I originally posted this on Twitter.

A screenshot of a document titled "In Case of Emergency, Break Glass." Transcript follows.
This is the transcript.

In Case of Emergency, Break Glass

Comforting Lies
• Charlie Jane said this. Toast her every time you remember: You are not stuck. Your characters are stuck. They are trying to figure out what to do. You are watching them work out what they’re going to do next. You’re just the one who is writing all this shit down.
• The only person who is going to see it in this state is [NAME.] They want to help you. Just write it badly and trust them to help.

Actually True
• You have never published an unrevised novel. You have never published an unrevised act. You have never published an unrevised chapter. You have never published an unrevised scene. You have never published an unrevised page. A handful of sentences and even fewer paragraphs met your standards when written on first draft. But you’re proud of every story you put into the world.
• What that means is this: Write it down. You will fix it. But you can’t fix it until you have let yourself write the awkward confusing version. You can fix it the moment you finish writing it. You can fix it a second time, a third, a fourth-and then you can cut it, rewrite it, restructure it, move it somewhere else, anything. Writing it down is not irrevocable. A clumsy sentence is not a failure. It’s useful material. Seeing how that sentence is wrong refines your vision.
• Getting caught up in what it should be is standing in the way of making it real.

What to do about it
• Forgive yourself for not being alight with the muse. Forgive yourself for days where you don’t feel good about what you wrote. Forgive yourself for all those days perfectionism fooled you and kept you away from the page. Nobody knows how to do this perfectly and nobody ever will.
• Sheer doggedness writes novels, not genius.
• It’s all right if you’d rather dust the baseboards today. It’s a good time to check in with your characters and let them bitch about the mess they’re in.
• The joy of doing it is why you do it. If you’re not feeling joyful, write something that trips the joyswitch.

Let’s do this.

/

It’s been a long time since I published a craft blog post, but I haven’t quit talking about craft. I made a Patreon account, and I have posts there about things like 

a synopsis writing guide that will help expose structural manuscript problems

how to evaluate a scene to make sure it’s doing the right things

how to build a story when all you have is a character

I do a new writing related post every month, available to patrons on a sliding scale basis – pick the level of patronage you can afford and you’re in!

Starting in August I am starting a Live Sessions tier, where I will explore a subject about the craft and business of writing on zoom, where you can ask more questions. Look for it then!

Photo by Aubrey Rose Odom on Unsplash
So i’m in the midst of writing a new novel, and reader, I got stuck. I got stuck so bad that I had to go crying to my agent, Caitlin McDonald, who got back to me with the solution.
And I realized something – just about every time I get stuck while writing a novel, there’s a pattern. When I’m writing a novel and I stall out because something is *wrong* and I don’t know what’s wrong, it’s probably one or more of these things:

1. lack of protagonist agency.

I’m one of those people who gets the plot first, and then has to bolt on a character to do the plot. this is an awkward fit because I know what’s going to happen, because I outlined it, so I often just make it happen to the character.

2. Too much information at once.

For the same reasons as 1. I know all the things. and sometimes I mis-estimate how much information the character should get, as a treat, and mainline a bunch of information all at once, in the form of new characters who know things.

3. Reasonable, rational, thoughtful, cautious characters who think everything through and choose the best solution.

I love my characters, they are precious, and so smart and reasonable, and I know what is the best solution for the problem they face, and so I let them have it.

those are my big three mistakes. I do them without thinking, and then I get to a point in my manuscript where i’m stuck, because something is wrong.

For me, the answer is always to find out which of my three major mistakes did I make in the last 10k words?

In my current wip? All three. oops

So this means (for me) that I have to go back, toss out those words, and start over, keeping these guidelines in mind:

1. Let the Character Act
2. Take some Information Away
3. Let the Character be Irrational

1. Let the Character Act.

Yes, I know I have this shiny plot that goes 0-60 in under 7 seconds and it corners like it’s glued to the track. But when I hit an action sequence, I have to ask myself – how much of this is due to the story happening to the character? Where’s the agency?
I struggle with this because a lot of the time my action scenes are spurred by antagonist action rather than an intrepid protagonist getting her own ass into trouble. But re-visioning the scene in a way that gives the protagonist agency will nearly always make it much better.

2. Take some Information Away.

I like to pace things at what I call a brisk walk. a spirited pace. lively, even. but sometimes in my rush to put the pieces into place I overload the reader with information. I did a thing where i introduced my protag to SIX NEW PEOPLE in a scene–

WHOA THERE. That is a LOT. IT IS TOO MUCH. I have to figure out how to slow that down. I will have more scenes, because I need to introduce my character to all of them, but I need to give them a chance to shine, establish their character, show how they react to my character, etc.
But with more scenes, I can deepen the tension, the conflict, the atmosphere, and the variance in types of scene will be more interesting than me telling the story at a dead run.

3. Let the Character be Irrational

I don’t mean, let the character be completely unreasonable, or that thoughtful, cautious characters are bad writing or anything like that. I mean, people make mistakes. And sometimes they screw up when they’re trying to make things better.

Also, there’s something really relatable about a character who is trying to do the right thing, but doesn’t have enough information to get it right. or the character who gets frustrated and acts on that frustration.

But I let characters tiptoe through a floor scattered with lego, and they never step on a single one.

So my fix is to go back and examine the situation through my character’s – empathetic geniuses, all of ’em – through my character’s negative, fearful, people-pleasing, overly curious, impulsive, petty qualities.

I ask: How can my character screw this up without meaning to?

Once I’ve let the character have more agency, taken away information, and let them be impulsive (a specific subset of let the character have more agency) I’ve repaired what went wrong, and I can keep going. Hopefully you can too.
Special thanks to Caitlin McDonald. Really, this post is because of her.

It’s been a long time since I published a craft blog post, but I haven’t quit talking about craft. I made a Patreon account, and I have posts there about things like 

  • a synopsis writing guide that will help expose structural manuscript problems
  • how to evaluate a scene to make sure it’s doing the right things
  • how to build a story when all you have is a character

I do a new writing related post every month, available to patrons on a sliding scale basis – pick the level of patronage you can afford and you’re in!

Starting in August I am starting a Live Sessions tier, where I will explore a subject about the craft and business of writing on zoom, where you can ask more questions. Look for it then!

The day after I wrote my Ten Questions for Characters post I had a discord conversation about a question asked in the #writerspatch twitter chat on Sunday, Jan 13:

“Does relatability to the reader make a character more believable?”

And sure, the answer is obviously yes. But where’s the rest of the owl? How do you make a character relatable, particularly a hyper-competent protagonist in a book about the space program? (I’m still on my astronaut kick, thanks to reading The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal – A GREAT BOOK that I enjoyed very much, and it’s been lingering in my thoughts for days now.)

But let’s look at the protagonist, Elma (a wonderful person who I admire greatly!)

Elma is a Jewish woman who can do extremely complex mathematics in her head and who wants to be an astronaut in 1950’s USA. She winds up on the headlines of major newspapers, magazines, national television, she’s an expert pilot and a war veteran, she’s a whole barrel of competencies and skills and experiences that I don’t have anything in common with. So where am I connecting with Elma, as I’m reading about her?

One place springs to mind immediately. I remember wanting to be an astronaut when I was a little girl, and being told that I could not be an astronaut because I was a girl. Elma’s experience with sexism is a connection point for me, particularly because of my age (I’m going to be a level 50 human this year.) Her determination to fight a system that wouldn’t even consider her because she was a woman is a point I can relate to.

But there’s another point that makes me care for Elma even if I didn’t have an inkling of what it was like to be a woman before feminism, and that’s her experience with anxiety. I don’t know what it’s like to be able to recite prime numbers into the four-digit range, but oh boy do I know what it’s like to be scared. I know what it’s like to be scared to fail in front of an audience. I know what it’s like to avoid things that trigger that fear. So when Elma has problems facing all the attention she’s getting for being so extraordinary, I get it. I get her.

That one-two punch of fighting against an obstacle that’s really too big for one woman to fight and Elma’s personal vulnerability – her anxiety – combine in a way that captures my interest and my empathy. I connected with Elma through these struggles – the external and the internal – and so I became so preoccupied with reading the book that losing my Kindle reader for three days was hell because I wanted to read the rest of the story so badly.

This was something that I knew, but never actually verbalized until recently – that readers are connecting to characters through their weaknesses and vulnerabilities – that the personal, internal struggle is the reason why a reader identifies with a character even though their life experience is probably very different from the reader’s.

(Hold on while I indulge in a little rejectomancy, okay?) I think that this might be what agents and editors mean when they say, “I couldn’t connect with the character.” If you’ve been getting that rejection, maybe go back to your opening pages and see if you are showing not just your protagonist’s skills and strengths, but the soft spots/vulnerabilities that relate directly with the character’s internal journey.

The opening of a story introduces a reader to the protagonist and what they can expect, and it’s two threads, not just one: The external struggle the character is going to fight against, and the internal journey to heal or face the problem that holds them back from winning the external struggle. The combination of the two is the intersection where you’re going to find your readers and the people who “get” the story you’re trying to tell.

It’s been a long time since I published a craft blog post, but I haven’t quit talking about craft. I made a Patreon account, and I have posts there about things like 

  • a synopsis writing guide that will help expose structural manuscript problems
  • how to evaluate a scene to make sure it’s doing the right things
  • how to build a story when all you have is a character

I do a new writing related post every month, available to patrons on a sliding scale basis – pick the level of patronage you can afford and you’re in!

Starting in August I am starting a Live Sessions tier, where I will explore a subject about the craft and business of writing on zoom, where you can ask more questions. Look for it then!

Some people have long and detailed lists of questions they answer for their characters, right down to what they carry around in their pockets. Others simply have characters appear to them, fully formed, ready to live the story from the beginning. I think I have a little bit of the latter, in that characters just show up and demand to have their story told, but in order for me to know what kind of story suits them, I need a little more information.

I start with the basics – GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict.) but I like to go a little deeper and more detailed than that, and so I’ve expanded my list of questions to ten – not quite as long as the Proust Questionnaire, but hopefully a candid and intimate look inside a fully realized character.

As of page one of the story, What do they want?

This is the commonly understood character goal – the thing that the character wants. I need to know that my character is going to have protagonist drive, initiative, ambition, whatever you want to call it, so I need to know what they want.

I write character centered, plot heavy fiction, so I don’t really sit well with characters who “just want to be left alone” or “just want to be normal” most of the time. I want a character who wants something.

Why do they want it? is it a good reason, or is there something flawed in their motivation?

And when I say a character who wants something, I mean a character who has hung a lot of meaning and significance to the thing that they want. So when they say, “I want to be an astronaut” and you say, “why?” they have an answer that has a lot weighing on it.

Why can’t they just have it? What or who is standing in their way?

I write western stories, and western stories die without conflicts, obstacles, difficulties and frustrations. So I need a barrier to success that will take a whole book to get past. It could be an antagonist directly opposing them–or fighting for exactly the same thing, but for reasons that oppose the character’s motivations. It could be a force–of nature, or of culture.

I said up there, right off the top of my head, that a character wanted to be an astronaut. Their opposition could be a person who’s competing for the same astronaut spot. It could be that they’re a woman or a person of color, trying to become an astronaut in a sexist and or racist society. Or it could be that someone close to them, someone they love, is opposed to them becoming an astronaut, and they’re trying to push them to be something else.

How will they fight against that opposition to get what they want?

This is where I start exploring a character’s competencies and personality. If I have a determined, disciplined character who is an athlete and a scholar striving for the chance to become an astronaut, they’re gonna keep trying. But how? It’ll be different if the character is a bit of a competitive bulldozer who will prove that they have the skills by acing every test put to them, or a socially adept, charismatic people person with top piloting skills who wins hearts and minds through their insight into people.

What will they never ever do, even if it means they’ll get what they want?

This is where I explore ethics, morality, fears, and boundaries, so I will know that my determined, competitive character will never cheat to get ahead, and believes solidly in the idea that merit matters, and my socially adept, charismatic character will draw the line at blackmail or coercion to get what they want. Or maybe they have a looser morality than that. This is where I explore the limits and breaking points for a character, so I know what I’m going to make them face later.

This could be an antagonist willing to break those barriers, or a story where the protagonist is put in a situation where they have to face those limits themselves in the course of the story.

What core belief – about the world, about life, about success – does the character have that protects them from “losing” or being hurt – but ultimately holds them back from true success?

This might be familiar to you as the “Fatal Flaw” or the “Lie the Character believes” or the “Central Misbelief” or the “Moral Failing,” depending on what craft books you’ve read. I see it as a personal obstacle that has to be faced and overcome in the personal journey of the character, if that character is going to succeed at the end of the story. This problem is going to get in their way early in the story, and keep driving them to failure points as the characters learn and develop.

What did they want when they were just a kid? How is it different from what they want now? What happened to change it?

This is an important question to me because it explains the origins of the character’s personality, skills, morality, protagonist drive, and their limiting core belief. I spend some time thinking about the character’s childhood in general, but I always have them complete this sentence: “When I was a child, I dreamed about becoming ______.”

Who or what do they love most in the world?

This is a humanizing touchstone. It’s also a great vulnerability. Wield it with compassion and cruelty.

What are they afraid to lose?

This could be a secret they hold. It might be a possession. It might be a particular person’s good opinion. It could be the neighborhood where they grew up, the country they fled from in the wake of war and conquest. It could be their social status. It might take a while to figure this one out.

What do they regret the most?

Did they regret something they did? Or do they regret something they didn’t do? How much does it weigh on them? Do they have protagonist drive to mend that regret? Do they possess or lack the skills or qualities to make amends or heal the old wound or rekindle the opportunity?

It’s been a long time since I published a craft blog post, but I haven’t quit talking about craft. I made a Patreon account, and I have posts there about things like 

  • a synopsis writing guide that will help expose structural manuscript problems
  • how to evaluate a scene to make sure it’s doing the right things
  • how to build a story when all you have is a character

I do a new writing related post every month, available to patrons on a sliding scale basis – pick the level of patronage you can afford and you’re in!

Starting in August I am starting a Live Sessions tier, where I will explore a subject about the craft and business of writing on zoom, where you can ask more questions. Look for it then!

So that’s not exactly true. Sometimes people ask me for writing advice. I’m no Johnathan Franzen – I’m a fantasy writer, working at the intersection of art, entertainment, and commercial appeal. I enjoy what I do, and I have the pleasure of knowing hundreds of people who like it too.

These aren’t rules, exactly. They’re things that I practice. They work for me, and I want you to take the parts that connect with you and how you work and make them your own, and don’t worry too much about the ones that don’t. My experience is as a fantasy writer, so it’s written with that slant. And I’ve preambled enough. Here you are.

  1. If your reader connects emotionally to your protagonist, who really ought to be interesting, dynamic, and the sort who makes decisions and acts on them, they will probably enjoy your book.
  2. If your story is written with enough narrative tension to be intriguing enough that readers are completely invested in what happens next, so they can’t help but keep reading, they will probably enjoy your book – but be careful. There is such a thing as too much tension. Make sure you’re also satisfying the reader by releasing that tension through answering questions, showing outcomes, and introducing new questions.roller-coaster-263929_1920
  3. I think that a good shape for a story – not the only one, not the best one, but one I like to read and write – is like riding a rollercoaster. But I mean specifically wooden rollercoasters, in my case. They climb, they fall, but they also turn and twist.
  4. Use only as much worldbuilding as you need, and no more. Don’t be afraid to nail down a few things and then embark on a voyage of discovering what’s actually important to your protagonists. Take well organized notes as you go. Worldbuilding is a seductive trap. Don’t fall in. But remember that some projects need more preparation in worldbuilding than others, so one story might need three pages of notes, where another one needs a bunch of documents detailing your research and the decisions you’ve made. The key is keeping your focus on what the characters actually know, and what’s currently relevant to the story.
  5. It’s okay to pants it. It’s okay to outline it. It’s okay to wind up shooting off in a different direction, if you outline, and it’s okay to stop and figure out the details of the next few scenes/chapters if you’re not exactly sure how a series of events plays out, if you’re pantsing.
  6. Envision your novel as a work project. Plan your workflow. Set dates for completions: when you’re going to stop prewriting, world building, and character sketching, and start planning the story itself. set the date for when you must stop outlining and preparing to write the first draft. plan a regular routine where you make time to write your book. set a deadline for draft completion, and then figure out how much work you need to do in a session to finish on time. This will help you whether you take the trad path or the independent path.
  7. Do it. Don’t wait until you’re motivated or inspired – that’s fickle stuff that’s out of your control. instead, willfully design an environment that only happens while you’re writing – Jack Kerouac lit a candle that perched next to his typewriter. Writers figure out what sounds help them stay on track and focused – try out mynoise.net or a playlist with songs you associate with writing. Come up with a routine you always do before you start writing.honey-bees-326337_1920
  8. Finish it. Even when it’s terrible. Even when a better idea has come along and you should write that instead. Finish what you start. Fifteen first drafts that trickle out at about 30k words won’t ever, ever teach you what you need to know, and that’s how to keep marching even when you’re slogging through the mud, only the mud is on fire and there are bees but the bees have telepathy and they’re droning, “this story sucks and you suck and you should give up because it’s not working and you’ll never sell it anyway.” Heck them. They should be hugging flowers, not giving writing advice.
  9. Writing your first novel is hard. It’s so difficult. But it’s also rewarding and satisfying. Writing your second novel…is hard. It’s so difficult. But it too is rewarding and satisfying. And so is the third. And the next one. They are all difficult. Writing one book does not teach you how to write a book; it only teaches you how to write that book. The next one will teach you too. They never stop teaching you. And that’s actually awesome.
  10. When you talk to someone about your writing, and they don’t really seem interested, or they tell you your wasting your time, or they tell you that you shouldn’t be writing that kind of book, but instead you should be writing something important or worthy or whatever, I want you to imagine a force field around you that keeps their bullshit vibes from damaging your feelings about your art. Protect your art. Don’t expose it to people whose attitudes will destroy it. Even protect your art from people who are eager to help you. You have a vision, and that is the most important thing. Protect that vision. Allow yourself to create without interference until you have created enough of the work that you can identify what helps your vision and what harms it.

It’s been a long time since I published a craft blog post, but I haven’t quit talking about craft. I made a Patreon account, and I have posts there about things like 

  • a synopsis writing guide that will help expose structural manuscript problems
  • how to evaluate a scene to make sure it’s doing the right things
  • how to build a story when all you have is a character

I do a new writing related post every month, available to patrons on a sliding scale basis – pick the level of patronage you can afford and you’re in!

Starting in August I am starting a Live Sessions tier, where I will explore a subject about the craft and business of writing on zoom, where you can ask more questions. Look for it then!

The list is short.

Witchmark is eligible for all sorts of 2018 awards, including the Nebula, the Hugo, and the Prix Aurora Award!

(Please note that I am not eligible for the Campbell award for Best New Writer. I published a qualifying work way back in 2003.)

Thank you to everyone who loved this book. I have included a few reviews from various internet locations, in case they’re useful:

Publisher’s Weekly, Starred Review: “The final revelations are impossible to see coming and prove that Polk is a writer to watch for fans of clever, surprising period fantasy.”

Booklist, Starred Review: “Many disparate elements are expertly woven together to make this debut a crackler, with layers like a nesting doll and just as delightful to discover.”

The Best New Fantasy Novels, The New York Times: “thoroughly charming and deftly paced; I appreciated how well the world-building meshed with the plot’s development, like a map’s surface being revealed in time with one’s progress along it.”

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels of 2018, Barnes and Noble: “This bewitching story of political maneuverings, dangerous magic, sweet romance, and bicycle chases is never less than addictive.”

Witchmark is available for sale at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books a Million, IndieBound, and Powell’s.

Scene outlines

Scene Outline? What’s That?

Some people outline books with a sentence describing the summary of each chapter. That’s super cool, and my first outline draft/summary is usually about three pages of me breathlessly explaining the story at top level, with the occasional “this is cool!” scene detail. But when i’m sitting down to actually draft the story, I outline the scene i’m writing that day in detail.

Dude, that’s a lot of work.

It is! And it may not work for you. I need to do it this way. If I don’t, I wind up writing scenes that feel aimless, however pretty they might be, and my characters have mellow conversations where they have a good time, but the reader’s probably bored stiff, or I write a fantastic spectacle that doesn’t really advance the story or worse–somebody starts explaining everything.

Or worse, I wander around for three days whining because I don’t know what happens in the next scene, some crucial detail that’s escaping me, and until I know what it is, I can’t write the scene.

You’re right. That is nonsense. The trouble is I fall for that nonsense all the time. I really will sit there and agonize because I don’t know what to do. When I outline the scene, I’m tricking myself into getting out of the circumlocution and examining a tiny piece of the scene at a time, getting it down so I can’t forget or change my mind or find another excuse not to write.

Okay. How does it work?

It goes like this. I open up a comment in google docs/word or a notepad window or I use my Super Fancy Custom Metadata on Scrivener, and I fill in answers for each of these entries:

POVC

Who has POV for this scene? If more than one person in the scene has POV rights, I choose to tell the scene from the perspective of the person

  1. who has the most at stake,
  2. who has to make a decision that will propel the story forward,
  3. Who is more likely to remember this moment when they look back on it in ten years.

So if Alphonse’s stake in the scene is whether he gets to go to his favorite restaurant, and Jimmy’s stake in the scene is whether he can convince Alphonse to go to the new place uptown so he can get a secret glimpse of the woman he thinks is his long-lost niece, we probably want to go with Jimmy’s POV.

Setting Location

Where is this scene taking place? Jimmy and Alphonse could be at home. Or they could be downtown, where Jimmy just finished negotiating a contract that’s going to make his client a lot of money. Or they could be stuck in rush hour traffic, idling in a left turn lane for the second red light in a row. Or they could be exhausted from an afternoon of crowds and nerds at a comic book convention. I decide specifically where, and I work out scene location details using the 5 4 3 2 1 exercise.

Scene Action

What are Jimmy and Alphonse doing in the scene? The setting informs this action. If they’re at home, they could be doing yardwork, changing clothes/doing laundry, sorting mail, assembling IKEA furniture, cleaning up a domestic disaster like a burst pipe or a window left open during a rainstorm. Scene action is a great way to insert a little symbolism, if you’re into that. But get them doing something, whenever possible. It adds energy and vividness to the scene.

POV character’s Goal

What does your POV character want? I talked about this a little bit when I was discussing POV, when I talked about who has the most at stake in the scene, and in this case, it’s Jimmy, who wants to persuade Alphonse to go to a new restaurant for dinner, so he can scope out his Super Secret Niece.

Here’s something that I always try to do when I’m working out a scene goal: I make sure there’s a nice active (transitive) verb in the sentence. Character wants to VERB (character, object, situation.) Active verbs! They’re not just for the work experience portion of your resume!

I have a book. It’s for actors, but I think it’s a great resource for writers. It’s called Actions: The Actor’s Thesaurus. If you have trouble finding nice crunchy verbs, here’s an entire book of them. It’s worth getting in print just for flipping through as a kind of writer’s prompt generator-open to a random page with your eyes closed, stab your finger on that page, write a character Subduing or Charming or Resisting or Emulating in order to get what they want.

POVC’s Motivation

All right. Jimmy wants to go to the restaurant. Why? To see a woman there who might be his niece. Why? Because if she IS his niece, then his 85 year old grandmother will forgive his side of the family, or at least him in specific. Why? Because he found her favorite grandchild, and grandma will be grateful enough to help him financially.

You can and should say why until you get to the root of what your character needs, and what getting it will mean to them. It should be connected to your POV character’s story goal, and appropriate for where they are in the story arc. This feels like an Act I kind of scene to me, so I’m at the early, unenlightened end of the story arc.

POVC’s Emotion

How does Jimmy feel at the start of the scene? Let’s say in the previous scene, Jimmy caught a glimpse of the woman he believes to be his niece on the commute home. He eavesdropped on her conversation, and her voice is right, and she’s going to a specific restaurant that night as a “going away party” but he doesn’t know if she’s going away for a week or forever.

How does he feel? Curious, as many people would be. Excited? Perhaps. Resentful?

Oh my, look at that. Resentful. What a delicious contrasting emotion. Let’s keep it. The gears are turning now, thinking about how mixed up, juxtaposed, and conflicted that jumble of emotions is. Why Resentful?

Complications and Conflict

A scene is a unit of dramatic action. Emphasis on drama. We’ve got a clear goal, interesting motivation, intriguing emotions snaking around underneath–and what a waste all that thinking would be if the conversation went like this:

“Alphonse, sweetie, how about we go to this new restaurant uptown? It’s called Farm, and they only serve food grown or raised within 100 miles.”

“That sounds great, honey. Do I need a tie?”

It’s like Sol Stein said in How to Grow a Novel: “The engine of fiction is somebody wanting something and going out to get it. And if you let him get it right away, you’re killing the story.”

So we need a conflict, and the conflict logically, inevitably comes from Alphonse – if it were a conflict at the restaurant, then the scene setting would be at the restaurant, not at Jimmy and Alphonse’s bungalow while they pull weeds out of the flowerbed or paint a wall or wash dishes or whatever it is they’re doing. If Alphonse is keen to go someplace new, then scrap all this and jump ahead to the part where Jimmy actually has a problem, because what you’re working on isn’t a scene.

So what’s Alphonse’s job in the scene? Alphonse’s job is to have a conflicting goal. He doesn’t want to go to some hipster restaurant called Farm. And he has a reason why he doesn’t. And he feels just as strongly about it as Jimmy does about wanting to get another look at this woman who could be the key to him getting what he needs to achieve his big story goal.

So Jimmy floats the idea–and Alphonse’s reaction is no. Why? He’s tired and doesn’t want to drive, find parking, pay for parking, stand in line, and then pay 28 dollars for an organic grass fed pasture raised hamburger in a restaurant that has a DJ. He wants to put on Birkenstocks and walk to the place on the corner, maybe have one too many beers, and go home to catch a little Netflix. Or he’s already made arrangements to meet some of their friends. Or maybe he has a headache. Or maybe he’s frustrated with Jimmy’s spendthrift ways, and going out to a cool restaurant when they need to pay overdue taxes is exactly the problem with their relationship.

POVC’s emotional shift – what’s at stake if they fail?

So Alphonse says no. What does that mean for Jimmy? It means he will lose his lead on the mystery woman, and so he won’t be able to reunite her with Grandma, so he won’t get on her good side, so he can’t ask her for help with his business, so he’ll be even more at risk at losing it–and maybe the house too, and won’t Alphonse love that? He must go to Farm so he can casually walk by, stop, do a double take, and say, “Nicole?” in exactly the right tone of voice, and that’s worth a 28 dollar hamburger. Hell, it’s worth two 28 dollar hamburgers!

So Jimmy’s desperate. He’s anxious. He’s frustrated, because everything is riding on this moment. He needs to go to Farm and find that woman.

POVC’s response to the Complication

So based on Jimmy’s goals, his motivation, his feelings, and the stakes, what does he do? Does he convince Alphonse with emotional manipulation? Does he pick a fight so he can slam out of the house and go alone? Does he negotiate a deal – come with him tonight, and they can do something Alphonse really wants to do but Jimmy isn’t really enthused about?

Result

By hook or by crook, Jimmy’s going to Farm. He could be leaving a big emotional mess behind as he jumps into his Prius, or he could have a resentful emotionally manipulated Alphonse with him, or maybe Alphonse is riding shotgun, gleefully organizing a weekend of hiking and camping in the nearby national park–with his family. But whatever it took, Jimmy’s in the car and driving toward the next scene.

Dude. Holy crap.

I know. I went into a huge amount of detail, explaining how I go to each piece of a scene arc. When I’m doing this for real, I tend to just write a brief sentence for each. If I’m having a strong vision of how the scene looks, I’ll note down the important parts, or even write a bit of dialogue that’s resonating. In reality, sketching out the details of a scene outline takes only a few minutes, like laying down the basic shapes of a drawing. It’s also handy if I have a vision for a future scene, but I’m not at that point in drafting – I fill out the scene outline, and then I’ll know what I originally intended once I finally get to that point in the story.

It’s been a long time since I published a craft blog post, but I haven’t quit talking about craft. I made a Patreon account, and I have posts there about things like 

  • a synopsis writing guide that will help expose structural manuscript problems
  • how to evaluate a scene to make sure it’s doing the right things
  • how to build a story when all you have is a character

I do a new writing related post every month, available to patrons on a sliding scale basis – pick the level of patronage you can afford and you’re in!

Starting in August I am starting a Live Sessions tier, where I will explore a subject about the craft and business of writing on zoom, where you can ask more questions. Look for it then!

(note: this was originally a twitter thread. You can read the original thread here.)

Since it’s easier to solve other people’s problems than your own, I procrastinated on my own scene problems to listen to another writer’s dilemma about which book to write next. What follows is a trick for figuring out what you should write next in your author journey

So if you’re wondering, “what happens now?” This might help you figure it out

I like to call it “the brightest timeline.”

This is a visualization exercise. Some people likened it to a guided meditation. I’m a strong visualizer, and as a result I usually come up with these plunges into my imagination when I’m trying to choose between options that on the surface feel about equivalent.

Anyway. If you like to get ready for visualization exercise by doing things to prepare your environment, or deep breathing or anything that might go well with this trip into your imagination, it’s time to do that now. I’m going to recommend you have a way to record your thoughts, too. Don’t tell yourself you will remember. Get it on paper/audio.

Ready? Okay. Imagine yourself in ten years, on the brightest author timeline, where you are writing a book. Imagine that this book is hotly anticipated by readers who love what you do. Imagine that you’re exactly where you want to be, in a business context.

Now focus on yourself. You’re sitting or treadmilling at your desk/tablet/handbound paper journal/voice activated dictation system, and you are writing a book. It’s a book that makes you spring out of bed so you can get back to it. You love this book. It’s SO DAMN COOL.

The book is challenging to your skills, endlessly fascinating, and you do a little dance when you think about it.

Now let’s reflect on it. What is that book?

Who is in it? Let one of the characters take the spotlight. Notice the details, and what you understand, just by looking at them.

What are they doing? Take the time to notice what no one else might, but is significant in your eyes.

Where are they? Take a bird’s eye view. Zoom all the way in. Explore the place, looking for the one thing that is significant.

Why is it meaningful? What’s the story about? What is the character telling you?

Why is it cool?

Savor it. Imagine it. Take your time. Record things you want to remember.

Now you’re clever, so you know what I’m about to say next, right?

That’s your next book. Or your next series, if you’re a series writer. Look how good you feel. feel how full and excited you are.

That’s your next book, with all the anxiety and fear stripped away, with none of the forces that tell you “you can’t” getting in your way.

I put you in your brightest timeline because all the worry we have about what comes next is gone. In the brightest timeline, you already dealt with it. this is what you want, without all the noise about The market or genre saturation and all that.

This is your vision. Trust it.

It’s been a long time since I published a craft blog post, but I haven’t quit talking about craft. I made a Patreon account, and I have posts there about things like 

  • a synopsis writing guide that will help expose structural manuscript problems
  • how to evaluate a scene to make sure it’s doing the right things
  • how to build a story when all you have is a character

I do a new writing related post every month, available to patrons on a sliding scale basis – pick the level of patronage you can afford and you’re in!

Starting in August I am starting a Live Sessions tier, where I will explore a subject about the craft and business of writing on zoom, where you can ask more questions. Look for it then!

(This blog post was originally a thread on twitter, rewritten to be a decent blog post.)

The first scene I need to write today takes place in a new setting location. For new setting locations I write up descriptions that I can use not just as backdrop but as elements to bring the reality of the setting forward using a technique i learned to stop panic attacks.

No, really. so I write, for example, “women’s washroom in an office building,” and then I can describe the mundane things about it but the real vividness comes from the 5 4 3 2 1 exercise.

I originally learned this as a way to quietly cope with anxiety and panic attacks. It opened doors for me, as it was an exercise I could do even when I was out in public. No one notices you taking deep, slow breaths or your active observations of your location, so it’s a subtle, but effective tool.

To do it, I take a deep breath and slowly let it out while concentrating on one of the five senses – but as a writing exercise, I’m probably imagining the location in my head, or using an image reference to help me detail the scene location. So my example is “women’s washroom in an office building.” Because my setting is sort of historical, I’m visualizing something that could be typical of a women’s washroom from the early 20th century:

Five things I see:

  • frosted windows letting in pale natural light
  • black and white hexagon ceramic tiles with gray grout
  • white pedestal sinks with two faucets, one dripping
  • pale golden wood paneled stall doors
  • arsenic green painted walls

Four things I hear:

  • the muffled echo of high heeled shoes on tile
  • the soft plink of a dripping faucet
  • the knocks and thumps of a steam radiator
  • the rattle of wind on the windowpanes

Three things I feel:

  • the chilly air by the windows on one side; the warm air from the radiators on the other,
  • the slippery feel of soap on my hands,
  • the rough texture of the hemp-woven toweling to dry them,
  • the worn velvet upholstery on the sofa in the rest area in the room

Two things I smell:

  • rose-scented hand-soap
  • the astringent smell of disinfectant cleaners trying to cover up stale cigarette smoke

One thing I taste:

  • the clean neutrality of cold water from the right-hand faucet

If I were actually in the bathroom with a panic attack, actively listing those things I sensed in that washroom would help to slow down the panic symptoms, but as a writing exercise, I now have a bunch of setting appropriate sensory details all planned out in advance

If I take a few minutes to write them all down, I have a handy cheat sheet I can use to integrate these details into the scene I’m writing. Neat, huh?

It’s been a long time since I published a craft blog post, but I haven’t quit talking about craft. I made a Patreon account, and I have posts there about things like 

  • a synopsis writing guide that will help expose structural manuscript problems
  • how to evaluate a scene to make sure it’s doing the right things
  • how to build a story when all you have is a character

I do a new writing related post every month, available to patrons on a sliding scale basis – pick the level of patronage you can afford and you’re in!

Starting in August I am starting a Live Sessions tier, where I will explore a subject about the craft and business of writing on zoom, where you can ask more questions. Look for it then!

107k Words. 76 Scenes. 16 Pages.

What you’re looking at is an essential document for the complex operation that is transforming my first draft into a revised draft. It’s scary, isn’t it? I like to think that it’s beautifully organized.

That’s the entire scene by scene outline of the first draft of Stormsong – don’t worry; there are no spoilers. The color coding is a key – Green means the scene requires very little changing in order to fit in the first draft. Yellow means the scene is mostly ok but will definitely need tweaking for continuity and new details. Orange means the scene is probably going to change dramatically, but the bones will still be there. Red means this scene is headed for The Island of Misfit Words (what I call the file that holds all my cut words, in case I can scavenge them later) and something entirely rewritten will take its place.

How did I Do? Final tally: Green: 15 Yellow: 19 Orange: 26 Red:16 = 76

Okay but what the heck is that?

It’s called a reverse outline, and it’s a fantastic tool for revising your work. It’s a bit intimidating to do, outlining the book you just wrote. I never want to do it. I just want to get on with the revision, but for me, that’s almost always a mistake. The reverse outline shows me exactly what’s going on in my story: strong scenes, weak scenes, scenes that need a little help, and when I’m organized, I can make seemingly impossible tasks into a one step at a time to do list.

I have my own system for analysing the strengths of my scenes, which is customizable depending on what I need to work on the most. You can find a great explanation of the reverse outline on Janice Hardy’s blog, Fiction University, which is where I originally learned it. She gives a rundown on what scenes should contain that will get you started, or figure out what you need to track the most.

For a more complex outline that covers pretty much everything you can imagine, dive into The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne – his Story Grid of the Silence of the Lambs is even scarier and more organized than mine.

What did you use for your columns?

From Left to Right:

  • Scene number and word count
  • Synopsis of the Scene’s events
  • Characters present in the scene – First name in the list is POV
  • The scene’s function in the story, and what plotlines it includes (red ink is political plot, blue ink is magical plot)
  • Notes on what needs to change in order to make the scene fit the aims of my revision

I’m maybe talking about this out of order, but the thing I needed to do was consolidate plotlines, so it wasn’t simply one character working on their own plot but multiple characters coming at the two main plots from different angles, so my columns reflect that. But if I had unclear or inconsistent motivation, I could track that, or if I wanted to track a character’s changing internal attitude, I could do that, or if I wanted to evaluate my story’s pacing, I could do that too.

Does it only work for plotters?

Nope, pantsers can do this too. What you need is a finished manuscript, though, so get those stories finished! If you’re super wise, you could probably do a detailed, all purpose outline grid as you went through the story, so the reverse outline would be done when you are. But I am not that wise, myself.

How long does it take?

I did mine in two days. Now let me be clear. I did mine in two days of splendid isolation, with nothing else to do besides feed myself and wash dishes after, with luxurious naps and frustration breaks playing video games. It might be that you need a week to do this, or two weeks, depending on how many distractions you have to deal with and how practiced you are at it.

But actually, I put off doing this. I full on whined about it. It’s so tedious, so much work, it will take forever, I don’t wanna, the whole shebang. But when I put on my big girl pants and went to work it was about five to seven hours to complete.

What will it do for me?

It will point out the weak points in your book.

That’s a little freaky, and maybe you don’t want to know how much work you have ahead of you. Maybe you want to think the book is fine. I always do. I always think, “this time I did it.” haha! No. This time, I did a little better than last time, and I have a lot of work ahead of me. So know I know that one of my favorite scenes, one of the coolest things I think I did…is smack in the middle of that one page that is solid red and it has to go. But before I did the reverse outline, I thought it was fine. Making this fancy color coded table brings clarity, and to figure out what needs to be fixed, you need to be clear on what’s working in your story, and what isn’t.

What will you do now that you have this?

My next step is to take a week and a day in splendid isolation and write out a scene by scene outline of the story, test-driving the changes I want to make. This is what I think will work best for me and my process – I like to test things before going in and writing them, outlining in detail doesn’t kill the excitement for me, and I want to get another set of eyes on my outline/detailed synopsis before I get started. I have a lot to do in a short time, and Future Me will thank Past Me for laying out exactly what I need to do so I can get it done quickly and well.

If I wasn’t so organization and structure driven, I might just use the reverse outline as a cheat sheet and just go for it, fixing the scenes by intuition and imagination alone. Or I might just write a three page synopsis of the revised story and use that. Now that I have a clear picture of what I wrote, I now have a clear idea of what I need to do to bring the story up to the next level.

It’s been a long time since I published a craft blog post, but I haven’t quit talking about craft. I made a Patreon account, and I have posts there about things like 

  • a synopsis writing guide that will help expose structural manuscript problems
  • how to evaluate a scene to make sure it’s doing the right things
  • how to build a story when all you have is a character

I do a new writing related post every month, available to patrons on a sliding scale basis – pick the level of patronage you can afford and you’re in!

Starting in August I am starting a Live Sessions tier, where I will explore a subject about the craft and business of writing on zoom, where you can ask more questions. Look for it then!

×