What I Learned About Writing Characters

So I successfully used the “Because Ellen assumes X, Ellen wants Y, so she tries Z, but A happens to prevent her from getting it, so Ellen assumes X1” plot breakdown to revise the first third or so of NEXT BOOK (also called A COINCIDENCE OF DOORS).

Then things got messy, because as soon as I got Ellen through that portal (spoiler alert, it’s a portal fantasy, of course she goes through the portal) I introduced a bunch of subplots.

So any given section of the story isn’t just “Because Ellen assumes X,” it’s “Because Ellen assumes X about her relationship with Robin” and “Because Ellen assumes X about her relationship with Grace” and “Because Ellen assumes X about the way the portal world works.” She’s doing three or four different things at once, and they don’t chunk up neatly into chapters.

The big question is “what Ellen will do with the opportunity the portal has provided her.” When you’re a 30-something adult with a bunch of responsibilities and ANOTHER WORLD OPENS UP, how do you deal? Do you change everything? Do you resist change? Do you make that decision on your own, or do you take family and friends and money and community into account?

But to answer that big question, Ellen also has to face some assumptions about her interpersonal relationships, which is where all of the subplots come in.

I haven’t yet figured out how to write overlapping “Because Ellen assumes X” statements; I might just have to write them all next to each other and note at which point in the text each of them changes or resolves. (Previously, I had been beginning each major chunk of text with its related “Because Ellen assumes” statement, to make sure I had all the necessary plot elements in the revision.)

This also means—and I just realized this today, during my morning rewrite session—that I need to get really clear on the story of each of Ellen’s interpersonal relationships. Where these two characters are at the beginning of the story, what happens to make them change, and where they are at the end.

I’d already known the story of the two big relationship changes (Ellen:Robin and Ellen:Grace), but I realized this morning that if I don’t also include relationship stories for Ellen:Mya and Ellen:Dad and Ellen:Lovelace and so on, then half of the relationships in my book are NPC relationships*, which means half of the characters in my book aren’t really characters. They’re just obstacles, or helpers, or plot devices.

And I don’t want that. This story only has a handful of characters in it to begin with, and if it’s going to work the way I want it to, Ellen has to change her relationship with everybody.

Which means that I have to do a bunch more work—or I get to do a bunch more work, because I’m excited about it, but also I’m like “this book needs SO MUCH WORK and what if it never gets finished in time for anyone to like it?”

On the other hand, I’d rather have it be a good book than a fast one. ❤️

*NPC stands for non-playable character, which is a video game thing. The character who is only there to hand you a sword or give you some information. Those kinds of characters are useful in some stories, but not in this one. (I mean, there are a few “townspeople,” for lack of a better term, that take Ellen’s ticket when she tours the big historical mystery door house and so on. But that’s not the function I want this story’s actual characters to serve.)

On Committing to Your Characters’ Flaws

So I’ve found myself stuck in a certain chapter of my NEXT BOOK revisions, and when I asked myself what the issue was with this particular chapter, it came down to “well, this is the chapter where you have to commit to a bunch of stuff.”

For example: I’ve told you a billion times that this is a portal fantasy where an adult goes through the portal instead of a child or teenager. BUT, since the protagonist is familiar with portal fantasy rules (since the story begins in the present day, where all the classic portal fantasy novels already exist), at one point she learns that the world on the other side of this portal used to take children through the doorways.

So I’ve spent half of this book building up a bunch of sympathetic characters, and then our protagonist learns that they used to (from her perspective) steal children.

So part of me is like, have I made this portal world irredeemable even though they once did the exact same thing that Aslan and Peter Pan and the White Rabbit did? Even though they’ve now changed their policy on who gets invited into their world? Even though it’s been generations since they last brought a child through the portal?

This isn’t the only thing I have to fully commit to in this chapter, but it’s the start of the section where our protagonist begins to uncover the flaws in this new world and in her new friends and in herself, and part of me is like “what are the readers going to think if I make the flaws TOO BIG?”

I mean, the other day I read Neil Gaiman’s advice that part of writing is exploring the TOO BIGNESS of it all, and going into those dark places in both our human selves and the stories we tell, but then I start asking myself if maybe this could be a world where they didn’t ever take children, so our protagonist (and our readers) wouldn’t have to deal with that.

But one of the reasons I wanted to write this book was to take the portal fantasy into those particularly uncomfortable places, and so I’m hesitant to cut that kind of stuff out.

Because the truth is that whenever you say no to something big (like your family or, literally, your world) in order to say yes to something else, there’s probably something dark and uncomfortable and messy that you’re leaving behind, and at least one person that you’ve hurt (whether or not you mean to).

And then you find out that your new thing isn’t perfect either.

And you have to deal with it.

The other part you have to deal with is the idea that people who do big dark uncomfortable messy things can be forgiven. That, by the way, is another standard part of the children’s narrative that becomes harder to examine from an adult perspective, and so part of me is like “maybe that person didn’t have to do that thing?”

But then I wouldn’t be writing this book, I guess.

And I’ve told myself that I can always, like, not publish it. Or revise it again and again until I feel like I’ve gotten the balance right.




On Writing Distinct Characters Who Aren’t Just Versions of Yourself

The second big question I have to answer, as I work on revising NEXT BOOK, is how to avoid making Ellen Everton too much like Meredith Gruber.

This was one of the topics Maggie Stiefvater discussed in the Portraits and Dreams seminar I took last February: how to ensure your main character wasn’t always the same main character (who, in turn, wasn’t always a loose translation of yourself).

Ellen is a lot less like me than Meredith was (although in The Biographies of Ordinary People I really poured myself into both Meredith and Jackie) but the two characters have some obvious similarities:

  • They are both single women.
  • They are both oldest siblings.
  • They both live in their heads.

They also have some obvious differences:

  • Meredith is ambitious. Ellen is not.
  • Meredith wants to find her place in the world. Ellen does not believe the world owes her anything, including satisfaction with her own life.
  • Meredith is language-oriented. Ellen is systems-oriented.
  • Meredith cares about how she presents herself to the world, in terms of clothing choices, hair styling, social interactions, etc. Ellen does not.
  • Meredith’s happiest moment in The Biographies of Ordinary People comes when she is onstage, sharing a story she wrote and then singing in harmony with her sister. Ellen’s happiest moment in the first chapter of A Coincidence of Doors is when she is finally alone at the end of the day and can take 20 minutes to read the latest swords-and-sorcery paperback she got at the library.

But… Ellen and Meredith both go to the library, and they both like reading, and they both compare death to falling down the pit in Super Mario (that part I should for sure change). At one point both Ellen and Meredith make a to-do list, and maybe that makes them too similar, but maybe people just make to-do lists?

Both books also feature a Midwestern Shakespeare festival—the same Shakespeare festival, in fact, though I never refer to it by its full name in either book. It’s the one I spent three years working for, and it popped up in this story because (like Biographies) it’s mostly set in the Midwest, and I really love giving my novels a distinct sense of place.

But… well, Ellen would never want to be onstage performing Shakespeare the way Meredith would, and yet she still ends up attending a Shakespeare play, and yes you can tie that back to her interest in swords-and-sorcery novels and her desire to connect with hundreds-years-old traditions like Solstice and her dream of escaping into another world, and you can also say WELL, NICOLE CAN’T WRITE A BOOK WITHOUT PUTTING SHAKESPEARE INTO IT.*

I mean, maybe I will someday.

I also think that as long as I go through and pull out the inadvertent similarities like the Super Mario thing, Ellen and Meredith will read as distinct characters. However, they’ll read as distinct versions of the same type of character, which is another trap writers often fall into, and I am NOT GOING TO NAME NAMES but I bet you can think of a few examples on your own.

Which is pretty much what Maggie Stiefvater said would happen, in a typical writer’s early novels. Your first protagonist is you. Your second protagonist is not you, but still contains a lot of you-ness because that’s what you’re most familiar with. The more you write, the more you learn about how to write fully-realized characters who are fully themselves—and, honestly, I’m not sure I’m there yet.

But I’m still writing. ❤️

*Fun fact: the novel I wrote in high school, in which a bunch of characters with swords battle an evil empire, also included a chapter where the characters had to disguise themselves as actors and put on a verse play. So no, I can’t write a book without putting Shakespeare, or a Shakespeare analogue, into it.

How I’m Revising My Next Novel

So… I’m not sure whether NEXT BOOK is any good, because I’m at the point of the writing process where I’ve become very aware of the differences between the words I wrote down and the vision/emotion/experience I had in my head (one is an overwhelming sensation and the other is, like, a description of that sensation in story form).

But I’m also at the point in the process where I have enough words in the draft that I can start making them match up with established plot mechanics (while taking out the words that don’t belong in the plot), so I’m trusting that this round of revision will get me to the next stage of the process.

So, for the first chapter of the story, I need to make sure that every word in the draft fits this framework:

Because Ellen feels stuck in a caregiving role, she wants to find ways of separating herself from her family.

She tries doing a Solstice ritual to celebrate something that isn’t her family’s unfulfilling Christmas routine,

But the ritual doesn’t make her feel better.

Ellen assumes she will be tied to her family forever.

There are, by the way, hundreds of ways I could have gotten from “Ellen feels stuck and wants to separate herself from her family” to “Ellen assumes she will be tied to her family forever.” That’s the opening of innumerable stories, from Coco to Howl’s Moving Castle to the Elton John movie I saw with my parents last weekend.

But the in-between bits are all different, as are the upcoming inciting incidents. Miguel* steals Ernesto’s guitar, Sophie uses the witch’s spell as an excuse to walk away from the hat shop, and Reginald Dwight changes his name to Elton John—all choices that make them invisible to their families (technically, Miguel and Sophie have invisibility thrust upon them) and able to pursue their own destinies.

Ellen, as you already know from everything I’ve written about this book, has the opportunity to walk through a door into another world.

The real question—and the one that I’ll have to ask myself at some point—is whether the Solstice ritual is the right element to include in this exposition. It doesn’t have anything to do with the plot itself; it’s like Annie trying and failing to escape via Mr. Bundles’ laundry cart before Grace Farrell shows up. Annie could have tried to escape in a hundred different ways, and so could Ellen.

The important thing is the part where Ellen tries and fails (because this sets her up to be receptive to the Mysterious Stranger who offers her something she can’t get on her own), and the method Ellen tries should tell us something about her character.

So. Given that this book is very specifically set at the end of 2018/beginning of 2019 (we open on the eve of the government shutdown), and that I wanted to establish that Ellen was searching for the proverbial Something More, well… experimenting with a faith tradition that is not her own but that has very deep roots and is experiencing a cultural resurgence makes sense, as a choice.

Is it the best choice? Are there readers who are going to be immediately turned off by the experimenting aspect? How do I balance that against the readers who might recognize themselves in Ellen’s actions? That’s a question I’m going to have to consider, at some point.

But I think I’m going to let the question and its inevitable answer percolate until the next round of revisions. Right now I’m solidifying the construction of this big ol’ mystery house and its other-world-portal doors; later I can decide whether it needs new wallpaper. ❤️

*I always want to call Miguel “Coco,” just like I always want to call Link “Zelda.”

How #1000WordsofSummer Improved My Draft

Jami Attenberg’s #1000WordsofSummer writing challenge ended on Sunday, and in those two weeks I added 14,013 words to the novel draft I am currently calling A Coincidence of Doors.

I’ll be realllll up-front about it: not all of those words were great. Some of the 1000-word writing sessions helped me understand my characters better, others helped me clarify elements of the plot, and others… um… well, they felt like I was typing words for the sake of typing words.

Like, I knew that I needed to add more description to the conversation my characters were having, but I couldn’t come up with anything and the time I’d set aside for writing was running out, so I’d revert to cliches or type “HE SMILED” for the way-too-manyth time.

At one point, I literally (pun intended) wrote the following:

“And the luggage,” Grace said, still assuming she had a role to play.

“We don’t have a door large enough,” Mya said, playing her opposing role.

But I also wrote some stuff I’m really happy with, and I got the draft to a place where—well, it’s not quite a finished first draft, I still have to write the ending and a few short scenes in the middle, but I’m going to go ahead and move the project into what I’ll call Second Draft Stage.

Starting tomorrow, I’m going to begin going over A Coincidence of Doors section by section, looking at everything from worldbuilding to word choices. I’m also going to examine the arcs I currently have written into the book: where does the conflict intensify, and where does it release? How do the smaller conflicts get resolved, and how do they relate to the larger conflict at the center of the story? Does every action have an equal and opposite reaction?

I still have a lot of work to do on this book, especially in the second half when our characters find themselves on the other side of the titular door (this is not a spoiler, you can’t write a portal fantasy without having the characters go through the portal at some point).

The first half feels like the stuff I do really well: close-range, intimate family moments in a realistic setting and a specific time period.*


But I figure I’ll learn something from writing this regardless of what happens, and I hope what I learn will be good enough to share with the rest of you. ❤️

*I did realize, during the Democratic Debates, that if I don’t get this book into the world quickly enough I might have to rework the whole thing, the same way I had to rework The Biographies of Ordinary People after the 2016 election. Like, this story would be very different if we had a better healthcare system. However, in the long run I’d rather have better healthcare for everyone than the current draft of my book, sooooooo LET’S MAKE THAT HAPPEN, OKAY?

What I’ve Learned From #1000WordsofSummer (So Far)

The most interesting aspect of Jami Attenberg’s #1000WordsofSummer project, in which writers are invited to write 1000 words every day for two weeks, is the way it immediately quantifies how long 1000 words takes.

For me, it’s 90 minutes minimum.

That’s if I want 1000 words of any caliber, and over the past few days, I’ve watched the words in my NEXT BOOK draft decrease in caliber somewhat.

Here’s an example of the kind of draft I write when I take my time:

Robin had taken a step forward and Ellen had stopped walking and now they stood, nearly eye-to-eye, Ellen a few inches taller.

Here’s an example of the kind of draft I write when I want to hit a fixed word count and have a limited amount of time in which to do it:

“Ellen!” he said. “What a pleasure!” He rushed to her; she had still not moved.

It’s the same character and the same action (Robin is moving towards Ellen, who is standing still for METAPHORICAL AND THEMATIC REASONS), but the #1000WordsofSummer version feels weaker. Thinner. Rushed, to borrow the word I already used.

And sure, I could go back and rework it all, and I’ll probably have to, but one thing I’ve learned about myself as a writer is that I’m not that much of a rewriter. I do a lot of the prep work in my head and in a separate notes document, and then I put it all together on the page.

Plus, my freelancing work has taught me that whatever I write is probably going to be published as-is, for the whole world to see, in, like, an hour—so I’ve learned how to churn out publication-ready drafts.

The stuff I’m writing now is not publication-ready. I’m tempted to give up on the word count goal so I won’t have to rework everything later, but I’m also tempted to just keep following the #1000WordsofSummer plan for the next 10 days, because it only lasts until July 1, and see what happens.

Because… why not? Maybe I’ll learn something new. ❤️

Pre-Vacation Update

I’m going on vacation TOMORROW, y’all.

Six days at Walt Disney World, six days in Portland, Oregon to celebrate my grandfather’s 90th birthday, and three days of post-travel recovery (resting, restocking groceries, getting over any crud I might catch along the way) at home.

I gave myself the three extra days first because I subscribe to Kelly Conaboy’s It Should Be Vacation + One Or Two Days theory — “after you return from vacation you should have a mandatory one- or two-day period to readjust before you go back to normal life” — and second because I told myself that the one thing I was going to do in 2019 was take two consecutive weeks off.*

(I have not done this in forever. My last vacation was four days long.)

I will not be posting on vacation, so here are some updates before I leave:

  • I went through and blocked out the rest of NEXT BOOK’s plot using the technique I showed you last week, which means I know where I’m going with the draft and all I have to do is use Jami Attenberg’s 1000 Words of Summer (write 1000 words every day between June 17 and July 1) as motivation to finish it up.
  • I also gave NEXT BOOK a title: A COINCIDENCE OF DOORS. I am fighting very hard against the impulse to make the cover look like a door that you open to read the book, because that is not the Trend For Covers These Days and I know I need to put a Dreaming Woman on the front. (I wonder how much it would cost to do one of those covers where it looks like a door with a cutout keyhole that you can see through and then when you open the door you can see the full-color illustration of what’s behind the keyhole. This is also not On Trend, but it would be super-cool.)
  • I’m also fighting very hard against the whole “what if I was able to get this book self-published this year” thing. I want this book to be THE BEST IT CAN BE, not THE FASTEST IT CAN BE. (I’m also thinking about how much money I’m willing to put towards “the best,” but that’s a discussion for another day.)
  • I’ll owe you a financial update while I’m on vacation, so here’s the gist: May was my highest-earning month EVER. I brought in $13,311 in freelancing income and $14.51 in publishing revenue. I also got a $1,337.74 tax refund I wasn’t expecting because it turns out I did my taxes wrong (long story, can tell you when I get back if you want, good to know the IRS keeps an eye out for your mistakes). Current net worth is $116,293.34.
  • However, this vacation is going to cost me roughly $4,500 in unearned freelance income (which is to say that if I weren’t going on vacation and were able to complete my usual schedule of work, I’d earn $4,500 over the next two weeks). This is in addition to the $2,200 budgeted for the Disney trip and the $1,100 budgeted for the family trip. Soooooooooo…. actually, I’m fine with this. Paid time off is great, but I’d rather be a freelancer any day of the week. (Including the vacation days.)

See you all in June! ❤️

*Yes, I did realize that Thursday to Thursday to Thursday is actually two weeks and one day. Bonus!

On Making Sure Your Story Answers Its Own Questions

I got stuck again with NEXT BOOK—which seems to be happening every week-to-two-weeks, now that I’m in the part of the story where I have to put all the pieces together, balance and resolve the tensions, and get everyone to the end.

Then I read a Time Magazine article about the end of Game of Thrones that included this quote:

A happy ending isn’t the same thing as an ending satisfying enough to keep you up at night, thinking about how the show’s elemental questions were resolved (see: Six Feet UnderMad Men and, just this week, Fleabag).

This made me ask myself what elemental questions were at the core of NEXT BOOK. I’d always known it would be a story about “stuckness vs. possibility,” as well as “what would happen if an adult with responsibilities found herself in the middle of a portal fantasy,” but as I’d been writing the draft, I’d also realized that this was a book about family, and that many of the questions re: stuckness and possibility were tied up in my protagonist’s experience with her extended family.

So I decided to do this exercise I learned in theater school, where I break down every “scene” by what the protagonist wants, what the protagonist does to get what they want, what the other characters do that gets in the way, and how that reaction changes what the protagonist wants.

I mean, the big thing the protagonist wants generally stays constant throughout the whole act (that’d be the superobjective) but the thing the protagonist wants in each scene (the objective) is generally different.

With that in mind, here’s how I broke down the first big chunk of NEXT BOOK. Spoilers ahead, but not too many:

Because Ellen feels stuck in a caregiving role, she wants to find ways of separating from her extended family and its responsibilities/routines.

She tries doing a Solstice ritual to celebrate her own winter holiday and bring magic into her life

But the ritual doesn’t make her feel better.

Ellen assumes she will be tied to her family forever.


Because Ellen assumes she will be tied to her family forever, Ellen wants to connect with her family.

She tries inviting her sister to tour the Banner House holiday decorations

But Grace (who is newly pregnant and not feeling well) stays in the car.

Ellen takes the tour by herself and connects with Robin instead.


Because Ellen has connected with Robin, Ellen wants to learn more about Robin.

She tries asking her grandmother, her friends, and the Banner House staff

But they do not give her answers.

Ellen decides to return to the Banner House and find Robin herself.


Because Ellen finds Robin herself, Ellen wants Robin to be as interested in her as she is in him.

She tries flirting and following Robin upstairs

But then he asks her to follow him into his world, which is something she is not ready to do.

Ellen goes back to her unsatisfying life and its responsibilities.


Because Ellen is unsatisfied with her life, she wants to know whether Robin’s story is true.

She tries asking her grandmother why she always claimed to have been brought home through a fairy door,

But learns that the family story was put in place to hide Grandma Trudy’s true parentage.

Ellen is angry that it’s all about family again.


Because Ellen is angry, she wants to be alone.

She tries going for a bike ride

But Robin finds her and asks her to follow him again.

Ellen says she will think about it and arranges to meet Robin later.


Because Ellen said she will think about it, she wants to get a few more questions answered.

She tries asking Robin for details about his world

And he provides them.

Then she asks for a favor and he agrees.

Since Ellen has what she wants, and since Robin has shown that he will care for her needs, she is ready to ask herself how to separate from her family and move forward.

So. Writing this out showed me where my scenes didn’t match up with what was in my draft—that is, the “because this, then that” is either unclear or nonexistent. In other words: as I was writing this, I was making notes to myself like “we need another conversation between Ellen and her friends HERE,” or “we need to make it clear that the reason Ellen accepts Robin’s invitation is because he is providing care to her, which nobody else in her life is doing at the moment.”

Writing this out also showed me that some of my scenes might not follow each other super-logically. Does Ellen start asking herself whether there could really be a portal to another world because she is unsatisfied with her life, or because SHE JUST DISCOVERED THERE MIGHT BE A PORTAL TO ANOTHER WORLD? Is there ever a moment where a person who made that discovery would legitimately say “sorry, gotta go back to my everyday life and not think about this for a while?”

I’ve faked it a little by having a responsibility that Ellen needs to get back to right away, during which she can remind herself that she is unsatisfied with her life and that she can’t stop thinking about this Robin fellow and his secret door, and that might work.

Likewise, the “because Ellen finds Robin herself, she wants Robin to be interested in her” thing doesn’t match up. I have a scene where Ellen’s friends are all “did you finally meet someone who could be a romantic partner,” so that could be how it matches up: because Ellen’s friends suggest Robin could be a romantic partner, Ellen tries flirting. Either way, I know that section needs more work because the cause and effect don’t quite harmonize yet.

But again—this is why it’s a draft, and why I’m doing exercises like this, and why I’ve given myself a good long time to play with this story.

Because I want readers to end the book thinking about the way the story’s elemental questions were resolved. ❤️


I’m at a very strange point in NEXT BOOK.

I had an outline before I started, with some gaps at certain points where I knew that I’d have to get the characters from A to B eventually but didn’t know how they’d get there.

I’m in one of those gaps at the moment, and the way I’m solving it is by, like, literally writing down what the characters do and how they feel about it.

Which is, pretty much, the essence of storytelling.

But it’s not all of what makes a good story.

Here’s what I mean:

So I’ve already told you that this book is a portal fantasy, and because of that it should come as no surprise that my main character goes through the portal. Like, that’s barely even a spoiler.

It might be a bit of a spoiler to say that she goes back into her own world and then has to make the decision of whether to return to the portal world (and for how long, and how often, and whether it should be a permanent transition, etc.).

I know the choice this character makes, but I left myself a gap in “figuring out how she gets there.”

Which means I’ve started writing scenes like this:

The buses began running again on Saturday morning, so Ellen was able to get to the assisted living center without booking a Lyft and leaving a digital trail. Getting to the Banner House would be more difficult; they ended up setting up a new account under Grandma Trudy’s name, Ellen trying to be patient as her grandmother tapped her credit card number into her tablet, hoping nobody she knew would see her. She thought about running down the hall, bursting into Millicent Banner Hayward’s room, saying “guess where we’re going!” She still had to talk to Millicent at some point. Maybe. Once she figured out what to say.

This feels like 70 percent of a story. It tells you what’s going on, it tells you why it’s going on, and it tells you what Ellen is thinking and feeling.

But there’s something missing. Too much logistics, maybe. Not enough sensory detail. The obvious fact that neither Ellen nor I know whether she’ll end up talking to Millicent Banner Hayward (or whether Millicent will end up being a character in the story long-term; she might not actually have a role to play beyond “being the person who did the SPOILER SPOILER thing, fifty years ago”).

Still, I’ll keep writing. I’ve already told myself that I’m going to have to go back and rework a lot of this later, so that means the part of the story I write today can be as tactical and sparse as it needs to be, as long as I keep putting words on the page every morning. ❤️