the Author

Writing Process and TOUCH (SPOILERS if you haven’t read it)

Posted in DAW, Queen of the Dead, writing.

A while ago, I said I would discuss Touch, and why it was the book from hell, for me.

So, this is that post, and if you are not inter­ested in the nuts and bolts of it, I urge you to close the browser window, because: long.


I don’t talk as much about the process of writing here as I do in real life. I don’t think it would be possible — I think my fingers would fall off first.

But in part I don’t write about it often because I am very, very aware that no two writers work the same way. Ever. Even when I’m talking with another writer and we’re using the same process words, we’re not actu­ally using them in the same way. I don’t want people who love my books to come here and assume that this means they should work the way I work when they’re trying to write their own book, because often, it won’t help.

All of writing is discov­ering the process by which you can write your story. Some people outline exten­sively. Some people don’t. Some people come up with char­acter studies and sketches, some don’t. Some people write blaz­ingly fast first drafts, and then revise whole­sale. Some don’t. (I’m not, for instance, a “get some words down and then you can work on them later” writer, because the words are part of the whole, and if the words are wrong, the story is wrong. This is not true of everyone, and it doesn’t have to be; some of my favorite writers are very much ‘get any words down and fix them in iter­a­tive revi­sions’) The only thing that matters, in the end, is the finished book or story. Getting to that point is entirely individual.

So: again. No two writers work the same way and nothing I say here is meant to be proscrip­tive. This is not about the Right Way to write a novel (in point of fact, it’s about Touch, which…was not the smoothest of books for me, and there­fore could be consid­ered the exact oppo­site). What works for me — or what doesn’t work for me — may well fail to work for you, or conversely, it may be a raging success.

Part of the reason I am being so emphatic is: writer. I under­stand how easy it is to look at other people’s processes and … want somehow to be able to write like that. Even now. I have type‑A tenden­cies in real life, and my process does not mesh well with those — if I could outline every­thing and make it work, I would be in control of so much more. There are struc­turally very clever things I could do on purpose.

Most of the time, I don’t feel like this, because most of the time I remember that this doesn’t work. And yes, this is relevant.


I am not an outliner.

A discus­sion with someone who is an outliner made clear to me why I can’t: an outline, when written down, is a commit­ment. It’s a plan. Having committed a plan to paper, I feel bound to and by it, and it becomes completely restric­tive. The people who can work with outlines use them as guide­lines. If, when they’re writing, they diverge from the outline as a natural outcome of what they’ve written, they go with the book they’re writing.

Me? I get ulcers. This is clearly a func­tion of the way I view plans — but, regard­less, in my internal process, outlines are anathema. This does not mean, if you outline, that you are doing it wrong. There is no wrong in writing process.

When forced to come up with plot infor­ma­tion about a book that I haven’t written yet, I punt; I gener­ally describe the forces arrayed against the protag­o­nists, and then add a little bit of “and the char­acter has to survive” at the end, which is very hand-wavey. I write briefly about what I think the book will be about, because I know the plot on the surface of things. I am often, but not always, wrong. This causes my mother deep confu­sion, since I’m writing the book and creating the char­ac­ters — but there you have it.

There is an alchemy for me, in actu­ally writing the char­ac­ters and their inter­ac­tions, and their inter­ac­tions often cause sudden lane changes. Char­acter is plot, when I write. I don’t always under­stand the ques­tion: “What’s more impor­tant, Char­acter or Plot?” because in my process, they can’t be sepa­rated. (And, again, this is one process. The fact that I do it this way does not mean that everyone has to do it this way, or that there is some­thing intrin­si­cally wrong with books written by authors who don’t. I’m sorry if I repeat this “no right way” a lot, but it is really neces­sary. You can write a fabu­lous book doing the exact oppo­site of what I do. You can write a fabu­lous book doing half of what I do and half of what would kill me to do.)

When I start, I know the end of the book, and I know the tone or voice of the book; I know who the main char­acter is, or who the main char­ac­ters are. I will do non-page words for world-building, etc.; things char­ac­ters know, names of orga­ni­za­tions, bits about the economics. Unfor­tu­nately, I will write this all down and then I will some­times fail to check. I fail because when I’m writing, I’m certain I do know, and, well. The world­building also evolves. Every­thing that isn’t on the printed, public page can. It’s only truly embar­rassing when I forget that I have, in fact, stated some­thing before.


I had a really clever 3 book struc­tural plan for Queen of the Dead. Everyone who writes talks about 3 act plays and the struc­ture of 3 act plays — and most holly­wood movies are, in fact, 3 act plays. It’s clearly a narra­tive struc­ture that works for the majority of readers. And I have never been able to consciously utilize it.

And of course, because so many people I admire do work this way, even though I know better, I feel as if I should be smarter. I should have it figured out. Yes, this is stupid. Sadly, I am frequently stupid in this way.


I started Touch. I knew what I wanted to do with the book. I knew where it had to go and how it had to end, because I know how grief works. I was — dare I say it? — pleased because I thought I had finally figured it out. I knew what had to happen.

And I started to write Touch. I knew the elements that would come into play, I knew how, and I knew the effect they would have on Emma. For instance: Mercy Hall’s new boyfriend. Grief and loss are the things Emma feels they have in common. Her mother’s new boyfriend is proof to Emma that … they don’t.

But I wrote 55k words and real­ized that the book was not, in fact, going to go where it needed to go. I could write the plot that I had in my head — but it wouldn’t work. It would be a series of events that made logical sense. It wouldn’t have the reso­nances that would make those events work. And. Fine. I’ve thrown out 600 pages before, when I real­ized that what I was doing was simply never going to work.

But… every other time I’ve done that, it’s because I knew exactly what had gone wrong. And this time, what I knew was: to get the ending I had outlined and planned, I had to start again. Since the story itself hadn’t worked, I started it again — but from Nathan’s point of view. (And with a different ghost, and a different plot framework.)

I wrote 30k words and real­ized that this completely different book would still not, emotion­ally, get me to the ending I had planned. I kept the prologue of that attempt. I started the book again. But this time, I decided that the problem with my plot, or at least its presen­ta­tion, was the viewpoint.

Grief is always diffi­cult when seen entirely from the inside. So…I started the book from a different view­point. And — that didn’t work, either.

I have never, in the 25+ novels I’ve written, started a book more than twice. This book, the shortest book I owed anyone, was, in terms of word­counts needed to reach the actual end, one of the longer books I’ve written.

It wasn’t until the fourth iter­a­tion that I finally under­stood what the problem I was having actu­ally was. The char­ac­ters them­selves were never going to go to that ending. Unless I broke them or ignored their voices entirely, the story was never going to go to the end of my conceived second act. The epiphany was the small scene in the published book in which Emma phones her mother to tell her that she was mistaken about the library/study date, and that she’ll be home for dinner after all.

Genna Warner has said, else­where, that she almost didn’t finish Touch because she knew where it was going: she was certain that Emma was going to bring Nathan back to life. And I will now confess that that is, in fact, where I had intended to take the book, because: I have been a teenage girl in love. I person­ally believed that Emma could make this deci­sion when I came up with my 3 act play struc­ture. I thought she would feel isolated, that the mother’s new boyfriend would cause a break because, of course, if her mother could find someone else, it must mean that her mother had never really loved her father (and this so not true). I knew that Mark’s situ­a­tion – being aban­doned to die by his own mother – would outrage Emma. Risking her life for the sake of Andrew Copis was entirely different; it was cleaner and clearer.

I knew that Allison would not be happy about Nathan’s return — worry for Emma, mostly — and that Emma could choose this one, true love in a moment of pain and loss.

I’ve said, often, that char­acter defines story, for me. Char­ac­ters do things I didn’t expect and couldn’t predict while outlining. I can outline. I can plot. I can come up with very, very solid synopses. But — they’re not the book, because it’s the actual writing that defines the book itself. And it took me four iter­a­tions of clinging to the idea of the 3 act struc­ture before I remem­bered and accepted that: this is not how I write books.

And then, I wrote the book. I accepted that nothing I could do to Emma was ever going to produce a book that ended in the second act of the 3‑act struc­ture, because that’s not actu­ally who Emma — as already written in Silence — is. And I under­stood, the moment Mark’s mother opened the door, what Emma had to learn, and why, heading into Grave.

And if you have read this far, and you’re curious, I’ve included the 30k words of attempt 2. (The other iter­a­tions have infor­ma­tion that would be consid­ered serious spoilers for Grave). Since most of my struc­tures tend to be emotional and tonal, the base events of this partic­ular set of words is nothing at all like the published book.

Touch Partial B.pdf


10 Responses to Writing Process and TOUCH (SPOILERS if you haven’t read it)

  1. Hugh Myers says:

    Book from hell”…library designed by joint venture of Dore and Dante!

    You…long? *chuckle* Only one of the reasons I love your work :)

    Very good look at how you write…I’ve always found the result to be compelling. I think it is a result of how strongly you image your characters…you create them and then they take you by the hand along their journey…you are your char­ac­ter’s scribe. And given your char­ac­ters (all of them) that is both a good thing and some­thing that I envy…

  2. Tchula says:

    Very Inter­esting to read the old Touch pdf. I can imagine where you were going with Sophie and Walas’s rela­tion­ship, and the way it might have made Emma react in her rela­tion­ship with Nathan. I’m glad Emma didn’t go that way though; I’m not sure Nathan would’ve allowed it anyway.

    I liked Harry; he doesn’t have much hope, but still comes off as a likable char­acter. Are you still feeling like this series is a trilogy, or has it length­ened in your mind, knowing where you want the char­ac­ters to go?

  3. michelle says:

    It’s three books. 

    The thing about this series is it has two struc­tures; the story struc­ture, which is more malleable, and the emotional struc­ture, which is not. Story struc­ture in this case means the events; the events chosen have to inter­twine with the emotional struc­ture — and the emotional struc­ture is about loss, grief, recovery. So there are story elements that won’t work with that, although they would work in terms of consis­tency of plot, char­acter, etc.

    This is also a depar­ture for me, and actu­ally, I find it surpris­ingly diffi­cult; it’s a challenge. 

    The death in the second book couldn’t be like the death in the first: the first book, no matter how heart­breaking, was clean. Any death in the second book had to be in contrast to that. 

    But I left off attempt two at 30k words because although I under­stood the events I thought would lead to the end of the book, I thought it even less likely that this book would lead there by that point. I could see ways in which Harry & his situ­a­tion would add emotional texture and imme­diacy to Nathan’s situ­a­tion — but I could almost see a split in which Nathan and Emma make different choices.

    And … Nathan’s already dead. So.

  4. michelle says:

    I will say this: the West novels are a different process, but they are the most natural to my writing voice. When I write those, I have the full range of possible events, because I have a full range of char­ac­ters who are affected by those events, or who can effect them. Or who can actu­ally be in the middle of them when they take place.

    The poli­tics, the pres­sures, the magical shifts, have conse­quences that are becoming clearer (I think!) — and the char­ac­ters them­selves can react to any of them, in any way. There’s no secondary struc­ture under­pin­ning the over all structure.

  5. Thanks for writing this post, it’s really inter­esting to see the different writing process each author has. 

    This post actu­ally reminded me of another post you wrote regarding Peril and Sorrow. If I remember correctly, you described it as trying to fit a lot of furni­ture into a small room, and that the furni­ture kept being pushed into other rooms, like the fridge got pushed into the living room, etc. I actu­ally liked this analogy a lot. 

    Here’s the link (at the end of your post): http://​msagarawest​.word​press​.com/​2012​/​02​/​14​/​s​t​a​t​e​-​o​f​-​t​h​e​-​w​r​i​t​e​r​-​f​e​b​r​u​a​r​y​-​2012​-​e​d​i​t​i​on/

    Now that both book are out, I’m hoping you could answer it :)

    Forgot to add: In the comments section you answered that you planned two novellas in the Cast universe. Having read that Annarion destroyed one of them, (I presume) are you still plan­ning to write the other one that you described as the other half of the Harvest Moon novella?

  6. michelle says:

    And if you remind me, after Peril is out in the wild and discus­sion will not be spoiling, I will tell you exactly where all the length was, and why it wasn’t imme­di­ately obvious to me that it would be long.

    Yes :).

    I can write a short book if one of several things are true, and keeping in mind that my version of short is about 40k longer than what most publishers actu­ally want >. In the CAST novels, which are full fantasy worlds, I can keep the length down because for the most part, there is only one view­point char­acter: Kaylin. What she can see/where she can be defines how the plot of each book progresses. I don’t have five view­points at different hier­ar­chical levels — I have one, mostly on the ground. HOWEVER… in Peril what I forgot is that when you venture into a strange or unknown terri­tory, the world is a char­acter. Every­thing about the world — the Hallionne, the regalia, the heart and blood of the green — exist almost as a second view­point or a second char­acter. Take that, add it to the view­point I already have, and you have… kind of two books >.. But I couldn’t cut all of the stuff about the world, I couldn’t shorten it; it was all infor­ma­tion Kaylin didn’t actu­ally have. The various races & inter­ac­tions while policing Elantra are part of who she is. They’re not sepa­rate. I had started thinking I would make much more of the Shadow Wolves. But when Teela spoke to Kaylin about her mother and her past, I under­stood from that point on that these were, in fact, Teela books. She was at the heart of the West March, for Kaylin. And all of the world-build­ing/­world rele­vant infor­ma­tion was part of that story. And since the world in these two was a char­acter, I broke the single-view­point; I had two. Which…doubled the length. re: novella: I am a wee bit behind in every­thing, and so: Yes, I hope to write the other half of that in future, but not in the imme­diate future. Otoh I hope to be finished ORACLE in two months. (I had hoped to be finished GRAVE at around the same time, but. Arg.) 

  7. Bridget says:

    In regards to peril and sorrow and the core of Teela’s story in the books. (Which I know is off topic to the orig­inal post) When Teela was talking to Kaylin about her moth­er’s death in Peril, the mother was an only child, but Lord Barrin’s mother is Teela’s aunt on her moth­er’s side. Was the aunt and Barrin supposed to have been born after the failed regalia and the loss of the chil­dren? (Sorry about any spelling errors on the names, I have all of your book as audio books so I don’t always know how you spell them)

  8. Hilda says:

    You must have been a wonderful student for your teachers. You manage to make a plain discus­sion of facts like a story. And you go even beyond that. You are as surprised as your readers with what you write in your books. No wonder we love all of them. We can’t wait for more and more. It’s addic­tive. What­ever you have in writing(charm ?), only very few other writers have. And I have read thou­sands of books. 55+ years ago, I discov­ered Geor­gette Heyer, perfect at that time in my life (18th century Regency romance). Since then I have purchased her collec­tions 4 times, They will forever give plea­sure. Her books clearly don’t have the absolute depth, length and complexity your books have, but what they have is the same charm that remain forever in your thoughts. I have read yours at least 3 times; I never get tired. By what I read here, neither do your other readers get tired of your books. I just finish reading Dan Brown’s Inferno; as good as this book is, and it’s a very good book, I can put it down and pick it up again days or weeks later. And I bought it the minute it came to the market. I have all his books. Very, very few authors can achieve what you accom­plish. The above recounting of your writing process your readers like it too. I think that’s why we look for some­thing from you, anything.

  9. Don’t worry about spelling errors. I am not ignoring this, but am in that panic state where I’m totally afraid to go back and check >.<. I promise I will do this, but in the mean-time: in the notes I have, the SORROW version is correct, which means that I made all of these notes after the fact, and not before. I will also say this: kinship is a looser config­u­ra­tion on the Barrani side than it is on the human side; Cousin, for instance, is a much looser, general term than it would be if we used it. Evarrim is Teela’s cousin, but not in the strict human sense of the word; there is some dynastic drift between their two lines.

  10. Alan says:

    There is now cover art for cast in flame up at amazon, and I instantly rushed over to see if there was a blog post. I reread this post instead, and smiled when I got to the part about Oracle. Hope­fully your words are treating you better this year than last!

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