the one with pants, outlines, and ergonomic bottle nipples

Every so often in conversation, I’ll blather something to a non-writer about how I wanted a work-in-progress to progress a certain way, but my characters informed me otherwise. “But you’re the author,” comes the puzzled reply. “Don’t you control where the story goes?”

Well, yes. Of course.

But no, not really.

I used to be a seat-of-my-pants writer, plotting out nothing, simply diving into the story and lighting up the keyboard with whatever wanted to flare from my fingertips. Then, in 2004, I found myself splat in the middle of NaNoWriMo with zero clue as to what would happen in the rest of the scene, much less the rest of the book. The story stalled out at 12,000 words, and I haven’t touched it again in a decade-and-a-half.

It’s too bad, really. It was gonna be a rockin’ awesome story.

I think.


After that somewhat vomitous experience, I rethought a few things. Like my whole approach to writing. It took a few years, but eventually I learned the art of pre-writing: character descriptions, chapter summaries, long synopses, the works. And it’s been great. Especially those long synopses (the one for my current WIP is almost 60 pages long) have pulled me up out of the quicksand when I floundered. A quick glance at my store of pre-written information, and I’m happily typing away again, the sucking mire of “writer’s block” paved over with a f*ckton of cement. Outlines are cramazing.


In every story there comes at least one moment (but it’s usually a handful or so) when the writing slows down to a desiccated crawl through the Sahara with nary an oasis in sight. Stuff all outlines and chapter summaries! Sometimes they just don’t help, and for me, it’s invariably because the characters don’t want them to.

“Say whaaaa?” you say.

Yeah. It’s a thing, ya’ll. Lotsa times, the writing screeches to a dead halt because one character plants her feet, drops a hand to the hilt of her knife, braces herself, and says, “NO.”

What’s the Because?!?

The because, my friends, is that I’ve been trying to make my character do or say something that’s out-of-character for her to do.

And honestly, for a word-smith, I have an awful hard time hammering this concept into a shape that makes any sort of sense to other people. 

But I’ll give it a shot.

Let’s say I’ve got a character — we’ll call her Nera — who knows what she wants and isn’t shy about going out and getting it. Maybe she’s even a little bit ruthless in carving out her place in the world. She likes being in control. She harbors a subconscious core fear of making genuine, vulnerable connections with other people. Nera’s M.O. is to connect in a superficial way that lets her call the shots. At the first hint of genuine intimacy, she lashes out to ensure that the other person rejects her.

And let’s say I plop Nera smack in the middle of the frilliest, most over-Pinterested baby shower you can possibly imagine.

Now, Nera’s in-character response will be to do everything she can to get the hell out of there as soon as possible. She might just get up and stalk out the door, insulting the mom-to-be and all the hostesses. She might, when a hostess innocently asks her to cut the trifle, unsheath a massive dagger and use it to slice the dessert to smithereens and *then* stomp out. She might grab the dimpled baby cake topper, which is made of porcelain, and smash it on the floor before flinging herself over the side of the balcony and landing cat-like in the alley below before dashing off to change her phone number and delete her Facebook.

I can do all of this with Nera, and it feels natural. It feels like something she would do. Spouting invective at the pregnant lady? Yup, that’s Nera all right. Running away from a social situation that makes her palms break out in a clammy sweat? Most def her standard operating procedure. If I do these things with Nera, her story will practically write itself — because she’s the one determining its direction.

But that’s not what we’re talking about, is it?

We’re talking about stuff that slams a four-foot-thick steel wall in front of your story, causing it to screech to a dead stop at best, smash headlong into the wall at worst. We’re talking about stuff that leaves you with a headache and a nosebleed. Quick, get your schnoz away from your keyboard.

What might I do with Nera that would dam(n) up her story?

I might try to make her act out-of-character at the effed-up-frilly baby shower.

If Nera sips her strawberry sherbet punch

if she nibbles delicately at a mini-quiche and pops grapes into her mouth one at a time while chatting amiably about the weather and everybody’s health

if she participates in the game that has shower guests identify what mushy foods are smeared into otherwise clean diapers

if she giggles and coos over every pastel onesie and ergonomic bottle nipple

if she enjoys herself thoroughly

if she doesn’t spend the entire time biting back sarcasm and obscenities

if she stays ’til the end of the party and leaves quietly without having challenged anyone to a fistfight

if she attends the shower without a single ulterior motive

…then I have asked her to do things utterly out-of-character. She’ll have nothing more to do in her own story. I’ll have altered her character beyond recognition, preventing the continuation of the story I started. If I make Nera continue in this vein, I’ll be writing a completely different story. I’ll have to abandon her original story and write this different one. And this one, honestly, is pretty boring, because there’s no conflict or even a hint of tension in that second baby shower scenario.

If I keep trying to write the original story, picking up with the ending of the second baby shower scenario I’ll abandon it because Nera and I have nowhere to go from there. Blah blah writer emergency blah.

Plots or Pants?

So. Do I plot stories? Or do I pants them?
The answer is yes.

Like I said earlier, I plot everything out before I story. Characters, plot points, story arcs, beginnings, middles, climaxes, denouements, settings, descriptions. Before I set proverbial pen to proverbial paper, I know who’s doing what and why and where. I knot my safety net. And *then* I edge out onto the highwire.

About a quarter of the way out, when it’s too late to go back, my characters usually let me know that one of my knots is frayed. It’s not tight enough. I tied it in the wrong spot. If I keep going, story and I are going to fall. The net is gonna break, and though I will survive (or will I?), story will end up splattered on the hardpacked ground of the circus ring.

What I have to do is let the characters take my hands, keep me steady, hand me a balancing pole. I have to let them fix the knots in our safety net. So that when we fall — and, inevitably, we will — that’s when the characters decide to go off-outline — we fall together, we hit the net (aka outline, long synopsis, etc), and we bounce right back up onto the highwire and finish up the story.

This is my circus, these are my monkeys, and it’s my job to let them do their thing. Even when their thing is poo-flinging and I don’t want them to.

Have I used enough metaphors yet?

the definitive light-walkers post

That is a horrible title, but I don’t care.

So, in cobbling together my previous post (and in trying to navigate the new UI of WordPress that has interloped since last I blogged [by Grabthar’s Hammer, I HATE new user-interfaces]), I realized that I’ve never really done a comprehensive post about the Light-Walkers universe. Doing so might be more for my own benefit than for anyone else’s, but mayhap some of you will find it perusable if not grippingly fascinating.

The Light-Walkers universe has been in the making since at least 1992. Maybe since 1986. In 1986, the Armed Forces Network started airing a Marine recruitment ad in Germany, where I grew up. (AFN might have aired it all over Europe, but I don’t know know for sure.) The ad showed images of pseudo-medieval warriors on a life-sized chess board, and since 9-year-old me already harbored a love of chess and fantasy, I was hooked. Not by the Marines, but by the imagery and the music, which featured a chorus singing something that sounded Latin to me. But because I didn’t know Latin, my malleable brain came up with my own language for the song, and eventually I wrote down the syllables I heard.

Here’s the ad. You see why it grabbed me?!?

Fast-forward a few years, and I had a weird dream about a mutating phone booth and slitted yellow eyes staring at me from the darkness. When I was 17, I finally sat down to write the story to go with that image…and before I knew it, my pseudo-Latin scribbles from the Marine ad insisted on being included. Those syllables turned into a language I initially called Old Speech, spoken by a people called the Wanderers, which I think was my tribute to Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. VERY long story short, in the ensuing 2+ decades I’ve ended up with the following:

The Legends of the Light-Walkers (LLW)

 • Rethana’s Surrender (LLW #1)

 • Rethana’s Trial (LLW #2)

These two novels, plus short story “Rethana’s Tower,” tell the story of Rethana Chosardal, a magic-user whose decimated family is in hiding from their land’s religio-fascist ruler. Rethana ends up entangled in a civil war while trying to get her little sister back home.

Rethana’s story started life as one book, but in 2011 my then-publisher Consortium Books asked me to split it into a more manageable duology. In 2021, I plan to re-release an Author’s Preferred Edition that includes these two melded once more into one, plus a short story, all under the title Rethana’s Triad. Or Triad and Gold. Or Triad’s Bane. Or The Shadow of the Triad. Or… *sigh* I have two years to figure this out.

 • The Dying of the Light (LLW #3)

This book tells the tale of Rafe Skelleran, fallen star of the art world, who gets sucked into this crazy world of magic, betrayal, war, romance, desperation, non-humans, monsters, and near-immortals. He doesn’t exactly get a happy ending, and I still feel kinda bad about that.

Future Legends of the Light-Walkers Novels:

 • Sister of the Sable Flame will tell the story of Taeven “Ravenhair,” who has a cameo in Dying of the Light. Sable Flame will let us in on Taeven’s backstory, as well as her monumental role in rebuilding [redacted] after [redacted] is destroyed at the end of DotL. Oh, and we get to see how [redacted] from Rethana’s story gets created in the first place and why it’s so significant that Rethana and her sister destroy/transform it.

And if that’s not clear as mud, I don’t know how to help you.

 • Blood Awakening is my working title (subject to change five minutes from now) for the story of Deren Tehvs, son of Rethana. Deren gets to try figuring out who his real father is, all while fighting (joining?) outlaws, falling in love with very much the wrong girl, running from apparent evil incarnate, and oh there’s DRAGONS.

 • The Witch and the Wayfarer’s Tree is the working title for the story of Rowan of the First, one of the original founders of the Light-Walkers. A “wise woman” figure in DotL, she is mentor and guardian to Rafe Skelleran. But in Witch & Wayfarer, we delve into Rowan’s “futurepast” and find out who she really is. W&WT will be something of a sci-fi-fantasy that ties together most of the series as well as assorted pubbed and as-yet-unpubbed short stories.

 • Embers of the North concerns Chali Tehvs, whose birth parents have cameos in Rethana’s story. Chali isn’t actually a Tehvs at all. She knows exactly where she comes from, and she knows that her lineage should give her all the clout she needs to get accepted into the “fae” (dragon rider) training program north of the capital. Needless to say, there are several somebodies who want to stop her. Also, she kind of gets to help found an empire of sorts, maybe?

So. That’s seven novels in the Legends of the Light-Walkers series. There might be more. Chali Tehvs hasn’t let me know yet if she really wants to be the one to round things out and tie up all the loose ends. I’m in no hurry to figure it out at this point. I don’t plan for LLW to go on indefinitely; 8 or 9 will be the upper limit, I think. But I’m leaving those decisions for Future Courtney.

Watchful Dragons

 • Watchful Dragons: Return of the Pelegrin, set in the Light-Walkers universe but on the other side of the continent from where the LLW series takes place; my work-in-progress as of this writing

I intended for this to be a stand-alone work, but it shows signs of wanting to be a series. Or at least a trilogy or something. Another problem for Future Courtney. Yay!

Other Light-Walker Novels and Short Stories

 • The Flight of Elfled unBlessed follows Elfled Gardail through the religio-fascist awfulscape of Rethana’s era as Elfled flees persecution, get separated from her family, and navigates the world as a young teenage refugee (not yet published)

 • The Priestess Murders, my first ever murder mystery, set two centuries after Rethana’s story (not yet published)

 • The Elven Dead and Other Legends of the Light-Walkers, a collection of fantasy short stories set in the Light-Walkers universe (free on Kindle as of this writing!)

 • The Galbraith Folly — set about 1000 years after the Rethana-Elfled-Pelegrin era, it’s the story of how a well-meaning elf queen really screwed up trying to save the world and accidentally turned all elves into nightwalkers and zombies. Oops.

Other Other Light-Walker Stories

Yeah, so this font is pretty much bottomless, if you hadn’t picked up on that yet.

 • Siffenwinch Skilflink Is Tapped Dry — I got a few chapters into this one years ago, then it petered out. But the Muse has renewed interest in it since certain Skilflinks showed up in Elfled Gardail’s story. I’ll be revisiting.

 • The Court of the Seven will be the story of Aletta Clerly, Elfled’s cousin. Aletta gets magic powers, meddles in the politics of two (three?) different countries, kidnaps a relative, and crowns a long-lost king. Her story spans five decades, and I’m probably going to cover all of them. So wow.

 • The Chronicles of Raphael — dunno if it’ll be a standalone novel, a standalone collection of short stories, or a series of something. But it’ll be all about Rafe Skelleran’s adventures bopping in and out of our world during the period between Dying of the Light and Sister of the Sable Flame.

Then there’s a bunch of vague ideas that just have a single plot point or a couple of characters so far:

 • the one about my universe’s version of “elves,” aka Song Prophets, in which we get to see what happens when two of the elf bloodlines get mixed with human DNA via twin girls who each have a different elf father

 • the one where my three main universes (Light-Walkers, Elevator, and Demons of Saltmarch) REALLY slam into each other for a big gooey mashup mess (Jop and Skee will be back! plus Rafe Skelleran and Jas Burleson)

 • a post-apocalyptic, Angela’s-Ashes-style epic set in the decade or so after Galbraith Folly

And…and I think maybe that’s it?

Ooooh, I know. Y’all REALLY need this (you know — the whole two of you who are still reading). Without further ado or adon’t, here’s the chronological order of all the novels and stories and ideas in the LLW universe. Ready? Set? FEAST YOUR SEEINGBALLS ON THIS:

Light-Walkers Universe Chronology

  1. The Witch and the Wayfarer Tree (not yet written)
  2. The Dying of the Light
  3. The Chronicles of Raphael (not yet written)
  4. triple-universe mashup with Rafe, Jas, Jop, and Skee
  5. “The Eater” (The Elven Dead)
  6. “Gateway Drug” (The Elven Dead)
  7. Sister of the Sable Flame (incomplete)
  8. Return of the Pelegrin (in-progress)
  9. The Flight of Elfled unBlessed (not yet published)
  10. The Court of the Seven (not yet written; takes place concurrently with #s 11.-.18)
  11. “Out of the Darkness” (The Elven Dead)
  12. “Rethana’s Tower” (The Elven Dead)
  13. Rethana’s Surrender
  14. Rethana’s Trial
  15. “Oubliette” (The Elven Dead)
  16. Blood Awakening (incomplete)
  17. Siffenwinch Skilflink Is Tapped Dry (incomplete)
  18. Embers of the North (not yet written)
  19. story about mixing elf and human DNA
  20. The Priestess Murders (not yet published)
  21. The Galbraith Folly (not yet written)
  22. post-apocalyptic epic with elf zombies
  23. “The Elven Dead”

And egad Brain, I think I’m done. Yikes, this was way more than I intended to write here, and I think it’s more for my use and clarity than for y’all’s. If I were a good little blogger, I’d shove some cover art in here somewhere. But it’s late, I’m tired, and I have acid reflux. So I’m not gonna.


Just a brief heyyo here’s what’s been up in my writing world:

If I give you Chris Pine, will you read my blog post?

  1. Last month, I completed, i.e. won, the summerly version of JuNoWriMo, of which you will be cognizant if you have ever given my blog any smidgen of serious attention whatsoever. After having spent almost one whole week of June out-of-commission health-wise, I actually finished the challenge a day early; thus, there was must rejoicing.
  2. The novel I worked on during JuNoWriMo is currently entitled Watchful Dragons: Return of the Pelegrin. “Pelegrin” is another word for “pilgrim” and is also related to the word “peregrine.” So, lots of thematic stuff with journeys and sacred stuff and untamable creatures, etc. It’s a fantasy novel set in my Light-Walkers universe, and it seeks to provide the answer to “What ever happened to Susan Pevensie from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books?” Because, yes, I do happen to have enough hubris to believe myself capable of providing a satisfying answer to that 60-year-old question, even though I won’t be using any of Lewis’s characters, settings, or exact plot lines because I’d really rather avoid getting the pantaloons sued off me by the man’s estate. I am currently about 65,000 words in, and this book is showing every sign of being a 200k-word story, so I don’t know what I’m going to do. But I’m loving main character Gillian Averell, who is currently in the middle of going all mama-bear over her daughter getting attacked by a smoke creature that bleeds violet. Thus, much fun is being had by all.
  3. My JuNoWriMo project of 2018 was my first ever murder mystery, also set in the Light-Walkers universe. The Priestess Murders is the story of magic-user priestess Joely Puck, unwilling assistant detective investigating the murder of a fellow priestess. There’s magic and betrayal and flaying and manipulation and insidious cursed objects and romance and inter-dimensional travel. I spent the second half of 2018 and much of the first half of 2019 crafting the thing to completion and thence, step by tormented step, into completion. One beta reader has finished it and says it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written. Another beta isn’t quite finished but tells me she’s thoroughly enjoying the read. More to come on that front soon, I dare hope.
  4. This blog. Oy vey, ay caramba, uffda, and um Himmels Willen this BLOG. Since I can’t seem to keep the thing updated or in use or what-hast-thou, I have decided to set aside time every Monday evening for blogging. I’m aware that blogging isn’t exactly DONE anymore, and I certainly don’t owe anyone a blog post or whatever, but. The blogging thing is good for me. I realize and acknowledge this. Plus, my therapist wants me journaling, and since I can’t quite manage to keep up with that, maybe a weekly commitment here will stand me in good stead on that front, too.
  5. I write too much on Twitter.
  6. That’s all, folks.
  7. (Am I allowed to say that? Like, legally?) *swan-dives into alternate dimension*