Category Archives: Writing

Inner Conflict in Series Fiction (and in life)

The worst part of reading a series, for me, is thoroughly enjoying the first book only to find that the subsequent books don’t hold my interest at all. It doesn’t happen every time—I’ve devoured many a series from the first book to the last—but it happens enough for me to have noticed a pattern. And now that I’m writing  a series, one that’s been planned that way from the beginning (the Internal Defense series was more of an accident, with a stand-alone novel turning into two books and then three, and each book was created with its own independent story arc), one of my priorities has been to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen with my own books. Not only do I not want to inflict that experience on readers, I also don’t want to slog through writing the later books in my series, because if I can’t get invested in what I’m writing, then what’s the point?

Over the years, I’ve figured out that the main sticking point for me in a series is the characters’ inner growth. Typically, in the first book they resolve the major issues that have been holding them back—and then it’s time for book two, and all those issues have already been resolved. Then either the series starts focusing solely on the external plot (which is fine and all, but inner conflict is a necessary ingredient for me), or it starts going off the rails and loses the central elements that got me interested in the first place.

But making inner growth happen in every book is easier said than done, especially when writing something longer than a trilogy. After all, if you want the first book in a series to stand alone, it makes sense to resolve their issues—the thing from the past that haunts them, the flaw that’s been holding them back—in book one. Even if you don’t care about wrapping all your threads up in the first book, it can get ridiculous trying to stretch one inner conflict over the source of several books. Eventually both the author and the reader want to tell the character to just get over it and put those demons to rest already.

But once the demons are laid to rest, once the main character has come to terms with their past or taken that leap of faith or done whatever they need to do to be healthy and whole, where do they go from there? After all, once you’ve worked out that central issue, gone through your personal hero’s journey and come out the other side, you’re all set, right? Your issues are resolved, and you can go on with your life in peace.

Except that’s not how it works. That’s never how it works.

There’s always a new journey, something else to resolve, some new direction in which to grow. However serene and comfortable the new place you found yourself in was, you’re never going to stay there forever. Eventually it just becomes the starting point for a new journey. Your demons meet you where you are—whether they’re new demons or the old ones in a new form—and you fight them again and move on. And on, and on.

And that’s how it works in a good series.

No matter how important that first conflict they resolve, it will never be the last conflict, or even the most important. It’s just the first step in a journey that will take them a lot further than one book or one victory. That’s true for both outer and inner conflict, or it should be. That’s not a special writing technique—that’s just making stories true to life.

A Job You Love Is Still a Job

“Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”

This platitude gets repeated over and over again. And as someone who turned my childhood dream into a career, I can tell you that there’s not a bit of truth to it.

When you do something as a hobby, you probably only do it when you feel like it. It’s what you do for fun, or to relax. I remember when I wrote purely for fun, before I was even thinking about publishing anything. I remember writing thirty pages in a day in a rush of pure inspiration, and waking up the next morning with an idea for a new story I loved even more. I remember dreaming up endless details for stories that never got put to paper, because the dreaming was the fun part.

When you start doing that same thing as a job, you do it every day, whether you want to or not. It doesn’t matter if you’re not feeling inspired. It doesn’t matter if there’s something else you’d rather do. Or maybe you really do want to write (or draw, or whatever else) but what you want is to work on that new idea that came to you overnight, not the overdue project that you’ve been stalled on for the past week. That doesn’t matter either. You have to write, or the book won’t get written.

It can be a difficult shift to adjust to, especially given the expectations around working a job you love (see the above platitude)—particularly creative work, and particularly if you’re self-employed. I’ve seen more than one person who turned a hobby into a career talk about how it ruined the thing they used to love. They say that’s why you should never try to make a living doing something you love, and should instead ruthlessly separate work and play. They end up quitting writing entirely, or art, or programming. For some, that’s the right decision. But for others, I suspect all they really need to hear is, “That’s normal. You didn’t ruin it, you just started doing it when you didn’t want to do it. Nothing is fun all the time when you do it on demand. That doesn’t mean it can’t still be fulfilling.”

Yes, writing is less fun for me now. I still have days when inspiration runs through my veins like lightning, and I can’t sleep because of all the ideas circling through my head. I also have days when my unfinished draft feels like a weight pressing me to the earth, and I don’t want to get out of bed because it will mean sitting down at the computer again and trying to wring words out of my brain for That Awful Book again. Most of the time it’s neither of those things. It’s just the thing I do every day. It’s a routine. It’s work.

But work isn’t a bad thing. Writing is less fun than it was when I only did it when I felt like it—but fun isn’t my number one goal in life. Everyone needs fun, including me. Sometimes I need a day off to just play video games all day and not think about the stupid book. But I’d feel better after a week of beating my head against a wall over a project that matters to me, and getting that much closer to sending it out into the world, than after a week of nothing but video games. I suspect most people would.

It’s not about fun. It’s about fulfillment. It’s about spending my life doing something that matters to me—and however I feel about the writing process on any given day, telling stories still matters just as deeply to me as it did when all my writing was for fun. Maybe more, because my years spent improving my craft have given me a deeper appreciation for what goes into a well-told story and what it can mean to a reader.

I didn’t ruin writing for myself. I don’t even want to go back to how it used to be. I finish my projects now instead of walking away when they’re not fun anymore; I do the unsexy work of revising and editing to make my stories into what I want them to be; and regular practice—however unwilling at times—has improved my skills enough to let me write a book that begins to approach how the idea looked in that initial burst of inspiration, instead of a pale reflection. I sit down at my desk every day and add something to the world that did not exist before. I have no regrets.

And I have friends who looked at what it took to be a professional writer and decided they only ever wanted to write as a hobby. As far as I know, they also have no regrets.

I’ve seen a lot of backlash lately against the idea of following one’s passion. I don’t agree with it. I think a lot of the people who turn their backs on their dreams to go for the smart choice are going to wake up thirty years from now and wonder why they didn’t even try. I believe in doing something with your life that matters to you, insofar as that’s possible, whether it’s how you make money or not. Which means, yes, I believe in chasing your dream and following your passion.

That is, I believe in following your passion as long as you know what you’re getting into.

Just don’t go into it thinking you’ll never work a day in your life. Work you love is still work—and that’s not a bad thing.

Summer Update

Now that 2015 is more than half over, just a quick update to let you know what I’ve been up to writing-wise:

With the Internal Defense series completed, I’ve been working on the start to my new YA series. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it on the blog before, but you may have seen me talking about it on social media from time to time. I can’t say much about it yet – talking about a writing project before I’ve finished it is the quickest way for me to kill the project – but this is what I wrote about it on the Infinite Ink blog last year:

The new series will be longer than Internal Defense (think Harry Potter), and its futuristic world will be very different from the scarily-familiar bureaucracy of Becca’s dystopia. But it will involve a lot of the same core themes – tough moral choices, survival in a grim and dangerous world, finding hope in hopeless situations, and a heroine learning her own kind of strength.

(Oh, and parents who kill people. That too.)

I’m intentionally going slow with this project – the Internal Defense series brought me to the edge of burnout, and I want to make sure I stay mentally fresh while throwing myself into a project as big as this one. But I’ve been working steadily on it, and although I can’t give details, I can confirm that it’s going well.

If you’re interested in learning more about the new project as I work on it, I post periodic updates on my Facebook page… or if you just want to find out when the first book is ready, join my mailing list to get a notification when it’s available for pre-order.

After the Fire

When I first heard about the short-story contest and anthology that the moderators of Holly Lisle’s writing community were putting together, I almost decided not to submit anything. The theme just didn’t speak to me. “The Adventure of Creation” – it sounded much too light and fluffy for me, like I should be writing about somebody frolicking with the Muse. I have nothing against light and fluffy, but I can’t write it to save my life. The last time I tried to write, I ended up with a short story about some poor girl who was barred from the afterlife and didn’t know why. I shudder to think what Muse-frolicking would have turned into.

But it kept niggling at my mind. So I thought about it in the background, and tried to find some way to make it work, even though I knew it probably wasn’t going to happen.

And then I remembered something. I couldn’t remember the exact quote, or who had said it, but it was something along the lines of, “An adventure is someone a safe distance away from you having a miserable time.”

That was more like it. Yes. Maybe I could do this.

So I started thinking about creation. What was the opposite of creation? Destruction, obviously. So… what made the two different?

The answer to that made me realize that, just as with “adventure,” “creation” wasn’t so light and fluffy after all.

It also got me my story.

And that story not only made it into the anthology, it was a semifinalist in Holly Lisle’s contest. 😀

“After the Fire” is available now as part of the anthology The Adventure of Creation. It’s neither light nor fluffy, and there is no frolicking to be found, but it does explain what creation means to me – and adventure too.

See the Beginning of The Torturer’s Daughter Through Raleigh Dalcourt’s Eyes

A quick link for you: If you want to get a peek inside Raleigh Dalcourt’s head, you can read a scene  I wrote from her perspective here. It’s from the first chapter of The Torturer’s Daughter, where you meet Raleigh for the first time and Becca confronts her about what happened to Heather’s parents. (Don’t worry, there’s no actual torture in this scene!)

Readers and Writers

I’ve noticed a strange animosity towards readers in writing communities lately. Writers complaining that readers are greedy mooches who just want free books, or sneaky mooches who wait for a book to go on sale before buying it. (As if we haven’t all waited for something we weren’t sure about paying full price for to go on sale at one point or another.) Grumbling about readers who don’t write reviews, or saying that readers have no taste and just want to read something that doesn’t make them think.

Even when there’s no animosity, there’s still a divide. Writers spend countless hours fruitlessly trying to figure out what readers want and how readers discover books. I see writers talking about how sites like Goodreads are useless because they’re places to talk about books you’ve read, not places for writers to promote their books. It’s common, it seems, to talk about readers as elusive prey, with writers the hunters trying to capture them.

It can be easy to slip into that kind of thinking. All writers want more readers, and once you start thinking about how to get more people to read your book, it’s easy to start seeing readers as maddeningly wily creatures to be hunted with your release schedules and your marketing plans.

It can be easy to forget that you’re a reader too.

But writers are, presumably, readers. At least I hope I can make that assumption. After all, if you don’t love books and reading, why write a book in the first place?

I’m sure there are a few writers out there who don’t love books, not even their own – who see their books simply as a vehicle for their entrepreneurship. I don’t want to read these writers’ books. I’m of the opinion that these writers should go write for a content site (that plague of the internet) and stop pushing their soulless novels on unsuspecting readers. But I doubt this type of writer is common. I think it’s more likely that the divide comes both from a misguided marketing mindset and from the idea some people seem to have that you can either be one or the other. if you’re a writer, you’re not a reader, because you’re a writer.

But that idea is wrong.

I’m a reader as much as I am a writer. Being a writer doesn’t make me less of a reader. I didn’t start loving books any less the day I started writing, or the day I started writing stuff that was actually good, or the day I published a novel. My writing would have suffered if I had. My writing is built on a foundation of reading, the way all writing should be.

So I won’t draw the line between readers and writers that so many people do. I won’t stop thinking of myself as a reader just because I’ve published a book. If I did, I would be denying the very thing that makes my writing possible.


Finding Hope in the Darkness

Love and hope and the better parts of human nature aren’t the first things people think of when they think of dystopia. But I believe they can be an important component of the genre – and, if done right, these things can come across more strongly in dystopian fiction than in lighter and happier stories. Today I’m over on Justine Graykin‘s blog talking about hope in the midst of darkness and what makes it so powerful. Come read the post and share your thoughts!

The Little Things

A couple of years ago, a friend mentioned to me that when he got married, changing his Facebook status almost made it feel more real than signing the official documents did.

I thought back to that last night, when I told Microsoft Word to start using curly quotes.

Several years ago now, when I was first starting to think about getting published, I was researching manuscript format and learned that if you’re going to be submitting manuscripts online, you need to turn off curly quotes in Word. Otherwise the formatting could go wonky on the agent/editor’s end. I dutifully told Word to stop using them, and I haven’t seen a curly quote in any of my manuscripts for years.

But I’m not submitting anywhere now. And the things I’ve read about ebook formatting say that you should make sure curly quotes are turned on, so that they appear in your final book.

So I turned them on. Because that’s what I’m doing now. I’m not trying to get published; I’m creating ebooks. It took about thirty seconds to change the setting… but it felt surprisingly momentous.

Sometimes it’s the little things that make something feel the most real.

Stop Protecting Your Main Characters

I think I’ve discovered my new pet peeve in fiction.

I’ve read two books in the past two weeks – different authors, different genres, one self-published and one traditionally published – that both bugged me in the same way. It wasn’t until the second book that I was able to put my finger on exactly what the problem was. In both books, the main character was reluctant to kill, and ended up in situations where killing was necessary… but were saved from having to make the choice because someone else stepped in and did the killing for them. This didn’t happen just once, either. Especially in one of the books, it became an ongoing theme.

I don’t have a problem with a character who finds it difficult to kill, or even completely refuses to do it. In general, I prefer it – although of course it depends on the character. But what I don’t like is a main character who doesn’t have to make any hard choices, because someone else does the dirty work for her.

It doesn’t have to involve killing, either. I read a book a few years back (said book was highly successful, and I actually liked it a lot except for this aspect) that centered around a moral dilemma – a dilemma that was then rendered meaningless by the book’s final pages. Suddenly, the choices all the characters had made no longer mattered. The characters no longer had to worry that they had chosen wrong, that their decisions would lead to consequences they couldn’t handle. And the book lost a lot of its power.

It makes things easier on the characters, certainly. It’s easier if, in the end, their choices turn out not to mean anything. It’s easier if they don’t have to make those choices at all, because someone steps in and does the hard thing for them. But that’s exactly why it robs the book of its power. Writers shouldn’t make things easier on their main characters. Writers should push their main characters to their limits, and then beyond. That’s what makes for a compelling story, one that sticks with you after it’s done. That’s what makes me get tangled up in a character’s life to the point where I don’t want to put the book down.

The dynamic I mentioned earlier can be done well. Another book I read in the same two-week timeframe is a good example of this. The main character didn’t want to kill. A secondary character had no problem with killing. This disparity in values caused problems, both internal and external, for the main character; it didn’t protect her. It increased the tension, and therefore the power of the story, rather than limiting it.

I want to see characters tested, pushed to their limits. I want to see them struggle, and fail, and succeed by the skin of their teeth. I want to see them make the hard choices. I don’t want to see someone else saving them from the consequences of their decisions, or saving them from having to decide at all.

Stop protecting your main characters. You’re only weakening your story.

Writers, do you find yourself tempted to protect your main characters? Readers, have you ever noticed this happening? Does it bother you like it bothers me, or do you have a different pet peeve?

Revision, Worldbuilding, and Staying True to the Story

There’s one primary rule I keep in mind when I’m not sure whether to include/delete/change something in a story. I imagine a reader complaining about whatever the story element is, and I think about what my initial reaction would be. Would I think, “Okay, that’s fair; people are always going to dislike something or other. But I stand by that story element; I’m glad it’s there”? (Or possibly, “Whaaat? How could someone so thoroughly misunderstand my book?”) Or would I want to tell this theoretical reader, “Yeah, I know, that really shouldn’t have been in the book. But I thought readers would expect it/my writing group thought it would be good/I was worried the book wouldn’t make sense without it”?

If it’s the former, I add it (or keep it in, depending). If it’s the latter, it goes. This is how I stay true to the story.

And I’m honest with myself. I know the difference between “This wouldn’t be true to the story” and “But I don’t want to do all that work!” The story has to come first – it has to come before laziness, and it has to come before the insecurity that might cause me to make changes that aren’t right.

Ever since I wrote the original version of The Torturer’s Daughter... no, ever since I first started writing in the world The Torturer’s Daughter is set in… I’ve struggled with the worldbuilding. I knew I wanted a dystopian society. I knew the type of dystopia I wanted – the feeling, the tone, the style of oppression. I knew I also wanted it to feel a lot like the real world. But I didn’t know the specifics. I didn’t know how the world had gotten that way, or what the government was like, or what their relationship to the rest of the world was.

I  answered some of those questions for that first story, but it just… never felt right, somehow. It never stuck. In The Torturer’s Daughter, both versions, I pretty much ignored the question entirely – mainly because I was so wrapped up in the story that I forgot about that part. When I did remember, I told myself I’d do it later. Until a couple of months ago, when I was reading through what was almost my final draft and realized, with a feeling of vague bewilderment, that I still hadn’t pinned down the answers to those larger questions about the world. How had I managed to get that far without something so crucial?

I came up with a few possible ideas. But when I tested them against that hypothetical reader’s criticism, the answer was always the same. None of them were true to the story.

I went deeper. Took a harder look at the story, at the world I wanted, at why none of my ideas fit. And what I realized was this: No matter what answers I came up with, they wouldn’t be true to the story. Answering those questions wouldn’t be true to the story.

The story isn’t written from the perspective of, “Such-and-such change happened, and it altered the world like so.” It isn’t written from the perspective of, “If such-and-such real-world trend continues into the future, these bad things will happen.” It’s written from the perspective of, “This is our world, but with a totalitarian overlay.” The more specificity I give the world, the more I define its relationship to our world and its identity separate from our world, the more it weakens the world’s central purpose. The more it becomes “The world after such-and-such happened” or “The world x years in the future,” the less it’s “Our world, but totalitarian.” That kind of specificity also brings the world into the foreground more (and gives it more of a sense of change), and thus creates the expectation that the story is about changing the world. It’s not. The story is about Becca and her changes, and so that’s where the focus should stay.

(That’s not to say I’m ignoring worldbuilding. I’ve made sure the world has internal consistency and abides by its own logic, and I’ve got plenty of specifics – on my head and on the page – about how, for example, Internal Defense works. Few things will pull me out of a story faster than a world that doesn’t make sense, and I’m not about to make the same mistake with mine. It’s the bigger things – the the history, the global context – that would be problematic. Glossing over the little things would actually be just as problematic, because I’m not going the stylized-and-allegorical route with this dystopia. I want the everyday-life aspects to feel as realistic as possible.)

This realization makes me nervous. Will it look lazy? Will people be unsatisfied? Dystopias are supposed to be set in exotic stylized worlds, and they’re supposed to be about fixing those worlds, and some people even argue that a book can’t properly be called dystopian unless it’s trying to get some sort of message across, and now here’s this dystopia that doesn’t do any of those things.

But the story comes first.

Incidentally, I intentionally didn’t tell my writing group about any of this when they started reading the story, because I wanted to get a sense of whether readers would find the way the world background was handled to be jarring. I waited for them to ask. And… they didn’t. As best I can remember, I haven’t gotten a single comment saying the book needs more information about the world.

I think that’s a good sign.