THE FALCONER

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I’ve noticed through my query-reading experiences that many aspiring authors have a hard time being original. There are so many vampire romances, demon-slaying paranormals, angel stories, faerie mythologies, etc. But the important thing to remember is that it’s perfectly okay to write these. So long as you have something original to add to the genre (and you clearly and interestingly express that in your query).

I give you The Falconer by Elizabeth May.

This is another one of “those faerie books”, but I was intrigued because rather than being set in America or England, The Falconer is set in Scotland. That, combined with the steampunk technology, made me want to buy and read this book.

Little did I know that these aren’t even what really set this book apart from the others. Setting is such a minor thing when compared to plot and character.

The Falconer is awesome because May is an expert with plot twists and engaging fight scenes.

Plot twists, by definition, are unexpected and often exciting. That’s their function: to throw the story in a different direction or to reveal a previously unknown fact. But May produces them in such a way that they amp up the tension and provide greater conflict.

At first the reader is led to believe that the entire purpose of the story is for Aileana to avenge her mother’s death by killing the wicked faerie who murdered her before her eyes. But that’s not the big picture at all—and accomplishing such a task proves to be harder than Aileana could have ever realized. That’s all I can say without revealing any spoilers. So go read The Falconer to see for yourself how May pulls these incredible twists off.

It is said that each scene in a story should accomplish more than one thing, and The Falconer does this effortlessly.

Anyone who has taken a writing class knows that blow-by-blow fight scenes are rarely the way to make a fight scene engaging. Such a style makes the writing feel staccato, unrealistic, and even boring. But May’s writing style is so engaging that she’s not only able to give us blow-by-blow fight scenes at times, but she also combines that with sections of telling (as opposed to showing) to string her fight scenes together. Just when Aileana defeats a faerie, a dozen more will take its place. The scenes never finish when you think they will. And May uses that to pull more tension out of the scenes. It’s incredible.

THE DEVIL’S ONLY FRIEND

The Devil's Only Friend

I just finished reading THE DEVIL’S ONLY FRIEND by Dan Wells. For those of you who enjoy the TV show The Following or are fascinated by serial killers, I recommend reading this series by starting with I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER. This story really stands out from others because the protagonist is 15 in the first book, which just adds a whole other level of creepiness to the story. Love it.

So let’s talk about the interesting things Wells does in this book. John Cleaver is a brilliant protagonist. While he is incapable of feeling empathy for those around him, he excels at figuring out how people think and using that against them. That’s how he thwarts the antagonists in the story. As such, John has to make many plans and then execute them flawlessly. All while trying not to give in to his dark nature.

With characters who are in this constant state of planning, there are a couple general methods writers use to make the execution of the plan interesting to the reader.

The first is to list out all the details of the plan for readers to see. This shows the character’s genius. But then, when it comes time to execute the plan, rather than bore readers by showing the plan that was just explained to them, something has to go horribly wrong. The plan has to change quickly, and that turn of events not only amps up the tension, but is great at making a book unputdownable.

The-A-Team

Movie Fanfare

The second method is to simply not tell the reader the plan. Then when everything goes according to plan, it is still interesting and exciting because readers didn’t know the plan in the first place.

Like every time this chick

Veronica

Business Insider

outsmarts this guy.

Sherrif Don Lamb

Fan Pop

The third method is a little different, but it basically involves telling the reader the plan, without telling them the intended outcome.

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-prison

Kabooooom

And Dan Wells uses all three of these. Then on top of it, he breaks the rules to achieve his own desired outcome.

In some of the first pages of the book, John lays out his plan. He and his team are going to take out a bad guy, very simply but effectively. The plan really only has about three steps to it. The steps are laid out, then they’re performed perfectly, and the outcome is achieved just as they wished it to. But rather than this being boring, it was actually perfect for what I assume Wells was trying to achieve. He’s showing readers how these characters work. They’re a new team, but they’re really good at what they do. They make a plan, and the plan works. (It also helps that the plan and execution of that plan were quick, maybe just a couple pages. As a reader, I didn’t have a chance to get bored, and it was great for character development. Having every scene do more than one thing is very beneficial!)

But then, when it comes time to take out the next antagonist, things go wrong. This team that’s proven to be so effective and thorough messes up, and bad things happen as a result. The element that makes the plan go wrong hits you harder. You’re angry by the wrongness of it. After all, you’d just learned how effective the team is. You were wowed by their awesomeness.

Because of the consequences of this plan going wrong, John doubts his team. He thinks he’d be more effective if he didn’t rely on others. So he starts to make plans on his own. John will tell you what he wants to achieve, and then you learn how he gets there as he does it. There’s a new killer in town. John wants to communicate with him, but he has to break away from the team to do it. He strikes out on his own, and you don’t know how he’s going to do it until he’s already doing it.

And then my favorite part of the story happens at the very end. John is backed into a corner, you don’t know what the best possible outcome is for him. Can he even survive it? He starts carrying out a plan, but where is the plan going? What the heck is he doing? The tension builds and builds as you painfully wait for the consequences of the plan. But then, when it happens…it’s beautiful. So satisfying and fulfilling.

This character’s methods never get boring. Because even if it’s the same brilliance, there’s a different way for Wells to manifest that brilliance to manipulate the reader’s reactions to it. And it’s awesome.

As writers, it’s a good idea to be aware of these methods of executing plans within our novels. Whether we’re following the rules or breaking them for specific reasons, it still pays to know what else is being done out there.

I’m an Amateur Writer Because…

I say “novel” after clearly stating something as fantasy (i.e. “Please consider my fantasy novel”).

I’m submitting to a publisher even though I self-published my book last week.

I don’t really read books, but I enjoy writing them.

I’m querying a book I haven’t finished writing—or even started for that matter.

I take my manuscript to book signings with the hope that my favorite published authors will show it to their agents.

I say I want to be a writer when I haven’t written anything.

In the case of queries…

I tell agents that my book is unique without saying why, mostly because I don’t know.

Instead of stating the major conflict of my story, I say that my book is about inner discovery.

I’m querying a novel I haven’t finished yet.

I’m asking an agent to please consider my 125,000 word middle grade novel.

My book is a YA, but all the main characters are adults or nine years old.

I say my book has 27 chapters and is 307 pages long. I don’t bother to mention the word count.

My story is about the battle between good and evil, and I will neglect to tell you anything else about it in my query.

I tell agents that I know they’ll enjoy reading my book as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Sometimes it’s hard to be professional. As writers, we desperately want to get published, and, in the case of those who are already published, we desperately hope that our next book will sell too. Regardless of what publishing state you’re in, don’t forget the basics. Remember to hang in there. Because it’s the writers who stick with it, no matter what, who make it.

Hang in There Kitty

Escapist Magazine

On Editing

(Sorry, friends! I’ve just moved to a new place, and things have been crazy. But here is the post you were supposed to receive on Monday.)

Several months ago I had a conversation with an editor who had set up her own e-publishing company. As a freelancing editor, I inquired about the company to see if it might be a good place to offer my freelancing services. But the email conversation I ended up having with this editor made it perfectly clear that we would not be a good fit together. Our ideas differed greatly in how we approach a manuscript.

She said that she didn’t like to break up the editing process in rounds. Rather than do a development edit, substantive edit, and then copy edit in individual rounds, their company liked to take care of all the editing in one large “comprehensive” edit, she call it.

And I asked her why she thought it was a good idea to do a copy edit at the same time as a development edit. Wouldn’t many of the words change once the author started putting in the big picture revisions from the development edit?

Her response was something like this: I don’t understand why so many people ask me this. Not much should change throughout the editing process. Unless the editor is rewriting the author’s story, most of it should be the same. It’s the author’s work, and I can’t stand it when editors try to change so much of it. Then it’s not the author’s work anymore. It’s the editor’s.

Now I’ve heard statements like this before from self-published authors. In fact, I have had many self-published authors tell me this is the very reason why they don’t want to be traditionally published—because the work won’t be theirs anymore.

And now I’m going to tell you all the same thing I told that editor and those self-published authors.

Editing is not a bad thing. Lots of edits are not necessarily a bad thing. It doesn’t mean that the author is a bad writer. Authors are too close to their work to notice even obvious mistakes at times, and all authors need an editor to point those out to them. I’ve been hired to do copy edits on manuscripts that needed serious “big picture” edits, but I wasn’t allowed to say a word because I’d been hired specifically for a copy edit

And it was painful.

As an author providing a product to your reading audience, wouldn’t you want to give them the best product possible?

What happens when one of your character’s personalities changes throughout the book for no reason, and you don’t have an editor there to tell you? What happens when your climax shouldn’t actually be possible because you forgot to foreshadow some important details? Or what if you forgot to resolve one of your minor conflicts?

Editors are there to make your work solid. They’re there to get rid of all the plot holes, character inconsistencies, and other errors. There are so many things to keep straight in a story. A book has LOTS of words in it. Odds are, you will need to change many of them, and that’s okay. Because you should want to strengthen your story. You should want to make it the best it can be, and it’s okay that you can’t do that on your own.

I believe that editing should be done in rounds, working from the big stuff, to the little stuff. Lots of people should read a manuscript and offer feedback, and authors should not be insulted by such critique. Serious writers should want to learn from their mistakes. They should want to become better. They should want to give their audience the best book possible.

I don’t understand why authors would feel like the book isn’t theirs anymore after doing edits. Once an editor or writing group points out those big errors to the author, it’s up to THEM to figure out how to fix it. Essentially, those edits become the author’s edits. The work still ultimately becomes what the author makes it to be.

I don’t know where I would be without my writing group and other readers. They point out embarrassing mistakes that I’m not able to notice for myself. Like not having a plot 30,000 words into my story. Big problem, yes? Needed to change quite a bit of words, yes? Yes. And I did. That was four books ago for me. I’ve since then discovered that I am a plotter. I need to plan out my books before I write them. These days, I start with a plot when I write my stories, and they’re so much better off for it.

Don’t be scared of critique. Be excited to make your book better. Be excited to become a better writer.

Query Writing Advice

There’s lots of advice out there on how to write a query, but I thought I’d throw out my two cents, focusing particularly on the most common mistakes I’ve seen as a slush pile reader and agent’s intern.

The first thing in your query should be your hook, a one to two–sentence paragraph that makes agents/interns/readers want to read the rest of your query. A hook can also be useful in stating what makes your book different from others out there.

Honestly, the hook should be the easiest part of your query. It’s the most interesting or most unique aspect of your manuscript condensed into one or two sentences.

I don’t have time to get permission to use other authors’ hooks, so I’ll give examples of hooks I’ve used in my queries. These queries got me manuscript requests from agents.

Hook example 1: “After spending four years believing herself to be the last half-demon on earth, 19-year-old demon hunter, Seph Morgan, is shocked to find out that she is merely the only female of her race, making her much sought after by demons, half-demons, and humans alike.”

Hook example 2: “In the empire of Rethvan, it is believed that the souls of those who are murdered must wander in endless torment until their deaths are avenged. Seventeen-year-old Jade must set her mother’s soul free by killing the man responsible for her murder, a man she has never laid eyes on: the emperor, her father.”

Not my best work, but you can see how the first hook points out how the story is unique—a half-demon girl is the only female of her entire race. And the second hook clearly points out the main conflict of the story—a girl is seeking revenge for her mother by attempting to kill her father.

Avoid hooks that could apply to lots of already published books.

Bad hook example: “A new boy enters Kayla’s life, and she finds herself instantly drawn to him.”

While I love a good romance, this hook doesn’t tell me how this story is unique. It could be the plot to Twilight or City of Bones or Hush, Hush or a thousand other books. That’s not to say that these books aren’t unique, just that this hook would be a terrible one to use for them because they have so many unique things about them that could be used instead.

The second part of your query is a description of the plot, main conflicts, and other fun details you want to include. In other words, a one to two–paragraph summary of your story that doesn’t contain any spoilers.

Now let me interrupt for a moment to say that some people have a hard time understanding what a main conflict is. It’s NOT a list of the themes found in your manuscript.

Bad summary example: “My novel is a heartwarming tale of friendship and love in which two souls must come together after a hardship has befallen them.”

Ick. I get this one all the time. Drives me nuts. First off, don’t tell me your story is heartwarming. I’ll decide that for myself. Second of all, that’s great that a hardship befalls them, but WHAT IS THE HARDSHIP? That’s the conflict, not that other crap that they listed. I don’t want to know the themes. I want to be able to tell the themes for myself by learning the actual conflicts of the story.

A main conflict is also NOT a description of the world you’ve made up or the creatures you’ve made up or whatever else you’ve made up unless you directly relate these elements to the conflict of the story.

Bad summary example: Welcome to the world of Eldyron, where magic and technology have reached their peaks. Some children ride broomsticks while others ride flying mechanical dragons. Some brandish wands while others use telekinetic devices called spingots.”

Obviously I just made that one up on the spot, but you see the point. It’s great that you’ve made up a new world, but what’s the conflict?! Is there an evil dude planning to use his magic to destroy the world? Is the main character an evil technological mastermind who plans to take control of the world? Whatever the actual conflict is, important people want to know it.

So what is the conflict then? It’s the problem. It’s what makes your story interesting, that thing that keeps everything from being happiness and giggles.

Conflict examples: bad guy trying to take over the world, obtaining revenge, people are disappearing, the class bully, etc.

It’s okay to include minor conflicts as well. It’s all right to describe your characters in more details if you show how their personalities lead to conflict. It’s perfectly fine to include interesting facts so long as they relate directly to the conflicts.

Also, your summary should focus the most time on the most important elements. Don’t spend a whole paragraph talking about the romance if it’s a very minor element. If your story has a strong romantic element, do mention it. A romance is always a conflict, and an exciting one at that.

Don’t forget to include in your summary the word count, title, and genre of your manuscript!

And if you want to see them, here are the summaries I wrote for the two hooks I used earlier.

Summary 1: “At 85,000 words, The Curse of Beauty is the first installment in a young adult fantasy trilogy following the life of Seph Morgan. When her parents were killed by demons, Seph dedicated her life to ridding the world of the nasties that lurk in the night. Having been trained to handle a sword at an early age and being half-demon herself, Seph is more than capable of taking out any demon unlucky enough to cross her path. While Seph appreciates some aspects of being half-demon (enhanced senses and agility, fast healing, impressive strength), others she finds extremely annoying (loneliness and an alluring, flawless beauty exceeding any human’s). For a girl who just wants to do her job and stay under the radar, drawing unwanted attention can be a huge inconvenience, sometimes a dangerous one.

When taken captive by a group of hunters who are neither human nor demon, Seph is furious until she learns something that changes her life. She isn’t the last of her race; she is simply the only female, which puts her hot on the market. Seph’s invited to attend the Jansen, a school that prepares half-demons for their future careers as demon hunters. Life changes dramatically for Seph at the Jansen. Whispers and catcalls follow her wherever she goes. She is now a teaching assistant for the sword training classes—where she deals with delinquent students who would rather check her out than pay attention to her instructions—under the direction of the extremely rude, hot, and mysterious Luke. But unruly boys aren’t Seph’s biggest concern. There’s another person out for her, someone more dangerous than anything Seph has ever fought against, and he won’t stop until he has her. The Curse of Beauty is equal parts action, mystery, and romance.”

Just FYI, that second to last line there, THAT would be the main conflict.

Summary 2: “Getting close to the most protected man in the world seems impossible, but Jade has an advantage that she doesn’t even know about. She has spent her life far from the Imperial City, living in the mountains—where her mother, the emperor’s twelfth wife, has kept them hidden from her father’s abusive habits. But after Jade finds her mother’s dead body and vows to avenge her death, she meets 23-year-old Tyrian, who plans to use her to gain his own political aspirations. He tells Jade about her previously unknown lineage, that as one of the emperor’s eligible children she can compete for the throne, and about his intent to help her do it. Tyrian might be conceited and dealing with his own tortured past, but Jade recognizes in him the same relentless determination that drives her. They both are willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want. Jade has no intention of ruling an empire, but she has no problem using Tyrian. She’ll go with him to the Imperial City and pretend to play this political game to try to win the emperor’s favor. How else is she supposed to get close enough to kill him?

Divine Vengeance is a young adult fantasy that combines the revenge plot of The Count of Monte Cristo with the royal sibling rivalry found in Stardust. Full of romance, political intrigue, adventure, and mystery, the manuscript is complete at 100,000 words. It is a standalone with series potential.”

And lastly, you’ll want to include your author bio in your query. Very little needs to be said about this. If you’ve got writing credentials, include them, if you don’t, don’t lie. It really doesn’t matter. Unless you’re a New York Times’ bestselling author looking for a new agent, the big guys really don’t care about your credentials.

So there, now you have no excuse NOT to include the plot of your manuscript in your query.

Jupiter Ascending did NOT fail because…

Jupiter Ascending Movie Cover

…of bad casting. Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, and Sean Bean did a pretty great job considering some of the lines they had to say.

…of poor world building. The different worlds and species were not that bad. The idea of harvesting humans so that a select few could live forever was pretty interesting, if not entirely original. Most of the technology allowed you to suspend your disbelief.

…of the setting. The worlds were visually stunning. The spaceships were unique and interesting.

…it starred a female character. This is so important. Fantasy and Sci-fi shows featuring female leads CAN and WILL be successful, just as soon as the producers can get all the REAL issues taken care of.

And what were the real issues of the movie? Poor storytelling and characterization (I won’t even get into the HORRIBLE romance).

One of the biggest issues with the storytelling and characterization (and one that I see frequently when reading manuscripts) is a lack of proactivity from the main character. Main characters are supposed to DO things, not have things done to them. It’s okay to have an inciting incident that gets the character in the position she needs to be to start being proactive, but for this type of story, the main character needs to be proactive during the majority of the story.

Allow me to give an example of this. Let’s look at Katniss, a female lead who stars in an excellent book and excellent movie. Katniss has a very simple life. She lives under horrible circumstances in district 12, but does she sit around crying “Poor me”? No, she breaks the rules by going through the fence and hunting to provide food for her family. That, my friends, is proactivity. When it’s time for the reaping and Katniss’s sister is chosen to participate in the hunger games, does Katniss cry and bid her sister farewell? No, she freaking volunteers to take her place. Proactivity. In the games, does she just sit around and wait to die? No, she takes care of Peeta and thinks of a way to beat the system. Would you consider Katniss a victim of her circumstances? No, she’s a fighter and a survivor. She is a wonderful proactive character, and that is why she and her story are so fascinating.

So I’ll say it again, characters cannot sit around and simply have things done to them. They have to fight back. They have go out and do things. This makes them interesting.

Now, Jupiter Jones is not proactive. She has things done to her. She’s kidnapped…how many times during the movie? Four? She does what people tell her to do. Caine says stay. Caine says follow me. She has to go with the bad guys. She agrees to marry one of the bad guys, even though she’s sort of his reincarnated mother. Eew. Weird. Who thought that was a good plot element? Was anyone else reminded of the movie Thumbelina? Sure, I’ll marry the toad. Sure, I’ll marry the mole. What the heck?

The only times I can think of when Jupiter actually did something were when she agreed to go with the bad guys to save her family and then when she refused to sign over the rights to the earth to save her family. But that’s it. Two decisions. That’s what Jupiter’s character comes down to.

And THAT’S why Jupiter Ascending failed.