process

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

Advertisements

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.

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:

Measuring Writing Progress: Beyond NaNo

National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo, and its offshoots are wonderful. Many novelists have gotten their starts with NaNo or have made use of it to great effect later in their development, and it’s that second part I want to talk a little more about.

NaNo is designed to target one particular writing problem that afflicts a huge percentage of people, particularly beginning writers, and it targets it very effectively: that challenge is actually writing.

NaNo is built with tools to give you access to a community of fellow writers to help you through or keep you on track. It gives pep talks to keep you going. It gives you a deadline that isn’t fungible. What it’s especially known for is keeping track of your word count, how many words you’ve written that day, how many you have left, and how many you need to write each day on average to hit that mark.

In essence, it provides a support system to teach people how to write novels in the sense of literally sitting down and producing words.

Here’s an incomplete list of what NaNo doesn’t teach:

  • Writing craft.
  • Finishing.
  • Editing.
  • Pacing (yourself, as a writer).
  • Adaptability.

This is not a flaw with NaNo–it’s not trying to teach these things, and targeting a particular and wide audience is smart! But it’s worth noting that the tools it teaches for writers who need help just finally getting the story in their heads out are not always still useful to that same writer as they evolve.

Which is to say, if you’re serious about writing, NaNo’s tools probably will not continue working for you forever, at least not without some changes. This is good–it means you’re growing. So if you’re not meeting a NaNo goal, or if you’re struggling to meet it, don’t beat yourself up about it. The set of tools it’s teaching may not be what you need to learn, and you’re the only one who can judge that.

Let me give some specifics, because one of the things NaNo has been great at is undercutting all the excuses people make for all the reasons they can’t write a novel. (In particular, being busy. Everyone is busy. But I digress.)

Traditional NaNo sets the goal of writing 50,000 words in a month. Plenty of people can figure out how to manage this for one month by putting a lot of other life to the side. Learning how to prioritize writing is useful, but if the things you’re putting aside are your share of chores, doctor’s appointments, or things you do for fun and your emotional well-being? They can’t be put off indefinitely. Ultimately that hurts the writing by hurting the writer. So people who want to make writing a consistent part of their lives often benefit by not setting a goal this high–not because it’s unattainable, but because it’s unsustainable.

Camp NaNo is an iteration of traditional NaNoWriMo in spring and summer that has more flexibility. You can set whatever word count goal you like, or you can set a goal in terms of hours worked on the project, the latter of which is very useful if you’re primarily editing.

(Because editing typically does not produce consistent increases in word count, it can be harder to measure and track productivity. This isn’t how I personally measure editing progress, but it’s a great adaptation for NaNo.)

Unfortunately, you can’t select both hours and words, so this doesn’t work well if you’re writing one project and editing another. This April I’d set a writing goal, but even knowing I’d been editing for a week, looking at the flat section of the bar graph made me feel like I hadn’t been working.

NaNo also doesn’t teach writers how to manage multiple deadlines. If you have more than one ongoing project, and one becomes a rush job, everything else in your schedule has to shift to accommodate. I had to change my word count goal in April for a similar reason, and it was hard not to feel like that wasn’t a kind of failure. Not because NaNo’s word count tracking system didn’t allow me to change my ultimate goal, but because it couldn’t account for the context involved.

The same is true if you’re collaborating, or an editor’s schedule changes, or you have publicity commitments. It’s not just life that affects your writing schedule: it’s other realities of writing.

And, like with editing, often writers aren’t trying to get just any words on the page. They’re trying to get the right ones. NaNo teaches people to produce, and that is very useful, but only to a point. People who are serious about writing will at some point need to move beyond this one way of measuring progress, because it’s designed to measure a particular kind of progress. I already know I can produce lots of words quickly, so a system designed to encourage that locks me into a pattern that makes me feel like I’m making progress rather than helping me grow in different ways.

Exactly when you need to learn other tools to keep yourself on track, and what tools those should be, varies for every individual person and sometimes for different projects. I still use elements of NaNo word count tracking in my own projects, because it’s a great jumping-off point–deadline motivation works particularly well for me. But it’s elements, adapted to my needs. NaNo is a great template for a starter system; it’s not the be all and end all.

If you’ve found NaNo restrictive or unhelpful–or even easy–consider what you’re trying to use it for, and consider if it’s serving your interests. It’s great for specific uses–namely, again, actually writing–but context matters. If you already know how to reliably get words written, NaNo metrics alone probably aren’t what you need. Don’t set yourself up to fail by forcing yourself to use a system designed to solve problems that aren’t your primary concern.

It’s not failure if you can’t reach a system’s goals when the system isn’t designed to work for you. As with any writing advice: take what helps you and discard the rest. And know that as you evolve as a writer, your process will too.

The greatest challenge to my writing process is these two cats being unreasonably adorable in my office.

Folder Structure for Novelists

A bunch of people have asked me about how I keep track of ongoing novel projects. I can pick up a project after months away and tell you exactly what stage it’s in and what I need to do next. I know exactly where to find every file or piece of information from any stage in the process, which is incredibly useful because novel projects are complicated.

For these parts of novel project management, the key is folder structure.

It’s the basis for how I organize all my notes, drafts, and anything else related to the process of writing, editing, and sending out a novel: where to store files, what to save, what to name them, all of that.

I applied this method to my writing projects out of necessity/rage after one project that spanned several years for which I’d create a new system of organization every time I picked it back up. Nothing was standardized. I was always unable to find what I needed to work on particular parts but knew that work existed somewhere. It was a mess, and it made a project that was already unpleasant for other reasons maddening.

I also worked as a project manager for a while, and I swear this is one of the easiest, stupidest, most useful things I learned.

So here’s how I do this.

The first stupid trick is to number your folders. This keeps the folders, and the progress of your work, in chronological order. Eventually, the project folder looks like this:

But you don’t set all the folders up right away; you create folders as you progress to each subsequent step, which helps track where you are in the process.

So start with 0, which I inventively call “BG” for background. Every one of my background folders has been organized differently depending on the needs of the project, but this folder is for general information you may need to refer to at any stage in the process. This is where my world-building notes go, for instance, since I’ll need them during drafting and editing. (It’s also where information goes before I’m at later stages but already have, say, notes on potential beta readers or agents to query.)

When you’re ready to start writing, the next folder is for your first draft (“1 First Draft”). This is where material you’re using and/or changing while working on your initial draft goes. If you’re using an outline from the background folder, copy it in here; that way you can make changes to it while you draft, but you’ll still have the original in your 0 folder if you mess it up.

The only file that has to be in this folder is the manuscript draft file you’re currently editing. Title your manuscript file something basic, even if it’s not the actual title, and STICK WITH IT, because it helps with the next stupid trick:

Numbering versions. It seems obvious. But it can also be easy to think, “Oh, I’ll definitely remember this is the most recent one.” DON’T FALL FOR IT. NUMBER YOUR VERSIONS. Know which is the most recent version, and still keep your previous ones so you can go back to them if needed.

(Please do not comment about how superior you think Scrivener is for doing this for you. Thanks in advance.)

After my first draft, I create a new folder for the initial clean-up pass for general grammar/spelling and anything I already know needs to be fixed, copying the last draft from the first draft folder and the ongoing notes I’ve inevitably made for myself of things I already know to fix.

Why not just do this in the first draft folder? Because this isn’t initial drafting. This is editing, and I want a record of when changes occurred and why. If I decide not to make changes I thought I needed during the first draft, I note that; if I later decide I had it right the first time, or I need to reconsider, I still have that text.

My next step is to solicit feedback from beta readers. You copy your cleaned-up draft into this folder and, if the file name didn’t already include the actual title and your name, rename it. You also want a new folder for this step to copy in other files, like the list of beta readers to contact and what in particular, if anything, I’ve asked them to focus on.

(I may do another post on this later, but those questions can include things like, ‘Is the romance between these two characters working?’ or ‘Were you confused about any of the world-building?’ Down the road, I’ve found it useful to see what I was worried about in earlier drafts.)

And this is the final, important, stupid folder structure tip, which is: save everything in your folder structure. Everything.

If you get feedback from a beta reader, don’t just save the file with track changes they sent you, save the additional comments they wrote in their emailed response. Keep everything in one place. Yes, your email probably saves it, and we can talk about email folder structure another time. But the less searching and clicking around you have to do, the fewer barriers (including lack of internet connectivity) there are to your workflow, and the easier it is to keep track of everything.

I start my feedback folder by making a folder for each reader who’s confirmed they’ll get back to me, and it progresses something like this.

Do you see how this works? Just glancing at the folder I know exactly who to follow up with if I haven’t heard back from them by the requested deadline. (The 0s in front of the Canceled and Received folders keep them easy to visually separate, rather than mixed among the alphabetical list of names.)

Incidentally, if you need recommendations for awesome female characters from SFF novels published in 2017 to nominate for awards, I’ve got you covered. =D

I’m not going to keep going through folder by folder; you get the idea. To review, the basic principles are:

  • Number folders (and versions) in chronological order.
  • Internal consistency is your friend.
  • Create a separate folder for each new stage in the process.
  • Save and document everything in your folder structure.

Have questions? Let me know in the comments!

We’ll See Where We Land

Friends have been asking where I’m at with writing and editing at the moment, and it occurs to me that I’ve let my blog languish. An unexpected side effect of living with people again is that when I feel ranty or something noteworthy happens I just, you know, argue with a living human instead of blurting it out on the internet. Alas for the regularity of my posting here.

So an update on my current projects for anyone curious:

Recently I’ve been writing a new YA fantasy novel I’m calling Sealed, and I just finished the first draft last week! It’s a story with female friendship at its center, along with quests, underground monasteries, demon invasions, political machinations, undignified and vicious floof friends, and magic.

I’m tentatively (I am rarely sure of anything when I first finish a draft) pleased with how this one came out. It took me a while to get into it — I tried a lot of new things and was coming off a looooong stint of editing and not drafting, so that’s not shocking but was still frustrating — but I think it’s come out approximately book-shaped.

Normally I’d do a quick clean-up and send it straight to readers for feedback, but this time I need to do a more thorough edit pass first. I have a document full of notes I jotted down while drafting of things I already know I need to fix, so I’m going to address those first. My manuscript needs to be in the best shape I can get it in before I ask anyone to put their time into helping me make it better.

I’m taking a brief (possibly too brief?) break to do some beta reading myself before diving back in, letting my mental gears adjust a bit from the mode of CHURN OUT ALL THE WORDS (I was writing 6-8k/day towards the end there — I did eventually get into it) to a place with enough distance where I don’t get caught up and can edit more effectively.

On the beta reading note, I think I’m going to have to officially close to beta reads for a while. I just counted, and I have four full beta reads and three partials already this year. I love beta reading, and I always want to be available for writers who’ve beta read for me in the past, but at least through July I’m booked on that front.

Next on the agenda is finishing up the final round of edits for Afterstorms, the adult fantasy novel. I’m actually excited to edit it, so I know taking a break to write something new was the right choice for me. And I’m really excited to get it on submission — honestly while I’m invested in being published I’m not usually so enthusiastic about the prospect of querying — and the submission packet is almost in its final form. This book is ready to soar into the wild, and I can’t wait to see how it flies.

So, to recap, this is where I’m at.

recently: wrote a new book
now: beta reading
May: first round of edits on the YA fantasy
May and maybe June: last round of edits on the adult fantasy
by June: submitting the adult fantasy

Why the rush? In part because I’m anxious for these books to go on to their next steps. But also because I’m going to have travel commitments coming up at the end of June and early July — con, wedding, etc. — and I don’t want to be interrupted after getting into the flow.

And after those I won’t be able to just pick back up, because in June and July, construction disaster notwithstanding, I will be moving at long last. I will be moving into a new house and furnishing the whole thing, and I am reasonably sure that getting settled to my satisfaction is going to take all my creative energy for a few weeks at the minimum.

SO. It’s been a busy spring, and it’s shaping up to be a busy summer! After that, we’ll see where we land.