It’s funny, writing these posts. They keep coinciding with my deadlines. I’ve just turned in my first round of edits to my editor. Which, let me tell you, always feels like such a win. There’s something about that first draft—about looking at a manuscript so filled with problems that you stare at and try desperately to find solutions— that can be so heartbreaking and demoralizing at the same time.
I wrote this? That slithering voice in your brain asks you. The one that’s never kind and the one that’s always asking you rhetorical questions as a way of putting you down. Maybe I’m alone with this voice and that’s alright, too. I know my own inner demons well by this point.
So there you are, staring at your first draft. Wondering why it’s so filled with problems and plot holes, why the characters aren’t leaping off of the page, wondering why you haven’t figured out how to perfectly say exactly what this book is about yet. And if you’re me, all you can think really is how you put yourself in this position by writing a first draft with So Many Problems.
“All I can see are problems,” I told my partner one night. “And I can’t even half-solve them.”
“Good,” he said.
“Good?” I asked, quite incredulous and also very, very miffed.
“Yes,” he said, about to drop some knowledge on me. “If you could solve them easily, you wouldn’t have written very interesting problems. I’d be worried for you and your work if you solved them in one draft.”
Reader, I just about keeled over and died. Or at least my ego did.
He’s right of course. Annoyingly, in that way that all true and necessary advice is typically the thing you never want to hear. Good problems are hard to solve. If you— or I— could solve them easily in our writing, someone would have likely already done it and we would have already read it.
We write about the problems we’re working through in real time (or at least, again, I do). As a reader, fictions is often my space to play, to learn, and to grow. As a writer, that’s doubly true. I’m always trying to work through problems I don’t quite have a grasp on. Ideas that I’ve yet to come up with a solution for. They’re questions with no answer. Problems with no solution. Vague ideas rather than fully fleshed out themes.
And if you’ve done your job properly, they will not be solved in one round. Often not solved in two. Great ideas are layered. Great problems don’t have simple solutions. In fiction, we’re playing with points of view, with storyline, with character, and even with narrators.
So at the end of the day, you’ve got to give yourself the time to work through whatever you’ve been layering into your own fiction. You’ve got to give yourself permission and give yourself space to take time with the work. As long as you keep showing up to the work, it will be done, I promise. Don’t rush what on it’s own timeline anyway.
The work will be better for it. You will be much less angsty for it. And if you ever need a reminder, this post is here to tell you that good problems take time to solve.
I’m back on the other side of launching my second book! Woo hoo! I did it, right? I can chill out, relax. Maybe take a nice long bubble bath.
[cue the laughter from other published authors]
The truth is, launching a book is the start line not the finish line.
I know that’s a hard thing to hear. So much work— so much y’all— goes into before launching a book. First there’s the writing the whole thing. Then the editing. And then, figuring out a strategy for your advanced reader copies. Figuring out swag. Deciding your marketing strategy. Planning what kind of media outlets you’re going to pitch.
And yes, if you’re at a larger publisher, they may help with many of these things. But you’ll still be called upon to decide. You’ll still be the one writing the blog posts, talking to bloggers. You’ll still be the one writing personal essays or reaching out to new readers on social media.
There’s so much work that goes into before your book even comes out into the world.
And the thing I think we often forget as writers is this: pub day is really Day One of that books life. The first day that someone can go into a bookstore and actually buy your book.
As an author, you’ve probably been working on your book for ten to eighteen months by this point. You are, most likely, sick of thinking about it. Even if it’s just a little bit.
And I’m here to tell you that you’ve got to rally, because all of that work was really just pre-season training. Sorry to bring in another sports and training metaphor, but if you’ve been reading my posts before, that shouldn’t totally surprise you.
A lot of work goes into pre-season training by the way. It’s the foundation for everything you’re going to do. You can’t race or win games or win fights without adequate pre-season training. It’s where you build your base. It’s where you provide the foundation for all of the work that comes afterwards.
But the thing is, a lot of work still comes afterwards. You still haven’t raced a single race. You still haven’t fought a single match. Your season is still ahead of you.
Which is why you’ve got to save your energy and you’ve got to pace yourself before you get to launch day. You’ve got to accept that you’ve worked so, so hard to get to this point and you’re still not done.
If you don’t believe me, by the way, there’s a great thread over on Twitter from Margot Wood about how book marketing really lies in the eight weeks after (rather than before) a book launch. She used to work in marketing at a big publishing house and her findings are based on real data.
The best advice I can give about launching a book is to not spend all of your energy before the book comes out. To learn to manage your promotions and your marketing in smaller chunks before your book comes out—so that they’re slowly distributed over a longer timeline. Because you’ve got to save that big push of energy for right after the book has launched.
Your book release day is something that you should honor and celebrate on your own terms. You worked so hard to get to this point. Pat yourself on the back, throw a party if you like. Or maybe just order a large pizza and watch your favorite adventure movie (my favorite way, honestly).
And then dust yourself off and remind yourself that there’s still work to be done. There are still readers out there, who may not have heard of your book yet. Because that’s the real joy in all of this work— your book just launched into the world and it’s time for the world to meet it.
Hey there, PubCrawlers! I’m excited to have author Natalie Murray as my guest today. Natalie’s YA debut, EMMIE AND THE TUDOR KING, is out today from Literary Crush Publishing! Natalie had a unique road to publication, and she’s here to share some of what she learned along the way. So without further ado, here’s Natalie!
There is one genre convention in romance that may never be broken: the happily ever after. Hearts must flutter at the close or heads will roll (or both, in the case of my Tudor books). But how do you pull off a romance serial—following the same two lovers—in which each novel features a happily ever after, yet keeps the story going, and is set in a different time period? I faced this conundrum while writing my trilogy that begins with Emmie and the Tudor King, a YA time-slip romance (think Outlander for teens, and with crowns not kilts). After solving the puzzle, I pitched my novel directly to a small press publisher who ended up buying three books. Here’s how (and why):
(Writing and Pitching) With a Love That Shall Not Die…
I picked a historical era packed with drama queens
My books are mostly set in the sixteenth century during the reign of the Tudors. You need only pull up the Tudor family tree to see that this real-life Dynasty drama was a hot mess, strewn with backstabbing, beheadings and baggage. Few haven’t heard of the capricious king Henry VIII with his six marriages, or Anne Boleyn—the first young wife he executed (there were two). How about the conflict between Henry’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth, who had different mothers, different religions, and the same ambitions to rule England? This was an era I could sink my teeth into that would provide a thrilling backdrop to an angsty love story able to sustain three or more books.
I only tried to sell the first book in my series
Even though I saw more than one novel in my writerly-mind’s-eye, I didn’t even mention additional novels in my query letter. I’ve consumed enough romance to know that I could come up with plots for more books in my angsty series. Complicated love is never not-complicated. However, I wrote Emmie and the Tudor King as a standalone novel with the showdown beginning and ending within the book. If I’d plotted out the entire series in advance, I’d have risked the first one becoming a 300-page preamble. Furthermore, because I targeted a small press publisher, I didn’t have to prove all three books to sell the first one. And on that note…
I skipped the agent and went right to the publisher
I totally get that many authors dream of finding an agent who can sell their work to a major publisher. I, too, saw only this path, and began trolling Twitter for compatible manuscript requests by agents. There, I found tweets gushing about swoonish YA romance, written by Literary Crush Publishing. I flew to their website, found more to love, and followed their guidelines to submit a query letter and sample pages—just as I would with an agent. You can read my query letter here. After a requested full manuscript, a video call, and a publication offer, I took a chance and never looked back. I knew I’d have a collaborative relationship with Literary Crush and I wanted to work with people who were as in-love with love as I am. Spoiler alert: they have been brilliant for both my series and my brand.
But There’s the Rub…
Make sure you understand your contract
If you pursue a publisher without an agent, you’ll receive pages of legally binding gobbledygook concluded with a dotted line for your signature. I hired a literary agent to negotiate my contract for me and she did a wonderful job; however, I’m an Australian author who sold my book while I was living in Asia, and my publisher is in the United States. Given my publisher didn’t have connections in foreign language markets (that I knew of) I retained my foreign language rights, but…oh right…no international territory agent wants to work with an author directly, so what exactly do I do with these foreign language rights now? I probably would have been better leaving all the language rights with my publisher so they can pursue other territories if the book sells well in English. My bad. Know how to make the most of your contracts.
Consider where you want to live and work
When I wrote and sold Emmie and the Tudor King, I was living overseas and considering a move to North America. Many Australian authors dream of becoming published in the United States and I regret nothing, but now that I am living back in Australia, I have few opportunities to push my work in my own country. Most people move around less than me (I have ants-in-my-pants syndrome), but more foresight about my plans could have benefitted me in the place where I’m most available to market my work.
Get good at your own marketing, and in haste
I know authors with major publishers that have hired external publicists, so when I made that move myself, I didn’t chalk it up to being published by a small press. Having a larger publisher is no guarantee of a strong marketing budget. Nonetheless, if you sign with a small press, it’s almost a guarantee that you will have to do a lot of work to push the book yourself. My publisher has been truly amazing from a creative perspective, but there’s little budget for aggressive paperback distribution, major advertising, or press tours. Again, larger publishers will also vary in this capacity. Be prepared to get to know your social media apps really well and become a marketing ninja, which is a feather I’m thankful to now have in my bow.
Overall, my goals out of the gate were: to write the sort of book I’d love to read, to give it serial potential but look at it as an independent work, and to have it traditionally published by people that I’d want to hang out with and chat about books and tropes we both love. In that capacity, I’m totally sweet on my writing journey.
How about you? Have you been working on a historical romance serial, a different genre of serial, or are you considering small press publishers? Please feel welcome to leave any tips or share your comments!
Natalie Murray is the author of EMMIE AND THE TUDOR KING (June 11, 2019; Literary Crush Publishing). A fast-paced YA time-slip romance, Emmie and the Tudor King follows an American high school girl to a reimagined Tudor England, where she meets a doomed, but utterly dreamy, Tudor king. Books 2 and 3 in the series will be published in 2020 and 2021, and Emmie and the Tudor King has already received acclaim from Foreword Reviews, YA Books Central, and popular YA authors Brigid Kemmerer (A Curse So Dark and Lonely) and CJ Flood (Infinite Sky), among others. You can visit Natalie at nataliemurrayauthor.com.
Hope you’re well! Happy June, Happy Pride Month. Gosh the time has flown—I swear it was just April, LOL.
I often get asked for advice on querying and how to choose an agent. And usually when I do, I say something like you want to find someone who’s best for your career. But what does that really mean? I always feel like my “brand” is talking about things we often sweep under the rug, so this post is part informative (I hope), but also personal. I want to share a bit about my journey, why I parted ways with my first agent (which I’ve never publicly talked about!), and ultimately discuss what finding an agent for your career really means and how to do just that.
So I started querying agents in college. I was one of those writers who had to be published before twenty. (If this is you, totally fine, but for me my work then just wasn’t ready.) I think part of it was that I knew a bunch of teen writers and several of us were published, so it felt like a very attainable thing. But that didn’t happen. After college, I went into publishing on the editorial side. And, in 2017, I signed with an agent. Now there are many ways to get an agent, querying is only one of them. My agent and I attended a conference together as publishing professionals. We bonded in between sessions talking about vampires (aka how I truly bond with people, LOL). We got along great, and when he later saw me tweeting about a project I was working on he emailed me and was like OMG PLEASE SEND IT TO ME. I, of course, sent it. I emailed that project and the one I was actually about to query. I told him the project wasn’t complete, and he didn’t care. He loved the premise, he loved my writing, and we both agreed that this new project was the one of my heart and had so much potential, and so he signed me on a partial.
The plan was that we would work on it and get it to a point where it was ready to be sold. But as it happens, things don’t often go as planned. I got this idea for an amazing anthology, and I felt in my bones that we needed to make it happen NOW. So we did, and we sold it, and it comes out next march!! All throughout that time, I’d been working on my novel. And here comes the hard/sad part: something just wasn’t clicking. We had done rounds of revisions and it didn’t feel the same. We tried to work through it, but ultimately I felt like I would be better served with a new agent. I felt like my career goals had changed. I felt like he didn’t quite get the book I was trying to write. To be honest, I don’t even think I had defined career goals when I signed with him and maybe that was the problem. I didn’t know who I wanted to be as a writer. And because that book was just a little partial when I signed with him, I didn’t even know what that book was going to become. So looking back at it, I’m okay with how things happened because both it and I changed so much over that year. So, in the fall of 2018, I parted ways with my agent. I’m not going to lie, I hit a real low point. I cried a lot. I really love this agent, we’re still friendly, plus we had the anthology together, so it felt like so much of my world was changing.
I should’ve taken some time to collect myself, but I was so low that I felt like signing with a new agent would miraculously give me my self-confidence back. I rushed to query, and I ended up with my amazing agents. (That said, there were some bumps in the beginning because I brought a lot of “bad blood” into the new relationship–ultimately, I had to take time to really come back to them and my book with fresh eyes–new agents didn’t magically give my myself self-confidence back, only you can do that by believing again in your work. aka if you part ways with your agent, take some time to clear your head first–even if you think you’re fine, your probably aren’t)
And as many of you know, I left my job as an editor at the end of last year. I have had a lot of life changes these past several months. I’ve also had a lot of friends either query for the first time or part ways with their agent. All of this combined has really gotten me thinking about what it means to find an agent who works well with you.
So first, if you are someone who is considering parting ways with your agent:
1. Please do try to work things out with them. Sometimes, it’s possible to work it out. You owe it to them and yourself, to the work both of you have put into that relationship and your career, to talk to them first. If you don’t directly communicate problems, how can you ever fix them? And, here’s a secret, you’re gonna have some conflict with anyone you work with. So it’s best to learn now how to communicate your needs and expectations in a respectful manner.
2. Should you decide to part ways, please know there’s no shame in it. Again, this is the first time I’m talking publicly about leaving my agent. The reason why is because I was so embarrassed. Leaving an agent is never easy. And in my case, my agent wasn’t a bad agent, he just wasn’t right for me anymore. I wanted something different out of my career and to take my book in a different direction. I felt so much shame because I was like gosh people work so hard just to get an agent and now I’m leaving mine, what will people say, it’s all my fault. But the fact is that this is a business. A business with a lot of personal relationships aka that makes it hard. But still a business. Ultimately you need to do what’s best for you. There’s no shame in that. Just again, do it with kindness and respect.
Now, moving on to the actual “finding an agent best for your career”:
The best thing I did the second time around is that I really thought about the career I wanted. I knew I wanted to write adult sff as well, so I needed to find an agent who confidentially could handle both. I also knew I LOVED my current YA project. But my current YA project has vampires in it. My previous agent was very pro-bringing vampires back, but I knew from being an editor that not everyone was so I needed to find someone who loved the book for itself.
There were agents I queried who said, love you, love your writing, love your future ideas, but I don’t believe vampires are really coming back. Would you consider writing something different? I think 2017 Patrice would’ve said yes, but again I knew what I wanted and needed so I said, thanks but no thanks. This was NOT the advice I was given started out. People told me to be flexible, it’s okay to trunk a novel. And listen, that’s true (in some cases), but I knew this novel was something special and I wasn’t going to let fear of it being “a hard sell” stop me.
There were agents I queried who said, love your book but even though I have adult sff on my list, I’m not really doing a lot of it anymore. And again, that was a situation where I could’ve said yes because my adult projects are not even written. But, like I said, this time I was trying to find an agent who could best fit my entire career, so I said thanks but no thanks.
That wasn’t easy. What if those were the only offers I received? In fact, if I remember correctly my now agents were the last agents to offer. We’re told all you need is one yes. And maybe that’s true at the beginning of your career. But I think that can be somewhat harmful thinking. Because people often translate that into, I should take the yes that comes. And sometimes, yes you should. But many times you shouldn’t. It’s scary to say no, but the right no can set you on the right path as well.
I mean, what’s the worst that happens when you say no? You’re without an agent. Remember, I had just parted ways with my agent. I was already at a low point. So I would rather be without an agent than be with someone who just wasn’t right. I was willing to wait for the right fit. I probably should’ve considered other agents in 2017. I shouldn’t have just signed with the first person who offered. That said, had I not signed with my agent, my amazing anthology might not have happened. I never would’ve realized all the things I did about my book. I think I might’ve ended up in the same situation regardless. Because again, I didn’t know what I wanted out of my career.
What’s the secret to finding a great agent? Other than having a great project to pitch, of course. You need to know what you want out of your career. It’s not about getting one yes and taking it. It’s about making a list of the qualities you need. Do you need someone who is super blunt? Do you need someone who’ll hold your hand? Do you want someone editorial? Do you want someone who does nonfiction and fiction? Boutique agency? Big agency? These are questions you need to ask yourself. What are authors whose careers you admire and respect? What do you want your career to look like? And listen, be honest with yourself. If your dream is to be a school and library market darling, you need to find an agent who gets that. An agent influences so much of your career. They are literally the ones taking YOUR book and translating it to editors. So if they don’t get you, if they don’t get your book, then that translation will be off. Trust me, I’ve seen it happen as an editor.
I know it can seem scary cause you’re like well, but Patrice I really need an agent. I get it. But you also have to be protective of your career. You have power, too. When you are considering agent offers, you need to be “interviewing” them just as much as they are you. It’s a partnership. They are representing not just your work, but you. Be respectful, always, but ask them tough questions too. Ask them about regrets in their career, ask them what happens should you two part ways? This is a business. Asking tough questions doesn’t mean you’re introducing doubts, it means you’re being smart about your business (because so much of being an author is like running a business).
Ultimately, don’t ever forget your worth. Don’t give up until you find the best agent for you. There’s never any shame in trying again <3
Some Twitter threads from me and others, on this topic, that I adore:
dont rush it. which is so hard, i know. especially if you have agented + published friends. but seriously, take the time you need to get it ready.
also, dont query agents b/c they're popular online. query them b/c they're a good fit for your present + future career goals. https://t.co/fbYwnrjCE2
JD brings up a good point, so let's talk about this in detail: why letting EVERYONE who has your query know if you have an offer is the right thing to do for you, for the agent(s) and for your career. https://t.co/dvdG0lDVvZ
Oh, I have so many! The first being that I think the advice "Send out 100 queries before you give up on a book" is not great advice when there is a very large possibility there are not 100 agents you would like to work with. Being selective about your agent choices is smart. https://t.co/RIJo7CM2Zs
This whole thread is good (shocking) but I do wanna focus on this, because people seem to think there's a magic number that tells you when you're done and that makes no sense. The time to stop querying is when you're out of agents to query whom you want to work with. https://t.co/s3lxWyuTtP
I’m a big believer in listening and paying attention to all of the stories around you. To the people who talk about their days in a compelling way. To the family histories. To books, yes. To audiobooks. And to movies and TV shows.
And in that vein, I would like to take a minute to validate all of you in your Netflix habits because I’m about to tell you to watch more movies. Stop feeling guilty that you’re consuming media. Stop treating your love of other people’s stories like it’s some terrible habit that you’ve got to break in order to write your own.
Okay, there’s a catch.
You’ve got to watch more movies with your critical thinking brain on— the way you’ve learned to do while reading. Watch movies to see how characters are quickly introduced. Watch more movies to see the way that dialog pushes a scene forward. Watch more movies to understand how to quickly establish exposition without sounding deeply unnatural. Or, watch more movies to learn how not to do this, because there are some films out there with legendarily bad exposition and you can learn a lot from other people’s mistakes.
One of the things I was exposed to in college, having gone to a school with a whole bunch of film school kids, was the intentional construction of films as stories. The ways that editing, writing, and directing (to name the best known jobs) can play into the making of a film. Staying connected to story as you write isn’t just about reading every book. You can find that same critical sense while watching movies, too. Because staying connected to story is about learning to keep that critically engaged part of your brain on as you read, watch, and listen. It’s about staying curious and open.
There’s this idea that when you read you’re opening your mind and when you watch you’re closing your mind. But you can read for escapism as much as you can watch for escapism. I’ll give you that it’s easier to turn your brain off and watch something, rather than the participatory virtual reality that comes from reading.
But watching movies doesn’t have to be mindless consumption. Watching movies doesn’t have to be bingeing a kind of avoidance. Because movies have story arcs just like books do. Even cheesy movies that are made for entertainment can teach you about story and structure, about how to root for a character and how to buy into— from an emotional perspective— an entire cinematic franchise.
While there’s plenty that films can’t do— films are not great for interiority, on the whole. Films also don’t often get to pause and sit with a character (though, when they do this well, they can leave you sobbing on your couch next to your cat. Or maybe that’s just me).
A film can teach you about tight plot, editing, and structure— usually in a ninety minute framework. Film can teach you about characters, because characters are what sell a project to actors and directors. Characters are everything in film and if you ever struggle to figure out how to make your character more relatable to your readers— start watching the kind of movies that spawned multiple franchises and spin offs. I’m not kidding. And if you’re into old movies at all, films can teach you the way storytelling conventions shift over time, particularly with the advent of new technologies.
Watch enough, and you could even one day be like these guys.
And yes, if occasionally you want to turn off your critical thinking brain and watch The Bachelor, I won’t tell on you either. And if you want more film content, let me know in the comments below!
If conflict is what drives our stories, it would seem to follow that antagonists are a writer’s best tools to create that conflict and propel the story along. And yet tons of people, myself included, really struggle with writing antagonists that feel believable and interesting, who aren’t just mustache-twirling villains who are evil for the sake of being evil.
Julie D. mentioned John Truby’s ANATOMY OF STORY in her post the other day, and by chance, I recently read this craft book as well. While I agree that the examples felt dated and too homogenous, I overall enjoyed the read and ended up highlighting a bunch of stuff. One of my biggest takeaways concerned the crafting of believable, interesting antagonists, so I thought I’d distill a few of the main ideas here for the PubCrawl crowd!
Truby tends to use the word “opponent” rather than “antagonist.” He writes: “A true opponent not only wants to prevent the hero from achieving his desire but is competing with the hero for the same goal.” This took me by surprise, as I’d always thought of antagonists as wanting the opposite of the protagonist—for instance, in a typical murder mystery, the hero wants to catch the killer and the killer wants to escape. But Trudy framed it in a slightly different way: both the sleuth and the killer are competing for the chance to define the version of the truth that everyone will believe.
While I don’t think this framework fits for every story, I think it’s an interesting lens to use when articulating the various conflicts in your story. Some stories fit easily into this framework—the Fellowship and Sauron are competing to control the One Ring, the good guys so they can destroy it and Sauron so he can utilize it. With other stories, you have to zoom all the way out—Harry and Voldemort are competing for the chance to define the future of the wizarding world, whether it will be murderous and exclusionary or peaceful and open. But what I like about this framework is that it often forces you to flesh out your protagonist’s and antagonist’s goals in opposition to each other, and imagine how the story world would be different depending on how the battle tips.
I’m intrigued by this theory of opponents and have found myself mentally applying it a lot lately: in my own writing, evaluating submissions, or editing client books. When the tension in a story starts to slacken, my first instinct is to build in more conflict, but the how isn’t always clear. So I started looking at this task through a Truby lens—are the protagonist and opponent competing over the same goal? If not, how could the scene/section/story be tweaked so that they are? How can I force the characters to butt heads?
In applying this framework, remember that your protagonist can of course have multiple opponents—for instance, if our protagonist is an adventurous 12-year-old with secret superpowers, the supervillain who wants to destroy all life on Earth and her over-worried mom who won’t let her ride her bike alone are both opponents. Having a variety of opponents who all share goals with the protagonist will help you find ways to bounce your characters off each other to create conflict in each scene—for instance, both our heroine and her mom want her to be safe, but what Mom doesn’t realize is that in order to be safe, the protagonist must ride her bike alone to go after the supervillain so he doesn’t destroy the world. Meanwhile, the heroine and the villain are competing over the chance to decide whether life will go on.
IMO, it’s almost always more interesting to read about characters that aren’t just fighting against something, they’re fighting for something. Truby’s theory of opponents helps me translate that principle into plot—so that antagonists feel genuine and interesting, rather than just 2D obstacles thrown into the protagonist’s path. If you also struggle with creating convincing antagonists and maintaining lots of conflict, maybe give it a try!
Recently, I purchased THE ANATOMY OF STORY by John Truby, which has long been held up as a sort of Bible on craft for Hollywood screenwriters. I had seen a lot of praise for the book among fellow YA writers, so I decided to give it a try, especially because I haven’t ever read craft books.
My honest opinion? The exercises are helpful and have enabled me to delve deeper into my work and think about my plots and characters in a whole new way. But the examples are dated and I would rather see modern stories by women and people of color broken down and analyzed, instead of hearing about the same three “classic” movies over and over.
That said, I thought it was interesting that even though I have never read a craft book or taken a college- or grad-level writing class, I was already employing a couple of the techniques Truby discussed. I had learned them simply by reading widely and voraciously, and trying out different authors, styles, and genres.
At all of my public events, people always like to know: “What are your tips for new writers starting out? How can writers improve?”
And as well-trodden an answer as it is, “Reading widely, writing constantly” is always the response I give because that is how I learn and improve.
When you read books – and they don’t necessarily have to be in the genre and age category you’re interested in writing – you will see how other writers create a narrative. You’ll get a feel for their stylistic choices. You’ll observe the tricks they employ to get you to keep turning the page . . . or how they fail to do so. You will figure out what works and what doesn’t, and what elements to think about and perhaps adapt for your own process at the same time that you learn what not to do.
Here are a few observations I have made lately over the past six or seven months or so of reading many different books in different genres:
Conflict in a novel is absolutely crucial. This one is obvious, but I keep coming across books in which everything is just too easy for the main character. A girl who is unlucky in love just happens to have the perfect guy drop by, and that perfect guy hands her the perfect romance on a plate. A character wants to acquire an illegal weapon to save her kingdom, and just walks right in and earns the trust of every single person there, without much effort. I have fallen into this trap myself in the past, and am trying my best to be aware of it for the future. Conflict strengthens character, and without it, the story is too boring and predictable.
Read dialogue out loud. I’ve started doing this for all of my stories because of certain novels I’ve read where the language feels stilted and awkward and sounds like narration or backstory, rather than someone talking. This is essential if you write for teens, IMO. You may be a 35-year-old writer, but you definitely don’t want your 16-year-old character to sound like you. I think there’s some leeway in fantasy, because the characters often speak in a more “old-timey” way. But I always read dialogue out loud, no matter the genre, because it helps me make the speech sound more natural.
Give characters varying names. I find it so confusing when I’m reading a book and there are two closely related characters with similar names like John and Jonathan, Erin and Eric, Rob and Robin, etc. (George R. R. Martin, anyone?) For my own stories, I’m making a greater effort to pick character names that start with different letters. And I also like to have a “cast of characters” or a pronunciation section at the front of the book, if I can.
The twist should not be confusing. I love twists in mystery and suspense books that make you reel, because you recognize that the clues have been seeded in all along and you just didn’t realize it until you had collected enough of them and then WHAM! The revelation hits you. It should be clear, clean, and tight. I recently read a mystery where the Big Reveal was so intensely confusing that I had to stop reading that night and figure out what the hell was going on. It turned out, in this story, that the mystery hinged on a photograph of two people whose identities were switched. During the moment in which the main character realizes the truth, it was written in such a convoluted and unclear way that the thrill of the discovery was soured for me.
Reimaginings should bring something fresh to the table. I recently read CIRCE by Madeline Miller, which reimagines the character of Circe, the witch Odysseus comes across on his long journey home after the Trojan War, and in my opinion, it was magnificently, masterfully done. I think retellings are tricky because if they stay too close to the source material, it can get very predictable. Changing the game by bringing forward an event that isn’t covered much in the original story, switching up the ending, or even writing from the perspective of an unsung hero – as Miller did here, by reframing the story from Circe’s point of view – is crucial and makes for a really rich, fresh-feeling story, even if you know the mythology well.
What about you guys? Have you learned any interesting techniques and tricks from the books you’ve read? Feel free to share in the comments!
I was lucky enough to sit on a panel this weekend and I’ve been thinking about something that kept coming up— the process.
The process is how you write a book. How you get from the start of a book all the way to the end. That secret, sacred, all-magical, all-encompassing trick that a writer has for producing a story.
And there I sat, in the middle of a group of panelists, who all had wildly different ways of approaching writing, drafting, editing, and tracking our characters throughout the process. And in the end, the one thing we all agreed on was this— there is no wrong way to write a book.
One writer said that she could just open a document and start writing. Start to finish, linear all the way to the end. Another writer told the audience that they write their endings first, so that they know which direction they’re headed. I write in circles, as I’ve mentioned before, re-working and re-writing until I’ve got enough in the beginning to have forward momentum to push onwards. I happened to talk about a color-coding system that I use as I draft and I’m pretty sure our moderator needed to breath into a paper bag as I described what I do. It was that viscerally panic-inducing for her.
We are all published authors. We all have more than one work under our belt.
There is no wrong way to write a book.
I’ve been thinking a lot about writing advice. About what it means to sit from this position as published author and give out advice to other writers— some published and others as-yet-unpublished. I keep trying to work out if there’s really a difference between us. I didn’t feel any different as a writer on the day before my book sold as compared to the day after.
Yes, my writing has evolved over the years. But my writing changed because I kept writing. My writing changed because I kept learning. I kept working on craft, even before my book ever sold. As a traditionally published author, I’m lucky enough to have an editor and I do everything I can to stay open and learn from her.
But in the end, I keep coming back to it: there is no wrong way to write a book.
I like to think about writing advice as The Pirate Code— it’s more like guidelines. If a piece of advice works for you, helps you as you work, makes you feel less alone, then by all means, embrace it. But if advice doesn’t resonate with you, makes you feel inadequate or makes the writing harder, then throw that advice away in the garbage bin where it belongs.
There is no wrong way to write a book.
My mind is often so full. Of ways to write character. Of ways to use tropes. Of different act structures, and the way that they can be used to your advantage. And those are skills that I enjoy teaching, that I’m happy to share. I love talking about craft. I love learning about how story works. I love sharing what I have learned. I’ve watched so many writing panels— with comic book artists, novelists, poets, and screenwriters. I’ve seen them talk about story. I’ve also gotten to sit beside them on occasion, when I’m very lucky, and join in on the conversation.
And here is the only piece of advice that I’ve seen time and time again. The only commonality I’ve ever noticed from one published author to another. They committed to showing up. It might be every day. It might not. For some authors, it was one hour a week when they started. But they showed up when they said they would, put their butt in a chair, and wrote.
So instead of looking for the right way to write a book, remember to just keep showing up. Instead of worrying if you’ve written a perfect book, just remember that you’ve got to get all the way to the end first. And instead of worrying if someone else has this great cosmic secret to writing a book, learn to listen to what resonates for you and your own process.
I’ve always been a sucker for a trilogy. It started with the countless Star Wars marathons my brothers and I watched together. From there, I’d pick up N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy. Genius compilations like Lilith’s Brood and The Hunger Games and The Lord of the Rings.
They say good things come in threes. That includes my own breakthrough in the industry.
Back in 2014, Random House acquired Nyxia. That acquisition made sense to me. In my exceedingly unbiased opinion, it was a rather good book. What made less sense was the fact that they acquired not one but two unfinished books. I was given real money for something that I hadn’t even bothered to make up yet!
As I close out the trilogy, I wanted to unpack the positives and negatives of my experience, including the current status of the trilogy in publishing, and what you can expect if you’re contracted for a series. Here are six quick-hitting lessons from my experience:
The trilogy is a weapon. It just is. Standalone books don’t allow you the same space to pull off what a trilogy can. A character you despise in book one has the time—the literal time on the page—to transition into a character you love. That’s doable in any format, but an author is afforded more opportunity to reward their readers in a trilogy.
The trilogy is a flaw. It just is. Standalone books are named thus because they can stand alone. A trilogy does not operate that way. Your book one will be judged by your book two, as well as your book three. There are support forums dedicated solely to book two syndrome. Entire communities have rioted against book three finales that didn’t meet expectations. That is one resounding hardship in writing a trilogy. No one notices how beautiful a scene in book one is if there’s a scene in book two sporting a glaring pimple.
The trilogy is on the decline… right? You might have noticed a recent surge of duologies. Marie Lu’s Warcross comes to mind. There’s a general fatigue—in publishing and especially in Hollywood—with three-part stories. It’s often difficult to guarantee that a readership will make it to the end. A trilogy presents more opportunities to bail. Maybe book one wasn’t their bag. Or maybe book two didn’t measure up. Or maybe it just took so long to come out that interest waned. Duologies ease that burden… but you might also have noticed that people are still writing trilogies. Publishers are still buying them. It serves as a welcome reminder: writing to a trend is foolish, but so is being entirely unaware of the current market.
The trilogy is a promise. You are promising your reader that you will see them to the end. I know this is controversial, and I know many an author has been attacked on social media for their unfinished products. I sympathize with them. It is difficult to write any It is even more difficult to write a book that must conclude something that is now beloved by a legion of readers. You should not be rude to these authors. But ultimately, I side with the readers. When you start a trilogy, you are making a promise.
The trilogy is a lie. This is one of the most helpful lessons I’ve learned. There’s some sense of duty to write this flawless trio of books that flow seamlessly into one another… and yeah. Most trilogies don’t. Of course certain themes echo. Certain ideas grow and blossom throughout. But many of the most successful series feel textually different from book to book. Maybe the first book is a horror and the second is a tragedy. You shouldn’t neglect the promises you’ve made to the reader, but nor should you feel locked into the same dance in every book. That’s a good way to let the steps go stale.
The trilogy requires a different marketing strategy. Not a complaint. Just a fact. Your first book will hopefully be marketed strongly. How else to introduce readers to a new series? It is only natural that publishers scale back on their efforts for the second and third book in a trilogy. There’s often a belief that interest in the first book is what sells the rest of a series. I include this so that you’re not taken aback when you don’t get all of the same exciting emails for your sequel. It doesn’t mean they don’t love you. It doesn’t mean it’s not a great book. Often, it’s just a standard marketing strategy within the industry (with some obvious and clear exceptions!).
I hope this advice is helpful. It’s what I would have wanted to read right after signing my contract all those years ago. Today, Nyxia Uprising releases into the world. It is the third and final book in a debut series that has been described as Hunger Games in space.
Let me just say that I have seen all of the positives and all of the negatives that come with writing a trilogy. But I can honestly say that this is the way my series was supposed to go. Three books ended up being exactly right for me, for my characters, and for my readers. In spite of how the market shifted. In spite of what my internal doubts whispered.
I am honestly proud of this trilogy.
So rather than check Goodreads reviews today, or worry about my Amazon rankings, I’m going to step back and enjoy being done. I plan on taking my dog on a walk this morning. I’ll snuggle up with my son to read some books. I’ll take a moment to kiss my wife on the cheek.
Sounds like a great way to finish. After all, the best things come in threes.
Interested in checking out the Nyxia series? Find more info below:
When aspiring writers ask me for advice, the most common question I get is about overcoming writer’s block. I think perhaps the reason this question is asked so frequently is that more than one situation is given the label “writer’s block.” Obviously, writer’s block refers to not knowing what to write, but I think it can be broken down into three separate categories:
Problems with idea generation,
Loss of faith in your writing’s quality, and
Getting lost on your way to “the end.”
Having faced all of these issues in my writing life, I want to share how I approach each of these dilemmas.
Problems with Idea Generation
For me, this can be the trickiest block to overcome. I almost always have an idea, but I can’t always see how that idea can be molded into a story. Here are two tricks that have worked for me:
Stick to a schedule. If I let myself avoid my writing desk until I feel inspired, I would never get any writing done. For me, writing requires discipline, and this is especially true now that I write with professional deadlines in place. If I have nothing more than a character, an image, or a What if to work with, I sit down and start freewriting. It might be just a paragraph about the opening image of the story, or an entry in my main character’s diary. No matter what though, during the time I have scheduled for myself, I’m sitting at my writing desk and plugging away. Sometimes, my freewrite leads to nothing, but just as often, it leads to the kernel of an idea from which my new story will grow.
Change the scenery. If sitting at your writing desk is leading you nowhere, find a new environment in which to write. Maybe you do your best writing in a coffee shop, or maybe at the library, or sitting in the park. Better yet, don’t sit at all. I’ve found I do my best brainstorming when I’m on my feet. Make sure you have a notebook or your phone nearby to record notes, and go outside and take a walk. Let your mind wander. I’ve had some of my best bursts of creativity just pacing through my home talking to myself about an idea. The shower is another great place to work through your ideas. Just make sure you have a notebook on the edge of the bathroom sink!
Loss of Faith in Your Writing Quality
This happens to all of us: we decide we can’t move forward with our story because everything we’ve written so far is garbage. Fortunately, there are a lot of good techniques for overcoming this problem:
Consider changing the POV character. Sometimes a story that was exciting as an idea doesn’t have that spark as you put it on the page. Take a look at your cast, and ask yourself if someone else has a better angle from which to view the story. Maybe the character you viewed as the antagonist, or maybe the love interest, is really the main character who should be telling the tale.
Turn off your inner editor. This can be very difficult to do, but if you are losing interest in a story simply because you think the writing isn’t perfect, put that aside and finish the draft. Trust yourself to go back and fix the prose later. If you tinker with every word as you put down the first draft, it won’t be long before your lack of progress becomes frustrating. Just get the story on paper. You can go back and fix it all later.
Go back to the drawing board. If you are losing faith in your story because it seems flat or uninspired, revisit your outline. Does the main character face enough obstacles? Do the side characters challenge your MC? Revisiting the outline may mean throwing out scenes or adding new ones, but that may be what you need to get your story back on track.
Getting Lost on Your Way to “The End”
If you are feeling stuck because your plot has fallen apart, I can relate! This is one of my most common issues as I work on a first draft. Here are some techniques that have helped me in the past:
Get some help from your characters. Sometimes when I find a plot hole or an issue with story logic and I can’t figure it out on my own, I turn the problem over to my characters. Open a new document and type the problem you are having at the top. Maybe it’s How do they steal the amulet without being seen? Now ask your main character to help you with this question, and start typing her answer. This helps me get out of my own head and into the head of my character. I stop looking from the outside of the story, and start looking from within. This technique frequently leads to big revelations.
Always be thinking about your story. Whether I’m running errands or doing housework, I try to be mulling over my story all the time. Sometimes the answer to a problem comes to me while driving to the store or hanging up laundry. There’s nothing like the feeling of a solution popping into your mind when you least expect it. Just make sure you have your notebook or phone nearby to make notes when inspiration strikes.
Write out of order. Maybe your first scene, the midpoint, and the ending are perfectly clear in your mind, but you’re having trouble with the scenes that bridge those big moments. Give yourself permission to write the parts you feel strongly about first. This can be a great way to stay excited about your story, and it might reveal something about your characters or your setting that will help you write the scenes that come in between.
These are a few of the methods that have helped me get back in the flow when my creativity has suddenly dried up. Do you have techniques that have help you get unstuck when writer’s block strikes? Please share them in the comments!