Ink-Stained Scribe

5 Tips for Your NaNoWriMo Outline

305/365 - NaNoWriMo! by haley-elise
Does your NaNoWriMo outline need a little spit shine? Like your basic story but don't know if it's any good?

Piggy-backing off last year's NaNoWriMo outlining workshop, I've got a few more techniques I've accumulated to help hammer your outline into shape and give it a bit of a spit-shine.

The following tips will help you identify your main conflict, work tension and conflict into each scene, make sure your scenes flow logically toward the ending, and move your story from hook to resolution.

If you haven't taken a look at my NaNoWriMo Outlining Workshop, it might be a useful reference for the application of these techniques.


The third, and Adryn's favorite (and by favorite, I mean she hates me for making her do this), is to boil the conflict down to 35 words. You might remember when I described how I wrote a 35-word pitch for The Mark of Flight, which has really helped me in my quest toward publication. (More on pitches)

A pitch this short will force you to think critically about the central conflict. You can use the pitch to keep your plot from sprawling in unnecessary directions (if you tend to sprawl, like I do) and to identify whether your story has core plot-issues. Can't pitch it? That's an indication that the story's basic framework might need more work.

If, like Adryn, you have no idea where to begin boiling down the conflict, start by summarizing who your protagonist is and what they want in 35 words. Then summarize who your antagonist is and what they want in 35 words (hint: it better be something that chucks a horny, sparkly vampire in the Bed, Bath & Beyond display room of your protagonist's goal.)

Now take your protagonist and describe what she wants and how the antagonist is preventing her achieving that (of course, in 35 words).

Yeah, this is time-consuming, but it will likely save you a ton of time in revisions and give you a great framework for your query pitches!

Yes? No! image by Laura Appleyard
2. YES, BUT... / NO, AND...

Conflict in your scene uninteresting? On a recent episode of the Writing Excuses Podcast, Mary Robinette Kowal described a technique for making sure your scenes are exciting. It was intended for pantsers rather than plotters, but I think the technique is a fantastic way to make sure you're giving your scene enough conflict and tension.

Simply, get your characters into a pickle. Then ask the question, do they succeed in getting out of the situation?

If you answer YES, you must then come up with a complication.
YES, Bilbo rescues the dwarves from the Mirkwood prisons, BUT they nearly drown in the barrels.

If you answer NO, you toss in a little extra complication to really put pressure on your characters.
NO, Katniss's friends and family are not spared at reaping day AND it's her little sister who's been chosen to fight (and probably die) in The Hunger Games.


You've note-carded and chased every plot-bunny down their respective rabbit holes, but do your scenes flow one-to-the-next in a logical, domino-effect that leads you from inciting action to inevitable conclusion?

Carrie Ryan, Magical Words blogger and author of the creeptastically beautiful Forest of Hands and Teeth, describes a technique she learned from an editor.

"If you line up every scene or plot beat in your book, and the only words that connect them are “and then,” you have a problem; instead, each scene needs to be connected with either ”therefore” or “but.”
 I'm doing this with my outline for Beggar's Twin, and it's really coming in handy. It's a bit complicated with multiple perspectives, but I'm literally setting up my notecards into the different perspectives and making sure they flow both along their individual storylines and toward the conclusion. I've found it super-helpful in identifying scenes that aren't working.


The fourth is the 7-Point Story Structure from Dan Wells--seven points that help you move your story from hook to resolution, which you can watch in five parts on YouTube:

According to the Writing Excuses show notes, the seven points are:

  • Hook
  • Plot Turn I
  • Pinch I
  • Midpoint
  • Plot Turn II
  • Pinch II
  • Resolution

If you don't want to take the time to watch the YouTube video, you can also hear the cast of Writing Excuses discuss these seven points HERE.

Similar to this: The Hollywood Formula; The Three-Act Structure; The Secrets of Story Structure


Put down the scalpel.

Once you're finished making sure your conflict is solid, your scenes have tension, your plot chugs nicely toward the resolution, and you're hitting all the points of basic story structure, it's time to type it all up and present the outline to a friend, preferably another artistic type.

Generally, I find other writers or artists understand how to look at an embryonic story idea and help it grow. You don't want someone to give you unnecessary criticism and kill the excitement.

Don't know any other writers IRL? A great resource for other writers is the NaNoWriMo forums! Find someone to swap outlines with. And hey, if you're noticing some familiar problems, point them in the direction of whichever resource was most helpful. I don't mean my blog, though that would be awesome; I mean the primary source. If you think they'd benefit from But / Therefore, send them to Carrie's post on Magical Words.

Happy writing, and remember to eat occasionally!

How I Wrote a 35-Word Pitch

My cheap-o self-made cover
I follow a pair of blogs that have both recently hosted 35 word pitch contests (YAtopia and Brenda Drake Writes). I entered both contests with different works and got requests on both, and perhaps the most useful facet of the contest was learning to whittle my pitch down to the most important aspects of the story. Doing that forced me not only to think critically about the writing itself, but also find the moment in my story that defines the main character's critical choice.

A side-effect of focusing the conflict was that I realized, for my novel-length work, that the story needs to shift closer to the end, putting that moment of critical choice dead-center, with the inciting event of the story nearer to the one-quarter mark.

Crystallizing an entire novel is hard, because you need character, motivation, setting, conflict, stakes, and voice. In this post, I'm going to show you how I got my pitch for The Mark of Flight down to 35 words.

The blurb that follows is what I've used in my query letter, and what you'll find on the Mark of Flight page above.

The council’s preference for her tractable cousin is Princess Arianna’s biggest worry until her most trusted companion, Markmaster Tashda, kidnaps her to rekindle the centuries-long war with the neighboring kingdom, Centoren. In a fight for her liberty and the preservation of her homeland, Arianna is willing to sacrifice almost anything, but she can't escape an elite squadron of Centoreinian soldiers on her own.
A backwoods Mage and a stuttering stable boy, however, are the last champions she would have asked for. Bay is an Innate Mage who can escape neither the impulse to heal the ravaged borderlands nor the haunting absence of the master who taught him more Magic than anyone else seems to know. Even worse is Shiro, a slave illegally owned by the same inn harboring Tashda’s men. Horrified at the thought of slavery in her kingdom, Arianna swears to stop the unlawful trade if she can ever get home, and promises Shiro will never suffer chains again. Then one of Tashda’s men catches up to them, and the glittering shield that bursts from Shiro’s hand shocks even him with the impossible: the slave is a Markmaster.
Bay departs to lead Tashda astray and Shiro, unable to explain how he got a Mark, refuses to accept his power. Arianna hopes that returning to the castle will solve their problems, but when Shiro is captured protecting her from slave-traders, she faces a choice: break her promise to Shiro and rush home to prepare her kingdom for war, or risk her life to free the Markmaster-slave who gave up everything to save her.
Kind of long, right? At 263 words, this blurb is pushing it even for a query letter. However, we can see all the elements of story I listed above.

Character: Princess Arianna

Motivation: liberty and preservation of her homeland

Setting: Rizellen (which, by the fact that she's a princess, we can assume is both feudal and medieval)

Conflict: she has to choose between warning her homeland of approaching war and breaking her promise to Shiro

Stakes: war for her kingdom if she fails to warn them, and life as a slave for Shiro if she fails to rescue him. On both ends, her personal failure to protect what she cares about is evident.

Voice: words like "suffer" "rush" "backwoods" "champion" "ravaged" and "rekindle" hint at the diction of a high fantasy.

The first step was to identify the moment that encapsulates my character's most pivotal choice--the moment she gets off her lazy arse and makes the decision to start DOING something about the situation I stuck her in. For THE MARK OF FLIGHT, that was the moment where Arianna makes her choice between going home to warn her country about Tashda's plans, or rescuing Shiro from slave-traders.

With that in mind, I yanked the final lines from my blurb:

when Shiro is captured protecting her from slave-traders, she faces a choice: break her promise to Shiro and rush home to prepare her kingdom for war, or risk her life to free the Markmaster-slave who gave up everything to save her
By itself, that line is 41 words - already over my limit - so I needed to trim down. Shiro being captured by slave-traders can sort of be implied in the last line: "free the Markmaster-slave". It's probably not necessary to know that he needs to be freed from slavery for a second time. So I end up with this:

(Arianna) faces a choice: break her promise to Shiro and rush home to prepare her kingdom for war, or risk her life to free the Markmaster-slave who gave up everything to save her
Now we're talking. At 33 words, I was finally under the limit. But it wasn't ready yet. I knew I'd have to introduce the main character, the setting, and the general predicament she's in before that choice would matter to anyone.

So we would obviously need to know Arianna's name, the fact that she's a princess, and the fact that she's been kidnapped; "Kidnapped Princess Arianna" covers that in three words, but doesn't really set up the action well. So I decided to use the inciting incident (her kidnapping) as a springboard. "When Princess Arianna of Rizellen is kidnapped..."

But then what? What happens? What are the stakes of that? Easy: war. I loved the word "rekindle" from the original query, so I changed it around a bit to show the stakes of the original situation: "When Princess Arianna's kidnapping threatens to rekindle war..."

Now her choice is properly set up, so I trimmed down the verbage at the end and came up with:

When Princess Arianna’s kidnapping threatens to rekindle war, she must choose between warning her kingdom of the enemy’s approach or risking her life to help the slave who gave his freedom to rescue her.
34 words! Awesome. But I still wasn't done yet.

If beta readers are critical for your book, they're even more critical for your query, and even more important for your pitch. You want to present it to them and see what works, what's understandable, what isn't understandable, and what might be confusing. Also, beta readers will be able to give you quick tips on things like diction and voice.

I copied my pitch and pasted it into my status on facebook, and asked my friends to critique it.

The first thing to go was the "must choose between and". That construction was weak, and got replaced with "must choose: warn ...risk..."

When Princess Arianna’s kidnapping threatens to rekindlewar, she must make a choice: warn her kingdom of the enemy’s approach or riskher life to help the slave who gave his freedom to rescue her.
Exactly 35 words, and much stronger. Then another friend suggested I use  the word "sacrifice" instead of "gave", which is a much better word-choice, and I decided I liked "faces a difficult choice" better than "must make a choice". In the end, I came up with:

When Princess Arianna's kidnapping threatens to rekindle war, she faces a difficult choice: warn her kingdom of the enemy's approach or risk her life to help the slave who sacrificed his freedom to rescue her.
Yeah, it leaves out a lot. It leaves out Bay entirely, leaves out the promise Arianna made, leaves out the fact that Shiro is secretly a Markmaster (and what that is). But here's the thing: those are details. Those are trappings of the world. They're not necessary in a pitch, which is designed to present the most interesting part of the story to the potential agents.


Do you have a pitch for your story? Have you participated in any pitch contests? Do you think you could whittle down your pitch to 35 words?

Writing Openings - Learning from The Hunger Games Model

Picture from
Openings are tough. For me, they're one of the hardest things to get right. The balance of exposition and action, character introduction and identification, has always been something that takes me much longer than it probably should.

What everyone tells you to do in openings:

1. Show what the main character cares about.
2. Threaten what the main character cares about.

There are a billion and eleven ways to accomplish those two things, and however basic they may seem, they're still hard to do. It's the how, not the what, that's a little tricky to me.

At the most recent meeting of my writing club, Raven brought up a point our friend Ed (of IGMS and Magical Words) had made on a panel at ConCarolinas: The Hunger Games has an impressively succinct opening.

Think about it; within the first pages we learn how deeply Katniss cares about her sister, Prim. Not only does she break the law to feed her family, but she also tolerates her little sister's cat, which she hates. Despite the cat being another mouth to feed, Katniss lets it stay because Prim loves it, which shows how deeply Katniss cares about Prim. That's all within the first two or so pages. This caring perfectly sets up the story's inciting incident: Prim getting chosen to compete in the Hunger Games, and Katniss taking her place.

Openings don't come naturally to me, and I tend to take a while to ramp up into the story, action or not. In conjunction with this observation, two of my beta readers for HELLHOUND, Bryan Lincoln and Darci Cole, made a couple of points that had me rethinking that opening. I knew I needed to make it succinct and precise, like the Hunger Games, and to do that I had to think critically about the opening. I came up with the following method for accomplishing the two elements of the opening:

The Hunger Games Model

1. Demonstrate what the main character cares about by showing them overcoming some obstacle/hardship or another because he/she cares about it. (Motivation in evidence!)
2. Threaten the thing that character cares about in such a way that forces him/her to take the first step along the story's course.

I know, I know. Reading it written out like that makes me sort of go, "Duh. Of course that's how an opening should be done." But it has taken several failures and some strict, sit-down-and-analyze time for me to figure out not only what needed to happen, but how to do that.

I came up with exactly how to harvest these elements from HELLHOUND and weave them together in a scene that is similar to what I already had, but will likely work much better.

Does your story's opening follow the Hunger Games Model? How? What other ways have you seen or utilized to open a story?

Tabletop Magic for Your Novel

Picture courtesy
This past week, I've been worldbuilding for Beggar's Twin. One thing I never really did with my other two books was sit down and hammer out details of how the Magic works before I wrote the story. I ended up regretting that during every stage of the process - I didn't know how to describe it while I wrote my rough drafts, and it affected the plots during revision and made them take longer. Sure, I eventually got all the pieces figured out, but it slowed me down.

Beggar's Twin has a very complicated magic system - more complicated than any I've written thus far. Not only are there a number of different branches of magic, the casting style is singing-based, which creates a whole new set of issues. I knew I was going to have to do a bit more planning here in order to keep everything straight, so I sat down with my friend Eric (an avid tabletop gamer who paid a lot more attention to the rulebooks than I ever did) and hammered out some rules for the magic system as if it were a tabletop RPG.

Here's how we got started:


First, I described to him the basic construction of the magic system. I'd like to point out that I already had the basics in mind. The following diagram is the division of magic: what type of magic it is, what effects it has, how it's categorized, who can have it, how many branches can they have. This is all information you need to know before you begin.

A few points of pertinent background information (and the notes and ideas they spawned) are as follows:

1. Each branch of magic resonates with a particular key. There are six branches of magic, and there doesn't appear to be a rhyme or reason for the particular key it's associated with. (There are probably professors at the University who devote their lives to finding significance in these keys, but in terms of the story, nobody knows.)

2. Sound is vibration, but not just any sound can be used for spellcasting - it has to be voice. However, I decided that outside sounds would certainly disturb the spellcasting, because of interference. (You know what that means for historical warfare? WAR GONGS.)

3. Given the above, Professors at the University will have something akin to giant tuning forks in a dissonant key to their area of teaching, so they can disrupt any student spells likely to go awry. All Magicsingers carry small ones to act as a pitch-pipe before singing.

After establishing the background information, Eric and I decided to work with the D20 system, since it's what I'm most familiar with. 

If this were to be a real tabletop game, I would probably spend ages and ages coming up with a whole bunch of spells for each branch of magic, plus a couple of spells that could be done with particular combinations like esper/divintion telepathy. This, however, is not something I'm concerned with working out before I write, so I'm skipping that part (for now).

Next, we started coming up with what's know in tabletop gaming as "Feats".

In the d20 System, a feat is one type of ability a character may gain through level progression. Feats are different from skills in that characters can vary in competency with skills, while feats typically provide set bonuses to or new ways to use existing abilities.

Read more:

Feats are all those special little quirks that make your unique magic system even cooler. In terms of narrative, they're what will help you show off your magic system in plot and interaction. Flaws are similar to feats, but hinder the character. Here are a few of mine:

Perfect Pitch: (this feat can only be taken at character creation) Your character will never have problems with pitch. +5 on all casting checks.

Resonance: (this feat can only be taken at character creation) Resonance occurs when the spirit is in perfect resonance with one branch of magic, allowing that person the ability to become more proficient in that magic quickly. It also cancels dissonance penalties for the target branch.

Dissonance: (this feat can only be taken at character creation) Dissonance occurs when the spirit is in a dissonant key to a particular branch of magic. Non spellcasters may take this feat without penalty and receive a +20 to Armor Class against the target magic. Spellcasters may use this as a flaw.

Focus: (GM awards this feat at any time) When a character has devoted significant academic study to his or her singing, they may be awarded focus, which allows the caster to subtract five points off all casting checks.

Tone Deaf: When a character is tone-deaf, he or she will have significant difficulty casting spells. No one likes to sit next to this character in class. -5 on all casting checks. -10 if another character is singing a spell in a different key.

Beautiful Voice: Teachers always say it doesn't matter how good your voice is, as long as you can sing on key...but spells always seem more effective when cast in a lovely voice. Teachers are also more likely to favor students whose voices don't inspire dogs to howl. +1 on all "damage" rolls.

Obivously, there's a lot more that goes into creating a tabletop game than just background, spells, and feats. This is, however, a really good start.

Do you play tabletop games? If your magic system were a tabletop game, what feats and flaws would you have? How would you use them in your story?

Specific Motivation for Characters

You may be surprised at the changes...
While doing the outlining workshop, a few of the folks tried to pass off "to be happy" as a character motivation. Sorry, folks - no dice.

It's not that "to be happy" isn't a motivation, but it's sort of the quintessential motivation, and that's the problem. When you're setting up what your character wants, it needs to be as specific as possible, because that specificity will help your character seem unique.

"To be happy" is not unique. Just like we can trace all life back to the sun (well, as far as I know), everyone is motivated by the pursuit of happiness. Does your villain want to destroy the world? Why? Because on some level, world-destruction makes that character happy, or at least satisfied.

And satisfied is like happy. For sociopaths.


Motivation needs to be specific, and if it's not, all the cool shit they can do doesn't matter, because we don't know why it's important. A while back, I saw a youtube video about how Disney princesses always have their "motivation establishing song." I can't find that video now, but here are some of the relevant songs:

Belle: I want adventure in the great wide somewhere...

Ariel: I want to be where the people are...

Mulan: When will my reflection show who I am inside...

Snow White: Someday my prince will come...(barf.)

Ignoring the gag-inducing passivity of the Snow White motivation (If you haven't read the "YA Cover Trends" [aka, Dead Girls on Covers] essays over on Rachel Stark's blog, Trac Changes, I command thee go read.)  you can see that all four of these chicks at least know what they want, and we learn that before they have to start fighting to make it happen or, in Snow White's case, before she is rudely taken advantage of by her step mother, and then randomly sexually assaulted by some chump with a white horse and a crown, and then circumstances allow everyone else to make her dream happen.

But how does one go about figuring out a specific motivation for a character?

The way I've decided to define specific motivation is by breaking it down into two parts:


Desire is whatever it is your character wants. This should be the thing that pulls them toward the ending, the thing that they want to fight for. For example, the two main characters of HELLHOUND:

Helena: to gain true freedom and peace for herself and her pack.
Jaesung: to take care of the people he cares about (the way his father didn't).

Method is the course of action your character plans, must, or eventually decides to take in order to achieve their goals. To know this, you must know first what is keeping them from achieving their desires. Again, I'm going to use the cast of HELLHOUND as an example.

What stands between desire and:

Helena: Gwydhain is hunting the Hellhounds, the Sorcerers Guild is hunting her, and Jaesung's attention/suspicion puts her in danger of revealing her secret. 
Jaesung: Helena won't tell him what's going on, so he can't protect her from it. He's still in school and doesn't make enough money yet to help resolve his father's debt.
So, what's their course of action, given these obstacles?

Helena: protect the book with the Hellhound creation spell, learn enough magic to defeat Gwydhain, keep her autonomy from the Sorcerers Guild, and keep her true nature hidden from her roommates. 
Jaesung: find out what's going on with Helena so he can support her...and to make sure she's not endangering anyone else he cares about; finish his degree in applied mathematics and get a good job so he can take care of his family financially.

From these pieces of information, we can decide what each character's specific motivation is. For now, I'm just going to pick the most important obstacle.


Helena: wants to gain true freedom and peace for herself and her pack BY protecting the book with the Hellhound creation spell and learning enough Magic to defeat Gwydhain. 
Jaesung: wants to take care of the people he cares about (the way his father didn't) BY finding out what's going on with Helena so he can support her, or at least make sure she's not endangering anyone else.

CHARACTER wants to achieve DESIRE by taking a COURSE OF ACTION.

I don't think your characters' initial courses of action need to be successful - Helena fails both to protect the book and to learn enough Magic to defeat Gwydhain, and so must come up with an alternate solution. I'm not going to tell you if Jaesung is successful or not. You'll just have to wait and see...

What is your main character's specific motivation? Is their initial course of action successful? What's their next course of action?

Why Flaws and Motivations Matter More

What's that? I can't hear you over my AWESOME!
Have you ever created a character so sublimely kickass you can't believe they somehow rocketed straight from your subconscious?

He's a white-haired elf who doesn't realize he's a half-demon, and comes back to save the undeserving village that ran him off, only to die a slow and painful death (with an epic death-speech that would make Mercutio weep in a fit of jealous awe) to teach us all a lesson in tolerance. Speaking of tolerance, he's gay! With a demon. Isn't he awesome?
No. He's not. Maybe the above description intrigues you, and that's not a bad thing. Most likely, you're rolling your eyes. How do I know? Because I haven't given you a reason to care. It isn't that there's anything wrong with being a soliloquizing half-elf-half-demon still fighting to protect the ones that would have him killed (and getting some action on the side), but as it stands he's boring.

Here's the deal: anyone can heap awesome skills and powers onto a character. Anyone can throw a sad back-story and a tragic ending at a character. Anyone can give their character a controversial trait. (May I add, here, that making a character gay is not a quirk, flaw, or free-pass on making your character unique?) I can't embolden, underline, italicize, and capitalize the following enough: NONE OF THIS MATTERS WITHOUT FLAWS OR MOTIVATION.

Stories aren't about how awesome a character is. It's about the problems--internal and external--those characters overcome, and why they overcome them. Sure, how they overcome those problems is an important aspect of the plot, but it's in the "why" that we readers find a reason to care.

Looking for even more tips on writing? Go check out freelance editor CA Marshall's blog for her special Editing Advent contest - you could win a free 10 page critique from someone who knows what she's talking about.

Writing Romance - What About MY Needs!?

Writing Podcasts seem to have a certain synchronicity for me--when I'm struggling with something in my own writing, I hear it discussed in a podcast soon thereafter. It's not even that I seek out the episodes so much as I work my way though them, and the episode I need just happens to be there. That's happened to me with all three of my favorite writing podcasts: The Dead Robots Society, I Should Be Writing, and Writing Excuses. That's what I hope my own podcast, Pendragon Variety, can do for other aspiring writers.

 The other day, I was listening to the Writing Excuses podcast, and heard something that seemed like common sense, but which I sometimes lose track of when writing romance between two characters. I'm not talking about romance novels (not that there's anything wrong with them). I'm talking about every romance you write, and what keeps it from feeling forced--what draws your characters to each other, by proxy drawing your readers to the relationship: knowing the needs the two characters satisfy for each other.

 In "The Mark of Flight", Shiro and Arianna were pretty simple to figure out. Shiro fills Arianna's need to be seen, appreciated, and loved for who she is and not because she's a princess. Arianna fills Shiro's need to be believed in, and his need to be valued as a person. Funny enough, they satisfy a very similar needs for each other, though they come from completely different backgrounds. Their romance was never really an issue for me, so when I started writing HELLHOUND, I imagined everything would fall perfectly into place.

 Not so. Part of this was my fault in writing without any idea who my characters were, what motivated them, or what they even wanted. But I feel like I should have figured it out by the end of the first draft. Something wasn't quite working--it was totally unbalanced. They went from 0 to 40...then back to 10...then to 80...and then piddled along to the end. It's not because they're not both likable, interesting, developed characters. It's not because there wasn't plenty of attraction on both sides.

I knew that Jaesung was a good influence on Helena...but I couldn't quite figure out what it was about HER that made him stick around. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about when I say that, sometimes, I don't think one protagonist quite has as much to offer as the other. "Because he loves her" might be valid, but sometimes I still want a little more.

What does Bella have to offer Edward (besides the feeling that he's a horrible monster for wanting to eat her all the time)?

What does Ron give to Hermione (besides at least three reasons to cry in every book)?

What is it about Clary that makes Jace willing to brave even the possibility of incest for her? (*squick*)

 Jaesung gives me that problem. When you're a 23-year-old grad student juggling lots of goslings, what's going to draw you to a girl whose most likely background is "drug mule in witness protection"? Okay. Her hot legs. At first. But when shit starts going down, there's got to be something more.

Helena tries to do everything herself. She truly believes she has something that only she can do, and that she's got to do it alone. Unfortunately, her character flaw is in her inability to look past the moment and see consequences. Because she's too afraid to think about a future she thinks is hopeless, she gets herself into a lot of trouble for making decisions that don't seem to have any foresight.

Jaesung, on the other hand, has effectively killed his ability to live in the moment by always thinking about the past, and trying to figure out how to avoid making the same mistakes as his father. He works hard at something at which he's rather mediocre to make sure he can support his mother and his future family, while relegating his passions into the "hobby" box. Of course, he enjoys them...but he's not the type of person who can let himself disappoint people.

Helena never thinks about the future. Jaesung always does. This causes tension in their relationship, to be sure, but it also gives each of them something to contribute to the other. In a way, their flaws when it comes to life in general become their strengths for each other. Helena's lack of foresight gives Jaesung the opportunity to help her find her "light at the end of the tunnel" (Oh hai, theme). Her recklessness forces him to admit what he truly cares about, whether that lets people down or not.

Because I think flaws are so important, I have to make sure they grow, but don't fix each other, because the story isn't about overcoming flaws. Like many good stories, it's about overcoming adversity despite a thousand things that are in the way, including those flaws. Helena will probably never be able to plan ahead the way Jaesung does, and I know he will always feel duty-bound to take care of everyone around him.

She'll drag him out to play in the snow at 4AM. He'll remember anniversaries. She'll remind him to take a break from doing taxes. He'll make sure they get done later. She'll hunt demons for the safety of the world. He'll make sure she doesn't do it alone.

Yeah. They're a good match.

Guest Post: The Best Way to Write a Trans Character

Around the YA Literary blogosphere, the current buzz is all about YA Authors being asked to straighten gay characters. Publisher's Weekly published an article by two Young Adult authors who, without naming names, revealed that they had been asked (and not just once) to remove a gay character's viewpoint, or at least all reference to his sexuality. Well, the agent stepped forward with a totally different story...You can read about the whole mess here and form your own opinion.

The positive thing about the whole mess is that it started a dialog about LGBTQ characters in fiction with all the right people. Just after responses to this started cropping up, I was hanging out with my friend Morgan--a transsexual woman--and asked her not just what she thought about the notion of "straightwashing" fiction, but of the treatment by authors, agents, editors, etc of LGBTQ (which she refers to under the umbrella-term "trans") characters in general. Also a writer, Morgan agreed to share her thoughts on the matter in a guest post.


The Best Way To Write A Trans Character

Morgan can be found HERE and HERE
There isn't one.

Gosh, that sounded disappointing. Let me give specificity a whirl, for giggles. There's a lot of discourse (not to mention monocourse and meta soliloquies, when no one is around) going on about how to tackle LGBT characters in fiction. Some say burn any hopes of it, because there's that background radiation of fear that says “bigoted people will use words like 'decency' as a beating stick against me.” Some caution against the flip side, where you slap in FABULOUS characters sitcom-style willy, even nilly, out of a desire to be topically hip. Or hiply topical, it's hard to keep up (or is it down?). Some say your characters should be out and proud. Some say it should be so subtle it's barely there.

This Some person sure gabs, don't they? But I've been massaging my little lesbian transsexual noodle to conjure an answer, and I don't think there is one. We're still at the 1939 stage of the next great lexicon war as we try to excise terms like hermaphrodite, tranny and transvestite. It's still news worthy when a trans character is in a television show, even moreso when they're actually played by a trans person. I would argue that it's too soon for there to be a right way. Every form of media follows its own set of rules, and almost every form of media is transgender-free, or at least trans-lite, which may be low fat but it means the knowledge fat per serving goes with it.

For instance, take trans memoir “Conundrum” by British travel writer Jan Morris. It was written in the 70's when, if you thought bloody no one was trans now, there was practically negative trans mass in the universe in that dark, bygone era. (Can you tell I'm young and cocksure? Vaginasure?) There being a dearth of edumication about L, G, B and T during her personal coming out, Jan writes her story through the lens of a spiritual rebirth rather than through the more recent socio-medical view. So instead of a story about drawing strength from a community, it's more of a story about trusting yourself even when you're a solitary anomaly. It's a radical approach time-locked to that era, and a microcosm of a community that often prefers to stay hidden.

Because a truly globally connected trans community is something only recently realized, “Conundrum” is part of a heritage of stories on gender defiance. After all, transgender isn't just transsexuals, who pursue “transition” through medical or surgical means. There's bigender and trigender, who by choice spend part of their life as a male, another as female, perhaps still another as androgynous or even as a wholly separate personality. There are crossdressers (formerly known as transvestites) who change their dress and behavior for a certain degree of emotional or sexual satisfaction, while still retaining their assigned gender's identity. There are genderqueer people who blend or cast off the window dress (and duds) of both sides of the divide but don't identify either way.

Take the Japanese animation (anime) fairy tale mind screw series, Revolutionary Girl Utena. It's about the titular Utena who longs to become a prince so she can save the princess. She wears an outfit akin to the other males in the series, she kisses the princess to release the Sword of Dios, and she's weakened into a state of submission later in the series when she forces herself to adopt "feminine" traits and roles. Is she trans? Who knows? We didn't have that precise a language back then, so there's no convenient labeling to pin. All we can say is that the show built a foundation on the corpses of subverted gender norms. We can't say that she was male-identified because that hyphenated word didn't really exist, but we can say that the series revolved around a relationship between two women with opposing social roles. And opposing shades of purple hair.

Now look at the “Sofia Lopez” episodes of Nip/Tuck season one. Here we have a transsexual character seeking surgery, and her doctor, Sean (one of the show's leads), coming to grips with his discomfort, and disgust, with people who change genders. Not that Sean has a moral leg to stand on, since he fed the literal legs Silvio stood on to an alligator three episodes before. But in a sympathetic way he releases the bonds of old guard masculinity and comes to terms with his judgmental nature, and by turn the audience learns a little more about what it means to be trans.

Color bomb pretty and fascinatingly cynical show Paradise Kiss ends with lead guy George leaving the lead gal, George's final scene showing him on a boat alongside none other than his trans best friendgirl. It's platonic love that's in the air, as the show suggests that he needs a partner in crime more than a star-crossed love. While this Casablanca-esque ending doesn't teach you much about being trans, it never has transphobic sentiments, either, instead syncing its tone to the character's. She doesn't dwell on it, and the show leaves her alone about it.

Now “Sex Changes,” by the Dresden Dolls off their album Yes, Virginia.... The song can be read as a cautionary tale about your first sexual experience (“sex changes you”), a condemnation of people who change their sex, or the exact opposite: a condemnation of the way people talk about trans people as victims of a sickness. That said, it's a razor line to walk and should only be performed by professionally calloused razor walking feet.

Finally, the American version of Ugly Betty. The first soapy season involves a trans character who is played both as evil and ethical, as shock value and as a nuanced human being. Halfway through the season she announces she's a main character's supposedly dead brother whose come back from beyond the grave to exact corporate revenge. And in the same breath, admits to faking her death just so she could transition without the scrutiny of her family and peers. She has sex at one point in the series, and it's built up as this “ooh, how different” thing, and yet she and her lover never address it. They just admire each other's beauty and don't sweat what sex with her could be viewed as. Instead they sweat the regular, prescribed amount of sex sweat.

Quiz time: which one of those was the right way to write a trans character?

All of them. The thing is, there's no right way at the moment. Any interpretation is going to cheese someone off, because the community is made of a million pie slices of various thicknesses and crust integrity. Now this may be a scary prospect, because who wants to land on the wrong side of a civil rights issue, now or in the retrospect of history? Safer to just pretend trans people don't exist, because that makes everyone happy. But the thing is, for there to be a standard, there has to be a model. Everyone of you who has even imagined writing a trans character are forging that foot path, here and now. Any interpretation not born out of judgment is going to fit one of those models above, or millions of potential others, because the big secret is out. Trans people are as varied, diverse, strange, good, bad, beautiful, manic, womanic, wild and firework-laced as everyone else.

Further Reading: Writing Gay Characters, The Top 25 Gay TV Characters, Writing a Trans Character
(Edit: 6/18/2012): Check out Zoe E. Whitten's post on the topic here: On Writing Trans Characters and YA Fiction.
You can find more of Morgan's writing at: TRANSLABRYNTH
And her YouTube Channel: Translabrynth on YouTube

Making Time to Write

Monday night, my roommate Skrybbi was up making piñatas, ten of them--pink and purple fringy things about the size of a six-year-old's head. All last week, our kitchen table was occupied by bowls of flour-water and strips of newspaper; crusty balloons covered in papier-mâché hung drying in our window. My roommate, bless her, is a teen librarian. Well, almost. You see, she's in graduate school right now so she can get paid like a librarian, and while her job title might actually be "librarian's assistant", there is no teen librarian. So it's her.

By now, you've probably gathered that Skrybbi is working full time, going to graduate school, and making piñatas. You might also be thinking she's crazy, but that's a topic for a different post.

What I'm getting at here is this: Skrybbi is busier than I am. I don't have grad school on top of my job. I don't have to spend a lot of my free time researching and making crafts for the teen programs. I spend my free-time writing. But if she wanted to, Skrybbi could do it too.

"I know very well that when I come home every day, I sit down in front of an episode of True Blood and you sit down in front of your computer to write," she told me today. Since we've been rooming together, I've noticed a few things: Skrybbi is super-busy, right? But she watches more TV than me, she goes to bed before me, and wakes up after. How can she be both busier than me, and having more relaxation and sleep-time? The answer: relaxation and sleep are not my priorities.


Nothing is more frustrating than telling someone you've just finished a manuscript and then hearing: "I wish I had that kind of free time."

Them's fightin' words, because you know what? If you really want to make time to write, you're going to have to sacrifice something.

STEP AWAY FROM THE SHEEP! (AND PUT SOME PANTS ON!) I'm not talking about daughters, deer, and sacred bovine. I'm talking about activities. Things you do. Fun things, or even things you consider necessary (like spending time with friends).

I give up a lot of things. I give up my weekends, my vacation time, Dr. Who and Torchwood, afternoons on the lake, getting back into rowing. I give up long phone calls with my mom, and going out with friends. I give up my Friday nights, and usually my Saturday nights too.

There is no magic button.

There are dishes in my sink, my laundry hamper is full, and I should probably clean out the cat-box. It's 12:13 AM, I have to get up at 6:30, and I haven't showered yet. If your schedule's anything like mine, you have about four hours in any given day to get stuff done...assuming you sleep eight hours, which I almost never do. I just finished a manuscript so this week is an exception, but usually when I get home from work, I don't sit down in front of the TV or go to the gym. I don't grab the latest George R R Martin book and let it eat my face. I don't call my friends. I don't hop in the shower. I might be slightly guilty of playing Angry Birds and checking my email, but the ONLY thing I'm thinking about is getting my hands on that keyboard.

Sometimes I go grudgingly, and sometimes I putter around the internet instead of writing, but I do write, and usually for much longer than I should. Then I get to choose between a shower and having six hours of sleep rather than five and a half...

Yes. I shower. But then it's this again:

There are days when I would LOVE for things like TV, workouts, showers, and friends to be my priority. It would be awesome to sit down in front of a few episodes of Avatar and not feel guilty because I could be writing.

I don't have a time-turner (okay, I do, but it's fake) and I don't have 28-hour days, but I do have my priorities established.

But I'm Le Tired...

Sometimes I walk in after work and the overwhelming amount of dishes and the daily disaster of the cats chasing each other around the apartment (and Dragon*Con costume-making) takes precedence. By the time I'm done straightening and eating and all that, I don't want to write. All I want is sweatpants, a cup of Earl Gray, and David Tennant, although not necessarily in that order. We all have those days, and that's fine...but if you're feeling that way every day, you might be letting yourself off too easily.

Some people work twelve hours a day, have kids, have spouses, and still manage to eke out time for writing. It can be hard, and when life explodes it can be damn near impossible, but if you want to write, stop waiting for the Writer's Conspiracy to abduct you in the night, hand you the mask and robes, and give you the Inverted Pendulum of +5 Chrono-retardation. (...wait what?)

Why wait for a magical future time when the day has 28 hours and working from 9 - 6 suddenly isn't exhausting? When exactly is that going to happen? I'm hoping to stay busy, because if I'm not busy in this economy, it means I'm unemployed. Been there. Not cool.

Writing will become a habit. You can argue if it's good or healthy or obsessive, but the results are there: I produce work. I get the stories out of my head, and then I try to get them as close to perfect as possible.

So that's it. That's the big secret: you DO have time to write.

Still don't believe me? Tell me why:

Talk to me, gorgeous: Where does writing fall in your list of priorities? Do you have time to write? What have you sacrificed to have that time? Do you have any suggestions to make time?

Pantser or Plotter?

First of all, I'm happy to announce that "The Beggar's Twin" has won the running for which story I pursue in this year's NaNoWriMo. Huzzah! I never did get around to posting the third contender, but the overwhelming support for BT both here and on Facebook (and IRL from Raven and Skryb) makes me think it's this story's time. The energy's there, so I might as well use it.

I've had other good news recently, which has given me an extra burst of energy. No, I'm not telling what it is. Bwahaha. :)

Anyway, I've been working on the plotting and worldbuilding aspects of BT this week, so I thought I'd talk today apropos my methods. (Dude, doesn't that word make me look, like, so totally smart?)

Plotter with Pants!

Most people reading this blog are probably familiar with the Pantser vs. Plotter deliniations, but for those who are less familiar, it's the writer who flies bet he seat of her pants vs. the writer who outlines. I've always been a plotter--I'm simply too long-winded and disorganized not to be. I wasn't, however, always a very good plotter. My outlines used to look like this:

  • Plot Point A
  • Fun scene idea with no purpose
  • "another scene here"
  • Plot Point F
  • ...more stuff happens here that I don't know yet
  • Plot Point Q(ish)
A plan? Certainly. A plot? Enghgghh... I sort of pants-plotted. If that's even a thing. Let's say it's a thing. Anyway, there was no real thought about what scenes I might need, no sense of story structure, and no good way to spot connections or gaps. I planned a story arc with A-F-Q(ish), but then I let my pants take over and do the typing. I do not apologize for that mental image, by the way.

I have no doubt that method works for some people, but it didn't help me get over my biggest weakness: making it all MATTER.

What Fianlly Worked

I'm an INTP, for which the type-name is called "The Architect". I also have Attention Deficit. I want you all to imagine walking into a building made by an ADD Architect who decided not to use a blueprint. I think we can all agree that it's best if I don't pants it.

I stumbled upon Holly Lisle's Notecarding method last year before NaNoWriMo. I know I tout this method all the time on my blog, but that's because it really worked for me. It really helps me look at the ideas I've got and see the gaps and weaknesses, see how it all connects, and tease out subplots and new possibilities.

So Beggar's Twin was a little deceptive in that the summary told you what the story is about without telling you the plot. I didn't even mention a bad guy. Yeah. That's cause I didn't have one. I knew what the main conflict of the story was (girl vs. society), and I knew a lot about the world because I'd written a short-story about it in college. I had characters and an eventual goal...but I didn't know what happened to get them there.

I get distracted by my own thoughts while I'm in my head. I have to plot physically with notecards. Raven often says she thinks about her stories while she drives. I can't do that very well, but over the past few years I've come up with a solution: freewriting.

I did The Artist's Way a few years ago, and one of the best things about it were Morning Pages (three pages of stream-of-consciousness journaling as soon as you wake up). Now, I didn't like doing them, because it meant I had to get up early, and my disposition in the morning is an ugly cross between a wet cat and Gollum with a caffeine addiction.

Rather than complaining about family, work, or friend problems, I always found myself writing about plot problems and ideas. Most of the time, an answer would crystallize right there on the page. So rather than thinking about my plotting woes in my head, where the "I should take a nap--ooh, a chocolate chip cookie!" part of my brain is strongest, I think best on paper.

Putting It Together
Now that I'm writing BT, I've run into problems everywhere. I notecarded the scenes I knew I wanted to happen, but I had a lot of gaps. So I turned to the pages. Here are some examples from my notebook:

  • What should (POV Character) be doing for the first half of the story?
  • I have to decide how (event) is going to play out...and tie it in with (character) somehow...
  • I don't have a villain. :(
  • How should the calendar work?
I've answered all of them just by pouring out my frustrations, ideas, and concerns onto the page without censoring myself. As I came up with ideas, I made notecards and looked for more inconsistencies and gaps. The story has gone from a very unformed mass of characterization and world-building to having roughly 3/5 of my scenes figured out.


I don't have any issue with pantsing; I just find it doesn't work as well for me. However, I don't consider my outlines to be rigid. It's not like the notecards have a permanent sticking charm on them like the portrait of Mrs. Black.

And if you didn't get that reference...

INTERACT: Are you a pantser or a plotter? How do you resolve plot issues? Have you done Morning Pages? Did they help? What's your method for creating plot?