Updates and Audiobooks

Hello everyone! Happy new year. Anyone following this blog will have noticed my unexpected hiatus over the past couple months. Due to a couple of changes in my schedule, I’ve had less time than intended to keep up with things. Pair that with the holiday season and some things fell through the cracks. As a result, I wanted to take the time to give some updates on the status of my writing, this blog, and what to expect from me going forward.

A quick overview of what happened

Several things happened all at once which caused the disruption of my plans. Most obviously, my debut novel released. I always knew that releasing a book was going to come with work, but I didn’t realize how much I was going to have to do after it was released. It’s always discussed in terms of the preparation and few people talk about post-release obligations. Since my book released, however, I have been to two promotion events and two conferences, I’ve been trying to schedule a second book signing, and I’m trying to keep track of valuable promotions and opportunities for visibility. That’s over two and a half months, and I’m trying to get more conferences and events on my schedule for next year. That wouldn’t be a problem if not for my day job and my family, but here we are.

As well, I am now trying to prioritize work on my sequel, which understandably takes a lot of my creative focus. Very few people can write in multiple different stories at once, and I have proven that I can’t. Since this blog was originally conceived as a place to build interest in my books mixed with supplemental content for anyone interested enough to seek it out, the sequel has to take priority over the blog.

On top of the predictable series of events above, I also learned over the last few months that my day job, which is a necessity for most debut authors for at least a few books, is in danger of getting outsourced. As a result, I’m being forced to build other marketable skills in order to protect my ability to keep writing and covering the costs of self-publishing well. I haven’t been posting here, but trust me, I’ve been working. There’s a few other more minor events, but those on their own might have caused me to miss a week here and there. The two months of silence came from the combination of juggling new obligations with old while trying to train for a new career.

The blog is alive

First and most importantly, In terms of moving forward, I do intend to return to regular posting on this blog. These plans include posting some fiction that will remain available for free and some thoughts on publishing trends, books, or TV/movies as the story-telling elements seem relevant. Due to ongoing changes in my schedule, however, there will be some changes. These are listed below:

  1. Posts will be biweekly going forward. Weekly posts are too much for me to keep up with under my new circumstances. Weekly was hard when I only had a full-time job, a 4 year old, and debut book production to worry about. Add in book promotion, book writing, and career swapping and it’s never going to happen.
  2. Only one post a month will be fiction. I hate to do this, since the fiction posts were part of what I loved about this space, but it’s needed. As I said above, I can’t work on two projects at once, and this was never intended as a space for beta content from upcoming books.
  3. Non-fiction posts are going to start leaning more toward opinions on recent releases in books, movies, or TV, or experiences while working on my second book. Part of that is because it requires less research, but honestly, I do a lot of the research for my own publishing anyway. Mostly, this is about quality. There are a limited number of publishing topics I can provide a unique viewpoint on, and it doesn’t do anyone any good for me to re-hash the same information you can find on seven other web sites with a quick Google search.
  4. I’ll be leaning on discussions with other consumers of the same media more. I always want to approach my discussions with an eye to evaluating how the story-telling works or fails because that’s the element that I have any expertise to examine, but at the end of the day, an evaluation is always an opinion. It’s more valuable to more people if those opinions are contrasted between different people as opposed to just me rambling about my thoughts.


The last thing I want to talk about is an announcement. My book, Wake of the Phoenix, has finished audiobook production and is awaiting final approval. I am extremely excited about this, and I can’t thank my producer, Scott Fleming, enough for his hard work. The final product is exceptional. I was hesitant to begin the audiobook process because of how hit an miss they can be, but this is a product I am very proud of. I’ll be running some promotions over the next month to try and build some interest and visibility for that audiobook and I hope to get some reputation for my narrator, as well. I’ll announce here and elsewhere when the audiobook becomes available. Keep an eye out of that’s an interest of yours!

Reader Perspectives: Prologues

In drafting my recent post on prologue usages, my husband and I got into a discussion about the different executions of this common element of story-telling. We discovered that he and I have had some very different experiences with the same prologues. As a service to other potential authors, and in light of our surprising disagreements, I asked my husband to take a look at some of the storytelling elements from popular novels and give me some feedback. This will be a new series on my blog that investigates reactions to various story-telling elements from a pure reader’s perspective.

For context, my husband will be my initial subject–he is an epic fantasy fan who was very invested in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series as well as the older Dragonlance novels, and as a result the first few of these will be mostly within his genre. Not everyone will agree with these opinions, but hopefully it will give some visibility into an aspect of what works and what doesn’t for some readers.

This week I’m looking at a comparison between the Rage of Dragons prologue and the Game of Thrones prologue.

Rage of Dragons

My husband’s response to the Rage of Dragons prologue genuinely surprised me. I wasn’t completely pulled in by that prologue, but he hated it–and I mean that he hated it to the point where he was intending to do a read through of the entire book to prep for a compare/contrast on his opinions versus mine on the book as a whole and instead he refused to finish the book. His problems boil down to three specific items that broke his interest and left him confused and frustrated.

  1. Multiple POVs. This is a point where I agree. If your prologue is long and complex enough to need four different POVs, then you either have a first chapter or a separate short story (depending on how closely tied the content is to the main plot of the book). My opinion was that the Rage of Dragons prologue is a separate short story, which, while a bit confusing, was… well… fine. My husband was just really annoyed.
  2. Confusing words and/or confusing word usage. This didn’t bother me because I’m pretty accustomed to reading things, not knowing what it means, and waiting to learn later. It infuriated my husband. We had a twenty minute conversation about whether “Ingonyama” is a military rank, a name for people with a specific magic ability, or a name for people who are used in specific magic rituals without having magic themselves. And a similar discussion about “the Chosen”, “the Gifted”, etc. Having read further, I think I know what those words mean…
  3. Naming schemes. This complaint started with the character names. Everyone (or at least everyone portrayed as important in the prologue) had a name that started with a T, even the guy who probably didn’t pronounce the T in his name. This is just a general frustration with fantasy books. Exotic names are great, names which follow naming schemes are great, but if every name starts with the same letter, you’re likely to have readers struggle to keep names straight. After pointing this out to me, though, my husband flipped to the map. I barely even glanced at the map on my read-through, but there it was. Just a big peninsula with a country-border arc on the land side (turning the entire country into a big oval). Mountains in weird places. Names like “the north”, “the south”, “the center”, “the Curse”, “the Northern Mountain Range”, “the Southern Fortress”, “the Central Mountains”, “the Southern Mountain Range”, “the Fist”, “the Roar”, and “Citadel City”. None of these names are inherently bad, but the combination of all of them really broke world-immersion for my husband. Suddenly, instead of feeling like he was reading a book with an overly complex prologue that left him unsure of a lot of world elements, he felt like the complex prologue was trying to make up for lazy world-building. Now, I don’t think Evan Winter is lazy and I think Rage of Dragons is a good book. But it’s worth keeping in mind that a little extra care makes a huge difference to a lot of readers. The inhabitants of the world likely call those various elements something, and it’s pretty rare for an entire culture to name a mountain range “The Northern Mountain Range.” One such name he could have gotten away with. Eight was pushing it way too far.

Game of Thrones

When we compare the Rage of Dragons prologue to the Game of Thrones prologue, there are some interesting differences. The Game of Thrones prologue is both shorter and, in some ways, slower than the Rage of Dragons prologue, but I’d argue it actually does a lot more work for the book and the series. Here’s a few of the elements that worked particularly well in the Game of Throne prologue.

  1. The events of Game of Thrones prologue are directly relevant to events of the first chapter of the book and to the larger world as a whole. This doesn’t mean the characters from the Game of Thrones prologue are relevant. By the end of the first chapter all three of them are dead. But the events of the prologue are the reason for the admittedly quite sedate activity in chapter one of the book. The prologue also gives the reader knowledge about a scenario that most of the characters have little to no direct experience with. As a result, when Jon Snow heads north to join the Night’s Watch, we the reader know that there are some dangers he may face that even the other characters in the book don’t believe in. We haven’t been told about those dangers, we’ve seen them. That gives an extra level of weight and importance to Jon’s commitment and adds tension that the book and series would otherwise be lacking. In contrast, the Rage of Dragons prologue may be relevant to the entire series as a whole, but it isn’t relevant to the immediate opening of the book. It doesn’t give context to every decision and discussion the characters have. That’s not a deal-breaker, but it does mean the Game of Thrones prologue has a little bit less work to do in justifying its place in the book than the Rage of Dragon’s prologue.
  2. Everything in the Game of Thrones prologue is simple, direct, and easy to understand. Three characters are riding through the woods. They are investigating a report of some dead bodies and are actively discussing their theories on that occurrence. There are no secondary plotlines going on in this scene. Nothing for the reader to focus on but the direct information, context, and atmosphere built by the actions and words of these three characters. As a result, it is very unlikely that any reader is going to be confused by the Game of Thrones prologue. They might not be immediately invested in it, but they aren’t going to be wondering what’s going on (at least, not more than the characters themselves are wondering that). This can be a bit of opinion (some people like more complex or more obscure openings), but there’s something to be said for a simple, clear opening that delivers specific information in context without dropping the info-dump bomb on the reader. As well, when we get to the portion of the Game of Thrones prologue which does have combat, the same simple, one-focus style is used. In that context, it suddenly serves to build tension, focus the reader on the specific POV character’s reactions, and keep the events clear and impactful. The larger, ongoing combat the permeates the Rage of Dragons prologue keeps the reader’s attention constantly split. Okay, we’re on a boat talking, but you said there’s a war going on? Wait, now we’re in the war…are we going to hear about the queen? And there’s how many things going on? And which of these characters have I met before? And what am I supposed to know about the context by now?
  3. Which brings me to the third point, and the one I think is probably the most important part of the Game of Thrones prologue. At no point during the events of the prologue does it feel like the characters are actively using information the reader does not have. This is a big, big deal in fantasy prologues and honestly a lot of fantasy writing in general. It’s the main reason why the most common main character in epic fantasy is some form of naïve “everyman” character who is being introduced to a new world for the first time. The Farmboy learning he’s the Chosen One. The modern realm-traveler stuck in a fantasy world. The guild apprentice on their first solo mission. The mundane child admitted to a school of magic. The examples are endless, and primarily it’s because one of the greatest challenges in fantasy writing is getting the right balance between telling the reader what an experienced character knows and not spending pages info-dumping the appropriate backstory. The Game of Thrones prologue is a masterclass in doing exactly this. We have three characters. One is fairly new to a particular organization and somewhat uncertain. Another has some experience and is a bit cocky. The third is a long-time veteran who is always looking for clues as to what is coming next. We never learn the specifics of that organization in the prologue, just that it is called “the Night’s Watch” and that these members are out looking for information. Their job is not to investigate dead bodies, but the veteran thinks they might learn something related to their actual goal by examining the bodies. The characters know plenty of other bits of information about the world, but they aren’t currently thinking about any of those pieces of information, so we don’t get told them. Every action the characters take is a logical reaction to the information we have already been given up to that point. In Rage of Dragons, however, our POV characters mention summoning dragons, being hunted by something called “the Cull”, and a dozen other very specific references that the characters obviously know much more about than the reader does. As a result, those references feel more like coy, author-hidden hints at things that will be cool later. We the reader are immediately distanced from the characters because the characters are hiding information from us when they shouldn’t know we’re there. It’s not the same as the GoT character not explaining the mission of the Night’s Watch, because none of the actions those characters take are direct results of information the reader doesn’t have.
  4. And finally, naming. A lot of complaints around names can come down to preference, and it’s certainly true that people from certain backgrounds will find the character names in Rage of Dragons more complicated and confusing than readers from other backgrounds. But regardless of that, the names in the Game of Thrones prologue are more varied. We don’t have Gerad and Grendo and Gavin, we have Gerad and Ser Waymar Royce and Will. It’s easier to keep track of people when the names aren’t similar. As well, beyond character names, very little is actually named in the prologue. We have the three characters, the organization they are a part of, and the general term “the Others” for the creatures which attack the characters. Anyone familiar with the series knows that “the Others” is not the name for the creatures which attack. It is, however, a simple phrase which readers can quickly identify as referring to something scary that the POV character doesn’t understand. When we are later given an actual name for those creatures, we have enough context from the descriptions and other discussions to know that the name refers to “the Others” from the prologue. None of the other names those characters know have any meaning in this context, and so they don’t come up. In Rage of Dragons we get names for everything from the mysterious inquisition-style enemy that’s hunting the queen’s people to the name of the queen’s old nanny from when she was a toddler. Some of those we know to ignore, but the very inclusion of those meaningless names speaks of an improper scope for the prologue. Especially when you turn the page to chapter one and realize that hundreds of years have passed and the events of the prologue are ancient history to the protagonist. Why did I get the prologue-queen’s nanny’s name, again?

In Summation

I’m comparing Rage of Dragons to Game of Thrones partially because they’re the books my husband picked up, but mostly because they’re both good books. They have a lot of positives and, like all books, they both have some negatives. The interesting element of this comparison, though, is how the craft differed between the opening of each novel. And, to be fair, George R.R. Martin was a well-established author when he released A Game of Thrones while Evan Winter was releasing Rage of Dragons as his debut novel. That might be the entire difference between the books, since they both have obvious potential. However, the next time someone says they don’t like prologues, it’s worth discussing what they dislike about the prologue. If they dislike prologues like the one from Rage of Dragons, I understand. There are a lot of debatable craft choices in that prologue. And I do mean “debatable,” not “obviously bad but I’m trying to be nice.” Preferences vary and some people love that prologue. But in a lot of ways it’s a harder prologue to love than one that focuses on a more directed scope with a more straightforward approach and gives the reader the same information as the characters.

Prologues: A Defense and a Primer

I have long been a supporter of prologues, especially in longer fantasy works. My own debut novel has a prologue that I fought for when I was considering traditional publishing. But the stigma against prologues still runs strong in many communities and is stronger than ever in traditional publishing circles. Let’s take a moment to look at what prologues are good for and discuss proper prologue usage.

What is a prologue?

We all know the obvious answer. It’s that opening chapter of the book that is often confusing or boring and is labeled “prologue” instead of “chapter 1.” But there’s actually a specific purpose for a prologue–or, more accurately, a few specific purposes, each mutually exclusive. So, here’s a quick listing of some good reasons to use a prologue:

  1. Give a first-hand account of a specific event that is central to the primary story line but does not take place in the natural arc of the story. A great example is the Game of Thrones prologue, which kills everyone involved but makes clear to the reader that White Walkers do, in fact, exist.
  2. Tease a particularly cool aspect of the world-building which won’t become obvious to the reader in the opening chapters of the book to build excitement in–and offer context for–the opening.
  3. Offer a POV that is useful for the reader to understand but doesn’t fit in the main narrative. Often termed the “villain POV prologue” because of a trend to use these to explain villain motivations, this is a tool that can be great, but it better be very important or you’ll get a lot of complaints for extraneous information.

I hesitate to say this list covers everything, but if it doesn’t fit any of these three elements, be very cautious about using a prologue for that. As a general rule of thumb, if your reason for including the prologue is anything other than “I think this addition will help my readers get greater enjoyment out of the primary story arc that starts in Chapter 1” then you should cut your prologue.

Is this thing working?

Once you’ve determined that your prologue fits into one of the above reasons for use, you need to make sure your prologue accomplishes what you set out to do. Prologues are a much finer art than many realize. Here’s some common mistakes and ways to correct them.

First, did you spend your prologue dropping a bunch of world-specific terminology without much explanation? You probably have a problem. If readers are on page one or two of your book and don’t understand what you’re saying because of world-specific words, you’re going to lose a bunch of readers. And I completely understand that the prologue is not the place to explain those words. Please, for the love of all decent writing, do not edit your prologue to have a definition after every world-specific word. Instead, find ways to make clear through context what the words mean. My husband uses the Rage of Dragons prologue as an example here (and not a good example). See below for his full opinions on that prologue. The important part of this point is, it doesn’t matter if the word has a typical meaning that you’re leaning on. Evan Winter uses “the Chosen” and “the Gifted” as world-specific words, which can easily be assumed to mean something we understand. But it’s clear that the usage isn’t the general sense, and as a result, the lack of clarification can be confusing. If possible, don’t use words which have world-specific meanings in your prologue, or if you must, make clear through the immediate context what the word means.

Now let’s talk about how long your prologue is. Is it more than 3 or 4 pages in the printed book? This is typically about 1500 words on the high end, and shorter is almost always better. If your prologue is longer than this, you’re probably not focusing on the correct elements, or you’re explaining too much context, or maybe even mixing goals. Chapters can have multiple reasons for existing. Prologues must be lean, precise, and clearly understandable. Evaluating a prologue that is too long can be a challenge, so get some beta reader feedback to determine how to cut it down.

Prologues are typically designed to hint at information that will be important later in the book, but this often leads to an additional problem. Does your prologue go out of its way to avoid explaining what’s going on in that specific moment, and/or intentionally end without resolving the scene in an attempt to be mysterious? Stop that. You’re trying too hard and I guarantee it will fall flat for a lot of readers. If you’re writing from a POV you don’t want to go into too deeply for fear of breaking a later reveal, change the POV. Nothing frustrates a reader more than feeling like the author is intentionally hiding things from them. We are, but they shouldn’t feel it.

Finally, what’s the effect on the book if you remove the prologue entirely? Does the story remain completely unchanged by dropping the prologue, including context and reader engagement? If so, cut that thing. It might be the coolest scene in your mind, but if it doesn’t enhance the story, the reader doesn’t care. Conversely, does your book fail to make any sense or feel like it’s missing major story elements if you pull the prologue? Well, turns out, you don’t have a prologue at all. What you actually have is a first chapter and you need to connect it more directly to the main story. If the events are too removed to fit in the story arc there, find ways to drop the information throughout the narrative (or, if it fits your book, through the dreaded flashback) instead of in a prologue. Or maybe consider if your story starts in the right place.

Why even try?

As disliked as prologues are in the modern publishing world, you may be wondering if it’s even worth trying to write one. Some agents will reject on the prologue alone and those that don’t are extremely critical of prologues. Maybe even more critical of prologues than of first pages.

Absolutely you should write one.

Despite everything I’ve said about the dangers and pitfalls of prologues, I would never tell you not to write one if you think it fits your story. Prologues serve a very specific set of uses and are often misunderstood and misapplied. But in those instances where they are done right, they are absolutely critical to the story. I’m going to use my own work as an example here.

I went back and forth on a prologue several times and had several different drafts of my potential prologues. I queried initially without a prologue. Rewrote to improve flow and queried with a prologue, but got some backlash over my prologue. Pulled the prologue and got significant reader feedback that my opening was too abrupt. I finally settled on the prologue I have because it fits my rule above. The story was complete without it, but my prologue gave readers a chance to explore the political landscape and underlying tensions between a handful of important side characters. It was a short, direct scene that addressed the setup of the story without giving you a full history of the world, or even the recent war. This is the sort of prologue that supports the main narrative without frustrating the reader with world-building details or being so removed that the reader only understands the context several books later.

The same can be said for the Harry Potter prologue (you don’t have to like the books or the author, but the prologue does it’s job: telling you that Harry is important); the Game of Thrones prologue (you, the reader, have knowledge that the characters only learn later, so you feel more tension when Eddard Stark says that White Walkers are myths); the Red Sister prologue (you know from page one that “a nun” has a very different training than in our modern world and that becoming a nun must be dangerous); and many others.

A final, cautionary comment

Many epic/high fantasy authors and epic science fiction authors make a very specific faux pas that is often credited as the reason prologues have a bad name. They use the prologue to info-dump setting or history. I’ve even seen numerous advice web sites describe this as a potential use of a prologue.

Do Not Do This!

Unless you are well-established author with a loyal following of dedicated readers, you will, not get away with this. An agent who sees this in a debut author’s submission will auto-reject (if they even look at a submission with a prologue at all). A reader who picks up your book without knowing you as an author will look at this and skip it–or they might just put the book down. Either way, that prologue isn’t helping and might be hurting. Feel free to add an appendix discussing these things if you think some readers might be interested. Some people will be. But placing it in a prologue has a very, very high likelihood of harming the marketability of your book.

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:

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….

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.

The Best Pitch

Every writer who considers traditional publishing at some point stops to wonder how to pitch their novel to an agent or editor. It’s one of the most commonly asked questions in all writing communities I’ve been a part of, and it is the one workshop you can guarantee will be available at least once at just about every writing conference. I’m going to use this space to collect the most useful advice that was shared at the conference I recently attended. I personally have pitched several times and have spent a lot of time talking to various editors and agents, so feel free to drop any questions below and I’ll answer them as best I can.

A quick note before I get started: Many people think they want to pitch to an editor instead of an agent or question why they might want an agent at all. The short answer is that many larger traditional publishers will require you to have an agent in order to work with them, and even if the publisher doesn’t the agent has a lot of industry knowledge to help you when you are new to the process. So, here’s the tips I collected from Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference 2021 on pitching and querying.

The Do’s

  • Do your research. Every agent and editor from every company says this same thing, so I’m going to wrap all their opinions into this one point. If you don’t know the name of the person you are querying, find out. If you don’t know what types of books that person represents, find out. If they don’t represent your type of book, find a different person (sending to them is just wasting their time and yours). If you don’t know the submission guidelines for the place you’re submitting, find out and then follow them. Do not send a query which does not follow submission guidelines. It will just end up in the trash.
  • Have a one-line pitch prepared. The more clearly you can present the essence of your story, the more effective your pitch or query will be. This can be in a number of different formats. One of the popular ones is the “[Story A] meets [Story B] but with [twist]” format. These work great if they fit. For my upcoming debut novel, that pitch might be “A Game of Thrones meets The Way of Shadows but with hope.” I don’t love that one (for a number of reasons), but I’m told that it fits so I’m stuck with it. Other formats include a sentence of the style “Character + 2-3 word status quo + 5-6 word conflict” and “Short character description + stakes claim + twist.” Getting these right can be difficult (and is a better subject for an entirely different post), but it’s important to have one that captures the essence of your story. Just remember, they are short.
  • Start your query letter with something eye catching. This is not an invitation to start with “Naked women dance on the moon! Got your attention? Now, about my historical romance novel….” The one-line pitch discussed in the previous point is perfect for this if placed near the top of a query letter. This is a reasonably common way to start a query letter, because the one-liner typically gives a character, a goal, a conflict, and often some form of twist. It also grabs the agent’s attention and gives them something to be interested in while reading the query.
  • Be prepared to talk about your book. The worst situation you will ever find yourself in is to have someone ask “Hey, what’s your book about?” and to realize you can’t explain it in less than three paragraphs. What that person wants is “Oh, I’m writing an epic fantasy with heavy political intrigue about a nobleman trying to keep the peace when his homeland thinks he’s a traitor.” They do not want “Okay, so first I have this guy, he’s kind of complicated because he has magic but everyone thinks that magic isn’t real and he can’t just show them because it’s subtle, but then there’s also this girl, and she’s a thief but she really wanted to be an artist…” You’ve already lost your audience, even if they’d love your book.
  • Expect rejections. Even with the best written story and the best written query, you will pitch to some people who aren’t the right fit for your book. If you’ve narrowed your query pool properly, this means one of two things. If you have a few rejections, you just need to keep trying. If you have a lot of rejections, it might be time to switch up your query letter or take another look at your sample pages.
  • Find as many ways to get direct contact with the person you intend to query as possible—without being creepy. It is a truth that face-to-face pitches have a much higher success rate than cold queries (even virtual ones). Primarily this is because the person you are pitching is already out looking for a new project to take on, but ti also helps that you’re sitting right there. So, if you pitch a book poorly, they may well ask for more information that lets you salvage the pitch. I’ve told the story a couple of times on here about when I pitched to an editor at Del Rey and she said “That’s great, everyone loves elves and dragons, but why do I care about yours?” If I’d had a great comeback that explained what was unique about my book, that would have been a request for pages. But not everyone can afford a conference. So find authors who might be able to give you an in. Jonathan Maberry spent a lot of the pandemic holding monthly educational zoom events with Eric Smith, who is a great agent. Other people may have similar options. And cold queries still account for more than 75% of all new clients that agents accept, so don’t give up. But the more personal you can manage (without finding their home address and taking pictures through their windows), the better off you are.
  • Remember that agents and editors are people. This means a few things. One, it means that if you’re excited about something, they might be too. They’re just people! They have interests just like you and I do. If you get a chance, chat with them. Two, it means they have lives beyond their jobs. You occasionally read a book or go out to eat with a friend (or used to), right? They might want to watch a movie instead of responding to your query right then. They’re only people! Give them a break. Three, it means they might just have a bad (or good) day. If you get a full request and then a couple days later a form rejection, maybe the agent took a look at the full and went “Oh, wow, I guess was feeling lenient that day…” Or maybe the agent took a look at the manuscript and said “Crap, I literally just signed another book like this and I can’t have two at once.” Some days we all look at something and hate it even if it’s fine because we’re just having that kind of day. Don’t take it too personally.

The Do Not’s

  • Be unprofessional. Everyone’s definition of professionalism will vary a bit, but here’s some pointers if you’re unsure. It is unprofessional to start your query, in-person pitch, or other contact with “Hey buddy!” or “I know you aren’t going to accept this because agents are always too picky, but…” or “So this is a book that is just amazing. It’s completely groundbreaking in how well it depicts the lives of…” The first is way too casual, the second is insulting, and the third is building yourself up too much. You want to sound like a businessperson with some personality, not like a surfer-stereotype trying to sell a get rich quick scheme or a self-aggrandizing jerk.
  • Send a physical query letter. There’s a little bit of remaining debate on this one, but 90% or more of agencies and publishing houses don’t accept physical queries at all, anymore. A growing number don’t even accept personal e-mails and instead require you to fill out a form. For non-fiction this may be a slightly more controversial topic (I’ve heard some non-fiction agents still prefer physical query letters), but I live by Jonathan Maberry’s opinion on this one: If the publishing house is so behind the times as to use physical query letters, they’re also behind the times on marketing you and your book. You’ll get better representation from someone who knows how to navigate social media and internet marketing. Especially if you’re someone for whom that is difficult.
  • Respond to a form letter. Typically this recommendation comes from horror stories of agents who send a rejection and then get a nasty email back accusing the agent of everything from lying about the quality of the book to being afraid to publish such genius to wanting to steal the idea. People who send those nasty emails are idiots, and I probably can’t help them. For the rest of us, also don’t reply to the form letter, even if just to send a “thank you for considering my book” note. I’ve done this and it’s not a black-list move or anything, but all it does it take my time and clutter the agent’s inbox.
  • Be creepy. I joked about this in my direct contact point above, but seriously, some people need to learn boundaries. An agent is a professional that you are considering hiring. If you know more about their personal life than their neighbor, you are probably being creepy. Anything they post on social media is fair game, anything in a bio or interview is fair game, and anything they say during a work-related video or workshop is fair game. Beyond that, if you overhear it, pretend you didn’t.

Things to Remember

A couple quick points that I want to address because they are often overlooked when talking about querying. You query your book—or pitch in person—because you want to get accepted by a particular agency or publishing house. But too often we act like them accepting us means we have to do what they say.

You don’t.

An agent is a person that you hire to represent your work. The only reason you’re submitting to them as opposed to picking the right service provider out of a directory is because they work exclusively on commission, and as a result they have to be selective about which projects they take on. Similarly, a publishing house is a business to who you are selling your book in return for them giving you a cut of the money they make off it. They can do literally anything with that book once they buy it (within the terms of their contract). There have even been reports (though unconfirmed and long ago now) of times when publishers purchased books that were too similar to an existing franchise they owned simply to prevent it from becoming big.

I have said before and will say again: I have nothing again traditional publishing. It is the right path for many people. But there are only two real differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing: Who gets to make final decisions and who’s footing the bill for releasing the book.

The point of all that, though, is to emphasize this important point: At some point, if you get good at querying, someone will reject your book and say “I really like this concept, but I’m not sure about X. If you ever do a rewrite that changes that, I’d love to take another look.” If that change fits your vision, then change it and resubmit. If it doesn’t, move on. That agent may be an exceptional agent in general, but they aren’t the one you want to hire for that project.

To Wrap All This Up

Pitching a novel is a complex, frustrating, time consuming process, but it’s a puzzle that can be solved with enough research and, yes, luck. I may sound like a terrible source for this information, given that I’ve decided to go self-publishing, but I wasn’t always on that path. I did all this research, I queried hundreds of agents, I talked to dozens of agents, editors, and writers at conferences about this topic. And only after I started getting good at it did I decide this wasn’t the right path for me. I didn’t choose self-publishing because I couldn’t make this work, and neither should you. In fact, I credit much of the quality of my debut novel and confidence I have in my writing to having gone through this process. My best advice, from my personal experience.

Query agents. If at all possible, find a way to directly pitch one. Once you start getting positive responses from that process, then decide if you want to self-publish.


All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

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Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

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To Writer’s Con or Not To Writer’s Con

Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference, Colorado Springs, CO

Every year I try to attend at least one writer’s conference, just to keep in touch with current trends, to meet published and aspiring writers, and to learn new tidbits of information to share with my network. As a result, several of my next few publishing posts will be about things I learned from workshops or collected into a list of tips from this year’s conference. This year—and most years, to be honest—the writer’s conference I attended was Pikes Peak Writers Conference. It’s typically held in Colorado Springs, Colorado, but it was virtual this year for understandable reasons.

Pikes Peak has a great reputation as one of the nicest conferences in the U.S. and they work hard to maintain that status with everything from carefully vetted speakers to an entire class at the beginning of each conference to help newer attendees get their bearings. This means two things about this conference. First, it’s a great place to get started if you’re new to writer’s conferences and not sure how to jump in. Second, it’s not going to have as much advanced material as some of the other conferences around, and as a result some people have found it’s usefulness dwindling as they gain experience in the world of writing and publishing. The real question is this: Is this conference, or any conference, worth your time and money?

Difference Between a Writer’s Conference and a Convention

First, let’s define something. There are two types of in-person (or occasionally virtual) events where you can potentially meet other writers and attend classes that will teach you some things about writing. One is a writer’s conference, typically characterized by exclusively offering educational meetings and sometimes network sessions. Conferences are typically quite expensive, ranging in most cases from $200 to $900 or more, but they have a lot of very important benefits that I’ll list below.

The other type of event where you might meet writers and attend classes is a convention. Many fan-based conventions like Comicon, Gencon, or PopCultureCon (for places where Comicon sued and made the organizer change the name) have workshops for aspiring writers. These are often taught by famous authors, at least in the case of the big name conventions, and are often very, very generalized in content. It’s not that you can’t get great information there. That’s just not the point of the event. The best use of one of these conventions is actually after you’re published, when you can spend some of your time marketing your book to the other attendees, who may be interested in trying a new author out who shows interest in the games, TV shows, or other activities they’re already interested in.

On the bright side, most conventions that offer writing workshops are actually a lot cheaper than many writer’s conferences. Gencon, for example, is one of the biggest gaming conventions in the U.S. and is where I attended several of my earliest writing workshops for the entrance fee of about $100. I learned things from those workshops, but I also spent a decent amount of the time writing in my notebooks instead of listening because the speaker was going over something I already knew.

I never spend time at a genuine writer’s conference writing unless it’s late at night in my hotel room after everyone is asleep. There’s too much else to learn.

Benefits of a Writer’s Conference

Now that we know what a writer’s conference is (and how it differs from the conventions some of us have already been attending), let’s evaluate the benefits. There are a lot of great reasons to attend a writer’s conference. For starters, many of them allow you to schedule a session to pitch your project directly to an agent or editor looking for new clients. This is an opportunity you can’t get elsewhere, but it’s also not the only benefit of a conference. Here’s a list of some great benefits you can get from attending a writer’s conference:

  1. Much higher request rates on one-on-one pitching. This feels a bit like my original comment, but it’s important to understand why this is true. It’s not that a conference is some magical place that puts all agents and editors into the mind-frame to accept manuscripts (although the best ones do feel magical sometimes). What’s actually going on is that the agents and editors who attend conferences are specifically there to find new projects and new clients. That’s why they go. You attend conferences to learn about writing or publishing and to network with other writers. Agents and editors go to conferences to network with other agents and editors for their future publishing deals and to find new clients. As a result, if you walk into a pitch session with a decent pitch and a well-written story, there’s a very high chance you’ll get a request for at least a partial manuscript. You’re one person out of maybe 25-30, and they want to look at multiple people from that list. If you send a decent query letter for a well-written story to an agent’s e-mail, you’re one person in probably a hundred queries they got that day, and they can’t possibly request pages from even one person every day without overloading themselves. It’s just less competition at a conference.
  2. Networking with other writers. Never underestimate the value of having writer friends. They aren’t just people to talk to when you feel bad about your writing or swap critiques with. Brandon Sanderson tells a story in his class at BYU about his first publishing contract. How did it happen? A writer he knew from his old writing class introduced him to an editor at a writer’s conference. I got my first partial request from an editor at a writer’s conference, and at that same conference I can’t even remember how many people I bragged to about my close friend who had a book coming out that year. How many sales did I get her? I don’t know, but it wasn’t zero. And if you decide to self-publish, no one knows more about finding a good editor and cover artist than another self-published author. Writer friends will open doors you didn’t even know existed. This is the single most important part of a writer’s conference.
  3. Learning to be a professional, and to be seen as a professional. This is a hard one, because no one can teach this to you. You just learn it via osmosis from being at a conference and watching people. You’ll sit on a bench and watch an author walk up to an agent and say “Hey, sorry to bother you, but I noticed you said in the last workshop that you were particularly interested in ghost story fantasy novels. I’m so curious about that concept. What specific things about ghost stories interest you?” And next thing you know they’re talking about things and the writer is naturally leading into mentioning that they have a ghost story fantasy, actually, and maybe the agent would like to take a look. And you, the innocent bystander, think how did they do that? The short answer? They researched the agent ahead of time, went to that agent’s workshops, prepared questions related to the agent’s work, and paid attention to what the agent said. And yes, I know that answer isn’t short. Neither is the process of preparing to pitch an agent. But watching that author and talking to authors who know how to do that will teach you what professional image you want and how to create it. Do you want to be a conference presenter? Great! Research a topic and become enough of an expert to justify them giving you a workshop. Do you want to just be a moderator? Conferences always need moderators, and it gives you the chance to schmooze with the agents and editors, which is a different kind of professional look. Pick what you want to be and use the conference to help build it.
  4. Some small amount of feedback on writing. It is relatively common for writer’s conferences to have a type of session that is a genuine writing workshop. In these, attendees submit some writing before the session and a panel of publishing professionals (or sometimes just one professional) gives some feedback on the writing. This isn’t your entire book—often it’s only the first 16 lines or sometimes the first couple pages—but just hearing how a professional views the writing can be of immense help.
  5. Some useful information. There is some great information in the workshops at writer’s conferences. Experienced authors talking about their process, and the complications they always face every time they try something new even in a genre they’re comfortable in. Experts giving lectures on the career they worked in for decades that you can apply to your project. Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference has had a coroner and infectious disease expert give a talk about the process and stages and ways of dying. At another conference they had an FBI profiler give a talk about how that profession actually works. Spoilers—Criminal Minds isn’t realistic. It’s all great information. And it’s also pretty much all on YouTube. Don’t get me wrong. There are some topics it’s better to sit in a lecture with a professional and study, but for the most part conferences don’t tell you anything you can’t eventually find somewhere else for free. Often on Brandon Sanderson’s YouTube channel. As a quick aside, I recommend Sanderson above other authortubers primarily because established authors are, in the vast majority of cases, better at telling other writers how to apply processes without criticizing different styles. Sanderson is a heavy outliner who has massive respect for discovery writers. Most heavy outliners on YouTube will tell you discovery writing is less effective, only for inexperienced writers, or simply not viable at all. Sanderson may tell you about his process, but he’ll never tell you his process is inherently better than yours.

Writer’s Conference Disadvantages

As much as I love writer’s conferences, they aren’t all sunshine and roses and for some people it’s a terrible idea to attend them. The first reason why is not going to surprise anyone. They are expensive. I said above that conferences can cost between $200 and $900 or more. That’s slightly inaccurate. I have researched a number of conferences all over the United States and I ahve only found one conference that is regularly less than $400. It’s a conference in Reno, Nevada that lasts a day and a half, costs about $150 just to get in, and an extra $25-$50 per appointment if you want to pitch any editors or agents or get any feedback on your writing. So, at the Reno conference I could pay $150 entrance fee, $50 to pitch one agent, another $50 to get some feedback on my first page, and only spend a day and a half at the entire event for that $250. At Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference I get all of Friday, all of Saturday, and typically 2/3 of Sunday filled with classes and networking, plus I can pitch as many agents or editor’s as appointments the conference has to spare and get feedback on my writing all in the base price of $450-ish. If I can afford the latter, it’s just a better deal. But even Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference is a relatively cheap conference. The San Francisco conference is regularly around $900, the couple in Utah are around $600 last I checked. Writer’s services are good business.

Money isn’t the only disadvantage, either. Some people have social anxiety. Imagine being someone who struggles with large crowds and doesn’t read social cues well spending three days at a conference hotel packed with strangers all trying to walk up to random people and make friends. Some people know most of the information from the workshops and already have an agent. That knocks out three and a half of my points above, because that person has an agent if they need feedback on their writing, they already know writers, they already know the information, and they’ve clearly made some good progress on the professionalism front. Maybe they could pitch to an editor they’re hoping to snag for a future project, but they don’t need to. They have an agent for that.

And the last disadvantage is one I can’t stress enough. If you aren’t experienced enough in writing, then a conference is just wasting your money. If you’re thinking about writing a book, then start writing and do some YouTube research before you go to conference. If you have a critique group that’s telling you all your work is really heavy on telling and not feeling unique, don’t go pitch that novel to an editor at Del Rey who’ll have to look at you and ask “Okay, but why do I care?” I definitely did that, and while I learned a lot at that conference, I also wasted the money I spent going there. I didn’t know how to use the conference right.

This is my point. Conference is a tool and you have to be able to use it properly in order for it to do you any good. Don’t pull out your power saw before you know what you’re building.


All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

Choose an amount


Or enter a custom amount


Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

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For some original fiction, check out these posts:
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Character Brainstorming Tricks

Ever get stuck trying to flesh a character out and decide to use writing prompts to get some context? Prompts are a great way to flesh out bits of a character you don’t always think about. But if you’re like me, you write fantasy, and basically all writing prompts and character exercises are about contemporary worlds. Here’s a few designed to help you build more rounded characters in fantasy worlds. Several of these can be used in contemporary worlds, as well, with minor tweaking.

1. Your character is standing at the edge of a battlefield.

What do they feel? Why are they there? What do they do when confronted with the sight? Write two paragraphs explaining their emotional reactions, their goals, and their actions, including at least some explanation of why this battlefield matters to them (i.e., maybe it’s an old battle where a family member died, or a recent battle they fought in, or a recent battle they didn’t fight in but are now stealing from the dead bodies of).

2. Your character comes face to face with a creature they thought was a myth.

How do they react to this strange creature? Do they call it by the mythical name, or assume their myth is false and try to investigate? Do they run, think they’re dreaming, or try to reassess their world view? Write two paragraphs explaining their experience, and in the process, give some sense of what the creature is they have come across.

3. Have your character describe something they have always wanted but never been able to have.

This can be something they can’t afford, something they have only ever heard of from travelers, something in myths and tales, or a social connection they don’t have (i.e., lover, lost parents, sibling). Make sure they don’t use descriptions they wouldn’t know (a farmer in a humid climate with low technology would have no idea what a forest fire is) and try to capture their worldview in the description.

4. Your character is hungry.

How do they get food? Do they have food on hand, and what type of food do they get? Do they have to ask someone to get them food? Do they have to go work in order to afford food? Make sure that your description includes their opinion of their status in regards to others around them, as well as how commonly they perform the steps you describe.

5. Write a conversation between your character and someone with a different world view.

The conversation can be about anything that is not their world view differences (i.e., their children, the weather, the looming prospect of war). Try to illustrate the differences in world view without directly stating them.

6. Your character has a meeting that is finally going to get them something they have always wanted or needed, but a family member gets into trouble and needs help at the same time.

Does your character go to their meeting, or help their family? Who is their family member, and how does your character feel about them in general? Write at least two paragraphs describing the decision and your character’s reactions to it.

7. Your character is visiting a new location.

Describe how they evaluate the visit. Do they notice architecture or social differences? Signs of wealth or opportunities for exploration? Write a short scene in which the only action is the character walking through this new location. Use their reactions and observations to reveal what about the location interests them.

8. What myths, legends, religions, or traditions does your character believe in?

Write at least two paragraphs outlining their views on myths, religions, and other traditions, spiritual or otherwise.

9. Your character’s closest friend or family member moves away, or, alternatively, they move away from their closest friends and family.

What does your character attempt to do on their first day without their usual support group? Write a short scene in which your character goes through their day without the people they usually rely on. Make sure they face at least one challenge they would usually go to their friends or family for help with and decide how they resolve the situation now that they don’t have that support.

10. Your character encounters someone less fortunate than they are.

Do they attempt to help the person, or leave them alone? If they try to help, in what way do they help? Write a short scene in which your character talks to someone who has suffered worse than your character and describe how your characters feels, what they do, and how they view their interaction with this person.