Tag Archives: Writing Process

How I Accidentally Wrote a Love Triangle [SPOILERS for Swords & Fire!]

OKAY it’s been long enough since THE UNBOUND EMPIRE came out! I’m finally ready to make my tell-all post about Amalia’s romance arc in the Swords & Fire series! WOOHOO!!!!!! GET READY!!!!!!

BUT! This is SUPER SPOILERY.

DO NOT READ THIS POST UNTIL AFTER YOU FINISH THE UNBOUND EMPIRE. I mean it! You will be SO SPOILED, and not just on Amalia’s romantic choices. If you haven’t read the whole trilogy, STOP HERE.

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(No, really, this is INCREDIBLY SPOILERY. If you haven’t read THE UNBOUND EMPIRE, turn back now.)

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(Okay, you’ve read TUE? Yes? Almost there, then, keep scrolling!)

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OKAY! SO!!!

I never meant to write a love triangle. I swear. I don’t even LIKE love triangles! (Well, mostly. I can think of a few that were pretty cool.)

I originally wrote THE TETHERED MAGE as a standalone YA novel. In those early drafts, Amalia & Marcello wound up together at the end, yay! Happy ending!

…Yeah, so, obviously STUFF CHANGED. TTM became the first book of an adult fantasy trilogy. Amalia’s arc became something completely different—about taking responsibility rather than bucking authority. It couldn’t be a simple feel-good WOOHOO LOVE CONQUERS ALL, SCREW YOU MOM, I DO WHAT I WANT ending. And her romance arc had to span three books, not just one, so it couldn’t resolve so quickly.

So, okay, no problem! When I sat down to plot out Book Two, I figured aha, clearly I must give her a serious political courtship/marriage prospect. She’ll have to weigh love against duty! It’ll be great!

But I can’t just make him some jerk she should obviously reject, I thought. That’d be too easy. This has to be  a hard choice, pitting personal preference against political necessity. And then I thought OOOOOOOH, I’LL MAKE HIM A WITCH LORD!

And then HEH, I’LL MAKE HIM THE CROW LORD, CROWS ARE AWESOME.

(Yes, I do think in all caps, in fact, WHAT OF IT?)

And then I started writing Kathe and suddenly it was WHO ARE YOU WHERE ARE YOU GOING WITH MY PLOT WAIT STOP PUT THAT DOWN!!!

So yeah, Kathe kind of took off on me, and I wound up unexpectedly adoring him. BUT it was still clear to me (and you are welcome to disagree with me, seriously, it’s completely subjective) that Amalia would be happier with Marcello.

And then as I was writing THE DEFIANT HEIR, it kind of sank in that Amalia’s arc was not really about what would make her happy.

OH SHIT, I thought, I HAVE TO TAKE THIS SERIOUSLY. I wanted Amalia’s choice to be genuinely difficult, and for readers to not know what she was going to do, or even necessarily what they WANTED her to do. Which meant the choice had to be hard and unclear for me, too.

So I made a decision, partway through drafting THE DEFIANT HEIR: I was not going to make this choice now. I had NO IDEA if she would wind up with Kathe or Marcello. NONE. I wrote and edited the whole book not knowing. My editor asked me if I knew, and I was like NOPE. NO CLUE.

Then it came time to plot out Book Three. And I had to make my choice.

CRAP CRAP CRAP, I thought.

And also HEYYYYYYYYYYY I COULD DO A POLY ENDING! NO ONE HAS TO CHOOSE! EVERYONE WINS!

But I knew (and, uh, my agent reminded me) that would be a cop out in this particular case, much as I might consider polyamory a fine solution to many love triangles. That wasn’t where this story and these characters were going. It would be me just gratifying myself (okay, and some of my readers) and letting me and Amalia dodge making our choice.

(But, you know, if someone wants to write that fanfic, HAVE AT.)

So anyway, I did what any reasonable writer would do: I TOTALLY PANICKED. I wrote my agent an email basically going HELP I WROTE MYSELF INTO A LOVE TRIANGLE AND NOW I HAVE TO GET OUT OF IT WHAT DO I DOOOOOOO.

My agent (Naomi Davis, who is awesome, by the way) gave me all sorts of incredibly good advice about stuff like tying the romance arc inextricably into the story, upping the stakes, doing something unpredictable, and generally being REALLY MEAN…but ultimately threw the decision RIGHT BACK INTO MY LAP. (Where, to be fair, it belonged.) I wasn’t getting out of this one. I had to figure this out myself.

I knew I wanted to pull Marcello back into the center of the plot. I knew I wanted to up the stakes and make Amalia’s choice EVEN HARDER. And I knew that ultimately, what happened with the romance arc had to be an important part of Amalia’s overall character arc. It couldn’t be, like, her fun little dessert plotline where she just has to choose which delicious flavor of ice cream she wants today.

Aaaaand that’s when I got the horrible idea of turning Marcello into a chimera. I was actually partway through a draft where that was TOTALLY NOT A THING, and suddenly here was this idea which would CHANGE EVERYTHING. The whole focus of the book, Amalia’s arc, the ending, everything.

Part of me was like NOOOOOOOO! THAT’S TOO MEAN! I LOVE MY CHARACTERS AND WANT THEM TO BE HAPPY! DON’T DO THIS!

So of course, I knew I had to do it.

And that made it EVEN HARDER to decide who she’d wind up with at the end, and I waffled for a long time. But ultimately, I knew that Amalia’s entire arc was about growing into her role and accepting her responsibilities and everything that came with them. And that meant going with the political choice after all (who, HEY, happened to be a hot Crow Lord, so COULD BE WORSE!).

I also wanted to show that complicated intersection of life and romance we face in reality, and to reinforce that you absolutely can love multiple people but have to make complicated life choices about who you can be with. That it isn’t all about finding your One True Love and having that magically fix all your problems (though it can be nice to escape into that fantasy). I never meant to write a love triangle, and I still honestly don’t quite think of it as a love triangle—more like a love/duty/politics/look-it’s-complicated POLYGON of some kind. And when I started thinking it all through, I realized that just as Amalia couldn’t achieve her full growth if she backed down from political duty and chose Marcello, Marcello couldn’t achieve his full growth with Amalia. He has his own important goals and ambitions, his purpose and career, and ways he wants to shape the world into a better place. He has more to become than just Amalia’s shadow.

It was really important to me to show that Marcello would be okay, though. And that’s where the scene with Istrella poking him in the eye came from. (Also because SHE TOTALLY WOULD DO IT—THANKS, ISTRELLA.) I didn’t have any room at the end of the book to show more than that, but I really hope to at some point write some epilogue short stories or something (or maybe more books someday, you never know, but at LEAST some short stories or vignettes) giving you more of a glimpse into how things pan out for all the core Swords & Fire characters!

In the process of plotting, I considered so many options. Having Amalia wind up with Marcello, with Kathe, with both, with neither. Killing off one or both of them. I went with the story that felt the most true to me—the most satisfying, if not necessarily the happiest (but TOTALLY NOT THE SADDEST OPTION either, I assure you). But all those alternate endings were possible—they could have happened—and if you prefer one of them, I totally encourage you to have that headcanon or write that fanfic!

And if you’re hoping to find out more about how things wind up going for Kathe and Amalia, well, I didn’t want to drop too strong of a hint in THE OBSIDIAN TOWER (which takes place 150 years later), because I want people to be able to read the trilogies in either order and I don’t want to spoil anything. But there MIGHT be a super subtle hint in there as an easter egg for Swords & Fire readers, and I MIGHT be hoping to add more such hints in the rest of the new series.

(PS: I totally don’t know where the romance arc is going to wind up in the new trilogy, either, for entirely different reasons. WHY DO I KEEP DOING THIS TO MYSELF?!)

Happy reading!


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?


Book 3 Writing Process (So Far)

This month I turned in my first round of edits for Book 3 of Swords and Fire, yay! I thought it might be fun to share a bit of what the process for writing it has been like so far.

First phase: Brainstorming. This was my first time writing the conclusion of a trilogy, and the brainstorming process was very different. I came up with a whole checklist of plot threads or relationships for which I wanted to give a satisfying conclusion, moments I wanted to happen, etc. I also knew I wanted to escalate the stakes appropriately for the last book in the trilogy, and I literally made a list of really bad things that could happen for inspiration. (I didn’t use ALL of them, I promise.)

Second phase: Plotting. I had to pull all those ideas together seamlessly into a coherent story with a clear through line and emotional arc, which was a daunting task! I’m still editing this book, of course, so whether I ultimately succeed remains to be seen, but I’m cautiously pleased thus far.

Third phase: Drafting. After all that brainstorming and plotting, my deadline was not getting any farther away, and I had to race along at a pretty wild pace. I followed my usual pattern of getting 10K-20K words done and then restarting with a new draft, and then getting 50K-70K words in and realizing I need to go back to the beginning and start another new draft again.

This actually works really well for me. The first restart happens because at first I’m just feeling my way into the book and flailing around, and after I’ve got a grip on what the hell I’m doing I can start over and be more on target on the second try. The second restart happens when I’ve gotten far enough in that I’ve realized ways I can improve the book structurally, but those structural changes are significant enough that they’ll change the way the rest of the book unfolds. I’ve done this for all three books in the trilogy, one way or another, and I think it’s really improved the final results.

Fourth phase: Revision plan. After getting feedback from my editors (both my amazing editor Sarah Guan and my equally amazing UK editor Emily Byron), I had lots of input to process. Plus I had my own list I’d been keeping of changes I either ran out of time to make in the first draft or thought of after turning it in. And on top of all that, I have certain types of analysis I always run at this stage (after completing a first draft): looking at stuff like through line, stakes, agency, the arcs of each major character and each major relationship, individual plot arcs, etc. I take each big structural piece and try to look at it separately, making sure it holds up on its own if I squint at it and ignore all the other fluffy story bits clinging to and obscuring it.

I then took my pages and pages of notes on things I wanted to change and turned them into a concrete scene-by-scene revision plan. For instance, I might take something vague and general like “increase agency” and then look at my scene list and go “Ooh, in this scene I can make this whole plan Amalia’s idea instead of something presented to her by others,” or “I can make this dangerous encounter something she initiates herself, knowing the risks, rather than something sprung on her by surprise.” I turn that into a revision outline which I know I won’t stick to completely, but which is there to organize all my ideas to make the book better (including how I’ve decided to address my editors’ notes) so I can refer to it as I revise.

Fifth phase: Structural edits! I went through the whole book in order, addressing my editors’ comments as well as my own ideas to improve the book, scene by scene. I added scenes, deleted or moved scenes, edited scenes, and rewrote a whole bunch of stuff from scratch. I’ve found I can often do a better job on a second try even for a scene that’s working okay already, so there were a LOT of scenes I rewrote with the same basic beats, just sharper and better.

The schedule for this round of edits was REALLY tight for me, so I didn’t get to take a second stab at some new scenes I may not have nailed on the first try, or to go back and work in some stuff that would lead up to later events better. And my brain kept very helpfully going OOOH OOH OOH I HAVE THIS GREAT IDEA FOR A SCENE YOU COULD ADD AND A THING YOU COULD DO up until literally the night before edits were due. I was like, THANKS, BRAIN, COULDN’T YOU HAVE THOUGHT OF THIS A MONTH AGO? But no. So that stuff will have to go in next round! That’s the thing about working with a publisher…you’re always going to keep thinking of more ways to make the book better, but at some point they need to take it from your grabby writer hands even if IT’S NOT PERFECT YET WAAAIIIIT OMG because they need to actually have your work in their hands to take their turn and work their magic.

Book 3 was about 110K words at the end of draft one, and is now 145K words at the end of draft two. In addition to those 35K new words, I also rewrote large chunks of the existing wordcount. But it’s still mostly the same main plot points in the same order, because the structure was reasonably decent on the first pass for this one. Editing is a strange alchemy.

I’m really excited to share this book with everyone! Once it’s ready, of course. There are more rounds of edits coming, and lots more work to do.


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.

 


Outlining Process

I fall firmly into the “plotter” category, preferring to plan things in advance when I write a book. I generally have dozens of pages of notes and an outline before I start writing page one.

I wasn’t always that way—in high school, I wrote a (really terrible) novel (on notepads, in pen) with the rule I absolutely couldn’t plan anything in advance, so whatever I was writing would be a surprise to me as I was writing it. That was fun, but the result was… I’m going with unsalvageable. Some people may be cool enough to write a coherent story without an outline, but if I try, it apparently winds up like a bad shonen manga, with way too many fight scenes and no plot advancement. (Or maybe that was just teen me, but I’m not taking any chances.)

Everyone’s writing process is different, of course, and you should go with what works for you. But here are some things I do when developing an outline:

Early Brainstorming Phase – First I roll ideas around in my head for a while, without writing things down. This way I don’t feel locked in to anything during the very early stages when the idea is fragile and new.

Notes Phase – I start writing down all my brainstormy ideas (for plot elements, characters, scenes, you name it) in one doc, in any order, with any level of detail. I’ll get new, conflicting ideas and write those down, too. It’s messy and repetitive and can easily sprawl out to 20-40 pages of notes.

Shaping Phase – This is when I start trying to pull all my brain splooge together into a coherent, well-shaped story. A lot of it feels like putting a puzzle together… If you could make new pieces or redraw the pieces you have to make it work. I can vaguely see and feel the shape the book is trying to form, and I’m muddling my way along to refine and improve that shape. Things I do during this phase often include (but are not limited to):

  • Put scene ideas in a working chronological order. Probably switch this order around a bunch of times trying to figure out what’s best.
  • Summarize all my plot arcs to make sure they follow a line that is compelling and makes sense.
  • Summarize (briefly) all my major characters’ arcs, to make sure they have one, and that they make important choices, have agency, change, etc.
  • Break outline into acts and look at the arc for each act.
  • Look for places to weave stuff together and combine scenes/plotlines/characters/etc: any structural element is stronger if it’s fulfilling multiple functions
  • Describe and define the overall arc for the book. Make sure what I’ve got is fitting into and supporting that arc.

The process varies each time. Here’s a post I made on one process I used for a multi-POV outline that worked pretty well for me.

Revising Phase – When I start to have a rough, first-pass outline, I take a critical look at it. It’s probably a mess, and certainly needs revision. I might:

  • Ask these outline questions (woo more previous posts!)
  • Look for weak points: dribbling along the status quo, “and then some stuff happens/time passes,” stretches where the MC isn’t driving the action, places where the stakes are low or unclear, fuzzy character motivations (would she really do that?), stuff that’s extraneous or repetitive, etc.
  • Do a word count estimate and check whether each section or act of the book takes up roughly the percentage of the book I want it to. Also check whether I have enough material to make the book the right length, or if I need to add more subplots or pare things down.

In my latest outline, I tried something new—looking for good chapter break places before writing the chapters—and it was really helpful. I may make a separate post about that later.

Writing Phase – Eventually I realize I am spending waaaaaay too much time twiddling with my outline and need to get actually writing the book. Ideally, I realize this early on, before I lock down my outline in too much detail, because it really is important for me to leave the outline flexible. It’s going to change when I start actually writing the book—it always does.

Characters might decide to do different things than my outline dictates. I might go to write a scene and feel like no, this isn’t where the story is heading anymore. Or I might get to a scene and go ugh, I don’t want to write this, which is always the sign of a problem. Or I might get new ideas that are more awesome than the old ideas. Anything could happen.So I update and edit my outline as I go, but it’s a different process at that point.

Originally, the outline is an exploration—it’s a tool for finding the path of the story.

Once I start writing, changes I make to the outline are more likely to be mapping known territory: updating the outline to match the unfolding story in my head.


Slow Progress Beats No Progress

I’ve been working on a new book lately, but the going has been slow because of pressing day job deadlines and other Real Life things. However, I have been trying to squeeze in at least a few hundred words a day. And I have been amazed at what a difference in my sense of creative well being, connection to and immersion in the new book, and overall progress those paltry 300-500 words a day have made.

In the past, I’ve often thought “Oh, I only have half an hour, it’s not worth trying to write. By the time I get into it, I’ll have to stop.” Now I’m seeing that while I still certainly prefer to write in long, uninterrupted chunks, every little piece of time I can spend writing is a gift I can and should accept with gratitude and use with care.

Of course, this is a first draft, and I’m probably going to throw out half these words anyway. But it feels good to get them down.

Onward!