Writing Is Never A Waste of Time

Recently I got email from someone I know who asked me for advice. The email was longer than the excerpt below but I’ll snip to encapsulate:

“how do you write when you’re faced with the very likely possibility that it’s likely all for nothing unless you trip into some luck somewhere? I have no clue how other writers get past this to create stuff, when I’ve pretty much lived a creative life that said if you don’t have something worthwhile that makes an impact on someone besides you at the end of whatever you do, it’s wasted time.”


First of all, if writing gives you pleasure it is NEVER wasted time. NEVER.

I can pretty much recite the utilitarian argument because we see it so much: if you don’t get paid for it, if no one else thinks it is worth money, if you don’t sell X amount or receive Y number of positive reviews, then “you” don’t count. This view does pervade much of our money and success driven culture, and in the 24/7 social media culture where people can interact all the time and where interaction and sharing becomes part of the process, it can seem that writing is inextricably linked to the idea that it only matters if others want it or pay for it or talk about it in the right way.

I’ll say it again:

If writing gives you pleasure it is NEVER wasted time.

I started writing as a teen. Publishing was so distant from me that I only vaguely dreamed of publishing. I was writing for myself and no one else. I’m old fashioned enough that I tend to think teachers having their students “publish” their books in the classroom is a mistake because it makes people think that only publication makes the writing legitimate. This isn’t helped by the current crop of “hot new young writing star” publicity, as if you aren’t published by 25 then you are therefore already a failure. It isn’t helped by people trying to score points in internet debates by saying Writer X has more Amazon or goodreads reviews and thus must be taken more seriously than Writer Y who only has fewer. It isn’t helped by people trying to create hierarchy by claiming that only award and review notice matters, not “mere” popularity. Taken in terms of the act of writing as writing, those are secondary issues in terms of “legitimacy.”

What makes the writing legitimate is the way it makes you feel inside, the spark of excitement as a scene becomes clear, as vivid words and images emerge that you didn’t expect, as characters surprise you.

It’s weird because before I was published I knew nothing about the science fiction and fantasy scene. I had no interaction with anyone about my writing except my high school English teacher and a couple of university writing teachers. The former was great and hugely influential because he encouraged me both in my love of writing and by recommending classics to read that would bring breadth into my imaginative vista. The latter were basically a waste of time because they universally scorned genre, given this was long before genre became cool and “serious,” and kept telling me I ought to write “real fiction” instead of sff.

After college I tried to sell my first finished novel. It never did sell; it was really very bad, and it is PERFECTLY OKAY that it wasn’t very good because I loved writing it at the time I wrote it. I was totally into it.

Everything we write should make us happy as writers in that the writing of it can fulfill something inside us. Everything we write also makes us better writers (if we pay attention).

After failing to sell that book I wrote three more novels. I got an agent by sending out letters and getting rejections until I found one willing to take me on. I got published. Only then did I learn about sff conventions. I knew nothing about fandom or fanfiction.

Now I see that this ignorance has helped me in specific ways.

I always at root write for myself. When I struggle with my writing it is always because I’m worrying not about the book itself but about reception, about outside things. Again, it was easier in the ancient days to just write in the privacy of my own head, and it’s much harder now that I can anticipate that people will be reading and reacting to the words I’m setting down.

Back then I wrote solely to please myself. I wrote stories I wanted to read.

I would ask writers two questions:

1) Why are you writing? What is your goal?

2) Does the story you are writing right now make you happy in the sense that it gives you pleasure and satisfaction as you see it come into being? Leaving aside ALL OTHER FACTORS, just on your own behalf — does it make you smile creatively? Do you think “Whoo! I did that! Ooo! I could do this other thing here!”

I’m not saying it is easy to block out all the other competing goals and voices and complications, but that

“Oooo! Whoo!”

is for me the central worthwhile thing about writing.

I care about the other stuff too, of course, and it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise. A lot of my self identity is tied up now with being a publishing writer, and I can’t pretend that publishing, paying my mortgage, reader reaction, reviews, interaction with other writers, reading, and all the elements tied into having a writing career aren’t central to my sense of who I am. It isn’t really possible to Franzen-like block out all the influences that pour down over us, and I don’t want to pretend it is.

But that’s not at root why I started writing and why I continue to write.

I write because, however hard it may be at any given moment, deep in my heart it delights me to writing fiction.

If you can find that place, keep pulling yourself back to that place when you stray, then write the story that you want to tell, and write it for yourself.

2014 in Retrospective. 2015 Prospective.

For me 2014 proved to be one of those years more endured than enjoyed, with some memorable exceptions. For those interested in what I wrote over the course of the year, here is a retrospective.


I published a single piece of fiction in 2014, a story (novelette) that I wrote as a valentine for my readers: The Courtship. I call it a coda to the Spiritwalker Trilogy because it takes place a few days after the end of Cold Steel.

No novel in 2014, alas. Which always makes me feel as if I have been unproductive. So here is what I did accomplish:

As I’ve mentioned, I fell behind writing Black Wolves because of my father’s final illness and death in 2013, so although Black Wolves was originally scheduled for November 2014 it was not even finished by the end of 2013.

I completed a first draft of Black Wolves, and subsequently two revisions, for Orbit Books.

I also completed a final line edit and copy edits and page proofs on Court of Fives, my YA debut with Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, coming August 2015.

In addition I completed copy edits and page proofs for my forthcoming short fiction collection, The Very Best of Kate Elliott (Tachyon Publications), forthcoming in February 2015.

I started (and have not yet finished) a piece of short fiction called The Beatriceid, in the style of the Aeneid, but told from the perspective of Beatrice (one of the heroines of the Spiritwalker Trilogy). I also have written about half a short story, “When I Grow Up,” told from the point of view of [spoiler]. I plan to finish these ASAP.


Justine Larbalestier and I launched a monthly book club for Bestselling Women’s Fiction (of the 20th century). We read a novel each month, chatted about it in email and compiled that chat into a post, and invited discussion. I thought this was pretty great, and you can read our posts and the discussion. Unfortunately the press of our schedules overcame us in the second half of the year and we had to put the project on hiatus but we hope to start it up again here in 2015.

This RocketTalk podcast hosted by Justin Landon in which N.K. Jemisin and I discuss bias in the science fiction and fantasy field went really well, and frankly I’m proud of how the discussion unfolded on a difficult and controversial topic.

In honor of NaNoWriMo I managed to write a blog post a day about writing for the first 14 days. You can find a list of these posts at the NaNoWriMo tag/category on this blog.

I wrote up a long squee post about Martha Wells’ The Fall of Ile-Rien Trilogy which generated a lot of wonderful discussion both here and on my Live Journal mirror site.

Another squee post: Over at A Dribble of Ink I highlighted the illustrations drawn by Hugo-award-winning artist Julie Dillon for my illustrated short story “The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal” Because I will never get tired of talking about what a great artist she is!

In December I again participated in Smugglivus, the annual festival of posts at the home of the marvelous Book Smugglers. This year I discussed the presence of women relating to women in narratives (with a focus on television).


If you asked me what I accomplished this year, I would say: Not enough.

Funny how harshly we can judge ourselves.


I don’t get out much because it is expensive to fly from Hawaii to anywhere. (Why is no one crying for me?)

BUT I did have an absolutely fabulous trip to England and France in August and September of 2014. I visited dear friends, went to a nurturing writer’s retreat in Brittany, and in general soaked up hanging out with writers and sff community people and cramming in a year’s worth of shop talk in one month.

I attended Loncon (Worldcon) in London, which was huge, wonderful, diverse, exciting, and exhausting (in the right way), the best Worldcon I have attended.

I was honored to be one of the Guests of Honor (with Larry Rostant, Charlaine Harris, & Toby Whithouse) at Fantasycon, ably run by Lee Harris. This small literary convention proved to be a really fabulous weekend in York, England.


I’ll be writing. The aforementioned two short pieces need to be finished (I have other Spiritwalker short fiction that is partially written too; in a perfect world I would finish them all by June and bring them out as a short collection, but I’m skeptical I can manage that with my current novel writing schedule).

My novel writing schedule? A YA novel and an epic fantasy novel. I will also try to find time to eat and sleep and exercise and, if I’m lucky, to read.

The rest of this week I will be posting about my forthcoming projects and when you can expect them and where you can pre-order. It looks to be a busy year. I say that as a good thing.

As always, my thanks to my readers. You make this all possible.

NaNoWriMo 15 & 16: brief detour to write about The Steerswoman

I will miss a couple of days in my NaNoWriMo writing posts because I’ve been asked (on an extremely tight deadline) to write up a piece for another venue on a “feminist classic.” I’ll be writing about Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman books.

I plan to start up again next week with a post on voice and point of view featuring Tricia Sullivan’s SHADOWBOXER and Beth Bernobich’s THE TIME ROADS.

After which I will likely switch my focus to posts on world building for the rest of the month.

NaNoWriMo 13 & 14: Write What Is In You To Write

NOTE: Due to two unexpected requests on a short deadline for non fiction pieces, I have combined today’s and tomorrow’s NaNoWriMo post into one.


I have the hardest time defining “voice.”

I think of voice in two ways. I believe (you are welcome to disagree) that every writer has a fairly consistent internal voice in terms of intrinsics, regardless of whether any given story will appear the same. By this I don’t mean that every one of their stories will be told in the same style or with the same point of view inflection but rather that they will bring their perspective, their experience, their biases, the peculiar nature of their particular interests and how they focus on narrative , and subtle, specific similarities of rhythms and colors and filters to their work. This will hold true within the deepest levels of story even when the external voice, the point of view and style any specific story is told in, varies from piece to piece.

It’s a truism that writers must “find their voice” and to a fair degree I believe that to be true although I might phrase it differently. Each writer takes a different path to uncovering what’s at the heart of what they want to write about. For some, voice comes first before anything while others have to peel away competing layers of borrowed voices until they get to their own.

It is difficult if not impossible to tell other people’s stories by which I don’t mean that you can only write about your own direct life but that you can’t write the stories other people think you should write. I have had both relatives, writing teachers, and other folks KINDLY inform me that if only I would write this other stuff, this important stuff, then it would be the right thing to do: These brutally realistic tales of immigrants failing to succeed at farming on the Great Plains are REAL novels. Why are you wasting your talent on fantasy and sci-fi when you could be influenced by Hemingway? Instead of writing this novel the way you are proposing why don’t you write it in a way I think is more appropriate? Please write something I can read like something without magic or spaceships in it.

Even within the sff field I used to receive comments suggesting that if only I would write something different, something more worthy, more important, more to their critical taste; just not what I was writing.

Perhaps it never occurred to these people that it had nothing to do with me being “stubborn” or “not listening.” Perhaps it never occurred to them that the stories they wanted me to tell weren’t the stories I had to tell.

In my first NaNoWriMo post I mentioned my four writing observations, of which the third is:

Write what is in you to write.

The comment is not mine. I’m handing it on to you from Damon Knight.

I became acquainted with Damon Knight mostly on the late, lamented GEnie, an early internet forum that became a gathering place for many sff-related folks. Because he lived near my parents I ended up meeting him in person a couple of times although I can’t say I ever got to know him well. In addition to their writing careers, he and Kate Wilhelm taught a great deal (having founded the Clarion Writing Workshop) and took teaching (and thus mentoring) very seriously as a contribution to the future of the sff field.

One year while visiting my parents I went to Knight’s house to have tea. Although he could be acerbic in writing I always found him kind in person. After his years at Clarion he surely had become used to young writers asking endless questions about writing and confiding in him about their endless struggles.

That day I told him I was having doubts not about my writing specifically (I always struggle with those) but about WHAT I was writing. Should I be writing something else? Something that would be deemed more important or more worthy? Was there any point to writing the stories I was writing, I wondered? What if they didn’t matter? What if the people who wanted me to write something else were right, and I was just stubbornly writing trivial stories that anyone could see inhabited the most shallow pool of the narrative ocean?

He listened carefully. When I was done he said,

“We write what is in us to write.”

The words stopped me dead.

It’s not that they gave me permission but that they allowed me to stop asking for permission.

The statement made me realize I had to stop fighting the stories inside me. It didn’t matter if what I was writing was important or worthy by anyone else’s lights or measure. What mattered is that my voice is my voice, and my stories are my stories.

Someone will always be happy to tell you that you should be using your creative mind in a different way, one that fits with their prejudices, their tastes, their judgment.

But it’s not true. We write what is in us to write.

We do not in fact know who will read our stories. We don’t and can’t know who will be touched by them in a way that is consequential to them. Every writer I know has a story or ten of receiving a letter from or being directly told by a reader who thanks us in a profound way: “your story saved me,” “your character’s journey gave me hope,” “this novel brought me through a dark time,” “your words helped me see this aspect of myself in a different way” or even just “your story let me see myself.” Even a simple “your story kept me up late” or “I enjoyed it so much” or a heartfelt “your stories inspired me to write” is a mark of worth.

Our authentic voice is the gift we have to give to the world.

NaNoWriMo 12: Don’t Think. Just Write.

As I have mentioned multiple times in the last two days, I finally finished the revisions for BLACK WOLVES, the first volume of a new epic fantasy series. I wrote two days ago about what a difficult book this has been for me to write.

I have early drafts of different versions of the opening going back to 2009 before I was overtaken by Cat Barahal’s story and wrote the Spiritwalker Trilogy. As it happens, the opening I have now is not any of the multiple iterations I trotted through their paces over the last five years.

What I haven’t discussed is what my long-suffering editor at Orbit Books endured during this long writing process. She was both kind and patient during and after my father’s illness and death. In Winter 2014 I was able to start working on the book again. Writing this book was like carving a path through molasses with a feather.

Every time I sat down two overwhelming thought processes dominated my thinking.

The first was a constant unceasing voice second-guessing every single decision I was making, what I call the Hyper-Energetic Overly-Critical Internal Editor Who Can’t Shut Up:

“You shouldn’t do that. It won’t work.” “if you did it that way it might be better.” “I wrote that scene but she should put the cup down on the tray not the table” “This is too (sentimental) (violent) (political) (boring) (feminist) (not feminist enough) (static) (dense in world building) (focused on family relationships) (ridiculous) (simplistic) (complicated).”

The second, not surprisingly, was the other voice, the one many writers have struggled with, the one that says, “this is all pointless and awful and you should just quit now. In fact it would be merciful not just to you but to all of us if you would just quit.”

These two voices are not the same but they often get intertwined.

I believe the second voice springs out of our deepest fears as creative people and as people who often have to overcome obstacles of lack of time, lack of support, lack of belief, discouragement, physical and economic challenges, prejudices and bias, concerns that we ought to be doing something more practical or “worthy” by other people’s standards, that what we’ve done hasn’t been good enough and can never be good enough: The list rolls on and on.

It is a crisis of belief that ebbs and rises; I think it is part of the human psyche exacerbated and amplified by damaging conditions and other external obstacles that impact our ability to create. Grief, depression, stress, severe anxiety: All feed into that voice. Sometimes we have to deliberately find ways to comfort the voice to quiet it; sometimes the only option is to ignore it or try to shut it away. A visualization I sometimes use is to imagine setting the voice behind a door and closing the door.

The first voice (for me) has a different role. An Internal Editor is necessary because that is the voice that helps you-the-writer edit, improve, change, meet the challenge, and come up with something that isn’t the same thing you did last time.

But when the Internal Editor gets on that hyperactive treadmill it is so debilitating.

At some point in Spring 2014 I called my editor, probably in despair, and she patiently let me talk on and on as she does.

And then she said, “Don’t think. Just write.”

I actually wrote down those words and posted them on my computer as a reminder.

Not because I shouldn’t think when I write, but because I know (but have to remind myself) that when my head cycles into that over-thinking stage, it doesn’t help me proceed with the first draft, with the upwelling phase of the writing where I have to allow my subconscious to work so that the best connections and ideas can bubble up into my conscious writing brain.

Later (at a normal volume) the Internal Editor is crucial and necessary. But if you write a first draft as I do (and not everyone does), then too much thinking in the first draft gets in the way of the tangled process through which I unfold and discover my story.

I did try to “think” less and second-guess myself less as I went on. I did finally finish a mess of a first draft and turn it in (usually I turn in a second or third draft but in this case I had to move the draft off my desk and take some deep breaths). I got a long long editorial letter in tandem with a long long phone call.

Revisions went much better although they took a long time. By this point the Internal Editor — now speaking at a reasonable volume — was much happier and therefore more incisively useful. The Internal Editor is never useful to me when it is being hyperactive; then it is just telling me that I should move the salt shaker six inches to the right while standing on my left foot. But when the Internal Editor is working in tandem with my writing brain, they can get an amazing amount of work done.

For months in the Spring and Summer of 2014 every morning when I woke up my first thought was, “this book is broken; it will never work” accompanied by a leaden wave of despair.

Last week I woke up and I had a flash of a thought. “What if the book isn’t going to work no matter what I’ve done?”

I realized at that moment that this was the first time in weeks I had thought about the book as (potentially) broken. I had just experienced a normal flash of anxiety, not the punishing despair I had fought through. The realization gave me a sense of peace, a reminder that even as we struggle through the despair, we may also find the light.


NaNoWriMo 11: 2015 is for The Very Best, Court of Fives, & Black Wolves

Having emailed the revised manuscript for BLACK WOLVES to my editor yesterday at 1 a.m. (which means technically today but let’s not quibble), I managed to do pretty much zero today which all told I am taking as a win.

I do not have enough bandwidth to write anything that takes more than 5 brain cells rubbing together so I decided to take a photo of my three current projects all lined up in a row on my kitchen table.*


On the left we have the page proofs for THE VERY BEST OF KATE ELLIOTT, a short fiction collection by Tachyon Publications, due for publication in February 2015.

In the middle we have the page proofs for COURT OF FIVES, a YA fantasy novel (“Little Women meets Game of Thrones” is what the publisher is calling it) being published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on 18 August 2015.

Finally, on the right, the typically monstrous epic fantasy since that is apparently the only type of epic fantasy I can write. BLACK WOLVES will be published by Orbit Books. Possibly October 2015 but that is not yet confirmed.

I have all these books coming next year because I had nothing come out in 2014 due to the events of 2013 putting the brakes on my writing for the year.

Publishers usually like to have completed revised and edited manuscripts a year ahead of publication date because that gives them plenty of time to move through the production phase and whatever marketing and publicity work they are going to do to get pre-orders and publicity going for the novel. There is a lot of lead time in this business (books can be produced quickly but it costs more, so with commercial publishers a very short lead time is an option only for books that must have a quick turnaround for timeliness or are expected to be bestsellers).

What do I personally get for all that lead time? Focused and intensive editing, a good-to-excellent copy edit, excellent design and typography, great covers (not always for everyone but I’ve had quite good luck with covers), an expansive distribution network, and a lot of miscellaneous work that I simply could not do myself or wouldn’t be good at. On a later date I will post the timeline of COURT OF FIVES to give a sense of how the process worked.

Meanwhile I am going to bed in the hopes of catching up with my sleep so I can embark tomorrow on the glamorous immediate-post-manscript writing life of laundry, filing, opening mail, and a few errands.



* the advanced reading copy in the background is Wesley Chu’s TIME SALVAGER (July 2015, Tor Books)

NaNoWriMo 10: Black Wolves

I interrupt this series of posts on writing with a bit of news.

The revised manuscript of BLACK WOLVES, volume one of a new epic fantasy series, is complete and has now been emailed to my editor at Orbit Books. It’s not the longest book I’ve written by a long shot, and unfortunately it is not the shortest either, running as it does to a little over 700 pages (that’s about 225,000 words in the font I use).

At the moment I have no easy way to explain this novel except that it is about how the past pervades the present. I can’t even figure out a handy Chthulhu meets Pokemon shorthand description, not yet anyway. The story is set in the same universe as the Crossroads Trilogy but is specifically written to stand alone from that trilogy (you do not have to read the earlier trilogy to read this).

It’s almost 1 a.m. as I write this so I’m not sure I can do justice to my feelings.

I was about a third of the way into the first draft of this novel in Summer 2013 when my father was told that his cancer had returned and he entered hospice care. I could not write first draft during the last 2 months of his life, and I could not write first draft for several months after his death, which meant I could not work on this novel. Somewhat strangely, I was able to revise the already completed YA fantasy manuscript, so that’s what I worked on.

However when the YA was complete and turned in, I picked up Black Wolves again and the work became a morass. I always hit a point in every book where I think it is the worst thing I’ve ever written; where I wonder if I should stop writing; where I think maybe THIS TIME I have really lost my writing chops and should just quit while I’m ahead.

I call this phase of the process the Chasm of Doubt.

Tied as it was to my beloved father’s passing, Black Wolves became a grueling emotional and psychological battle. I pushed through a monstrously uncooperative first draft (with the encouragement of Karen Miller, Andrea Chandler, and Paul Weimer) that to be frank was a mess. I seriously considered abandoning the novel more than once because I thought I could never get past the despair it engendered in me (not the story; the book itself).

But I’m stubborn, and my editor insisted that I absolutely could fix the things that didn’t work because the stuff that did work was all there ready to be polished and shiny. Plowing through revisions was almost as hard — and seemed to take just as long — as writing the first draft, and I want to thank Tricia Sullivan in particular for saying the words I needed to hear to not give up.

Yesterday my sister said to me that it was time to let the book go and stop worrying about what it is, if it’s good, if it’s worthy. It is what it is. It’s done. Now it has gone to other hands. What happens next I don’t yet know.

But I do know that if there is one thing a creative artist needs it is sheer stubborn persistence, the ability to trudge on and on despite the mire, to just keep going even when you despair the most and the road seems impossible, impassable, and endless.


NaNoWriMo 9: “Keep the channel open”

Yesterday I wrote 3105 words on a book which I tell you not to boast or preen but to let you know that I am desperately pushing to finish revising a novel that is overdue and which I’m almost finally done with.

Partway through the day I wrote some words to a friend.

I said:

You don’t know how your creative work will be received. All you can do is offer up what is present in your imagination.

It’s the choice we make as writers, I think, because I don’t think we have that much “choice” in what is inside us to write. Our individual imaginations are what they are.

Our choices are 1) analyzing those stories and revising/re-visioning them to filter out as many of the prejudices, cliches, defaults, and errors as we can 2) deciding whether we really want to expose our entrails (which is what we always do when we publish: to allow others to share in our creative imaginations is to make ourselves vulnerable).

What, how, and why you create is your path to walk. No one else can give the world what is in your heart and your voice and your experience.

Later I had lovely phone calls with both of my sisters. One, an academic, talked about a colleague of hers who is trying to convince her university to fund a program incorporating the study of fanwork. Yes! Fanwork is steadily infiltrating the academy.

The other sent me this quote that beautifully and brilliantly encapsulates what I was trying to say to my friend:

Martha Graham to Agnes DeMille –

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action,
and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. 
And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. 
The world will not have it. 
It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. 
It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. 
You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. 
You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU. 
Keep the channel open.”

NaNoWriMo 8 : A few brief notes on writing the epic

Occasionally I’m asked about what is needed to make a story epic.

There are several definitions of epic, including the great mythic tales that have survived over hundreds and thousands of years as part of our human cultural heritage.

My brief thoughts today reflect on the modern written genre epic. I consider this to be a story that needs an expansive canvas to accomplish the scope and tapestry of its narrative.

My short answer?  I like to think in layers and in terms of camera view.

Often it is useful to plot in layers: start with a global (or galaxy-spanning) plot which serves as the big tent under which all else is covered; add a couple of regional level (however you are defining regions) plots that may have a political, economic, military, religious, or larger cultural significance, and then ground all this with intimate personal plots that move forward within these larger narrative arcs.

In film terms we might say you need to mix long shots scanning the landscape, medium shots (Fred and Ginger dancing;  people talking in a room; sword play on a staircase yes Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn I am talking about you in The Adventures of Robin Hood), and close ups.  If all your shots, if all your plotting, is at intimate or medium range, you may have a fantastic story, but it won’t be an epic.  If it’s all long shots, I’m not sure quite what you would have although it might be very beautiful but a little distant.

Likewise, your personal plots move in tandem with or against the global and regional plots.  Some may have been, in fictional terms, created by the larger plots;  some may gallop on despite the larger plots, that is, they don’t purely serve the function of the larger plots in plot terms although they must be woven into the overall tapestry in such a way that if they did not exist within the whole, the whole would be lessened.

Tone can also be a form of distance.  If every scene emotes or colors with the same tonal feel, then it’s difficult to create a sense of the wide world. Don’t be all grim, or all chirpy, or all tragic, or all jocular, all the time. Vary your palette.

Contrast works wonders here:  parallel a love story that turns out happily and is precipitated by global events with one that had begun before the story begins and is tragically destroyed by some element in the larger plot. Yes, as horribly cliched as this is (so cliched that even Shakespeare used it!), contrast a comedic subplot with the dead-heavy serious one.

What don’t you need?  Just adding episodes to make it longer.  Length doesn’t make an epic.  Contrast and variety and stakes and emotion do.

NaNiWriMo 7: The Ambivalent Space

I’m sometimes asked if I’m a plotter or a pantser. A plotter outlines heavily in advance. A pantser writes “by the seat of the pants,” that is, making it up as they go along.

There is not a right way to do this. There is the way that works for you, and for the particular story you are working on at the moment. Be proud of your plotting or pantsing. If it gets the job done then the method works.

I don’t fit neatly in either category, as I suspect many writers do not. I can’t walk blind into my stories, feeling them out as I go. But I don’t outline down to the chapter and scene particulars either.

I do have some fairly basic patterns by which I work into and through the first draft of a novel or short story.

Usually I begin with a sense of the thematic and emotional feeling I want for the novel/series. Slowly encounters and scenes and confrontations begin to develop in my mind around which the larger plot adheres. These bits and pieces get written down on scraps of paper or as notes on my computer. Big sheets of graph paper also work well for me when I want to make columns with characters and their “important plot points” or when I want to write out events and link them up with lines and arrows so that it looks like a huge brainstorming chart (although it isn’t quite that).

As I write, and the closer I get to the end, the more I do tend to outline the next few chapters and what needs to happen in them to move the plot forward. If I outlined more tightly from the beginning my novels wouldn’t sprawl quite so much. However, some of my best and most brilliant plot twists have happened during the course of writing, and there is something about the process of actually writing that brings new ideas and connections to the forefront that wouldn’t happen if I had it already planned out.

On the whole I think I work best in the ambivalent space where I know where I’m going but not quite how I’m going to get there.