Author Archives: Jocelyn Nash Carlin, Writer

About Jocelyn Nash Carlin, Writer

Jocelyn Nash Carlin writes speculative fiction for children and adults. She also co-hosts the Writing Snippets podcast and blog at

On Outlining

I think every fiction writer faces the question: “Do I want to outline, or not?” at some point in their career, and revisit it from time to time. As to the particular style of outlining, they probably revisit the problem from time to time.

I’ve known some writers who write detailed chapter by chapter outlines that are not only long, but include actual snippets of description and dialog. Others write vague lists of major plot points and then free-write their way from plot point to plot point. Still others will come up with a basic story concept, spend time writing character sketches, and then put their characters into their basic story and see where those characters take it through free-writing. There are methods based on a three-act structure, or other multi-point systems, or circular cycles of rising and falling action leading to new cycles of rising and falling action. A simple google search will produce dozens of different outlining systems.

None of these systems are right or wrong. It’s a matter of experimentation to find what works best for you.

For most of my short stories I come up with a basic concept and then free-write until I’m finished. I’m generally happy with the results. On the other hand, when I tried to free-write a children’s fantasy novel, the resulting manuscript was so messy and inconsistent that I’ve had to revise it about five times, and I’m still not happy.

I’ve set that manuscript aside for the time-being, and for my two new works in progress I produced outlines of all the key plot points. I’m currently using the 7-point plot system taught by author Dan Wells in this series of videos, or summarized in this episode of the podcast Writing Excuses. Give it a listen – it might be the system for you. And if not, there are dozen of other systems out there, just waiting for you to try them.

So far I’m very happy with this outlining system. It provides a clear path for each of my major characters, as well as an overarching story to tie all those characters together. But it’s not a chapter-by-chapter or scene-by-scene outline. There is still plenty of room for me to make changes here and there and to free-write my way to better world-building and character development as I work all my outlined plot points together.

What outlining styles (or lack of outlining styles) have worked best for you? Share them in the comments to help other readers find the right fit for their writing method.

Writing from Prompts

Do you ever need a break from your novel-in-progress but don’t know what else to write? Or are you ready to start a new project but don’t have a good idea?

One way to break free from that kind of writer’s block is to write from prompts.

Never heard of writing prompts? Here’s the idea: someone gives you a scenario, an image, a setting, a line of poetry, a song lyric, a news story, a single evocative word, etc. Then you write a story inspired by that prompt—or by a combination of prompts.

Basically it’s a way to force your mind to break out of a rut by challenging you to make a story work when it’s coming from an external source of inspiration.

Prompts might only result in a piece of flash fiction (less than 1,000 words). Or even a single scene or vignette. Or perhaps a short poem. If you get very lucky, your brain might take a prompt or prompts and turn them into a whole potential novel.

For example: my current novel in progress came from three prompts. First, I was spending a lot of time in my garden a few summers ago, and I decided to write something that involved gardening. Second, I’d recently written something about princesses and wanted to try another princess story. Third, I’d recently completed a short story set in the Aztec civilization, and I wasn’t entirely happy with it and wanted to try again. Those three ideas came together when a blog I followed issued the challenge to complete a ten thousand or more word story in two months time. So I used the prompts: Garden, Princess, Aztec, and I started a story in a Mesoamerican milieu about a princess with magical powers over plants. Eventually the princess became a priestess and her powers became linked to her god, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I got a great idea for a story that I loved by combining three prompts from three different sources. I have enough material in my mind for several novels set in my alternate Mesoamerica, now.

So where can you find prompts? Anywhere. Do you have a Google or Yahoo homepage with news articles? Collect the most interesting and thought provoking ones. If you write science fiction, subscribe to scientific magazines or blogs. If you write history or fantasy, try subscribing to periodicals or blogs on history, culture, anthropology, etc. Make notes of interesting details from everyday events. Write down interesting lines from books or poems, or even snippets you’ve overheard from strangers in the grocery store. Do Google image searches and save your favorite pictures of places or people. You never know when the prompts you’ve collected will spark a new idea in your mind, or provide a needed break from an on-going project.

If you need even more of a kick-start, some writer’s blogs regularly post prompts. Children’s fantasy author Gail Carson Levine ends nearly all of her blog posts with prompts. Podcast Writing Excuses ends all their episodes with writing prompts, and you don’t even have to listen to find them—all are transcribed into the blog posts on their website. I belong to a prompt-based writing challenge Live Journal community: Pulped Fictions (one caveat—you must have a Live Journal account and apply for membership to view the prompts). Also, a quick Google search for “writing prompts” resulted in a long list of places on the web to find prompts to get your mind spinning.

Let me finish off with a few prompts of my own:




Use just one or use them all. I 100% guarantee that your story will be vastly different from the one I came up with.

Do you have a favorite place on the web to find prompts? Or a writing-prompt success story to share? Share them in the comments—I’d love to hear from you.

The Best of Writing and Publishing Around the Web: March 2012

This is a little late in coming, but here are some of my favorite writing and publishing links for the month of March.

Author Janice Hardy talks about how to use critique feedback in your revision process.

Author R.L. Copple asks the question: Can you rewrite voice?

Author/Editor Annette Lyon talks about how Shorter is Often Sweeter when writing dialog.

Author Sherwood Smith talks about Process Narration–or when writers inadvertently write their experience of writing into their work.

Agent Micheal Bourret and editor Molly O’Neill have a two part conversation on Everything you ever wanted to know about middle grade… and were willing to ask. Part 1, Part 2.

Agent Mary Kole talks about what sorts of character obstacles don’t work well.

Author Mike Winchell reflects on the author’s struggle to make time to write.

Author Juliette Wade shares some tips for writing action sequences, and starts a useful discussion on using and making maps for your writing.

Author Darcy Pattison talks about cutting up your story’s timeline, and asks: when are you finished with your revision?

Editor Angela James lists 10 things authors should know about Twitter.

Author Talia Vance talks about the times when Revision means Rewriting.

Agent Rachelle Gardner answers the question: What’s an Author-Agent agreement?

Author/Editor Susan J. Morris writes about Making People Laugh: the secret art of funny fiction.

Author Anne R. Allen talks about when an author should hire an editor, and how to avoid scams.

Author Mary Lindsey shares tips for how to secure online reviews for your book.

I hope some of these articles can be useful to you as you navigate your own writing journeys. Enjoy!

Finding Yourself as a Writer: Plotter or Pantser?

Over the past three or four years I feel like I’ve been on a journey of finding myself as a writer. I’ve been learning how to tailor my writing time and projects to fit my natural instincts, and sometimes trying to overcome my instincts if I feel like they aren’t serving me well. I’d like to share some of that journey with you, and maybe it can help you along your own journey.

Today I feel like revisiting a topic we discussed in one of our earliest podcasts, at the beginning of last year: Plotting vs. “Pantsing.” In other words, do you plot out your stories ahead of time, either mentally or in an outline, or do you write by the seat of your pants (a technique sometimes called “discovery writing”)?

I’ve experimented with both styles over the past few years to see which works best for my writer-self. For years, ever since my creative writing classes in college (no—I won’t admit how long ago that was) I’ve been attempting to write by the seat of my pants. I’d get a great idea, sit down, write a chapter or two, and get a little lost. Then I’d get frustrated. And then I’d think the whole story through in my mind until I’d figured out the most important details. But by then I’d be bored with the story or unhappy with the chapters I’d written and I’d give up. You’d think I’d have learned a long time ago that I’m more of a plotter/outliner, but instead I just decided that I needed to put up with a crappy first draft and push my way through it.

So that’s what I did—I started another novel, I stopped editing as I went, and I pushed my way through seat-of-my-pants style. But, as I wrote, I found myself making notes about things that needed to happen in future chapters so I wouldn’t forget. Before I finished even half of the manuscript I had a brief chapter-by-chapter outline.

I kept following inspiration as it struck—in true pantser mode—however, if my new inspiration altered the flow of the story I’d go through and update my outline before continuing. By the time I finished the manuscript and faced the daunting task of revising a manuscript that was written half by the seat of my pants and half according to an outline, I’d learned my lesson. I’m a plotter. I should have been a plotter all along. And nearly two years of laboriously revising that manuscript has solidified that realization. If I’d planned beforehand, I’d be done by now.

So with my latest projects I’m outlining and planning before I begin writing. So far my first draft of my latest novel is coming out more fully formed and polished the first time through, thanks to my outline. Even with some short stories I recently wrote, extensive pre-planning helped me churn out a more polished and effective first draft that needed only minor revision in just a few hours. The writing happens faster, and I’m way more satisfied with the result.

I think the key to this stage in discovering myself as a writer was being willing to experiment. I didn’t get stuck on the idea that I had to be a pantser or a plotter. I tried both ways until I found what worked best for the way my mind and my writing process works.

So don’t be afraid to experiment—don’t think it will waste your valuable time. In fact, it might just save you time in the long wrong.

Have you discovered whether you’re a plotter or a pantser yet? Share your stories in the comments.

World, Character, or Plot? Why do you read and write the way you do?

I once participated in a discussion where someone posed the question: why do you read what you read? Do you read for the world, the characters, or the plot?

In the course of discussion, someone suggested that perhaps people who are “world” readers will prefer genres like fantasy and science fiction, people who are “character” readers will prefer more realistic fiction, and people who are “plot” readers will enjoy genres like mysteries, thrillers, and adventure stories.

Obviously this is a flawed look at the nuanced ways people choose their reading material (or other media entertainments). But I think this idea does hold a grain of truth for both what people choose to read, and for what writers choose to write.

In my own entertainment choices, I prefer stories that employ a good blend of world building, character and plot. However, when I examine my favorite books, films and television shows more deeply, I’ve found that I’m willing to forgive shallower or less interesting characters if the world building and plots are really cool. On the other hand, I can also forgive plot-holes, weird time lines, etc. if the characters and world building are really great.

The one thing I have trouble forgiving is shoddy, poorly thought-out world building.

Give me a rich and engaging world, whether it be a fictional small town in America, the supernatural underworld in a big city, or a medieval kingdom filled with monsters and magic and if the characters and plot are at least somewhat engaging, I’m sucked right in.

So that makes me a “world” reader first and foremost. But character is a strong second place—the books, films and shows that I turn back to over and over again inevitably have strong characters to go with their engaging worlds.

So how do these reading preferences influence my writing?

Just as you might guess, I spend a lot of my time as a writer thinking about world building.

I’m curious if this pattern holds true for other writers out there. Do you write like you read? And are you a “world” person, a “character” person, or a “plot” person?

Writing and Publishing Around the Web: December 2011

Here are some of my favorite articles on writing and publishing since the end of November. I’ll be back with more lists in the New Year!

First up, a practical Social Media Survival Guide by author Jenn Reese.

Author James Alan Gardner provides some helpful guidelines for designing scenes and shares thoughts on scene beginnings and endings.

Agent Mary Kole shares Some Thoughts on Revision, particularly in regards to when to query.

Author Bob Mayer has some interesting comments on how to choose What to Write.

Author Louise Marley teaches us more about using Alternate History and Historical Fiction in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Author Janice Hardy shares helpful articles on Combining Scenes for Dramatic Punch and writing Slice of Life Stories.

Author Juliette Wade shares some insights on the current fluctuations in the publishing industry and artistic vision.

Author Ash Krafton shares some of the Numbers Games we have to play when writing and querying, and suggestions on how to use Strong Language to create a strong story.

Author Nathan Bransford teaches us how to Network Without Networking, and discusses How Art Changes With Us as we progress through our lives.

Writer Misty Massey opens a discussion on methods of backing up your work.

Author Elana Johnson shares some insightful thoughts on what she’s learned about herself six months after publishing her debut novel.

Author/commentator R.L. Copple blogs about what happens when Self-Publishing Goes Wrong.

Author Chris Eboch shares advice on how to Show, not Tell, Emotion.

Author Hilary Wagner shows off her real rejection letters and shares a message of hope.

Writer Stina Lindenblatt shares a lesson on how to write Killer Loglines.

Author Anne R. Allen lists 22 Things for New Bloggers to Avoid.

Agent Rachelle Gardner talks about Following the Market or Following Your Heart.

Editor Stacy Whitman talks about how to avoid using the trope of the “Magic Negro” when writing diverse characters.

Author Patricia C. Wrede talks about writing Too many, too much when it comes to writing plots and point of view characters.

Finally, author/editor Annette Lyon shares ideas on how to improve your focus when writing.

Enjoy the articles, and Happy New Year!

Happy Holidays and PSA

Hello friends of Writing Snippets! Happy Holidays to you all!

We’ve loved sharing the last year with you all, and look forward to another great year of talking about writing.

We’ll be back with more podcasts and articles in the New Year. And later this week I’ll be posting the final “Writing and Publishing around the Web” of 2011 (it’s been delayed a few days due to holiday fun).

Have a wonderful final week of 2011, and we’ll talk to you again next year.

Writing the Uncomfortable

From time to time, as authors we find ourselves writing about topics that we (or our audience) might find uncomfortable or even dangerous. If you’re never writing anything that might discomfort your audience you’re probably writing technical manuals or advertising (which is fine, but this isn’t about those types of writing).

Especially at this time of year. Religious holidays—and that word’s a redundancy if I ever heard one—are in the current social and political environment anathema, not to be discussed in polite society.

See my blog at for my politically correct version of Santa Claus.

I’m not going to go into the social ramifications here, and this is not a discussion of specific holy days. At some point we have to face difficult topics in our writing. Even the shallowest of writers sooner or late writes something that makes one of their readers say “Huh, I never thought of that” and it makes a difference.

If we avoid writing about the hard topics, if we deliberately or subconsciously avoid any mention of things our audience may find uncomfortable, we shortchange them and ourselves. Writing, particularly fiction writing, is about the human condition and making our readers sympathize with our characters—even the villains. If we didn’t empathize with them on some level, they wouldn’t feel nearly as dangerous. Villains are the embodiment of the dark madness that we would rather not reveal to those around us.

If you find yourself writing around a difficult topic, it may be something that you want to explore instead. Whether you choose to incorporate that topic or not is your own choice, but ignoring it should not be an option. Maybe you’ll learn something by exploring it. For certain your readers will.

By Lauren Ritz

More with Michael Phipps

Cover Art for books and CDs.
Find out how he got to do the cover work for James Dashner’s Jimmy Fincher books.
What is the difference in doing illustration for books and CDs?
How music helps him do art.
What’s the difference between working with publishers and musicians?

Download (right click and go to “save link as” to download)

Gratitude: The writers in my life

This is the season of gratitude.

That being said, I have a few things to give thanks for, or more accurately, a few people.

Almost two years ago, I started coming to a new reading group in Sandy. Not only do they put up with my truly bizarre personality and my loud opinions, they have also given me some incredible insights into writing in general and my own writing in particular. Thanks, Snippet-ers. I owe you big-time.

With what I have learned from my writing friends, I have been able to examine the published writers that I love, and I have been able, to a greater extent, to understand why I love them so much.

Robert Jordan (and by extension, Brandon Sanderson): When the author of the acclaimed “Wheel of Time” series made his blacksmith talk (and think) with analogies to metal and metal working, I finally got it through my head that a blacksmith will have language and actions and thoughts that reflect his experiences. All the time. Likewise a housewife, or an aristocrat, or a child who has lived through a devastating family disaster will have his or her experiences so woven into the fabric of speech and thought that the character gains far more depth and personality.

Robin McKinley and Lois McMaster Bujold are world and character builders par-excellence. Some existing cultures in this world aren’t as real in my head as theirs are on paper, and in my opinion, the quintessential male character is not Edward Cullen, but Miles VorKosigan. Robin McKinley’s “Beauty” is one of my favorites of all time. The fairy-tale ambiance of the story is something a reader can live and get lost in. Anne McCaffery’s “Dragonflight” was the first fantasy I ever read, and I still dream of being a dragon rider. L. M. Mongomery’s “Blue Castle” is a Cinderella story that I read over and over.

These books are my old friends, and I wouldn’t be myself without them. Like metal work for the blacksmith, these express my subconscious words and dreams, the very formation of my thoughts. I love fantasy because anything is possible. And if anything is possible, maybe I can create something beautiful enough to haunt a reader’s mind to the exclusion of all else. Maybe I can transport others into a story that can’t be put down.

By Ava Mylne