What Makes a Hyper-competent Character Relatable?

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.


Ten Questions I Ask New Characters – And Why I’m Asking

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?

How I Abandon Organization While Planning a Novel

Sometimes people look at my process and say, “that’s so organized, I have no idea how you do this in such a tidy way, I could never do that. How do you do it so neatly?”

The answer is that I don’t try, at first. That organization is the last thing I do, not the first.

At first I just write whatever is crowding my mind. No order, rhyme, nor reason. I type this out in gdocs, mostly, though I have been known to do it longhand in my notebook and then transcribe. I title the file “Everything I Know About the Story” and it is a celebration of structureless, stream of consciousness process. I do whatever excites and interests me the most without shame or apology, allowing myself to be illogical, liberated, and limitless. I keep at it until I exhaust all my ideas. This usually is about 20-30 pages of the most RANDOM NONSENSE. It usually takes me about twenty hours.

baks clothing co. (1)

Then, after taking a break of 1-3 days (while I fart about on Pinterest building my “visual aesthetic” and building a WIP soundtrack on Spotify) I go back to the document and start making notes. I write expansions, ask questions, make comments. It’s still a mess at this point, so I feel like I can throw anything at it. I still don’t have to know what I’m writing about. I’m still discovering it this fills out ten to twenty hours of work.

Then I start organizing it into a Microsoft One Note Binder, because that’s what I use for my series bible stuff. I will organize things like “characters” and “locations” and “Culture” and file EVERYTHING. I’m still not writing a story – I’m putting the laundry away, so to speak, so I can find my rainbow colored socks when I need them.

While I’m doing that, I start figuring out the story – like, does this society have a rigid class system/social caste? Where are my various characters on the various layers – are they on the come up or the way down? I especially think about characters. Questions like, who are my characters on the inside? What do they want, and who/what do they have to fight to get it? Who knows whom and how do they interact? What are their secrets? What do they regret? What would they never, ever do, say, believe in? And the whole time I’m thinking:

How can I wreck their lives with this information? How do I use this to push them out of their comfortable holding pattern and into the world story? How do they get involved? Why them in particular, and not someone else? How can I make the stakes higher and the situations worse?

uphold the rule of law.

Inevitably I’ll get more ideas, some of them as proto-scenes. That’s when I start a Scrivener file–so I can make scene cards for these proto-scenes. I’m starting my outline now, so I’m going to start thinking about what the characters expect will happen, and how those expectations get upended. I’ll think about essential scenes for the kind of story I’m telling, and for the kind of characters that are populating it. I usually wind up with about 15 of those kinds of scenes, and they start shaping themselves into the story I want to tell.

Then I wrack my brains working on major story points – what happens to make the character actively pursue the story goal? What happens in the middle that changes everything? What does the character have to lose, and how will I take it away from them at the darkest moment? What is the final confrontation where the character realizes what they have to sacrifice to get what they really want? What kind of life are they starting after their climactic triumph (or loss?)

This is the beginning of organizing, for me. This is where I stop and say, “okay, how long is this story? Whose story am I telling? How many POV characters have popped up? What are their personal arcs? What do they need to do? “What do they need to do” gets me started on sub-plots. I write these stories about incredibly busy people, who often can’t just drop everything and go on a quest – they have jobs to do, people who depend on them, a pursuit that can’t just be set aside.

So if I’m writing a story about an entomologist who is fighting to have a species of lycaenidae recognized as a unique discovery when suddenly her friend and mentor – a well known but controversial figure in insect migration dies is murdered, she’s not going to forget about her aim to have the credit for discovering Arcas tuneta jayalethi (she gets to name the insect, too) or having to return home to attend an important life milestone for her daughter just to go tramping after a murderer. So I will often make a character’s to-do list:

  1. Find the murderer of her colleague
  2. Defend the butterfly subspecies discovery
  3. Go home for her daughter’s debut/graduation/wedding
  4. Deal with her ex-spouse’s involvement in her professional field and their daughter’s life

(I’m going to say that from now on, I think four is a hard limit for a character’s plot-centered to-do list. I’m going to knock that down to two, maaaybe three if I have a story that has more than one character with POV and an arc. There is such a thing as too busy!)

These things create more scene cards in Scrivener. I’ll play with the whole board, arranging things in the order I think they happen, connecting scenes through cause, effect, and consequences, leaving gaps where I feel like I need them.

While I’m doing that, i’m still playing what if with my main characters, and that adds scene cards to the file as well. When I have around thirty or forty, i’ve got most of the story – so then I craft a solid scene-by-scene arc for the first quarter of the story, filling in more information in later scenes, but when I have the first quarter of the book, the middle scene sequence, the darkest moment of the story, the high-stakes, win-or-lose climax, and a glimpse of the character’s life Afterwards, I’m ready to start writing, and that’s a different process post for another day.

Writing advice nobody asked for, but anyway

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.

Scene Outlines, Explained in Great Detail

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:


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?


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.

What’s Your Next Book? The Brightest Timeline Knows.

(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.

How to Brainstorm Scene Location Details from a Panic-stopping Technique

(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?

A Visual Guide to a Reverse Outline

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.

What to do When You’re Done

Wall of text incoming; wear protective gear.

You’re finished your manuscript. You’ve put it away, and you’ve done extensive revisions. It’s ready. You’re pretty sure it’s ready for the hunt for an agent. What do you do now?

This is partly what I did, and also partly what I learned while in the querying process.

Step One – Make Sure.

Get three beta readers.

Look for people who don’t sugar coat the bitter truth, and who also point out what’s good. When you get them, tell them that it’s okay if they quit reading, but ask them to tell you where they quit reading if they lose interest in the book, and why, because that information is gold. Use a format that will allow them to comment on your work directly in the file, so a .doc or .docx file, or a set of files in a cloud document service like google docs.

Consider the feedback. Make a list of problems based on what the beta readers say, but take any suggestions to fix the problems with heavy consideration. Do ANOTHER revision and edit pass based on their feedback.

Step Two – Query and Synopsis

I am so sorry for this next part.

Write a synopsis of your work that fits on a single page of paper when written in Times New Roman 12 Point, single spaced. Getting this right will probably take you about 6 weeks if not longer. Something that might help you is to plug your book into the 9 Box Plot Outline Tool and then use those nine points as the skeleton of your synopsis.

Write the heart of your query letter, the “pitch,” which is about 100 to 250 words long, but the closer to 100 words, the better. This is possible, even with a complicated book. Query letters are some of the most difficult writing you will ever do. Expect getting your query letter to satisfactory after about 2 months of work.

This is a painful and frustrating process. It’s okay. Most everyone hates it. And I’m going to tell you something potentially painful: if you can’t manage to write a query letter with an intriguing, active character who is facing an interesting setting and its obstacles while pursuing a goal that has terrible and personal consequences for failure…it might be that you have to go back to the drawing board with your book.

I’ve seen a number of query letters where my feedback is, “This character seems passive. what actions do they take that ignite the story and start the forces of conflict to stop your protagonist?” or “These stakes seem a little flat. What are the external effects and the personal failure inherent in the consequences?” If these questions have disappointing answers, the problem is likely in the manuscript.)

Step Three – Agent Research

Okay, while you’re doing that, it’s also time look for an agent who will represent your work to the big five.

Get together a list of 50 – 100 agents who represent the genre and age category of the book you have written. Every single agent gets a ton of letters from people who don’t pay attention to guidelines, and they reject them outright. You don’t want this happening to you.

Look into their clients, and the sales they’ve made, and make sure they match up with your decisions about how you want to run your career. Some of the agents on your list will be established, and some will be new. Both choices are good, but they have different advantages.

Look not just at the agent, but the agency they’re with. Do they have someone who handles subsidiary rights like foreign language translations, audiobook rights, and tv/movies? Is that a direction you’d like to have a chance with for your book? Do they have a self-pub arm to help you go hybrid, if that’s part of what you want to do? There’s a lot to consider.

Look at the agent’s deals and who those deals are with. If you dream of being published by a certain publisher, you might want to look for evidence that the agent has a connection with that publisher – but no deals doesn’t necessarily mean no connection.

You can use a spreadsheet and DIY but I used querytracker. I paid for the premium service and I found it incredibly useful. When recording your list of potential agents, you want to list agents you’d like to query, be able to check their guidelines, whether you have a sub out, and what became of it. I did a list of 50 agents. Other people say that’s not enough. You get to decide how many you will try.

Step Four – Test Your Query

From that list of agents, find ten who are currently open to subs. Query them, obeying the instructions for how to query based on the research you did. (This may seem obvious to you, but I’m not kidding–about 10% of total queries follow the guidelines correctly. The rest are rejected outright. You’ll have an edge if you take care of the details.) Pick a variety of agents of varying levels of experience, and here’s why – you’re testing your query letter, synopsis, and pages.

Now wait for responses. Did you get a partial or full request from any of these agents? No? Revise your query, have a reader look at your first 5 pages. Don’t pick somebody nice. Pick someone who will tell you flat out what’s wrong. Whatever they tell you, look for those same problems in the entire manuscript, and revise. (I revised my manuscript during the querying process. it happens. it’s OK.)

Did you get a partial request? Great. Your query and your pages are probably good, but you might want to give it a polish, depending on what your rejections said. Query 3 – 5 agents a week. Did you get a full? Up your query rate a little. Did you get more than one request? You’re hot, my friend. Go for more, and be daring.

Step Five – Get to Work On Your Next Book

Somewhere in the midst of all this, start working on your next book. You need to do this. It’ll keep your mind off the bewildering process of querying agents, and you’ll have another book to talk to your prospective agent about when the time comes.

But write another book, and maybe think about writing it to a reasonable deadline, and consider it practice for when you’re writing a book because you have a contract and a deadline to go with it. Depending on genre, you might get a year to complete another manuscript. But you might get less – a lot of romance publishers work on a very tight schedule, for example.

The Second Book – Should it be a sequel to your first book?

This is controversial. I’m going to say it won’t hurt to do the planning for the sequel in detail, producing a solid outline so you have a head start on the sequel if they request it. (if you got multiple requests from the first test, and you’re the gambling type, you might want to take the chance and write it.)

But if you can, write a totally different book that is part of the career path you want. It doesn’t hurt to have a second book in your pocket for multiple contingencies… but be sure it’s in a genre that you can see yourself writing for the next ten years if that book hits.

Step Six – Camp Your Name on the Internet, and Wait

Secure your author name’s domain. You can do this fairly cheaply. I did it with WordPress, but there are other choices. Also camp your name on Patreon, if you haven’t already. If you’re doing promo and marketing online, secure your name on your social media platforms of choice. If you hear of a new one, get your name on it. Do it now, even if you’re not ready to do anything with them.

But now you’re querying, working on a new book, securing your social media. Have patience. Agents read potential client manuscripts when they get time. I waited months for responses. That might happen to you too.

Step Seven, Happy Ending Version – the Offer

You got an offer? OH GOOD! Now hit your spreadsheet and tell everyone who has a query that you have an offer of rep, and that you’re looking to give an answer in two weeks. Most of these agents will congratulate you and step aside, but some will quickly read your MS and decide to offer or not. You could have multiple offers of representation, but this doesn’t always happen.

Now you decide: who are you going to sign with? Ask for a copy of the agreement from every agency who offers rep. Check out their terms. Use this as a part of your decision on who to sign – not all agencies have the same agreements. Know what you’re agreeing to on paper.

Step Seven, Maybe Not so Happy – Time to Move On

Maybe you don’t get an offer of rep for this book. Gosh, this sucks. I am so sorry.

That’s why you’re working on your next book. Get back on that horse, friend. Many writers write multiple books before they get an offer of rep. Here’s the thing about people who get published – they didn’t give up.

Two Books without Music: My Persnickety Playlist Needs

There’s something really unusual about the creation process of both Witchmark and its sequel, Stormsong: they were mostly written in silence. I’m usually a playlist maker. I usually write to music, a habit that sparks debate among writers about whether sound or silence is the better environment.

Now with my fanfic, I was forever making soundtracks to go with them, music that characterized the setting, the characters, specific scenes. Some of them could play for hours without a single repeat. But I never really found the sounds that matched with Kingston, and I never took the time to really search out a list. Early Jazz Age music sort of fit, but I was always hoping for something more atmospheric. I never settled on anything, and so I wrote two books without music to go with them.

But right at the end of Stormsong, I realized that I needed music to help me set the tone of the final scenes (no spoilers.) and so I took a few days to try and find music that fit my criteria:

  • No vocalists singing lyrics I can understand.
  • Music that prompts and supports a certain mood appropriate for the setting.
  • A collection of songs that fit together seamlessly, or have a strong reason to change the tone
  • Music that fit this setting’s feeling of danger, disorientation, menace, and profound wonder.

Naturally, I started with movie score music and video game score music, orchestrally arranged. Tempo is generally around Andante, so not too fast or frantic. And it had to fit that dreamy, dangerous feeling I’m looking for to go with the imagery on my (top secret!) pinboard. (well. It’s not really top secret.)
I’ve barely gotten started, but here’s the spotify playlist. If you have any recommendations, give me a shoutout on twitter!