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Sometimes Writing That Book Was A Waste Of Time

20 Jun

Before you freak at the title, please know that the point of blogging titles is to get you here, and now you’re here, so voilà. 

That said, I really do believe writing a book can be a waste of time. Why is that such a controversial thing to say? 

I know that the publishing industry loves the sentiment of “every book teaches us something new about our writing!” And though that may be true, that doesn’t mean the time and effort we put into the project was equivalent to the lesson learned. It might not have been worth your time. There are, in fact, other projects you could’ve been pursuing with that time that might have had better results. 

Saying that shouldn’t be controversial. 

I’ve personally felt like I’ve wasted time on a project before (and recently). From late 2020 to late 2021, I worked on a science fiction novel for adults that just wasn’t working. I rewrote it three times with my agent at the time, before deciding enough was enough. I put it down. I haven’t opened it since, and I don’t miss it at all. I don’t even want to think about it. 

Sure, there were parts of it I loved. I mean, it was monsters in space. Who couldn’t have fun with that? The world building was interesting. My main character had dynamic qualities. But the manuscript lacked focus. Besides the fun pitch, I couldn’t really tell you what I was trying to do or why I was trying to do it. Maybe I can’t now because I’ve done my best to forget the experience so that I could move on. (Leaving projects unfinished once I’ve decided to pursue them is hard for me! It wasn’t easy to trunk it.) However, I also believe it was a project that lacked focus at its core. In fact, I started writing it as a rage piece. It was just supposed to be a place I went when I was angry to get out my frustrations. I never intended to pursue it. At some point, though, I convinced myself I should and, honestly, I really regret it. I not only regret the time I spent, but I feel guilty for all the beta readers who I brought on to try to help me with the work, including my agent at the time. I feel like I failed them and myself. Not because I eventually said no, but because I didn’t do so sooner. 

Instead of spending the year writing a piece that ultimately fizzled out, I wish I had spent my time cultivating a new project. I could’ve written my novel-in-verse earlier on, or I could’ve already finished the revision of my historical fantasy (which is what I’m working on now). I’ve since written an adult fantasy and started a YA novel-in-verse, as well as a YA horror story I absolutely love. All of these projects are going 1000% more smoothly than my sci-fi ever did.

That said, there were some lessons (I think) I learned:

  • Three POVs is too much for me right now. I love writing two POVs. Both of my published series are written in alternating POVs with the love interests. It’s my jam. That said, I’ve written numerous novels with one POV. Two aren’t always necessary. Three just got out of control. 
  • Too many plot twists is too many plot twists. Enough said.
  • Same with betrayals/switches in alliances. I had wayyyy too many of them. 
  • Blending sci-fi and fantasy tropes can be awesome, but it can also be really hard! I should’ve been better about owning which genre my book would sit best in and leaning into those elements more. 

I acknowledge I learned a few things. But I think I learned these lessons early on in the process. I could’ve stopped a few months in, instead of dragging the book out for a whole year. Maybe I had a harder time discerning lessons earlier on since we were in the midst of a pandemic. But I’m much happier now that I’ve moved on and tackled other projects. Still, I keep regretting all the time/energy/stress I put into that sci-fi (and I’m a little paranoid I’ll do it again). I keep checking in with myself and where I’m at with my current projects. I keep questioning my intensions and my chances of success. If anything, I recognize that I lost some of my confidence writing that book, yet another reason for regret.

Right now, I feel like I wasted a lot of time and energy writing that book. Granted, that doesn’t mean my opinion won’t change one day, but I’ve felt this way for half a year now. 

But, Shannon, you might say, don’t you learn something from every book you write?

Yeah, I learned not to waste my time. 

~SAT

P.S. Usually, I post on the first and third Monday of the month, but since the first Monday next month is July 4, I will share my next post on Monday, July 11. Enjoy the holiday and be safe!

Writing (And Working) While Pregnant: First Trimester 

6 Jun

You may or may not have seen my social media recently, but for those of you who didn’t, well, I have some news to share. 

I’m pregnant!

I’m currently 24 weeks, but I wrote most of this blog post during the first trimester when I wasn’t yet comfortable sharing my status. (I still wanted to blog about it, though!) I figure I can do a three-part series, one post for every trimester, and will inevitably post about being a working-writing mom in the future, too. 

Oh, cue the baby anxiety (and excitement). 

This is my first pregnancy, so everything is very new to me. The first side effect that affected my writing was the brain fog. I had absolutely no clue that it starts so early. I had brain fog before I even knew I was pregnant. (I suppose I should’ve side-eyed that lazy Saturday more suspiciously.) Strangely, though, it came with some perks. 

First trimester pregnancy brain fog brought me a lot of peace. My usually high-strung, ever-plotting/dreaming brain became a rolling tide of sleep, lazy days on the couch, and playing with my cats. Where I’d usually feel bad for laying around all Saturday afternoon, I quite enjoyed it. I slept better than ever before, too, which was weird. And holy dreams. So many vivid dreams. I’ve always used my dreams as inspiration for my books, but that’s because my dreams are typically mind-blowing adventures. Pregnancy dreams? Not so much. They happen in abundance and are completely nonsensical. So, I guess it’s a no on inspiration. 

No writing or inspiration? Surely I can use that energy for something else. 

Oh, wait. The fatigue. 

I was lucky enough to avoid morning sickness until week 9, which was nice. But I still didn’t have much energy for anything other than work and taking care of my cats. 

I have literally never had an issue creating like I did in my first trimester. The brain fog was unreal. No matter how often I sat at my desk or how long I stared at my computer, I just sort of zoned out. I tried everything: creating something new, working on an old favorite, revising one of my novels that’s 90% the way there. But I just couldn’t.

Getting through work was enough of an accomplishment to be honest. 

All that being said, I work full time. Working full time while pregnant is a lot, let alone using up any additional time to create. I’m not pushing myself super hard.

I also heard that a lot of the energy comes back in the second trimester, so we’ll see how that goes in that blog post. 😉 

I’m definitely having some anxiety about how writing will fit into my working-mom life, but hey, many people have done it before, and I have no doubt I’ll keep pursuing the dream as much as I can. 

I won’t lie, though. I’m already looking at my WIPs differently. Which ones can I finish before the baby is due? Which ones will require less energy/research/strain?

I decided to stick with my haunted YA instead of my adult fantasy or historical fantasy. 

I started my writing career by writing paranormal romance. It’s always been my happy place. Why not stay there for the time being? 

My kid is due in late Sept-early October, so it’ll be spooky season all around. 

~SAT

P.S. I have two upcoming events!

On Thursday, June 9, I’ll be teaching How to Write a Series at the Midwest Romance Writers meetup in Lenexa, Kansas. If you’re interested in attending, contact them here.

On Monday, June 13, I am teaching Starting a Writing Project via ZOOM for The Story Center at Mid-Continent Public Library. This program is free, virtual, and open to anyone in the world. Dive deep into creative inspiration, and learn tricks to prevent writer’s block. Then discover tools to help you set realistic goals and stay on track. Come prepared to put pen to paper. More information and registration here.

Every Detail in Science Fiction and Fantasy Doesn’t Need to Make Sense

4 Apr

This is probably an unpopular opinion–and perhaps a less-than-stellar writing tip–but every detail in science fiction and fantasy doesn’t need to make sense. I’m talking about characters, world building, traditions, landscapes, magic systems, etc. Granted, of course most of your story needs to. Like 95% of it and certainly the most essential parts. But every little detail doesn’t require an origin story or explanation. 

I’ve been writing science fiction and fantasy (SFF) for over a decade now and reading it for much longer. Over the years, I’ve noticed a trend in word counts escalating, and while I love large books as much as the next SFF reader, it’s often unnecessary. 

You can have a fantastic, vibrant magical world without dedicating 700 pages to it. 

The way I write SFF might be a little different than others, but I tend to focus on my point of view (POV) character and plot before I flesh out my world. I mean, of course I know the basics of my magic system, but I don’t get into the nitty gritty until I know exactly what’s needed for the actual story to take place. In fact, I tend to write my first draft without much of my world figured out, not only to see what literally happens but also to get to know my POV character. It’s important to understand what your POV character would truly know. Yes, even about their own culture or circumstances. 

Look at your own world. 

Do you know why daylight savings started off the top of your head? Where wedding traditions stemmed from? How the border of your state or country was decided? What about why your neighbor is rude one day and sweet the next? 

No one knows everything, even if they love random fact-checking. 

Your science fiction or fantasy novel needs to make sense just enough for the story to suspend disbelief. Yes, some readers’ standards are going to be higher than others. But you’re not writing to satisfy every reader out there. You are writing the best story that you can. Sometimes that means cutting back and focusing on the elements that are most important. In fact, I’d love to see more SFF that is as quick and light as a cozy mystery. I want to flip through a SFF book in one afternoon and be blown away. And I know it’s possible. 

Look at The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells or Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor (both published by TOR.) 

We need shorter, quicker SFF. Not only for fun, but for accessibility, too. Not everyone can undertake a 700-page novel. Not everyone wants to. 

Allowing space for shorter, quicker SFF stories may also allow publishers to take more risks on genre mash-ups. Bigger books are more costly to print and shelve. With shorter books, we could experiment and see if readers would love that quiet fantasy that takes place in a fairy’s coffee shop. That coming-of-age story about a tech geek that invents a pet robot and then loses it. A fun rom-com in space. Graphic novels are already doing this. Check out Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and The Tea Dragon Society by Kay O’Neill. I desperately want more novels like these. 

Science fiction and fantasy doesn’t have to be dark. (Perhaps another post for another day.) It doesn’t have to be 700 pages either. Readers deserve variety in tone, length, and more. In order to achieve this, we need to remove the pressure of explaining every little detail in our stories. Readers and authors alike need to be open-minded to exploring novels with lighter structures. If we do that, I think we’ll see new genres emerge. 

The possibilities are truly endless. 

~SAT 

Shannon’s Top Three Tips for Writing Romance

7 Feb

It’s February, so romance is in the publishing air. Whether or not you write romance novels or have romantic subplots in your work, almost every writer has had to think through a couple’s relationship in their work. 

Here are my top three tips for writing romance.

1. Read Romance: As Stephen King famously said, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the tools to write. Simple as that.” Reading romance novels, or novels that have romantic subplots, will help you learn the beats of a romantic plotline. (You should also check out Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels by Gwen Hayes. It’s a nonfiction craft book dedicated to understanding romance beats.) My favorite go-to romance books are Harlequin. Why? Though the various imprints have particular expectations, every book is focused on romance, and it’s so easy to spot tropes from the cover, title, and synopsis. They tend to run very short, too, so you can read a bunch very quickly. Even with a shorter word count, you’ll be amazed how tight these plots are. These authors will really inspire you to find ways to cut to the chase. Keep in mind that the romance books you read don’t necessarily have to be in the same genre that you’re writing in. I primarily write fantasy and, while I definitely read enough fantasy to study those romantic subplots, I’ve found contemporary romance books have actually helped me understand writing romance more. Probably because there is less distraction (world building, war, magic, etc.) Basically, make sure you’re reading romance in your genre, but don’t be afraid to branch out either. 

2. Requited love is nice, but it doesn’t make much of a ballad. Cassandra Clare’s character Will said that when referring to why characters are put through so much hardship in stories, and I’ve never heard such a true sentiment. Listen, you’re writing a story. Stories require tension and excitement. A what if. In romance, that what if is will they get together? You have to string that question out in some way. If your characters famously get along, your reader will wonder why they aren’t together. Some writers take that to mean that a couple must disagree or not communicate, and that’s not true. There’s lots of reasons people stay apart. Beliefs. Expectations. Distance. Responsibilities, such as taking care of their family. Work that doesn’t allow them time to date. Fear of rejection. I could go on and on. You can definitely still have tension even if your couple is communicating well. But there must be tension somewhere. Your couple is made up of different people with their own goals, who happen to cross each other’s path. I think every romance novel benefits when those paths hit a crossroad in some way. Do they choose themselves or their love for each other? Bam. Tension. At the end of the day, something in their lives is unrequited

3. Couples should complement each other in some way. Is he shy and her outgoing? Is she struggling to find the last piece of the puzzle and her lover has it in her hands? Take a look at your favorite bookish couples and you’ll see that they often complement each other’s personalities and goals. They push each other to be better people or to look at the world in a new way. They experience personality traits of the other that their friends/family do not get to see. When you’re revisiting your favorite couples, ask yourself why they appealed to you. What scenes made your heart pitter-patter? Make a list. You might see a pattern emerge of tropes you love, such as the one-bed trope, brother’s best friend, enemies-to-lovers, etc. Once you know what tropes you want to work with, it’ll be so much easier to form your story.

Honestly, though, I could go on and on about romance. If you love reading romance, I’d love it if you check out my young adult paranormal romance, the Timely Death trilogy. The first book, Minutes Before Sunset, is currently free! It’s set in Kansas and follows two magical teens, who realize they’re fated to fall in love… and die.

AmazonBarnes & NobleiBooksSmashwordsKoboGoodreads

~SAT

The Truth About Giving Up on Writing

17 Jan

Have you ever considered giving up on writing?

I know I have. 

Though I’ve been writing stories as long as I can remember, I consider myself as having two true starts. 

1) When I was eleven, my mom died unexpectedly, and I told myself that day I would spend my life pursuing my dreams, no matter how short my life would be. 

2) Around my senior year in college, I decided I wanted to pursue publishing again after a major break from writing. For a few years after that, I wrote for two indie publishers, and then made the decision to try to get an agent. I got one! Then I lost one. 

Now I’m out here writing again. Dreaming again. Wondering where my future will take me. 

Over the past few weeks, I have had a lot of serious decisions to make. Do I want to write in the same genre? Age category? Pursue the stories I’ve trunked or left otherwise unfinished? Do I even keep writing?

That last question is one I know most writers think about at least some point in their career. I certainly have, though I admit that I eventually realize that the question isn’t whether or not I want to keep writing. I always write. Even when I don’t want to, I find a pen in my hand. Writing is my gravity. The real question is if I want to continue pursuing publication. And that’s a whole different can of worms writers have to contend with. 

Do I want to keep pursuing traditional publishing, or do I want to find another method? Do I want to share my words with the world at all? Why do I feel the need to?

These questions are important for all writers to ask themselves. Why? Well, because of surrender. 

Giving up isn’t a giant Aha! moment, where you throw your pages in the trash and set it on fire, declaring your rage-freedom. 

It’s a culmination of a million little moments, where you prioritize this over that, miss deadline after deadline, trunk project after half-written project, until a striking amount of time has passed without much done. It happens. Sometimes, it happens again and again and again until you no longer remember the last time you gave yourself an afternoon to weave words together. Maybe one quiet morning you find time to sit, only to find all your old weavings in tatters, old files corrupted, versions unsaved or lost. Time now shows the errors you couldn’t once see. Which is just more reason to sigh and click delete, delete, delete until you’re staring at a blank page and have no self-confidence to begin anew.

Why write, you think, when you can buy perfectly good books at the store? There’s no point in making your own. It’s a waste of time and resources. You can simply enjoy what others have made. And yes, maybe you would be happy with that. And entertained. But would you feel pride? 

That’s what I am chasing. 

Pride. Not ego. But rather, feeling proud of myself for pursuing the life I always wanted. The dream I cultivated. Worked hard toward, year after year, no matter what stood in my way.

Writing takes a lot of momentum. For me, it’s not difficult to take breaks, but it is difficult to get started again. Which is why I’m so weary of pauses, especially long ones. During those pauses, I sometimes wonder if I’ve been chasing the dream so long, I don’t even know if I’m dreaming anymore. Have I gotten so used to this chasing that it has become an accepted chore? Is writing more habit than happiness?

Writing used to bring me such joy. Such high. There was nothing like sneaking pages of my romance novels between taking notes in biology class. Nothing like passing pages along to my best friend and chat-giggling about them over the phone late into the night. It was fanfiction of my own imagination. Wild ideas and even wilder characters. Dreamy as they were flighty. Emotions high. Secrets higher. 

The structure of what I’ve learned over the years has broken that all back down. 

Now I look at the Timely Death trilogy—a series I first wrote when I was 14—and wonder if I’d create two-faced, sword-dwelling, Midwest magic teens now. 

Probably not. 

Too bizarre, I’d think. Not in line enough with the market. 

Besides, my teens skip school, and students are on lockdown nowadays. Not to mention the homework on paper rather than take-home laptops.

I feel so out of touch sometimes, I think, who am I writing for?

Years ago, I set out to write for kids like me, but do kids like me still exist? Not really. 

Even the book I am currently writing—a personal story about a child affected by the opioid crisis—would hit differently now than when I was young and needed it. When I was eleven and my mom overdosed, it was unheard of in my neighborhood. I got picked on for it. I didn’t know another classmate whose parent died until I was 16, and that was from cancer. I didn’t know another classmate whose parent died from a drug overdose until I was well into college. And by then, my classmates were overdosing, too. 

Most recently, I’ve written poems about her skipping from pharmacy to pharmacy to fill the same prescription over and over again—and now, there are laws in place that prevent that. (Thank God.) But by God, my truth died with her. Of course there will always be universal truths—grief and all that. But the details of the moment are so dependent on the environment that I fear being unable to connect with the audience I once promised myself I would go back and write for. 

I was 11 and lost in the bookstore. There are still 11-year-olds lost in those stores. But can I help them? Reach them? Will it matter or make a difference?

I have to believe I can. I have to believe in myself. I have to believe that I’ve turned writing into a habit, because it takes dedication to succeed. And honestly, it still brings me a lot of joy. 

Most importantly, to this day, I have yet to find a book that was made for a kid like me. (Though I’d highly recommend “Hey, Kiddo” by Jarrett J. Krosoczka.) 

I cannot put into words how much it would’ve meant to me to see a book in the middle grade section that covered what I was going through. And though I still made it in real-life without those sorts of books, I wish I could tell you about the many kids I met who didn’t make it. But their stories aren’t mine to tell. I can only tell mine. And for now, I haven’t given up.   

I am still writing. I am still pursuing publication. 

For 11-year-old me. For other 11-year-olds like me. For that college senior who knew she wanted something different out of life. For me now, who still enjoys the written word over much else. Who now chat-giggles about her work over ZOOM with her writer friends.

Giving up may not be a giant Aha! moment, but neither is deciding to continue the pursuit. 

It’s a decision you make every day. It can be undone. It can be remade. 

The choice is up to you.

For now, I am still here, writing, dreaming, doing my absolute best. Tomorrow, I hope to make the same decision to continue. 

~SAT

Make This Your #1 Writing Goal in 2022

3 Jan

Happy New Year! 

Can you believe it’s 2022? I know I sure can’t. This year, I will have my ten-year blogging anniversary in September. That fact alone gives me a lot of reasons to reflect. But enough about reflecting. What about taking action?

Setting goals can be a tricky business. How many should you set? What kinds are viable? Is it better to be realistic or dream big? Which goal should be your #1 goal?

Honestly, the answers to these questions will vary from person to person, but here are my basic tips for setting writing goals (including that #1 focus):

Make realistic goals that are within your control: This means the goal is focused on actions you control. “I will write 1,000 words a week” is a great example; so is “I will query 25 agents with my new project by June.” Those actions are within your control. What’s not in your control? Goals like “I will get a book deal” or “I will get an agent.” Those goals are not in your control, because it requires someone else’s actions in order to make it happen. 

Listen, though. 

It’s okay to still have goals like “I will get an agent/editor.” Those are valid goals to be working toward. I, myself, am hoping to start querying this year and find that perfect champion for my work. Granted, because you can’t control the scenario, it’s closer to a dream, isn’t it? That’s why I call these types of goals dream-goals, and I believe in setting dream-goals, too. 

For every realistic goal, set a dream-goal, too. Not with the idea that you MUST succeed at it. But with the idea of dedicating yourself to realistic goals that will set that dream into motion. By doing this, you are giving yourself energy to manifest. 

My realistic goals? Revise my verse novel by the end of January, research agents in February, and send out a batch of queries in March. 

My dream-goal this year? Connect with a new agent who believes in my work and (maybe) (hopefully) (by golly I can dream) that I go out on a sub and my work connects with an editor, too. 

So what about that #1 goal?

This is just my personal opinion, but no matter where you are in your writing journey—if you are just beginning or a seasoned authorpreneur—I believe there’s one universal goal that helps all writers. 

Your #1 goal should be to put yourself out there. By doing so, you will share your work, make friends, and get the opportunity to give back and help other writers, too. You will build a community. 

Without my writer friends, I’m not sure how easily I would’ve gotten back up from the blow of losing my agent. One message to my group and two people offered to help revise whatever work I had right away. Another invited me to her group for querying writers who’d parted ways with agents before. When I started writing my query–and realized times have changed since 2019–I had two friends step in to help. Another sent me resources on trigger warnings when I couldn’t find a list anywhere after searching myself. 

They have been unbelievably helpful, supportive, and uplifting. 

Without their support, I know it would be that much harder to accomplish any of my goals–my realistic ones or my dream-goals. With their support, I feel a lot more confident paving my way into 2022. 

What are your goals for this year?

~SAT

Behind the Scenes of Pitch Wars with Team Stellify

15 Nov

In case you missed it, Team Stellify announced our 2021 mentee for Pitch Wars! (But more on that below.) Since announcement day has come and gone, I thought it would be fun to give everyone a behind-the-scenes peek at what went down with Team Stellify.

This year, Sandra Proudman and I decided to mentor a middle grade writer. You can reference our original wishlist by clicking here.  

Here’s our stats: 182 submissions

  • Sci-Fi:
    • Cyberpunk: 1
    • Space Opera: 2
    • Other: 5
    • Military: 1
    • Soft: 3
    • Dystopian: 1
    • Near future: 2
    • Time Travel: 3
  • Fantasy
    • High/Epic: 19
    • Urban/Contemporary: 22
    • Portal: 27
    • Science fantasy: 7
    • Historical: 3
    • Paranormal: 9
    • Magical Realism: 11
    • Other: 25
  • Mystery: 4
  • Horror: 13
  • Adventure: 8
  • STEM: 6
  • Historical: 1
  • Contemporary: 6
  • Thriller/Suspence: 2

Trends We Saw:

–       Parallel universes/multi-verses

–       Portal fantasies 

–       Grandparents 

–       Disappearances 

–       HUGE word counts and TINY word counts. We had one that was under 10,000 words and another that was 100,000 words.

Team Stellify had a blast! We loved reading through everyone’s pages, and we felt so inspired by all the stories. It was so, so, so hard to choose our mentee. 

So how did we break it down? Sandra and I followed the same steps we did last year. We split our submissions in half. She read 1-91, and I read 92-182 with the goal of each of us coming to the table with five each for our top ten. I ended up coming to the table with six. Sandra brought seven. (What can we say, we truly loved so many books!) In our top thirteen, we had 2 adventures, 1 science fiction, 1 horror, 2 portal fantasies, 2 other fantasy, 3 urban fantasies, 1 science fantasy, and 1 epic fantasy. We then met on ZOOM and dwindled them down until we decided to request seven full manuscripts with three questions for the writer. From there, we read the first 50 pages and reconvened. After discussing which ones we wanted to keep reading, we went back and forth on Twitter chat to talk about options.

It was a hard choice!

There was so much incredible talent, and we definitely would’ve taken on more mentees if we could have. If you submitted to us, thank you for trusting us with your words! We truly enjoyed reading our submissions. 

Now for a fun Q&A: 

What was the biggest difference between reading submissions last year and this year?

Sandra: I don’t necessarily know if there was a huge different reading subs this year than last year. I can say what wasn’t different was how amazing everyone’s stories sounded. There wasn’t a single sub that I read where I didn’t think the story concept was fabulous! So much talent!

Shannon: Last year, we were mentoring young adult fiction, so the age category is obviously going to be the biggest difference. It always surprises me to see what is trending in any given season. Last year, we had a rush of elemental powers. This year, it felt like some version of the multiverse theory (which I think is sooo exciting). In the end, I definitely felt the way Sandra did. There truly was so much incredible talent. I had to remind myself that we weren’t looking for a perfectly polished piece, but rather a piece that we knew how to revise and mentor.

Do you have specific writing tips for this cohort?

Shannon: Read a lot of middle grade before writing middle grade, especially if you are converting a young adult manuscript into a middle grade book. There were a lot of fantastic submissions that I felt were originally YA but didn’t have a lot of changes. Voice is different in YA and MG. So are word count expectations and themes. Take a step back and come back to your book with fresh eyes. That can help you see those places that need a little extra fixing. 

Sandra: Oh gosh, let me think for a moment. Well, I guess a couple of specific writing tips that I can offer this cohort of writers is to always be extra careful that you’re writing in a middle school voice, with the syntax of a middle grader. Also, to remember your word counts, which is something I tend to talk about a lot! Especially right now, agents and editors don’t have huge bandwidth to delve into stories that might not be the right word count for your age group. There are a lot of epic stories right now with giant word counts in both middle grade and young adult; however, not all agents and editors are open to stories having inflated word counts when they hit their inboxes and prefer to control word count after signing a story!

How about publishing tips for this group? 

Sandra: My biggest publishing tip right now is to diversify! If you’re planning to have a long-term career in publishing, you’ll notice how lots of full-time writers are writing across genres and age groups. If you’re working on a middle grade manuscript and you plan to query it for six months, perhaps the project that you work on while you query is young adult. That way if you sign with an agent, they’ll be able to not only take your middle grade out on submission, but once that’s off and away, they’ll also be able to send your young adult manuscript out once it’s ready! You might have two, three, etc., projects out on submission at once! Another tip is to stay positive! Publishing was a tough industry before COVID, but now it’s even more so. But keep writing, keep going, keep fighting for your dream!

Shannon: Pay attention to word counts. We had a HUGE range this year. A few were near 10k; others were near 100k. Broadly, middle grade tends to be between 20,000-55,000 words. Fantasy can go a little higher than that, but the higher you go, the harder it can be to sell as a debut. Beta readers always help me figure out where I can cut or add. If you haven’t had a critique partner go through your work, I highly recommend it. (Plus, you can make the bestest of friends that way.) 

What are we most excited about?

Working with our mentee, D.S. Allen! She wrote such a fun, spooky horror story that we both immediately ate up. It has a magical flute, old revenge, family, friendship, and parallel universes. What more could you need? Give her a follow on Twitter and stay tuned! (Fun fact: D.S. Allen’s submission was #118!) 

Writing the Cliffhanger

1 Nov

Love them or hate them, cliffhangers are popular and utilized in lots of books nowadays, even the ones that never get (or intend) a sequel to follow up the ending. 

So what’s the difference between a cliffhanger that makes a reader pick up the next book and the one that makes the reader chuck the book across the room? 

That’s what I’m here to discuss. 

First, there are three ways to end your book:

  • Complete conclusion
  • Non-Ending Ending
  • Cliffhanger

Second, if you’re here to learn about cliffhangers, you’ll want to focus on the non-ending ending and the cliffhanger. What’s the difference?

A Non-Ending Ending doesn’t answer most (or any) of the questions posed, not even the ones asked at the beginning of a story. This is becoming more common. I personally dislike it a lot, but alas, this isn’t about my feelings. As an example, consider a murder mystery. The main question posed at the beginning of the book is “Who is the murderer?” The secondary question might be “Why/How did this murder take place?” 

(I will be coming back to the idea of main and secondary questions, so keep that difference in mind.) 

By the time you get to the end of a Non-Ending Ending book, you still have no idea who the murderer was. You may know how the murder took place, so some of the secondary questions might be answered, but the main question is not. 

A popular one that I can think of off the top of my head is The Selection series by Kiera Cass. The first book asks, “Who will be chosen to marry the prince?” The ending of that first book doesn’t answer. It just dwindles the group down to the top ten. If you take a careful look at the trilogy, you’ll notice all three books follow a one-book arc versus a trilogy arc. But that’s another post for another day. 

As much as I hate to say it, a Non-Ending Ending is a valid choice. But I recommend you be intentional when making this decision. By choosing this, you are risking the reader feeling duped and not trusting you to finish the story. I myself typically put a series down if they have a Non-Ending Ending. However, I finished The Selection series, so there’s always exceptions. Typically, though, the traditional cliffhanger is more likely to get readers coming back for more.  

In my opinion, reading and writing a traditional cliffhanger is a lot more satisfying. Why? Because you will answer that main question. Your reader will know who the murderer is. But those secondary questions might lead them into a new mystery. For example, instead of wrapping up why the murder happened, the murderer tells us they were under orders and don’t know the answer themselves. An underground organization hired them–and a few others. There are more murders to come. Now your hero isn’t trying to solve murders; your hero is trying to stop them. EEK! That’s a cliffhanger. 

Readers will be much more likely to trust your stories if you answer the main question posed at the beginning of your book. They know they might not get all the answers they want, but they know they’ll get a story that is satisfying, even in its twists. Whereas, in a Non-Ending Ending, they might ask themselves where the book is headed or how long the story will be stretched out. 

Don’t know which ending your book has?

Read other books. Have you ever been twenty pages away from the end and stopped, wondering how the author is going to wrap it ALL up? That’s either the best pacing ever or extremely poor pacing. Spoiler alert: It’s more often poor pacing.

Most of your story’s questions need to be wrapped up by the 75% mark. The subplots, the clues, etc. As your characters head into the climax, they need to know everything they are going to know about their opponent. Of course there might be that single plot twist that sparks the “hero is absolutely alone, hopeless, and at their lowest” part, but other than that, having your protagonist learn anything new after the 75% mark is going to feel convoluting, and it risks your ending spiraling out of control. 

So where do you throw in the cliffhanger?

Typically in the climax aftermath. 

Most writers have a natural cliffhanger buried somewhere in their work. I recommend taking a look at your main and secondary questions again. Typically, one of your secondary questions will serve as a lead-in to the next book. Make sure your cliffhanger is small enough that it doesn’t leave your reader feeling robbed of an ending, but big enough that they cannot resist the urge to pick up the next book to experience how your universe expands. Promise another story in that cliffhanger. This is also a great place to ask yourself what you have planned for book two. If book one’s cliffhanger is easily dismissed in the first few pages of book 2, it’ll feel cheap, and readers might put book 2 down before they’re invested in the next plot. Book one’s cliffhanger should lead us to the inciting incident of book 2. Example from our murder mystery: Book opens up with the detective tracking down the organization he believes hired the murderer. Instead of arresting, he poses as a hitman to infiltrate. He’s handed his first assignment… 

Now we’re invested in book 2, and the cliffhanger isn’t resolved. Rather, it’s evolved into a new story. 

A great cliffhanger will feel inevitable. 

A fantastic cliffhanger will appear right as the reader feels comfortable and believes the book is about to end with a satisfying conclusion.

Last piece of advice? All choices are valid. You don’t have to have a cliffhanger to have a fantastic book. Some readers love Non-Ending Endings. Some readers hate any type of cliffhanger. You can’t satisfy everyone all of the time, so make the decision you need to make to have a book you love. 

~SAT

When to Begin & End Chapters

18 Oct

When writing a novel, writers must consider a lot of factors: characterization, pacing, plot, etc. Take a look around the internet and you’ll find tons of articles on how to begin a novel, outline a novel, flesh out a novel, and end a novel, but when it starts to get into the nitty gritty details, that’s where most advice will meander toward “every writer has their own method” or “it depends on the project.”

My advice on beginning and ending chapters is going to stand on that previous sentiment—I’m not going to lie—but I am going to dig little deeper on the following questions:

How do you start chapters? How do you end them? When do you know those points are enough to keep the reader interested? 

Aside from the adage “every writer has their own method,” I want to share some basic tips, and then add specific methods that I use. 

First and foremost, the key to finding your sweet spot is to understand your age category and genre. 

A sci-fi thriller is going to have shorter, cut-throat chapters that encourage the reader to keep turning the pages to find out what’s going to happen next. An epic adventure will probably have longer, more descriptive chapters where world-building is key rather than action, especially in the first and second act. Within those genres, age categories will influence word count. Having longer chapters in an adult book is much more appropriate than in middle grade. Not that there aren’t exceptions. There are always exceptions. But these are general tips to keep in mind. 

My first tip would be to go to your nearest bookstore or library and pick up books in your age category and genre. Study their chapter lengths. You should be reading in your age category and genre, too. Seeing how those books find their rhythm will help you find yours. But, at the end of the day, I’m a big believer in finding the right rhythm for your book—not forcing your book into the standard—so make intentional decisions when editing your book. I mention the editing phase on purpose. I don’t worry about chapter lengths until I’m revising. That first draft is just to get the story down. Most of the time, rhythm comes fairly naturally to me, but without fail, I’ll always find a ridiculously long chapter or choppy section that needs reworking. 

As you consider revisions, ask yourself: 

  • How can these chapters be reworked?
  • Are there sections that can be combined? (Especially with “talking head” scenes. If your characters are just talking, figure out if they can be physically doing something in another chapter at the same time.)
  • Does this chapter move the story or characters forward? If not, can I cut it and save it for “extras” for my readers?

Now that we’re past the revision setup, here’s some general tips about ending and beginning chapters. 

The beginning of your chapter should ask a question. The end should answer it. 

This is how I treat every chapter in all my books. I approach each scene like a mini-short story. This is done for many reasons. A) When readers are deciding if they want to pick up a book, they will only read a handful of pages. Show them you can tell a story in that handful. B) Feeling as if you’ve jumped over a hurdle as a reader gives you an accomplished feeling, and that feeling will propel you forward. 

Now, ending a chapter doesn’t mean you’ve answered every question that comes up in the chapter. Oh, no. Quite the contrary. Between asking the chapter question and answering that specific question, you must pose another question. This will end up being your cliffhanger that makes the reader turn the page. 

Formulaic, I know. But trust me, it works. 

For example, I just picked up my book Minutes Before Sunset and turned to a random chapter. In Chapter Thirteen, which is from the perspective of my hero Eric, it literally starts out with the supernatural girl he found in the forest asking him, “What are you going to teach me tonight?” (The literal question I pose.) By the end of the chapter, instead of teaching her magic techniques, which is what she was hoping for (and probably what the reader was expecting), they’ve fallen into a conversation about magic’s past. (Hey there, world building.) This conversation leads to him admitting there’s a war coming that he must survive. He doesn’t tell her he is at the center of it, but she’s grown suspicious. Telling her the truth, though, would expose his identity as heir. Something he’s not allowed to do, at the risk of his own life. But not warning puts her in danger. The new question posed: is he going to come clean about his identity in order to warn her? Will he choose his safety or hers? You must turn the page to find out. 

Now let’s look at how that example specifically begins and ends. The chapter starts out with positive energy. Two secret lovers meeting up in the woods, excited to see each other, learn from each other, etc. But it ends on a negative note. There’s dangerous truths he’s not telling her. She’s starting to sense that. Tension. BAM. Now two lovers are having a bad night. This exchange of rhythm is also key to shaping your chapters. 

Pay attention to your negative and positive energy. I believe this comes from a famous writer’s beat sheet, but I can’t remember who it was at this time. (If someone recognizes it, please let me know, and I’ll edit this to credit them.) Basically, every scene should be shifting your energy. If the beginning of a chapter is negative, it needs to end even more negatively or become positive. There are only four energies. Extra-positive, positive, negative, extra-negative. You shouldn’t have the same one in a row. Especially not over and over again. If your chapters are continuously ending on an extra-negative and starting there, your story will become stagnant, and the reader will grow bored. Even in survival novels where everyone is dying, you can find positive notes to end on. (Example/ Someone finally found food or shelter.) 

Returning to Chapter Thirteen, it begins positive, ends negative. Chapter Fourteen starts negative, ends positive. Chapter Fifteen begins positive, ends negative. Chapter Sixteen begins negative, ends extra-negative. Etc. 

If you’ve had lots of negative chapters, have a positive one, and vice versa. 

And don’t forget those cliffhangers!

When I freelance edited, I always found that most writers had natural cliffhangers in their work. They just didn’t recognize them. If you struggle with where to end a chapter, take a look a few paragraphs up from where you lost steam. It’s probably hiding in plain sight. If not, go back to that question you posed at the beginning of your chapter. What’s the next natural mystery your reader will want to know? Head towards that. 

Before I ramble on forever, here’s some fun facts about my work:

My average chapter length in Minutes Before Sunset: 2,123

My average chapter length in Bad Bloods: November Snow: 3,422

The difference? The format. Both are young adult, but Bad Bloods is formatted to show day-by-day plays, so each chapter covers one day. This meant numerous scenes in one chapter versus Minutes Before Sunset, which was set up to show scene-by-scene. Minutes Before Sunset is a much quicker book and centered on romance, whereas November Snow has a much heavier tone and centered on survival. Longer chapters were more fitting for that audience. 

Right now, I’m working on an adult fantasy, and my chapters seem to be landing anywhere between 2,000-3,000 words. As a reader, though, I love those 1,500-word chapters. Turning the pages feels good!

Take that as you will, and good luck,

~~SAT

P.S. I want to thank TJ Horton from my Facebook page who suggested I write about this topic! If you have a topic you want me to write about, let me know in the comments below. 

Writing About Grief

4 Oct

As someone who usually writes science fiction and fantasy, I decided to take a sharp turn during these last few months of 2021 to write my first contemporary. It’s a verse novel, centered on the loss of my mother when I was 11. (For those of you who are new to my blog, she died from a drug overdose, and I struggled to find books for kids like me in the middle grade section.) I finally want to try to make that happen. Granted, it’s going to be a while before I finish, but I’m halfway through and thought it was time to talk about the lessons I’ve learned while writing about grief. That isn’t to say you must be writing a contemporary novel centered on grief. Grief can be present in any novel in any genre, but these tips are designed for someone who is writing a novel that is exploring grief as the central theme. 

First and foremost, when grief is the central theme of your work, it’s important to keep track of your emotions, especially if what you’re writing about is deeply personal or based on real-life. Check in with yourself. Give yourself permission to put your work down and come back at another time. Have something else to write on the side. Whatever you need to do to stop yourself from rumination. If you’re trying to write about a tragedy that recently happened, that’s okay, but I would caution you to take time to grieve before you dive into writing a book about your grief. Let time give you space to heal.

Now for writing advice:

Read Other Books About Grief

I know this might sound counterintuitive. Too much grief might be too much grief. But for me, I decided to lean onto other works of art. I picked up some nonfiction and fiction that centers on the topic I’m covering, and I’m still combing through them right now. Seeing how others covered grief in their stories helps me see which events in my life will work for a story rather than a diary entry. It can be extra helpful if you can find books in the same age category. That will help you with voice, but also give you some possible comp titles, so that you can pitch your book knowing where it will land on the shelf. 

Balance the Sad with Happy

Even though I’m writing a book about an extremely dark time in my childhood, I still remember happy slices of life. Granted, when I started writing this book and took a step back, I realized those were missing. It takes another muscle to my brain to recall those happy moments that took place in the dark. Though, I think that’s perfectly normal. When you’re dealing with grief—especially the death of the loved one—guilt can be associated with happiness. That might happen in your writing, too. Be prepared to stumble along the way. 

Take breaks. BIG ones. And don’t forget your resources.

You may get overwhelmed, and that’s okay. I made a promise to myself that I’d stop writing any time it started to feel like too much. During those pauses, I liked to search through some resources, such as The Grief Toolbox: How to Write About Grief in a Story or Novel. There’s lot of fantastic articles out there that I’d recommend. Give yourself some time to research others’ methods. 

Finally, it’s okay to get inspiration from real life, but remember that you’re writing a story. My mom’s death didn’t happen in a neat little package that fits on a storyline arc. I didn’t follow the traditional five stages of grief in order, jumping from one period of growth to the next with clear transitions. Life doesn’t work that way. Instead, I am using these events and emotions to write, and it’s okay to write messy, especially on a first draft. From there, it’s my job as a writer to get an actual plot out of it all. 

The biggest surprise for me? Grief can feed off other grief—and spark more inspiration. 

Writing about my childhood grief also brought up my teenage grief. Two tragedies in my life really fed off of the other. I didn’t know why I kept thinking about my teenage years when I was trying to think of my middle grade years, but I realized my teenage years was when I started to come to terms with it, and there is no writing about one without bringing up the other. Not for me. So, I opened up a fresh document and began writing a YA verse novel at the same time. I’m often flipping back and forth between the two with little idea which one I’ll finish first. But at the end of this, I know I’ll have a book about grief. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll make it to the shelves one day, so a kid like me can see it and know they aren’t alone in their grief. 

~SAT

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