Using Character to Generate Story

Entry points into creating stories differ for everyone. I’ve mentioned before that I come at stories from the characters, and that I write character-driven books. What this means is that, rather than “what if this cool idea” or “what if this cool magic,” I start with “what if this character premise.”

My novels are high concept, but my entry point to those ideas begins from a character and spirals out from there—and with every piece of the story I craft, I always go back to character.

Looking at some of my finished books, say with Tea Princess Chronicles, I started with the idea of a princess who quits and ends up managing a magical tea shop. For Afterstorms, I started with a woman who is both a badass sorceress while actively doing the work of mothering and also gets to have a romance. For my YA space opera, I basically asked, what if Gundam actually had a girl as the protagonist who gets to pilot the super awesome space mech?

And so on. The types of stories those became, the world-building, the themes borne out in them (things like what it means to do something in the world that matters and incremental activism, how societies try to make women lesser, and embracing the power that comes with upending people’s expectations and not walking a proscribed path, respectively)—they all started from those premises .

But how do I translate an idea for a character into a story?

Broadly, to know how the story arc works, I need to know who the character is at the beginning, which tells me who they are at the end—or vice versa. If they’ve come into their power at the end, then at the beginning they believe themselves powerless. They’re insecure about their place in the world at the beginning; they’re confident at the end.

And then I figure out what choices, and what actions to hang them on, would bring them from that beginning point to the ending. But that still takes a few leaps; albeit ones I can make these days out of longstanding practice, because figuring out character is really easy for me. It’s what I read for and what I write for. That said, being very into character development is not the same as being able to plot, so let’s talk about how you get from one to the other.

Here’s one of my favorite tactics.

Back when I was doing a lot of theater, one of the techniques I learned for how to dig into character was Uta Hagen’s questions. With some additions, these can be useful not just for understanding character, but understanding the relationship between character, world-building, plot, and story. These are the questions I focus on, with my adaptations.

What does your character think they want? (Let’s say, to be a hero.)

What do they actually want? (Hmm. How about security? They want to be a hero because they think the respect of masses will make people value them and protect them.)

What are the given circumstances? (Our character is alone, because war has destroyed the political and physical infrastructure of their world.)

What is preventing them from getting what they want? (An occupying force.)

What will they do—and what can they do—to get what they want? (Gather a ragtag crew to take up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them.)

My parentheticals there aren’t the most original—they are in fact deliberately tropey as shit; can you tell I’m an epic fantasy reader and shounen anime fan?—because that’s not the point at this stage. The point is highlighting the fundamentals that make up the core of the story, and the logic of the story, to flesh out with what makes it yours.

Answering these questions doesn’t create an entire story on its own, but it does give me the basis for the subsequent questions I need to answer to make a story happen.

Like, okay, the protagonist is going to need a team—how do they assemble it? What unique skills does our protagonist have that would actually be useful in overthrowing an army, or attract people to be willing to work with them, and how do they acquire those skills? If they haven’t taken up arms before the start of the plot, why now? What changed, and why did it change?

Let’s take the starter questions in order.

The first two questions (What does your character think they want, and what do they actually want?) are key for interesting character development, because this is how you change expectations for not entirely predictable plots. What your protagonist thinks they want changes, and they get what they actually want (or need, which is an important distinction somewhat tangential to this post) in a way they could not have dreamed of at the beginning but that their actions throughout the plot nevertheless make inevitable.

Given my hypothetical parentheticals there, let’s say your protagonist discovers sacrificing themselves for the sake of a corrupt government might make them a hero in the public eye given the levels of propaganda management, but it would be empty and wouldn’t actually make them safe. But they make friends along the way who will protect them for who they are at whatever cost, so they choose to save their imperfect friends rather than the figureheads of society. They don’t become a hero at large but to the only people that matter, and they get their security in the way that’s meaningful to them. That sort of thing. (If you’re looking for practical published examples, Brandon Sanderson excels at this.)

The important part of “the given circumstances” question is that they have to be personal to the character. It’s not just “war has torn apart a country” but “war has left the character alone, and the character desperately wants to not be alone.”

Firstly, because if the stakes aren’t personal, nobody cares. Secondly, this is how your world-building and your point-of-view character are inextricably linked.

Characters don’t exist in a vacuum (or a white room >_>); they are born in their environments, and those environments shape and affect them even if they don’t define them. If they don’t, then the character won’t feel compelling but vague. If you think your character could exist exactly the same born into an entirely different fantasy world, they’re probably not sufficiently defined. (See also a unique challenge inherent to AU fanfic: how to make the characters still make sense to the reader when the setting they were created with is entirely substituted.)

Asking what actions the character can take, and the reasons they need to take them (what prevents them from getting what they want), are where we come to plot.

What are the tools your protagonist has to change their situation?

If your character’s a sorceress, maybe she’s solving problems using magic—in which case the readers may need to understand more about how magic works, be it the system’s rules that they’re breaking or that numinous magic is fickle so having to rely on it working is A Problem—for your stakes to work. If they’re a political operator, readers probably need to know how the politics work, so we can feel satisfied when they’ve managed something tricky without needing an explanation that slows pacing in the moment of why what they did was so clever.

Tea Princess Chronicles was my first time writing about a protagonist who isn’t some kind of magical martial arts action heroine. Her strength, established in chapter one, is listening, which I physically manifest through how I depict the fantasy tea ceremony.

For another example, I love Rachel Aaron’s Heartstriker series for being stories of action and adventure and all kinds of magical battle shenanigans where the plots ultimately always hinge on the “nice” protagonist meaningfully exercising compassion.

As for the question of what actions a protagonist will take—that’s where the story is.

This answer doesn’t have to be, “what would drive them to kill the person oppressing them,” as is so common in epic fantasy; it can just as easily be, “they will focus their time and energy on building relationships.” See Mirage by Somaiya Daud for a great example of this one: her protagonist could easily become a violent rebel or a pawn of the oppressive regime, yet what she chooses is neither of those—she makes another path that is ultimately the only one that makes sense for her character.

Given a person in a particular situation who can do certain things, what will they choose to do, and why, and what does that mean? That’s the core of it all.

orange cat and black cat lying on different parts of me and looking incredibly smug
disparate elements working in tandem toward a narratively coherent goal aka trapping me

Agency Failures in Plotting

Raymond Chandler once wrote of plotting, “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”

Like most writing advice, this is useful to a point. When someone gives the writing advice of “kill your darlings,” the point is not to cut all the things you like about your story; it’s to cut the things you’re hanging onto because you like them but that don’t actually fit coherently in this particular story. When they advise, “write every day,” the point is (or should be, sigh, that’s another blog) to commit to making structural changes in your life that enable you to write consistently, not that if you don’t work on stories every day that you’re not a Real Writer.

But every time NaNoWriMo rolls around, I see upticks of people who have interpreted Chandler’s Law as a mandate to just keep throwing exciting things at the page until you have enough words to call it a story, or until you get through the part where you didn’t know what happened and then you’ll find yourself at the real story, which is… generally not how stories work.

A Twitter discussion last week about plotting (PS Elizabeth Bear is very smart about stories and has a substack newsletter you can follow) got me wanting to expand on how I think misunderstandings of this axiom can create problems in the plot rather than solving them.

The most common failure mode of plotting I read in fantasy is actually a failure of character agency.

(Requisite caveats before I get going here that I am coming at this from the perspective of someone who vastly prefers character-driven to plot-driven stories, an axis which is in some sense an arbitrary and nonsensical distinction but one that can nevertheless be useful for analysis. YMMV. As with all writing commentary, if my approach on this subject isn’t useful to you, discard it; no advice is universal. Onwards!)

Here’s why plotting can actually indicate an agency problem: a plot is not just “things that happen.” A quick Google search gives the definition of plot as “the main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.”

There are two key phrases here. The first is “the main events,” which seems self-explanatory. The more important one is “an interrelated sequence.”

Random events are not a plot. If the things that happen don’t have story resonance, the story is unsatisfying: nothing feels like it matters, because nothing does matter when it’s not meaningfully related to everything else.

The most common way I see this failure mode of Chandler’s Law play out in stories is when characters are just reacting. An explosion comes through the window, so then they have to escape! But then the escape to a place where a monster is waiting for them, so they have to run again! Then the nearest hideaway just happens to be the villain’s lair, where they have to perform Some Filler Caper to get inside but then conveniently stumble upon a villainous intent monologue?? And so on.

There are ways to make this work—almost anything can work in the right circumstances—but the question the author has to be able to answer is why. Why did the villain cause an explosion, if lacking that explosion the main character wouldn’t have acted? Why did they choose to go to the place with the monster? Now that they know the villain’s raison d’etre, what are they going to do about it besides wait for the next explosion?

So, there are two principles at play here. The first is that, protagonist or antagonist or side character, characters should do things for reasons that make sense given the knowledge they have.

If the villain had reason to believe the protagonist was already working against them and so was trying to take them out, this may be a good reason for the explosion. But just having an explosion because the author needs to get the character moving doesn’t work without narrative reasoning. (Nothing wrong with writing the explosion first to facilitate making words happen and then coming up with the reasoning afterward! But the reasoning still has to exist and make sense.)

Corollary: the narrative should make us aware of that reasoning.

If our main character is like, oh shit the villain probably believes I’m working against them even though I want nothing to do with this because of that thing they saw in my office!, cool. It can even work retroactively (protagonist: I wouldn’t even be here if you hadn’t exploded my house! antagonist: I didn’t know you were innocent then, but you certainly aren’t now!).

What doesn’t work: Our protagonist going, gosh, I wonder what we should do now? Hmm. Hmmmmm. Oh hey look, the plot has exploded through my window, even though this would not make any sense given what we eventually learn of the villain’s goals!

Which brings me to the second principle, which is: reacting isn’t enough if it doesn’t eventually result in action.

There is a separate but related discussion to be had about what agency even is in storytelling. There are ways to write passive protagonists, or protagonists whose choices are so circumscribed by their environments that so is their ability to act (for an excellent example of the latter, read Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri).

But if the plot is always having to come through the window explosively at the protagonist to get them to do something, and once that impetus is done they’re always idly waiting for the next impetus, it’s not the character driving the story.

It’s easy for me to get bored by this kind of narrative, because it’s not the point-of-view characters making it happen. That level of disconnection from choices creating effects with narrative relevance leaves me wondering why this story matters. Why are we reading this version of events, from this perspective?

An example I love to hold up when talking about with how agency works is The Goblin Emperor by Katharine Addison aka Sarah Monette. This is in part because the protagonist doesn’t for the most part take the physical actions people often associate with fantasy—he’s not a fighter or a wizard. So what actions does he take? Being entirely trapped within a political framework, it’s the conversations and how he manages them, the people he chooses to reach out to—or reject—and why, that make this story go. The people he uplifts, that he focuses on building bridges (literally and figuratively!)—this is what makes the story work. He does react to events that come at him from outside, but he doesn’t just react: even while reacting, he is always making choices toward being the person he wants to be, figuring out whether it is possible and how to accomplish his goals.

Here’s another way to look at it: Chandler’s Law is fine as far as it goes. There is nothing wrong with an explosion coming through the window and the characters having to escape. But how they escape should matter. It should tell us something about who the character is, and not just what they can do, but they will and won’t do. That explosion should also affect what they decide to do next—and begin doing!—rather than just waiting for another explosion to show up.

It’s not enough to have a man come through the door with a gun to make your plot happen. The man has to be relevant, and so does what the protagonist does about the situation.

Relevant to what? How do you make the plot matter? That’s where we get back to basics.

What’s the core of the story you’re trying to tell?

Is it an action-adventure coming-of-age story, where our protagonist learns their own power? Or is it an action-adventure where our protagonist ultimately learns they’re “powerless to amend a broken world” (many thanks to GGK for that phrase) and becomes an antihero? Or a spy caper full of daring adventures where the real friends are the ones we make along the way, including our enemy-to-ally who came through the door with a gun? Or is it a political romance, and the enemy with a gun becomes enemy-to-lover?

You’ve got options. My choice always comes back to character, because the character development I want my protagonist to have dictates how the story goes. But you can equally well make these decisions based on what actions thematically serve the world-building idea you’re exploring or that develop the cool magic you want to explode at the end. The man coming through the door with a gun isn’t what makes the story; it’s how that fits.

So it behooves you to ask, why this thing, and not something else? “Because it’s cool” is a good starting reason, but only if it can be made to matter to the story you’re trying to tell.

Why is your protagonist the protagonist, and not someone else?

(Someday I would like to read an orphan farmboy protagonist who gets to be the main character because his unique skill at cultivating rare turnip varieties is critical to saving the world and not because he is The Chosen One. But I digress.)

What can the protagonist do, and what will they do, that no one else will?

If your protagonist is reluctant to do protagonist things, why did you choose them? What would make them actually take action—by which I mean, make choices that affect the narrative—on their own initiative? Because they’ll need to, for the story to be satisfying.

A plot is not just events that occur; it’s a sequence of interrelated events. And a story with point-of-view characters who only react to events without making choices that affect them is a story with agency problems. Because while character and plot may be two different things, if they’re not working together, the story may not be working as intended, either.

For more on how I actually use character to create plot that does tie in, continue on to the next post!

black cat and orange cat curled on opposite sides of a coffee table which divides a sunbeam
protagonist and antagonist making interrelated choices

Holding the Emotional Core

I’ve been doing a lot of story brainstorming and outlining work lately, and I noticed an interesting trend in my process I thought I’d share!

(All usual caveats that “process is personal” and “do whatever enables you to make stories that work” apply.)

There are parts of stories that are movable for me, but there are core beats–whether it’s a clear understanding of character motivation, a plot turn, or a world-building detail–that I often come up with on the fly but once thought up I know can never be changed, like a fixed point in time in Doctor Who.

When I’m brainstorming what needs to happen, or who a character is, or how a magic ability works, I know I’ve hit upon an idea with thematic resonance and merit when the act of writing it down makes me wince (or cackle!) in the sense of, ‘wow, self, a little close to home! I see we are Calling Ourself Out with that burn’.

These are the questions I’m grappling with in my own life, which means that when writing I’ll be teasing out issues I don’t have easy answers for. That’s the kind of chewy, meaty core where great stories brew (how many metaphors can I mix in only two clauses? I’M LEAVING IT), where characters make imperfect decisions and there’s not necessarily a right or wrong answer, only trying and doing and changing.

These are the pieces, for me–perhaps especially the off-the-cuff, wallop-me-from-behind-in-surprise pieces–that don’t change, that I make extremely sure not to change no matter what kind of revisions a story goes through, because they’re the emotional core of the story. So they tend to become the pieces I hang other bits off of, like story core nodes that hold everything together into a cohesive whole.

These are the truths that make it my story, the one only I can tell. And because they’re important to me they naturally lend the story weight and matter. When you write what you know in an emotional sense, it feels authentic because to you it is, and I think that carries through to readers.

So there are some puzzle pieces that I will still shuffle around, remove and replace, after making various decisions. But there are some that may look just like all the others from the outside, but that I know are the thread of why I’m writing and require special care, even if I landed on them by accident.

In related news, I remain convinced my fingers understand story better than my brain, which means I’d better go apply them to my notebook again!

Happy reading,

Casey

The cats demonstrate commitment to holding the line.

Criticizing “Tropey” Criticisms

I went off on Twitter the other day about a subject I want to expand on a bit. I’d been looking at reviews for a book and found myself irritated by criticisms that it’s “tropey,” and it’s worth unpacking what people mean when they talk about fiction being tropey.

The short answer is they mean different things, some of which are more problematic than others. The long answer is, well, longer, so let’s get started.

People often misunderstand what tropes are, so let me begin by saying a thing:

Tropes are not inherently good or bad.

Tropes are storytelling devices. They are common elements that give readers a familiar structure to latch onto in a new narrative world. You have read them before, because all stories use tropes.

Once more for the seats in the back:

ALL!

STORIES!

USE!

TROPES!

There is no such thing as a completely original story. A certain trope may be new to you, and stories may certainly help develop new tropes. But trope-less? No.

Some tropes are considered clichés; this does not make all tropes clichés. So why do stories get criticized for being tropey? What’s going on here?

Sexism is one answer. I’m going to spend the least time on this one because I’m just so bored of this deeply uninspired form of sexism, but: a lot of literary criticism of tropey-ness* is just plain sexism.

*(what is the correct noun form here anyway? tropey-ness? tropyness? tropiness? MY GOOGLE-FU FAILS ME, but it’s too late to stop this rant now and I grimly soldier on.)

Sometimes that bias is conscious; sometimes not. Our culture overwhelmingly targets anything teenage girls like with criticism, and if you ever dip a toe into AO3 or Tumblr you will find more tropes and unashamed, enthusiastic embracing of them than you know what to do with.

Tropes themselves can be coded feminine, too: for example, girls love stories about overthrowing the dystopian patriarchy; cue a predictable response of ‘ugh those stories are tired’.

When you criticize a specific trope, consider who it’s popular with. If the answer is teenage girls, perhaps reconsider.

It’s important to note that “tropey” is also applied to work by marginalized authors across intersections as a way to undercut literary merit. Be wary of criticism that amounts to “it’s just x trope but with people of color.” That reader not only isn’t the target audience, they’re unaware of or uninterested in their own biases.

Aside from prejudice, there are two primary reasons for criticisms of tropyness:

  1. They’re tropes the reader personally is tired of.
  2. The tropes are poorly executed.

The first case is not super complicated. People are sometimes remarkably bad at distinguishing “arranged marriage plots fill me with ennui, having read approximately a gazillion of them in my lifetime” from “arranged marriage plots are lazy writing.”

A story that uses tropes you personally don’t like is not necessarily a poorly crafted story.

However, it leads us into the second case, which is more nuanced: what does “poorly executed” even mean? This gets us into tricky territory, because people don’t often like to consider craft as subjective as art, but let’s dig in here anyway.

I, personally, am not a fan of love triangles. This does not mean that all or even most love triangles are bad, nor does it mean I can never like a love triangle in fiction. It depends on execution.

Sometimes a book avoids criticism of tropiness by deliberately subverting a trope. If it’s a trope you’re not fond of, that may make it more likely to work for you!

But again, not all tropes are bad in their original form. Admittedly some extremely are, but that’s not what I’m focusing on here. Frankly, even a well-executed love triangle sometimes won’t work for me, because I just don’t like the trope (note to self to write a future blog post for you all on why).

But many love triangles I come across in fiction aren’t well-executed, because capturing the essence of a trope can be more complicated than it first appears. How does a particular trope work, and why, and for whom?

And this is where authors run into trouble, in two different ways that both manifest out of a failure to understand the original form of the trope.

Say an author does not live in a box and thus recognizes that Harry Potter is wildly popular. They too identified with Harry’s plight and subsequent introduction into another world, and so they start a book with a boy who lives in a cupboard under the stairs. It’s fairly obvious that this hypothetical author has failed to capture the meaningful aspects of the story or Harry’s origins, and any reader who is likewise familiar with Harry Potter will look at this and roll their eyes.

However, it less obvious why writing any other portal fantasy magic school won’t do on its own, yet there are plenty of other coming-of-age magic schools before Harry Potter and after. Some of them are fantastic, others are not, that generally has little to do with their commercial success, and alas this is not actually a blog about how magic school tropes work.

The point being, if you want to use a trope well—or to subvert it in an interesting way—you have to understand what makes it work in the first place. If you slap it into a book without that groundwork, it can feel false, pandering, or disappointing to readers who do love that trope.

Sometimes, that is what a criticism of tropeyness means: the author knows a trope is popular and wishes to replicate it but has not fully understood the storytelling device they’re working with.

Which brings us to the second common iteration of poor execution that leads to criticisms of tropeyness, which is the matter of balance.

When there are too many very currently popular tropes out of proportion with new twists the author is bringing to the narrative, it leads to the impression that the story is in service of the tropes rather than that the tropes are in the service of the story.

Importantly, this balance is super subjective and varies greatly depending on what the reader brings to the text. For instance, I found it difficult to get into Eragon in large part because of this over-familiarity at the point in my life I read it. Readers that were new to those tropes, though, inhaled them like tea. (that’s how that simile works right)

Whereas an undertaking like Pride by Ibi Zoboi deliberately adopts the tropes of Pride and Prejudice and retells the story with people of color in modern Brooklyn. So many of the tropes are going to be intentionally familiar, but that twist alone can make everything fresh and new and different.

So, in summary, sometimes “tropeyness” means the author has erred in their craft, but a lot of the time people apply this term out of a lack of self-awareness. Criticism needs context and should be considered as critically as anything else.

All of which is to say I side-eye criticisms of tropeyness because they’re often slapped onto reviews more casually than misapplied tropes.

Anyway, hooray for tropes and stories and the people who write them thoughtfully and passionately, THE END.

well-executed iterations on the “cat in box” trope

Make Your Process Work for You

I wrote a little bit on Twitter last week about how I’d used my writing process, and more specifically my awareness of it, to troubleshoot a problem with drafting Tea Princess Chronicles, and it occurred to me that might be worth expounding on. So! Here we go.

The most fundamental thing to understand is that your writing process is whatever enables you to meet your writing goals.

For me, my primary goal is completing books. My process is the structure I build into my life to enable me to do that.

Your goal can be pushing your craft limitations, writing consistently, writing at all–whatever you want, provided you have some ability to control it.

(By which I mean, your goal should not be, say, getting published traditionally, or getting fancy movie deals, because notice the passive voice there? Those decisions are reliant on other people; you’re not the agent ultimately in control of them. But setting attainable goals is a blog post for another day.)

If you have a process, yet you’re not meeting your goals? Maybe it’s worked before but isn’t anymore? You can change it. Process isn’t sacred; it evolves with you, your needs, and your stories.

So how do you figure out a process that actually works for you? How do you make it reliable? How do you figure out what’s extraneous?

The summer before I started high school, I decided I was going to actually write a book for the first time. I’d read David and Leigh Eddings’ The Rivan Codex, and I used the process outlined in it for my first attempt. I had a lot of fun but ultimately produced way more world-building documentation than actual story. A learning experience! Happily, the Eddings had the foresight to specify that this was just the process they used and that it should not be taken as gospel, so I didn’t. Instead I started looking up the writers I admired, researching how they worked, and experimenting.

That’s the answer, essentially: experimentation, plus time and work.

The good news is most writers I know are huge process nerds and are happy to share how they work. Their processes almost certainly won’t map 100% to what you need, because writers are different, and books are different. But pieces of their processes can be useful as jumping-off points of what to try, especially if you know whatever you’re doing demonstrably is not getting you closer to your goal.

It may not work! Sometimes you’ll know in advance that something definitely will not work for you–and sometimes you won’t.

Any process that requires me to get up earlier in the morning is definitely never happening, writing out of order is also never happening, and I can explain the reasons for both at length. But outlining, it turns out, is a skill I was able to acquire, though there was a time I couldn’t have imagined that working.

Writing every day seemed like the sort of thing I ought to be able to do, but it turns out that extremely doesn’t work for me–I can only do it for a few days at a time and then I burn out for way longer than I wrote. On the other hand, I’ve learned I don’t have to write every day, because instead I can arrange my schedule such that I can get the same number of words done in a few shifts each week as it takes colleagues consistent daily shifts to accomplish.

Here are some purely logistical questions about writing process to consider:

  • Do you write best with a lot of hours all at once, or do you run out of steam? Do you write best with momentum, a little every day, or in bursts?
  • Can your schedule be shifted at all? Does its structure already mimic your priorities?
  • Is it easiest to start writing if you’ve left off in the middle of a chapter, or if you can start fresh?
  • Do you write better typing or writing longhand with your favorite fountain pen?
  • Do you focus better alone in your room, or at a coffee shop where there’s nothing to do but work?
  • Is drinking tea while you work soothing, or is the excitement caffeine jitters?
  • Do you write best with an outline?
  • Have you tried?

If you don’t know the answer to questions like those and you’re not satisfied with your process (remember, in context this means whether what you’re doing is enabling you to meet your goals), try something different. It doesn’t have to be a complete overhaul, but if you’re not meeting your goals as-is, something has to change.

Process is more than just logistics, of course. But logistics are a concrete thing you can control a lot more easily than other aspects of story creation, so they’re a useful place to start if you’re looking to make a change.

Writing is art, but it is also craft. What I can control I will, and being actively aware and working on my process is one of the most fundamental and simplest (not easy, necessarily, but basic) parts of writing that is within my control. I want to complete books, which means I don’t just wait for a muse to strike with inspiration; I figure out how to make my words and stories happen.

I’ve written eleven books in the last decade. (That’s not counting shorter works or projects I didn’t finish; that’s just novels.) That didn’t happen accidentally or by magic; those manuscripts exist because I took steps to make them. I doubt I’m done learning my process–I’m not sure such a thing is possible, especially as I expect it to change as my life and books do–but being aware of it consciously helps me not just plan my life sustainably but to finish books reliably–which, again, is the goal.

In the case of Tea Princess Chronicles, I was able to figure out there was a story problem because my process wasn’t working. I knew how the story should be coming along–namely, faster and with greater ease–but it wasn’t. The logistics of my process were all in place, but the story wasn’t flowing. That’s how I knew I actually had a craft problem.

Because I know how I work, I knew to go back and check the character fundamentals, since that’s my entry point into stories. (I believe the writing advice “POV fixes everything” is attributed to Emma Bull, and I have found it to be true in my work.) And sure enough, that’s where my problem was. It required a little shifting but ultimately wasn’t difficult to address at that stage. Which is fortunate, because Tea Princess Chronicles posts weekly! There’s not much space to backtrack, which also makes it super important for me to have a reliable process.

It also means that, say, when I have a rush deadline for creative writing, I know what I need to do to meet it. That also happened this year on a different writing project, and I knew what I needed to do with my schedule, and how it was going to affect other deadlines, and made it work. Specifically, I made my process work for me, in the service of my goals.

The important thing is process shouldn’t feel limiting. When it’s working, it should enable you to meet your goals, not something that makes them harder. Process is a means of empowerment, helping you accomplish what matters to you.

So experiment, build the structures you need, and tell your stories.

 

the process of a territory takeover in action:

Empowering Fantasy Stories

I’m going to do these next two blog posts as a set (read part two here), because they’re both ultimately about making choices to effect change. Let me start on the craft side of things, because it’s been ages since I wrote a craft post.

For some people, the idea of socially conscious fiction can carry connotation of it not being fun; I emphatically disagree. On a fundamental level, all my work ends up being about, in some capacity, empowering people to exercise agency in their own lives. Fantasy is a great genre for this because it involves creating new rules for worlds, which can give readers both cognitive distance to consider different perspectives and also ways to imagine other ways of being.

When talking about writing empowering fantasy, I like to talk about this on a spectrum from escapism to engaging with injustice. My work tends to be some sort of hybrid, but it’s a useful framework for discussion.

On one end, you have escapism. So women are oppressed in your lived reality, but what if you could get away from that and read about a world where sexism just doesn’t exist? This can be an incredible relief, to get away from all the micro and macro aggressions of daily life. It can also be incredibly satisfying, to have a marginalized protagonist who gets to just exist and be awesome without being dragged down by any of this bullshit.

We don’t have to reproduce sexism, racism, disablism, homophobia, etc. in our fantasy worlds. It can actually be very challenging not to, because systemic oppression is so pervasive it can be hard to imagine reality without them. But that’s one of the reasons it’s so important to try. Another is, if people can imagine a world without oppression, perhaps we’ll become more able to effect it in reality.

On the other end, we have engaging with injustice. Instead of imagining a world without sexism, we instead imagine a world with similarly powerful institutions where women can and do actively topple that systemic oppression. We model ways to overcome the oppression we live with in our world, and the empowerment comes in reading characters successfully triumphing over the systems working to keep them down.

While some people find it immensely satisfying to not have to read about their own oppression, others find not acknowledging its existence dishonest, or like their lived experience is being erased and dismissed. Neither approach is necessarily better or worse. People are different, not every story will work for every person, and at different times people will need different stories.

For instance, in my own reading, I’m generally not interested anymore in the ‘teen girl wants to do the same thing as men and isn’t allowed to’ narritives with the ‘girls can wear pants too’ depth of feminist nuance. For many people, reading these stories is important and wonderful and necessary. Cheers for variety, and may we all find the stories we need!

But I encourage writers to think about the kind of story you’re writing—or editing, if this sort of consideration interferes with your initial creation process—what you’re trying to accomplish, or what you want the readers’ experience to be. That will determine what approach your story needs. The tone and mood of your story, the world-building, the kind of character arc, all of that can tie into the question of what kind of worlds we imagine for our stories. In a memorable case for me, I restructured an entire book after realizing I’d essentially tried to have both extremes in an incompatible way, and I had to choose what that story really needed to be.

We have to choose.

We get to choose.

And what we choose matters—in our fantasies and stories and lives.

cats choosing to overwhelm me with cuteness

Writing is Madness

There’s always a new article/post/thread calling people out for either being too sensitive or not sensitive enough, and, although of course I’m biased, I find it’s especially true in writing circles. We’ve all heard the advice to “develop a thick skin” to get by in this world and not let every little thing faze us on one hand, and on the other how important it is to listen to other people’s experiences and take them to heart. These two imperatives seem paradoxical, but in general–specific cases vary wildly–the crux of the problem is both matter.

And this is my theory for why people pursuing creative endeavors are often a bit bonkers, at least when it comes to their creation. (Well. One reason why, anyway.) I’m going to talk about writing, because it’s what I know, and it goes like this:

There is the story you want to tell, and there’s the story you do tell. There are the words on the page, and there’s the story readers glean from them.

Bad news: they don’t match perfectly.

Good news: that’s one of the beautiful things about art, that we all take different things from it. Reading the same book at different times in our lives can make for vastly different experiences.

But for the author, it’s complicating. Because you want them to match as closely as they can. The story in your head is the asymptote the words on the page get infinitely closer to but never fully reach.

Because no two readers have the same experience. But how much of that is because of what the reader is bringing to the text versus what the author has put into it? How do you know when you’ve gotten it right?

You can’t, because there’s no such thing as right. There’s better. There’s the best you can do. It’s craft, which means you work and whittle and hone your skills. But there’s no such thing as perfection, because it’s also art.

The fact is that no one else can tell your story. As the creator, you have the strongest vision of your own work and what you’re trying to do.

But you don’t have the strongest sense of how it’s working outside your head. You need feedback to tell you when something you did on purpose failed, or something you did on accident is Very Bad.

But readers disagree. Periodically I see the advice to get good readers, but I’m here to tell you that intelligent, experienced, skilled critique-ers don’t all agree either. They never will, because people want and need different things from books.

Which is great in the scheme of things! It means there are markets for lots of different kinds of stories, which is lovely, because it means we have an incredible variety to choose from.

But it also makes it hard to determine, for any given project, whether feedback has more to do with the one person’s read or with the words on the page.

So you get lots of critiques to make sure you’re not just revising to one person’s tastes–unless you are, which simplifies things–but then you really can’t take all the feedback you’re given even if you wanted to, because that would make the book incredibly disjointed. Maybe if lots of people agree you pay special attention to those notes and disregard that one person’s particular bugbear–but maybe that person also caught something incredibly important that everyone else happened to miss.

Some critiques you’ll read and be like, YIKES you are absolutely right I can’t believe I did that THANK YOU for bringing this up so I can fix it O_O. And some you’ll look at and go …woooow this is super off base, wtf?

You’re not always going to agree. Sometimes the crit is right anyway. Sometimes it’s not.

Which means the author, although they need feedback to make their books better, shouldn’t take all critique to heart. Taking every piece of criticism given can be just as bad as taking none of it.

It’s impossible to make everyone happy. Every change will make the story better for some people and worse for others. It’s choice after choice with no objectively correct answer. So how do you choose which change that’s hard should be taken to heart, and which discarded?

IT DEPENDS.

*jazz hands*

You have to be able to be open to readers’ experiences in order to make your book better.

And you have to be able to close off and hold on to what you want for the story in order to make your book better.

And you have to be able to do both together, and this is why authors are bonkers.

 

(but at least we have help)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flexibility and Strength

I’ve been doing physical therapy for the last couple months. Long story short: I twisted my ankle a while back, and when it failed to heal as quickly as I thought it should, I mentioned it to my doctor. I explained how I used to twist my ankles on a regular basis during adolescence, which is why I had a metric for what recovery should be like, and she looked at me in horror and recommended me to a physical therapist.

So I made an appointment, and on the way to an examining room my new physical therapist confirmed that I was there about repeated ankle sprains. After about a whole minute in my company, she said, “We’ll do a couple tests, but just by looking at you I think I have a pretty good idea what the basic problem is.”

“What do you mean?” I asked from where I’d sat casually on the exam table, propped up on my hands.

She pointed at my arm. “Your elbows are hyperextended. Also, your wrists are bent past a ninety-degree angle. I’m guessing all your joints are unusually flexible.”

I glanced down at my arm askance, as it of course looked and felt perfectly normal to me. I’m a dancer, and I’m aware that my muscles are flexible. My joints, though — perfectly obvious in retrospect that they’re unusually flexible, too. But while my muscles are naturally flexible, I’d consciously worked to increase their flexibility to do things like the splits. Not so with my joints; they just came that way.

Further tests revealed, unsurprisingly, that my ankles have a much wider range of motion than normal human ankles really should.

As we worked through exercises, my physical therapist explained, “It’s not that your ankles are weak,” which is what I’d long thought. “It’s that because of their ridiculous flexibility, you need corresponding strength to control their movement. We have to work with the body you have. We can’t decrease your joint flexibility, so we need to increase your strength even further. ”

At any rate, I love my physical therapist (which is INCREDIBLY rare for me with doctors), and this process has been both a hilarious discovery of things I didn’t know about my body but also working.

But what occurred to me while I was doing my first set of PT exercises today is that there’s a loose analogy to the writing process — and life — here. (I know, I know, of course this is where I’m going with this. Bear with me?)

Greater flexibility necessitates greater control.

As my writing craft improves, I have more skill to do more things with words and stories. But what should I do? That’s the crux of the difficulty with receiving critique, especially when readers suggest solutions: plenty of people have good ideas for what I could do with a story, but they’re rarely in line with what the story needs.

In my experience, a lot of writers new to receiving feedback (myself included, back in the day) get caught up in the feedback from people who are excellent writers or editors in their own right and lose track of what their story needs. It’s easy to get blown off course. And sometimes you need to be to find the right course, but learning how to tell the difference is hard. Learning what your artistic instincts are even telling you is hard, let alone learning to trust them.

There are endless ways a story could go. What makes it my story is not just where I choose to go with it, but how I choose to go there, and that choice matters. As writers we learn what our strengths and weaknesses are, and we learn to work with what we have, the artistic cards we’re dealt, be it a natural gift for or tendency to rely too heavily on voice or story structure or one of the myriad other tools in the writing craft box, and we learn to improve what we can.

The more I level up, the greater narrative control I need, the stronger I need my vision to be for what my story really is at its core. There will always be people who wish for something different from a story. In the end, though, if I’m the author, the onus is on me to make sure I’m writing my story, the way I think is right. And the ability to do that is a skill, and also, I think, a form of artistic strength.

Now, back to the editing mines.

Taking Editing Ranks

Oof, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? *waves hello*

My last few months have basically consisted of a combination of friends’ wedding events and editing. Much, much time in the editing trenches. Oh, and my YA space opera manuscript is DONE. =D

While I regret my silence around these parts, the good news is that I think I’ve leveled up in editing. I’ve found a process that works for me in terms of getting edits done in a timely fashion, figuring out what edits need to be made in the first place, and going about making them in a way that actually improves the manuscript.

It surprised me to learn that editing is emotionally harder for me than writing. While writing for sure has a hefty share of madness associated, the challenges are not the same.

The key difference is that when I’m writing a first draft, I know it doesn’t have to be perfect, because I can fix it later. But once I’m editing, the pressure is on: now I have to make it right. I have to figure out how, and I have to be able to do it, and if either of those were easy I’d have done it right the first time.

Now, the wonderful thing about beta readers is that they give me feedback on how a story is being perceived by people outside of my own head, so I can tell which parts are working and which aren’t. The problem is that not only do beta readers disagree with each other, they can be wrong — which has nothing at all to do with their reading or analysis and everything to do with the story I’m trying to tell. What different readers look for and react to in stories varies; the story they would tell with the same premise is different than the story I would tell, not just as a matter of content but also of style. I have had AMAZING beta readers, but in the end the story is mine to fix, not theirs.

Even with beta readers I trust, I can never take all of their feedback. From a relatively small reader sample, I have to weigh concerns. When beta readers disagree, it makes me especially aware that any change I make can improve the story for some readers and derail it for others. Obviously, I have to choose whichever changes are best for the story, but — well, if I could tell what changes the story needed that easily, I wouldn’t need beta readers.

Essentially: without outside feedback I can’t tell how the story is working, but the feedback doesn’t always clarify matters; sometimes it just gives me more to worry about. So not only do I feel pressured to get it right, when I’m editing it’s often hard to tell if I’m actually making the story better.

The final problem for me is with tracking progress. Part of how I motivate myself to write is with deadlines and word count quotas. The tracking is key, though, because I never feel like I’m doing enough; numbers and spreadsheets are how I prove to myself that I’m being productive, which in turn makes me feel productive, which then causes me to have an easier time producing.

I can still give myself deadlines for editing, and I absolutely do. But for me, tracking editing word count is nonsensical. I’m not necessarily striving to add or take away words. I could try and edit a certain number of words each day, but depending on the type of editing I’m doing (line edits, rewrites, structural overhauls…) some chapters can fly by, and some take hours or days. I could edit four chapters one day and half of one the next. Unlike writing, I don’t edit in chronological order. Some changes have to be made throughout the text, and sometimes I don’t know to fix something earlier until I’ve made a change later.

I’ve found a solution that works for me in terms of tracking progress — I won’t detail it here, but the main thing is that there is a list of daily tasks that I can cross off once accomplished or, like with word count goals, that roll over into the next day. They don’t go away if I don’t do them, but once I have, I have evidence that I have been useful. That makes the whole process easier, and anything that makes it easier matters. Then I can marathon the work and if I’m lucky collapse in a heap of books for a week or so afterwards, as one does.

Even after the book is drafted, the work doesn’t get easier. If I’m doing my job right, the story gets better, but editing is every bit as much of a skill as writing. All I can do is put my fingers to the keyboard and work on leveling my skills and my story up.

Making Magic

I’ve been thinking, lately, about how many stories — often portal fantasies, sometimes urban fantasies — talk about how there is no magic in our world. Or how the magic has been leaving our world, often due to the growth of technology, like the fae vanishing due to the presence of iron, as if in the pursuit of scientific discovery we sacrifice magic.

The idea that I might live in a world without magic, or with dying magic, made me sad. Because of course I’ve always wanted to live in a world with magic. Sure, magic can be terrifying and devastating and maddening, but it’s magic, and it is exciting and wonderful and inspiring. It can break or it can build or it can fail to serve any useful purpose at all, but its existence — I have always wanted magic.

I wanted to be a sorcerer, wielding magic with my hands, shooting out beams of sheer power to shake the world, to defeat my enemies, to change people’s minds and heal their hearts.

And I thought of the role of the scop, once upon a time, or the bard or minstrel in different ages and cultures. Storytellers who were revered not just as sources of knowledge and wisdom, but for how they shaped the tales and the words within them, for how they delivered them, and how those tales shape us.

And I thought about how, once upon a time, writing was a rare and mysterious skill. The ability to read runes, to take symbols from a rock or sheet and make them into messages, to make sense out of nothing, was a kind of magic.

And I realized, shockingly belatedly, that this is why I write: because storytelling is magic.

The act of writing is an act of creation, my pen is my wand. And without my wand, how can I take magic from intangible idea into a physical reality? No wonder I have always thought my fingers understood story better than my brain.

Writing is an art, but it is also a craft. What it feels like to have magic can’t be taught, but how to wield it must be learned. Because we all know what happens when the arcane summoner misses a critical symbol in their circle: they will fail to contain the demon. The sorcerers that never learn their power will cause critical damage to the world, to the people close to them, or to themselves.

Like magicians, we learn to use smoke and mirrors to shape and direct our stories. I may not be an adept magic user yet, but I am devoting my time to training, and it consumes my life in a way I recognize from archetypes of mad alchemists fascinated not just by the magic itself, but by how it works, by the possibilities. That it takes time, but that I can love the work even when the exterior results are frustrating or incomprehensible to people who are not mad alchemists.

Writers are the sorcerers: words are the vessels for our magic, stories our spells. And if our magic and spellcraft are strong, they act upon the world. They seep into the hearts and minds around us, and they open new worlds. And every story is another act of magic, and every time we cast them into the world we fill the world with a little more magic, and we draw more people into the circle. We inspire more people to make magic in their worlds, in our world.

Magic was once rare. But little by little, we bring it out of everyone. The quantity of magic may vary from person to person, as well as their skill to use it, but the magic is here. It’s everywhere, for those who seek to find.

My world is full of magic, and I am a sorcerer.