Pub Rants

Category: writing craft

Achieving Writing Goals

This month, we asked three NLA authors to give some tips on how they achieve their writing goals.

If you set a writing goal, what are two tips to achieve it? If not, what is something that you do instead?

Alison Hammer, author of You & Me & Us

I’m the type of person who writes things on my to-do list that I’ve already done, just so I can have the satisfaction of crossing it off. I take the same approach when it comes to goal setting.

While I admire people who set stretch goals for themselves, I find I’m much more successful when I have smaller, more achievable goals.

One of my favorite examples of this is a good friend who set a goal to open her manuscript each and every day. She didn’t have to write a single word to meet her goal—but most days, she did. After all, the manuscript was already open and ready for her.

I personally have a goal to write every single day. I believe in the daily writing habit so much that I started a Facebook support group for women writers called the Every Damn Day Writers. Some days that means writing for ten minutes, others I set a word-count goal anywhere from 250 to 500 words or 1,600 words if it’s November and I’m NaNo-ing.

Whatever goal I set, I just make sure that I’m setting myself up for success.

Miranda Asebedo, author of A Constellation of Roses

It’s pretty much impossible for me to dedicate an entire 8:00 to 5:00 day just to writing, so I schedule chunks of time when I know I can be my most productive, and I stick to them no matter what. For example, pre-Covid, one of my “chunks” was from 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm every day while my kids were in after-school activities. I’ve gotten a lot of writing done in ballet studios and my car while waiting for them! Headphones are a must for this, but once it becomes a routine, it’s amazing how your brain just switches on to writing-mode without any big pre-writing rituals or anything.

My other tip is a reward system. If I hit a certain word count on schedule, I get to spend some time with the book I’ve been dying to read or the next episode in my Netflix queue that night. It always works!

Reese Eschmann, author of Etta Invincible

When I’m working toward a goal, the thing that helps me the most is to find someone to help keep me accountable. These days that means texting, Zooming, joining critique groups, and scheduling writing sprints with friends, but I’m looking forward to a time in the near future where I can sit across from a writing partner at a coffee shop again!

My second-best tip is that I’ve found that when I’m beginning to get overwhelmed, setting a time goal instead of a production goal (i.e. “I will spend one hour with this project” rather than “I will write 500 words”) takes some of the pressure off and allows me to get ­into a more relaxed, creative mindset! 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Dave Herrmann

In fiction craft, it’s a nearly universal struggle for writers to keep track of their antagonists. (If you don’t struggle with this, count yourself lucky. If you do, never fear! You’re not alone, and I think this will help.)

First, note that keeping track of your antagonist is different from developing your antagonist. Development is related to character, but keeping track—knowing where your antagonist is and what they’re doing and thinking every moment they are not on the page—is related to plot. This is the piece I want to dive into in this two-part article.

Before we can learn strategies that help us keep track of our antagonists, though, we have to know what type of antagonists we have, whether they are the right type of antagonists for our genres, and whether they are the direct cause of major havoc in our heroes’ lives. To that end, here is your assignment for this month:

Identify which type of antagonist you have. Is your antagonist a villain/monster, a force, or an opposition character? In Cast Away, the island (man versus nature) and crushing desolation (man versus self) are the antagonistic forces that drive our hero to act. In Good Will Hunting, the kind, insightful therapist (Robin Williams) is far from a villain or monster, yet he’s the opposition character who forces our troubled protagonist to change for the better. Know which type of antagonist you’ve got behind the wheel of your story’s central conflict.

Evaluate whether your antagonist is genre appropriate. The bulk of “good” (successful, memorable, meaningful, etc.) stories, regardless of genre, have both an internal/thematic/growth arc and an external/action arc. (The idea that all stories can be classified as either “character-driven” or “plot-driven” is poppycock.) The opposition your hero experiences in these two realms may or may not be embodied by different antagonists. Regardless, let your genre tell you which antagonist should get more energy in your story.

For example, the hero of a police procedural is trying to catch a criminal (the antagonist of the external/action arc), but he’s also getting flack from his captain, who keeps telling him he needs to straighten up and play by the rules (the antagonist of the internal/thematic/growth arc). Which antagonist are thriller readers more interested in? It ain’t the captain! So give the criminal more energy, regardless of whether you give the criminal a point of view. (We’ll discuss multi-POV stories that give voice to our antagonists next month, in Part II.)

In a romance, the love interests serve as opposition characters for each other’s internal/thematic/growth arcs, which are of greater interest to the reader. The antagonist of a romance’s external/action arc (like the heartless land developer who intends to raze the beloved small-town inn our love interests have a stake in saving) is not the antagonist readers showed up to watch. So give the opposition moments between the two love interests more energy.

Know your genre, and know whether the antagonist to whom you’ve given the most energy in your manuscript is the one that will satisfy your genre’s readers.

Analyze the top five scenes in your manuscript in which your hero is the most unsettled. What is the source of that tension, fear, anxiety, uncertainty, sorrow, regret, anger, etc.? Directly or indirectly, it had better be something an antagonist said or did. If your protagonist is repeatedly experiencing all sorts of intense feelings as a result of circumstances they were powerless to prevent (an electrical house fire, a cheating spouse, the decline of a parent’s health, the loss of a job due to downsizing, etc.), then you are probably still trying to figure out what your story is. Or if you even have a story. That’s because while a life-changing event makes for a serviceable plot catalyst or inciting incident, heaping circumstantial suffering on a character for three hundred pages is not story. Story happens when compelling, motivated opposition happens—and compelling, motivated opposition is exactly what antagonists in fiction exist to provide.

What’s next? Once you’ve worked through these three things related to your story, you’ll be ready for Part II (coming in January): techniques for keeping track of your antagonist. Knowing what your antagonist is up to behind the scenes will, as a matter of course, amp up your story’s tension; make your conflict more believable and immediate; keep your protagonist on their toes and force them to react in compelling ways; and raise the stakes. See you next month!

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Tall Chris

Do You Know Where Your Antagonists Are? (Part II)

Imagine the opening of a contemporary YA fantasy manuscript. The heroine is fleeing through a forest at night, chased by a hulking, hairy hellhound with sharp claws and sharper teeth. The heroine trips over a log and breaks her leg. As the beast closes in, the heroine, dizzy with pain and fear, loses consciousness. Chapter two opens with “One Month Later.” The heroine is comfortable in her own bed, a cast on her leg, and she’s ruminating: What did the beast want? Why was it chasing me? Will it come back? How will I defend myself?

This is an extreme (but true—this was submitted by a writer I worked with many years ago) case of a writer losing track of her antagonist. Imagine: The hellhound finds his quarry lying injured and unconscious on the forest floor, and thinks, “Poor thing. I’ll give her time to recover so when I chase her again, she has a fighting chance”?

Antagonists do not cease to exist when your hero’s attention is elsewhere. If your antagonist has time to lean, he has time to be mean.

You might think this is a rookie mistake, but we see disappearing antagonists all the time, and not just from new writers. Multi-published, award-winning authors lose track of their antagonists, too. Or finish a manuscript only to realize the antagonist was an eleventh-hour plot device who wasn’t a significant operator in Acts I or II. If you gave some thought to last month’s article, you’re well on your way to avoiding this trap. Here are some things to try now:

If you’re a plotter, try a two-column approach. Column one is what your hero is doing in each scene; column two is what the antagonist is doing during the same period of time. Awareness of your antagonist’s behind-the-scenes machinations will necessarily affect your hero’s own reactions, analyses, interactions, and emotions.

If you’re a pantser, finish your first draft. Then write a scene-by-scene summary. Now do the two-column exercise. How is your antagonist moving closer to his goal every step along the way? How is he motivated by his perception that your hero in an obstacle?

Write a synopsis of your novel from your antagonist’s point of view.

If your second act is sagging (ah, the mushy middle!), get your antagonist on the page. Make him more active. Give him more complexity as a character. Set a ticking clock for him.

Hold your timeline sacred. Writers whose stories move around in time often have the greatest challenge when it comes to tracking characters. Whether it’s a dual-timeline story or a single-timeline story that unfolds over a long period and regularly skips ahead (“three days later…,” “the following week…,” “after a month…,” etc.), remember that the same amount of time must pass for all characters. We see lots of manuscripts that violate this and create what we call “temporal confusion”—and when this happens, characters start dropping off the radar. For your own reference (not necessarily for the finished book), date and timestamp every scene to keep track.

If the antagonist is one of your POV characters and the reader knows all along he’s the bad guy, you’ve got a couple options. If you’re in first person, don’t hold back. The point of choosing first person is to allow readers inside a character’s head. Take us deep into his dark, twisted psyche, or create empathy by developing his emotionally complex backstory, or both. On the other hand, if you want to set up a twist or reveal by withholding from the reader certain things your antagonist knows or plans to do, then you’re better off choosing third person. Either way, giving your antagonist POV chapters can shed interesting light on your hero.

If you’re writing a single-POV story from the POV of a villain or antihero, remember that opposition is the engine of story. There will still be opposition characters gumming up the works for him, so those are the characters whose movements you’ll need to track.

If the antagonist’s identity is a third-act reveal, then scrutinize everything that came before. What conflicts drive each scene? What conflict drives the central story question you set up in Act I and developed in Act II? Is it clear to the reader how all prior conflict relates to the antagonist’s newly revealed goal and motivation? Did you give readers a fair shake by planting clues that now point to what your antagonist has been doing for three-quarters of your novel? And does the reader understand why the antagonist didn’t just make himself known to your hero back in Act I?

  • If the prior conflicts your hero faced are largely circumstantial (dumb luck that could happen to anyone),
  • if they affect other characters with more oomph (stakes) than they affect your hero, or
  • if they return too often to nebulous fear and confusion (your hero spends too many scenes in the “scary, mysterious things are happening and I don’t know what’s going on” headspace)…

…then your plot probably needs work. Start by tracking your antagonist.

Knowing what your antagonist is up to behind the scenes does not mean your other characters or your readers need to know. Master storytellers hold all the cards and decide who gets to know what and when. However you choose to do it, make sure your antagonist is a card you play often!

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Dejan Krsmanovic

I wanted to chat this month about something that happens quite frequently in fiction (both published and unpublished), something I’ve dubbed “miraculous knowing.” This is when answers or solutions conveniently occur to a character at key plot moments. It tends to manifest thusly:

• They didn’t know how they knew. They just knew.
• She felt it in her bones. This was the place.
• He sensed it deep with his soul, so deep that he was certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that he knew exactly what had happened to the woman.
• I had a bad feeling. I knew I was being watched.

Writers of all stripes use this technique all the time. And you can too! But I’d caution you to use it sparingly. When instinct, intuition, and insight get overused—or used in place of the development of a character’s keen intellect, observation, analysis—it becomes “miraculous.” When a character’s knowing is too miraculous too often, readers disengage and stories fall apart.

Humans are intuitive, instinctive, insightful beings. We’re animals. Our survival drive makes us reactive to vibes others are giving off, to that cold prickle at the backs of our necks, to hunches that danger lurks nearby. We intuit other things as well: when someone is lying, how to perform a task we’ve never done, what’s motivating a loved one’s mood or behavior, and so on. Therefore, it stands to reason that characters in fiction would also experience these types of intuitive moments, right?

Sure. However, in fiction, it’s not quite that simple. The human brain demands a different sort of logic from a story (which has a contained beginning, middle, and end) than it does from reality. When a character “senses” or “just knows” more than one crucial piece of information (maaaaaby two) over the course of a novel, that often signals one of three things: incomplete character development, limp plotting, or false tension.

Incomplete Character Development. If you’re writing in a speculative genre, you need to set up the rules. Does everyone in your world have extrasensory capabilities? Only some? Only one? What are the rules? Limitations? Costs? If you haven’t set up for the reader that your character is capable of heightened intuition (and under which circumstances they can call upon it, and what they’ve gained or lost in their lives as a result of this ability, etc.), then even one episode of miraculous knowing can come off feeling like a cheat.

Limp Plotting. Too much miraculous knowing in your manuscript might mean your plot’s in trouble. Look for opportunities to layer in clues that your character will encounter well ahead of the big plot moment when you need them to Realize The Thing. In other words, give them blue and yellow early on so that when they later see green, the reader buys in. Know that any clues you add in are stimuli that your character must respond to in some way in the moment (even if it’s just to think, “Huh, that’s odd”), which might affect how they decide to proceed, which might alter your plot.

False Tension. When a writer suspects they don’t have enough meaty, plot-driving conflict in their story, they sometimes throw in some miraculous knowing to give the illusion of tension. Here are some examples of false-tension scenarios we see in slush manuscripts:

• “She had a bad feeling about this guy”…but the guy doesn’t end up doing anything bad, affecting the plot, working against her, or even showing up again for the rest of the novel.
• “The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. It felt like someone was watching him”…but it turns out no one was watching him, or someone was watching him, but the watcher doesn’t have any plot-related reason to have been watching him.
• “They both felt it from the tops of their heads to the soles of their feet: going into that warehouse was a very bad idea”…but it’s never revealed what they think is inside the warehouse, or what they’re worried will happen to them (stakes!) if they enter.

It’s okay for a character to act on instinct, intuition, or flashes of insight. But if they’re saved too often by “suddenly I miraculously Knew The Thing,” that’s too easy. Think of miraculous knowing as an internal deus ex machina. Can you use it? Sure. But, use it sparingly. Avoid using it because you’re rushing to wrap up a particular scene, sequence, or story. And make sure that if you do use it, that there’s a plot-related payoff. In other words, avoid false tension.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: uberof202 ff

(Just a note, this article was featured in our September 2019 Newsletter. Some references may not correspond with recent events. To receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

I’ve been preparing for a conference where I’ll be presenting on plot structure and voice, among other things, and, in getting ready, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes an author a cut above the rest. What is that special X-factor? The je ne sais quoi that can elevate someone with good technical skills to an expert writer?

We all know writing is a difficult craft to master and that publishing is a hard business to break into. We all know how impossible it can seem to write something totally fresh and new when stories have existed from the beginning and have been told and retold and retold again. And yet. There is nothing more exciting than discovering a story that surprises and delights you. Despite the fact that it seems every story has been told, new novels are published every year that prove otherwise. (Have you read Where the Crawdads Sing? That book is a work of art!)

I’m a big Brené Brown fan. In fact, I have a copy of Daring Greatly sitting right here on my desk as I write this piece. If you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do! It’s a great guide for how to approach your own life, but beyond that, I’ve found that Brown’s work on vulnerability is also the key to the X-factor of writing. The thing that makes you special, that makes you different from every other writer, is the fact that you are, well, you. Remember that as you embark on your writing journey.

Here are some things you can do or think about to ensure you’re writing in your unique way:

Write what you know (i.e. Know Thyself). I think this is one of the most misunderstood pieces of writing advice out there. To me, write what you know doesn’t mean you can only write your own life again and again and again. Not by a long shot! Write what you know means that you should connect with the many depths and shades of your emotional truths and put them on the page. It doesn’t matter if the truth appears in a galaxy far, far away or in a contemporary setting—it is the internal conflict a character is forced to grapple with and the growth they experience that keep readers coming back for more. If the emotional core of a novel feels visceral and real, readers will connect with it.

The universal is in the specific. As humans, we are all connected by common experiences, feelings, challenges. That’s what makes empathy and compassion possible. When a novel is truly engrossing, readers actually physically experience what the characters are experiencing—this happens on a neurological level. Trust that, no matter your character’s background, religion, sexuality, race, etc., readers have the capacity to connect. Then, rather than trying to write a story that will please everyone, focus on writing a story that will please you. Let your characters have flaws, quirks, strange interests, etc. What makes you unique is the eyes you see the world through. Let that come out in your narrative. The more you hone in on emotional details, the deeper you dive, the more specific you get, the more your characters and story will feel real, and the more readers will connect.

Write what brings you joy. One fundamental truth in life and in publishing is that things are always changing. What was trending two years ago isn’t trending now. The world moves along, and we are forced to move with it. Because of that, it is important to stay on top of what is happening in the book world and to be aware of where the successes in your genre are, but it is equally important not to write to a trend because, chances are, by the time you’ve finished writing your trendy book, the next trend will already have come along. Because of that, the most important thing is that you write a novel that you want to spend time with, that gives you creative pride, and that feels meaningful to you. When an author loves their story, it shines through in the work, and readers connect with that.

So go forth and enjoy the process of writing, of putting your own unique stamp on the world through your words. Because you are the only person in the history of the world who can be yourself.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Kurtis Garbutt

Your Protagonist Must Fail

Throughout your story but especially in Act II—that yawning abyss between your story’s beginning and end sometimes referred to as “the swamp” or “the mushy middle”—your protagonist must fail. They must fail big. They must fail often. Why? Because if they’re not failing, they’re not trying.

Try-Fail Cycles
Try-fail cycles are a great way to test the weight-bearing capability of a story’s structure. Often, a weak story—one likely to collapse under the scrutiny of discerning readers—lacks try-fail cycles. These are exactly what they sound like: a character faced with a problem formulates a plan, then carries out that plan (try), but they are outmatched, or an unforeseen obstacle pops up, and the attempt is unsuccessful (fail). They fall back, lick their wounds, consider the added threat of the new obstacle and the new stakes that have been raised, and formulate a new plan…thus launching the next try-fail cycle.

Try-Yes-But Cycles
Not all try-fail cycles end in complete failure. The alternative is the try-yes-but cycle. Here, the protagonist carries out their plan, and some or all of their attempt is a success (yes); however (but), that success comes at a high cost, with some unforeseen and devastating consequence. This is the two steps forward, one step back effect, and while your protagonist might not have failed per se, the outcome still feels like a failure to readers because the stakes have been raised, the tables turned, and the jeopardy heightened.

Suspicion-Confirmation Cycles
The enemy of try-fail and try-yes-but cycles is the suspicion-confirmation cycle, which is inherently passive and uninteresting. This happens when a protagonist has a suspicion that rather quickly, usually within a few pages and through very little action, gets confirmed. For example, the suspicion “I think Jack is the one who betrayed me” is confirmed in the next scene when the protagonist passively overhears Jack colluding with the bad guys.

This is not to say that your characters should never have suspicions or work to confirm them. On the contrary! But it is not uncommon for newer writers to construct entire manuscripts on suspicion-confirmation cycles in lieu of the other types of cycles. Having a suspicion is not the same thing as attacking a problem head-on or being forced to actively react to an opponent’s unexpected maneuverings. Know the difference. In your own manuscript:

• Be aware of how many scenes are largely dialogue or internal rumination about what your protagonist suspects, or that culminate with the articulation of a new suspicion.

• Be aware of how many of those suspicions turn out to be correct. Newer writers let their characters be correct most of the time, if not every time.

• Be aware of how soon after a suspicion is formed it is confirmed, and how soon after it is confirmed a new suspicion is formed. You might be stuck in the suspicion-confirmation cycle.

• Be aware of how hard you make your protagonist work to confirm a suspicion. Make it challenging. Make it active. Make it fraught with jeopardy. Make it come at a cost.

• Be aware of how many suspicion-confirmation cycles you’ve used in relation to how many of the other more active and interesting failure-based cycles you’ve used. In commercial fiction, you’ll be miles ahead of the field if you build your story’s structure on the latter, using the former sparingly.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Paul Keller

I’ve been preparing for a conference where I’ll be presenting on plot structure and voice, among other things, and, in getting ready, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes an author a cut above the rest. What is that special X-factor? The je ne sais quoi that can elevate someone with good technical skills to an expert writer?

We all know writing is a difficult craft to master and that publishing is a hard business to break into. We all know how impossible it can seem to write something totally fresh and new when stories have existed from the beginning and have been told and retold and retold again. And yet. There is nothing more exciting than discovering a story that surprises and delights you. Despite the fact that it seems every story has been told, new novels are published every year that prove otherwise. (Have you read Where the Crawdads Sing? That book is a work of art!)

I’m a big Brené Brown fan. In fact, I have a copy of Daring Greatly sitting right here on my desk as I write this piece. If you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do! It’s a great guide for how to approach your own life, but beyond that, I’ve found that Brown’s work on vulnerability is also the key to the X-factor of writing. The thing that makes you special, that makes you different from every other writer, is the fact that you are, well, you. Remember that as you embark on your writing journey.

Here are some things you can do or think about to ensure you’re writing in your unique way:

Write what you know (i.e. Know Thyself). I think this is one of the most misunderstood pieces of writing advice out there. To me, write what you know doesn’t mean you can only write your own life again and again and again. Not by a long shot! Write what you know means that you should connect with the many depths and shades of your emotional truths and put them on the page. It doesn’t matter if the truth appears in a galaxy far, far away or in a contemporary setting—it is the internal conflict a character is forced to grapple with and the growth they experience that keep readers coming back for more. If the emotional core of a novel feels visceral and real, readers will connect with it.

The universal is in the specific. As humans, we are all connected by common experiences, feelings, challenges. That’s what makes empathy and compassion possible. When a novel is truly engrossing, readers actually physically experience what the characters are experiencing—this happens on a neurological level. Trust that, no matter your character’s background, religion, sexuality, race, etc., readers have the capacity to connect. Then, rather than trying to write a story that will please everyone, focus on writing a story that will please you. Let your characters have flaws, quirks, strange interests, etc. What makes you unique is the eyes you see the world through. Let that come out in your narrative. The more you hone in on emotional details, the deeper you dive, the more specific you get, the more your characters and story will feel real, and the more readers will connect.

Write what brings you joy. One fundamental truth in life and in publishing is that things are always changing. What was trending two years ago isn’t trending now. The world moves along, and we are forced to move with it. Because of that, it is important to stay on top of what is happening in the book world and to be aware of where the successes in your genre are, but it is equally important not to write to a trend because, chances are, by the time you’ve finished writing your trendy book, the next trend will already have come along. Because of that, the most important thing is that you write a novel that you want to spend time with, that gives you creative pride, and that feels meaningful to you. When an author loves their story, it shines through in the work, and readers connect with that.

So go forth and enjoy the process of writing, of putting your own unique stamp on the world through your words. Because you are the only person in the history of the world who can be yourself.

Creative Commons Credit: Kurtis Garbutt

(Just a note, this article was a feature in our newsletter from a few months ago. If you would like to receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

Tis the season for eggnog chai and holiday shopping. As I considered what to write about for my last article of 2019, I felt compelled to end on a positive, optimistic note for writers in the trenches. I’m going to guess that authors trying to get that first foot in the door have heard a lot of rejection language over the last twelve months. These aspiring writers might be looking at established authors wistfully, perhaps assuming that writing must be effortless for them. Words of gold just automatically drop off the pen onto the page. Every word is a treasure. 

And rainbows and unicorns always follow too.

I love my clients. They are an incredible and talented bunch. But “every word is a treasure” is not a reality of the writing life. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of clunky writing from my clients. Rejoice, writers. Clunkers happen to everyone. There are no exceptions. 

When my clients are at their writing clunkiest, here are the four things that seem to hold true:

  • They haven’t quite nailed the story that actually needs to be told.
  • The story’s POV (point-of-view) needs to shift to a different character, or from first person to third person or vice versa.
  • They are writing to the novel pitch/summary rather than actually focusing on writing the scene that needs to happen for the novel as a whole.
  • The character doesn’t have a strong enough backstory, so their development is lacking on the page.

Beginning writers and established authors are all equal when they’re facing that blank page and starting something new. If I took a poll at a writing conference, I’m positive 90% of new writers there wouldn’t think that to be true. They would believe that once an author’s first book is published, their writing becomes smooth sailing. That’s definitely a misconception. Here’s another piece of maybe-good news. When starting a brand-new novel, every author, even those who are established, is in the same boat. Every single story to be told is unique. Even if you have written one novel, starting a new one is basically learning all over again how to write a novel because the tools used to craft the debut might not work for book two. 

But every novel written is one more step on the path toward mastery of the arts of dialogue, scene tension, world-building, and so on. Which is why I always tell writers, never stop creating new stories. And if an agent or editor says no to one novel, jump right in there and get another novel going. 

Just today I spotted a Deal Lunch announcement for an author who sold a debut novel. I saw a different project from that author back in 2016. So huge kudos to that writer. If your first submit doesn’t sell, so what? You have other stories to tell. If that writer had quit, they wouldn’t be popping champagne to celebrate the sale that just happened in 2019.

Have a wonderful holiday season!

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Rennett Stowe

As someone who not only represents adult and YA/MG SF/F, but also grew-up reading it and continues to read it regularly, I’ve gotten to a place where my standards for these genres are higher than for any other. And, to be clear, science fiction and fantasy are two separate genres. (There are some exceptions.) 

In all commercial genres, writers can fall into relying too heavily on tropes. Certainly there are tropes in mystery, thriller, suspense, romance, science fiction, and fantasy and tropes aren’t bad. But relying on them as the only way to tell a certain type of story inhibits a writer’s ability to infuse their story with their own spin on a genre. I want to see stories from writers who aren’t simply bucking trends and tropes, but who are taking a nuanced approach toward them. Nuance is the key for me in so many things.

Relying on some of the more common tropes can make your work feel dated. Below, I look at some of these common tropes and explain what I look for in SFF—namely, innovative, clever, and forward-thinking approaches.

The Chosen One

We are all familiar with this trope. The hero is destined by prophesy, blood, or something else pre-ordained to save us all. It’s very Highlander—there can be only one. The problem is that this often takes agency away from the hero. No matter what they want, they either have to do the right thing and save the world or do nothing and let the world go to shit. That’s a lot of weight to put on someone’s shoulders, and the narrative often rests on the internal and external journeys our hero takes.

But what if there isn’t only one? What if there are multiple possibilities, and a story explores the type of person who would decide to act versus the type who would decide not to? What if the prophecy is BS? Or the Chosen One discovers that they aren’t really the chosen one and that things were interpreted wrong? I’m eager to see someone play around with this trope and really go all in subverting it.

Half-Breeds

This idea and term are so deeply rooted in white supremacy and racism that every time I read it I cringe. It’s a derogatory term that has long been used to diminish BIPOC, and I am not alone in being tired of seeing it in SFF. Part of the issue is real-world historical context. I can speak as a black woman on this although I know other IPOC have their own history with this term. In US history alone, black people were property and seen as not human. The amount of corruption of someone’s blood with blackness was measured in terms. To see this same concept being used in a fantasy story is disturbing, often because it’s used with such laziness—it’s an instant way to throw obstacles in front of a character and establish personal stakes. But they are imposed and not organic to the story. 

Not to mention that real-life mixed-race/mixed-heritage people exist, and the idea of “half breeds” so overly simplifies what their individual issues might be.

This is where nuance is key. If you are going to create a character who is part of two races, don’t make that their central struggle. Plenty of people of mixed race/heritage live happy lives with supportive, loving parents and extended family. Don’t make your story about the “good” races—elves, humans, angels—getting mixed with te “bad races—orcs, trolls, demons. Don’t make the world so simplistic and narrow minded. If you want to explore othering, start by thinking through the many different ways the people around you, in this world, are ostracized and how that affects them.

Blood Magic

This one is a bit personal. I love the idea of blood magic as a type of magic. But it’s often seen as evil. Why does it have to be bad? Why does any magic system have to be inherently bad? There tends to be a lot of black-and-white, good-and-evil in fantasy. Let’s see what shades of gray look like. Let’s see what blood magic can look like when it’s used for good, evil, and in-between.

Medieval/European/Western Setting

Seriously, we live on a whole giant planet with multiple continents of which only two seem to get featured, geographically and culturally speaking, in most SFF. But on all continents, there are many, many cultural POVs. For instance, telling me you’ve written a story with an African setting doesn’t evoke much; a story set in a fantastical version of Morocco will not present the same geography or culture as a story set in a fantastical version of Nigeria. And there is more than Ancient Egypt to take influence from. It is easy to do a pseudo-European setting. Try harder.

In this area I’m particularly looking for #ownvoices. This is a term mostly used on the children’s side, but I think adult publishing is starting to understand what it means as well. Simply put, it means a marginalized author writing about their own marginalization.

This is why I was so excited to see THE POPPY WAR. I read this book on submission as an editor, so I’m not sure how much has changed, but I remember being wowed by the setting, the characters, and the world building.

I will say, I’m eager to find marginalized SFF authors regardless of whether you write about your marginalization or not. This is, again, where nuance matters. A medieval/European/Western setting from a BIPOC author will likely have a POV different from what we’ve already seen so much of in SFF—namely, BIPOC existing in those settings.

POC in the Future

On that note, one SF and post-apocalyptic trope that really bothers me is the lack of POC in the future. There are so many nuanced ideas waiting to be explored just by placing POC in an enhanced future. Give me more nuanced stories that don’t erase POC from history or the future.

I’d love to see more adult SFF in my inbox. Tastes are subjective, but know that I’m on the lookout for nuanced approaches. Below you’ll find some books that I’m currently reading or that are on my to-be-read list:

TRAIL OF LIGHTNING by Rebecca Roanhorse. I am currently reading. This has Indigenous cultural influences and is written by a Indigenous author. I can count on one hand the number of SFF novels I can say that about. Not only do I want to support this writer so that I can get more SFF stories from her, but I also want to see doors opened for other Indigenous SFF writers. This one feels dark, just like I like it, and seems to have a very flawed but fairly kickass heroine—which is something else I’m finding I’m leaning toward. This is a classic role that you tend to see a male protagonist in, so it’s great to see writers focusing on a variety of three-dimensional female perspectives.

THE QUEENS OF INNIS LEAR by Tessa Gratton. To be read. So, three female protagonists, all in the standard roles that are typically filled by male protags. They are sisters. They are fighting for the crown. It sounds like we’ll get three very different strategic approaches to accomplishing this goal. I can’t wait!

THE TIGER’S DAUGHTER by K. Arsenault Rivera. To be read. What intrigues me is that it is an epic fantasy based on Asian mythology and has ladies falling in love.

THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT by Seth Dickinson. I am currently reading. It is an interesting take from the perspective of the colonized who want to take down the imperialist from within. Love how assimilation and indoctrination are handled.

THE IMMORTALS by Jordanna Max Brodsky. I’ve read the first book in this trilogy. It is a modern approach to greek mythology. Love the way it centers around a morally ambiguous and pretty brutal female protagonist.

UPROOTED and SPINNING SILVER by Naomi Novik. I’ve read UPROOTED and absolutely loved it!!! Dragons, romance, magic, and a lyrical fairytale/folktale quality. I want to see something like this in my inbox, but from a non-European or non-Western culture. And I’m equally excited to dive into SPINNING SILVER and enjoy more spellbinding storytelling from this author.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Mustafa Kurtuldu

Middle grade is a very robust area of the market and an exciting place to be as an author. Middle grade readers (usually ages 8 to 12) are enthusiastic and passionate about books and the writers they love. On the older end of the spectrum, they are on the cusp of puberty and young adulthood, and yet they still have one foot in childhood with a thirst for imagination and adventure. It is a stage in life that lends itself to a wide range of stories and and life experiences and, therefore, it is a very rich and exciting space to write in. There is a lot of room for experimentation and risk-taking in terms of plot and genre. That said, it is also a tricky category to get right.

I read a lot of queries for middle grade: it is a category I truly love and am actively looking to represent. Because of that, I’m going to share the most common pitfalls I see in the middle grade manuscripts I consider, along with some tips for sidestepping those issues in your own writing.

1. Sounding like an adult pretending to be a child instead of using an authentic middle grade voice. This is, by far, the primary issue I see in the middle grade manuscripts in my inbox. It is so important for you to see through the eyes of a middle schooler while you write rather than the eyes of an adult. An authentic voice is vital in middle grade novels and, hard though it may be, you can’t let your grownup perspective seep in. It is immediately apparent when an author isn’t quite attuned to the age group they are writing for. Most often when this happens, authors waver in and out of the character, sounding very young and overly precocious in turns, leading to an uneven tone. Here are some ways to address this problem:

  • Read recent published middle grade in your genre (contemporary, fantasy, humor, historical, etc). By reading similar novels that have successfully found their footing in the market, you can analyze how the authors of those books utilize language and how they portray the age group.
  • Know your audience. The best way to sound like a middle schooler is to spend time with the age group. Listen to the way they talk and the things they talk about. What do they care about? What books are they loving? What is the latest trend? What are they struggling with?
  • Channel the feelings you felt in middle school. The truest thing you can do as an author is capture feelings on the page. The life of a middle schooler in 2018 is very different than the life of a middle schooler was in your childhood, but the feelings are universal. Tap into those feelings as you write and it will lead to a story that is true.

2. Focusing on a moral message. Middle grade readers want to read a story that captures them and brings them on a journey. They don’t want to be preached at. Sure, your characters will learn something along the way, but if you approach your story with an agenda, a middle grade reader will immediately sniff that out and run the other way. Instead:

  • Focus on plot and character development. Make sure that the main character has problems, both external and internal, to overcome throughout the story. If there’s a theme you’d like to explore, don’t think of it from the perspective of teaching your readers a lesson, think of it as discovering a truth that allows your character to grow.
  • Show don’t tell. If you want your readers to walk away with a new understanding of the topic you’re writing about, let them discover it between the lines instead of hitting it home with moments of adult characters lecturing or having your protagonist pause in the story to reflect on a Big Moral Point.

3. Condescending to the reader. Trust that your readers are intelligent and have their own lives, complete with their own obstacles, conflicts, and emotions. Your readers live in the real world and are capable of being challenged and trusted with nuance. (Although sometimes a good fart joke is also called for.)

  • Don’t shy away from challenging topics.
  • Don’t hesitate to use the occasional sophisticated word.
  • Make sure your plot is just as developed and layered as it would be if you were writing for adults. Kids can identify plot holes and inconsistencies just as easily as adults can!

4. Writing from the author’s childhood rather than a contemporary setting. Too often, I see queries that make it clear the author has gone back to their own childhood to tell a story rather than contemporized an emotional truth from their childhood for a modern reader. Kids are looking for stories that resonate with them today–not stories that take them back to their parents’ or grandparents’ childhoods. If you are writing realistic middle grade, put it in a contemporary setting, unless there is a very compelling reason to set the story in a different time.

5. Adults? Keep Out! Make sure your adult characters don’t take over the story. It is completely normal for there to be grownups in a middle grade novel, but those characters should be side characters, not central characters. If you find your adults imparting important life lessons or making choices that help resolve the plot, or if you find that your young characters spend a lot of time observing and thinking about what the adults are doing in the story, then take a step back and look at your arc again. It is vital in middle grade that the protagonist is the character with the central conflict and that your protagonist is also the one to resolve that conflict. If you find your adults taking over, gently put them back in their place on the sidelines. Middle grade is a preteen’s world. No grownups allowed.

Creative Commons Picture Credit: State Library of Ohio