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.

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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

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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

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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

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.

The Bigger Bad Guy

You guys have already heard me talk about how much I love the TV show The Vampire Diaries. Aside from having wonderful and consistent romantic tension, splendid characters, and fantastic plots—all things that are very essential to the makings of a good show—I’ve been able to pinpoint more specifically what makes this show so good.

I’m calling this idea “the bigger bad guy.”

It’s a fantastic device that works well to create well rounded characters, show excellent character development, and help the story get better and better as it continues. (How many times have we been disappointed by a second or third season of a show—or a sequel to a book series—because it wasn’t as good as the first one?) The Vampire Diaries only gets better with each succeeding season—something I can’t really say for any other show.

I’m now going to talk about “the bigger bad guy” and how TVD uses it. *Spoilers may be below up to the third season.

First, take a look at this guy.

Damon

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This is Damon Salvatore, our antagonist for season one of TVD—well part of season one. His brother, Stefan Salvatore, has just moved to Mystic Falls, your average small town. Except, of course, for the fact that there are vampires and other mystical creatures—a very creative town name on the creators’ part, I know. Damon has promised his brother an eternity of misery, so he follows Stefan around to try and make his life hell. At the moment, that mostly includes ruining Stefan’s budding relationship with Elena Gilbert. Oh, and Damon also has a secret agenda to reunite with his one true love, Katherine (Elena’s doppelganger), whom he believes has been stuck in a tomb for 100 years, give or take.

Now check out this chick.

Katherine

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This is Katherine. Turns out, she wasn’t stuck in a tomb. She’s actually been just fine out and about living her life. Damon’s crushed at first, but once he falls in love with Elena (whoops), he moves on. This is when Katherine makes her appearance and starts making it her agenda to make both brothers’ lives miserable. So now Damon is a good guy (most of the time.) He helps Stefan and Elena out as they try to get rid of Katherine.

Now at this point, things are a little harder to follow, so I’ll summarize even more.

Elena gets kidnapped by Rose.

Rose

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Rose assumes that Elena is Katherine (another whoops), which is why she kidnapped her in the first place. Katherine sort of helps to get her back. But before that happens, Rose takes her to this guy.

Elijah

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Elijah needs Katherine as a bargaining chip. You see, his brother Klaus has been holding his brothers and sister as undead hostages in coffins. Rose eventually tries to help the rest of the gang fend off Elijah and provides information on these scary brothers. Turns out that Klaus is even scarier than Elijah.

Klaus

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And eventually Elijah joins the team to try and stop Klaus, who is basically unkillable. Our ultimate bad guy.

Note that there are many other bad guys throughout the TV series. I’m just trying to give you guys a taste of what I’m talking about.

But now on to the main points I’m trying to make. There’s always a bigger bad guy. This enables each episode to be better than the last. Because the stakes are higher (vampire pun intended), and the conflicts are more intense as the bad guys get badder and more powerful.

It’s also fascinating to see characters undergo such change. The bad guys become good guys as their goals align with the good guys’. They don’t always become perfectly good—they still have their fun flaws, but they do change in remarkable ways that are exciting to see.

Now, TVD isn’t the only show out there that’s doing this. Look at Loki’s character in the second Thor movie. Look how he aligns with Thor to face a bigger bad guy. Look at Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These changeable bad guys are everywhere. And look at how much we love them! These are the characters that have the most fan girls—just saying.

Sometimes looking at where characters are going can help you solidify who they need to be at the beginning of your story. This can help with rounding out characters and their development. And it also makes for some interesting plot turns.

Avoid Cliches Like the Plague

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More often than not, I find myself having to reject manuscripts due to clichéd writing. Since it’s one of the most common things I see in the slush pile, I thought I’d talk about it so other writers can avoid it.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about occasional clichéd sentences, like “I was so scared that my blood turned to ice in my veins” or “I needed to avoid him like the plague” or other commonly used metaphors and similes. Such uses are often effective when used sparingly and at the right moments. They’re often the quickest way to get your meaning across.

And I’m not talking about tropes found within specific genres (because each individual use of a trope should be unique even if it’s the same type of situation), like the damsel in distress or the chosen one or the guy gets the girl.

I’m talking more about the scene level. Specific scenes that aren’t accomplishing anything new in the story, yet are included anyway. Let’s talk about the most common ones that I see.

  1. The main character describing herself by looking in a mirror.

I swear some people put a mirror into the scene just for the sake of describing their MC. But there are thousands of ways to describe a character without doing this. You can do it through dialogue. You can have the MC outright state it. You can have your character have a bad hair day. Whatever. The important thing is that the descriptions enter the text naturally. Don’t make it sound like you’re trying too hard.

  1. The school scene

In contemporary YA manuscripts, unexperienced authors often feel the need to lay out the main character’s entire schedule. Then we have to watch him go through the whole schedule. Such scenes add nothing to the plot. They only give us minor details and go into great detail about the setup of desks in a math classroom or the posters found in the chemistry room. I don’t care how beautiful the author’s writing is. If he’s describing something that I’ve seen a hundred times, I’ll find it boring.

  1. Excessive use of a character’s name

In first person POV, when introducing the main character’s name, a side character will tack her name at the end of a line of dialogue. But then another character does it. And another. And another. When people talk to each other in real life, they rarely use each other’s names. Only if we’re trying to get their attention.

  1. Bringing a character from our world to a new world

Now this can be argued as being a trope, but this bugs me in certain genres. In middle grade, it’s okay. Do it all you want. For YA and above, I see it as a no, no. It’s cheating. It’s a way to introduce your world building to a character unfamiliar with the new world. I am so sick of reading about the disbelief of the main character and waiting for her to catch up with everyone already a part of the new world. There’s no reason not to just have your main character be a part of the new world already. There are other ways to show the world building to the reader. You don’t need to spell it out to one of the characters. And if you’re doing it for the sake of having a main character who speaks and thinks in modern English, you’re just being lazy, and I will have none of it. (Note that time travel is not the same as world travelling. I think time travel is perfectly fine.)

  1. The completely irrelevant and meaningless prologue

I cringe just thinking about this one. I have to read so many prologues that don’t make any sense. Prologues that are uninteresting and much too wordy. Writers seem to have a hard time grasping why this isn’t okay. Let me put it this way. Books with prologues have two beginnings: the prologue and chapter one. It’s hard enough capturing a reader’s interest once. If you have a prologue, you have to engage the reader twice. That’s an extra opportunity you’re giving him to put down your book. And you’re asking him to sit through meaningless scenes until he gets to where the story really starts. So why bother?

  1. Uninteresting magic

If magic plays a large part of the story, it cannot be bland and unexplained. If the magic feels like that found in another story then you shouldn’t do it. Be unique. There are types of magic. Elemental magic, strength-draining magic, mystical amulets. THESE HAVE BEEN DONE BEFORE. Come up with something interesting. Something that makes sense. Don’t have magic for the sake of having magic. (See my post Three Awesome Shows and Magic That Fails for more information.)

  1. Dream scenes

Just don’t do it. Dreams are so overdone. Don’t do it to reveal important plot points. Don’t do it to tell things to the reader without the main character knowing. Don’t do it to start off the character’s bad day. Just don’t do it. Show plot progression other ways. Ways that require you to be clever. You’re a writer. You can be clever, so do it.

  1. Fainting to end a scene

It’s okay if your character faints for a legitimate reason at an inopportune moment, but don’t use fainting as a way to avoid a transition or to avoid coming up with what complicated thing could come next in that scene.

  1. A diary holds the secret

No, a diary does not need to hold the secret. The main character needs to do something clever to learn the secret. That thing which will make them discover the next course of action. By her own ingenuity your MC can solve the problem. She doesn’t need to find it in a book. Diaries are lame. Diaries are overdone. Diaries are clichéd. Don’t be clichéd.

No cliches

Maria Murnane

 

You can be smart. I promise you can. You can have unique ideas. It may be difficult, and it may take time, but you can do it. Be brave enough to try.