welcome, non-robots!

I have nothing against robots, I just don’t think they should write books. “Is that a real concern?” you ask. Probably not. I just want to be clear: this site is all about writing and what I’ve learned about it in the past few years, and one of the main things I’ve learned is that -- for me -- writing is hard. To me, people to whom writing is not hard are robots. I do not trust them. If you are one of them, you will find nothing here to interest you.

Shoo, robot, shoo!

If, however, you find writing both glorious and maddening, necessary and impossible, dazzling and stultifying, there might be something here that clicks with you.

I’ve wanted to write books ever since I can remember. I was always going to be “a writer.” It was such a given! So why did it take me 35 years? Lots of reasons, I guess. I was a bad combination of dreamy and lazy, and add to that aspects of my personality (such as perfectionism) that conspired to prevent me from finishing things. Also, it’s very easy for us non-robots to persuade ourselves we’re on our right path in life, even when we’re actually sort of languishing in the wheel ruts beside our path, and not really on it at all. I, like many others, stood beside “my path” and watched wistfully as others boldly trod it.

I wasn’t writing.

The years passed. I did other things. I edited books written by others. I went to art school. Traveled. Got married. Moved to another state.

And then, finally, something snapped. I realized that if I wanted to write books. . . I had to, er, write books. And so, painstakingly, I began to do that. It was hard. I learned what I could from others and the rest I figured out or made up. Here are my thoughts on writing fiction. Please let me know what you think. You can leave comments below each segment (anonymously, if you so choose) letting me know if anything resonates with you or if you have more to add to my thoughts. I’m still figuring out my own process, still very much cobbling it all together. Wisdom and commiseration are welcome. I’d love to hear from you!

ideas & brainstorming

The first thing you need in order to write a story is an idea. People often ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” as if they rise from some wishing well whose secret location we jealously guard, but the real secret is this: ideas come from anywhere and everywhere.

Ideas are the easy part.

I did a tally yesterday of the books that are lined up in my head right now jostling for position, hoping to get themselves written. Not including the one I am actively writing -- Silksinger -- there are nine, and those are only the full-blown, outlined, ready-to-go ideas. I’m not even counting the casual, undeveloped ideas, which are many. Some have been standing in line for years, waiting for me to get my act together and learn how to write a book.

How did they get there?

Like I said before, getting ideas is the easy part. They just come. But more can be said: they come from stray thoughts and tidbits gleaned from headlines or from dusty old folklore books, they come from dreams and memories, or maybe from one perfect, shining sentence that emerges from the middle of a wild, jumbled freewrite. Sometimes they come when two flying thoughts collide in mid-air and merge into a new, mutant idea.

And, they come when you make them come.

“Chance favors a prepared mind.” I agree with that. There are many variations of that quote. Thomas Jefferson said, “I’m a big believer in luck. I find that the harder I work, the more of it I have.” The harder you work, the more situations you put yourself in to be “lucky,” and so it is with getting ideas. The more you cast your mind out into thoughts and dreams, the more you observe and read and think, the more ideas you will “happen upon.” A writer is on safari for ideas every single moment of his or her life, waking and sleeping. And when an idea pops up from behind a baobab tree, you capture it. Write it down. It’s yours now. I hope you’ll do something with it!

But what?


Ideas have developmental stages. For me, they usually begin as a “seed,” a tiny little seed, and in that first glimpse I get of it, it’s usually just enough to write down as a line in a notebook. It might be something like, “Avery Dry, who put her soul in the collection plate,” or it might be a single evocative word, like “wishbone.”

The seed of my graphic novel, The Drowned was an image from a dream in which a village sat at the edge of the sea. It was hidden beneath the water at high tide, and exposed to the air at low tide. It was barnacled and desolate, and music was drifting from it. I know where this image most likely arose from -- when I traveled in Europe after high school, one of the places I went was Cornwall, where at low tide the roots of islands are exposed so you can walk all the way around them. It was magical to me. Mystical. And so it kicked around in my mind until one night I had a dream that placed a village there on a sweep of lonesome shore. It still didn’t really qualify as an “idea.” It was only a seed. The next step was asking: who might live in such a village, and why? You figure that out, you might just have a story.

That’s where brainstorming comes in. In this case, since Jim and I were creating The Drowned together, we brainstormed together, and it was Jim who hit on the idea that women who’d been drowned as witches might live in a kind of purgatory there, only getting to breathe air when the tide was at its lowest. Cool! Then I had to develop a plot and characters to revolve around that central idea. More brainstorming.

I am a brainstormaholic. I love this part of the process. It amazes me anew each and every time a simple word or image grows into a big complex IDEA -- and, a STORY. To me it’s as mind-blowing as the fact that the biggest living things on the planet -- Sequoia trees -- grow from a seed barely bigger than a speck of dust. (If a Sequoia can do it, so can your idea!) I love dreaming stuff up. I love growing a tiny seed into a big, lush flowering thing. I love the feeling of possibility. I love asking “What if?” and then building, and building, and building. You can build a whole world that way.

Dreamdark is the product of extreme brainstorming -- and when I say extreme, I mean extreme. I have notebooks filled with ideas about the world of the story and the characters and legends and natural history and architecture. . . and thousands of other things. Research on leeches, on superstitions, on tropical trees, on ancient languages, on the old Silk Road, alchemy, cool Hindi words, witch doctors. These notebooks are so precious to me -- high on my list of things I’d rescue if my house were on fire! Much that is in them will not appear in the books, but who knows? Ideas lead to other ideas. I bet some of these jottings will be popping up in things I write twenty years from now!

Aside from the notebooks, much of my brainstorming happens in big, sprawling, rambling documents on my computer. They’re mostly called “working docs” and I have literally hundreds of pages like this devoted to Dreamdark. Hundreds of pages of rambling “what ifs” as I work out character, plot, story arc, and details of the world. There are outlines and freewriting mixed in, and lots and lots of places where I tell myself the synopsis, trying to get it just right. This might seem excessive -- but this is the creation of a world for a whole fantasy series, and I like my plots complex, so I have a lot of stuff to figure out! For a short story I may end of having only a few pages (or twenty, or fifty) of brainstorming before I get to a place where I’m ready to start “writing.”

So you want to write a novel. You have a seed. Perhaps you have a character name, an idea of the setting, and a vague sense of what it’s “about.” A good place to start “brainstorming” is just by freewriting everything you know about your idea so far. Don’t worry at all about the “writing” at this phase, about your prose or sentence structure or having the perfect name for your character. Doesn’t matter. This is just about getting ideas out. Every possible idea, even ones that flitter through your head and you’re pretty sure you won’t use. Go ahead and write them down and give them an opportunity to explain themselves. If it came to mind, there’s a chance there’s something in it you can use. At this stage, do not discriminate. Think of it like the auditions for American Idol. You have to listen to the terrible singers -- you have to listen to all the singers -- to ferret out the tiny handful of good ones.

As you’re writing down everything you know about the story, you’ll start to see how much you don’t know. So, start asking yourself questions and trying to answer them. Answer them with “maybes.” You might have ten maybes to one question (don’t settle for just one). Often, one of them will light a fire in your mind. You’ll know it’s the right one. You’ll feel “the snick.”

The snick

How I love the snick. It’s the sound and feeling of a puzzle piece fitting into place. You know what I mean: you instantly feel the rightness of it, the ease. When you’re forcing a piece, you know it. You feel it. It’s awkward, you have to work too hard to make it fit. Pay attention to those feelings. Never settle for a piece that doesn’t fit, even if it almost does. Keep brainstorming. Demand “the snick” every time, to every question. You know when you’re reading a book and you feel the presence of the author all of a sudden, you feel them trying to make something happen in the story. As soon as you feel that, you know they goofed -- they gave up too easily and tried to force something in plot or character, something that feels wrong, awkward. You can feel their fingers pushing and pushing that puzzle piece. You don’t want that.

So brainstorm. Audition your ideas. Make sure they’re up to the part!

Plus, the great thing about “the snick” is that when it comes, the story has a tendency to spurt forward with exuberant ease, to get unstuck, to get fun. And that’s the best thing a writer can wish for!

It’s not like I do all brainstorming at the beginning of the writing process and then the rest of the writing is smooth sailing. I come back to brainstorming again and again and again throughout the writing process, addressing issues as they arise. My “working docs” and notebooks continue to grow and grow as I write a book. When I get stuck, I come back to brainstorming. When a plot point that seemed like it would work turns out to feel wrong and forced, I resort to brainstorming.

It’s a different mindset, a free place where you can sort of stand back and see and ponder, like a painter stepping away from the canvas and getting some clarity on it, deciding his next brush stroke, or indeed, seeing mistakes that were not visible up close. You might realize your character would never have done “that.” There’s so much that you will discover as you write and brainstorm and write and brainstorm. So much will come up that you never could have anticipated. You need to keep your ability to come up with new ideas every step of the way.

Never feel that you’re “married” to an idea, even if it was the original idea that sparked the story. It might have to go, like a scaffolding that comes down after a mural is painted. Maybe that was its only purpose, to hold you up while you found the real idea. When I’m writing a first draft of a story, I might think I know what it’s “about” but I don’t really know until I’m in the midst of it, maybe even until I’m done with it. Then I try to find the story’s true “axis” -- the center upon which it pivots. You need to be flexible, at every stage of the process. Limber.

Be willing to cut stuff. Look at your knuckles -- you might be hanging on too hard to something that just needs to go. I’m not even talking about pretty sentences here -- that comes later. I’m talking about ideas. Nothing in a book or story is fixed until you say so. You can always change your mind. I do. It’s my prerogative!

Exercises for generating ideas

1. Make a list of favorite things
Think up things that light your mind on fire. Get into a freewriting mentality and start listing them. Let one thing lead to another. Items on the list can be single words or whole paragraphs or anything in between. If ideas start to click and you want to go off on a tangent, DO. Here's an example of some of mine:

Some things that light my mind on fire
dragonfly wings
insect eyes
pink frosting
elaborate tents hauled around by nomads, made of goat hair and filled with wondrous things
desert oases
indigo silk that stains your skin blue
tattoo given with a wasp stinger -- still in the wasp?
childhood crushes, reintroductions; sparks; seeing someone with new eyes
being more than you seem
possessing hidden gifts
boarding school
antlers; antlers on things that ought not have antlers; antler shadows.
dead languages
dead flowers
a beautiful woman with the feet of a bird, hidden beneath voluminous skirts -- what if Cinderella’s prince tried to put the glass slipper on HER? ha ha
footman who bears some precious thing on a cushion; afraid of dropping it? The footman who carried the glass slipper?
acrobatics; a village child sold to the circus

There’s a lot more, and in many places on this recent list, ideas bumped into each other and began to coalesce into stories. Those Cinderella-related ones -- that could be fun! I might actually write that (don’t steal it!). There’s a shimmer when an idea perches on you. Wings flash in the sun. Your pulse quickens.

Start listing things that are exciting to you and build with them. Keep a notebook of them. Dream up stories that are like candy to you -- the kind of things that would make you get excited and tingly if you read them on someone else’s book jacket. I don’t know about you, but I used to sometimes lose sight of the extreme awesomeness of this fact: that you get to write whatever is the most delicious and fascinating and magical and important and poignant and exciting to YOU. You can write whatever you want. It’s the most basic idea about being a writer, but sometimes it gets lost beneath a whole pile of expectations about what we should be writing, what might “sell,” what we covet in other writers, etc. Strip all that stuff away and just figure out what you love, what sets your mind on fire.

Then brainstorm it into a story that no one else on Earth could tell in just your way!

2. "Attic Notebook"
This is a freewriting exercise I used to do back in college. It doesn't really involve an attic. Here's what it is:

Get a notebook and freewrite in it -- random, undirected freewriting -- for a set time every day until it's full. You might have a list like the one above at hand to glance at for inspiration when you need to get your hand moving. Just write. Poems, scenes, daydreams, character ideas, thoughts about the sky. Try 30 minutes a day.

The key is this: do NOT reread what you have written. Do not look back. Don’t even peek. Once a word is written you must move past it and forward only. And when the book is full, close it and set it aside for a month, still without peeking. Then read it. When I did this, it was like finding a notebook in an attic -- hence the name. I remembered almost nothing I had written. It was pure discovery. I wrote that? I thought up that? Ideas for stories came up and I felt almost like I was pilfering them. . . from myself! It was a really, really fun and rewarding exercise!

3. "Bedtime Story"
This is an exercise I invented for getting unstuck. Take a bare seed of an idea and just write it, with no fanfare. Write it as if you are making up and telling a bedtime story to a beloved child, on the spot. Start with Once Upon a Time, and then don’t worry about “language” at all. When I get into the right mindset with this exercise, sometimes such unexpected stories can unspool! It’s great fun.

4. Writing Prompts
The past year has made me a big believer in writing prompts. I said earlier that ideas come from anywhere. Well, nothing proves this assertion better than writing prompts. When I finished Blackbringer and turned it in to my editor, I had been working on it on and off for more than two years. In that time, I hadn’t really written anything else. I had a big fat craving to write something wholly unrelated to it. To write stories, which I hadn’t done in ages. So my new blog friend Meg and I launched Sunday Scribblings, a blog of writing prompts, open to all comers. And I started writing small fictions. Stories bloomed from the humblest words, in ways I never could have imagined! I wrote lots of them. It was incredibly exciting! They were short, and in some of them I recognized the potential for expansion, so I moved into the brainstorming and revision process on my three favorites, and the result is Goblin Fruit -- a collection of supernatural stories about kissing that will be published by Arthur A. Levine Books. Yippeeeeeee!

Truly, I would never have written those three stories without these three simple prompts: “Monster,” “Music,” and “Real Life.” I would never have written them if I hadn’t begun the practice of writing from prompts. It still astounds me the way a story can pour forth from a word like that. It makes me feel as if anywhere, any time, all around, anything could burst into story -- as if the world is some great advent calendar, with all those little doors waiting to be opened and reveal their mysteries. It’s SO COOL!!

first exploratory drafts

So you’ve daydreamed, you’ve brainstormed, you've outlined. You’ve grown the seed of your idea into something that can become a story, perhaps a novel.

Now comes the hard part: the writing. This is the heavy lifting of the whole writing extravaganza, the manual labor of it, and there aren’t any shortcuts or tricks. You just have to do it.

I don't count notes and outlines as “writing.” I reserve the word “writing” for when you’re IN the story, telling it, putting words together that put flesh to your idea’s bones. At a party this summer I met a guy who said he was a writer, and then he explained that while he had been working on two different fantasy trilogies since the 1970s, and had outlined them and dreamt up the worlds, he hadn't yet started. . . writing them. ULP! Now, I get this. I really do. World-building was the big fun for me as a young "writer." Dreaming up the cosmologies and character names, even drawing the maps of imaginary lands. I loved that part and I still do. But it isn't writing. Make no mistake. Outlining is not writing. "Dreaming stuff up" is not writing; it's the threshold of it. Progressing from the one to the other is like jumping off a cliff. It is so hard. And it has to start somewhere. Some call it the first draft.

Me, I have recently taken to calling that first flawed, juicy, wild draft the “exploratory draft.” It sounds so much more exciting than “first draft.” It sounds fearless, like you’re stepping into an unknown territory with a knife strapped to your thigh, or like you’re sailing around an uncharted island, looking for a place to drop anchor so you can dive in and swim ashore. And it IS kind of like that, because in your early days with your idea, no matter how well you think you know it from your daydreaming, brainstorming, and outlining, you can’t really know it until you’re IN it.

You have to find the story -- and that’s what exploratory drafts are for: exploring the unmapped lands of your idea and mapping them. It IS exploring, and for me, thinking of it like that helps dispel the expectation that it should be easy, casual work, that the story should somehow be waiting for me like someone’s dropped grocery list, all ready to go and just lying on a sidewalk. No story of mine is so tame! For better or worse, my stories are jungles.

There’s bushwhacking involved.

Okay. I’m very serious about this. I’m really not into new-agey visualization exercises or anything, but just follow me for a minute.

Imagine you’re standing at the edge of a jungle in, let’s say, Borneo (because I have a fascination with Borneo). You have a rough idea of how big this jungle is -- you’ve flown over it in a helicopter and seen dense green treecover, and you know what’s on the other side. You know where you want to get to, and you have a very vague idea of what’s IN the jungle, but you have no map, and as of yet there is no trail. What you do have is a machete, a blank roll of paper, and a grease pencil.

There’s only one way to get to the other side of the jungle: take out your machete and start whacking. Carve your way forward and forward, sometimes sideways and sometimes back, until you get to the other side. That first time through, you’re going to come across ravines, swamps, viper nests, rivers, all sorts of things you didn’t expect and you’ll deal with them and get around them, over them, through them, in all manner of resourceful ways. And when you step out of the jungle on the far side, what you’ll have in your hand is a sprawling, wrinkled, sweat-stained mess of a map of the territory you’ve just discovered. It might not look very pretty, but it is a glorious thing, a document of discovery. You clutch it to you, and after you’ve rested and healed for a while, you go back to the far side of the jungle and. . . you start again.

This time, with your messy map in hand, you’ll know where to go and where not to go. Some of the things you discovered your first time in, you’ll want to avoid like the plague; others will be perfect, serendipitous things that make the journey richer than you could have imagined when you set out. You’ll know your jungle/story intimately, the good and the bad, from ground level. Outlines, I think, are kind of the equivalent of aerial photography -- you get some idea, but you can’t really see what it’s like down below -- not until you’re walking through it. And when you find things to be not exactly as they had seemed from the air, you have to adapt.

Be nimble.

The second time through, your passage will be much more elegant than the first, and it will also be less exciting. Nothing will ever be so miserable or so thrilling as that first bushwhack. . . that first exploratory draft. The misery and the thrill are intertwined -- that’s exploration for you, taking the leeches and fevers with the discovery and getting to name islands and swamps after yourself! The second time, you’ll know what to expect. You’ll be refining your map. It will get more perfect and less exciting with each pass, and then one day you’ll be done. Done with that jungle and ready for a new one.

Okay, thanks for humoring me with that visualization. That crazy metaphor actually helps me to relish the early stage and take it for what it is: exploration. Sure, there are times I wish it was easier and more orderly, but it’s not, and I imagine if it was, it would be like finding a paved concrete trail through the jungle -- like someone had been there ahead of me. That sounds more like walking through a housing development than mapping a jungle. Unthrilling! And I don’t think it’s supposed to be like that.

I have heard rumors of writers to whom things come easily. I heard that William Styron claimed Sophie’s Choice flowed out of him perfectly and was published exactly as he first set it down -- that it is a first -- an only -- draft. And that book is big and gutsy and complex and heartbreaking, so if that story is true, well, I don’t know what to think. It doesn’t seem possible to me, but I’m not calling William Styron a liar. And if you come up to me and tell me you wrote a book in three weeks, well, I’m not calling you a liar either. I’ll just glare at you and plot your demise. Ha ha. Not really. I’ll just whisper behind your back that you must have been on drugs the whole time. Okay, okay! Not really. If you write well and with ease: kudos. You are blessed.

But I’m not really jealous. Not really. (At least, not at this moment.) My way might be tortuous and miserable at times, but I still love it, like someone loves their own ugly baby. It’s MY tortuous, miserable “ugly baby.” And I happen to think my ugly babies grow up into pretty good books!

some important decisions

Here are some big things that I work on from the beginning of a first draft and all the way through revisions: framing, point of view, and giving characters entrances. I may add other things to this section by and by, like developing characters and writing dialogue, but for now, this is what I have:

What is “framing”? To me, “framing” a story means crafting the way the reader enters, views, and experiences the story. A first chapter is the doorway into the story and it opens from there. You might go through the doorway and find yourself in a vast landscape with the whole world of the story already open all around you, or you might enter into a dim chamber that opens into a dark corridor where you catch glimpses of shadowy things as the story ushers you along. Is it airy or claustrophobic? Tense or calm? Mysterious? Funny? Shocking? It’s all up to you.

The framing establishes how the reader experiences everything.

Imagine your book is a world and you are the god of it and your reader is a tiny human navigating it. Your first job is to pick up that reader by the collar and drop him into your world. Where are you going to drop him? Will he land hard or soft? What’s the first thing he’s going to see? How much will he know and understand by the end of the first paragraph? The first chapter?

What do you want the reader to wonder about and hope for and fear? You want to set up certain expectations, and you want to dash some hopes -- but first you’ve got to put the readers where you want them. You have the power.

Point of View
Framing has a lot to do with Point of View. From what narrative perspective is the reader experiencing the action of the book? In first person through the eyes of the main character? From a limited third-person? Omniscient? This is what determines what the reader can see and know and there are many different way to go about it.

For me, I find it impossible to stick with one point of view. I use a third-person limited POV, but I switch whose POV it is, depending on whose perspective I think will make a given scene the most interesting. This is a classic no-no in children’s fiction but I just had to disregard it. I think I’ve done it in a way that ushers the readers along smoothly with me, so they don’t get disoriented or even really realize I’m doing it. (Fingers crossed. No one has yet said otherwise!) For example, at certain points I want the reader to know what Magpie is thinking, so I’m in her POV. At other points I want the reader to see what’s happening to her, as the other characters around her are seeing it, so I slip into one of their POVs.

This might sound confusing, but to show you what I mean: in Chapters 15 and 16 of Blackbringer, Magpie meets the Magruwen for the first time. Over the course of about 18 pages, the POV shifts several times between Magpie’s experience of the Magruwen, and the Magruwen’s experience of Magpie. Sure, I could have chosen just one or the other, but I felt it was richer and more fun to be able to experience it all, so I did what I wanted to do and hoped for the best.

Thank goodness, my editor did not ask me to revise the book down to a single POV. It would have been impossible for me. This is how I have to do it to have the freedom to frame scenes in whatever I feel is the “coolest” POV for that scene. To see what I mean, read the climax, Chapter 39, and imagine if it were only told from Magpie’s POV. See how much you wouldn’t be able to see and know? There are scenes in that chapter when we know the Blackbringer’s thoughts, and segments where we are with Talon, watching Magpie. For me, this gives me the freedom to pan around the scene and tease out the most dramatic frame for each part of the action.

I put extra spaces between scenes where the POV shifts, so usually in the first line of the new scene you know whose POV you’re in without having to think about it. Like I said, I hope no one even notices this until I mention it. The goal is always flow and a feeling of inevitability. When I’m watching a movie, the only times I notice technical stuff like camera work or the soundtrack are either if someone points it out to me, or if it’s badly done so it sticks out. I want to be swept into the movie and not be thinking of the fact that somebody made it. I want it to just be. Same with a book. I want to forget that it isn’t real and simply experience it. And as a writer, I want to provide an escapist experience for my readers.

There may, however, arise places where I haven’t handled things as deftly as I could, where I slip back and forth too rapidly between POVs, where you are in one character’s thoughts and you suddenly find yourself knowing a different character’s thoughts. That’s not okay. It’s got to be crafted carefully, and revisions are the place to really take this on.

Giving Characters “Entrances”
One of my favorite things is introducing my characters. This is a very important specific kind of framing. You want to set up your readers to feel a certain way about your characters, and you do this from the very first glimpse of them. How does the reader “meet” them? What are they doing or saying? This is somewhere I’m always trying to brainstorm up the “coolest” possible narrative choice.

The writer Sid Fleishman said at a SCBWI conference that you have to give your character “an entrance” -- an interesting and memorable introduction, and I agree with that entirely. In The Golden Compass, we meet Lyra sneaking and hiding and spying on her uncle. We immediately know a lot about her, and we also get to learn a lot by virtue of her spying and what she overhears. That’s a great frame and a great entrance. I chose to have readers meet Magpie while she’s doing what she does best: hunting devils. Take a look at some of your favorite books and memorable characters and see what those writers did, how they set you up to meet their characters, how they built windows through which you would experience the world of their story.

It’s craft. It’s a big part of the author’s power, and a big part of the fun of writing.

methods to my madness

You hear a lot about “process.”

What is process? I would say it is a combination of work habits and strategies that a writer uses in order to write. It’s little things and big things. Where and when we write, what we write with, whether we plow through a fast first draft in one bold spurt, or whether we shuffle timidly back and forth, revising as we go. Process is a big part of a writer’s identity, and it’s rooted in our psychology as human beings. To me, process is the way I, the writer, meet the it, the writing. Sometimes it’s like slow-dancing, sensuous and fine; other times like alligator-wrassling, all splashing and teeth and fear of death. Still other times it’s like two gunslingers facing each other down, motionless and tense and ready to draw their pistols.

Perhaps in the future I may settle down into one snug process and use it again and again, confident in its effectiveness. But now, I am still very much in the process of finding my process! Or rather, creating my process. It’s a large part of the “work” of writing. It’s all about keeping my story moving forward, keeping my faith that I’ll figure things out, and if I get stuck, prying myself unstuck.

Writing doesn’t come easily to me. Let me clarify what I mean by that. I love to write, and I have a fair amount of confidence in my skill with prose. I think I can write a nice sentence, and a nice paragraph, and a nice chapter, etc. And, I’m proud of my imagination, too. I love the ideas that come to me, and I love nurturing them along and spinning them into outlines and synopses. So on the one hand I love coming up with ideas. On the other hand, I love playing with language.

It seems like those two components should be all I need to write along in a dreamy, blissful fugue, spinning stories off my fingertips left and right. Right?


I am also afflicted with perfectionism. Sometimes I feel like Perfectionism should have its own entry in the DSM -- it feels like a diagnosable psychological disorder to me! I get so very stuck sometimes. I become aware that a sentence or chapter is not rolling along as well as ever it possibly could, and that awareness sort of rears up and blocks out everything else. I become distressed and distracted by the imperfections to the extent I have to sort them out before I move forward with the story. This is one way to write a book, and I think it will always be a part of my process; it’s who I am, and one thing I’ve learned in my struggles so far is you have to work with the brain you have -- and not waste time wishing you had a better one! But that doesn’t mean you let your hang-ups defeat you.

You devise strategies. You build up a sack of tricks for keeping yourself working, for keeping the story moving forward, for getting through that first exploratory draft, which is for many people one of the hardest things they will ever do -- and one of the proudest moments, too.

When I typed “the end” at the end of the first real draft of Blackbringer, I thought I was prepared. I’d known the ending for a while and I knew I was closing in on it, but when I typed those two little words and saw them there, I was suddenly flooded with emotion. Tears came to my eyes. It was a whooshing rush of a feeling, and I’m sure I probably flushed and got blotchy too. I was truly overwhelmed. I had done something that my whole life I had wanted to do. It was hard and it was so worth it.

So what are my tricks?

(I hope you’re not expecting anything magical when I say “tricks” -- it’s not magic, just more of that damned hard work!)

The "Working Doc"
This one has become an integral part of my process; it’s so much a part of my writing it seems like a given to me, and I have to remind myself I had to actually figure it out. All it means is that when I’m writing I have two documents open side by side on my laptop. One is the “real manuscript.” It usually starts with the words “Chapter One,” and I almost never leap into it feet first.

No. For me, because of my issues with perfectionism, trying to start writing beneath the words “Chapter One” is like taking an oath, “May lightning strike me if every single work I set down is not perfect.” It’s just too intimidating!! It’s like a too-beautiful, too-expensive journal. You know those? The ones with hand-tooled leather covers and creamy, gold-tipped pages? The ones that scream, “For brilliant thoughts only!” I could never write freely in such a journal. I could never loosen up enough to experiment or explore.

So I have another document next to my “real manuscript” and it’s usually titled something un-precious like “Working Doc 1.” Getting started each day, I type the date in my current working doc, and I might give my word count and goal for the day, and I have a brief chat with myself. Here is an actual example:

“June 16 -- Frick. My mental illness around this book progresses. Please, Laini, please start getting some work done. Please, today: some new writing. The problem? Too many choices, too many different things that could happen. Got to just make some choices and GO.”


“June 24 -- I am hesitantly excited that I came up with another “breakthrough” last night. Of course, I need to go over it all again. Where was I?”

And then I schloop out all my thoughts about where I am in the story and what needs to happen next and what’s holding it up, or perhaps what I’m really excited about writing. I find my place. Depending on how I’m doing and if I feel like I know where I’m headed, it might just be a very brief hello to myself; or it might be a long, many-page outline reevaluating the flow of the story.

And then I start the scene there, usually, in that free, safe working doc, where there is no judgment and I don’t imagine my characters rolling their eyes at my feeble efforts. And what often happens is this: I get into a flow. The scene starts to unfold, my fear of the real manuscript document evaporates, and I cut and paste what I’ve written and continue for the rest of the day like that, the worst of my anxiety having been dealt with.

It sounds kind of silly to me when I explain it, but I am unabashed. I’m learning to make my brain do what I want it to, and that’s good.

Multiple Versions
Say you've got a scene that you love; it took you a long time to write, and the language is beautiful and some great things happen in it. Yay, right? Sure, but say you know deep down it isn't right. It's got to go to make way for something that will make things happen in the story the way you really need them to. But you just can't cut that scene. It's too good.

That's just one scenario that explains the fact that I have multiple (as in multiple multiple) versions of every manuscript. I could never delete that scene. But you know what I could do? I could cut and paste it as an "outtake" into a working doc so it's not lost; or I could "save as" and start a new "version" of my manuscript and delete it from that one, knowing it's still safe and sound elsewhere. Then I know that if I want to, I can restore it. It makes it easier to let go, because it's not really letting go.

What usually happens is that the new version progresses and I lose my attachment to that scene that I was holding onto so tight.

See what trickery I have to resort to? Whatever works! This example of just a single scene, that's an "underxaggeration" (I just made that word up. Can you tell?) My multiple versions are like a bunch of weird clones with slightly different personalities. Like I said, I change my mind a lot, and this is a way I can change my mind without any feeling of risk. What does this look like in practice? Here's what it looks like in my computer folder (don't mock me):

Silksinger draft 1
Silksinger draft 1a
Silksinger draft 2
Silksinger draft 2a
Silksinger draft 2b
Silksinger draft 3
Silksinger draft 3a . . . etcetera, etcetera. . .

Oh, and these are not finished drafts; most of these are only about 60 pages long -- that was the place I kept getting stuck on this book and deciding to change everything. So these are a lot of alternate beginnings. I'm not saying this is healthy, or the best way to go about things, just that it helps ME. And in this case, I really believe I had to endure all this mind-changing, because as the book is now, there are pieces from every version, like they were ingredients I had to cull from months of brainstorming to weave together into just the right thing. Yes, it made my head hurt, but it was worth it.

When I am stuck, freewriting is almost always the answer. Actually, I would say it is always the answer. I don’t know why I resist it sometimes. It always works. It’s like this: you’re going through a labyrinth and you get lost. If you just stop and stand there, you’ll stay lost forever and ever. You’ll die lost. But if you dart this way and then that way and then that way, etcetera, chances are that eventually you’ll find your way.

It’s really like that. You’ve got to explore, and freewriting is the way to do it. I should say when I use the term "freewriting" I don't think I mean what you might mean by it. I don't mean true freewriting, where you put down anything that comes to your mind just to get your hand moving. I mean a kind of directed freewriting, where your starting point is the scene at hand, and you take what you know and go, letting things happen and not being attached to the outcome as the way things have to be in your story. It's just a way of getting at possibilities.

Say your character is stuck at a certain point in the story. What do you do? What I do -- after I quit whining about it -- is I give myself some space in my working doc (or a new one with some title like “temp scene”) and I start freewriting. I make something happen, fully aware it might be the wrong thing. It doesn’t matter. It’s only my working doc. After I finish that freewrite, I may be certain it is awful, perhaps even the very worst thing I or anyone in history has ever written. I may not even read it again. I may just immediately start again freewriting the same scene and take it in a different direction this time.

You might tell yourself you're going to freewrite three different versions of the scene in a row. When illustrators are starting on a drawing, they draw multiple simple "thumbnails" trying to get the best composition; this is like that.

And here’s the thing that’s cool. Almost always, some idea will materialize from nowhere -- the magic that happens between your fingertips and the keyboard -- and you’ll figure out what to do. One of the "thumbnails" will stir you. You’ll get a snick. You might read that freewrite and find that it’s actually got some pretty decent writing in it you can use. Or you might choose not to read it, but just to take that idea as the seed of what happens next, and start yet again, with a little more care and intention next time.

Try it. I swear by it, even when I hate doing it.

Telling Myself the Story (again and again)
I like complex plots with lots characters, and I like storylines that converge and fit together just so, and things that unfold to reveal layers of secrets. I like dense, chewy books with lots of stuff happening in them! And so my plots often get away from me. Here’s what it feels like: it feels like I am braiding hair and the braid has more strands than I have fingers to hold them. I keep dropping them. I’d wager that anyone who has ever waited tables has had anxiety dreams about it, in which you are working but you have too many tables, or an endless coffee counter, and you just can’t do it all. It feels like that. I start to feel like I’m just plain not smart enough or capable enough to pull off what I’m trying to do.

What I do when this happens is I hop on over to my dear working doc and I tell myself the story in the simplest terms I can, trying to weave everything together into a synopsis. Doing this serves several purposes.

1.) It reminds me what I’m trying to do, and what things are most important to me in the story.
2.) It might show me new things that hadn’t occurred to me yet. It might make me slap my forehead and say, “I can’t believe I only just now realized that this is what my story is about! Why didn’t I see it before?”
3.) It helps me see where the plotting is getting too convoluted. It makes me work at simplifying things to make them as elegant and inevitable as possible. Elegant and inevitable are what I’m shooting for with plot, no matter how complex it is. Though we writers know that at any point, literally anything could happen, I want the reader to feel that the story is flowing naturally; I don’t want them to ever feel me deciding what should happen next. Telling and retelling myself the story (in writing) is the way I refine my plots.

I don't just do this once. I do it over and over until I "get it."

Reminding Myself What I Love
Sometimes in the middle of a book or story, I lose sight of what first excited me about it. Because I have been IN it so long, I can’t remember why I thought a certain idea was cool, or I find myself drifting away from what I initially loved, or any manner of hazardous thing. Occasionally I have found it helpful to make a list about all the things that I love most about my idea and my story. I have such a list for Silksinger and sometimes I have to look at it and I immediately feel a spark -- there are so many cool, exciting things I have put into this book, or am going to put into this book. I can’t help but get a little excited.

It's crucial to develop work habits -- good work habits. I've heard many writers speak of the "B.I.C." (butt-in-chair) principle. I loved how Candie Moonshower said that she "sits on her muse." Yep. That's about the story with my muse, too -- no graceful maiden with fiery eyes. Just my own tush, planted on my bench, whether I "feel like it" or not. I love the Picasso quote, "I don't know what inspiration is, but when it comes, I hope it finds me working." Writers cannot wait for inspiration. We must roll up our sleeves, just like bakers and mechanics, and go to it.

So sitting down to the work is the start, but there's more. SARK talked about developing a "habit of completion" and this is a VERY important habit! For me, there's no feeling like finishing something! Getting through a first draft! Typing "the end" at the end! It's the embodiment of the satisfaction of crossing items off a list once you've accomplished them. Completion a habit well worth the agony of developing. And I think, like any habit, it gets easier. It gets, you know, habitual. The more things you finish, the more you know you can do it -- and not only can but will. I'm hoping that this grows continually easier throughout my writing life, that my habits will imprint themselves deeper and deeper. But I do know that where I am NOW is a massive improvement over where I was several years ago when I finally decided I'd better write that novel I wanted to write.

Like many other writers I know, I find it easier to start things than finish them. That's a massive understatement. It's SO much easier to start than finish! That's why so many writers have twelve or thirteen unfinished books that they're "working on." When a project gets hard, the "hard" feeling often translated as "boring." We get bored with our own work, and we need the freshness and excitement of a new idea, so we start a new story. BAD writer! BAD! Stop it. You'll never finish anything that way.

When something gets hard, and gets boring, don't go to something new to get reinspired. It's within your power to reinspire yourself on your current project. One of the ways I might do this is that listed right above: by listing all the things I love about the idea. And I brainstorm, coming up with ways to get excited about it again. Chances are, it's just the place you're stuck that's making your feel bored, and once you get through it -- in some exciting way you haven't thought of yet -- it'll be dazzling all over again. Work through it. Work.

*A note on “coolness.” It’s not a great technical term or anything, but I find that what I am shooting for in my writing can often best be summed up by the word “cool.” When I’m brainstorming ideas and plot, I’m searching for the “coolest” possible way to fit the elements together, or introduce a character, or unfold a scene, or whatever is the task at hand. I don’t mean "cool" in the “Fonzie” cool-cat way, but in the way you say “cool” when you’re looking through a microscope at a dragonfly wing, or standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or when you see a really amazing illustration or find out that houseflies are 10 million times more sensitive to food taste than humans, and you think: "Cool." That feeling. That’s what I want when I’m reading, and it’s what I want when I’m writing. When I get it right the snick comes, and something else -- the desire to high-five myself. When I feel that, it’s a good, good thing.

hard work & revisions

When I used to sell my artwork at an outdoor fair, I would hear people say everyday, “I wish I could draw,” and my response was always, “Anyone can learn to draw, if they want to.” The wanting to, that’s the key. Leaving off the mere idle wishing and proceeding with doing. Some people have a gift for drawing, and who knows where gifts come from, but you know, even if God or genetic happenstance did not make you a brilliant artist, you can still learn to draw. Same with almost anything.

If drawing were taught in school every day like math, we’d all be able to draw. Period. But it isn’t, so it has this mystique of a gift either God-given or God-withheld. I won’t argue with the existence of “the gift” -- I do believe in Genius. But we’re not talking about being great. We’re talking about. . . doing.

About working.

I happen to think that work is as important as talent. We need to work hard. We need to build our lives and our dreams like we’re building houses or bridges or something, and not expect it to be easy and idyllic. I mean, why should we be so special and dainty that muses should just touch us with pleasant feathers of inspiration? We need to be willing to WORK. Writing might not be sweaty work, despite all I said about bushwhacking and exploration, but it’s damn hard work nonetheless, and I kind of feel like if it isn’t hard, you’re not doing it right! You know what they say about skiing: if you’re not falling down, you’re not pushing yourself. Same with writing!

Do you want it to be easy? Ask yourself why you want to be a writer. Is it for the idea of “being a writer”? The queue of people waiting for you to sign their books? Having a castle in Scotland, like J.K. Rowling has? Well, er, I totally want that too. Only not a castle in Scotland: a villa on the Amalfi Coast (except that the new National Geographic suggests Mount Vesuvius is bound to blow again, so I don’t know). And THEN a castle in Scotland. But whatever. I know there are surer ways to get real estate than writing. I write because I love to make stuff up and tell a story. And heck, I love signing books too. I haven’t done that much of it, but what I have done made me feel like a rock star, a humble, grateful rock star. I want people to read my books!

But 99 days out of a hundred, the writing life is not about connecting with people who are reading your books -- it’s just about writing them. Alone. In sweat pants, with coffee. And you better love doing that, because that’s what the job is: a lot of solitary work punctuated by brief flurries of appreciation. . . and criticism.

Saying this, I feel like one of those teachers on the first day of a night class who tells you, “Don’t get into children’s books to make money. You won’t make any money. Quit now.” No! Don’t quit! Make lots of money! Buy a castle and then invite me to it. Please. Writing is awesome. And making money writing, that’s awesome too. I love hearing about successful writers mobbed with fans, writers who can’t fit all their money in their wallets! I have NO sour grapes at all for J.K. Rowling. I love her. To me, she is the real Queen of England. Or Scotland. Or whatever. She rocks.

There’s one thing that irks me, and it’s writers who don’t work hard.

Someone once smugly told me their [unpublished] novel took only weeks to write, as if that was a good thing. I was, er, unimpressed. To be clear, I didn’t read the novel. Maybe I would have been impressed. Maybe it was great and I would have stewed to think this person could write such a brilliant book in a few weeks. But I doubt it. It happens, I guess. Geniuses, blah blah. Good for them. But if you aren’t one, you learn to do what needs to be done.

I heard a story about Robert Frost -- I don’t know if it’s true. The story goes that he was teaching a poetry class, and when it came time for the students to hand in their first poems, he collected them all and stood before the class with the papers in a big stack in his hand, and he said, “Now I want you to raise your hand if what you gave me here is your very best work.”

What do you think happened?
No one raised their hands. No one.
And what do you think happened next?
Robert Frost dropped the entire stack of poems into the trash can.

Now, I get why the students didn’t raise their hands. It doesn’t come naturally to most of us to own up to our gifts; we’re creatures of uncertainty, insecurity. The students were probably paralyzed, thinking that if Robert Frost didn’t like that one poem he’d think them hopeless cases. I probably wouldn’t have raised my hand, and I hope Mr. Frost scooped those poems out of the trash after his point was made.

What was his point? To me, it’s this: do your best work and claim it as such. Only pass your very best work along to be read by others. Have the respect for your readers to work really, really hard, and when you are convinced you’ve done your best, when you LOVE what you’ve written, when it fills you up with excitement and pride and joy, OWN IT.

Don’t fall into thinking that just because you want something a whole lot -- like getting published -- you deserve it. You have to earn it. And don’t think that just because you wrote something it deserves to be read. It might not be good enough -- yet. When I first started going to conferences and showing my portfolio, I really really wanted to illustrate picture books, and I sort of thought I deserved the chance, just because I wanted it so much, and I was working really really hard. Now I can see, in retrospect, that I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t been working hard enough, long enough -- in my case, my work wasn’t there yet. It’s hard to know when it is. You might not know. But listen when people tell you to keep on working, and do the best you can.

Don’t just be an “artist.” Be a “craftsperson” too. What do I mean by that? Others might disagree, but after having been through a school of “Arts and Crafts” this is what I mean by it: “Art” is an impossible term to quibble about. If someone says their creation is art, it is. I believe that. If someone dips themselves in paint then rolls across a canvas, well, it’s art if they say it is. If they hang a bent wire on the wall and call it art. . . it’s art. And whether that art is “good” or not, well, just the thought of that debate makes me tired. I don’t even care. It’s subjective. But with CRAFT -- and this is so awesome -- there are standards. It’s not purely subjective. Someone can be a good or a bad silversmith. A good or a bad glass blower. A good or a bad wood carver. Their level of skill can be judged. It’s craft.

Writing can be good or bad. I think writers should be both artists and craftspeople. As artists: striving for something ineffable, something that lingers, that imprints itself in your mind like a fossil. As craftspeople: doing the best possible job with your tools. Being technicians.

As a writer, I am going to go to crazy lengths trying to write the absolute best book I can possibly write before I cross my fingers and hope people buy it and read it. It’s a matter of respect. I want to be the student in Robert Frost’s class who proudly raises her hand.

So what do I mean, in practice, by being willing to work hard?

For one, don’t think your first draft is perfect. It’s natural to be very proud when you finish something, to see it as the perfect flawless flowering of your talent -- but Sophie’s Choice aside, first drafts always need work. They might even need drastic amounts of work. You may in fact need to cut 25,000 words out, make the secondary character the narrator, lose the first six chapters and start with chapter 7, or any variety of extremely painful, drastic things. You will not be able to see this when you have just finished it.

You need to put it in a drawer for a few weeks or a month, even longer if you can stand it. Give yourself long enough that you can gain some distance from it and read it with fresh eyes. This is really, really important. Then when you come back to it, hopefully you can read it with joy and pride, loving it, but also be able to see how it can be made better. Be clear-eyed and honest, and be brave. Open your mind to new ideas and new ways to make your story better. It’s never too late to make a bold change. Be willing to rewrite a scene a dozen times or more -- as many as it takes. Go above and beyond the call of duty. You’re striving for your best -- never be content with a scene or even a single line until you love it.

Remember: something is not good or valid just because you did it. I know there are people who will argue with me on this and assert that all creative product is “valid.” Maybe it is in kindergarten, but not when you’re a grownup striving to get published. It doesn’t matter how important the story is to you, how much you want it to be published. All that matters is how good it is. How interesting, and how well told. How much it makes the reader care about it.

When you put writing into the world to be read, YOU are no longer part of the equation. The story or book is its own entity, singing for its own supper. If the opening is not gripping enough, you will not be standing there to urge the editor, “Just keep reading. In chapter three things really get rolling.” No. It’s your job to give that story the ability to grab the reader and not let them go.

This job is not for the lazy, or the half-assed. Well, sure, lots of lazy, half-assed books get published and even become bestsellers, so that proves me wrong. I guess this whole screed of mine is a plea to NOT contribute to that. Please, write good books. Give the world GOOD BOOKS. Only add books to the shelves of the world that you truly believe in and love, that you cradled in your mind with great devotion and worked at with diligence and craft.



I love to revise. I’m like a little girl rearranging doll house furniture. Just let me at it! This is the candy store part of writing for me. I know some writers hate to revise, but I can’t really imagine that, so if you’re one of those writers, I can’t think of anything to say to cheer you on except this:

Revisions mean that the first draft -- the hardest thing in the world -- is done. Hallelujah!!! Now comes the opportunity to take what you’ve done and make it better.

First, take a break. This is really essential. Put the story or book away for as long as you can. Write something else. Read things. Go on a trip. Organize your office. Bake cookies for your writing group and/or editor. Personally, I do not advise giving them your first draft, not if it is a true first draft. Some writers call that first thing the “zero draft” because in their minds it doesn’t even qualify as a first draft. I like “exploratory draft” better, of course, but still, I will not be giving anyone, not even my editor, my earliest draft to read. It would be cruel and pointless.

It’s still a mess. You might not think it is, but just assume it is.

And don’t have the attitude that you’re hoping to change as little as possible when you revise, like it’s boring homework or something you’re trying to get away with. It’s not homework! It’s vital, beautiful work -- but still in its early stages. The best is yet to come. I mean, what are the chances that you wrote the coolest, best, most awesome possible version of your book on the first try? (Never mind you, William Styron.) The chances are slim. I would say that this point, having finished my first draft and being poised to begin revising, is my very favorite part of the whole process.

I know earlier I said revising would never be so thrilling (or miserable) as the exploratory draft, and that’s true. It’s not thrilling, but it does satisfy the perfectionist in me, the one I’ve been battling with all along, trying to keep her from taking over too soon. Now I can stop fighting. I can let my true persnickety, word-loving, sentence-futzing nature emerge. When I’m revising, I’m in my element.

I love to print out the manuscript -- especially if I haven’t read it in a while --into a nice neat, white stack and start reading and making notes on it. I feel so accomplished and so in charge. And I still feel that anything can happen. I’m not just copyediting myself here, marking typos and such. I’m still casting my mind out for bigger, better, cooler ideas and solutions, more elegant ways to fit the plot together, new things the characters might say and do. I’m writing whole new scenes; I’m rearranging a lot. I’m cutting whatever I possibly can. I’m hyper alert for any boring parts and I am trying desperately not to deceive myself on that score.

I really really don’t want to write boring books! This is my first real chance to test my book for boringness, and I hope I’m going to be ruthless with it -- as ruthless as if it were someone else’s book. Even worse: as ruthless as if it were someone else’s bestseller. (I don’t know about you, but I judge bestselling books with a much more critical eye than non-bestselling books. It’s like some jealous little part of me wants to prove why they’re unworthy of that status. I love it when they are worthy and are fabulous -- I recently read and adored Water for Elephants -- but I also kind of relish it when they’re not, when I can chuff and snort and bemoan readers’ poor taste. It’s weirdly satisfying!)

Revising as I go
I don’t want to give the impression that my first drafts get written straight through, or that I forge ahead in one bold plunge like some kind of madman! I admire writers who can do that, but I have not yet been able to. I try, and each time it is like losing at arm-wrestling match. . . with myself. I have to revise as I go. I have to.

This is how my personality manifests in my process. Despite the fact that I currently have pink hair and blue toenails, I am not a wild, daring person. I like the idea of wild, daring people, but I’m on the cautious side of artistic expression myself. In art school I did not like drawing in front of others; I don’t generally enjoy dancing (I’m a tad too uptight); I can’t sing; public speaking makes me anxious, and back in high school I remember distinctly even being a bit too self-conscious to belt out loud “woo hoos!” at football games. I was afraid I’d do it wrong! (That’s so sad.) My painting and drawing style is very planned and controlled. Never have I attacked a blank canvas with a big drippy brush. Never! I spend ages on a drawing first; I use tiny brushes, I love detail, and paintings take me a really long time.

So too with writing.

Usually, after all my thinking and planning and all the brainstorming, note-taking, and daydreaming that precede my actual writing, I get started, and soon enough I discover that I don’t know what I thought I knew. I change my mind. A lot. With Silksinger, page 60 has seemed to be about the magic number for changing my mind. I have written multiple different beginnings to this book and gone on ahead with them, only to get to that same spot and get a new, better idea and have to change everything.

It can be very disheartening. It can also be very exciting to get the new, better idea. It’s all bad things and all good things rolled up together, just like life.

I know it seems like a good strategy to just keep going, to just get a draft written. But once I feel like I’m on the wrong track, there’s no way I can go on. I have to fix it. I’m not talking about little things or minor adjustments. I’m talking about the entire framing of the novel changing, the perspective, the circumstances of the main character’s life, even who the main character is. Silksinger, still very much underway, has been a hard book to write because I have too many ideas, and I am trying to do a lot with a lot of characters, all while keeping it working within the overall series arc. It’s a puzzle at all times. It makes my brain hurt. But it also lights my mind on fire with the possibilities. I am so deeply in love with this book! I can’t wait to get it right and let some people read it!

It’s on track with it now. I’m certain this time. But there were times where I was poised on the verge of yet another big change and I thought I must be some kind of insane. This is straight out of my notebook:

“OH MY GOD -- the rumors are true! I have another new idea for the framing of this dang book, and it involves another new beginning. I make myself very, very tired. But I can’t help it. I like this better.”

Revising is a huge part of the craft aspect of writing, and it can be a time of luscious possibility. Don’t dread it. Embrace it! Do what needs to be done.

getting published

This section is still in development. For now, here are a few things that have been absolutely crucial on my own path to publication:

Just work
You have to prove yourself. It’s that simple. First, the work has to be good, and second, it has to get read by “the right people.” So work until it’s good, and then comes the time to figure out how to get it into an agent or editor’s hands. But don’t forget the working part! Too many writers are worrying about publication too soon. Work first. Work!

Go to conferences
I am eternally grateful to the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators for creating a place where hopeful writers can congregate and empathize and learn, and also meet editors and other publishing professionals, and see that they are actual people, and even better: the best kind of people -- the kind who love books!

Editors ARE looking for books. They DO want to find exciting new authors. So why is it so hard to get your manuscript in front of an editor’s eyeballs? I believe that has a lot to do with the fact that there are a lot of writers sending in reams of paper to all the publishing houses and agencies, creating daunting and horrifying “slush piles” from which almost no one ever emerges. Do not contribute to the slush pile lightly. Pity the folks who have to deal with that mountain of paper. Do your research, send your manuscripts to appropriate places (like, don’t send a manuscript about white suburban characters to a publisher who specializes in ethnic and multicultural titles, or don’t send a picture book ms to an editor who only does teen fiction.)

Sadly, no matter how awesome a manuscript is, the chances of it being discovered in a slush pile are almost nil. Don’t spend you life waiting around for someone to dig in a slush pile for your book. Go to conferences. By going to conferences, you may luck into a way around the slush pile! For one thing, some editors will let you send a manuscript directly to them if you attended their workshop at a conference. Your manuscript will go right to their own personal slush pile, which is better by far than the general heaping slush pile!

Also important, by hearing editors speak at conferences, you can get a good sense of which ones might be interested in a book like yours. At the conference where I first heard my editor speak, I also attended workshops by a number of editors who, though they seemed like really neat people, were not looking for fantasy adventure books. So I zeroed in on the handful of editors who seemed like a better fit. Of the four editors I heard at conferences and sent my manuscript to, I received offers from three of them! I have never sent a manuscript to an editor I have not heard speak at a conference, though I don’t have a rule about that -- it’s just great to get a sense of who an editor is. It’s a very important relationship, after all!

So, it was incredibly awesome that I got offers on Blackbringer. I don’t mean to gloss over that. It was a glowing high point of my life, and I believe that the reason I got those offers is all about conferences. Aside from helping you meet “the right people,” conferences help you learn how to write books! I can trace the evolution of the Blackbringer manuscript through the workshops I attended in successive years at the SCBWI national conference held in Los Angeles. That conference was sort of the loom on which my book was strung. I learned about writing a middle-grade fantasy series. I met my agent. I met a wonderful editor who helped me along for quite a long time, giving me feedback on early drafts. I heard invaluable pieces of advice from writers and editors and artists and art directors and agents. I learned the business and I worked hard for my luck. I feel very, very lucky, but believe me, I spent much money, time, and bullheaded determination “studying to get lucky!” (that right there is a conference-gleaned phrase, spoken by the writer Graham Salisbury.)

I’ll repeat the Thomas Jefferson quotation again: “I’m a big believer in luck. I find that the harder I work, the more of it I have.”


If you don’t write for children, I don’t know what other conferences to suggest, but I know there are lots and lots, so find them out. Yes, they cost money, but to me, that money has been as well spent as my college tuition!

I found myself starting to get into “the basics” of getting published, but I felt a little defeated by the massiveness of this topic -- I might beef up this section some time. But for now, I'll just say that the above two points are, to me, the most important two points, and I'll say that you need to know the publishing industry if you want to work in it. Don't just start sending manuscripts out willy nilly. That would be kind of like . . . [okay, I'm a bit stuck over a perfect metaphor here] It would be like, er, trying to send a letter to a friend in New York by addressing it just: My Friend, New York. [okay, not a perfect metaphor!] I mean, there's a whole lot more you need to know than that! This is a job, a business, a big, bustling, magnificent profession, and though you spend most of your time alone at home writing, you still need to know about it. So start learning.

I'll try to give more practical info and links here by and by. Good luck and have fun!