Tag Archives: Writing Tips

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?

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):

  • 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.

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!