readers, and 2-5++ full drafts) do I get to the level of doing line edits and polishing language.

Usually at this point only like maybe 20-50% of my first draft remains.

Since getting a publisher (YAY!), I’m lucky enough to have editors involved giving me feedback for each major cycle, which is incredible. But before that, I got feedback from beta readers & CPs at similar points, and then from my agent. Good feedback is essential for perspective.

In my teens and 20’s, I would have been horrified to hear about all this work! Revision sounded super boring. But somewhere along the way, I realized that revision is just MORE WRITING, which is fun.

The first time I write a scene, it’s like practice. Maybe I’ll knock it out of the park on the first try! But at least as often, on the next pass I’m like “Nah, I bet I can do better than that.” And usually I can.

As an example, there are at least two key scenes near the end of THE UNBOUND EMPIRE that I rewrote nearly from scratch three times to get them right! The second pass was okay on each of them, but I thought I could do better and they were important scenes, so I gave it another try.

What’s your editing process?