General, Personal

Student Q&A

Back in November, I had the great joy of getting to “visit” (via video chat) a creative writing class at Clover Hill High School in Chesterfield County, VA — just south of where I grew up and currently live! They were participating in NaNoWriMo, and their teacher asked if I’d come speak as someone who had done Nano for a lot of years and was now living the writerly life. I was delighted to oblige.

Their questions were fantastic and thoughtful, and I really enjoyed chatting with them! With their teacher’s permission, I wanted to share some of those astute questions and my answers more publicly:

Did you start writing for fun or was this something you always wanted?

I’ve always been a storyteller, but when I was 11, I decided I wanted to be a novelist. Since then, there’s really been no stopping me. I don’t see writing for fun and writing professionally as mutually exclusive, though! I love the things I write professionally, but I also still write occasional fanfiction purely for my own pleasure.

Was there a particular teacher or friend or another person you knew personally that influenced you to become a writer?

I had several teachers who did a lot to boost my confidence. Bear O’Bryan, to whom From Unseen Fire is dedicated, was my creative writing teacher in high school. He was the first one to tell me that I could really, really do this. Actually, what he said was, “We’ll be studying you someday,” which I think is over-optimistic when it comes to literature classes’ general engagement with fantasy books, but! it was incredibly affirming to hear.

Do your parents support your writing? And if so, does that make things easier or harder on you?

This is an incredibly astute question from someone whom I am guessing has parents a lot like mine! Yes, my parents are incredibly supportive. They are my biggest fans and loudest cheerleaders. I am so, so grateful that for 24 years, they have believed in me and in my ability to do this. But it can be a weird sort of stressful, too! They love me so much that they can’t always understand why the rest of the world hasn’t caught on. I have to temper their expectations sometimes, which is hard when I also want to make them proud!

How do you get over writer’s block?

First, by not believing in it.

It’s like the Fae. If you name it, you give it power. If I’m having trouble focusing on writing, it usually means one of two things is going on: there’s something wrong with the story or there’s something wrong with me. If there’s something wrong with me — if I’m having a high anxiety day or a depressive fit, or if there’s something external with family or friends or work putting pressure on me, then I need to give myself room for that. Some days, the juice is just plain not there, and I can’t force it. If there’s something wrong with the story, then I need to figure out what that is. What pieces aren’t fitting together? What character is being railroaded into an action that isn’t right for them? Where am I going through contortions trying to justify a plot element?

So the better question is: How do I generate new words when I’m struggling and it isn’t a moment when I need to grant myself grace? When I need to buckle down but am having trouble doing so? There are a few things I try:

  • Change the scene: Sometimes I just need to jump to a new place in the narrative in order to reinvigorate my attention span.
  • Change the POV: Sometimes I’m trying to write a scene from the wrong character’s perspective — or I might have put them into a situation that’s wrong for them, an action that goes against the grain of their character.
  • Sprinting: This works particularly well during NaNo seasons, when there are word sprints on Twitter, but I can force myself to do it on my own using a good timing app.

How do you generate new ideas for writing?

Too few ideas has never been my problem. Too many is. I have to figure out what ideas are workable. That’s where the heavy lifting of being a writer comes in.

Where do I find inspiration? History and art. History is full of so many interesting stories, but what I really love is social history, how people have lived their lives throughout time. Art reflects that through a lot of lenses, cultural and aesthetic and political. I love looking at paintings and statues to see how artists represent themselves and the past, figuring out whether they’re presenting something realistic or idealized.

Unconscious Rivals, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1898

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Yes.

How much do you write in a day?

Utterly depends on the day and the kind of work I’m doing. During NaNoWriMo, the goal is 1667, and I usually do a pretty good job with that. Some days, I can go way past that, when I get into a really good flow. Other times, I might struggle to hit 200 in a day.

Editing is a different kind of work where the word count isn’t what’s important. I might be restructuring scenes, I might be condensing bloated scenes or plotlines, I might be staring at the screen trying to figure out what mystical ingredient I’m still missing that makes this perfect. That’s all work, too.

It’s important to remember, too, that “more words” does not always equal “better words”. A 2500 word day is not superior to a 200 word day if those 2500 words are self-indulgent padding or a pointless digression that I’ll end up cutting later on. The challenge is always finding the right words. I track my progress each day for the sake of accountability, to make sure I’m at my desk and focusing, but that can’t be the only measure I validate myself by.

Do you ever feel tired of writing?

I don’t think “tired of” is the right phrasing. I get frustrated with it, when I can’t figure out the solution to a plot problem. I get aggravated when the pieces aren’t coming together as well or as quickly as I’d like. And there’s a lot in the publishing realm that’s mentally and emotionally challenging in a whole different way, separate from the writing work itself.

There are times when I’m simply not in the right headspace to write. I have to acknowledge that and give myself room for it. When anxiety and depression are eating me, or when I have 80 papers to grade in a short span of time, or when, for instance, armed maniacs storm the Capitol and try to dismantle our republic, I have to give myself permission to have “off” days!

What’s the process for publishing a book and what’s necessary in order to get it ready for publication?

So, a caveat: This will look different for everyone. No one’s path is exactly the same as anyone else’s. I’ll also be talking about traditional publishing, which is different from the process for a hybrid author or a self-publishing author.

  • Write the book. Edit it. Get some beta readers — people who will read the book carefully and give you thoughtful commentary on it. (There are helpful guides online if you’re not sure what to ask them!) Edit it some more based on their feedback.
  • Query an agent. There’s a lot of advice out there on how to do this; broadly you want to make sure you’re choosing agents who are right for you and your book (ie, don’t query someone who doesn’t represent your genre) and you want to follow whatever guidelines are on their website. They may request either a partial or a full manuscript if they want to see more.
  • If you get signed, they may or may not take the book out “on sub” immediately. “On sub” means that your agent is submitting your book to editors at publishing houses. My agent, Connor, is an editorial agent; we did months’ worth of edits on From Unseen Fire before he took it out — and then we did some more when the first round of submissions didn’t land us a deal.
  • When an editor likes your book, they may still have to justify that to a board for approval. If the board says no, there’s still no deal. This happened to me; it happens to lots of authors. I mention it because it’s a part of the process that not many people talk about publicly, but it can be so nerve-wracking to wait for that news. I wish there were more resources preparing authors for being on sub the way there are so many resources for querying.
  • When an editor makes an offer, your agent will negotiate the contract. Connor got me a 3-book deal off of one manuscript and managed to hold onto audio and other rights so that we could sell those separately.
  • Then the editor has at it. You’ll generally have several rounds of editing, starting with developmental edits, which covers the big structural stuff — plotlines, character arcs, pacing, etc. There may be a lot or a little to work on there! From Unseen Fire still needed heavy lifting when it got acquired; Give Way to Night was already tighter by the time my editor saw it. Then, line edits, which addresses your word choice, sentence flow, the detailed stuff. Copy edits check for errors and consistency. Then, finally, proofreading makes sure the print copy is going to look exactly the way you want it to! (In theory; the occasional typo will still get through even if many eyes have been on it!)
  • Somewhere in there, you start talking about cover art, jacket copy, getting blurbs, and it’s all quite terrifying, because that’s when it starts to hit you that this is real and really happening and actual people are going to read it.

How long did it take you to write From Unseen Fire? How about Give Way to Night?

The drafting of FUF began in November 2011 (it was a Nano project!), and I finished it in June of the following year. Not every month was a heavy writing month — I feel like March and April I really slacked off because they were such busy months where I was working then. And then it took the rest of that year to edit into a shape that was ready for querying. Edits happened with both Connor and the DAW team, so it was almost six and a half years from initial drafting to on-the-shelf.

GWtN took longer to draft, even though the overall process was shorter. Some of that material was stuff that had been excised from FUF, so you’d think I’d have a head start — but so much of FUF changed during various rounds of editing that not much was useable as-is. I had to do a lot of alteration of that material to make it fit the new arcs. Then, I was also trying to write it during what was a very difficult year for me personally — and as a result, it took a long time to write what was not a very good book on the first try. The revision took about another six months, and that was much better, much stronger. I learned a lot through that whole process, with the result that I think Give Way to Night is an even better book than From Unseen Fire.

What’s the difference between writing the first book and then the second one?

Expectations. The first book, I wrote with a lot of hope, but with no one’s voice in my head but me. The second book, suddenly there are all these other voices. I was trying to make so many people happy — not just me, not even just my editor, but everyone who had read From Unseen Fire. I wanted to improve the things they thought were weak and give them more of what they thought were strong.

The problem, of course, is that not all readers agreed! I got really self-conscious about the things that readers criticized, but it was almost harder when there was, say, a character that some readers loved and others thought was pointless and boring. What do I do with that??The answer: Ignore it.

This is part of what took Give Way to Night so long to draft on the first go. I hadn’t yet learned how to tune out all that extra noise. I had to recommit myself to telling the story I wanted to tell.

I also learned my lesson about reading reviews. I don’t do it anymore. I have someone I trust look at them for me occasionally and send me the best comments.

Is it scary putting writing out there in the world and waiting for people to respond to it?

Yes. Horrifying. That in-between place when it’s done and dusted but no one’s read it yet is an absolute nightmare, because at that point, it’s out of my control. All I can do is hope I wrote a strong book.

Worldbuilding is a really big task and can be as detailed as an author wants. Where do you typically start when building a world (setting, character, theme, etc.)?

I tend to begin with an aesthetic. I have a sense of what the world looks like. That’s typically influenced by history. For the Aven Cycle, it’s late Republic Rome. For other projects I currently have on the back burner, it’s late-medieval Byzantium and early modern London. Then I start putting together characters to move around inside that world. I may still be designing the world at the same time! But I sort of build the dollhouse and the dolls simultaneously. One informs the other so much that it’s difficult to pull apart.

Cast of Henry V, American Shakespeare Center, 2015/2016; Photo by Tommy Thompson

Is it difficult to keep track of character development from one novel to another?

No. Not for me, at least. Other authors’ mileage may certainly vary. I know who my characters are. If I have one particular strength as a writer, I think that’s it. So I have a strong sense of who they are at any given point in time, how they respond to pressure points, how they developed as they grew older, what they’ll grow into in the future, all of that. I can manipulate the world around them and easily see how they’ll react.

Now — Keeping track of eye color, ages, things like that, yes, that can be rough, especially for the tertiary and functionary characters that I spend less time with. I have spreadsheets for that and I still screw it up.

How do you write about characters or worlds that you haven’t experienced yourself?

A lot of research. Never-ending research, really, because it’s not just research about one historical period or place; it’s research about people and how we live. I try to expose myself to new ideas and to stories outside of my own life experience, so that I get a broader view of what moves and shakes people. I read a lot, fiction and nonfiction. I listen to a lot of podcasts. I never want to stop learning.


Thanks again to the students of Clover Hill for such wonderful questions! I hope my answers were in some way helpful.


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General, Personal

Hustle and Bustle, and the Dangers Therein

Long post is long. You have been warned.

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across a Tumblr thread that made me incandescent with rage; I remain tweaked enough about it to make this worth posting. If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen my initial rant on the topic. It involved a new trend among fanfiction writers to charge commissions for writing fic.

I went down a rabbit hole. I shouldn’t have, because all it did was make me livid. Some of the arguments were so staggeringly entitled. Just breathtaking.

Y-Yes? Fanfiction should remain free. It has to.

It’s wild to me that one type of entitlement seems to be responding to another. If people are really bitching and moaning because they can’t find fics specifically catered to them — Well, they’ve misunderstood what’s going on. Fanfiction is such a gorgeous thing precisely because it’s born out of a writer’s relationship with the original work. You as a reader don’t get to demand that their relationship be what you want it to be. You go looking for what’s there and hopefully find something to delight you. You are accepting gifts that the writers have put out there for anyone who wants to enjoy them.

Now, there have always been fic exchanges and such where requests may be filled, but that’s still happening in the spirit of sharing mutually in excitement over the source material. Outside of that, if you can’t find exactly the fic that tickles your fancy, the answer has always been: Write it yourself!

The solution is not to decide people should accept commissions for derivative work!

I feel like these are the same people who defend piracy with the “all knowledge should be free, I’m just sticking it to The Man” arguments — which are equally ill-informed, ignorant, and just a cover for selfishness. (I’m restraining the impulse to delve into that tangent for the moment, but just know, given the current shape of how writers are compensated and in lieu of a currency-free society a la Star Trek, there is absolutely no ethical justification for book piracy). Apart from the illegality, your actions are not going to hurt the people you think you’re hurting. Accepting commissions for fanfic jeopardizes sites like AO3 and undermines the entire foundation that allows fanfic to exist for public consumption in the first place.

And then there’s nonsense like this:

Sugarplum, d’you know why we don’t have a platform like that? Why we cannot, should not, must not have a platform like that?

It violates Fair Use.

Fair Use is the legal defense against accusations of copyright infringement that protects, among other things, satire and educational use of materials. Whether or not it applies to fanfiction is, honestly, murky at best. To my knowledge, no statute has yet added fanfiction to the list of things explicitly protected by Fair Use. It’s just the best defense we currently have.

Here’s what the Organization for Transformative Works, the company that runs AO3, has to say about it:

What exactly is fair use?

Fair use is the right to make some use of copyrighted material without getting permission or paying. It is a basic limit on copyright law that protects free expression. “Fair use” is an American phrase, although all copyright laws have some limits that keep copyright from being private censorship.

Fair use favors uses that (1) are noncommercial and not sold for a profit; (2) are transformative, adding new meaning and messages to the original; (3) are limited, not copying the entirety of the original; and (4) do not substitute for the original work.

It’s worth noting that I’m largely talking about US law here, though I believe the UK has similar statutes and understanding of derivative works. Fanlore has a lot more in-depth information, but at the base of it all is this: the current Fair Use defense depends upon not profiting from the derivative work.

Case law has seen mixed results, and when the authors of derivative works have prevailed, that has usually hinged on the critical or parodic nature of the derivative work. While the OTW argues that fanfiction is sufficiently transformative by nature, providing a commentary on the original works, that has by no means been settled into law. Copyright holders and publishing houses simply have not chosen, in most cases, to press the point. But if you start profiting off of your derivative works? If that becomes a common trend? If you have the utter gall to try and build a website based on that concept? You will be baiting them to come after you — or decide to use your infringement as a reason to screw over a content creator.

Here is my authorial understanding of the issue with copyright law and fanfiction (with the caveat that I am not a lawyer): The reason many authors still won’t take a public stance condoning fanfiction and why almost no author will read fanfiction of their own works? Is because of the legal jeopardy it can put them in. If an author is considered to have abandoned their copyright, their intellectual property can be redistributed. Not defending against infringements — like fanfiction that violates Fair Use! — can be grounds for being considered to have abandoned copyright.

It is not impossible to imagine a situation where an author, “failing” to defend against copyright infringement perpetuated by someone taking commissions for fic based on their work, has their IP taken off of them and handed to another writer. Now imagine a publishing house doing that to an author who is a member of a marginalized community and handing their characters and ideas off to a more popular author (who is likely not of that marginalized community). It’s not impossible. It might not even be improbable. A lot of publishing “wisdom” already purports that there’s more value to be found in piling all your eggs into a basket of proven ROI. You see it in how it’s the already-successful authors who receive the largest advances and the heftiest marketing budgets. Fanfic commissions, like piracy, could directly jeopardize the original content creators — but they’re not going to hurt The Man a bit. If anything, they just hand the Powers That Be more tools they can use to control who gets to produce what kinds of content.

“But Cass?” some people may be thinking. “You’re a professional writer. Surely you agree that writers deserve to be paid for their work?”

Well. Yes. They deserve to be paid for their work. Derivative works are not the same. And I say this as someone who’s written derivative works for a very, very long time. Longer than these commission-hungry ficcers have been alive. I know the difference between work I do as a hobby and work I do as a job — The same way that if you cook a meal for your family and friends, you don’t expect to be paid for it, but if a caterer prepares that meal, you’d damn well better pay them. Now, maybe your friends and family reward you in some other fashion — cooking for you at another time, bringing wine, bringing dessert, etc — but that’s not payment. You’re not doing it to get paid; you’re doing it to share joy.

Fanfiction is supposed to be an act of joy.

I mean, it might be rage-joy, as you reclaim what you believe the source material has irredeemably destroyed. As I’ve said before, sometimes fanfic is a love letter to canon, sometimes it’s a strongly worded letter of correction, and sometimes it’s 95 theses on what canon did wrong nailed to a door. But it has always been something done for the sake of doing it, born of attachment to the original material. It is, inherently, a leisure activity. If you view it as an income source, you have fundamentally misunderstood what it is. I mean, apart from the fact that you’re breaking copyright law, you have just absolutely missed the point of fanfiction.

“But some fanfic writers work really hard!”

Yes. I certainly did. Would you like to know how much research I did on pre-Norman England and Scotland in order to write historically accurate Hogwarts Founders fic? It was way more than JKR ever did into that period, I can tell you that. (She seems to think the 11th and 15th centuries were indistinguishable, to say nothing of metalworking and gem-cutting techniques that wouldn’t evolve for centuries but I digress). Or would you like to know how many schematics of Federation and Klingon starships I have saved to my hard drive? The extensive family trees I’ve drawn? The hours spent teaching myself details about the lead-up to the French Revolution that no teacher ever though essential enough to impart? The sheer total tonnage of trivia permanently lodged in my head about a galaxy far, far away?

Many hobbyists work very hard on their hobbies. They invest time and energy and money into their leisure activities. That doesn’t mean you’re entitled to be paid for that investment. You’ve chosen to do it.

I took fic writing very seriously. I still do! I don’t write a lot of fic these days, but when I do, I put as much of my heart into it as I do my original works. And back in the heyday of my fic-writing, on LJ, ohh, I took such pride in being known for what I did. It was within niche corners and small fandoms, but I won contests and cherished every comment and celebrated when my works appeared on rec lists. I sought recognition, even when the only tangible reward was a little graphic to post in my bio. I wanted people to acknowledge how hard I worked and, frankly, how good I was at it.

But I never, ever, ever sought to make a dime off of it. The very concept would have been absurd, and I knew full well that we all put those “not mine, just borrowing the characters!” disclaimers up precisely so there could be no doubt of that. (This is how I know I’d do well in a Star Trek style “prestige economy” as interpreted by Manu Saadia: I am very happy when striving to be acknowledged as the best at the thing I’ve chosen to do; I am unhappy that we live in a world where financial value is the only kind of acknowledgement society accepts as real).

Your hobby might be great training for a job. But it’s not a job. A hobby is leisure. That distinction is actually important, not only for your mental and emotional well-being, but as a way of pushing back against certain capitalistic pressures dominating our world. And that brings me to the thing I actually want to talk about. (Yes, all of that was just build-up).

Your hobbies do not need to be monetized.

When I had this rant on Twitter, a friend pointed out that the younger generation has been indoctrinated to believe that their hobbies only have worth if they are making money off of them. The pressure to “go viral”, the monetization of TikToks, affiliate marketing, IG influencers — It all sends the message that it’s not enough to enjoy something and share that joy. No, you have to make a Brand out of it. If you’re not getting paid, it’s not worth doing.

It honestly makes me so sad.

I mean, underneath the fury I’ve been wrangling since becoming aware of this whole commission debacle, I’m just heartbroken for all these people who are viewing fic as a commodity rather than a freely shared gift. It’s so cynical and so depressing and such a capitulation to the very worst aspects of how our society is constructed.

It ties into something else I’ve thought, which is that people who’ve been on the internet since, oh, 2007 or so had a fundamentally different experience than folk of my internet-generation. (I reference Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet for an explanation of internet-generations, which may overlap but are not synonymous with traditional societal generations). If you were on the internet in the late-90s and early-00s, especially if you are what we would now call Very Online, you sort of had to build your own experience. I started teaching myself html to build my AOL Hometown page and really refined those skills on LiveJournal. I learned how to link to an image and how to turn an image into a link. I learned about hex codes so that I could find just the right shade for my background.

That’s not the way it is now. Everything is pre-packaged for you. There’s no customization in Facebook or Twitter besides being able to upload a header banner (the dimensions of which you cannot control, and which will change without notice several times a year). In some ways, yes, that’s easier; it’s nice that most blogging sites now automatically include white space around an image without my having to set the h-space and v-space for them. But at the same time, I hate having sacrificed customization for convenience. It’s so frustrating to want to change something and not have these options available to me, because the Powers That Be have decided, nope, these margins are correct, this much white space is correct, this color palate is correct. Corporations have control of our online experience. And that feels inextricable from the urge people now feel to monetize what they do on the internet.

We have confused hobbies with jobs. We have forgotten what hobbies are. We have forgotten leisure. The pressure to always be productive and performative has reached absolutely ludicrous force.

And the thing is, I am not innocent of falling into this mindset. I am deeply uncomfortable on days I feel like I’ve “done nothing”. I post to my Patreon three times a week, and I’m constantly trying to entice new members to join up. It’s part of my hustle. But I do try to maintain some barriers between my hobbies and what I do for cash. Someone once suggested that I sell my embroidery on Etsy, and I had to gently push back: No. Embroidery is something I do for myself, for the sheer pleasure of it, and something I give as a gift to people I love. I do not want that to become something I have to fret over because it’s not giving me good enough ROI.

I feel there’s another larger issue here, too, which is the loss of art for the sake of art. And leisure for the sake of leisure. I’m not enough of a theorist to go too deeply into that, but I suspect others have said clever things about it. It fits hand-in-glove with the increased corporatization of our world. Algorithms drive everything. Movies plots are influenced by focus groups. Everything is a Brand. And I do not believe that encourages the proliferation of good art. It makes art safe, predictable, palatable. Boring. It discourages invention and innovation.

Fanfiction has long been a push back against that corporatization. It’s a reclaiming of storytelling for and by the public. Fanfic commissions are playing into capitalism’s hands.

So that ties back to what I was saying before, about how, yes, you might work very hard on this hobby. But you should be doing it for the sake of the final product, for the pride you can take in that work, for the pleasure of sharing it with others. Not because you expect to get paid.

I don’t want to discourage fanfiction. That is the last thing in the world I want to do. I owe my career to my experience writing fanfic, and it would make me the happiest person on the planet to discover someone had decided to write Aven Cycle fanfic, even though I could never read it. But if I discovered someone was profiting off of that fanfic, I’d be furious — not least because it would be so galling, considering the various legal and financial eccentricities of how authors are currently rewarded for their efforts. Someone else making money off of my stories could very well impair my own compensation, and nothing in the world will convince me that would be fair.

What I want people to remember is the spirit fanfiction is supposed to come from — not the hustle, not the monetization of the internet, but the attachment to the original material. Fanfiction is supposed to be something you do for you, before anyone else! And that is liberating! You can do whatever you want! No one’s going to come tell you that you have to change something, tighten the pacing, get rid of that character, take out that scene, add a conversation about this topic. You are beholden to no one but yourself and your own pleasure — and how often is that true, in our modern world? Own that.

If you want to make money off of writing, I support you in that as well. Going from fanfic to pro is an increasingly common track in publishing! I’ve been on multiple convention panels about it. But you have to do it with your own characters and concepts, or with those already in the public domain. It’s a different sort of endeavor than writing fanfic — because it is work, it is a job, not a hobby. Writing professionally means doing a lot of the large and small hard things that you don’t have to worry about as a ficcer — and then you get compensated for that work. Now, the issues related to that compensation in current structures are many, but they are entirely separate from the issue of fanfiction.

And, of course, there are other options if you want to be paid to write — journalism, for instance, which is another place many well-established authors have started. I want more people to be able to make a living off of writing, I want opportunities to be open to more people and to people from more backgrounds than most traditional avenues currently support — but that does not mean opening avenues to profit off of fanfic.

tl;dr? Don’t flipping try to make money off fanfic. You’re breaking the law and missing the point.

Bits of Fun, Images and Artwork

Word Cloud: Give Way to Night

Now that I’ve handed in copy edits, Give Way to Night is… pretty much done and dusted! The only thing left will be page proofs, and really all I can change there will be minor typos. This is, as you might imagine, simultaneously extremely gratifying and sort of terrifying. Letting go of a book can be a hard step for an author, because it requires a lot of faith in oneself. For a book I’ve been wrangling with as long as this one (thanks, Curse of Book Two), it’s especially difficult. But I have to remember: I have written the book I wanted to write. That has to be enough. Time to let it go and focus on the next one.

It being done, though, means it’s time for a new word cloud! I don’t think it’s wildly dissimilar from the last version, but there might be a few minor variations in which words are more prominent.

download

Have any thoughts on this word cloud? Anything about it make you excited? Or scared? ;D Let me know!

General

Hearing Voices (In a Good Way)

This article from The Guardian crossed my eyes the other day: A survey of authors reported that 63% said they could “hear” their characters talking, and 61% felt their characters had their own agency (although what, precisely, that means has a lot of variance).

“I hear them in my mind. They have distinct voice patterns and tones, and I can make them carry on conversations with each other in which I can always tell who is ‘talking’,” said one anonymous writer. “They sometimes tell me that what I have in mind for them isn’t right – that they would never behave or speak that way. I don’t usually answer back,” said another.

It links to something I read a few months ago that fascinated me — the idea that some people have no inner voice. No internal monologue? No ability to narrate everything you do? I literally can’t imagine it. My brain often has more than one audio channel running at the same time. I wonder if those people are better at meditation and yoga, because I’ve often thought the reason I’m so bad at them is because my brain is utterly incapable of being quiet. The internal monologue never ceases.

I am absolutely one of those who can hear my characters. Some have stronger voices than others — usually the characters who popped up without my having to craft them. If I’ve needed to build a character to fill a specific story need, the voice often isn’t quite as strong. But the ones who come naturally, those are the characters whose voices come through loud and clear.

In the Aven Cycle, it’s Aula who first occurs to me when I think about this. From the very beginning, her voice was so strong: I can hear its tone, its cadence, its tics and quirks. I almost never have to wonder about the words I write for her; the dialogue flows entirely naturally. Latona takes a little more finesse — not least because she is more likely to weigh her words and decide what she can or can’t say based on who she’s talking to, whereas Aula has fewer filters. Alhena, though, shy and reticent, has even more. I can also “see” most characters, as the article mentions — how they move, what their gestures are, how they interact with the environment. I’ve wondered how much of this is due to theatrical experience. I’m always thinking of what the “stage business” would be. All of these things add up to more than the sum of their parts: they help inform a reader about who the character is, what’s important to them, how they process the world.

I don’t experience what some of the authors in the article say, though, in terms of a character “talking back”. They don’t address me. They aren’t aware they’re being written; they exist in their world, and it’s one I can manipulate. When something feels off and isn’t working, it’s because I haven’t fit the pieces together properly. I operate more like what Val McDermid describes:

“I do not think they act independently,” McDermid said. “They have the life I give them and no more. … I don’t think I’m possessed by the characters; I just think my subconscious is good at processing data.”

I love that idea, because it ties in to what the article says about how people interact with each other in real life: our brains are constantly trying to make predictions, and they update their predictions based on newly-input data, all the time. Some writers’ brains, it seems, do the same thing, just with the people we’ve invented. Our brains collate and process that data, and just like we can tell if a well-known friend or family member is behaving oddly, we can tell if something isn’t working for a character when we play out an imaginary scenario for them.

This is yet another place where fanfic can be, truly, such amazing training for a writer — because what we’re talking about, really, when we talk about a character having their own agency or “talking back” or “refusing” to do something — is the idea of being OOC: Out Of Character.

With fanfic, when you’re writing established characters, you’ve got existing data to rely on: the characters’ words and actions in canon. If you’re writing fanfic for a movie or TV series, you get the added bonus of the actor’s appearance, voice, and mannerisms. Your brain can process all of that data much like it would a real person. It makes it much simpler to test the dialogue and actions you write against “what they would really do”. There’s a sort of answer key you can check your work against. It operates on a lot of levels — choices they make, actions, love interests, all sorts of things. But in terms of “hearing a character’s voice”, specifically, canon provides a basis for dialogue (or internal monologues) in fanfic. If you write something that goes against the grain of established vocal patterns, it’s going to feel wrong.

(That wrongness can also be used within canon for comedic effect: One of my favorite things in the MCU is any time Loki impersonates someone, because you get this wonderful tangle of another actor pretending to be Tom Hiddleston pretending to be Loki pretending to be someone else. Or in Harry Potter, there was the great joy of watching Helena Bonham Carter play Emma Watson’s Hermione pretending to be Bellatrix. Body-swapping scenes like that present a challenge for both writer and actor, but when done well, they are so good — I suspect in large part because of the mental jungle gym they give our brains to exercise on. And oftentimes the real actor for the character will play out the scene in rehearsal for the other actor’s benefit, giving them something to check against in much the same way that canon gives fanfic that mark).

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Picking apart why dialogue feels OOC is great training for a writer, because that drills down into the nitty-gritty of how words work and why. What about these words is wrong? Is it about word choice — words that are either too complex or too simple for a character, or slang they would or wouldn’t use? Are you using too many filler words and verbal pauses (um, ah, look, well, etc), or not enough, or the wrong type? Is it the cadence — are the thoughts too long or too short, do they rise and fall in the wrong places? Is it more emotionally-based — something a character wouldn’t admit out loud, or at least wouldn’t in these circumstances? Is it too blunt, or too circumspect? How about the tone — is it too snarky, too earnest, too casual, too formal? Would this character use profane language or minced oaths? Do they think before they speak, weighing their words carefully, or do they speak without a filter?

And then, if you’re the sort of writer inclined towards original work as well as fanfic, you can apply these lessons even when you don’t have a canon outside of your own brain to check against.

In From Unseen Fire, I remember a scene that changed from a conversation between Latona and Rubellia to one between Latona and Aula. The information conveyed was the same, but I had to tweak the dialogue in a big way, because Rubellia’s speech patterns are not the same as Aula’s. Because I’ve spent so much time thinking about how words work (and rhetoric plays a big role in this), I can break that general sense of wrongness down further into granular parts: Aula uses more parentheticals, more terms of address; her flow is both faster and choppier, while Rubellia’s is more evenly-paced, with longer thoughts; Aula exclaims, while Rubellia does not. I had a similar experience working on Give Way to Night, in a group scene that involves all three Vitelliae, Rubellia, and Vibia. The original version of the scene was missing Rubellia and Alhena; adding them in changed the balance of conversation. I had to think more critically about who would say what when, who conveyed which information, and what words they used to do so. Alhena offers information more timidly than the others in the room; Vibia doesn’t waste words by cushioning what she says with platitudes or endearments. Small details, but they’re what can really sell a character — and help a reader to understand them, without having to spell every aspect of their personality out in the narration.

How about you? Are you someone who hears voices when you’re writing or reading? Does your brain process interpersonal data that way?

Images and Artwork

Word Cloud — Aven Cycle Book Two, Revised

Word Art

I turned in a new draft of Aven Cycle Book Two to my editor last week! And, as is traditional, I made a word cloud for it. The five most-often-used words in this draft (apart from articles and pronouns and such) are: Latona, Sempronius, Vibia, magic, more.

I’m glad to have this draft turned in, and I’m eager to hear what my editor thinks. The changes in this draft feel solid. The sequence of events is better paced, and the ending is a lot more emotionally-driven. It still needs some work, to be sure, but it feels like now that work can be polishing and smoothing, not full-on chiseling.

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Jigsaw Puzzle Revisions

So for the past couple of months, I’ve been revising Book Two of the Aven Cycle. It’s been an interesting process, because while I’m not actually generating a ton of new content, it’s felt like that kind of heavy lifting.

Have you ever seen that thing where an artist puts together jigsaw puzzles that have the same die cut pattern, but different pictures? That’s sort of what it feels like I’ve been doing.

I needed to rearrange some major incidents in the Aven/Latona plotline. Her story’s pacing was all out of joint. Big chunks of story needed to be moved up a lot, and others needed to be sacked entirely. Sometimes, though, bits and pieces of a scene were not just still usable, but still desirable — an important emotional beat, or some necessary observation on the wider plot. Then, the trick becomes recontextualizing the old scene for the new pacing and character arc. How can I lift this conversation, or at least its main beats, and redress the setting? Do I need to adjust the dialogue for a different mood or sense of urgency? Practically, am I now referring to things that haven’t happened yet?
There’s a lot to keep track of.

I also have to do that without things falling too out-of-sync with the Iberian plotline, where Vitellius, Sempronius, and Rabirus all are. I think I’ve kept things fairly well-yoked, but as I approach the Big Moment in the Iberina plot, I’ve still got a lot of the Aven/Latona component left to get to. (I’m beginning to have a lot of sympathy for George R R Martin, trying to weave plotlines happening concurrently in so many different locations. Not coincidentally, the new project I’m percolating for consideration as this year’s NaNo will all take place inside a single city).

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The picture above is from my bullet journal, where I’ve been trying to stay on top of all of this. I listed out every scene in the earlier draft, by chapter, with the titles I used in Scrivener. Then I’ve been marking down when I migrate them wholesale (as I can do with most of the Iberian chapters), when I’ve migrated them with alterations, when I’ve struck them entirely, and where — as with so many — I’ve migrated only part of a scene, and what it’s now part of in the new draft. I’ve also made notes on some where I know I want to include a portion of a scene in the new draft, but haven’t found a place for it yet. Some of those may end up being jettisoned if there’s just not a place for them, but this way, I can tell at a glance what puzzle pieces are still hanging out on the table.

I’m wishing now I’d left a line in between each entry, though, because some scenes have been chopped up into three or four pieces, and it’s been hard to write small enough to note where all the pieces have gone!

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A Much-Delayed Update

I have been woefully neglectful of this blog over the past six months! Apologies. Call it a hibernation.

What have I been up to? Well, I finished a draft of Book Two of the Aven Cycle and sent it off for editorial input. Eventually there will be revisions — many, many revisions — but in the meantime, I’m working on other projects! I’ve revived my own interest in The Seventh Star, a secondworld fantasy I began work on back when From Unseen Fire was out on sub, and I’m hoping to make good progress there. I’ve also still got the Julie d’Aubigny-inspired space opera rattling around in my head, in search of a coherent plot, and I’ve had some ideas for a couple of projects that I’m not ready to let out into the world yet, even as nuggets. I feel like sometimes, talking about a new idea can bleed the energy right out of it, y’know? So there are two ideas that I’m keeping to myself for a while — one sci-fi, one fantasy — which may see some more devoted attention in the coming months.

PaperbackGiveaway.pngI’m also getting ready for the release of From Unseen Fire in paperback! I’m so excited about this, y’all. Hardcovers are shiny and impressive, but mass market paperbacks have always been my dear friends. You can see a video of me unboxing my author copies and talking a little bit about why I think mass markets are so great, especially for genre books, over on Facebook.

I’m also currently running two giveaways of those lovely little paperbacks! You can enter on Twitter and/or on Instagram. Already have a copy of From Unseen Fire? Enter anyway! Then you’ll have an extra copy you can give to a friend who hasn’t read it yet. 😉

You can also pre-order the paperback now from your favorite online retailer — Or, even better, heads into a bricks-and-mortar indie store to ask them to stock it for you!

I’m also looking forward to attending RavenCon in Williamsburg, VA from April 5th-7th. They’re still accepting registrations, so if you’re in the area, come see me! Here’s my schedule for the weekend, which you can also find on the Upcoming Events page:

  • Friday: 6 pm (Panel) Can’t You Just Google It? Research Techniques for Writers / Room L
  • Friday: 10 pm (Panel) Alt-History with a Fantastical Flair / Room 8
  • Saturday: 10 am (Panel) Clothes Make the Character / Room F
  • Saturday: 11:25 am – 11:50 am (Reading) Room 4
  • Saturday: 6 pm (Panel) Writing Ancient Cultures / Room F
  • Saturday: 7 pm (Panel) Female Friendship in SFF / Room 8
  • Sunday: 11 am (Panel) National Novel Writing Month / Room 8
  • Sunday: Noon (Panel) Spirituality and Religion in SFF / Room L

In other news: I’ve upgraded to a Business level site here, which means I have greater room to play around with the site’s appearance. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be updating the layout to something a little spiffier.

I’ll also be experimenting with hosting some Patreon material here rather than on the Patreon website. The WordPress platform offers a lot more flexibility in display and formatting, which would be useful. I’m still learning how the plugin works, though, so bear with me if there are any errant posts or mishaps in the meantime!

Okay, I think that’s about it for relevant updates. I promise to be a more dedicated blogger as we move into the sunny seasons.

Happy spring!


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Bits of Fun, General

False Starts

The theme this week over on the Deb Ball is “the manuscript in the drawer”, and I thought I’d expand a little bit upon what I wrote over there. I chatted about this on Twitter a while back, too. I have been, across my life, a prolific writer. Since the age of 11, when I decided I wanted to be a writer, I’ve started scores of projects. Honestly, it’s possibly hundreds — but that just sounds ludicrous, and lots of them were, like, single-page vague concepts anyway, so I usually just say scores.

The point is that From Unseen Fire is my first book on the shelves, but it’s so far from my first book that I hardly know where to begin. Here’s just a sampling of some of the things I’ve worked on in the past twenty-one years: 

  • Age 13, a cyberpunk novel written at the behest of my 8th grade English teacher. We were supposed to write 50 pages of something over the course of the whole year. I turned in a 300-page novel. I’m pretty sure my teacher was both proud of my dedication and a bit dismayed at having to grade that mess. As I recall, the plot consisted of lots of spying and subterfuge to save a futuristic empire from a maniac warlord, or something. My parents read it and were alarmed that I knew what a concubine was.
  • Phantom of the Opera from the POV of the corps de ballet, cowritten with a friend. It was filled with every cliche trope you could possibly imagine — torrid love affairs, heroines struck down with blindness and/or tuberculosis, the Opera House catching fire, main characters madly in love with our not-at-all-self-insert OCs… the whole shebang. We role-played a lot of it out, too.
  • Something I started around age 14 that would have been sort of like Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives — fantasy focused around a competition w/ rebellion knitted in. Hero’s journey with female lead, too. This is one I had completely forgotten about until I tripped over it while combing through old files. I feel like a lot of “I’ve started to read fantasy books yet am not finding myself in any of them because it’s all boys doing boy things, well, to heck with that” attitude fueled this one.
  • “Wings of Glory”, which was something with…bird people? I don’t even know. I wrote a few highly dramatic interpersonal scenes but had no greater plot.
  • “Fire”, a secondworld fantasy that actually held the seeds of what would become the magic system of the Aven Cycle. There was a princess who did a lot of questing. This one I actually finished, about age 16, I think?
  • Young CassSo. Much. Fanfic. Starting with a Star Wars series called “Days of the Alliance”, written and rewritten many times from ages 12-mid 20s, most recently with the characters as morally-grey Rebel SpecOps. My middle and high school friends got this distributed to them via inbox. I had learned a painful lesson about sharing anything to the Star Wars section of fanfiction.net, particularly if you had the nerve to be a girl writing these things, so I kept most of this closer to the chest — but I had the delightful experience of having friends begging me for updates!
    (Dear Disney: I’d still super love to write this for real; call me).
    Later on, through college, the fanfic was mostly Harry Potter based. I spent a lot of time exploring Bellatrix Black, Sirius Black, and Rowena Ravenclaw, in particular. The Blacks just fascinated me in a sort of Jungian “explore the dark mirror of your own nature” sort of way, while with Rowena and the other Founders, I was determined to write a more historically-appropriate version of the Founding of Hogwarts, since JK Rowling apparently can’t distinguish pre-Norman England from the 15th century. Then, post-grad-school, my attention turned towards Wizarding America, in concert with two of my besties, and we wrote a ton of material for a Tumblr Blog that was very successful right up until JK started trying to write America, which she does so poorly that it depressed us into giving up. (JK Rowling does. not. understand. this country).
  • A dystopia set in rural Virginia, also written and rewritten many times from about ages 16 on. In senior year of college, I re-envisioned it in my screenwriting class and ended up polishing it to the point where I felt willing to submit it to contests. It actually made it to the semi-finals of the Final Draft competition (a fairly large and well-known one) in 2011!
  • Map“Relics”, a rewrite of “Fire” in my early twenties that was somewhat better but still groaning under the weight of fantasy tropes. In this version, the questing princess had a bit more of a purpose: she had to go looking for the sacred relics that represented the eight magical elements of her world. (I told you it contained the seeds of the Aven Cycle’s magical system; I’ve been thinking about these things for a long time). This project was also a ridiculous worldbuilding timesuck. I’m pretty sure I charted the royal family tree back, like, eighteen generations. But, hey, if George R R Martin can get away with it…
    (Also, looking at that map helps me pinpoint roughly when my handwriting cemented into its adult form).
  • A Trojan War retelling from the viewpoint of (of course) the prophetess Cassandra.
  • Steampunk Camelot. Honestly this one never got much farther than that general idea. Might be fun to revisit as a sort of Celtopunk project instead?
  • A few false-starts at Regency romances. I figure I read enough of them, why not give writing them a try? Answer: I get too bogged down in the history.
  • An Aladdin retelling set in the pre-Islamic Sassanid empire. This one I’d love to pick up again at some point when I can do the grad school level research required.
  • A high tech Trojan War set in outer space, where Troy is a space station & its walls are impenetrable force fields. Also never got much further than concept.
  • A story of the Fae set in Williamsburg VA in the 1760s. Another one I’d like to revive. Maybe as a short story?
  • “The Antares Project”, a steampunk AU I’ve been dabbling with since ‘06. This is the one I blogged about for the Deb Ball this week. It has a great world (based on if the US lost the War of 1812) and fantastic cast that I adore and no plot. A lot of great scenes written. No coherent story. Sigh.
  • And then the two I’m *actually* working on now in addition to Book Two: the Julie d’Aubigny-inspired space opera romp, and a secondworld fantasy with star-based magic.

And that list is so partial, y’all. Just the major things that sprung to mind. If I combed my files and old notebooks, there are so, so many more kernels. There are probably a bunch I have literally no memory of. Because I keep it all — I seriously never delete anything, and I’ve never thrown out a writing notebook. They’re all there, waiting, in boxes that are currently in storage. On my computer, the files are are all neatly archived away. But they’re there. Some of them I may never look at again. Some may only get glanced at with fond remembrance for the child I once was. Some may have good bits I can cannibalize and reconfigure. Some may actually be worth reviving.CMd4-9AUYAEmhZP

I don’t feel that any of them were wasted effort.

Because the thing is this: If you want to be a writer, write.

Write things that don’t work. Write character profiles you never use. Write stories that don’t get past the first page. Write down hazy ides that come to you in dreams. Write ridiculous self-insert fanfic.

Yes, you do have to finish something eventually, if you want to publish, but all the false starts have value, too. It’s all training.

I’m so glad I’ve spent so much of my life playing with words.


If you’re interested in seeing bits and pieces of some of these false starts, join my Patreon! I share snippets of them from time to time — even the embarrassing juvenilia! 😉 

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Camp Nano: Writing with Anxiety

Originally written for the Camp Nanowrimo blog this month!


Chin up, PrincessThat meme, right there? That explains a lot about who I am. I’ve got what some people call “high-functioning” anxiety, the kind that makes you a constantly over-wound spring but determined not to let anyone know that you’re screaming internally. I am a Slytherin, driven to achieve and to do so publicly — because if other people don’t know about it, does it even count? And if I’m not doing my best, if I’m not meeting all my goals and checking everything off my list, aren’t I just a lazy failure? Aren’t I letting myself down, and thus letting down literally everyone I’ve ever met?

Well, of course not. But the demon in my head doesn’t know that.

If any of that is sounding familiar, my sympathies. I know how rough it is. Here are a few things I keep in mind to help manage the mental chaos:

#1: Block off time for things that are not writing. This is hard especially when you’re on a deadline or trying to meet a daily Nano goal, but it’s a crucial thing to learn. Anxiety and stress quite literally fray your nerves, neurologically speaking. Your brain needs breaks, but if you’re like me, it’s tough to give your brain that permission. Lately, I’ve been using my bullet journal’s habit tracker to make sure I do things like read for pleasure, tend to my spirituality, and not fall asleep with my phone clutched in my hand. Checking things off on the habit tracker feels like achievement, which assuages the sense of “but if you’re not constantly working, you’re an unproductive loser”. I’m trying to redefine my broken brain’s perception of what productivity is — sometimes it has to be those things which feed your soul and keep you sane. That’s not an indulgence. It’s keeping yourself in top working order by giving your nerves a chance to rest and heal.

#2: Celebrate the small victories. If anxiety is something that makes you super goal-oriented, learn to find some smaller benchmarks in addition to the biggies. Your end goal might be finishing your Nano project, getting published, hitting the bestseller list — but quite apart from the aspects of those things which are outside of your immediate control, those goals are also always going to be delayed gratification. That can make the day-to-day grind a frustrating endeavor. Give you brain a nice dopamine hit by finding things to celebrate more often: hitting a sprint goal, writing a smashing paragraph, learning a new word. Finding things to take pride and joy in on a more regular basis has really helped me to remember that the major goals do not have to eat my entire life or define my sense of self.

#3: If you need more help, get it. Whatever form that help takes — medications, therapy, changes to your life. I wish I had done so much, much earlier. Instead, I struggled for fifteen years, unable to figure out why every so often, my life just seemed to spiral apart beyond my ability to cope with circumstances. Finally seeing a psychiatrist and getting prescriptions to help with anxiety, depression, and insomnia helped immeasurably. They didn’t change who I am — but they dialed the trouble down to a level I could actually manage. That, in turn, made it much easier to actually write. Needing help does not make you weak. Seeking it out is not an indulgence. Accepting it will not dull your creativity.

This anxiety is always going to be a part of me, and in some ways, I’m okay with that. I like being driven to achieve. But I’m also really glad that I’m learning ways to keep it from counterproductively destroying my ability to function. It’s an ongoing process, to be sure! But then, so am I. And that’s just fine.

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Come Away: Some thoughts upon FROM UNSEEN FIRE’s release

Take my hand.

Trust me. I will not let you trip or lead you astray.

I know this path. I found it in the wilderness; I marked its stones and notched its trees.

Take my hand, and let me take you on a journey.

The road will wind and twist, and you may not be able to see around the curves. You may lose sight of the street we came from; you may not be sure what we walk towards. But take my hand, and look at the trees and the dappled sunlight. Hear the birdsong and the secrets whispered in the wind. Catch the scent of green life. Let your skin tingle. Step away from the world and out of yourself, or with yourself, or whatever you most need.

Take my hand, and take your time.

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This is how it feels, putting a book out into the world. From Unseen Fire hits shelves today, and I’m asking readers to go along with me, and I know what sort of a journey I’m asking of them. It’s not the simplest, smoothest path. It requires some investment, and it begs some faith. By some measures, it’s a lot to ask.

My favorite books have always been those which ask this of a reader. The ones that lead me off the garden path and into the deeper woods. Books to savor, books to live in, books that release both their secrets and their hold on the reader’s heart more slowly.

American Gods. Kushiel’s Dart. The Name of the Wind. In the Night Garden. A Game of Thrones. Sandman. The Bear and the Nightingale. Daughter of the Forest. Watership Down. The Lord of the Rings.

Books that take the reader on a journey. And now it’s my turn, to tempt you off the path and into the wilds, to duck beneath the hanging branches, to slip between the hedges, to beckon you along with me, to some unknown adventure.

Will you take my hand, and walk with me a while?

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