Woo! I sold my third short story to Triptych Tales last month. (They’re also super-duper fast, so it’s already available online! It’s been up since Sunday, actually. I’ve just been too sick to celebrate.)

I generally write YA fantasy and/or Victoriana, so, it’s slightly unusual that this is a contemporary urban fantasy set in Oregon. (I miss Oregon desperately. It’s a wonderful place.) It’s about a government contractor who gets a contract at the Esoteric Wildlife Division, which is doing some very non-traditional research.

You can check out Esoteric Wildlife on the Triptych Tales website.

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The pantsing vs. outlining discussion is as old as time. Every writer has, at some point, watched a bunch of people debate about the benefits of “winging it” versus the benefits of planning.

And I may be sensitive here–I probably am–but whenever people talk about pantsing vs. outlining, outlining gets panned. I’ve heard it all! It’s not creative and spontaneous. The process of outlining seeps all the fun out of writing. Outlining gives you the feeling of “being productive” without you having written anything, therefore it makes you not want to write at all. Heck, even Stephen King’s On Writing suggests you should just make a character and then just write and watch their lives unfold, because anything else wasn’t actually being creative or something. (I’m paraphrasing. That chapter irritated me and I don’t want to dig it out.)

I outline. I outline deeply. And it is literally the only way I can have an enjoyable, productive, creative writing experience. Obviously, that’s all I need–that’s how I write, and I write successfully, hurray!–but here’s what my process is and why it works for me.

Here’s how it goes.

Step #1: The Super-Loose Calculations and Plot Structuring

This is the only step (I hope) where I’ll sound stark-raving mad.

I am obsessed with word counts. The first two novels I ever wrote were horribly, stupidly, ridiculously off-target–the first was obscenely long, and the second was novella-length. It took me until my third novel to go, “Hey, you know what? Maybe I should actually stay in a sensible range.”

I write YA fantasy, so I try to stay in the 70-80K range, with an absolute upper limit of 100K. And I don’t do this by sitting down, writing, and hoping I get there. I do loose calculations. I know, for example, that I write about 3,000 word chapters, so my novel target is about 24-27 chapters.

And then I toss some kind of story structuring on it. At the very least, a 24 chapter story will have its midpoint somewhere around 12ish, and major, transitional events somewhere around 6 and 18, with smaller events interspersed between.

I am not laying a formulaic blueprint down. I’m just storyboarding. “I have these major events, and maybe they should go hereish and thereish.” I’m not saying, “Hey, event #1 has to happen in chapter 6, 18,000 words in.” I’m saying “Maybe this comes early in the story, and this stuff comes later.” It helps me figure out, in a very big-picture way, where stuff might happen and where it might go.

It’s not pushing myself into a formula, because I’m not going to actually limit myself to certain word counts. I’m not even going to outline around this. I’m just brainstorming in an organized way.

Step #2: The Outline

My outlines read like screenplays. I write down broad, summary sentences that explain everything that happens, all the scenes that occur, and where the dialogue happens. (Unlike a screenplay, I usually do NOT write down the actual dialogue.)

It doesn’t look like a screenplay, though. I make bulleted lists, broken up by where the chapters might start and end. Each bullet explains something that will happen in that chapter.

Now, this would be an excellent time to include a screenshot of one of my outlines, but I can’t find one that isn’t completely ridiculous. My outlines are silly, in shorthand, and full of profanity. So let’s just stick to a much less useful example instead:

  • Character A goes and talks to Character B.
  • They talk about what just happened. Character A is upset and troubled, B tells her not to worry, but it doesn’t help…
  • Character A goes out to the shipyard and thinks about…

So on, so forth. It’s just a basic list of this happens, that happens, this happens. I’m figuring out the logistics. Why are people where they are? What did they do? Why?

And why? Because then, when I sit down to wrote a chapter, I don’t have to worry about what will actually happen. I know, kinda-sorta. I just have to sit down, flesh it out, and put it into prose.

But it also lets me identify plot holes before I ever write the story. It also lets me ensure that everything is foreshadowed sufficiently and gives me a high-level perspective on character growth, plotting, and pacing. I can usually address the most grievous plot holes before I even write the story.

Step #3: Write the actual story, and only loosely follow the outline.

Now that I have thoroughly plotted out every important detail, I write. I only loosely use the outline.

And this is why I say that outlining doesn’t make writing any less spontaneous or creative. I have the logic figured out. I have the gist of pacing, characterization, and plot development. But when I sit down and write the thing, I usually change my mind.

I stumble on unforeseen issues. I think of things I’d like more. Once I actually write the dialogue, the interactions, the scenes, I realize that the characters are going in a different direction–their feelings or reactions are different or strong enough that I have to have them do something else.

So things change. I generally stay pretty close to the big picture, but the details all change. I almost always add chapters, remove them, or end them at different places. In my last major novel, I dropped an entire subplot, and chapters 4-7 did not resemble my original outline at all. And that was fine. I still knew what I was doing.

And that’s it! It works for me. I’ve tried pantsing stuff, and it just doesn’t work–everything I write has to be drastically, immediately rewritten, because the first thing I think of is almost never as good as the second. Outlining helps me figure that out without investing 3,000 words into it.

Cover of the novel 'The Luck Uglies.'

Hotlinked from Goodreads.

My full review is on Goodreads!

This is the sort of thing that makes me want to read more Middle Grade.

I love YA, I write YA, I read YA, but goodness! How often have I written book reviews that said, “Well, it was fun, but I wish they would keep the romance from overpowering the story so we can just have an adventure?”

And oh, this was an adventure. The Luck Uglies is a charming and atmospheric MG fantasy. And that’s where it shines–despite being based on some common fantasy premises (like capricious, ignorant medieval lords and rouges with hearts of gold), the world is delightful, the atmosphere is great, and the characters are universally charming.

And, yes, it was a welcome break from all the YA I’ve been reading, as–in true MG fashion–there’s no romance at all. It’s all about the heroine discovering the truth about her family. Otherwise, it’s all childhood friends and wild adventure.

There were a few rough bits, sure. Those are in my Goodreads review. But it was still one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year.

I only learned this last night!

I sold my second short story “A Long-Forgotten Memory,” a little while ago. I just learned that it was published last week in Parsec Ink’s Triangulation: Parch anthology. The anthology’s available on Amazon.

It gets better! Parsec Ink runs both a contest and a magazine, and authors were allowed to submit their stories to both. I did, and I placed! “A Long-Forgotten Memory” got second place in their Parsec Science Fiction & Fantasy Short Story Contest. (That page hasn’t been updated yet, but it will soon.)

I’m super happy about all this. I only started submitting short stories in March, and selling two stories and placing in one contest is… well, quite a lot more than I expected, considering how new I am to this. Here’s hoping for more success in the future!

Cover of the novel, 'Daughter of Smoke and Bone.'

Hotlinked from Goodreads.

The more I think about this novel the more conflicted I become. My full review is on Goodreads.

YA readers have been raving about Daughter of Shadow and Bone and its sequels, so I wanted to see what the fuss was about. And I’m conflicted. Still.

Here’s the problem: I don’t really like romance. I do like adventure stories! I like friends and conflict and angst and love as much as anyone, but I don’t like romance as a genre. This is an extremely fine line, and probably not one I can accurately describe, but I like action where people fall in love on the way. I do not like stories where the story is people in love.

So, I was not fated to adore Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which is a fantasy/romance. Roughly one third of the novel is backstory, and it’s all cuddly-wuddly I’ll give up the world for you, I’ll do anything for you, you are the perfect one for meeeeeeee romance. Of the two-thirds that are left, roughly half of that is a slightly different flavor of the same romance. The rest is really good, really beautiful fantasy.

And so I’m conflicted. When I first read the novel I was so struck by the beauty of the writing that I was willing to forgive it anything. But I was undecided on the romance after I read it, and time has only made it worse. Do I want to read more? It’s certainly pretty. There was an amazing cliffhanger. But if I’m on the fence about the romance, I’m probably not going to change my mind later.

But ohhhh goodness the author writes beautifully.

It’s been years since I was a teenager, but I was everything you’d expect from a young, naive writer. I thought I was great at writing, I wanted to major in it, and I was determined to write for a living. I was a novelist. A writer! All I had to do was, you know, finish a novel. But I loved to write, so clearly I was destined for something special.

Ah, youth. Here’s what I wish someone had told me.

1. Finish Everything You Start

Finishing is everything. I now believe that it’s more important than skill. It certainly more important than perfection. Finishing a project is literally the most important skill you can ever learn. It doesn’t matter how well you write if you can’t see a project through to the end.

I spent my teenage years writing the opening chapters of dozens stories. I wrote scenes. I created characters. I created supplementary languages and poems. But I didn’t actually finish a manuscript until I was 21 years old. (Then it took me 3 more years to write one that was the correct length for my genre.) I loved writing, but I had nothing to show for it until my mid-20s. And that’s awful.

Do you want someone else to edit your work? Finish it. Do you want to submit it somewhere? Well, you aren’t going to submit the first 4 chapters. Even if your first novel is trash and you hate it and you know it’s deeply, profoundly flawed, finish it. You can do something with an imperfect manuscript. You can’t do anything meaningful with a fragment of a story.

2. Write For Every Market You Can

I’ve known since I was very young that I wanted to write novel-length fantasy. So that’s what I did. I wrote nothing but fantasy novels, all the time. And since writing novels is hard, that meant I just never published anything.

But oh, short stories are wonderful. It takes me less than a week to write, edit, polish, and submit one, and 2-3 months to get a response. It takes me about a year to write, edit, and re-edit a single novel (and I still haven’t gotten an agent.)

But the moment I started writing short stories, I started getting publishing credits. And you know what? I can put that on an agent query. Now I don’t have to shyly, innocently avoid the fact that I’m unpublished.

So be flexible. Write your novels and finish them in a timely manner. But write short stories, too. And articles. Anything. Write for any legitimate market that will take you. That’s way better than being unpublished and waiting until your novel gets lucky.

3. Write in any Genre You Can

And, finally, don’t limit yourself to what you love. Every genre can teach you something about the art of writing.

My journalism degree taught me loads about being pithy. (You probably can’t tell. But trust me, I was much worse before.) Professional communications taught me how to simply describe complicated topics. All these made me think about my writing, and all of them made me better at it.

So don’t be afraid of non-fiction. Write for everything. Anything. If you like it, do it. If it pays, try it.

I still have a lot to learn, of course. I’ve only sold two short stories. But I finally have a goal, a plan, and a little success to show for it. I wish I had been this organized ten years ago.

Moving is awful. I just moved from one side of America to the other, and it’s dreadful. I don’t even have my furniture yet. It is, needless to say, extremely hard to write (or focus, or work, or do much of anything), so the blog updates are going to be sparse until I have, for example, a chair that doesn’t destroy my back.

But I did sell a second short story! Thanks to the magic of smart phones, I signed a contract for Parsec Ink’s Triangulation: Parch Anthology before I even had the internet set up. I really cannot express how happy I am. I’ve only been writing short stories since March of this year, and I’ve already had some luck. This is exciting!

I’ll post more information when I know it! And that will probably be a while.