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Lindsay Smith Posts

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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A Tyranny of Petticoats Now on Sale!

A Tyranny of Petticoats
A Tyranny of Petticoats

From an impressive sisterhood of YA writers comes an edge-of-your-seat anthology of historical fiction and fantasy featuring a diverse array of daring heroines.

Crisscross America — on dogsleds and ships, stagecoaches and trains — from pirate ships off the coast of the Carolinas to the peace, love, and protests of 1960s Chicago. Join fifteen of today’s most talented writers of young adult literature on a thrill ride through history with American girls charting their own course. They are monsters and mediums, bodyguards and barkeeps, screenwriters and schoolteachers, heiresses and hobos. They’re making their own way in often-hostile lands, using every weapon in their arsenals, facing down murderers and marriage proposals. And they all have a story to tell.

With stories by:
J. Anderson Coats
Andrea Cremer
Y. S. Lee
Katherine Longshore
Marie Lu
Kekla Magoon
Marissa Meyer
Saundra Mitchell
Beth Revis
Caroline Richmond
Lindsay Smith
Jessica Spotswood
Robin Talley
Leslye Walton
Elizabeth Wein


IndieboundAmazonBarnes & NobleChaptersThe Book DepositoryAudible

I am so thrilled to be part of this wonderful, heartfelt, inventive anthology. When Jessica Spotswood approached me about contributing to an anthology about girls across the span of US history, I was ecstatic. I looked at a lot of different time periods, but ultimately settled on the homefront experience during World War II, about the City of Angels and how it became a city of women while all the men were at war. Evie came to Los Angeles seeking work as a screenwriter, but she finds something else entirely when she gets mixed up with the charismatic, larger-than-life Frankie, another girl at the airplane factory. Between building airplanes and gathering scrap metal for the war effort, they both have much to learn about women’s ever-changing roles in America and about themselves.

I’m still working my way through this anthology, but a few other standout stories I loved:

“Madeleine’s Choice” by Jessica Spotswood, an exploration of the quadroon balls and antebellum New Orleans life for the free people of color

“Rise of the Panthers” by Kekla Magoon, about a farmgirl in 1960s Indiana whose life is forever changed when the Black Panthers come through town

“The Red Raven Ball” by Caroline Richmond, as a debutante would rather hunt for Confederate spies at her grandmother’s fete than hunt for a spouse

“The Whole World Is Watching” by Robin Talley, chronicling a group of protestors taking a stand at the 1968 Democratic National Convention

“The Journey” by Marie Lu, a mystical voyage across pre-American Alaska under the watchful eyes of the Inupiat spirits


If you’re in the DC area, you can join Jessica Spotswood, Caroline Richmond, Robin Talley, and myself for a launch party on Friday, March 11th, at One More Page Books! For West Coasters, the University Bookstore in Bellevue is hosting J Anderson Coats, Marissa Meyer, and Leslye Walton tonight.

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Weekly Recap

New Releases


Cover Reveals



Accomplished in Writing

Completed revisions on the season finale of The Witch Who Came In From the Cold. Very bittersweet! But chances are very good we have another season on the horizon . . .

Drafted a short story for a guest spot on The Hanging Garden. These ladies produce what I think is the best free YA fiction on the web these days.

Great progress on the middle grade draft, Ghosts of Grimley. I even talked a little bit about it in my outlining post this week.

…And always, freelance work. I’m looking on track to hit my 45K goal for February if I can keep up this momentum!


Upcoming Events

Added a few new events over there->

TULSA, OK: Signing at Barnes & Noble next weekend!

A Tyranny of Petticoats Launch Party at One More Page on March 11th!


This Week in Reading

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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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Weekly Recap

New Releases


Cover Reveals


This Week in Writing

I turned in revisions for A Darkly Beating Heart! Unburdened at last, I slumbered for aeons and awoke to bluebirds at my window and a gentle melody of hahaha just kidding I got really drunk and played Heroes of the Storm and then started a new book because I hate myself or something.

Started drafting a middle grade novel. Guys. Middle grade is FUN. It’s short and straightforward and can be utterly absurd and holy crap I just might write this book in record time. It helps that I technically have written this book a few times before. I concocted it way back in 2004, when I first thought that writing children’s literature might be fun. Then I wrote it in 2010 as a NaNoWriMo YA novel, but it felt a little too young. Now at long last, I’ve worked up my MG nerve and I’m loving every word.

Decent progress on freelance work. See: unburdened; really drunk.

Favorite line written: My life got a whole lot more interesting after I died.


This Week in Other Stuff

Beyonce’s splendid, self-assured “Formation” set the op-ed sections on fire, but my favorite so far comes from Camryn Garrett.

Cassandra Clare is no stranger to plagiarism accusations, but this new lawsuit from adult urban fantasy writer Sherrilyn Kenyon makes me deeply concerned about the future potential for people to claim ownership of tropes, mythology, and the very pillars of certain subgenres.

Skull Poop L is smashing R-rated comic book records, and rightfully so. Husband and I immensely enjoyed ourselves and look forward to plenty more Merc-with-a-Mouth movies to come.

Can it just please be May 6th already. Me and my feels need to go writhe on the floor a bit.

Played through Firewatch, a gorgeous but weird mid-life crisis of a game, with Husband. I imagine I might have felt very differently about this game were I younger, and that makes me feel sad and old but also thankful for all that I have.

Reading Now

JUST VISITING (Dahlia Adler) was SO FREAKING GOOD. The ultimate best-friendship book with secrets, rawness, struggles, self-reinvention, and 8 different kinds of yearning. I want a million more.

. . . and beta-reading a friend’s phenomenal dark, twisty, gloriously villainous YA fantasy. Agents, lmk if you’re interested–you want this book <3

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