Self-Publishing Guide Part Two: Covers

Welcome back to my self-publishing guide, driven by my personal frustration with finding useful resources when planning my own self-publishing journey. Today I’m going to examine topic number 2 of my guide: Cover Design.

Let’s start with a quick overview of the process, and then I’ll take an in-depth view into some of the important things to know about cover design. I’ll also include some specific resources at the end. Spoiler: One of those resources is the Alliance of Independent Authors!

How does cover design work?

The basics of cover design go something like this. First, you have a book mostly written and decide you’re going to self-publish. Then you google “book cover designer” and get several hundred results with prices ranging from $200 to $2,000 and maybe beyond (or occasionally less). You have no idea what you’re doing, so you send a bunch of questions to a few designers you like. Make sure to ask details of their process at this stage so you know what to expect. This includes number of revisions and what you’re allowed to do with the final images if that information is not clearly conveyed on their web site. Eventually, you pick someone in a price range you like with covers that you think look decent and you hope things work out. That designer probably books three months to a year out, depending on how popular they are.

Did you read my editing post a couple weeks ago? Noticing a trend in timing? Don’t ever expect to book custom services less than three months out unless you’re paying for a rush job. It’s extremely rare to find someone with good experience with an opening right when you contact them.

When time comes for your design, you have a design meeting. You and your designer will discuss your vision for the cover and typically some details that help the designer get a feel for the genre, themes, and tone of your book. The process from there will vary depending on your designer’s process. Mine sketched an initial concept on a video call with me right there. It was some seriously impressive work, even though it was understandably rough. Others will take some time to create a couple mock-ups and get your feedback. You can provide some feedback here, but once a concept is agreed on you typically can’t change the broad strokes of the cover idea. Then the designer sets to work. Throughout the process, make sure you give specific, thorough feedback on adjustments with as much detail as possible (and images when able) to help your designer create what you want. The more information they have, the better product they will create for you. Also remember that you are the customer in this transaction, so asking for a change isn’t an inconvenience. It’s literally what you’re paying them for.

A good designer will give you regular updates on a schedule you know ahead of time. My designer took about five weeks and gave me three updates in that time. He also did the text layout on the cover (i.e., the title and author text and the back cover copy). Make sure you know if your designer will do the text layout for you. This is an important step that you need the right software to do well or you’ll ruin your beautiful cover. When this is done, you’ll receive final files ready to include in your final packaging.

Now, everyone knows that covers are important to a book’s success, but what that actually means can be a bit vague. In my experience, most newer authors (and some experienced self-published authors) make one of several mistakes when planning their cover design.

  1. They don’t understand what the cover is really for.
  2. They bring ideas that are either too specific or trying to convey too many things.
  3. They don’t understand the different styles of covers and what they do.

Let’s take a look at these mistakes and how we, as authors, can be better prepared for our cover design.

What is the cover for?

A lot of authors have very romantic ideas of what their cover is and how it might look, but at the end of the day, this element is a very practical thing. The book cover is marketing imagery. It is not there to add context or details to the story. It’s not intended to give readers visuals on certain moments or characters. And it’s definitely not there to make the author geek out about how cool it is to see a scene or character or setting from their book drawn out. This may seem somewhat counterintuitive, since for many of us our favorite covers feature dramatic moments from the story. But take a moment, pull out one of those favorite covers with a scene from the novel, and compare it to the actual description of the moment in the text. I bet it’s very different. There’s a few reasons for this.

First, the cover isn’t for your readers. It’s created to entice other people–people who haven’t read your book–to give the story a try. To those people, the inaccuracy of that scene is meaningless. They don’t know if that’s what happened or not. All they know is if the scene gives them the type of feeling that makes them want to open the book.

Second, the cover must convey your genre and some approximate themes or feel of your book. Can you name a single scene from your book that accurately gives an impression of genre, theme, and feel of your book? Few books actually have that scene, and for those that do, the scene in question generally falls into the too complicated category that we’ll discuss in the next section.

Third, most books that have any sort of scene on the cover like to include the major characters. Does you book have an Avengers: Assemble moment? If so, honestly, maybe consider if it comes off as too cliché. It might be fine, but it probably doesn’t also include an enticing representation of genre, theme, and feel. There’s other reasons why our favorite scene-specific book covers are often inaccurate the the moment in the book, but it boils down to one thing.

Good book covers are complicated endeavors trying to sell the book in a dozen tiny ways, and that job is typically not done well by any given scene within any given book.

What book covers are good at is getting attention. They need the right color contrasts to catch the eyes of appropriate readers. Dark fantasy shouldn’t have bright yellows and golds and romances shouldn’t be all muted greys and browns. At least, not without a major contrasting theme to draw the eye. Whether or not your cover has characters on the front also depends on your genre and the focus of your book. Is it a character-driven political fantasy? Give us an image of characters with obvious tension (but probably not any weapons in hand). A fun-filled sword and sorcery? Cue the lightning bolts and fantasy creatures. Steamy romance? Someone better be half-naked on the front.

The point of all of this is to create an image that you can share as widely as possible which makes the right readers excited to pick up your book. No one wants a reader looking for political fantasy writing a review of the steamy, contemporary romance novel. Maybe they’ll like it, but that’s not who you wrote it for.

Bringing the right ideas to the discussion.

Now that you know the point of the cover, let’s discuss what cover ideas are useful in selecting your cover. This is important both for choosing your designer and for your first discussion with your artist. In your initial google search for cover designers, you probably noticed a trend. Most books had one, maybe two, characters on the front with some sort of dramatic scene behind them. If they didn’t have a character on the front, they no doubt had one central image with a secondary image behind that contrasted the first image. The reason for this is that design is all about drawing the eyes to the right places. Many authors come into the process wanting some complex scene but that defeats the purpose of the cover. It makes every part of the image important, so the browser can’t focus on what the cover is saying.

In the last section I said that your cover needed to convey three things to be effective. First, the genre. Second, the theme. And third, the feel (or tone). There’s a hierarchy to these three things, and honestly, my list is out of order.

The most important thing for your cover to show is your genre, and I don’t mean “fantasy.” My political epic fantasy has a very different cover from Patricia Brigg’s newest contemporary shapeshifter fantasy for very good reason. Her cover needs to convey a fast-paced actiony genre while mine should look like a methodical, and possibly dangerous, dance of manipulation.

After the specific genre, your cover needs to convey tone of the book. Using my own as an example again (viewable on my books page here if you want to check it out), the lighting streaming from the windows contrasted with the shadowy figure on the side gives a sense of danger approaching. As well, the presence of the sword without it being directly active adds to that tone. There’s no open conflict on that cover, which fits the pacing of my book, but there’s definitely tension in the image. I’m quite happy with my cover, but that’s as much because it’s a good representation of what the reader can expect as because of the quality of the art.

Lastly, theme or a hint of the theme or plot is common in cover art. For mine, a reader would realize that the shadowy figure is my secondary protagonist, Niamsha, while the main figure on the throne is my primary protagonist, Arkaen. Those facts aren’t critical to my cover being strong, but it adds a little hint extra, juxtaposing the two primary characters before you even open the book and giving the reader a sense of what is to come. This element is less important enough that it can easily be omitted without harming the quality of the cover. And that is why covers so often feature scenes not present in the actual book, or present only with significant alterations. The cover isn’t trying to give you a visual prologue, it’s trying to tell you what type of book this is.

What cover style is right for you?

By now, some people are confused by what I mean when I say “style” of cover. Aren’t I talking about themes, or whether or not to include characters, or how to convey genre? No, although some of those decisions will affect this one. I’m talking about a fully illustrated cover versus a photo-conglomerate cover. My cover was fully illustrated, it’s beautiful, it fits my book perfectly, and I paid a pretty penny for that thing. You can get cheaper fully illustrated covers, but I loved this designer and I have to say, he didn’t disappoint. I already have 25-ish reviews and the book doesn’t come out for just over a month yet. That’s not my advertising at work. That’s the cover.

But for some books, a cover like mine would be a terrible idea. A great example is Jenna Moreci’s The Savior’s Champion. It’s basically The Bachelorette meets Gladiator where the competition winner gets to marry a magic goddess–with some fun plot twists, of course. The feel of that book is more modern than mine in a lot of ways (despite it still being a low-technology setting), and as a result, a photo-conglomerate cover was perfect for her work. The covers of that series rely heavily on symbols with the scenes more as background shots when they’re present at all, and they look amazing.

She does not pay anywhere near as much as I did for my cover. Like, probably half of what I did and she got exactly what she needed. But my book wouldn’t have thrived on that style of cover design.

And this is what I mean by style of your cover. This is something only you can decide, and unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of tips. The best I can do is drop you some cover resources and suggest you consider which artist is making covers that might be next to yours on a bookstore’s shelves.

  • The Creative Penn. I mentioned this site for editing resources. She also has a great listing of book cover designers.
  • The Alliance of Independent Authors. I told you you’ll hear a lot about them in this sequence. They’re the resource I wish I’d checked out before making a bunch of decisions. I might have still used my designer (I mean, that cover…), but this is a great place to check for discounts and find reliable vendors.
  • The resources page of my cover artist, Jeff Brown. I hate to be that person that raves about someone then doesn’t recommend him, but he charges $2k. You probably don’t have that cash. I didn’t have that cash until a family member saw his work and donated the money to help me get the best. But Jeff understands that his prices might be out of your range and maintains a listing of other cover designers that he considers good alternatives if you like his style. But if you do have that cash and you want an illustrated cover, Jeff is amazing.
  • Reedsy. I haven’t used their cover design but they do operate a marketplace of cover artists just like their marketplace of editors.
  • Artstation. This is another place that I have heard about and have no direct experience with. A lot of people found great artists here. Daniel Greene, for example, found his cover artist here (Felix Ortiz, I think?). I have heard of other artists through other connections. It’s a good hub to check out.

Let me leave you with one final piece of information: A rough guide to cover pricing.

Photo-conglomerate CoverFully Illustrated Cover
Premade CoverRanges from $75-ish to $300-ish, depending on coverRanges from $250-ish to $500-ish depending on cover
Custom CoverRanges from $150-ish to $800-ish; prices depend on complexity, number of elements, number of revisions, and types of covers (e-book, print, audiobook, etc.) Ranges from $500-ish to $2,000-ish; prices depend on complexity, number of elements, number of revisions, and types of covers (e-book, print, audiobook, etc.)
Additional offeringsSometimes will offer formatting included or for small additional fee, also often have addons like banner images or ad design from the cover image for $25-$75 per item.Rarely if ever offer formatting services, more expensive packages may include banner images or ad design from the cover image; may also offer these separately or as addon services. Some illustrators also do character art and/or map drawing for additional fees.

Desperate Times

Saylina strode down the hall, her eyes trained on the wall just above her escort’s head and fingers rubbing gently on the grip of her fan in tension. Just enough decorum to look in control while her nerves ran wild. Her father, High Lord Johannus Sentarsin, hadn’t summoned her for nearly a year now, leaving her to the care of her tutors instead. Had he found the notes she’d been exchanging with Lady Arianne Skianda and her brother? Or maybe he’d heard about Saylina’s vigorous search for a malleable husband. The southern trade lord’s youngest looked promising, but without a favorable contract to go with it, her father would never agree.

The servant pushed aside the wide double doors, revealing that smallest court gathering Saylina had ever seen. Her father standing on the dais. his long time friend, Baron Oskari Weydert, loitering near the steps where the herald should have been. But only five other lords graced the chamber. Too few for even a facade of formality to feel reasonable. She crossed the floor, newly bought marble that must have drained the province coffers to scraps. But her father had more concern for image than frugality these days. Not that she could blame him, when his image as a loyal servant to the bloodthirsty emperor was all that had saved her from the dangers of imperial court.

Saylina paused several feet from the group and bowed her head. “You summoned me, Father?”

“Saylina.” Her father gestured to the chair by his side. By his left side, where tradition sat his blood heir. “It’s time we discussed your future, girl.”

“Of course, Father.”

She stepped onto the dais, each step seeming to grow as she crossed the distance from common courtier to province heir. The chair felt too hard under her hands, her narrow, girlish frame of not quite fifteen years too small to fill the place intended for her brother, Arkaen. Saylina eased onto the seat and lifted her chin, meeting the eyes of the few courtiers her father had allowed to attend. Only the most notable of the lower lords. Not even the Skianda family, although he might have simply refused to allow Lordling Brayden Skianda to fill his father’s shoes. But Baron Oskari Weydert was here, along with a handful of others her father had known for decades. Everyone, she realized, who had voiced fears over Arkaen’s loyalties.

“What did you want to discuss?” Saylina pushed an innocent smile onto her lips, turning away from the lower lords to meet her father’s gaze.

Her father scowled. “You’re not a halfwit, girl. You know what that chair means.” He cast a glance at the other lords and sighed. “We can’t trust him any longer. It’s more than rumors, now. Our own scouts saw your brother at the head of a rebel army.”

A chill ran through her. Rumors of treason had been enough to tear the lower lords’ council apart, some defending Arkaen’s honor while others demanded he be removed from the registry of Sentarsin kin. If there was real proof…

“How many saw him?” The calculations circled her mind. If it was only a couple scouts they could cover it up. Prevent High Emperor Laisia from blaming the entire family for her brother’s treasons.

“That’s not the point,” her father replied. “Your brother is lost to us. We need to find you a proper husband to rule—”

“Gods damn your pride, Father.”

She leaped from the chair, her formal skirts swirling in a flash of temper she rarely showed. A flash of temper that drew her father’s fury to the surface and she could see his rage brewing under the calm facade of his mild frown. Her heart pounded against her chest, the danger of her insolence leaving her entire body shaking. But this was bigger than her or her father.

Saylina turned to meet his eyes again, fighting for some semblance of reason in her tone. “Emperor Laisia won’t care who’s to blame or who you plan to succeed you. Can we hide Arkaen’s actions and protect our home?” Her throat clogged at the next thought. But it might be the only way. “If we send assassins…” Her eyes burned. Arkie, her beloved brother, who used to sneak sugary treats into her bed after the cook had banished them both. “We can claim he was coerced.”

“Emperor Laisia has no reason to doubt my loyalty,” her father replied. But she could hear the uncertainty in his voice. “I have served his needs since he confirmed my seat when he was still a boy.”

“She’s got a good head on her shoulders, my lord,” Baron Weydert said. “Better to protect the province first. I did warn you of these actions when he first left.”

Not someone she wanted to agree with, and certainly not on the proper way to depose her own brother. But if these reports were true, Arkaen had damned himself.

Her father spun to face Baron Weydert. “I don’t need your lectures any more than I need strategies from a barely weaned girl, Oskari. I’ve seen to the boy, of course. No one who saw him will tell any tales, and Arkie won’t be sighted anywhere else. Not living, at least.” He fixed a narrow-eyed stare on Saylina as her heart skipped and her eyes burned. “I called my council to name an heir.”

Saylina stepped back, the back of her legs rubbing against her brother’s chair. A chair he’d never sit in again.

“Your lords serve.” Baron Weydert bowed low, his cloak falling to one side and dragging the floor. “I only thought it prudent to discuss the matter, my lord. My guards reported these measures have only just begun. Surely additional caution only serves the needs of our subjects.”

Baron Weydert cast Saylina a guarded smile. And winked. Almost a conspiratorial, friendly gesture, as though he were a peer trying to impress a crush. Gods above. He’d tried to marry his daughter to Arkaen. His son was betrothed to a lady serving at the imperial court. And his wife was long dead. Surely the baron couldn’t mean to take her hand.

“Then do what you will, Oskari.”

Saylina’s focus snapped back to her father, the casual dismissal of Baron Weydert’s challenge impossible to ignore. A lower lord did not spy on his liege. Or at least, he didn’t admit to doing so and the reigning high lord pretended not to notice that everyone did. It was a matter of etiquette. To treat such a breach as meaningless could only mean that her father had been in confidence with Baron Weydert on this already.

“Thank you, Father.” Saylina straightened. Gods, let her be mistaken. If only she could be sure she’d read the situation wrong. “I feel better knowing our council is monitoring the situation.” She licked her lips, casting a hopeful glance at the other lords. All silent and most bored. They had no intention of challenging Baron Weydert for whatever he’d planned with her father. “I’ve given thought to my marriage. There’s a southern trade-lord’s son—”

“No.” Her father shook his head. “When you were just a daughter, maybe, but not as my heir. We need to solidify the province.” He turned toward Baron Weydert and Saylina knew she hadn’t been wrong.

“Brayden.” She nearly shouted the word in a rush to speak before he suggested his childhood friend for her husband. Her father froze. “Brayden Skianda. The family is old but his father has taken to focus on his own lands more than the province. Brayden is more than a little frustrated with his own impotence. An ally for your heir and a chance to honor one of our valuable but less prominent allies with a gift of Brayden’s sister as a bride.”

Except Brayden was halfway through a very complex negotiation for his own wedding to another woman. But at least it was a name her father couldn’t immediately reject. He turned back, the endless pause hinting that he wanted to dismiss her suggestion. Finally, her father sighed.

“I’ll talk to Count Skianda, but that’s a complicated suggestion. Don’t get your heart set on him, girl.”

And just like that she had a reprieve. Time to find a husband that her father wouldn’t reject. If such a man existed. Saylina rose and curtsied.

“Shall I retire, then, to write the invitation?”

Her father considered her for a moment before nodding. “See to your lessons. I’ll write the invitation. Province business is none of yours.”

As though he hadn’t just named her heir in her brother’s place. But she’d expected it. Saylina straightened and crossed the room, refusing to meet the eyes of any of the other lords. A high lady did not beg for approval from her subjects. Stepping out the door, she counted out twenty steps before she let herself run through the halls, her finely held control finally on the edge of breaking. She’d better warn Lady Arianne that her brother was about to get a marriage proposal before her plans fell apart before she got them started. And hope she hadn’t just chosen an ally of someone about to betray her.

Self-Publishing Guide Part One: Editing

It’s official! My debut epic fantasy novel, Wake of the Phoenix, releases in eight weeks! This blog will have an eight week build-up even featuring in depth information I learned while tackling self-publishing interspersed with a series of fiction blogs from the four POV characters of my novel.

Several months ago I released a post comparing self-publication to traditional publication and looking at the challenges inherent in each path. While the discussion was a little tongue in cheek at times, it also captured some of the unexpected stresses I encountered after choosing self-publishing for my own path. Having now been through the majority of the process, I want to take a little time to evaluate those experiences and share some gained wisdom. I know everyone does this, but none of the YouTuber “My Self-Pub Path” videos did me any good while researching the process. As a result, I’m looking into four primary categories of self-publishing in detail over the next two months: Editing, Cover Design, Final Packaging, and Marketing.

Where to Start

One of the great challenges of producing a quality book through self-publishing is ensuring your editing is of high enough quality to keep readers entertained. There are several aspects of this struggle. First, knowing what editing you even need. Second, knowing how much to pay for editing (and having the money to pay it). Third, finding the right editors for your project. Fourth, scheduling edits at the right time in the process with enough leeway for unexpected turns. And fifth, knowing when your editing is done. There are other, smaller issues that I’ll also address in this discussion, but these are the major ones. And let’s be honest… I’ll no doubt miss some things, as well. No one’s perfect.

So to get this started, let’s define the types of editing. In order of when they should be completed, the types are Developmental Editing, Line Editing, Copy Editing, and Proofreading. For those who know these definitions a bit, yes, proofreading is a bit different, but I want to emphasize the importance so I’m including it.

A development edit is one that looks at big picture pieces. This is the time when you’ll change character arcs, re-imagine how your plot goes, make changes to the fabric of your world, magic systems, or political standings, and remove (or add) entire POVs. You should not spend any time at this stage evaluating if a particular word is used correctly, if you could improve your minute descriptions, or if your comma placement is right. Any—and often all—of those details may change by the time you’re done with your developmental edits. Almost every book will need developmental edits, but not every book will need to be edited by a professional developmental editor. The decision on whether or not to hire an editor for this rests heavily on how thorough and diverse your critique partners and beta readers are.

Line editing is the next type of editing and that covers looking at the structure of your sentences, the clarity of your writing, and your word usage. It will also include small amounts of rewriting—a paragraph that is confusing might get rewritten, but if it’s a couple pages you’re back in developmental editing territory. This stage is sometimes (honestly, in self-publishing, often) combined with copy editing, which looks at internal consistency of details and technical grammar. However, these are different edit types and you should ensure that any editor claiming to do both at once is actually doing both. This is best handled with a sample edit, which most reputable editors won’t have any issues providing. All books should go through these edits using a professional editor well-tailored to your book. No exclusions. Trust me, you’ll be shocked by what they find.

The final type of edit, proofreading, is technically not an edit pass so much as a polishing sweep. This sweep focuses exclusively on typos and missed punctuation and is unique in that it can be done after typesetting so the proofreader can also catch oddities created by the formatting. All the other edit types should be completed before you start finalizing covers or formatting. The proofread is another area of uncertainty somewhat like the developmental edit. Every book needs a proofreading pass (or five), but there are a number of ways to do this without hiring a formal proofreader. That said, if you can afford a formal proofreader, it’s better to spend the money. I opted not to hire a proofreader and use volunteers from my network and I have been very, very frustrated with constantly catching typos that got missed as I prepare the manuscript for release. Nothing frustrates readers like a novel riddled with typos, and this is the stage that fixes that.

Planning Your Editing

In my personal research, the definitions above were the end of the discussion about how to select your edit types. But that doesn’t tell me anything about who to hire. So, in an attempt to create the resource I wish I’d had, let’s look at ways how you decide if you need a developmental edit.

Most authors don’t know if their plot arc sags or their characters fall a bit flat. They rely on critique partners and beta readers to tell them if their writing has issues, but finding good critique partners and beta readers can be challenging. So here’s a flowchart to help you decide if you need more developmental edits.

If you’re having trouble finding independent readers, you can try a few options. Reddit has a beta reader subreddit. Several book reviewer YouTubers have discord channels that help you connect with similar readers and you can find beta readers there (I use Jenna Moreci and Merphy Napier). Local writer’s groups are typically big on supporting critique partner swaps. Twitter has been known to help people network within the writing community. NaNoWriMo forums can be a great place to find like-minded writers. And if you can’t find anything else, I always recommend Scribophile. It’s where I started getting good feedback on my work that helped me focus on the type of writing I wanted to create.

When considering line editing and copy editing, remember that every book should have these done, preferably by an independent, professional editor. Line editing can maybe be handled by a robust critique partner group and an editing software like Prowritingaid but that’s riskier and if you’re going that route I highly encourage you to use an editor that does line edits and copy edits together. I do not recommend Grammarly—Prowritingaid is much better for fiction writers. I’ve already addressed proofreading. You need to do it, if you can afford to pay for it then do, but it can be done yourself.

The Cost

The next step in planning is deciding how much you can spend on editing. If you need a developmental editor, be prepared to save some money. For line editing, copy editing, and proofreading, keep in mind that skimping on those costs can really bite you later. That said, prices are very, very confusing in this field. A quick search will tell you that editing prices run between 1 cent per word for the low end of copy editing rates to 8 cents per word for the high end of developmental editing. Personally, for my 130k word novel, I paid $2500 for a combined line edit and copy edit (2 cents per word). However, I know indie authors who swear that’s insanely high and insist that edit should have cost only $800. So, it matters where you find your editor and what you’re looking for. Here’s a few resources to help you out.

  1. Reedsy—I used Reedsy and I was happy with my editor, although I do think the rate ended up being a bit high for the work she did. She herself said my line edits were very light because my writing was strong. That said, she wasn’t on the high end of Reedsy quotes. Don’t expect to get an editor from Reedsy that charges much less than I paid, and they may charge more. It’s a great network of professionals that can really help you get a selection of options, but it won’t be on the low end.
  2. I’ve heard very good things about Kimberly Cannon, although I haven’t personally used her. She’s on the lower end (0.6 cents per word) of copy editing and I’ve read some books she edited that had high editing quality. That said, I can’t tell you if those well-edited books were due to her work or not, only that the author of those books recommends her.
  3. The Editorial Freelancers Association has a listing of editors and you can post there requesting editors. When getting bids like this, make sure everyone is willing to give you a sample edit. That will (hopefully) protect you from scammers claiming to be editors who don’t really have the credentials or skill needed for the job.
  4. The Creative Penn is a web site with a ton of useful information on various aspects of self publishing. Her resource on finding editors is listed here. As with the above listing, I encourage you to ensure the editors you consider are willing to do a reasonably sized sample edit before committing to one.
  5. The Alliance of Independent Authors. I wish I’d found this organization before I booked my editor. They have a community you can talk to when you have questions and offer discounts on some editing services. Most of their editing is on the lower end of pricing anyway. This is another great resource and I highly recommend them for a variety of reasons. They’ll come up several times in my self-publishing discussions.

The Editing Process

Now you’re ready to schedule your edit. First, look at your timeline. If you’re doing a professional developmental editor, you’ll want at least six months from the start date to complete that process and maybe longer, depending on the length of the novel. You’ll be booking that edit at least three months out, maybe longer depending on the editor’s backlog. If you’re starting at line and copy editing, that typically take one to two months and gets booked three or four months out. Proofreading you want to book at least three months in advance as well, and just as a reminder, all other edits need to be done before you get to that stage.

Once you have your timing decided, pick the right people. This starts with sample edits. You can also ask for other books they’ve edited and look at the quality of those (either from online samples or, if they’re in your genre, support your fellow authors and give the book a shot). As much as possible, I encourage using developmental, copy, and line editors who tend to work within your genre or similar genres. An editor who usually works on contemporary romance is going to be less valuable on a grimdark fantasy than one who usually works on urban fantasy. This isn’t the case for proofreading, since proofreading shouldn’t be subjective to genre at all, and is less true for copy editing. But it is something to consider. Also, make sure that the types of edits they’re suggesting fit your vision. One of the reasons I chose my editor is because I inquired about a developmental edit and she read my sample, was intrigued by my sample, and encouraged me to go for a line and copy editing instead of developmental because she thought the development was strong. Look for someone who’ll give you that type of honest opinion on your work.

And finally but most importantly, remember that the book is yours. If the editor you’re considering is telling you to make major changes to voice or book content that don’t fit what you want, find someone else. I promise you, there is someone else. If five different editors all tell you to make the same changes, maybe consider why they’re saying that, but never change your book to please one person. All editing is subjective.

The Final Challenge

I said above that one of the challenges of editing for self-publishing is knowing when the editing is done. I don’t have any tips for that one. Barely four days ago I was debating with my entire support team (my husband, my parents, and my discord communities) over whether or not to write, edit, and proofread an extra thousand word epilogue to add to my book in response to my ARC reviews because several felt that the ending was a bit rushed. I talked it over with everyone, got mixed responses (split about half and half), and finally re-read the ending. It ends where I wanted it to, and leaves the right feel at the end, at least for me. As a result, I’m not changing it. Part of that is because I like the end, but most of it is because I realized that those ARC readers aren’t getting what I am, so if I tried to “fix” their frustration with a new ending, they wouldn’t feel what I did there, either.

You may get your edits back and love them and never be concerned. Or you may hate everything the editor said and argue with yourself over every decision. But if you worry that this round of edits is maybe not enough for the next stage, or maybe you need another change before release, or whatever insecurities nag at you, consider this: I almost restructured my entire ending to include a new last scene on a whim eight weeks before my release day because I, like all authors, struggle to know when the editing is done. Sometimes you just have to let it go.

The Magic of Technology

Science fiction and fantasy have long been genres that get misrepresented, lumped together, and dismissed as frivolous. While fans of the genres know the value of the characters and tropes, the use of magic or highly advanced technology in these books is often still seen as just the fun window dressing on the story. We can probably understand how this belief comes into being, but when you examine most fantasy and science fiction stories it becomes clear that this isn’t entirely accurate. Instead, most uses of technology result in an examination of what humans consider fair or equal while most uses of magic result in an examination of class structures and natural differentiations.

I’ve been a long-time fan of Mercedes Lackey, so when she created her Collegium Chronicles series—about the creation of one of the established systems in her fantasy novels—several years ago I was pretty excited to see what her plans were. As it turns out, I didn’t connect well with those books. They’re Harry Potter knock-offs, so I’m not really the target audience. But it gave me an interesting glimpse into the role of technology in fantasy worlds. Now, I have no desire to step into the debate over what technology boundaries exist for pure fantasy and what magic boundaries exist for pure science fiction. Instead, I want to take a look at how we use human-made “science” in fantasy worlds (and maybe a bit of vice versa).

The Source

It’s commonly understood that magic and technology come from different places. Magic is, by definition, inherent in the world whereas technology is created by the sentient creatures, usually humans. That difference causes a number of different tropes in the use of each type of resource.

While it’s entirely possible to write a world were magic power is accessible to everyone if they train hard enough, this is rarely done. For the most part, magic is a power used by the magically chosen, the people gifted by some deity as a result of their dedication or goodness, the born mages, or the fantastical creatures who are shaped by it. That gives magic the job of separating the society into different cliques. Even if social division isn’t a major element of the plot, this basic story element forces such a division into the story.

Consider, for example, the similarities between The Incredibles and Frozen. Both are children’s movies featuring main characters hiding their magical power from less gifted humans. The Incredibles is pretty open about the class difference created by having super hero powers, but it’s present in Frozen, as well. The main focus of Frozen is on Elsa’s personal acceptance of her place in the world, but it still acknowledges that she is not in the same world as her subjects or her sister. This is even more true if you consider the sequel in the evaluation, where she basically becomes a nature spirit-god at the end.

You might contrast my above examples with books like the Dragonlance world, where there is no element of being chosen so much as dedicated study bringing mastery. Even within this world there are some hints that certain members might be better skilled than others, but this is more like in modern day science research or artistic skills. Just about anybody can learn to draw or do scientific experiments, but many people agree that there are varying degrees of natural skill. The thing about the Dragonlance world is it still creates hierarchies. Every magic user is forced to undergo a dangerous, often crippling, test at a certain level of skill and if they fail (or refuse), they are killed. Thus, you accept the hierarchies dictated by the Towers of High Sorcery or you don’t study magic. Dragonlance, then, is a rare case where the magic system inflicts a hierarchy not inherent in the magic itself.

In contrast to the traditional role of magic, technology is almost always universally available. Because it was created by humans (or other sentient creatures), there’s no element of selective skill or use. Many of these stories include the smart-guy trope who is a computer genius (or that world’s equivalent), but that person is exceptional not because they were just born that way. Instead, they are someone who dedicated themselves to the study of technology and learned their skills. In many of these stories, however, there’s a running joke about the smart-guy trope that the character can’t keep a solid relationship because they are so invested in technology. This trope does not exist for serious magic users. The implication is that if everyone studied as hard, anyone could be a computer genius.

Again, The Incredibles is a great example of using science as an equalizing force primarily because it’s pretty explicit in trying to use science to even the playing field between normal humans and Supers. Consider, for example, Syndrome’s line “When everyone’s super, no one will be.” This is a blatant acknowledgment that the goal of using technology as an equalizer is to eliminate the class differences caused by selective magical systems. Even counter examples like technology used for genetic engineering to create a super-race don’t always do a good job of questioning this element. After all, in most instances, the goal of creating super-humans through genetic engineering is to apply those same traits to every human, thus evolving the species. Or, in the more morbid alternative, to eradicate any humans not deemed worthy of the genetic modifications.

Technology, then, serves almost universally as a status equalizer where magic serves as a tool to differentiate one set of characters from another.

Mixing It Up

We often look at science fiction as an investigation of the human psyche, which makes sense, given that all technology is man-made—or was at some point in the story’s history. But when we realize that technology is inherently an equalizer, we find that science fiction is more about investigating what humans perceive as equality. Similarly, fantasy magic systems investigate how humans navigate natural differences between class structures or cultural history.

The thing that fascinated me about the Mercedes Lackey’s Collegium Chronicles books was that she took an already established world full of magic and added what amounts to a scientific research laboratory for teenagers. In the framework I’ve laid out, this means she took an inherently classist society where magic users where chosen by god-like beings to be part of the elite guard force that protected all that was good in the country and she added an equalizing force. But when you add that equalizing force to a society so inherently classist, you get conflict. In the world of those books, the researcher kids were considered crazy and potentially dangerous.

Look again at Dragonlance as an example of mixing magic and technology. The gnomes of Dragonlance are defined by having inventions that don’t work. Anyone with inventions that do work is termed a “mad gnome” and ostracized by society. But no one would specifically ostracize someone who tried to become a magic user and failed. That person would just be a normal commoner (or whatever they were before) and would return to the life they’d known. At its core, Dragonlance is a world that assumes magic is the answer and technology is flawed. Now, that is likely not the opinion of the authors, but that’s definitively the belief that the world holds. Technology is dangerous, and making something that works is strange and a potential danger to the existing society.

In contrast to Dragonlance, there exist plenty of worlds where magic is used as a force to create mechanical weapons, as well. This melding of technology and magic is less of a counter-example than it may seem, however. There still exist some within society who must wield the magic to create the machines—often falling into the special gift category of magic—and typically a different group of people use those machines.

What To Do With It

Now, the point isn’t to say that all fantasy has to be class based or that all science fiction has to be focused on improving or evaluating equality. Some of the best works are actively attempting to subvert the inherent nature of the tropes they follow. What is important is to recognize the inherent effects of various elements so they can be applied and interpreted accurately. I’ve heard much hate for the chosen one trope lately. But the chosen one trope is just a distillation of the essential nature of magic into a single figure. The chosen one trope, or heavily classist societies, or fantasy that integrates its magic into machines to create new, magic-powered weapons—they all start with the same basic elements.

As with all story-telling, the beauty is in how you use it.

Tips for World Building

Building a fantasy world, even a contemporary based one, has a lot of pitfalls, and it’s easy to get stuck missing important details. Here’s list of ten things to consider when building a world to ensure you’ve created a complete, well rounded world for your story. Now when when someone asks you an obscure question, you’ll know the answer. And more to the point, it will give you fun details to drop into your worlds. Just remember, these questions are not an invitation to write a five page dissertation on your world’s social structure before your plot gets started (or in chapter three when your character goes to a history lesson).

  1. Where/how did your world’s religions start? Yes, that plural is intentional. The current modern world has 4,300 active religions according to some counts. If your world only has one religion, you really need to explain how that happened. But assuming your world has multiple, diverse religions, think about their origins. What common elements do they have? In modern times we can tell that most religions have some story about a world-wide flood, albeit with very different specifics. How do any common elements explain things that more primitive versions of your world may not have understood, and how do the differences display the individual aspects of your world?
  2. Why does your world have the social/economic/power structure that it has? Think about the histories that led to the current moment and decide why things got to where they are on a global scale. This includes governments, sociological class structures, and financial stability. Some stories will need more or less of this, but every story is affected by the world at large to some extent. Knowing the history that led to the current moment, especially anything you might have changed from reality in a contemporary-based fantasy, will help you build believable fantasy.
  3. How does the technology level of your world effect the availability of resources? This is the sort of thing a lot of people miss. We’re used to mass production and long-haul shipping. If your world doesn’t have those, then they better not be selling fruit out of season. If, on the other hand, they have advanced teleportation technology, then I’d expect trade to be massively disrupted from what we expect. Jobs that require travel should be basically obsolete. Sure, maybe you have to hop over to Africa for your meeting, but it’s just a trip to the teleporter and back.
  4. Where were cities built and why? This one is mostly for secondary-world fantasy, but it’s something newer authors may not think through enough. Typically, cities are built in areas where people were already congregating for other reasons. Examples include river valleys, oases in deserts, and wooded mountains rich in minerals. So if you have a dramatic castle built into the side of a remote peak with no mines nearby, you need to explain why. And don’t forget: that reason needs to be reflected in how the city is structured. A defensive keep built to watch a strategic mountain pass is not going to have broad windows and expansive balconies where the inhabitants can dance the night away under the stars.
  5. What biases does your character’s homeland have, and what biases do other countries have against them? This is always an interesting way to consider how the various elements of your world will interact. And if the entire cast of your book comes from one national background, there’s probably still some regional differences giving rise to biases and stereotypes. Those elements will make your world feel real and more like a living culture. If your world doesn’t have any biases… ask yourself why. Every country in the modern world has biases, some of them very, very different from each other. What happened to make your world different?
  6. What bits of history are believed in your world but are wrong? I wish more authors did this. It’s not unheard of, of course, but too many writers establish their world and make clear that the history they are telling you is objective fact. In terms of history, there is no such thing. We often use the platitude that “history is written by the victor,” but the more accurate statement is that history is written in the eye of the current beholder. Everything ever written is some parts right, some parts wrong, and some parts guess. The pieces of the past that your world guessed at or lied about will make a far more interesting setting than anything you can come up with for a static history.
  7. How does your magic system (and the prevalence or scarcity of magical power) change your society? More authors today consider these impacts than they used to, but it’s still quite common to have wildly powerful magic users living in an otherwise perfectly predictable medieval society (or society based on some other culture, although those are rarer). This is very unlikely. If people can walk around throwing fireballs at other people, why are they allowed to live by themselves rather than be forcibly conscripted into the army? Is it because they can throw fireballs at people and that makes the generals scared? Okay, but then they better not be hanging out in the middle of town being friendly, laughable old geezers. If anyone who trains for long enough at a temple can create water on command, I better not see any signs of water-borne illness in your society… Unless you have a sub-plot about the evil churches controlling the flow of clean water. Adding magic would affect every level of society, from the day to day dreams of poor children to the lives of every merchant to the economy and ruling structures. Using magic well means considering how your main character’s magic changes their interactions with their world not just in what they can do, but also in how they are viewed.
  8. What changes do fantasy creatures cause within your world, and how do they interact with the more mundane parts of the world? Until somewhat recently, contemporary fantasy was particularly bad about this. “The world is exactly like ours, except elves live in a parallel dimension and occasionally come do things in our world but no one notices.” Really? I doubt that elves occasionally meddling in our world had no effect on society at all. Also, how did those elves get in that parallel dimension, and what makes them elves other than them being long-lived, magic-ish, and having pointed ears? What even are elves in this world? Instead of giving your reader an existential crisis, spend a bit of time thinking critically about what your creatures are, how they came to be in the situation they are in, how the world reacts to them, and how they react to the world. This will give your magical creatures a sense of purpose in the world, rather than your readers feeling like the fantasy creatures are just flavor text.
  9. How are deviations from societal standards viewed, and what repercussions are there for rejecting society’s expectations? I haven’t seen many variations on this answer, but wouldn’t it be cool if there were? What if, instead of getting thrown in jail or cast out of their village or otherwise ostracized for rejecting societal standards, your characters got sent to a special school to help them build on their individuality? What if that was the source of all scientific (or magical?) research in the world? Or maybe those outcasts were used as focus groups and led to consistent re-imagining of political structures? Not every deviation from the norm has to be punished, and treating dissent as a virtue can create a fascinating counterpoint to whatever conflict you intend to pursue in the plot line.
  10. What defines your world in terms of art, music, and cuisine? I combine these three not because they are less important, but because they are common bits of advice. Most writers have heard the advice to consider when and what the society eats, for example, and everyone knows about the Lord of the Rings joke “What about second breakfast?” In the United States a lunch break is about all workers get, but in South America it was common (and may still be) to call siesta in the afternoon. Tea time in Great Britain isn’t as definitive as it used to be, but once upon a time it was taken very seriously as a required break. Music has a similar effect on cultures, and oppressive regimes regularly suppress music and art. As well, few fantasy novels involve the characters reading fiction, which seems odd, since we writers and readers love books so much. Does your world publish fiction, and if not, why not? Our world always has.

You don’t have to consider everything on this list before writing. Honestly, as a discovery writer, I rarely consider any of the things on this list before I start writing. But your final result should include several, if not most, of these elements to some extent. Just make sure you’re including them in ways that build on the story and not as check boxes to mark off.

For some original fiction, check out these posts:
For more thoughts on publishing and writing, check out these posts:


Niamsha Pereyra skulked at the edge of the scorching hot room, watching the other candidates trading jokes—and some coin—with the journeymen. Glasswright boys she’d called peers barely three quarters a year past. No one called her anything but gutter scum now, no matter that her papa would have given his last coin to aid these same children when he’d had the coin to spare. At least her now-ragged clothes helped the sweat keep her body cooler.

A series of furnaces built into the walls kept the temperature just within bareable, the breeze coming through the windows serving only to push the heat around as if to ensure everyone felt as uncomfortable as possible. But the tests couldn’t be held anywhere else. The guild craft hall was the only space large enough for a dozen amateur glasswrights to work at once with the masters that would be supervising. Niamsha had only been here once before, when her papa had brought her as a girl to introduce the guild to his intended apprentice. Long before his illness had robbed her of any chance to practice her craft.

“Nia, girl, come here.” The heavily-built guildmaster stood barely a head taller than the hopefuls. Too short to comand his own respect. But the guild gave him enough.

Niamsha slunk through the crowd, feeling the stares and smirks of her former peers as her too-short skirt swayed just below her knees. She’d barely managed to keep her and Emrys fed since her papa had sent the away. New clothes were no more than a dream. Or they had been, until the guildmaster’s servant had found her crouched under the eaves of a market stall and told her the news. Her papa had gone to the guild and done what he swore never to do: sold his personal secrets to the guild in return for a chance at apprenticeship. For Niamsha.

“Aye, Master Ferndon. Whatcha—” Too late she remembered her papa’s endless warnings. Guild’s got enough reason ta turn ya away. They didn’t need any more excuses. “What can I do for you?”

Master Ferndon smiled, gesturing to the furnaces. Behind him, seated at a work table with a fruit tart dangling from his hands, sat a tiny copy of Master Ferndon. His son, Janne Ferndon. Clumsy, slow-witted, and guaranteed an apprenticeship despite the new high lord’s change to the laws. All apprentices had to pass a trial, and any born beyond the guild given training before the tests. But Master Ferndon would never let his own son be rejected from the guild.

Niamsha’s stomach rumbled against the day’s emptiness. She’d never hated someone just for their luck before, but in that moment she hated Janne Ferndon.

“Just wanted a look at ya, girl,” Master Ferndon said. “Guild ain’t heard from ya or yer father since he took ill. Shame he didn’t make it ta see ya here.”

A lie, but one she couldn’t challenge. Master Ferndon had heard plenty of pleas for help from her papa. And, later, from her.

“Papa always…” The words clogged her throat like a hunk of burnt bread dug from the scrap cart. Her only chance to protect Em. “He ain’t been at gettin’ help.”

Another smile on Master Ferndon’s thin mouth, cutting across his pale face. “Glad he came to reason at the end. Yer always welcome in the guild. If you’ve the skill, of course.”

Niamsha clenched her jaw and nodded. No one could doubt her skill. She’d had apprentice offers when she was barely old enough for them but her papa wanted her schooled before she learned the trade. And now, because the gods-damned high lord thought he knew how to manage craft, she might not get a trade at all.

“Now.” Master Ferndon stepped away from the table and clapped his hands. “Let’s begin!”

A cluster of children—all too young to have apprenticeships yet—hurried in from the side alcoves, each attaching to a candidate as if it had all been rehearsed. Guild-provided assistants, each chosen specifically for their inability to influence the quality of the craft. The last girl stood frozen in the middle of the room, sweeping her eyes across the group before finally settling on Niamsha. With a determined smile, the girl scampered across the floor and grabbed Niamsha’s hand. They crossed to one of the massive furnaces. Two stations down from Janne Ferndon with his hands still sticky from the fruit tart.

Niamsha scowled at the boy before scanning the station. Colored glass rods, serviceable tongs and blowpipe and a proper marver and table where she could shape the glass. One of her father’s stemmed goblets with speckled color across the base would be a good piece.

The heat from the furnace throbbed against her skin, a call to the craft like a lost friend pinching her to make sure she was real. For the first time since entering the craft hall a smile tugged at Niamsha’s lips.

Grabbing the thick leather apron and gloves hanging beside her table, Niamsha snapped orders at the girl she’d been given as an assistant. A solid base of clear glass, then—

The clatter of glass rods scattering across the table interrupted her thoughts and she spun around, a sharp reprimand ready. The girl looked up through wide, terrified eyes, pale face gone white and the last couple rods slipping from her fingers. Niamsha snatched the rods away. Incompetent. They’d given her a useless, untrained girl who couldn’t even be trusted with cold glass. How could she hope to match the skill of apprentices who’d been training for this test for months?

Two furnaces down, Janne Ferndon fumbled his blowpipe into the glory-hole of his furnace, grunting as the heavy metal rod clanged against the interior wall. Master Ferndon’s invitation suddenly made sense. He couldn’t just give his boy an apprenticeship. Law forbade it. He needed Janne to do a passable job in a test where another guild-born apprentice failed so he could justify giving his son a place. And he’d chosen Niamsha, over a year out of practice and saddled with an inept assistant.

“Pick ’em up.” Niamsha smiled at the girl. Eiliin take Ferndon’s plan for her. She’d survived more than he knew. “One at a time. Set them here.”

Niamsha took one of the uncracked rods and slid it into the furnace with the long-handled tongs. She’d have to change her plans to something simpler. Cracked glass was dangerous to heat too fast and if she let it blow she’d do more than lose a test. But she could still best Janne Ferndon.

The simple glass goblet sat on the bench, riddled with bubbles from her haste, cool enough to touch, and in one piece. Far from Niamsha’s best work. But Janne hadn’t even managed to properly attach his base, presenting two separate—and therefore useless—bits of glass instead.

The judge gave a final opinion to the boy next to Niamsha and came to her table, offering a cursory nod before turning to her goblet. No one Niamsha had known, and not anyone her papa had talked about in her memory. But the judge seemed to know the craft. She checked the weight of the piece against the glass Niamsha had used, noted the size and distribution of the air bubbles. Finally, she set the piece down and consulted a list her servant held out for her.

“Niamsha, yes?” She drew the name out, hesitating over unfamiliar syllables, but made no attempt to shorten the name. “A commoner?”

“I—” Niamsha considered her choices. Her papa had told her to leave his name behind and Master Ferndon hadn’t marked her as born to the guild. But her papa had a reputation that should have reached beyond the city. That reputation could be her salvation. “Me papa was Master Treiu. He took ill, but taught me basics. Only I ain’t—”


The disappointment told Niamsha her choice was wrong. The judge shook her head.

“A guildie, then. Guildies typically get clearer glass than that.”

“I’s all rushed ’cause—”

“Everyone had the same time, Miss Treiu.” The judge shot her a glare, a hint of reproach in the words. “We know the time is short but we haven’t all day to leave our craft. Young master Janne didn’t even finish his piece, but his glass is clean. His can be salvaged. Yours…”


The word died on Niamsha’s lips, unheard or ignored. It didn’t matter. Niamsha had assumed a finished piece would be worth more. Few commissions tolerated delays and with unguilded, foreign glasswrights sending their wares in the guild couldn’t afford to lose commissions. But Master Ferndon must have known this judge. He’d told his son what to do.

The judge scanned her list again and shook her head. “I’m sorry, girl. With that impatience your only fit for cheap work and we’ve no room for scrap ‘prentices. Cheap glass doesn’t sell through the guild under the new laws.”

“I can do better!” Niamsha leaped forward, grabbing for the judge’s sleeve. “I can. Jus’ need ‘nother chance. I—”

“Let go.” The judge tore her sleeve free from Niamsha’s grasp. “You’re kind are the reason High Lord Arkaen instituted these tests. Assuming you’ve a place simply because you’re born to it. A guild-born child has plenty of chances to learn and take these tests. If you could do better, than you should have. As is, the guild is best rid of you.”

The judge spun around and stormed off to the next table, leaving Niamsha staring in her wake. How was she going to care for Em? The scrap-glass traders didn’t want someone else to pay and no guilded master would risk an unguilded apprentice. She hadn’t been given any chances. By design.

Master Ferndon’s smirk from his son’s table caught her eye. He’d planned this. Brought her in to fail. Tricked her papa into selling his trade secrets for this chance and then assigned her an incompetent assistant. And he’d done it all to steal her place for his own boy. He’d won.

Nailing the Second Round

A few days ago I watched the first couple episodes of Leverage: Redemption on Amazon Prime. For context, I am a die hard fan of original Leverage. Yes, it eventually got kind of repetitive and a little silly (“It’s a very distinctive haircut.”), but the show holds a special place in my heart. As a result, when I saw the reboot-sequel and that it included Hardison, Parker, Elliott, and Sophie I never considered what quality the show would be. Yay! My show is coming back! Of course that’s a good thing. But I failed to recall one far too common factor of entertainment these days.

Some creators don’t know why their original concept worked.

This is a bit of a broad claim, but I’d argue the exceptions that immediately come to everyone’s mind on hearing this are exactly that: Exceptions. We remember them because a good sequel/reboot/remake is so rare that the positive ones stick with us.

To be clear, it’s not that Leverage: Redemption is bad, per se. It’s… fine. There is decent chemistry, the situation makes sense, and I appreciate that they’re trying to address the shifts in the world that make the original feel out of touch these days. It even has some genuinely funny lines and call backs. I enjoyed watching the first couple episodes, for the most part. It just doesn’t have the spark that made the first one brilliant.

Middle Book Syndrome

Middle book syndrome is an extension of the sagging middle problem that many authors struggle with. The beginning of the story is sharp and carefully crafted. The end is poignant, thought-provoking, and fulfilling. And some stuff happens in the middle.

The difference is that middle book syndrome is more likely to get past a publisher (or in the case of my TV show, a producer) than sagging middles. Sagging middles are obvious (to an outside observer). There is an ongoing story and it just suddenly stops progressing for a while in one way or another, and then suddenly everything pops back into motion and the end sequence begins. Middle book syndrome will kill your fan base faster than a bad first book, because you can always recover from one bad start. Probably not in that series, but you can write another one that’s good. Middle book syndrome tells your reader that any good book you write has a chance of being a fluke and they should be prepared for every book to lose what makes the series special, even if you’re 5 books in and it hasn’t happened yet.

Let’s Provide… Context

To look more closely at this phenomenon, I’m going to compare and contrast Leverage: Redemption with The Incredibles II. There will be a few early spoilers for the new Leverage, but I don’t think anything particularly ground-breaking. Same for Incredibles II.


Original Leverage was exceptional because it took five fundamentally damaged individuals–each with a specific skill at which they exceled–and turned them into a found-family team trying to do things none of them would have considered doing on their own. It told us the concept was revolutionary and we had no choice but to accept it. All the characters did. And on top of that, the diverse character base gave us internal conflict while building respect and trust for each other. While the pitch for the story was “a group of thieves use their skills to stop entitled rich people from hurting others,” the complex chemistry of the group and their natural growth as a team is what made the show great.

Leverage: Redemption starts several years after the original ended. Sophie and Nate retired, Parker, Hardison, and Elliott, kept going, somehow Nate died, and the team came back together. As a quick spoiler to make things easier to discuss, very early in the show Hardison bows out of the new crew to manage the massive human rights network he built, so he is an influence but not a member of the long-term cast.

Many people might be upset that the show teased bringing the crew back together and then killed Nate and sent Hardison off on his own mission, but that’s not what bothered me. The problem is most evident to me when the new crew is discussing a job and Elliott quotes a proverb in Klingon. I believe the show when it tells me that Elliott learned Klingon on a dare from Hardison. They had that sort of relationship. But all that moment does for the current story is remind me that Elliott, Hardison, and Parker are a static trio. Their arcs are over.

Of course this is a difficult dilemma for any reboot or sequel. The characters ended in a good place, so they have a choice between regressing the progress, which would piss off fans, or ignoring the originals, which would alienate fans, or include them as secondary characters. Redemption tries to have its cake and eat it too by regressing Sophie with Nate’s death and including Parker and Elliott as if their arcs aren’t over. All this does is pit the original crew against the new additions, making the new characters feel weak and disconnected. The new show isn’t about five fundamentally damaged characters trying to make the world better, it’s about Parker and Elliot training some new thieves while trying to support Sophie through her grief.

The Incredibles

The Incredibles II handles this challenge in a much better way. They pick up exactly where the original ended and they actually do something similar to Leverage: Redemption. The only “change” Incredibles II makes tot he original lore is to clarify that, after the Incredible family stops The Underminer at the end of the first movie, the public is still prone to blaming super heroes for their problems. Consider how much of a change that really is. The original movie displayed them charging to the rescue as a triumphant end to the story arc, but it never addressed the public opinion at all. Pixar didn’t necessarily change anything.

In that fight, Violet revealed her identity to the boy she liked and a lot of the city was damaged, so what happened? The government tried to clean up the mess, leaving the Incredible family living in a motel with no jobs and wiping the memories of Violet’s potential boyfriend. A perfect position for the opening to a sequel because Pixar understood what worked in their movie.

To compare this status with Leverage, the original ending presented Parker, Hardison, and Elliott as carrying on just as if Sophie and Nate hadn’t retired. They could have done the same thing Pixar did with Incredibles II. Sure, the crew tried to keep it up, but their dynamic was substantially changed and other problems arose. Instead, Redemption told us that everything went great. Elliott started a chain of food trucks used for all sorts of missions, Parker and Hardison were great, Hardison started a human rights empire, and they all started managing Leverage teams around the world. What story is there to even tell?

If, instead, Elliott and Parker had been less successful and felt insecure as Hardison built his empire–maybe even made a mistake that indirectly led to Nate’s death–we get the chance of conflict. They could still be close friends and all the development still holds, but then Elliott and Parker need something by going back to active jobs, Sophie needs them because Nate is gone, and the new guys are the same. Instead of Sophie needing a distraction while Parker and Elliott train two new screw-ups, we two newbies and three people each facing an existential crisis. They’re on equal footing and that gives the show the potential for greatness.

Follow Through

Of course no set up is more important that the follow through, but I would argue that both shows have decent follow-up. I said I enjoyed Leverage: Redemption, after all. The funny one-liners are still funny and the bad guys are still bad and it’s enjoyable watching them get taken down. But the set up forces the follow up to work differently.

The best twist Pixar could have imagined for Incredibles II was the decision for the backer to choose Elastigirl over Mr. Incredible, but it also fits with the story they needed to tell. Instead of another “Mr. Incredible punches things until his wife comes to save him,” we get the twin character arcs of stay-at-home-mom Elastigirl reclaiming who she was while punch-the-problem Mr. Incredible learns to be incredible at solving problems he can’t punch. That was pure gold as only Pixar can make. The main plot was… fine, but it wasn’t a movie that relied on a stellar central plot. The Incredibles I and II worked because of the complex character work that Pixar does so well.

The creators of Leverage: Redemption clearly thought the original worked because of the feel-good vibes of watching entitled jerks getting taken down a notch amid a storm of witty one-liners. But Leverage was just as much about the complex characters as The Incredibles. The result is that all of the new Leverage episodes feel like Parker and Elliott trying to patch up the mistakes of these crappy new characters. The third act breakdown is never because Parker ran off on her own or Elliott forgot to mention that assassin that hates him.

The Takeaways

So what does all this mean to someone looking for writing advice? I’m examining these shows because I think they demonstrate an important element of story-telling. We’ve all heard the claim that every book in a series has to be able to stand on its own, and this is why. If your sequel leans too hard on the previous book, it is likely to end up with middle book syndrome, feeling like the “and then some stuff happened” sagging middle of your series instead of a compelling entry in the story line.

So what can you do to avoid this (besides “know what made the book good”)? I recommend writing a short, catchy pitch for each book as if you were selling each as a stand alone. If your pitch sounds like a complete story, you’re probably okay. Just make sure the book matches the pitch. But if your pitch sounds like “Book 1 except this changed and also they have to do this now,” you might be in trouble. And if you are still unsure, here’s the short pitches for the movies I’ve discussed here:

Show NamePitch
The Incredibles IA family of super heroes struggles to adapt to life without the freedom to use their powers and learns the importance of family
Leverage (original)A team of loner thieves comes together to stop corrupt people from taking advantage of others and becomes a found family
The Incredibles IIA family of super heroes tries to convince society to allow heroes to fight crime while trying to protect their family’s internal relationships
Leverage: RedemptionA group of close friends who used to steal things from corrupt people for the greater good reunite and decide to do it again, but due to some changes recruit some new members and a lot of things have changed in the world since the last time

One of these things is not like the others….

Family Ties

“Father, we don’t have a choice.” Deyvan Corliann reached out a hand, pleading with his father to understand. “Uncle Caildenn won’t let this go.”

“And that is exactly why I cannot agree,” High Lord Mikkal Corliann replied. “Surely you see that. I’ve relinquished the management of my holdings to you and accepted your appointment as his heir. Nothing I’ve done since hints at rebellion. If he won’t trust my word, how can I trust his?”

Deyvan collapsed into the heavily padded chair beside his father’s desk, his hand falling on a pile of ignored papers. Papers that Deyvan should have answered weeks before, but for his uncle’s demands. The entire office overflowed with bits of work Deyvan had yet to examine. Requests for his blessing on new trade agreements, demands he resolve disputes between minor lords, adjustments in laws and regulations that he’d never realized needed the high lord’s approval at all. And more than a dozen contracts with marriage clauses attached, each hinting not so subtly that an alliance with that family might aid him should his uncle remarry and father another heir. No one trusted Uncle Caildenn’s word. Not even Deyvan.

“This isn’t about trusting my uncle,” Deyvan said. “It’s about showing the empire that the provinces remain united. The northern rebellion has been growing for almost six years now and any day they might break out from skirmishes and ambushes into a real war. Uncle Caildenn is our emperor and he needs the show his enemies that our nation is not to be dismissed. What if Mindaine decides the rebellion is a distraction they can use to take back Sentar Province? Or Osuvia wants to rebuild the former country on their lower border as a puppet state?”

“Then the imperial army will rally to our nation’s defense regardless of home province, as they always have.” High Lord Mikkal shook his head, as if the answer were obvious. “Caildenn knows that as well as I. My abandonment of an empty title does nothing but force me into subservience. It’s not about unity, Deyvan. It’s about cruelty.”

“That’s—” But Deyvan couldn’t really argue. Uncle Caildenn had a bad reputation, and nothing could make Deyvan forget the look in his uncle’s eyes when Deyvan had sworn his father’s loyalty. After the province high lords had forced Uncle Caildenn to marry into the Corliann bloodline much too young, he would never trust the brother-by-law he’d gained in High Lord Mikkal. “Uncle Caildenn has his flaws, but he only needs a proper family. The high lords took one chance of that from him by selecting my aunt as his bride, the Serr-Nyen took another with their assassins. Give him a chance, father. Uncle cares about me. I can help him and our empire.”

A sharp knock at the door interrupted their discussion and both Deyvan and his father spun in their chairs to face the entry. If anyone had overheard this discussion it could too easily find its way back to Uncle Caildenn’s ears. One hint that Deyvan or his father disapproved of Caildenn’s actions could tear the fragile truce between their families apart. After a few breaths, the knock came again. A servant poked his head in at Deyvan’s call.

“Pardon, my lords, but there’s a visitor for Prince Deyvan.” At Deyvan’s blank look, the servant pointed toward the formal study. “From up north.”

“Oh, yes.” He’d never get used to being Prince Deyvan. His cousins had been the princes, murdered in their beds by foreign warmongers hoping to disrupt the treaty Uncle Caildenn planned with the now-conquered nation of Sernyii. “Thank you. I’ll be down in a moment.” Deyvan waved a hand to dismiss the servant and turned back to his father. “I’ve a foreign trade discussion. But I promise, Father, I can turn Uncle Caildenn into a decent ruler if you’ll help me.”

High Lord Mikkal sighed. “I know you aren’t that naive, but I can see I won’t convince you. Let’s table this discussion for this evening.” He pushed up from the desk, offering a resigned smile. “May I join your discussion? I’ve missed the dance of negotiations between equal powers.”

Deyvan hesitated. He knew that tone from too many forays into the sweets cupboards as a child. High Lord Mikkal thought he knew something Deyvan shouldn’t be doing. And if he had found out about Deyvan’s communications with Mistress Varela of Serni Province he could wreak havoc on Deyvan’s carefully laid plans. But if no loyal-born imperial could trust a Sernien merchant-lord’s daughter after the massacre they’d made of Uncle Caildenn’s sons. Deyvan’s eyes settled on a piece of paper on his father’s desk. Innocuous but for the seal in a bottom corner. Uncolored wax as any commoner might use, but with a gryphon head pressed into the center.

“I’d be pleased to have you join me, Father,” Deyvan said, a weight lifting from his shoulders. This was the answer to his frustrations. If Deyvan’s father had plans with the Varela family, he could use that to find them a middle ground.

“I’m not certain you’ll feel the same in a few moments.” High Lord Mikkal gave him a knowing smirk. “But it’s better we have these things in the open.”

The warning gave Deyvan only a moment’s pause. For all his worries, he did trust his father. Even if it meant revealing a secret that most would use to control him. Family could be trusted.

Rising, Deyvan motioned for his father to follow and led the way through his keep—his father’s keep. High Lord Mikkal needed no guide through these corridors. Deyvan’s skin prickled under his father’s scrutiny like a child playing at adulthood under a critical gaze. Any moment he could misstep—greet a foreign dignitary with the wrong honorific or offer too much information at the opening of a trade deal—and his father would see. He’d pause, raise one hand and stop himself, smile, and politely comment on the difficulty of keeping etiquette up to date. A reminder that High Lord Mikkal had taught Deyvan everything he knew about politics and could still run circles around him. Deyvan swept his gaze along the hall, looking for anything to distract himself from his nerves, and settled on examining the tapestries adorning the walls. Each was a symbol of some great conquest or treaty that broadened the family holding. Priceless work that could have fed hundreds of refugees for years if his family had spent the money more wisely. Uncle Caildenn’s excesses weren’t so different from those his high lords and their vassals had indulged for generations.

Before Deyvan could sink too far into that train of thought he arrived at the door to his father’s—his formal study. He tapped quickly on the door to warn his guest and opened the door, smiling at the pretty blond woman seated by his crackling fireplace.

“Mistress Varela.” Deyvan crossed the room, waving a hand behind him to indicate his father. “Thank you for coming so far. Allow me to introduce—”

“Lord Sphinx!” Mistress Varela sprang to her feet, dropping immediately into a curtsy. “I hadn’t realized you had connections here, my lord.”

Deyvan froze, staring at her shocked face. Mistress Varela had been barely sixteen when her family came to reside at Deyvan’s home in the upheaval over the death of his cousins, but surely she knew High Lord Mikkal was Deyvan’s father. Except Deyvan’s father had been away at court, he realized. Dealing with the aftermath of the betrayal while some of the suspected perpetrators sheltered among his family. Mistress Varela’s mother and younger brother were dead now, leaving no one to tell her who High Lord Mikkal was. And yet…

“Lord Sphinx?” Deyvan asked, casting a glance at his father. No one had reason to call his father anything of the sort. Their family crest was a fox and High Lord Mikkal was known among all the high lords as the most direct and honest.

“Please pardon the secrecy, High Lord,” Deyvan’s father replied, offering a nod as if greeting an unknown but respected rival. “I consider a man’s identity his greatest commodity and the mistress had recently advised me of a Serr-Nyen tradition I quite like. To choose the name of a mythical creature as a war title for the protection of those you hold dear. She named me Sphinx for my refusal to reveal any details of my status.”

And there it was, buried amongst the casual explanation that would have satisfied any other. A hint of frustration, a nudge to follow his example, and a hidden—exasperated—statement. You knew better, Deyvan. As if his father had shouted the criticism in his ear. Deyvan bit back a curse and nodded.

“Of course. Lord Sphinx.” And Deyvan had better come up with his own title before he took any further steps toward joining Mistress Varela’s cause. If his father feared her knowledge he didn’t dare question that wisdom. He’d already given Mistress Varela enough power by letting her know his true name at all. Ymari’s face swam before his eyes, her strange culture a mystery in itself. A place where Deyvan could learn tricks even his own father didn’t know. “I do think I’ll follow suit. Among your allies, mistress, please refer to me as Kumiho.”

For more original fiction, check out these posts:
For some thoughts on publishing and writing, check out these posts:

The Solitary Art of Making Writer Friends

Aspiring authors face an age old paradox: Everyone knows that writing can only be done in quiet, dark corners hidden from others until it is absolutely perfect. And yet, every publishing professional knows that the best authors know all the right people. Connections are what get you noticed and prove that your writing is worthy. This leaves many a new author (and no few experienced authors) wondering: How does one make these connections, and what do you even do with them once you have them?

Well, there’s a lot of misunderstandings around writer networking. Let’s take a look at some common misconceptions, as well as some ways to build your writer network.

The Falsehoods

  1. Some of you read my opening sentence and thought “That’s not how I write!” Yeah, I know. Actually, many writers do their best work in coffee shops, IHOPs or Village Inns, or in regular group writing sessions with fellow writers. From my very unscientific personal experience, I’d estimate about half of all writers do their best work in more social settings. Even those who need quiet, dedicated writing spaces often listen to music or have relatively upbeat, cheery desks where they plot the demise of all their most beloved characters. Despite this, the stereotype of the lonely, tortured writer who crafts masterpieces in hidden genius persists. Probably because the drama is more interesting. I grab a couple hours a week in my bedroom with a notebook and a classic rock station and make up stories–Hardly Sylvia Plath level drama going on there.
  2. Publishing doesn’t require as much clique-chasing as it sometimes sounds. Yes, some amount of your success as a writer does come from the help and support of other people. However, I’ve heard people say everything from “You’ll never get an agent if you don’t go to conferences and mingle/network” to “The only way to be successful as a self-published author is if you spend years building your audience before you release any books.” Neither of these statements are entirely accurate. After all, if you spend five years building an audience of fellow writers by releasing carefully researched commentary on the current state of the publishing business and then self-publish your middle grade novel about a unicorn foal getting lost in someone’s back yard, how much of your pre-built network is in your target audience?
  3. Finding a group of like-minded writers is actually pretty tough. This is surprising to some people, but it makes sense when you think about it. Writers are like any type of person. You’ll like some of them and you’ll be driven to avoid others for any number of reasons. As a result, a lot of writers find themselves in writing groups that don’t support their needs and leave them feeling more insecure about their work.

Some Truths

  1. You do need to find a network. I know it’s hard, and I know many of us are pretty self-conscious about sharing our work. But until you’ve shared with others, received honest feedback and considered it as objectively as you can, and really evaluated how your work reads to others you’re doomed to plateau.
  2. The writing community is pretty close-knit (considering its size), and acting poorly will tend to bite you later. Despite many rumors to the contrary, there isn’t a real agent blacklist shared throughout the community so that one mistake with one agent will ensure you never work in the industry, but… getting a reputation for entitled, rude, or other poor behavior is pretty easy. Good news, so is getting a reputation for being a positive influence. So long as you actually do something.

Best Practices

There is no way to give all the advice needed to lead every writer to a strong network of other writers and beta readers to polish their work. That said, there are a few strategies that have worked for others you may want to try. Here’s some of my favorite places to find new members of my writer network.

  1. Scribophile–This was one of the first places I started to gain confidence in my writing. While I don’t use Scribophile much any longer, I keep it in my back pocket as a resource if I ever need to get a fresh perspective. The trick to Scribophile is to walk in prepared for some people to be jerks. There are always jerks. But there’s also a lot of people really trying to help others on that web site and that’s a great place to start.
  2. Twitter–I know, I know. I didn’t believe it either. But my best community right now came from answering a tweet asking if anyone wanted to share beta read drafts to help prep for a query contest. Since Twitter can be a bit of a mine field, this can also be a bit of a struggle but if you use it right (by which I mean, respond to tweets with actual replies and don’t just spend all your time plugging your own comments trying to get followers) you can get some real value here.
  3. Reddit–I came to Reddit after having a pretty solid group already and there are some notable issues (mainly that there’s about five questions that show up on my feed every couple weeks despite having just been asked a couple weeks before), but I can definitely see the potential here. There’s a fantasy subreddit, a writing subreddit, a beta readers subreddit. Whatever portion of the process you’re in, you can probably find some support here. I haven’t walked away with any specific people in my network that I didn’t know beforehand, but that’s more a matter of me than anything about the platform.
  4. Real Life Groups–This is the one everyone knows about, at least in theory. Just find a group of writers holding meetings in your area and join them. No problem, right? Well, there’s a dozen issues with that, starting with “not every area has a writer’s group” and ranging all the way to “not every in-person writer’s group is any good.” However, this is another place to start if you can, and there can be a lot of valuable connections to be made in these settings.
  5. Discord Servers–I consider this one of the most under-rated ways of networking in the writing community. When I attended a writing conference in April, I approached two different presenters giving speeches about gaining visibility as an author and I asked about Discord servers as a means of building networks. Both of them dismissed the idea as ineffective in terms of building a network, all while also touting the importance of genuine interaction and meaningful connections. But that is exactly what Discord servers are good at. You can’t pop into a discord server, post a random comment saying “buy my book”, and expect anyone to care. So if you’re building a genuine network of feedback and possibly extending into people who buy your books, discord is a great way to build those connections. Personally, I’m a fan of finding a YouTuber who makes videos about books in my genre or other books I like to read and joining their server. The people there are likely to have things in common with me. Other options include finding groups through the Nanowrimo forums and creating/joining discord servers, or even finding public discord servers about writing or your book genre. My Twitter group transitioned to Discord and now most of our new members never knew us on Twitter.

This list is far from exhaustive. After all, in my point about discord I mentioned yet another potential resource: Nanowrimo! But I hope it gives people a starting point for where to begin creating the resources needed to grow your stories into something you can be genuinely proud of… in between all the crippling insecurity that so many of us face the instant someone says anything vaguely uncertain about our books.

Seriously, I just saw a Reddit thread where someone said “I have a bunch of readers who love my book, but one person just said they thought it was under-developed. How do writers handle negative feedback?” It sounds silly, but I had a similar experience. I was feeling unsure, I recruited independent beta readers, and the first positive comments I got back I thought “crap, the new beta readers are lying to me…” Wherever you find your group, trust the good comments as much as the bad ones, and if there aren’t any good comments, keep looking. You haven’t found your network yet.