writing

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.

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Criticizing “Tropey” Criticisms

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

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

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

Tropes are not inherently good or bad.

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

Once more for the seats in the back:

ALL!

STORIES!

USE!

TROPES!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make Your Process Work for You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

the process of a territory takeover in action:

Empowering Fantasy Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have to choose.

We get to choose.

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

cats choosing to overwhelm me with cuteness

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.

Dealing with Setbacks

Here’s a thing writers don’t like talking publicly about—for good reason, because it’s not the sort of thing you want publicity to focus on—but I’m going to do it anyway, because it’s important.

I experienced a writing career setback a couple months back. I’m not going into details here; they’re not relevant to this post. The point is it was a lot of investment in work that didn’t pan out when I had reason to hope it would.

This is the reality of publishing, and it’s also life. Sometimes you do your very best, you pour your heart and time into your work, and it just. doesn’t. matter.

At times like these, social media is sort of the worst. Social media is a highlight reel, and you know that, but that doesn’t change the fact that as a pro in this industry, when you experience a setback, half a dozen of your colleagues, many of them friends, are filling your feed with their successes. It doesn’t mean you’re not happy for them, and it doesn’t mean they didn’t experience setbacks, too, but it can still feel like a kick in the teeth.

It’s hard not to feel like a failure when you have failed, especially when everyone you see appears to be succeeding.

Pros often recommend keeping your “eyes on your own paper.” This is… good advice, but hard to practice when also trying to keep up with your industry. You either withdraw from social media, or you have to be able to deal with knowing your own career has had setbacks that aren’t your fault—and often aren’t anyone else’s either—while others thrived.

Or you stop. But despite my feelings about this setback, one thing I know is I’m not going to stop.

The setbacks certainly won’t. There’s not a writer in the world who doesn’t experience them, no matter how successful they appear.

So the question then becomes: how do you keep moving?

At Viable Paradise, we talked about our goals for ourselves as writers. Steve Gould broke them all down and explained the danger of tying personal and professional satisfaction to goals outside your control, because that is a surefire way to set yourself up for disappointment and worse.

A lot of traditional publishing is not within your control. It just isn’t. If you have an agent, editor, publisher, publicist, or mentor, it’s often not in their control, either. You can do a lot to maximize your chances—of getting specific career opportunities, of getting the word out about your book—but there’s still a lot of chance involved in publishing.

Ultimately, the only part of the process you control is your work.

Hitting the NYT Best Sellers list? Not in your control. Getting a movie deal, earning out your advance? Also not.

Writing a story you care about? Putting in the time? Doing good work? Those are yours.

I learned a lot from all my work, even if that particular project never goes where I hope. I’m a better writer for it, and that is mine.

I’ve stepped back a little to reassess my goals and my praxis, making sure how I’m spending my resources (time, energy, money) reflects what matters to me, the kind of writer—and person—I want to be and the kind of work I want to do.

And I am doing that work. Because the thing about setbacks is they’re not permanent unless you let them be. But I’m not going anywhere.

Except forward.

That means I’m taking more care to tend to myself, and what I need as a human being. That should be feeding my writing, not being replaced by it. My writing in some sense reflects and distills who I am, but there is more to me than writing, too.

And at the same time, it also means I’m starting a new project (not the serial) that I’m incredibly excited about and that is going to be more challenging than anything I’ve written before—and, I hope, a great deal of fun.

I’m looking forward to the next adventure. But I’m going to work on savoring the one I’m experiencing now, too.

The cats are relaxing hard.

SFF Authors in Action!

As some of you know, I’m now working at a local independent bookstore. Which is exciting on its own, but the more recent excitement is that I’m going to be moderating a panel at Brick & Mortar Books one week from today!

The topic is writing action in science fiction and fantasy, and the panelists will be Fonda Lee, Chuck Wendig, and Alex Marshall, all of whom write amazing, action-packed SFF. I am super excited about the panel and plan to pick their brains on how magic affects writing action, the strengths of action scenes with the written word as opposed to movies, how to use POV and pacing, and what they wish people understood and what they’d like to see*.

This will be happening Thursday, 3/1, which is the first night of Emerald City Comic Con. So if you don’t have con plans that night yet, come hang out with us! And if you’re not going to make it to the con, here’s your chance to see some great authors from out of town. =D

It’s been great to have so much freedom to organize this event on my own so soon after joining the bookstore, and I can’t wait to see how this goes. I hope to see some of you there! (And if you are going to be able to make it, you can RSVP on Facebook!)

 

*I do not promise to ask all of these questions, because panels develop organically. But they are on my list of potential questions, and I’m sure we’ll have time for at least a couple before I let the audience have a crack at a few of their own.