At the end of every year, I write a reflection post about where I’m at, not just in my writing life, but also in my personal life and how it all correlates.
I’m calling 2022 My Complete Year because it coincides with how I called 2021 the Year of Unfinished Change.
Last year, I got married. This year, we welcomed our baby girl.
Last year, I lost my agent. This year, I got back in the trenches and connected with my new agent.
So much of what happened last year fed into the success I had this year, they almost can’t be separated. But alas, I wanted to talk about 2022 and how I feel moving into 2023.
If I go back to January, I started 2022 with one main goal: Connect with an agent.
I had just finished finalizing my query package for my middle grade novel in verse, and I jumped right in. Shortly after, I found out I was pregnant, and I told myself I would love to be signed with a new agent before my baby was born. I knew it was a long shot, especially in this environment, but I signed with my agent, Marietta Zacker, in September the week before my baby was born. (Maybe I’ll write a blog post about that journey soon!)
While querying, I also rewrote my historical fantasy and outlined four new ideas. I wrote 12,000 words across those projects. I also hit 80,000 words in my dark academia novel, and I’m currently 8,000 words in my next verse novel and 11,000 into a romcom.
We also adopted Valentine, our one-eyed pirate cat…and lost Boo Boo, our beautiful gentleman of a cat who lived 22 years.
Life has been a whirlwind of joy, sorrow, celebration, family, and determination.
In 2023, I hope my agent can find the perfect editor for my work, but I know that’s out of my control. All I can do is keep writing. First up, finish my first young adult verse novel. But until then, I’m giving thanks to 2022.
I’m very grateful for everything that happened this past year–from having my novels featured in simplyKC magazine to having my blog post featured on Jane Friedman’s website. I especially enjoyed teaching How to Write a Series at the Midwest Writers group, and I cannot wait to see what 2023 brings. A book deal? More hardships? Additional teaching opportunities? New friends? Loss? I have no clue. None of us do, really.
I end 2022 knowing that I will be adjusting to being a mom who loves writing while working full time, but I believe in me. I have to. I want to.
I will make 2023 amazing.
Want to see what’s happened throughout my years of blogging?
I am 37 weeks pregnant, which means I am full-term, but have a few weeks to go and, honestly, I didn’t want to wait any longer to write this blog post. Why? Because I’m tired. If I wait any longer, I’m not sure I’ll be able to get the blog post out on time. (Not to mention if baby girl decides to show up early.)
So here we are—pregnant in the third trimester, working full-time and chasing the writing dream on the side.
Admittedly, sleepiness is a near constant thing at the moment. Though I’ve had a really easy pregnancy, the third trimester has certainly brought its challenges. Mostly with discomfort and insomnia. (I swear I can’t get any bigger. Right?!) With all the weight gain, I started experiencing pain in my right foot and left hip, and sleeping is a nightmare. (But it’s going to be worse with a newborn. Right?!)
I have to admit that avoiding all the negativity has become a priority. I asked for positive newborn stories on my Twitter, and that’s been my bit of sunshine every week.
To help even more, I decided to use up some PTO to work four-day work weeks during my last month. That way, we can spend the extra day meal prepping and getting the last details of our house together. If I have extra time after that, I’ve been pursuing writing.
Writing-wise, things have been good! I currently have six fulls pending with agents, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that something pans out one of these days. In fact, overall, my querying journey has been really fun. I even had a great phone call with an agent about my verse novel. That said, I couldn’t help but start calculating the next few weeks in my head.
If someone offered right now, I’d have two weeks to talk to the other agents and make a decision…and baby girl is due the very next week. What happens if she shows up early? What happens if an agent emails me while I’m recovering from labor and I miss it? What if they rescind their offer? What if…?
I’m terrified of missing my window.
I know my writing life isn’t over once I have a baby, but I confess that I was really hoping to have an agent secured by the time baby girl arrived. I think it would’ve given me peace of mind knowing that the next steps in my writing career are already underfoot (rather than knowing that I have a longer way to go after recovery).
No matter. I’ve been doing my best, and that’s all I can do.
Other than querying, I finished polishing my historical fantasy, and I’ve started getting my to-query list together (just in case my verse novel doesn’t pan out). I may even send a few queries out soon. I wanted somewhere to be creative, too. (Mostly so that I had pages to send to my monthly writers’ group.) I opened up my dark academia monster WIP that I had previously frozen in August of 2021 and got to work. I am now a few chapters away from THE END. I’m pretty proud of that.
I’m also really happy about the baby’s room. I was lucky enough to have two baby showers–one at work and one with family/friends. It was so nice to see everyone again and to celebrate baby girl’s impending arrival. We now have everything we need, and I think I feel as prepared as any first-time parent can feel. The reality of baby girl is really setting in. I’m both excited and terribly nervous, but I’m mostly looking forward to getting to know her personality, watching her discover the world, and being part of her life as she grows. (Also, sleeping on my stomach again. I’m looking forward to that.)
One of these days I’m sure I’ll start blogging about writing as a working mom.
That fact can feel pretty staggering some days. Obviously, more so when the anniversary comes up than other times of the year. But alas, here we are, standing at a time of reflection.
Back in 2017, I really enjoyed July Lightning’s book release, but it felt like it was time for a change. After a little research and some time off, I decided I wanted to pursue traditional publication. First step, get an agent. (Okay, so actually, the first step was to write a book I could query, but you know what I mean.)
I set off with high hopes. I queried a young adult fantasy in 2018, resulting in 15 fulls but no offers of rep, and then I queried a young adult sci-fi/fantasy mashup in 2019, resulting in representation. I worked with that agent for two years, before she left the industry. Now I’m searching for representation again. And just like that, five years have passed me by.
Some days, I don’t know how I feel about that.
I’ve had my days where I wonder if I made a huge mistake. Maybe I should’ve continued to indie publish or pursue self-publishing instead. But I remind myself of the successes I’ve had, too.
Since my last book release, I was invited to be a featured author at three different Barnes & Nobles for the Teen Book Fest. I spoke at Wizard World Comic Com and the first-ever LitUP Festival in Kansas City. I was later featured in a Local Author Fair for Mid-Continent Public Library. I had two audiobooks that released in 2018. I was invited to speak at Johnson County Library, the MLA conference, Ray County Public Library, Dearborn Library, Northern Hills Christian Academy, and Kearney High School. I was interviewed for Space and Time Magazine and SIMPLYkc Magazine. I also taught numerous classes. (I now teach Starting a Writing Project for The Story Center twice a year.) I also had the utmost joy of teaching How to Write a Series for the SCBWI KS/MO Middle of the Map Conference and at the Midwest Romance Writers’ meetup. I blogged for Jane Friedman.
Somehow, over time, I went from applying as a mentee in Pitch Wars to becoming a mentor twice in a row–one of our mentees got a six-figure book deal and the other just signed with an agent. I am currently mentoring for SCBWI KS/MO. I was also lucky enough to score a mentorship myself, with Parker Peevyhouse through Science Fiction Writers of America.
I’ve learned a lot over these past five years, and though I didn’t get a book deal out of the hard work I put in, I learned invaluable lessons that I’ve taken with me into the future.
When I look at my writing today, I see growth. I’ve tried new age categories and genres that I never thought I’d pursue, and I love the work that came out of it. Most importantly, I’ve made friends. (I even went on a writing retreat, where we picked apples!) With all my new connections and friendships, I’ve beta read and edited numerous books that have now gone on to get traditionally published. A few of my indie clients have won amazing awards. I love to celebrate their success.
Somewhere in all of that, I learned the most important truth about publishing:
Not everything is about getting an agent or landing a book deal.
Sometimes, the journey is about joy. That was one of the reasons I released the Tomo trilogy on Wattpad for fun. I hated to see it just sitting on my laptop doing nothing since it lost its publisher. Now it’s fun to hear from old readers catching up and new readers just now discovering it.
More than ever, I truly enjoy writing my next pieces and sharing them with my beta readers (and sometimes my newsletter subscribers)! It’s very encouraging that I’m still asked when my next novel will come out. I wish I could tell everyone that date. But I don’t know.
Five years is a long time. That said, I often forget the fact that 2 years of this has been in the midst of a pandemic. I also put a lot more energy into my day job, and worked my way up through three different positions in the library. Now I work in storytelling all day and have a consistent, steady paycheck that allowed me to get out of student loan debt, buy a safer car and a house, get married, and, most recently, begin a family with my husband.
My life has flourished in many ways.
But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t depressing when I see folks talk about how long they had to query before they got a book deal (and it was only 2-3 years). I’ve been out here writing seriously for over a decade. My first novel came out in 2007, but my first modern book released in 2013.I’m coming up on the ten-year anniversary of Minutes Before Sunset, and that hurts some days.
I still love that sword-yielding, Midwest paranormal romance more than I can say.
Sometimes I pick it up just to remind myself of what I’m capable of producing.
The truth is, though, I may never get another agent, let alone a book deal.
But what else would I be doing with my freetime?
I love writing. I (mostly) enjoy the pursuit of publication, and when I don’t, I put it down for a few days, weeks, or even months. And that’s okay, too.
I could give up. Or I could keep trying and enjoy the ride.
Right now, I currently have a few fulls of my middle grade verse novel out with agents who are giving me a shot, I am *this* close to querying my historical fantasy–the same novel that won the Authoress’s Secret Agent contest–and I have two other novels completely written that I’ve never queried either. Not to mention a handful of outlines and half-written projects that I could tackle any day.
If I decide to self-publish or indie publish one day, those manuscripts will be there. But I’m not ready to give up.
I want to keep trying, so I will–even if it takes another five (or more) years.
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.
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!
Publishing is hard. We all know that. What makes it harder is bad timing and unclear focus. It’s easy to get lost in the art of writing long before you consider the business of writing, but at the end of the day, publishing is a business. You should have your business plan in mind before you set off on your writing journey. By doing so, you’ll be a lot more prepared for pitching and revisions.
That said, I want to add a caveat before I start sharing the publishing questions I ask myself before I start writing a novel. I’m pursuing traditional publication. That requires different techniques than self-publishing. Putting the publishing method aside, though, if you want to write a book that brings you joy and that’s it, then go for it! I am not here to stop you. It’s important to write and be happy. I have learned that lesson the hard way before. However, I am here to discuss how to hone your skills and focus that joy into a project that stands a higher chance at success.
By being purposeful in our writing decisions, I believe we increase our chances of success. That doesn’t mean it will absolutely work. But there is something to be said about timing (and a little bit of luck). If you can put the odds in your favor, why wouldn’t you? To do that, I’ve learned to ask myself some pretty hard questions before I start writing.
Here’s that list:
What does this novel add to the market?
Maybe it goes without saying, but I think this is probably the most important question you must ask yourself. How does your book stand out from what’s currently out there? How is it relevant but also fresh? Do you have a twist on an old trope that hasn’t been done before? Are you writing it from a perspective not often seen? My advice is always to lean into your most unique aspects as hard as you can without breaking the story. This will help it stand out.
Are there unique elements that need to be pushed or scaled back?
Once I have a list of my unique elements, I have to take a hard look at the plot/characters. I don’t want to push my unique elements too hard. By doing so, you can break a story. It’s important to understand your limitations as a writer. If you are trying to push yourself to try something way outside your norm, make sure you’re enlisting help from experienced writers or beta readers who avidly read your genre. (You should also be reading avidly within the genre/age category that you’re writing.) Remember: unique is great, but readers also love an old trusted trope. Having some familiar expectations can be a fantastic selling point, too.
Is the pitch succinct and commercial?
You certainly have time to figure out your pitching materials, but personally, I start working on a pitch and query letter before I start writing the actual book. Why? Because it quickly shows me if I truly understand the novel I am about to write. Who wants to get 80k into a piece only to realize they aren’t positive about the main themes or twists? Have you attempted to write a query letter to get a better idea of the main theme/plot/character? I stand by attempting your query letter (and maybe even your synopsis) before you start writing. It will reveal the glaring flaws you already have, before going in and finding out the hard way. I will also add that it’s important to recognize that this query isn’t truly your query. I’ve literally never used my starter query as a draft query for when I start to query agents. It’s more like a tool to get me started on the best writing path possible. I often still discover many new (and fun) elements in my work once the writing begins, but having the bare bones of a strong plot keeps me on track and confident that the work won’t fizzle out due to confusion or roadblocks.
Why would someone pick up this book compared to a comparative title?
Pretend you’re at a bookstore and your novel is nestled between its comparative titles. Cover aside, why do you want to pick up this book the most? This might go back to the earlier question about what makes your book stand out, but it’s a worthwhile exercise to try out from a reader’s fresh perspective instead of a writer’s.
Why would you choose to work on this book compared to your other WIPs?
If you’re anything like most of the writers I know, then you probably have a dozen or so ideas bouncing around your noggin that you are dying to write. So why this one? What makes this WIP better than the other ones you are currently playing around with? Not just better to you, but also better to the market? I will caution you not to pick out the idea you have the most fleshed out. Just because you’ve spent more time with it, does not mean it is the best one to pursue right now (or ever). I, myself, recently put my historical fantasy aside to pursue my middle grade novel-in-verse. Why? I’d already written three drafts of my historical fantasy. I had a great revision plan and betas lined up ready to read again. I even had an agent who already requested the full from a writing contest I won before I decided to revise. (They said they were happy to wait until I was done.) By all means, I should’ve concentrated on the historical, right? Wrong. The more I looked at where I stood with that project, the more I realized now was not the right time to pursue it. While I wasn’t confident I could revise the historical and secure representation with it (mostly due to where the market is at with this particular kind of story), I was ready for my middle grade book. Plus, novels-in-verse are finally picking up steam. I wanted to ride that wave before it became a hurricane and mine got lost in the flood. So, I took that leap of faith. I put everything aside to start a brand-new project that I was truly passionate about. I’m now querying and have more fulls than I did with my historical. Sometimes, it’s about reading the water and following your gut when you decide which river to take. (Okay, I’ll stop with the bad water metaphors.)
Can you spend 3-5 years on this project and be happy? This includes revisions, rejections, more revisions, etc.
Maybe you thought I was a kill-joy, but I promise, I’m not. I know how important your mental health is when pursuing publication. Writing can be a long, lonely adventure, and those feelings can only get worse if your current WIP is dragging you down. When folks tell me they’re writing a novel (and planning to pursue traditional publication), one of the first chats I have with them is how long it can take. Writing the first draft is typically the fastest part. Beyond that is beta readers, revisions, querying, rejections, more revisions, signing with an agent, going on sub, more rejections, hopefully a book deal! Yay! But 3-5 years between writing your first draft and the actual book release date is pretty common if not expected. Granted, that doesn’t mean you have to be happy every single day for 5 years. That’s unrealistic. But, realistically, will you enjoy working on this book for a long time? The reasons for saying yes, or no, will vary from writer to writer. Some writers can write purely from a business angle, no problem, but others require a little bit more excitement in order to pursue an idea for a long time.
All of the answers to these questions will be unique to you. They may not even be the best questions to ask yourself. These are just the ones I ask myself before I start writing, and they help me make decisions every time. Maybe they’ll help you, too.
If you have additional questions, I’d love to read about them in the comments below!
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.
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.
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
Space Opera: 2
Near future: 2
Time Travel: 3
Science fantasy: 7
Magical Realism: 11
Trends We Saw:
– Parallel universes/multi-verses
– Portal fantasies
– 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!)
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:
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.
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.
I’ve been writing stories ever since I learned how to write. I’m not kidding. My first pieces of work go back to when I was 4 years old. My first story was a 5-page rambling piece about my new husky throwing a party so that the two older dogs would attend and possibly befriend him. (Totally based on a true story. But more on that below.)
Lots of writers have stories like mine. That first attempt in grade school. Then, the first REAL attempt. You know, the one where you wrote wayyyyy too many words over a span of years. Maybe you finished; maybe you didn’t, but you *think* there’s a copy of it somewhere on an old laptop or shoved in a dresser drawer somewhere. If you have it, I encourage you to go find it today.
I’m a big believer in keeping old work. I’m a bigger believer in re-reading it. Not just to evaluate where you started and who you’ve grown to be, but also to simply enjoy it.
Those words brought you joy at some point, and I think you’ll be surprised to find they still do (even if your writing wasn’t exactly what you’d call “seasoned”). You might also learn a thing or two about yourself that you weren’t expecting.
Let’s take my dog story as an example. I wrote it because we had literally just welcomed a new husky puppy to the family. We had two other dogs. They had to learn to get along. BAM. Storytime. At least, that’s how I saw it at the time. Looking back, the theme of friendship isn’t lost on me. As someone who moved around the country every two-ish years while growing up, I was a very lonely kid, and stories often were the only things to keep me company. My characters were some of my best friends. They still are, in fact. (I certainly spend more time at my computer desk than at brunch catching up with buddies.) Friendship was something that always eluded me and, honestly, it still feels that way most days. I often write about that feeling in my current novels. What surprised me, though, was my four-year-old self considering it. Even before I knew what a theme was, I had threaded it into my storyline while also expressing my own wants and fears. And isn’t that what storytelling is about? Personal expression?
I bring this up because I think it’s quite common to lose sight of storytelling basics the more you learn and grow. In an industry where you constantly hear that’s been done before; everything’s been done before; why is your story unique?; why should we care?, it’s easy to start tweaking plot to add more action; changing characters to shift dynamics; moving or cutting whole scenes to keep up the tension; and before you know it, the story feels stale, and you cannot for the life of you figure out why (especially after twelve revisions).
Maybe—in all those revisions—you accidentally lost track of why you wanted to write the story in the first place or why the story mattered to you. Maybe you cut out that theme of friendship in favor of a romance subplot you’ve been told would be more popular. Worse, you can re-read your new version a 1,000 times and never see what’s wrong because it isn’t there anymore.
That’s why you keep old work and old versions. It reminds you of why you began and what you were trying to express. In fact, I’ve been re-reading a lot of my old work for this purpose. I’ve even been asking myself what I want out of my stories as a whole.
Call it an existential crisis brought on by the pandemic, or writer’s block, or self-discovery, or whatever. But I decided to do a deep dive into all my old work.
Some of those ideas I came up with in high school were brazen and wacky and just plain old rubbish. But they were fresh.So fresh, in fact, that I doubt I could come up with some of those ideas today. Back then, I wasn’t worried about writing to hit a trend or fulfilling genre expectations. (Both of which aren’t inherently bad things to keep in mind while writing professionally.) I simply wrote, and within those writings, I found some shiny pieces. Things that, if I came up with today, I might outright dismiss because “no one will want to read that.” I’m re-learning how to love that wild freshness again.
This past month, I sat back and re-read the Timely Death trilogy. (Yes, my own books.) It felt weird at first. Certainly egotistical. (Why spend time reading my own books that are complete and published when I could spend time reading others’ novels or re-reading a WIP that has hope for the future?) Trust me, I thought the same thing. But the books had been nagging at me for weeks. I just had this feeling that I wanted to dive back into that world and re-experience it.
Some things I learned from reading my own work:
I did not remember large parts of my own trilogy. It’s been so many years, it was almost like reading a book someone else wrote. This helped me judge it from a third-party perspective (and enjoy it)! I tried to take note of which parts of the book I loved and which slowed me down. They were surprisingly different than I remembered!
I can certainly see where I’ve grown—my word choice is stronger, my transitions are swifter, and my dialogue feels more natural. I also think my world building ability has grown, not just the literal world, but also how it is introduced and why. That’s a good feeling!
I can see where I regressed. Granted this point is a little bit more complicated. I have to be careful not to compare a final, published piece with my current WIPs, but I still feel like my characters were more vulnerable back then than they are now. They certainly have more imperfections and layers, and so do their relationships. I think there’s a lot of pressure right now for characters to be more “perfect” than they were in the past. For example, if a character thinks or feels something controversial, it can be seen as the author’s opinion, especially if another character doesn’t correct them, and I (personally) think that’s a slippery slope. Many of my characters act and think in ways that I do not. I’m just trying to tell a story, and sometimes stories follow controversial people or situations, especially in fantasy where the rules of that world do not align with the rules in our world. I think it was Will in Cassandra Clare’s book that said, “Requited love is ideal but doesn’t make much of a ballad,” and I feel that way about stories in general. If my characters acted or thought “correctly” all the time (or, in the case of the quote, loved each other correctly), it would become a very boring book. But that’s probably another topic for another day! Basically, I feel like I regressed in the darker parts of my books and characters. I’ve held a lot of their vulnerability back out of fear for how it would reflect on me. And I hope to break that mold again.
As an extra, re-reading definitely rekindled that flame for the books. I spent a week or so outlining an adult followup for the trilogy, and it was so much fun!
My biggest takeaway:
Looking back on all my old books and manuscripts, I realized I have the same central theme threading through all of them—except for the ones I’m struggling to connect with. It was a EUREKA moment for me. This theme, which I’d rather keep to myself for now, is an essential part of who I am as a writer. Somehow, somewhere, I lost sight of that. I lost that feeling. Now I’m working on getting it back.
Have you ever read an old work of yours and realized a truth about your writing?
P.S. There won’t be a blog post on Monday, September 6th. It is Labor Day, and I will be taking the weekend off. The next blog post will be the Pitch Wars blog hop, which takes place on Saturday, September 11.
For those who didn’t see the announcement, I am returning to Pitch Wars this year as a co-mentor with Sandra Proudman! We’re Team Stellify, and we’re going to mentor a middle grade writer. We’re so excited to meet our mentee! For more information, visit pitchwars.org. You can see my Pitch Wars profile here.
If you’re a middle grade writer interested in this mentorship program, I encourage you to come to the Pitch Wars Middle Grade Mentor chat this Saturday, September 4 at 12 PM EST! Click here to add it to your YouTube watchlist.