Giving a Character ‘Agency’

This is by far the best description of ‘agency’ that I’ve ever read:

It is characters who create problems, who escalate the problems, and who inevitably complicate and then fix the problems. Characters want things, and in pursuit of those things, they fuck up and fail and then succeed as heroes. ~ via Chuck Wendig

Everyone always says you need to ‘give your characters agency’, or ‘the characters should drive the plot’, but in concrete terms those descriptions of agency have always been pretty meaningless to me.

I’ve struggled with it in my past novels, because the characters were too busy running from or reacting to what was happening around them to drive the external plot. I was going with the ‘chase character up a tree then throw rocks at them’ model of plotting, which left something missing.

It’s simple now that I think about it this way:

Have your characters create their own problems and suffer the consequences for good or ill. Let them fail once in a while, let them make bad choices, then fix them. Bonus points for snowballing problems.

Cue light bulb.

Character agency, decoded.

*YMMV, but it works as a mental model for me.

Writing, Self-Worth, and Burnout

Some lessons take a long time to sink in. In this case it was years. During one lecture at Viable Paradise, Steven Gould warned that it’s dangerous to tie your self-worth to the success or failure of your writing. This bit didn’t really resonate until I heard an interview with Cindy Crawford. She explained that she never got caught up in the craziness of the modeling world, because modeling was always something she did, but wasn’t who she was. Her sense of self has always been separate from her work.

This can be a fine line to walk when you’re a writer and you’re hoping and hoping for your first sale, your next sale… There’s so much you can’t control and success is fickle, even for established writers. It can be crazy-making if you tie success with sales or publication or good reviews.

But you can still take pleasure in the writing, in the craft, and not how the writing is received. You can choose your milestones, and reward yourself for without waiting for anyone else. I repeat: you don’t need anyone else to reward you. Treat yourself, for finishing a chapter, or reading, or a good scene, whatever you decide. Just make sure it’s something you get to pick, and don’t have to wait for anyone else to give you.

And when writing is what you think about all the time, and what you’ve called yourself your whole life, it can be hard to separate where you begin and the writer ends.

But even if you are a writer, it is not everything you are.

I will still exist even if my writing is never read by anyone but me. And I want to enjoy writing, because that’s why I write.

I’ve been burned out most of my adult life, being totally over-scheduled, working full time and studying, and dancing, and sports, all at once. It took me years to get out of the utter exhaustion, which requires (above all) time to heal. I swore I’d do better at not letting anything eat me up like that, and that I need to control my time, my deadlines, not let my deadlines and commitments control me. It’s a fine difference sometimes. I still get it wrong and overestimate what I can handle, but I’m better at stopping myself from getting too carried away. Maintaining boundaries requires constant refinement. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

My life still goes on. I don’t want to miss living it, because I have a finite time on this earth. I want writing to enrich my life, not suck it out of me.

Writing is about life. How can you write if you haven’t lived, if you aren’t fully alive?

July 2016 Recap

Stuff Accomplished: Draft 2 (the structural rewrite). Clocking in at 50 short chapters, and 82,000 words, up from 67,000 in draft 1.
Books Read: Monstress Vol 1 (SO GOOD! SO BRUTAL! SO BEAUTIFUL)
Sleepless Nights: Too many

This month, the edit monster stole away my writing brain so there wasn’t much left for social media time. Writing this novel feels like I’m outrunning a tsunami, and I can’t stop or I’ll drown.

This is an unusual feeling. I’ve always viewed edits as a necessary evil, but this time the 2nd draft was just as all consuming and compelling as the heady days of a first draft. I don’t know why I want to get this done and out of my hands so quickly.

But this feeling worries me too. It feels like a thin shelter against the real world, and there are some days I don’t want to leave the fictional one behind. Maybe it’s just that I have so little time to myself that writing feels so necessary to my survival.

I love my baby to bits, but as an introvert I always end up feeling exhausted at the end of the day. The little bean is basically an energizer battery who never stops moving (even when she sleeps). Writing helps a little, but it’s still not enough. Whatever time I get, I’m swigging down greedily, and I’m still thirsty after.

I know these really hard days will end eventually. I will sleep again eventually. I don’t want to miss anything either, so I want to give her all the attention I can. It’s both amazing, and frustrating both at the same time. Yes, the good parts make it all worth it, but it’s still tough being a full time working mama, with writing as pretty much the last priority on the list.

In the meantime, I will write on. I’ve already started draft 3, where I’m focusing on cleaning up the language, and I feel myself slowing down. The beginning of the book is as tricky as always, and I’ve already written 6 different versions of the opening scene. If you’re counting, I wrote 8 for the last novel so this is an improvement.

The pressure’s starting to build, even if it’s just in my own head and I’m not sure how to ignore it. Do you get stressed out when you’re writing sometimes? How do you deal with the ‘I think it might suck’ phases?

Recipe for a Short Story

I think I read something similar to this somewhere. I can’t remember where it’s from, or if these are just my condensed notes. It might have been something from Viable Paradise. I’m really not sure, but it might help you in a pinch.

Recipe for a Short Story


  • 2 – 3 characters
  • 1 – 2 settings


  1. Beginning – The protagonist wants something.
  2. Middle – Deny it to them.
  3. End – Give it (happy ending) or don’t (sad ending).

Optional Garnish: What the protagonist wants isn’t the same thing that the protagonist needs.
Additional Garnish: What the protagonist wants is in conflict with what the protagonist needs.

I still have a tough time writing short stories, but if I need to bang one out fast, this helps.

Alternately, sometimes it helps me to think of story length this way:
Flash Fiction – A digital short, like short Pixar film before a movie
Short Story – A single TV episode
A Novel – A movie or TV season

Obviously this is overly simplified, but it helps me figure out how long the story I’m writing will turn out to be.

Do you have any tips for getting a handle on length or do you just go by gut feel?

How to Listen

Listening is an active word. It is not the same as ‘hearing’. When you hear something, it doesn’t mean you’ve paid attention, only that sound waves have hit your eardrums.

In light of all the horrible things going on lately, I’ve been thinking about ‘listening’ and how hard it can be. Once, a long long time ago, I did counselling training with the crisis center (dealing with suicide prevention, teens going through troubles). I am by no means an expert, but the bits about listening have informed the rest of my life.

These tips may almost seem too obvious, but they take practice and self-control. Really these are tips on how to be a better person.

How to be a good listener

  • Let the people who are hurt speak. Do not cut them off. Do not try to explain why what they are feeling is wrong. Don’t interrupt them. Do not compare your own pain/troubles to theirs.
  • Do not offer advice. When someone is hurting, the first bit of healing comes with acknowledging all the pent up emotions. Sometimes it’s rage, anger, frustration, sadness… whatever it is, it needs to come out. Figuring out what to do next happens when everyone is calm and composed again, not in the heat of emotion.
  • Reserve judgement. This is not about you, but you can learn from what other people are saying. Sometimes the things they will say are uncomfortable, but fight that impulse to interrupt, or turn away. Listen first, then come to conclusions after you have more information, and preferably not when you’re feeling shocked, insulted, or offended. Strong negative first reactions are usually shields that our brains use to protect our ways of thinking. If something is uncomfortable it might mean that our view of the world is changing. It’s perfectly okay to not agree when all things are said and done. Strong negative first reactions also happen when we feel like we’re being accused of wrongdoing. It’s almost primal. It may not be the case. It may not be personal. Swallow that pride with a cool glass of water, and think on things when you’re calm.

Tips that are for 1:1 interactions (Probably not Twitter)

  • You can acknowledge or try to name the feeling the person is experiencing. This helps them feel understood. If you name the emotion wrong, or get the reason for the feeling wrong, the person you’re talking to will probably correct you. (In psychology terms this is called ‘reflection’. ) For example, “You’re feeling angry and frustrated, because of what happened yesterday.”
  • The person you’re talking to probably already knows what to do next. If this is a personal problem, somewhere deep down, this person probably knows what next steps to take. They might be in denial though. You can gently try and ask them what they think they should do next, and help them sort it out if they’re confused.*
  • If you can’t handle it, or you’re worried for someone’s safety, make sure someone gets professional help, or talk to someone who can help. There are free crisis hotlines in most areas. Maybe get the person to promise to talk to a counselor or a teacher, and follow up on them to make sure they do.

Actually, the bits about letting people feel the emotion, then naming that emotion verbally, then waiting for things to calm down before taking action is also a way of diffusing toddler tantrums (kid you not).**

Everyone wants to feel like their words matter, even toddlers.

I hope this is helpful for some of you. I need to remind myself of these things too. It’s not easy to listen well, which is why I think most people don’t.

*You want to avoid becoming a crutch every time this person has a problem. It’s more useful to help someone form the skills to deal with a problem, and realizing they can.
**If you’re in Canada (or maybe on the internet) you can look up the kids show ‘The Adventures of Napkin Man’. That there is the basic premise for every episode. Maybe it’s a bit idealistic, but it’s cool to see in action and in a way that kids can understand.

June 2016 Recap

Writing Days: 9

Books Read:

  • The Star Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi
  • The Wrath and the Dawn by by Renée Ahdieh
  • An Ember in the Ashes by by Sabaa Tahir
  • The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
  • The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater
  • Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater

I have news of both the strange and happy sort.

Let’s start with the happy: I finished the first draft of my current novel (the fifth I’ve written, if you’re tracking) the second week of June. I can’t believe it came together in just eight weeks. That’s a speed record! This might be because I’d been dying to write but had zero time as a new parent, or because this book found my happy writing place, or because I’ve done this a few times and I’m a well oiled writing machine. The first draft comes in at roughly 68k words, and this is fine since I tend to write sparse first drafts. I’m aiming for around 80k.

In between then and now, I took a break to breathe in some books. July is for edits.

NOW for the strangely unexpected: I discovered a podcast of the first story of mine that was ever published. I did submit it to the podcast, but the posting was delayed so I never knew if it ended up online. It did! I think it was re-recorded a second time (oddness). If you’re in the mood for a listen to a Gothic horror story, you can find Nine Nights on Tales to Terrify no 146. Never mind the typo in my name please. Never mind that I’m about 2 years late to find out.

So tell me, how was your June?

Leveling Up

Saw this on Twitter the other week and it got me thinking about the writing process. I’ve always adjusted the way I’ve written to fit with my life, but somehow I’ve always believed that eventually I’d figure it out and find what works best for me. On the other hand, deep down I know I still have an endless number of things to learn. It’s a weird contrast of thoughts, and it’s jarring my brain.

The main point of the tweet is that sitting down to do the work doesn’t alone mean progressing in craft. Butt in chair, and finish what you start, are only the beginning. Even writing a million words don’t mean mastery unless you’re actively seeking it.

Do you agree? Disagree? Think that it’s fine to relax once you’ve reached a certain point?

Dream Big. Have Confidence.

I love love love, seeing this. What confidence! I especially love the parts that Butler wrote about paying it forward.

Sometimes we can get afraid of dreaming too big, or hoping for too much, because let’s face it, rejections are plentiful if you’re a writer, but on the flipside, if you don’t dare to have big dreams, how can you ever get there? Sometimes we need to convince ourselves that these kinds of things are possible.

What kind of writer would you want to be if you had some success? Right now I’m just all hopes and wishes, but I’ll dare to dream. It’s somewhere to start.