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Category: Writing

5 Things I Learned Writing My First Series

paperback promoThe entire Sekret series is now available in paperback! To celebrate, I’ve been posting teasers and cool new character artwork to social media, and I shared a Valentin short story with my newsletter subscribers, as well. Today I’d like to talk about my learning experience in writing my first series, and how I plan to use that experience moving forward.

1. Begin with the end in mind.

Whether you’re writing a duology or an eight-book epic saga, whether you’re a plotter or pantser, know where you’re going. The great and awful thing about story arcs is that they can subdivide, like cells. Find the arcs you need to carry you to the end, but don’t lose sight of where that endpoint is.

I had those final scenes of Skandal fixed firmly in my mind from the opening chapters of Sekret. Pretty much everything in the middle changed–hell, I’d plotted the thing as a three- or four-book series, then had to rush to tie everything up in two–but seeing that finish line on the horizon kept me moving ahead.

2. Second books are always way easier and way harder.

Oh, man, second books are so great. Your world is already established, you already know your characters and their issues, your readers are invested, and now you just get to dance around and have fun with them a second time!

OH MY GOD I HATE SECOND BOOKS SO MUCH. They have to be like the first book, but not too similar; they have to be dramatic, but in a different way; they have to up the stakes, but didn’t you spend countless rewrites on Book 1 trying to do just that??? how high can these stakes go???; and by around page 150 your beloved characters have rambled on about the SAME FREAKING ISSUES over and over that they’ve turned into worn-out Barbie dolls that you’re joylessly shuffling to and fro.

3. Authenticity isn’t enough–learn to apologize. Always aim to do better.

There’s a Romani slur in the first 100 pages of Sekret. I was trying to strike an authentic tone for someone who grew up in the era of Stalinist cleanses, but instead, I was just an asshole. I didn’t know better. Now I do. I’ve apologized for it before, but let me do so now, unequivocally: I’m deeply sorry for causing offense and perpetuating a harmful stereotype. When the rights to Sekret return to me, this will be the very first thing I remove. I will work harder and I will do better every time.

Five years ago, when I first wrote Sekret, I had all kinds of ideas about what constituted authenticity in historical fiction, and putting this book out in the world ended up tearing down every single one of those ideas. For instance: I provided a literal rather than figurative translation of a Russian insult in order to avoid dropping an F-bomb (and thereby meet my publisher’s desire to publish these books as 12-17 rather than 14+), which left some Russian readers rightly scratching their heads. I went on long diatribes about all the intricate detail of Soviet life and KGB hierarchy, and pretty much all of it got cut. You have to thread a delicate needle of good storytelling, authentic representation, but also a deep knowledge and understanding of the issues you’re addressing, whether intentionally or inadvertently, and it can be hard, but you must do it. Do the work, do the work, do the work. Writing in the Margins’ sensitivity reader database is an excellent resource, but it is NOT the first step in the process.

Also, that process? The one of gaining a deeper understanding of the world around you and being less of an asshole? It never ends. Keep working. Keep learning.

4. Series Bibles save lives.

I didn’t start a formal Series Bible document until I was halfway through drafting Skandal. I can’t imagine how much pain and torment I could have spared myself if I’d started it when I first sat down to draft Sekret. Series Bibles can contain any information you possibly might need to refer to later in your book–from character eye colors and middle names to setting details, food preferences, political views, favorite swear words, and much, much more. They’re an absolute requirement when working with a writing team, like I do with the crew from The Witch Who Came In From the Cold, but I would strongly, strongly encourage them for any project of any length. Don’t pull a Lindsay and have to reread 70 pages of your published novel (you know, the book you probably had to read 50 times from first draft to publication) just to track down someone’s dead brother’s name.

5. Farewell is not goodbye.

For a series that was supposed to be a “duology,” I’ve sure gotten a lot of mileage out my psychic Russian teens. A short story in the Fierce Reads 2015 anthology; a digital prequel novella set during WWII; a short story from Valentin’s POV. And I have so much more I want to say with them, too, even though–as I’ve stated before, and as I still believe–the arc of Yulia and Valentin is complete.

The publishing climate is always changing. Some stories end long before their time, but others get second chances, second lives. Some become shapeshifters and can transform into another medium or another experience. If you love your world, don’t be afraid to return to it from time to time. You never know what new possibilities await you around the bend.

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Game Theory, Plot Twists, and the Velocity of Media (Part 2)

Earlier, I talked about how game theory works, and hinted at the way writers might use it to inform how they design their plot twists. So today, let’s look a little further at how that all plays out!

Once upon a time, audiences were almost always playing the storytelling game at Level 0–which is to say, they had no idea they were participating in the game at all. They had no idea a big plot twist was coming their way. So they weren’t even knowing that they should expect any wild twist, much less ones about sleds named Rosebud or about Luke’s parentage.

But nowadays, we generally expect for something in the story to not be what it seems. We are aware that storytelling is a game, and at very least, we are all playing at Level 1. It can be as subtle as an ally actually being an adversary, or as juicy and gratifying as . . . well.

When a story presents itself straightforwardly and carries along to its natural conclusion, to modern consumers’ perceptions, it’s too flat. Too unsurprising. Most people are going to be playing at at least Level 1. That’s just the nature of media these days.

Hell, even certain twists have become so common as to be unsurprising. The farmboy was the Chosen One all along. The butler didn’t do it (except for when he actually did). The boat sinks. John dies at the end. The island was actually purgatory. (Uhhh. I think.) These are so common that they’ve become “tropes,” and once you’ve become a trope, you’re really a few dozen repetitions away from a cliche. If you want to really, truly surprise readers, you need to look for a twist or a surprise beyond the basic staples.

You need to play the storytelling game at Level 2.

Let’s say you’ve got your characters set up, and they need to pull off a heist, or some sort of mechanically complex heist-like scenario.

Level 0: They plan the heist. They execute the heist. Maybe some slight hiccups but more or less it goes as planned. Yawwwwnsville.

Level 1: They plan the heist. They execute the heist BUT all is not as it seems. The princess is in another castle! The boss’s right-hand lady was plotting to lock them in the vault! The sinister Count Moneytits is sitting in the vault, awaiting them all! &c.

Level 2: They plan the heist, at least partially off-camera from the audience. (NOTE: this is usually a big clue that things are going to work out as they planned it, I’ve noticed. If we hear the plan, that almost always means things won’t go to plan.) Suddenly, it looks like everything has gone off the rails. Oh, sweet bazooka, this looks really bad–BUT IT ACTUALLY ISN’T. IT WAS THE PLAN ALL ALONG.

Personally, I love Level 2 plot twists. They aren’t so outlandish as to be completely implausible and incomprehensible, but they also show that the creator cared enough about their audience to take the extra time and craft to come up with something really fresh. They didn’t latch onto the obvious twist, the first idea that popped into their head. They probably rejected a few potential setups (it was the sister all along, they thought he died but he actually didn’t) as too Level 1.

But you will still find critics of these twists. Frequent readers are very, very savvy, after all, and  they’ve seen so much media that even the Level 2 permutations become commonplace to them. They’re often going to be looking for a Level 2 twist.

So you might be tempted to play into their hands. To up the stakes even further and play the game at Level 3.

But that way lies nonsensicalness, poor foreshadowing, chaos, and consternation from everyone but this rarefied crowd:

It can work. It usually doesn’t.

My advice, then, is two-fold:

  1. Look for those Level 2 opportunities. Rather than reaching for the obvious twist, lay out something a little subtler and less crucial that will make readers feel rewarded whether they are surprised by the twist (didn’t see it coming) but also if they anticipate the twist (they picked up on foreshadowing and get to feel clever).
  2. Don’t make incorrect guesses about the twist the very crux of your story, unless that is really, truly what you want your book to be about. That’s okay if so! But the entire experience should be rewarding, both before the twist and after. The twist should generally, in my opinion, build toward a larger issue rather than serve as the large issue itself.

For example: In Sekret, an identity exposed gives Yulia some vital pieces of information in order to succeed in her goals. The mere fact of the exposure doesn’t solve anything or confound anything. It’s what the protagonist does with it that makes the difference. I expected a rough split between readers who anticipated it and who didn’t, because ultimately, what was important was what Yulia did with the twist that drove the plot. Hopefully whether people guessed it or not, they felt satisfied at the surprise or at the confirmation.

But I have a few more thoughts on tropes->cliches, plot twists, and straightforwardness in storytelling, particularly with what it means with regards toward understanding your audience and how they play the game–whether we’re talking about readers’ age or their relative storytelling savvy. And for that, we’ll need to discuss the velocity of media in Part 3.

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Game Theory, Plot Twists, and the Velocity of Media (Part 1)

I know, with a title like that, how could you NOT click? /sarcasm And yes, this will be a multi-parter.

Let’s talk about media consumption. Specifically, the fact that we are living in a veritable golden age of choice in media. No niche untapped. Whether you’re into shapeshifter billionaire bear porn, psychic teenage Russian spies, cute fluffy middle grade blackmail series, or anything else–there is probably a book there for you.

We are consuming more media than ever before. And it’s making readers so much savvier and so much more discriminating than ever before. For writers, this is a double-edged sword. You can tell whatever story you please, and, in theory at least, connect with those readers across the globe who are craving just the kind of story you’re telling.

However, this presents two challenges. The first is beyond the scope of this series, and that is: FINDING those readers. (I still suck at finding people for whom “psychic teenage Russian spies” lights up all the right dopamine chains. When I figure this one out, I’ll let you know.) The second is making your work matter to those who have found it: standing out for a readership who has, at an exponentially growing rate, BEEN THERE and DONE THAT and ALREADY READ LIKE SIXTY BOOKS WHEN THAT GENRE WAS ALL THE RAGE THREE YEARS AGO FFS.

(At least, most of them have. But more on that later.)

Writer, you are playing a game with your readers. It is a battle for their attention, their interest, their willing suspension of disbelief. And like any game, there are levels of competency that can completely change the game, even if they aren’t written into the rules. This is sometimes referred to as the “meta-game,” which is based on people’s understanding of how others play the same game they’re playing. But it’s more commonly known as game theory.

I am going to use a ridiculously weird example that gives insight into my ridiculously weird little mind-cage, but bear with me, here.

Game Theory: The Bladder Games

Say you’ve got to visit the restroom. You head into the restroom, maybe at school or work, somewhere that it’s not necessarily the cleanest but also not the grossest. You’re the only person there. All four stalls are available to you.

Game Level 0:
You pick a stall at random. Hope it’s clean!

But maybe you make the conscious decision to choose what you hope will be the cleanest stall. Now you are playing the game.

Game Level 1:
You choose the stall you think has probably seen the least use. Maybe Stall No. 4, furthest from the door. It seems logical, after all, that Stall No. 1, right next to the door, would be the most-used, because most people don’t want to expend the effort to walk all the way to the end. Look at you, being clever!

AHH, BUT WAIT. Maybe you are a veteran game-player. Perhaps you are a fan of Mythbusters, and you think to yourself–SELF! I have seen a Mythbusters episode in which they explored this very issue. They actually counted how many times a given stall was used throughout the course of the day, and they found that the stall closest to the door was actually the least-used stall. Further, they state that it is possible that this is the case because so many people play this game at Level 1 that Stall No. 1 actually becomes the least-used.

Game Level 2:
You anticipate the decisions made by people who are playing The Bladder Games at Level 1, and foil them with your dastardly foil of foiling. You use your meta-gaming knowledge confirmed by an outside source to deduce that actually, Stall No. 1 is the least-used. TRICKSY, TRICKSY.

But now . . . doubt seeps into your heart, and into the increasing levels of PSI exerted on your poor bladder. The spectre of poor choices hangs over you, and the dire consequences of a potentially icky stall await. You are entering dangerous levels of meta-gaming, where space becomes time and life becomes death. How many people saw that Mythbusters episode, you wonder? What was its TV market share? How many people remember? How many people, too, are playing at Level 2? And so you find yourself trapped.

Game Level 3:
Anything can happen here. You run actuarial calculations in your head, trying to guess the likelihood of others playing the game at levels 0, 1, and 2. A lifetime of anxiety and uncertainty await.

And so on and so forth.

Now, weird example aside, perhaps you can see how these questions of game theory and uncertainty of what level others are playing at can feed into the way you decide to construct your plot. You must create something new and fresh–something at a higher level of gaming than you anticipate your readers to be playing if you want to surprise them or offer them something fresh.

But what level is the right level? How does your intended audience affect which level you choose? And how does the proliferation of media in our modern culture affect the meta-game of storytelling?

Stay tuned for Part 2, on PLOT TWISTS.

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My Outlining Process (with Examples!)

I received the following Ask on Tumblr but figured the answer warranted a more detailed post here, too.


You may have already talked about this at some point, but I was wondering if you could talk about how your outlining process works? It sounds stupid because I know there are a ton of different ways to outline but I don’t really know how to outline at all….?


Hey there! You’re correct—there are a ton of different ways to outline, and none of them are wrong, though some may be better for you and the way you write than others. In fact, I often outline differently for each project. Sometimes it’s about refining my outlining strategy to fit my writing style; others it’s very particular to the book that I’m working.

I wrote about the way I outlined and drafted A Darkly Beating Heart in this blog post, and reviewed a couple of other different strategies for making outlining work for you, if you haven’t previously been an outliner, in this post.

For this post, I’ll do something a little different, and walk you through how I’m tackling the book I’m drafting right now: a middle grade novel called Ghosts of Grimley. I’m usually extremely secretive and protective of the things I’m drafting, especially if they aren’t under any sort of contract, but I feel like this book excellently exemplifies how I’m approaching outlining of late. So… *deep breath* I’m gonna dangle my ugly baby in front of you all and ask you to kindly not mock it too much.

I started with the central idea of my book. The spark that made me want to write it; the thing I absolutely could not take out of this book without it crumbling to nothingness.

Spark: A girl attending boarding school in a spooky Victorian tourist town gains the ability to see ghosts after a near-death experience.

Okay, so it’s a fun concept. But it isn’t a plot. To build a plot around it, I need to first think about what I want this concept to accomplish. These should, ideally, all be things that get you more excited to write the book. They don’t have to make sense or be any sort of coherent order:

  • Cool Victorian Spiritualist history to the town, rife with drama and murder
  • Ghosts going from being scary to being pretty obnoxious to making peace with them
  • Struggling with middle-grade friendships, especially when carrying a big secret you can’t share with your friends
  • Secret societies in the past and the present
  • Questioning the infallibility of grown-ups—knowing more than them or believing in things that they won’t believe
  • Ghost sisters!!! With SECRETS
  • (several very spoilery ideas omitted)

All right, now I’ve got some elements I can shape into a roughly plot-shaped heap. Now I’ll start looking at some of the established story structures from some of my favorite writing resources.

Story Engineering structures the plot into 4 quarters—roughly, a 25% first act, 50% middle act, and 25% third act—with different beats along the way.

Libby Hawker presents a character-driven method of challenge, failure, adaptation, re-challenge.

John Truby drills down to 22 kinds of story beats.

Some other options: Writing the Breakout Novel, Writer’s Digest: Plot & Structure.


I don’t use any one of these templates as gospel, nor do I particularly recommend doing so—it leads to what I call the “Matrix effect” in your storytelling. You know what I’m talking about—where if you consume enough media and study enough craft, you can suddenly see the Matrix code behind every. fargin’. book and movie you consume, and then you become that obnoxious person (me) who gives away all the major twists before they happen and then your husband just looks at you with a long-suffering sigh. (Sorry, honey.) Instead, I mix and match to design the structure that most speaks to the story I’m trying to tell.

Because Ghosts of Grimley is middle grade—and therefore a little bit of straightforwardness is acceptable—and because I want to focus on the character’s personal growth, I chose to mix the Story Engineering approach with the character-driven elements of Take Off Your Pants and Write.

So I pulled out my notebook and started with my main character, Ruby.

Goal: Gain better control of her newfound ability to communicate with ghosts. Help ghosts. Gain the credibility and respect of adults (later refined to her older brother and her absentee parents).

Flaw: Feels invisible and unimportant. No confidence in herself. Has a history of not being believed or taken seriously (parents too busy).

Now I know what personal challenge Ruby needs to overcome in the act of trying to solve the central trial of the book. I also filled out details for antagonists, allies, and other themes I wanted to address.

Then I got to the story structure.

OPENING: near-death experience while investigating the secret society.

Exploration: recovering from experience. No one believes about secret society. Seeing ghosts

INCITING INCIDENT (25%): ghost sister No. 1 comes to Ruby for help. Agrees, in exchange for information about the secret society, which ghost sister No. 1 claims to possess

And onward, using the various resources I mentioned above to inform what sort of shape I wanted the book to take. Because I wanted a character-focused book, I chose to focus on the mystery of the GHOST SISTERS WITH SECRETS to carry Ruby through the book and her trials of finding confidence and credibility, and set milestones for this thread along the 25%, 50%, 75%, etc markers, then used the other elements I wanted (friendship struggles, town history, helping other ghosts, etc) to fill in the spaces in between.

That gave me a one-page outline of bullet points. Then I took that outline and started fleshing it out into chapters, working through my bullet points to expand them into something more plotty. For my Inciting Incident chapter (ghost sister comes to Ruby for help), that looked roughly like this:


Chapter 5

  • Ruby awakens to ghost at foot of bed. It’s woman who attacked w/ parasol. I know you can see me.

  • Ugh what do you want go away

  • You can see me. I need your help. I want to be able to leave, too.

  • Why do you think I can help? Bc you can find out things. we’re ghosts because we’ve got unresolved issues—I’LL SAY—and you can help me resolve them

  • Lady I got problems of my own. Like cult?

  • …I can help you with those. How? I know things. I can go places you can’t. but you have to help me, too

  • is this ghost seriously bargaining with me? Ok fine. You have a deal. What do you want to know?

  • I need your help finding my sister. I need to know how she died (or maybe tell her I’m sorry)


And so on, until I’d worked through the whole book.

By this point, I had a really good feel for the themes and stories I wanted to weave into this book, but I didn’t have as good a grasp on my main characters (allies and antagonists) as I wanted. So I found a couple of different character sheets online, and ultimately chose to use the same one I’d used for the Series Bible for The Witch Who Came In From the Cold, because I loved the details about how characters react, how they dress and speak, etc.

Once I’d fleshed my main characters out and jotted down a couple other notes about theme, atmosphere, and other elements (I’d decided Ruby wanted to be a photographer, and therefore wanted to include a recurring theme of Ruby mentally framing shots in her head), I felt ready to begin drafting.

Kind of.

The above chapter-by-chapter outline is fairly detailed, but it still isn’t down to the level of granularity I like to have before me when I’m actually writing. When I’m drafting, I want to know pretty much beat by beat where I’m headed, so I can focus on writing the sentences themselves well without also having to juggle the mental burden of figuring out how they connect to one another. (NOTE: Another way to try outlining, if you find this too restrictive, is to reverse this—write out all the thematic/atmospheric/emotional elements you want in a chapter while leaving the who/what open for you to explore as you write.) I also inevitably find new cool story threads cropping up while I write, and want to weave them into the later chapters.

So just before I dive into the next chapter, I take the bulleted chapter description from above and expand it even further to give me detailed beat by beat notes, like so:


Chapter 5

  • R awakens to eerie blue light. Hisses at K to step away from the fanfic and go to sleep. But it’s not K. Weird chill; eyelashes feel frozen together. Smell like wilted flowers. WTH.

  • Rustle of fabric. Faint whisper of Ruby’s name like from inside her head. Glance toward window. Faint blue glow reflecting from inside room. Deep breath. Can’t be afraid.

  • Looks to foot of bed. Jumps. Woman from before w/ parasol. What the heck are you doing?! Leave me alone!

  • Don’t want to wake your friend. Beckons. I know you can see me. That’s why I need your help.

  • Slips out of bedroom, follow me. Goes to communal bathroom—safest place to talk. Has to wait for R to open door. Can’t open it yourself? Dirty look. I can just walk through it. But I was trying to be polite.

  • Huddle in farthest changing stall. Younger than thought—maybe around Jivan’s age or a little older. Name’s Mildred. Mildred Crouse. Why do you need my help?

  • Because you can see us. The ghosts.

  • R cringes. Is that really what you are? Mildred: Isn’t it obvious? We’re restless spirits. Stuck to this earth bc of unresolved business. R wriggles eyebrows. Really? You ALL have unresolved business. Who decides what’s resolved and what’s not?

  • Do you want to help me settle my business or not? R sighs. I’ve got enough of my own problems. Crazy cultists trying to kill me. M: Yes, well . . . perhaps I can be assistance there.

  • Um what? how? Leans forward; rotten smell intensifies. Yikes this lady needs shower. Can ghosts shower? Can’t even open doors…

  • I know plenty about the cultists. And I can go places you can’t. But you have to help me, too. So I can be at rest.

  • Why do ghosts always want to be at rest anyway? Isn’t it cool that get to stick around? HUFF that’s not the point. Do we have a deal?

  • I dunno. Sounds suspiciously like blackmail. M: Let’s just call it mutually beneficial arrangement. R considers. One adult who seems to get it. OK fine. Holds out hand to shake but M snorts. Makes big show of gripping hand but passes through. In my day we took blood oath, but that’s out of question, too.

  • R: ugh god so wordy. What is it you want to know?

  • I’m trying to find my sister, Minerva Crouse. Turns serious, glances down. I need to know how she died. And if she’s a ghost, too.



Note that I try to keep markers in there to remind myself bits and pieces about atmosphere, mood, personality, etc as well as just plot, because when you’re writing very quickly, it is easy to let those details slide. I try to get the basic flow of dialogue down without worrying too much about speaker tags and so on, because I should have a pretty good idea who would say what. And if it gets expanded in the writing, that is perfectly fine.

Now it’s time to write. I set a 30-minute timer, and all of that work turns into this (only an excerpt of last portion):


Millicent looked down at her pointed boots for a moment. It was the expression Mom got whenever Jivan and I would fight, like she was gathering up the energy to yell at us. “I am aware of this . . . cult. So perhaps I can be of assistance.”

“You know who they are?” I leaned forward, now wide awake. As I got closer to her, the rotting smell intensified. Yikes. Millicent needed a shower. Could ghosts use showers? She couldn’t even open a door for herself, after all.

“Oh, yes. I know a great many things about them.” She smiled sadly. “I have a great deal of time on my hands, as you can imagine. And I can go places you can’t. Slip around unseen.”

My heart pounded in my ears. She could help me get proof the cult existed. Maybe even find out who the members were! Then I could go to the police. Convince them I wasn’t imagining it.

Millicent raised her chin. Without her hat, I could finally see her eyes—or rather, the horrible black holes where her eyes belonged, deep as graves. And those weren’t just bags under her eyes. They were streaked with dried blood.

Maybe I didn’t want to know how she died after all.

“I’ll find out whatever it is that you wish to know,” she said. “But first . . . you must help me be at rest.”

“Why do you want to be at rest, anyway? I mean, you get to live beyond death. Isn’t that cool? Don’t you want to stick around as long as you can?” I was yammering away now. Anything to distract myself from those horrible eyes.

Millicent exhaled loudly. “That isn’t the point! Do we have an agreement, or not?”

“I dunno . . . It does sound suspiciously like you’re blackmailing me.”

She pressed her lips into a thin smile. “Let’s just call it a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

I rubbed my chin. On the one hand, it sounded a whole lot like she was going to use me to get what she wanted and give me only a little bit of information in return. But on the other hand—she actually believed me. Knew what I was going through. And if she could help me find something, anything to prove to everyone what I’d seen . . .

“All right. You have a deal.”

I held my hand out to shake, but she laughed, and made a big show of trying to grip my hand. She passed right through me with a rush of cold.

“In my day, we took a blood oath,” Millicent said. “But I’m afraid that’s out of the question now, as well.”

I rubbed my hand back and forth on my fleece pajama pants to warm it up. “So what is it you want to know?”

Millicent clutched her hat with both hands. “I’m looking for my twin sister, Minerva Crouse.” Her voice was far softer than before. “I need to know how she died. And whether she’s a ghost, too.”


No, I didn’t follow the outline precisely. As I wrote, I found new ways to weave it together and work in fresh details I hadn’t thought of. But that’s what relieving the mental burden of figuring out the plot as I wrote it allows me to do.

You may be thinking, “Good grief. That sounds like an obscene amount of busywork.” And it is a lot, I know. But let me tell you—it goes fast. It takes me maybe a day or two to get my first bulleted plot sketch written down, then another day or two to break it into chapters. Then the beat by beat for each chapter is 30 minutes to an hour. I’ll typically do these over lunch, while dinner’s in the oven, or before bed. Sometimes I can outline a whole chapter while waiting on the quick match queues for Heroes of the Storm to pop. (I can feel my accountabilibuddy judging me from here fyi)

Then there’s the actual writing. Without an outline, I think on my best days, I was averaging 800-1000 words an hour, painstakingly trying to shape my story and my words at the same time. And so often, I would have to backtrack, erase, or tear apart and drastically rework those words. My first published novel, Sekret, got rewritten eight times. Eight. Because each time I wrote it, I only had about eight or ten plot points in my head, and I tried to string everything else together going by instinctive story shape alone.

With an outline, I’m averaging 2500-3500 words an hour. And so far, an immeasurable amount of time saved on the revising end. Because for me, it’s so much easier to fix plot problems while they’re still bullet points than when they’re 35,000-word chunks of text.

So that’s the system that’s working for me right now. I have no doubt I’ll add, change, and drop elements as I use it more. I’d love to hear what’s working for you!

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Further Thoughts on Outlining

I’m completely overwhelmed by everyone’s response to my post about how I improved my writing speed. Thank you so much! It’s very gratifying to hear that it resonated with so many of you, and I’d love to hear more about your results. I also got some great questions, and quite a lot of “But what do I do if I HATE outlining?” so I’d love to address some of the common ones.


I hate outlining because it robs me of the joy of discovery [or other reasons]. Am I a lost cause?

Of course not! Different things work for different people. I know there are writers who can really get into the “zone” on a story, and crank out an entire novel–without an outline–in extremely short periods of time. I do think that on the whole, however, un-outlined stories are slower to draft because of the cognitive load problem I mentioned in the original post. So if you really, truly hate the idea of outlining because you think it will ruin the joy of discovery, then try finding some other aspect of your writing that you can offload in advance. Give yourself a starting point and ending point for a scene, and sketch in some sensory or thematic details. Then you’re doing less of the “setting the stage” work in your head while you write while still feeling the joy of discovering what your characters will do next. Or you can do a lot more character work beforehand–worksheets with information about how they speak, their dark secrets, their feelings toward other characters, etc–that you can refer to as you go rather than having to make each up on the spot.


No matter what I try, I can’t seem to push past XX words a day. Any tips?

Usually, when I’m having a hard time meeting a word count goal, it’s because I either a) haven’t done the work to know what the thing I’m writing is actually about, or b) have run my creative well dry and am not keeping it suitably refilled. I can usually tell if it’s the former because I just get blocked and stare aimlessly around with no idea what should happen next; I can tell it’s the latter because every sentence I write sounds the same and my characters are just empty mannequins who shrug their shoulders and frown a lot while having lengthy stretches of dialogue that goes nowhere.

If your problem is A, try this: pull out a piece of paper. At the very bottom, write the next major thing that you know you need to have happen. Then use the remaining space to chart a course toward that thing from where you are right now (or possibly even a little bit before).

If your problem is B: take a deep breath. Step away. If you have time to spare, give yourself some time away to read, watch an inspiring TV show, take a brainstorming walk, or otherwise do something that isn’t beating your head against the keyboard. When you’re ready, put yourself back into your story, but focus on those sensory details you’re missing. Reconnect with the worldbuilding and setting, whether it’s a middle school cafeteria (sticky tabletops, green linoleum, noseprints on the windows? go nuts) or a fantasy high cathedral (thin shafts of light streaming into the darkness, dust motes on the air, your character’s heavy mantel making them sweat and slicking their hair to their neck). For me, the challenge in keeping my writing feeling fresh is in inviting others’ words and worlds and phrases and thoughts into my head, and that means not neglecting my fiction reading, either. Fresh exposure to new storylines and language helps my brain slowly digest and remix things into something hopefully new, and keeps my sentence-writing muscle all limbered up.


I just can’t write every day.

Neither can I. So I don’t. My creative energy is really awesome Monday through Wednesday, sucks dirt on Thursdays, and is a total mixed bag through the weekend. And when I finish a big project, I always take a week or two off (schedule permitting). So I write when I can. Just don’t use it as an excuse. There’s a big difference between “I cannot write right now” and “I really could write right now and really should write right now but I’m going to let inertia carry me on to scroll through Tumblr for a few more hours until I fall asleep.” If you’re procrastinating, and you know you’re procrastinating, look at the reasons as to why. Procrastination usually comes from fear, a lack of confidence about one’s ability to proceed, and/or a lack of understanding as to how to proceed. With outlining, you are breaking the steps down into manageable chunks so you can at least tackle the last of these. The other two, we’ll address at a later time.


Have you tried changing up your writing process? How is it going?