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

Planning with Intent

At and after our wedding, we of course received many well wishes and comments about the event, but I couldn’t help noticing a huge percentage of what people noted specifically was that our wedding was “creative” and “very us.”

The former was possibly inevitable, both of us being fantasy writers. The latter was extremely intentional.

A lot of people probably assume Django and I are both imaginative people, which is true. What is possibly less obvious is that we are both epic planners. We will research possibilities, craft logistics and backup scenarios, and do the work to actually make our dreams into reality.

I want to share some wedding pictures (I don’t have them all yet, but our photographer Rose Lily posted highlights on Facebook!) in part I admit to brag, because I think we did a great job of pulling off a wedding. But I also want to talk about, rather than the spreadsheets and the budgets and that side, intentionality in planning. Not just because of how it mattered with our wedding, but because it’s also something I think about and apply to my life—and my writing career in particular. All the spreadsheets in the world of wedding timelines or word count trackers won’t serve you if they aren’t set up bearing in mind what you actually want to accomplish.

There are so many ways to be a writer, after all. There are so many stories you can write, so many side opportunities you can pursue to supplement or complement, so many sides of yourself you can share publicly in different ways. We only have so much time in this world, and I choose to spend it deliberately.

Casey with veil flying in midair, trees behind her.

When it came to the subject of weddings, it got to be something of a joke between Django and I how, given the many weddings we’ve been called upon to attend in recent years, both of us would end up analyzing logistics and vision afterward. So when it came time to plan our own, we put a lot of thought into what it was we were trying to accomplish.

Casey and Django leaning together, their image reflected in the pond next to them.

Which begins with a very basic but also critical question, which is: why have a wedding ceremony and reception at all, given the cost in time, energy, and funds? What’s the point of it all?

For us, we wanted to bring together our communities of families and friends made throughout the years, to share with them who we are together. To share with them the foundation of our home, which is each other and the life we’re building here, for them to join us as we joined forces in making our home together. And that goal paved the way for most of our structural decisions.

Casey and Django holding hands and posing together.

What is our home? It’s our literal house, for one thing—and so the day after the wedding, we invited people there for brunch!

More broadly, it’s the Pacific Northwest, the place where we live on purpose because it resonates with us. It’s the forests we adventure through, and so it was a forest where we held our wedding, chosen and decorated to evoke an elven forest vibe, and it was the Pacific Northwest cuisine we catered there. It’s the place where Django and I have celebrated our anniversary and made memories many times, where we held our rehearsal dinner, combining both.

And less physically, it’s books, and it’s stories. We held our welcome reception at the bookstore where I work, with displays of our favorite fantasy books and our favorite local desserts. And specifically it’s fantasy: it’s our shared interest in anime and Japanese culture, which we brought in with our ceremony music choices of songs with epic fantasy moods and the food prepared for brunch. It’s dragons and swords and dashing capes, and the magic we feel with each other and in this place and that we build it, together.

wedding party posed as Ginyu Force.
GINYU FORCE ASSEMBLED.

It’s that we approach this not as the start of our story nor as the end of it, which would render whatever comes before or after less meaningful; it’s marking a change in the continuing adventure we’re on together. And in the spirit of what we wanted to accomplish, we wanted the whole event to feel cohesive. So we chose the physical locations and the kinds of events that would suit us, to be ourselves and share that with our guests, and everything was designed around combining these elements: fantasy and stories, forest and adventure, home, and us.

Beyond that, we talked and established our top three goals for the wedding itself (which, given our fortunate but nevertheless limited budget, affected a lot of decisions, in terms of how much we could afford to spend overall and how we chose to allocate that money).

  1. We wanted to look awesome in pictures.
  2. We wanted to love the food at our wedding.
  3. I wanted to dance. (And Django wanted to not spend the entire reception dancing.)

picture from behind of Casey and Django walking away from ceremony.

In a way it’s hard to talk about our decisions in brief, because everything overlaps, but it all comes back to these same starting points. That last goal affected venue choice: we needed a place that would have separate spaces for dancing and people not dancing, so Django would be able to carry on conversations and actually be able to hear—but also not have walls between us, so he could dance with me at all. Then to take advantage of the forest setting, I wanted an outdoor wedding, and given that we didn’t get to start planning this until October, we had to rush to look for venues that weren’t already booked and then get the save-the-dates out as quickly as possible since so many folks would be traveling from out-of-town and needed to be able to prepare. And to get the save-the-dates out and give people the information they needed to start planning, we had to make a series of other decisions to have that information available on a wedding website, the URL of which would be provided on the save-the-date.

Our plates full of food, including tri-tip, lemon salmon, pesto pasta, spinach watermelon salad, roasted vegetables, and bread. selection of appetizers, including berry goat cheese tarts, maple pork belly bites, and a mushroom goat cheese tart.

display of a bazillion mini cupcakes in assorted flavors.
some of the food from the wedding!

Many decisions later, I had the wedding website up (chosen for which website had the functionality and appearance options we needed) to set the tone, as the hub where people could go for information about us and this event. On the home page there’s a picture of me and Django in a forest location at an important moment for us; there’s an introduction (“Adventure!”) that begins giving an impression of who we are individually and together, crafted to also introduce the mood for the wedding and what people could expect if they chose to attend; there’s a brief description of each event that echoes it; and all that ripples throughout information throughout the website and every other logistical and aesthetic choice.

Our stationery for the save-the-dates and the wedding invitations themselves was customized to reflect this as well. We chose dark purple (which, among other things, connotes magic) for the wedding color, and then used it for both the storybook format of the save-the-date with dragon stamps and the magical forest vibe of the invitation.

storybook style save-the-date pictured next to purple night forest wedding invitation.

Django commissioned artwork for a wedding crest for House Wexlair, which resulted in a perfect image of two dragons entwined, in flight separately and together. Our initial idea was to get custom seals and send our wedding invitations sealed with our house crest in (purple) wax, which we did, and it was awesome. (Let it be known we were Extremely Clear at every step of this process that we were inviting people to a nerd wedding =).) But then we had this custom artwork, right?  So we put it on everything.

piles of wax-sealed envelopes lined up.

We had an actual crest, which we used as the idea basis for our guestbook. (As an aside, let me just say that this wedding was largely accomplished by Etsy rather than DIY—unless you count all the planning, which we did ourselves and not with a coordinator—and most were not expensive.) We also put it on the sword we used to cut the cake! (The sword, FYI, is now known as Wexcaliblair and is getting a sign noting it as such for our wall.)

wooden shield engraved with crest and "House Wexlair"; smaller blank versions of same sit in front with instructions to decorate them for the guestbook.

sword engraved with crest and our names.
Close up of sword courtesy of Graham.

 

We put it on bookmarks, which we chose as our wedding favors. They’re made of wood and decorated with leaves, evoking the forest vibe, they’re engraved with a woodland fairy kind of font that would read clearly on wood (I will refrain from delineating all my font choices for the various signs and stationery and websites and all for this event, so this is just to say I they were all chosen very deliberately and I had a lot of fun and the ampersand in the bookmark font is a magic wand!!), they have purple tassels to match the wedding, they mention adventure, and they’re used for books.

bookmark: crest on top, followed by text "Casey and Django Starting New Adventures" with engraved leaves.

We put it on the ring box for our wedding rings. The wedding rings themselves were another series of choices for us. The rings are both custom-designed for each of our different aesthetic preferences that nevertheless coordinate in terms of finishes and feature dragons in flight. Mine also has leaf details as a callback to my engagement ring, also chosen to evoke an elven vibe. It’s fantasy and dragons and stories and us, all combined in rings. Because if we’re going to wear symbols of our love for each other every day, shouldn’t they reflect who we are as individuals and together? Shouldn’t they be special, and should they not look awesome? Obviously they should. (And if you’re in the Seattle area I recommend Green Lake Jewelry Works and our designer Benjamin Marchant highly.)

dragon rings sitting atop ring box, which looks like a small log engraved with the crest.described dragon rings and engagement ring on stone tile.

There were so many other pieces. Django and I don’t drink alcohol, but since I used to work at a root beer store, we had a root beer tasting instead of a cocktail hour.

selection of root beer, including Boylan, Frostie Vanilla, Sprecher, and Cicero Salted Caramel.

Our centerpieces? Crafted around dragon eggs. The eggs were DIY, but by my superhero maid of honor Dodo. And Django handled the rest, incorporating leaves for the forest and more.

centerpiece: circular glass vase filled with sand; dragon egg sits in the middle surrounded by tea lights. sprigs of leaves surround the vase.

We didn’t want advice on how to be happily married together, but I came across the idea of a bucket list card, where people suggest adventures you should go on together, and that seemed entirely appropriate.

card that reads "bucket list: help us plan our lifetime of adventures"

Rather than tossing rice as we processed out from the ceremony, we discovered we could get custom magic wands—with tinkling bells and ribbons in purple and silver for our magic wedding colors, and the effect as people waved them was incredibly cool. (In related news, ping me if you need a cat toy? XD)

Casey and Django beginning the walk toward the audience after the ceremony, as everyone lifts wands to wave.

It’s the women in our families who most enjoy dancing, and my mother and I in particular have a history of dancing together. So rather than separate parent dances we had the mothers—who gave speeches at the wedding whereas the fathers who helped sponsor the rehearsal dinner and welcome reception spoke the night before—open the floor with me for dancing.

Casey dancing with her mother and mother-in-law on either side. Casey dancing with friends once the floor has been opened.

Casey dancing back into Django as he tries to concentrate on signing the wedding license.
Wedding cleanup had begun by the time we got to sign the wedding licenses. I’m still dancing, obviously. With thanks to Dodo for capturing this. =)

And there’s a customary wedding thing we didn’t have in our ceremony or anywhere else: flowers. I don’t care about them. I didn’t want to have to deal with them. Florists are exorbitantly expensive, and for something I don’t care about, I wasn’t going to spend money on it or exhaustively figure out how to do it cheaper or even have a substitute for bouquets. That time, effort, and money was better allocated to what I actually cared about. Like: more dragons!

purple glass goblets with metallic dragon stems that link to form a heart.

Or our unity candle! We lit this together during the ceremony (because we are planners, we had a backup plan of lighters already on hand when it was too windy to get the classier tapers to light XD), and the candle was a dragon egg in our wedding colors (there’s purple under the silver coat), that, when melted, would reveal a tiny metal dragon figurine inside. (I do not kid. Etsy is truly a dangerous place.)

close up of Casey and Django lighting the dragon egg.wedding party under ceremony arch.

One of the aspects people kept pointing out to us was how perfect our ceremony was, and I have to say it does help to have the best officiant. We were delighted when our friend Amy agreed to be our officiant. And at one point in the planning process when I was like, “AMY I have a bad?? idea WHAT IF we structured the ceremony like a story!” her response was that this was a great idea, and then she singlehandedly figured out how to make it work and it was amazing. It was a fantasy story structure that then included references to how stories work and excerpts from some of our favorite fantasy stories, and through it all she perfectly reflected who we are, separately and together.

Casey putting ring on Django's finger.

The other specific piece of the ceremony people were especially impressed with was our vows. This is in part because Django and I are both writers, and evidently they could tell. But I think it’s also worth noting that we wrote these vows together. We decided what was important for us, to say and to hear, and we crafted them accordingly. So they were meaningful to us, and the audience got a window into that, too.

Casey and Django holding hands while making vows.

 

It also helps, and I cannot overstate this, to have the best people, as we took to referring to our collective group of best man-type positions and crew. They were critical support for us in the preparation for the wedding and downright heroic during the wedding events themselves. We armed them for battle accordingly.

wedding party all wielding daggers and swords. close up of one dagger, engraved with the phrase "friends who slay together stay together"

And of course, there were the clothes. There were some fraught times involved on that axis to put it mildly—in particular, because problems with my dress threatened the primary goals of looking awesome AND dancing, it was a failure point that despite very intentional effort had the potential to make me unhappy—but ultimately we made it work. I wore a dress and accessories that reminded me of an elven princess, and Dodo wore a purple dress that made her look fae in the best way. The best man complemented the fantasy space emperor vibe we worked out for Django, with non-Western style shirts and fantasy details. And Superhero Seamstress Friend Marissa didn’t just contribute tailoring: she was entirely responsible for creating everyone’s capes.

Casey and Django posing with their capes.
The photographer’s highlights album doesn’t have any cape pictures, so this one’s courtesy of Graham.

Why even have a fantasy wedding if you can’t wear capes, I ask you? So we did.

And that’s really what everything boiled down to, ultimately. Why even have a wedding if you can’t be who you are and do what matters to you and celebrate both?

So we did.

Who do you want to be? What do you want to do? What do you think that looks like, and how do you make that happen—on a grand scale, and in the details?

Do you.

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

Don’t Wait

A short post, because I have a lot going on today.

For one, I’m planning a wedding—mine, specifically, which is a new enough development it still seems bizarre! I’m also putting the final preparations together for my trip to Tibet (!!), which I leave for tomorrow. I’ll be gone two weeks, without internet access, and largely also without access to things like, say, convenience stores, so preparations are taking somewhat more doing than usual. But I’ll be traveling with my friend and fellow writer Nicole Lisa, and we’re planning to use the long train rides to and from Tibet as a mini writing retreat.

It’s all adventure, and stories, and important relationships, and my life is so, so full, in the best way.

So before I head out, the thought I want to leave you all with is this:

Don’t wait.

Don’t wait to use your good ideas—for stories, adventures, moments. Using breeds them. There will be more. I promise.

Don’t wait to be ready. Is your craft not up to writing a particular story yet? You grow from the writing. Do you think you need to do more research? There is always more research that can be done; at some point you have to move regardless.

Don’t wait until you’ve hit a particular career marker, or anything outside of your control, before pursuing what you care about. There will always be uncertainty, and there will always be other goals to reach for.

Don’t hold back on what matters to you. Show important people in your life that you love them. Fly toward your dreams. Plan and work for them as if you can reach them, and you may find more often than you expect that they’re closer than you realized.

I trust you all to take my intended meaning here—there are obviously things in life you can’t control, things you’re not able to reach for external reasons (finances! health! they are legit!). But so often people lament experiences they missed because they never chose to take the steps toward having them.

Don’t wait for life.

Go.

cats snuggling together
These cats are living their best life.

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

The Choice to Fly

I love flying. And this year, I went paragliding.

 

photo by Drew McNabb from Acroparagliding

Starting my annual birthday flying adventures is the best tradition I’ve established for myself. It’s a chance for me to step outside my day-to-day, to reflect on what I’ve accomplished and who I want to be and whether I’m on that path.

This year was hard, for a lot of reasons, and I have been pushing hard. On the writing front, I wrote another book’s worth of words in the course of revisions, and I have revised more–both in thoroughness and in quantity of time spent–this year than I’ve revised in my life. And amidst everything else, I wrote a new book (which you can read for free!), which was a new kind of challenge and adventure. But I’ve gotten so caught up in the minutiae of that daily work that I was desperately ready to fly.

For my birthday flying adventures, I’ve been skydiving, flown on trapezes, sped through the air on ziplines. There are spectacular views to be seen this way, but it’s ultimately not the external perspective I value. It’s the act of flying itself that I love, that I can never get enough of.

When I’m in the air, I don’t feel adrenaline rushes from fear or even thrill. It’s a quieter feeling, but it centers me: flying, I know who I am. I know what I can do, and what I will do.

Every time, I wonder if it will be hard to jump. This year, I wondered if I’d feel nervous running off the hill with so much air below me. I’m familiar with that feeling, standing at the edge of a cliff and making myself jump, and I was prepared to do it, to prove to myself that I could. But there was no doubt, no fear; just launching into the sky.

This year, though, something else struck me. Throughout the trip–doing the paperwork, riding the van up the mountain, strapping in amidst endless jokes to test whether I was going to panic (they, clearly, had not met me)–people kept asking, with some confusion, some disbelief, “you’re here alone?”

Like it was so rare not to need people to come along for moral support, or to witness me. Like I really was there just to fly.

And when I responded affirmatively, they just said, “Good for you.”

Good for me, for taking steps to pursue my own path. Good for me, for knowing when I am enough, for being enough, by myself.

But even though I came alone, I came to a community. People who joked, knew each other’s hopes and struggles, looked out for each other, expected the best. A community of people who have learned to carve a regular space for adventure into their everyday lives, as though flying above mountains is a normal part of everyday lives.

Because it can be.

And the other consistent refrain throughout the trip was when people asked me what I did, and I said I was a writer, and they all marveled.

At first I thought they were impressed by my ability to make ends meet as a writer, but after a couple interactions I realized they hadn’t considered that the challenging part. It was the fact that I write, and I write novels, and multiple, and fantasy, facts I always take as a matter of course, that was what wowed them.

Writing has become such an integral part of my everyday that I sometimes forget what an adventure it is, to pour my time and energy and thoughts and passion into creating stories with words, to throw myself off the cliff over and over and trust that I will fly.

When I fly, I remember I’m an adventurer.

photo by Jenny Scott

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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Choosing Reads

A few weeks ago, I realized I didn’t want to read, which is a huge red flag for me. I’d had a stretch of books that either weren’t great or required more emotional bandwidth than I had handy. Since “not wanting to read” is pretty antithetical to who I am, it was time to employ emergency measures:

I picked a book to re-read. A book I already knew I loved, and a book I was sure would be exactly what I wanted.

A sad consequence of doing most of my reading on an e-reader is that I don’t re-read as often as I used to, because I can’t wander around my shelves and wait for a moment of yes, THAT’S what I need to read right now in quite the same way. But even scrolling through the e-reader library, I have that aha moment when I pass the right one, and it occurred to me that moment itself is telling.

I know there are people who never re-read, but it mystifies me. For me, choosing a given book to re-read says a lot about my mood, for one thing, and what my brain is working on—particular questions of identity, grappling anew with themes addressed in a work, a reflection of the mood I’m experiencing or feeling the lack of. And re-reading these books is a way of reaffirming myself, what matters to me and who I am, and I find re-reading to be an immensely clarifying, cleansing, and centering experience.

(Also I can skip to my favorite bits.)

In this case, the books I re-read (five novels and three novellas from Meljean Brook’s Guardians series, for the curious) underscored a trend not just in what I’ve been drawn to in re-reading, but also the kinds of books and writers I’ve been reaching for.

My to-read pile of books that are denser, require more time or thought, and especially ones that I know will require more emotional bandwidth (hello The Fifth Season, which I’ve started and is AMAZING and is also still waiting on my nightstand) are piling up. I’m in a state as, I think, many are, where I’m just about at my capacity to deal with all the awfulness going on around me. I have about as much challenge as I can stand, and I want more escapism.

Which is not to say I’m reading books that don’t deal with serious or complicated issues; I have perhaps less patience than ever for books with, for instance, unacknowledged sexism, or books that are fundamentally stupid or depend on me pretending to be. But one reason I realized I’ve been picking up book after book by Martha Wells is that I can trust I won’t be smacked in the face with unanticipated sexism when all I want was a transporting read.

These days the books I’m craving, the books I’m reaching for, aren’t just good, nor are they just thoughtful or inventive, as if those weren’t already rare. They’re comforting. They have optimistic outlooks and happy endings. They contain deep personal growth and beautiful friendships, adventure and exploration of worlds and ideas, and I don’t have to worry about being side-swiped by sexism, racism, queerphobia, ableism. They’re warm, welcoming, fun, and if not precisely light, then at least not grim. They’re hopeful, at a time when I could use more hope.

And they’re hard to find, because that’s a tall order. I’ve developed my own list of authors and books I trust, and no doubt yours won’t look the same, because we all pull different things from stories and need different things at any given time.

But, as I’m not just a reader but also a writer, it seems only logical that I should be writing the kind of stories I want to read, because maybe other people need them, too.

I’ve been vague-tweeting about a Secret Project for a few months now, but I’m nearly ready to share it with you all. So look for more details here next week… =D

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.

Lacking Mothers in Fantasy

The protagonist of the draft I just finished is a mother in her late 30s. She has a successful career and is also the sole parent of a teenager. When I first mentioned that I wanted to write a fantasy story driven by her, I got some skeptical looks from people unsure whether it could even work.

In fantasy, we have a preponderance of young protagonists with dead/absent/irresponsible parents. Archetypally, I understand why this works: you take a character who, being young, has a lot of growth potential, so it’s easy to challenge them and level them up over the course of the book until we reach the final climax and the hero finds themselves alone facing the Big Bad.

The first assumption is that it’s easier to do character development on a younger character because they know less about the world. The second is that if this child’s parents are not terrible, then they must have been forcibly removed to be allowing their child to face the Big Bad on their own and undefended.

Within YA, I am starting to see examples of parents that remain extant and aren’t terrible, though these narratives still center on the teens. Within fantasy, there have always been adult characters. In urban fantasy, we’ve seen a huge surge of young women actively pursuing careers. In high fantasy, we’ve seen teenage girls having adventures, and we’re getting more female characters who are fleshed out as side characters.

But within fantasy in general, I have an awful time finding mothers with agency. And I don’t just mean characters who have been mothers, if that makes sense — I love Ista dy Chalion in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls, but by this point in her fictional life, her children are grown, out of the house, and no longer in need of regular parenting. Only after her children are gone does she get to have an adventure. In Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, the mother of Dresden’s child dies almost as soon as Dresden knows he has a child. I love Tamora Pierce’s Alanna, but once she becomes a mother the narratives have shifted to follow her children or others. I haven’t read the third Natural History of Dragons novel by Marie Brennan yet, but in the previous installment, Lady Trent has adventures at the cost of not also being able to raise her child simultaneously. In Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series, her protagonist adopts a teenage daughter early on, but I have an awful time thinking of many other examples.

It seems to me there’s a huge gap here: in our reality, women raise children and pursue careers every day. Although not a mother myself, as far as I can tell this is incredibly difficult. That seems like it should go naturally with stories, right? Stories thrive on conflict and protagonists having to make hard decisions. So why don’t we see women above a certain age driving stories? It’s rare enough in high fantasy for adult women to be the protagonist at all, but mothers are even harder to find.

I think that’s a problem. I think it implicitly sends a message to girls and women that once you’re an adult, and certainly if you choose to be a mother, you can’t have adventures anymore. That your time is over. That your stories are less valuable than stories focusing on men, or focusing on the next bright young thing. That your stories are not worth telling.

There are three contributing factors that meet to create this phenomenon: our culture valorizes youth and undervalues the work that goes into parenting and, of course, it undervalues women. Our fantasy doesn’t have to.

I’m certainly capable of empathizing and identifying with characters who are not like me. I can imagine and extrapolate. But as a relatively young woman, I wish I had more models of adult women in fantasy. I want at least my stories to show me that reaching adulthood is not the beginning of a downward trend. I want to see that women can still have adventures. I want to see that choosing a career or parenting or both is not a trap. We have enough space in fantasy to explore what it means to be an adult woman.

I couldn’t find the kind of story I wanted to read, so I wrote one. If you have recommendations for me, please send them my way! But I hope that in the future, I hope stories driven by adult women and mothers in particular are not as hard to find. I think we need them.