Tag: Author

7 Classic Query Blunders

7 Classic Query Blunders

I started my career as an acquisitions editor and still deal with acquisitions. Through that experience, I can tell you there are a few things that will always make me stomp my feet and scream. In fact, I may even throw my hands up. Queries are a hard part of writing, but there are a few things you absolutely must get correct to avoid being sent the dreaded form rejection letter. While I’m not saying you’ll absolutely be accepted if you avoid these mistakes, your likelihood of acceptance is vastly higher.

Without further ado, let’s get into it.

  1. Not following guidelines.
    While a lot of writing has things that are wibbldy and wobldy and wishy-washy, query guidelines are not. We ask for specific things because they’re what we absolutely need to know, and we need that information as efficiently as possible. For example, if someone sent my company, Insomnia Publishing, an erotica novel to publish, I’d reject it without looking at the rest of the query. No offense to erotica (I have erotica writers I’m close to, and the genre’s dandy in my book–hurr, I made a pun), but we aren’t a romance/erotica publisher. We are only speculative fiction.
  2. Writing “fun” queries.
    If you’re writing a query as the main character or trying to do something funky with fonts or images, please don’t. I know you’re desperately trying to stand out in my inbox. But making the background of your email lime green and your text fuchsia will cause me a migraine and net you a rejection out of hand. It does make you stand out, that’s for sure, but standing out doesn’t always mean good things.

    Write me a query that’s honest, to the point, contains the information I need, and is polite and well-formatted. That will make you stand out. If you want to use a font that isn’t Times New Roman, Size 12 (that’s the industry standard), feel free to use other easy-to-read fonts like Garamond, Georgia, Cambria, etc. While I can’t speak for other editors (and if they list a font requirement in their guidelines use it), so long as it’s easy to read and standard, I won’t complain.

    Unless you send me a query in Papyrus. Just. . . just don’t.
  3. Word counts outside of what we ask for.
    This won’t be an immediate failure unless it’s dramatically outside our maximums and minimums. Our listed maximum is 120k words for high fantasy and historical novels. If your novel is 130k words, I won’t burn your query in effigy. If it’s 220k words, I will probably pour myself a glass of Moscato, pop some fruit in that, drink it, and send you a rejection.

    While you can argue until you’re blue in the face that if writers like Stephen King and George R. R. Martin can do it, so can you, it doesn’t mean we can afford to take that risk at this point in time. The overheads are going to be outrageous. The cost to edit, format, and (assuming print) print and ship that is going to be horrendous. Unless you’re Stephen King magically sending me a query (Hi, Mr. King, I’ll accept anything you send me), you’re going to have to abide by what we can see as acceptable risk.
  4. You haven’t explained your genre well.
    This part is hard, and I get that. But if you send me a book and describe it as a fantasy/historical/cyberpunk/paranormal/sci-fi/romance, I am probably going to go right back to the wine. In fact, just writing that makes me twitch a little. While it’s tempting to try and label your book as every genre it might cross over into, I really just need the main details.

    If it’s a cyberpunk/fantasy? Great. I’m a Shadowrun fan. I can grok that. But when the genres don’t make sense together or you don’t explain it well, I’m just going to be confused and turn it down. I need to understand what I’m looking at immediately. If you can’t make that clear, your book is too complex and needs revision, or you don’t have a clear enough view to market it.

    Part of this question about genre comes down to: who is the target market for this book? If I can’t pinpoint a target market of people who will want to buy this, I can’t sell it. If I can’t sell it, I don’t want to publish it.
  5. Your query is poorly-written.
    If your query is full of grammatical errors and questionable word choice or excessively over-written, I am going to expect that of the book. We’re all human, and if you have a typo in there (like for some reason I write “youo” like 98% of the time I type “you”) it’s not going to break you. But if it’s written with heavily passive voice, purple prose, or an obvious and poor understanding of sentence construction, it tells me the book is going to be the same. Perfection isn’t necessary, but being solid and clear? Yeah, that’s a requirement.
  6. Your tone.
    I’ve been in this industry long enough that most of the time I can identify a nightmare client from tone. I have received hundreds of “you’re just a literary hack who doesn’t understand my genius” responses over my decade working in the industry. I can recognize the author who is convinced that they are the embodiment of Tolkien or Heinlein. If you strike me as someone who will be an utter nightmare to edit, you’ll get a rejection.

    I know that sounds harsh, but for every person who is too full of their own genius that they cannot understand why I’d want to change a single comma, there are dozens of brilliant, motivated authors eager to learn and improve and willing to work with an editor.
  7. Your marketing plan is disorganized or non-existent.
    My company has recently started requiring marketing plans from our authors in the query. It doesn’t need to be huge, but it has to show that thought has been put into it and that you’re willing to do the work needed to make your book a success. This is because we have run into situations where authors refuse to market, cannot market, or have no plans whatsoever to market, and as a result they do nothing to help move books. While marketing is a complex subject for another blog, know that coming to the table with a plan with clear, actionable steps (even if it’s something as simple as: weekly blogs, engage on social media to grow readership, blog tours) will make you instantly more appealing.

    While I have no problems helping our authors market and giving them all the tools I know of, I am not a publicist, nor does my company have the money to hire one. They’re expensive. And if we did hire one, it would be to work with us on some of our bigger titles, not every single one. (Much as larger companies only will have 2-3 major titles per quarter/period that their publicists focus on.) Marketing falls to authors a lot of the time, and there’s only so much we can do about it.

    In reality, there’s also only so much I can do for an author. I cannot build an author page for you, make your Facebook author page and populate it with content, create an official author Twitter for you, or write your blog posts and develop your email list for you. Those are things I absolutely cannot do for you even if I wanted to. So go into it with a plan if you can, and do some study ahead of time to learn at least a little about what’s needed.

    IngramSpark has a good checklist of how to handle a book release and what to do when, so I’ll leave the marketing conversation here and let you read that checklist to help you plan things out.

This is by no means a complete list of things that might turn an acquisition editor off, but it covers the big ones that come to mind when I think about queries. I know some of these may sound a little harsh, but try and remember that acquisitions editors often deal with hundreds of emails a day for larger companies. Our process is usually streamlined to be as efficient as possible and allow us to spend as little time as possible reading a query before making a decision on it.

I’ll be frank, too, I often make a decision on whether or not I want to read more of the story based on reading the query, the first paragraph or two, and then glancing at the synopsis. While I may read the whole two chapters we ask for if something grabs me (if it does, go you!), but I am operating purely on: “Does this fit? How much work would this take to publish? If we put in the work, will the author fulfill their end of the bargain?”

An author’s job doesn’t end when editing is over. In fact, it’s just beginning when you sign the contract because, beyond writing, you have editing and then marketing. It’s not all sunshine and roses to get an acceptance letter; you have to keep pushing if you want to be successful. If you don’t, nobody wins.

Also, as an aside, in case you were wondering, yes, the title of this does resemble a Princess Bride quote. Just know that Princess Bride quotes are always lurking. Waiting. Stalking me. And now you know my dreadful secret: if you think it might be a pun know that it probably is.

An author’s job doesn’t end when editing is over. In fact, it’s just beginning when you sign the contract because, beyond writing, you have editing and then marketing.

E. Prybylski

E. Prybylski has been in the publishing industry as an editor since 2009, starting at Divertir Publishing and eventually partnering with her close friend Richard Belanger to begin Insomnia Publishing.

Ever since childhood, E. has been an avid reader and writer of fantasy. The first chapter book she remembers reading is The Hobbit, followed swiftly by most of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series. In high school, she perfected the skill of walking while reading without slamming into anyone. Mostly.

When she isn’t reading or writing, E. is an active member of the Society for Creative Anachronism and has a B.A. in European history from SNHU. In addition to her many historical pursuits, E. is a musician of multiple instruments, a cat mom, and a loving wife to her husband, J. E. also speaks out for the disability and chronic illness communities being a sufferer of chronic migraines and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.

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Why Publishers Won’t Steal Your Book

Why Publishers Won’t Steal Your Book

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer or an expert in the law. My understanding comes from contact with people who know more than I do about US copyrights. If you have questions or concerns, please contact a lawyer.

Let me start by saying there is no accounting for jerks in the world, and there are jerks. However, the vast majority of publishers fall into the category I am going to describe in this blog for the reasons I give. There are also authors who plagiarize or steal other authors’ works (and I don’t mean fanfic writers–you folks are fine in my book). However, I have yet to meet a publisher who would steal an author’s book.

The reality is this: the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t add up when it comes to stealing your book.

Even if you were the next Tolkien, Martin, King, or Hemingway, the reality is that there is so much work and money that goes into investing in a book to be published that stealing your work to publish without you wouldn’t be worth it. On average, one pass of editing for one of my clients is between $800-$2000, depending on the type of editing and length of the novel. When we are publishing a book, there is a minimum of three passes ($2,400) plus typesetting (another $750 minimum), cover design ($250+), an ISBN ($50ish), uploading to Ingram ($25) and so on. By the time it hits the market, we’ve spent around $5,000 in work and assets on this book. And that was calculated with the absolute minimum in editing. It’s usually closer to $1,200 per pass worth of work.

The reality is this: the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t add up when it comes to stealing your book.

E. Prybylski

And that’s a clean book that doesn’t require extensive work. (Not that we’d take a book that does for exactly the reasons above).

Also, royalties tend to be around 15% net for print books and 35-40% net for ebooks. Most of the time, after Amazon, Ingram, and other parts of the distribution network take their bites, a book that sells for $15.00 as a print book might net a $4.00-$5.00 profit for the publisher. And 15% of that is about $0.75 per book that goes to an author. For ebooks, you’re getting 40% of the 30% the publisher makes off of your $5.99 book. Or about $0.10. Sure, if you sell hundreds and hundreds of books, that will add up over time, but it would require a huge success for that to be worth the fiscal risk of being taken to court.

Then, of course, there’s the fact that, legally, copyright in the US begins the moment you start writing your book. Even before you register it. This means that even if you pitch your book to publishers/agents before you’ve obtained a copyright through the process, you are protected. While defending your copyright in court is easier when you’ve obtained a copyright from the government, it’s certainly possible. And if someone does steal your book, you can sue them into oblivion.

None of these costs have taken marketing into account yet, either. Which is time-consuming and can be expensive depending on the routes you choose.

From a purely dollars-and-cents point of view, the math just doesn’t add up for a publisher to steal your book and try and cut you out of the deal. The amount we have to invest into every book we launch means that, before we could rake in that sweet, sweet, illicit dough, we’d have to invest a lot of money, hope you don’t catch us, and then put the book to market and spend even more money and time on marketing all while Snidely Whiplash twirling our collective mustaches and hoping you don’t notice.

The long and short of it is, it just isn’t worth it. No offense, but your book isn’t worth that risk and that investment if we could get taken to court over it. No matter how good it is, your book just isn’t good enough for me to risk my livelihood, future work, mortgage, and future children’s college funds over on the wild guess of a return.

Besides. I’m an author, myself. I don’t want to steal your books. I have my own I’m publishing.

Now, are there cases where authors will steal each other’s ideas, and stories. There have been a lot of lawsuits over it, and that is something to watch out for (which is why I strongly discourage authors from writing anything on Wattpad unless they’re making it public forever and never intend on trying to make money from it). You should be careful who you share your manuscript with before you copyright it and/or publish it. That’s a thing you should be aware of. I’m not saying not to workshop things with fellow authors (again, the vast majority of them have their own projects and genuinely don’t want to steal yours), but you should be conscious and aware of things and use caution.

Ultimately, you may well want to copyright before querying, but not because the publisher is likely to steal it from you. In fact, they may well expect you to have copyrighted your book in advance. It’s an important part of the process, and you should do it. However, it’s got nothing to do with publishers stealing your writing.

Fallen Friday: The Setting

Fallen Friday: The Setting

Welcome to another edition of “Fallen Friday!” If you weren’t around for last week’s, this is my new blog series where I talk about the journey I’ve undertaken to get here, my writing, and also about the novel itself as well as its setting! While you can learn this in the book, I figured sharing some of this stuff in advance couldn’t hurt. Fallen isn’t due out until December, and I don’t know if I can keep all this in for that long!

Like I mentioned last week, my novel’s setting is inspired by a mixture of the movie Bright on Netflix and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series along with no small dollop of Holly Black’s Tithe, Valiant, and Ironside. While you may or may not recognize all the influences, the most obvious one at the first contact is Bright.

The setting of the Smoke and Magic series addresses a similar question to that movie: what if magic were commonplace, and fantasy races were all real? Now, unlike Bright, the world isn’t/ a post-modern dystopia where the elves live in the fantasy equivilent of The Aerium from Altered Carbon. (Yeah, I know, I’m a Netflix junkie. So sue me.) Instead, society is more or less like it is in the real world. Mostly.

My novels are mostly going to be set in the city of Boston, MA because I live quite close to the city. I haven’t spent a great deal of time there in person due to a combination of finances and physical disability, but if Google Streetview tracked steps like my Fitbit does, I’d have probably clocked several marathons by now. I have also been to the city a number of times (Logan Airport, the Boston Aquarium and museums and zoo, The Royale to see VNV Nation perform, and so on), and I’m a historian who is intimately familiar with the history of the city. I also live in New Hampshire, so the historical New England buildings are hardly foreign territory for me. My family church is with a year or so of the establishment of Old North Church in Boston.

So what does it mean that magic is commonplace in the world?

Well, for one thing, there are degrees in it from Harvard. While you won’t meet her until book two, there’s a character who has a degree in it. Magic is, of course, quite regulated. It’s commonplace insomuch as there are many people who can do it, how magic is used and by whom is tightly-controlled. Particularly things like necromancy (which will show up later in the series). Small things like illusion magic (the fae use it a lot) to alter hair color, eye color, and so on? Not considered much of a big deal in most circumstances, though it can make police work a nightmare if you have no idea what the person really looks like. They have special units for that.

Those with magic are considered “metas.” Some species are entirely comprised of metas (like the aforementioned fae) while others only have the occasional meta. Species like therianthropes are also considered meta since their shapeshifting, while a product of nature, is a form of magic. Metas are, generally speaking, broken up into two categories: active and passive. Passive metas are individuals like therianthropes whose magic is (typically) limited to shapeshifting and healing wounds or a vampire’s ability to exist.

Generally speaking, about 40% of the population is meta, with the bulk of the non-meta population being made up of humanity. While there are many other species in the world, humans reproduce the fastest. Some of the long-lived races, like elves, have few children and typically at more or less a replacement rate since elves can live for centuries. Biology saw fit to ensure they wouldn’t over-populate the world and kill off life on the planet. Most of the species with excessively long natural lifespans have similar parameters to their biology.

So what about things like dragons?

Yes, well, dragons certainly existed, though they were in fact hunted out in the Medieval ages so far as anyone knows. Any who weren’t slain by knights have long since gone into hiding. And just as well for the most part–they were extremely powerful creatures known to cause a great deal of trouble for folks. What with the hoarding and such. Not exactly ideal neighbors a lot of the time.

So what does that mean for the day-to-day?

Well, you still have computers and cell phones and Internet. The world still exists as we expect it to on average. However, there are folks with heating and cooling handled by runes instead of forced air. They still require charging and maintainence, but it’s cheaper that way. Also, there are flight rules for winged creatures communting. And there are cars designed for bigger creatures. And, you know, centaur standing room on trains and busses.

Some things like World Wars are also a little different, but I don’t want to get too far into that in this installment.

E. Prybylski has been in the publishing industry as an editor since 2009, starting at Divertir Publishing and eventually partnering with her close friend Richard Belanger to begin Insomnia Publishing.

Ever since childhood, E. has been an avid reader and writer of fantasy. The first chapter book she remembers reading is The Hobbit, followed swiftly by most of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series. In high school, she perfected the skill of walking while reading without slamming into anyone. Mostly.

When she isn’t reading or writing, E. is an active member of the Society for Creative Anachronism and has a B.A. in European history from SNHU. In addition to her many historical pursuits, E. is a musician of multiple instruments, a cat mom, and a loving wife to her husband, J. E. also speaks out for the disability and chronic illness communities being a sufferer of chronic migraines and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.

Writing. We Hates it.

Writing. We Hates it.

There are days–and more of them than we are likely excited about–where writing feels like pushing our brains through a cheese grater. I’m having one of those days now, actually. As I write this, it is extremely hot (over 90F with 41% humidity) for where I live. Now, if you don’t know, I’m a New Englander. We usually don’t see these temperatures until August. So our AC isn’t in (we have window units), and I am melting in a puddle of nope. If I didn’t have housemates, I’d probably be lying on the kitchen floor in my underpants. To top off this sundae of suck, I have had a migraine for three days now. Not fun.

On days like this, we need to be kind to ourselves. I saw a tweet the other day with someone talking about not shaming folks for only writing a few words in a day. Apparently they have received flak for having low word-count days and sessions. And I am here to squash that like a bug. (I don’t usually squish bugs, honestly. I feel bad about it.) There are days where I stare at my Windows desktop with a blank expression for half an hour before I have the mental energy to open something. I’m sure you’ve had days like that, too.

It’s okay.

We all have days like this. We might even have weeks, months, or years like this. There are times when life has decided we aren’t writing right now. That’s okay,too. If you are dealing with problems or situations that require all your energy to manage then it’s only natural your creativity will take a hit.

From Wikipedia

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs shows creative activities as the top of the pyramid. If your other needs aren’t being met, there’s a good chance you may be feeling like you just don’t have it in you to write at the moment. And that is okay. If you need a hall pass from someone telling you that it’s okay to take time off, this is it. Here you go. Come back to class when you’re feeling better.

If you need a hall pass from someone telling you that it’s okay to take time off, this is it. Here you go. Come back to class when you’re feeling better.

I am all for pushing through and writing when it’s hard. You shouldn’t quit when it gets tough, but recognizing times in your life and in your health that you need to step back and focus your time and energy onto other things. I have, at many points in my life, needed to take breaks. Also, don’t be afraid to acknowledge burnout. It is real and can drain you of your ability to put words on a page. These are all real, and they are all valid. It’s not just major emergencies that can destroy your ability to write for awhile. Sometimes just working all your scheduled hours can be enough to throw you.

I don’t have much more to add here. Just be kind to yourself. Write when you can, be honest about when you can’t, and stay hydrated.

Fallen Friday: The World of Smoke and Magic

Fallen Friday: The World of Smoke and Magic

With the upcoming release of my novel, Fallen, I am going to start writing blogs about the setting, the characters and more things about me as an author and a person than just my usual fare of writing advice. That’s not going away, of course. This is still my editing blog. But I am expanding.

Okay, so, on to brass tacks.

Fallen is an urban fantasy in a world that was inspired by a combination of re-reading the Dresden Files and watching the movie Bright. I’ve been a lover of the genre for ages, and after watching Bright a few years ago, my husband and I were spit-balling about the movie and talking about what we’d do if it were our world. Which then turned into us creating some stories in the setting.

Now, I’m going to admit here in front of the whole world that I’ve been doing text-based role-playing since probably the late 1990s. I started on a forum dedicated to the Gargoyles television show (shout-out to my friend, Brynn, who got me into it), and then I continued from there into AOL chats (Rhy’din, Red Dragon Inne) and even ran one myself for a few years (Silence Falls Inne). I met some of my lifelong friends there. I even met my husband through text-based roleplay.

If you don’t know what it is, the long and short of it is you have people taking on the roles of characters and, usually through a chat medium or a forum, telling the stories of their adventures in a cooperative fashion. It’s sort of like Dungeons and Dragons without the dice.

So my husband and I, as is our wont, started building up this world with some amazing characters and stories, and it lived there between us for awhile. I have literal hundreds of logs of it on my computer.

And as we played, and as we developed this world, we started agreeing that writing a novel in the setting would be cool. Now, my husband is also a writer, but he hasn’t done much more than short stories at this point in his life, and has his eyes set on a different story. That’ll be for him to talk about, though.

With it settled that I’d do the writing, I got down to it.

I started writing the novel during the lockdown in 2020. I didn’t have much editing happening that year (or much anything happening that year except all the D&D ever), so it seemed like a good time to do it. As I wrote, of course some of the characters changed from what they were in the roleplay, and through all of this my husband has been my coach, cheerleader, and sounding board. I’m constantly pestering him to read passages where I’ve written his characters to see if I did them justice because, well, I love them. Though the stories I’m writing here are different from what we’ve played out. Even if some do have the same beats.

I started writing the novel during the lockdown in 2020. I didn’t have much editing happening that year (or much anything happening that year except all the D&D ever), so it seemed like a good time to do it.

E. Prybylski

While I’ve written several novels in the past (not including the “novels” I wrote in high school), this one felt different. I had always intended to publish a different series and setting first and have actually rewritten that novel from the ground up about three different times now. But something stopped me. This time, when I put my hands to the keys, the story more or less just fell out of me all at once. It wasn’t as fast as NaNoWriMo–it still took me almost a year to write. But unlike the other books I’ve written in the past, when I read this one, I didn’t feel the urge to strip it to the outline and try again.

In fact, I have the audacity to think it might actually be good.

Part of what kept me going was my writing group, I’ll be honest. I was posting drafts live to them to keep myself accountable, and one person in particular (Elly, you’re a rockstar) kept me going. She’d talk about what I’d written, express excitement or worry. Or ask me when the next chapters were coming out. It kept me going through the hard parts, and when I got to the end, she was so excited for me.

I finished actually writing the first draft sometime in April, I believe. I spent May revising and sent it in to my editor a couple weeks ago. We’re about halfway through the first pass because before sending it to her I ran it through SmartEdit several times long with PerfectIt and had Word 365 read the entire thing aloud to me. While it butchered some of the names in a hysterical manner, it worked well enough for what I needed.

Now, of course, the real work has started.

As I’ve talked to my authors about for years as their editor at Insomnia and the publishing house I started at, I am gearing up to do my pre-release marketing. I’ve got my street team assembled, I have been putting together a list of blogs to submit ARCs to, I’m working on a “press kit” for my book as iWriterly suggested in her brilliant marketing video. In addition, I’m in talks with my amazing friend at Pop Fizzion to make a special bath bomb to as a raffle prize to give away to people when I get closer to release (or during my release party), and I’m going to be looking into commissioning art for some stickers to send out. I don’t have a lot of money for prizes, but I’m working on fun ideas to get people engaged.

It’s honestly surreal to be going through this process for a book that’s mine. In some ways, I feel arm’s length to it because a lot of these motions are familiar and based on advice I’ve been giving to authors on and off since the first release I was part of in 2010. It’s a collection of short stories (I don’t get anything from you buying it at this point, so you can or not if you feel a yen to). It’s published under my maiden name, but that really was me. Same with this book that I published in 2011. I didn’t write all of these stories, but I did edit them, and I do have a story in there. I also have a piece of flash fiction in this collection and another two short stories in this one. (It’s been a long time since I looked at those. Wow.)

I know that’s a whole stack of links, and I apologize.

Despite having been published in multiple short story collections and having had a number of articles in The Mighty get good reviews, finishing a novel somehow feels more real to me. It’s not that I don’t think short stories or articles are valid–I absolutely do–but my heart has always been in long form fiction, so the shorter pieces never quite felt complete to me in the way finishing a novel did.

Well, this has been a long ramble for a first post in this new series, but this is where we are.

“Character Autonomy”

“Character Autonomy”

I’ve been gone awhile due to my health, but I’m hopefully back now. I’m going to write once or twice a week until I find my stride again, but I haven’t abandoned the blog. Life has just been distracting me from my work here.

So, this particular subject created a hotbed of contention in a writing group I’m part of today, and it’s one I’ve seen all over the place. When a writer says, “My character did ‘x’, and I had no control over it at all! I had to write his story that way,” most of the rest of us head for the hills because the belief that your characters have a complete life of their own, over which you as the writer have no control whatsoever, is a sign of mental illness. Now, that isn’t to say our stories can’t surprise us, or our characters might go in ways we hadn’t initially planned, but suspend your judgment until I have a chance to explain my assessment of both sides of this coin.

So, on one hand, our characters are creations of our mind. We made them. We chose their parts (even if it was an unconscious decision which I will get to later), and they do not exist outside our heads. At least not in their entirety. On the other hand, our characters are comprised unconsciously out of bits and pieces of people or other characters we have seen or encountered in our lives. We are, after all, repositories of information. People whose characters just sort of appear in their heads fully formed (rather than created deliberately) are accessing their memories in a less structured manner, though they are doing similar things. Even when we choose attributes, we often are creating mirrors of people we’ve encountered in our lives. The reflection is unconscious in either case, and the only thing that differs is the method.

I am, perhaps, somewhat unique in the sense that I experience both methods of character creation. Sometimes, I build a character with each aspect intentionally designed for a purpose or chosen with care. Other times they walk out of my brain and onto my mental “stage” fully formed.  Neither method is more valid than the other, but they both stem from the same places.

Now the big difference in “my character dictated the scene” and “I dictated the scene”—not counting mental illness—is that in the first scenario the writer’s subconscious or unconscious mind is writing the story. They might not know it at the time while they daydream about their characters, world, and plot, but that’s what they’re doing. Their mind is chugging away and utilizing their memories and experiences to create stories based on things they’ve read, seen, or experienced. They are also extrapolating what could happen next. Usually, this takes place while the writer is daydreaming or letting their thoughts wander rather than dictating the exact details of a scene.

The other scenario means the author is constructing the scene like an architect. They plan every aspect of it and write each word with intent and deliberation. While they often have lines or details that come to them while they write, their experience is rather different from those who just have experience of everything appearing in their head as though by magic. The architect is drawing from the same well of inspiration; they are just accessing it through different channels.

When it comes to writing a book, both methods are important. Being able to unchain your thoughts and let your imagination wander and paint pictures you may not have expected is a valuable tool. When we daydream we are at our most creative. We are letting our mind roll over what matters to us, and come up with all kinds of different possibilities. On the other hand, being able to plan and construct our scenes and characters as needed is an important skill as well. In the end, a blending of both of these tools will make you a powerful writer. Both have their time and place.

Returning to the “my character did ‘x’” and “I made my character do ‘x’” conversation, what we are seeing is a lack of realization on both sides of what the other is saying. Not counting the potential mental instability where delusions are a condition, we need to recognize what is being said because in some ways, both are right and have merit. Most of us are very aware that our characters don’t exist outside our sphere of control and outside our minds. And yes, we have control over them. At the same time, many writers (particularly those young in their journey) don’t know how to access their creativity without daydreaming. Being able to do that and willingly create in that way is a skill that is learned rather than daydreaming which is instinct to us–most folks do from the time we are children.

Also, learning to articulate the differences and understand exactly what’s happening with each style of writer requires a little more understanding of both writing and of the way we think and process information. If I know someone to be mentally stable, and they talk about how a scene wrote itself, or a character “made a decision”, I usually chuckle with them. Largely because I know what they’re trying to communicate. I can also bemoan alongside the architects when a scene just will not congeal the way we’re trying to write it. Or rejoice when something comes together exactly as it was planned.

We really are all doing the same thing; we’re just approaching it from different angles and using different language to describe the same process.

Writing Effective Combat Scenes

Writing Effective Combat Scenes

My triumphant return commences today. I’m sorry I’ve been gone so long, but between my husband’s health and my health we had the snot kicked out of us the last week. The good news is my husband is recovering, and I’m just waiting for the weather to break so I can return to my normal activities.

A friend recently messaged me about writing a combat scene. She had three good guys and three bad guys all involved in a melee and was struggling with figuring out how to make it make sense. Writing a large combat scene is challenging, and writers often stumble with combat in general, so I thought it prudent to address the issue.

Let’s start with the basics of writing combat, shall we? This is a cross-genre reality, by the way. It doesn’t matter if your characters are using swords, fists, firearms, or futuristic laser weapons, these will apply.

1) Do not give a blow-by-blow.

I don’t need to know every single movement to understand what’s going on. Unless there’s a theatrical reason to show a specific aspect of a motion, don’t detail it. I’ll show you what I mean:

Jon lifted his hand, pulling it to his side and setting his weight before driving it into Paul’s face, stopping before he over-straightened his elbow so he didn’t hurt the joint.

Jon punched Paul in the face.

The difference between the two should be apparent. The first would work in, perhaps, a training scenario where the character is really analyzing every movement he’s making to study it. In that moment, the reader is focused on all those little details along with Jon. They’re part of the flow of narrative. In a real combat situation, however, we don’t stop to think about all those things. We just punch our enemy in the face. You can specify the location of the hit (the nose, the mouth, the gut, whatever) if it’s important, but don’t over-complicate each action. If you do it will lead to a thirty-second fight going on for fifteen pages, and the readers will have fallen asleep by then.

As a martial artist, I can tell you it’s tempting to give a full, rich description of every blow, but as a reader I know they won’t care about that unless you’re reaching a very specific segment of the population who enjoys that kind of thing. If those folks are your demographic then all the more power to you. In the real world (unlike the world of theatrical combat and cinema), fights are usually over in about thirty seconds for close quarters combat (knife, sword, open hand). And thirty seconds is actually a pretty long fight. Firearms confrontations can last longer with the addition of cover and movement, but at that point the emphasis is less on the shooting than it is on the hunting and tactics.

2) Focus on one set of combatants at a time.

Imagine you’re watching a wide-angle shot of field combat with no one as the “main character”. You just sit up in the clouds, watching a group skirmish. It’s chaotic, it’s hard to follow, and unless you’ve got the camera focused on a specific set of combatants you aren’t going to see a whole lot other than the general gist of the conflict. Much like with dialogue, if you have too many characters acting at once it becomes chaotic fast. If you have three good guys fighting three bad guys, and two sets of fighters are not the driving factors of the story—have them as background. You can comment that they are, in fact, fighting. You can even say when one of them wins or loses if it’s important. However, keep the camera on the main character(s). Whichever fight is the most important should be what’s on screen.

When you’re in a full melee, you can narrate things happening around the main character—and you should—but don’t lose your focus. To take an example from cinema, the photo below illustrates what I’m getting at. The medium is different, of course, but we should be doing the literary equivalent of this:

 

Empire-1
The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies,Copyright by Warner Bros. Entertainment

 

As you can see from this still shot of “The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies”, Bard (the man without the helmet whose face we see) is in the middle of a melee with a whole host of terrible, faceless orcs all dressed in almost the same armor. Visually, they did this to make sure he (the main character of this shot) stands out. You can have action happening all around the main character and their conflict, but their personal struggle should take center stage. We can see that there is other combat happening around and behind him, but he is the one our eyes are drawn to.

3) Do at least a cursory study of whatever art you’re portraying.

Yes, watching YouTube videos at 3am counts as cursory study. I cannot tell you how irksome it is to read a book where it is clear the author has never even held (or seen outside of cinematic use) the weapon their character is using. People forget to count the number of bullets their character’s gun carries until a crucial moment where they pull the trigger and click ! (As a side note, semi-automatics don’t do that!) While I by no means expect anyone to study and grow proficient in an art before writing about it, I recommend at least watching enough videos or reading enough information that you know these few things. If you have weapon-specific questions regarding firearms, swords, or open hand please feel free to drop me a line through a comment or send me an email. I’ll be happy to talk to you about it until you don’t want to hear about it anymore!

These quick studies are surprisingly important. Say I’m writing a medieval story, and I have no idea how crossbows work (as most people don’t), I might not realize that the crossbow heralded the end of the plate mail period because it rendered plate mail useless. Crossbows (which required far less training than a long bow) could kill a man wearing full plate armor from a long distance away. They were hated weapons because they revolutionized the playing field and gave an unwashed peasant the same killing power (or more) than a Lord. If you have a world where crossbow bolts are bouncing off plate mail, you’ll give every historian who knows the reality of that tidbit a twitch. I have similar reactions to unrealistic portrayal of most combat. It’s not personal, but when you know what it’s supposed to be, you have to try very, very hard to suspend your disbelief when someone is using it improperly.

4) Make sure you address the characters’ emotions during combat.

While, yes, your characters are swinging swords or firing pistols or what have you, those aren’t the only things happening in a fight. Their emotions are probably all over the place (unless they’re trained killers—then note that!) and their adrenaline is pumping. Chances are their hands might be shaking with the adrenaline rush, or they’ve got tunnel vision. You don’t need to spend a great deal of time on these things, but tossing them in here and there makes sense. It evokes feelings. In cinema we can see a character’s hands shake, their facial expressions, hear the tremor in their voice, but in literature we need to show those things to the reader. It’s an important part of a fight, so don’t forget it!

5) Keep your setting straight.

Wasn’t that table on the other side of the room? Wait, I don’t remember there being stairs here! Writers sometimes jumble up settings during a fight for the purpose of drama. Make sure you keep them consistent and mention important set pieces before they come into play. If your character is going to be thrown through a plate glass window make sure the reader knows there is one before the big moment because otherwise it will, to them, be a magically-appearing set piece, and those are a huge faux-pas.

What one of my editors at Insomnia Publishing, Joshua Quivey, suggests to authors is that they do a quick sketch of the environment. You can do this in any program resembling MS Paint or even on graph paper if you aren’t artistically inclined. For us nerds out t here, we’ll recognize it like a D&D map of the dungeon with the author knowing what goblins and kobolds lie around the next corner and the readers (adventurers!) creep along, hoping their torches stay lit and that the chest in the corner isn’t a mimic.

The Spark of Life: Character Development

The Spark of Life: Character Development

I recently had a friend contact me about how to develop characters. He was worried all his characters are too much like him, and what he does to divorce them from him turns them into a farce of themselves. This is something writers struggle with, I’m sure, and character development and growth is tough. It’s not something that comes naturally to most people, and creating “real” characters is a challenge.

So how do you do it? How do you breathe in that spark of life? The first part of that is to make your characters real people. I don’t mean that in a creepy way, but give them hopes, dreams, flaws. These flaws should be real to them—just like ours are to us. My main character in my fantasy series, Archimedes, is stubborn to a fault. He’s pushy and overbearing sometimes when he wants to get his way. At the start of the books, he’s also a bit of a coward and is running away from his obligations rather than fulfilling them. He’s also loyal, honest, and kind. He really wants to do the right thing, but he’s having trouble making it happen.

Regardless of whether your characters are in an alien world or a mundane one, fantasy or reality, they need to be relatable. They will contain archetypes that humanity posses. There are many theories of archetypes out there floating around in the study of psychology (which I recommend researching, by the way—it’s going to help you create more believable characters), but I tend to lean toward using the Jungian archetypes when writing if I need to categorize my characters. You can start with these archetypes because they are based on real people. These are common types of people throughout the world and throughout history. You aren’t limited to them, but they should help you as a place to start.

The second key is to give your characters places to grow. Archimedes, through the novel, faces some of his fears and stands up for what’s right, becoming stronger and driving away his cowardice and fear. He transforms over the course of the novel because of what he experiences. As with real people, we encounter things in life that change us. A loved one’s death, a lover who sees things in us we don’t, war, poverty, fear… all kinds of things change us as we go through life both good and bad. Your novel will, naturally, have these experiences in it for your character. Let them grow and change organically as they faces these trials.

I know many people say their characters take on a life of their own and so on, but that’s only partially true. While, yes, our characters do sometimes reveal themselves in unexpected ways the person ultimately controlling your novel and your characters is you. I do not ascribe to the theory that characters do their own thing because, frankly, they are nothing more than imaginary creations of the writer. While our imaginations might run away with us, our characters are entirely of our own design. To think otherwise is, frankly, verging on mental illness.

As far as divesting our characters from ourselves goes, that’s harder. Each character we create is a mirror for some aspect of ourselves, however small. We wouldn’t have invented them otherwise. These characters collectively are reflect slivers of our souls. If your characters aren’t doing that, and they’re coming out flat, that may be why. I feel for and with my characters as I write. When they suffer pain, so do I. When they feel triumph, I feel that rush. That flow of emotion is something readers pick up on, also. Assuming your writing is good, that is.

That emotion, and that reflection of the soul, is what creates the spark of life. I identify with Archimedes’ struggles, to some extent. While I don’t face the same things or react the same way, he show some of the things that I want to be at my best. He also faces some of the fears I have at my worst. Other characters in my world are similar. That includes the villains. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I am secretly an evil person, it does mean that there is a piece of humanity in that character. A fragment of a soul that the reader should, hopefully feel.

Stories That Matter

Stories That Matter

I’m broaching a controversial and sticky subject in this blog, and I want you to stick with me. This post isn’t going to be political because my opinions aren’t something I want to breach on this blog. However, it will touch the subject, and I know this is a difficult subject for us to discuss in the world.

So why am I writing about this? Well, every few weeks I see someone posting a question about whether or not writers (as a whole) have a responsibility to write about “x” or “y” socio-political subject. These discussions are valid and include a lot of useful and important conversation regarding said subjects. Like I said, the specifics aren’t something I’m here to blog about. But the concept of social responsibility of writers comes up over and over again, and it’s something I think is important to address.

What kind of responsibility do writers have? Well, we all know that writers can change the world. They can bring to light tough issues that are under-represented or change perspectives on other ones. Writers have power, and it’s only right we should consider how we use that power to inform the world of our moral views. But should we be required to do so? I think the resounding answer on that is: no.

If writing about a specific subject, or incorporating specific elements into your story is in your heart then go forward with it and change the world. Fight for your beliefs. Sway hearts. Use the power of your word to speak on issues that are important to you, and make your voice heard. But if you “just want to tell a story”, that’s okay, too. I put that in quotes because there’s no such thing as “just telling a story” to some extent.

Good stories in every genre connect to parts of us and parts of the human condition. I know I sound like a snooty literary teacher, but those connections are what make them so powerful and why we crave them. Romance, adventure, coming of age, fear, excitement, loss… all of these themes can (and many are) present in many different works and genres of writing. My novels so far have largely displayed the theme of coming to terms with something in yourself that you have previously avoided. I make characters go through hell to face their inner demons. It’s an inner journey that I have taken, myself, so it’s natural that would be reflected in my writing.

All that said, I don’t think writers should be “required” or “forced” to incorporate any particular elements in their work. I encourage people to use the power of their words to reach out to others, but the best way to encourage change is to be the change you want to see. If you want to see more (or less) of a certain story element in writing then reflect that in your writing. You can encourage people to confront certain issues and discuss them in their work. Those conversations, as I said previously, can be valuable. But required? That’s going into bad places.

Outside of the fact that it treads on our individual artistic expression, forcing or shaming someone into including certain story elements means those story elements will not be represented in the strongest or best way possible. “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still,” as the old adage goes. They might provide lip service to whatever it is they’re being pressured into, but it won’t spring from a place of authenticity. Without authenticity, writing means nothing. It’s just words on paper.

Authenticity is a vital part of writing. I don’t mean the accuracy that comes with research. I mean the author’s emotional investment. If you aren’t feeling what you’re writing (overall, not that moment where you’re writing because you have to power through the mid-manuscript blues) then it’s not worth writing. It’s not worth publishing. It’s not worth reading. Requiring people to do things without authenticity will result in worthless work that is more of an insult and liability than it is an asset.

In the end, yes—writers are responsible for telling the world stories that matter. Stories that move people. Stories that reach them. However, every writer needs to write for themselves. They need to speak on what makes them lie awake at night. Those are the stories that will shake the world.

Playing Nice With Others

Playing Nice With Others

A dear friend of mine recently had an experience at a bardic circle (a musical event where folks sit around a campfire and perform to each other) where a group of semi-professionals who didn’t care that it was someone else’s turn decided to shout her down and sing over her. Now, my friend is a wonderful singer (you can’t tell me  otherwise—I know you’re going to see this, too), and she is working to overcome dreadful stage fright. These people, on top of being unthinkably rude, could have damaged a less confident person’s sense of worthiness to perform. Luckily, my friend is as stalwart as they come and recognized these folks were just being horrid; it had nothing to do with her.

So how does this relate to writing? Well, I’ve seen authors do this exact thing. We live in an over-saturated market where, despite ourselves, we jockey for positions of dubious merit. We fight for review time, advertising space, interviews, and any other scrap of exposure we can collect. Unfortunately, that kind of pressure often brings out the worst in people. There is also, at times, an inherent egotism that comes with the status of “author” that leads others to think their opinion is somehow more valid just because they’ve been “published”.

Let me pop that bubble right now: at no point are you ever more valuable than someone else. Your opinion may be better-informed and worth more in that regard if you have experience and study, but that doesn’t mean you deserve to treat others like crap. In fact, it will only harm you to treat others like that. Could I walk up to a newbie author or editor and tapdance on them with my five years of experience and several publications? Sure. It wouldn’t make me any better than them, though. It also wouldn’t endear anyone to me because, frankly, who likes a bully? Instead, I’d rather encourage, mentor, and inspire other people. It’s similar to the difference between being a “boss” and being a “leader”.

I also want to note that, while I am technically in competition with other publishers and editors and writers… I’m not really. No matter how much I want to, I can’t publish all the books in the world. I can’t edit all the books in the world. I can’t write all the books in the world. I might be publishing science fiction right alongside other presses, but you know what? Good for them. I’d rather support their sales and develop a good rapport. Particularly in the indie game, that networking can be a huge help. The same goes with author-to-author relationships. There might be another fantasy author whose books are technically in direct competition with mine, but I’d much rather be friends with them than try and sabotage them.

We can all win this race. It’s not as though we’re competing to have someone purchase our car. After all, with cars you only really need one, and it’s a huge investment. Books? Well… if the number of books I own is any indication, I’m probably going to be buying and reading books for a long, long time. That also means that if I see an author I enjoy recommend a book (or a movie, or…) I’ll probably check it out. If I like that author I’ll read what they recommend and so on. You can see where I’m going with this.

Now, in addition to just being jerks, how many of you have seen (or, be honest, done) this: Join a group on social media, drop an advertisement for your book, and leave? That’s kind of like trying to sing over everyone else at the campfire. Particularly since, most of the time, the rules say differently. It’s disrespectful to the people who are there because, in essence, you’re saying: I don’t care what you have to say, just listen to me! You aren’t contributing anything; you’re not even really participating; you’re just throwing out your piece to the detriment of the group as a whole. Don’t be that guy (or gal).

The only way authors, publishers, and editors are going to succeed in this increasingly-hostile landscape where we have to fight for every shred of recognition we receive is to do it together. You can all sing at the campfire. We will all applaud and be happy you joined us. We’ll pass around the marshmallows and moonshine and have fun together. I’d rather eat s’mores with my friends than shout them down because if we’re all yelling no one is heard.