Writing Advice: Selling at Conventions

In this video, I offer some advice for selling books at sci-fi and fantasy conventions, a lot of which is also applicable to book fairs, Christmas fairs, village fetes, and anywhere else you might get a table for a few hours to sell your books.

There’s some general advice and tips from my experience. I’d hope some of it, like being nice to people, would be obvious, but it doesn’t hurt to say it.

In convention news, I will be at Bath Comic Con, on 23rd March 2019. It’s in the Bath Assembly Rooms and I will have a table in the ball room if anyone wants to come along and talk to me about books, writing, or fandom in general.

Writing Advice: Prologues

I am trying something new. Instead of a written writing advice post, this is my first video on writing advice, covering the subject of prologues in fantasy novels.

This is my first video of this type, so I’m interested in feedback on how I could improve it, as well as ideas for other topics I could discuss.

The series/books I discuss in this video are:

The Lord of the Rings/The Fellowship of the Ring by J R R Tolkien

A Song of Ice and Fire/A Game of Thrones by George R R Martin

The Kingkiller Chronicle/The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J K Rowling

 

Traditions

I enjoy celebrating Christmas even though I’m not religious. I enjoy spending time with my family, exchanging gifts, eating good food, seeing all the lights everywhere, decorating the Christmas tree, and all the different traditions that go around it. But you also find that different family groups have their own traditions and practices. For some families, religion is the central piece of the celebration and so there are carol services and nativity events, mangers and midnight mass. For others, religion doesn’t play a part in it and the traditions are centred around family and friends.

We have a few traditions in my family. Like meeting up to go and look at the wildlife photography exhibit in the Natural History Museum. Various aunts, uncles, cousins, partners of cousins, and so on all meet up to have a look at the photos and then go out for a nice meal. This isn’t something you would find in any summary of the Christmas traditions, but it’s something we’ve done for a few years now and so it’s become part of our tradition.

We have other things, like a trip to the cinema on Christmas Eve with my parents, and a hamper that we all contribute too. This isn’t a fancy hamper packaged up by a shop, but a box that we all fill with special treat foods, things that we don’t get very often, or things that just seemed different and fun. Sometimes things in the hamper are specifically intended for one person (like the crystallised ginger my mum loves) but other things are intended for all of us (like a shared chocolate orange).

So why am I talking about this on a writing blog?

I think when world-building, it’s tempting to make everything too homogenised. All the people in this area follow the same religion and practice the same traditions in the same way. In the real world, it doesn’t work that way. Everyone has their own subtle takes on the standard. Even in the same region, culture, and religion, you will find variations. It’s worth including that in your stories, and especially tying it into other factors. The differences around a shared experience can be a great way of highlighting other differences between characters or showcasing their backgrounds or even bringing in moments of conflict and character development.

Perhaps one character makes a big deal about the shared meal because they used to go hungry a lot when they were younger, and having lots of good food is a reminder to themselves that those days are over. Perhaps one character follows an older set of traditions because of a religious upbringing. Perhaps one character feels that they have to shower everyone with gifts while another feels uncomfortable receiving so much and ashamed because their own gifts are small. Perhaps that could be a cause for resentment between those characters.

I enjoy creating traditions, rituals, and celebrations in my world building, but it can be fun to think about all the different takes people might have on these same traditions, and the ways that they might add to them based on their situation or character. Next time you’re inventing some big holiday in your world, consider each of your characters and imagine how each of them might treat this holiday a little differently.

Reading non-fiction

There’s a lot of advice out there for writers but one thing that comes up time and again is the advice to read. I whole-heartedly agreed with this advice. Read writers you admire and try to figure out what it is that they do that makes you like their work so much. Read books you dislike to try and figure out what it is that puts you off about it and avoid it in your own work. Read widely in the genre you write so that you can pick up on the tropes and cliches. Read in other genres to see how stories are crafted differently for different audiences.

But I would also recommend reading non-fiction. There’s a lot that can be learned from books that can be useful in your writing, but I’m not talking about researching a specific subject with a book in mind. Reading more broadly can give you a foundation of knowledge to build on when creating your fiction. Personally, I read a lot of popular science simple because I find it interesting, I’m also very keen on psychology, which I think is a really useful area for writers to read up on. As we create our characters, we want to have them feel believable, like real, solid people with personalities that make sense and whose actions are plausible in their circumstances. Even for those of us working in science fiction and fantasy, we want the characters to feel like real people. Reading psychology books can give us insight into what makes people act in certain ways and that can help as build more nuanced characters.

If you’re writing stories of political intrigue or dealing with the rulers of a fantasy land, it could be useful to read about historical rulers, but I would also recommend The Dictator’s Handbook, which I’m currently reading, a book all about the ways people gain and keep power, and the rules by which they’re able to rule.

There’s an old adage “write what you know” which a lot of writing coaches shy away from these days, but there is an element of truth to it. If you know a subject, you’re more likely to be able to write about it in a way that people believe in. At the very least, you can avoid the more obvious mistakes that will make experts on the subject cringe. If you want to follow this piece of advice, then the next step is to try and know more about as wide a range of topics as you manage. In other words: read more non-fiction.

The Submission Grinder

If you write short fiction or poetry, I want to share a wonderful resource with all of you: The Submission Grinder.

This website stores a lot of information on a huge list of magazines, publishers, anthologies and writing contents, and it’s all searchable. There’s an advanced search page that lets you put in details about the story you’ve written, like its genre and its length, and the website will give you a list of places that accept submissions of that type. You can add a bunch of other qualifiers into your search – like whether the place accepts simultaneous submissions, whether it takes print or electronic submissions, or even what the minimum pay you’re interested in is.

The website also stores information on how long it takes for various publications to respond to submissions and how many of those responses were rejections or acceptance. Each publication has graphs about this data so you can see visually how long you can probably expect to wait to hear back from the place you’re submitting to.

You get access to the search capabilities without having to sign up, but if you do become a member, you can also use the site to track your own submission history (something I’ve previously been doing in Excel files). You can log in a submission every time you send a story out and track the response, adding to the massive pool of data that the story contains, as well as having a log for your own purposes so you know exactly where you’ve sent your work before. As you start entering this information, you begin to get a dashboard that shows you how many stories you’ve submitted and what the responses have been, which stories have done well or badly, and even how much you’ve been paid.

While the submission tracking information is useful, this is stuff I’ve been doing for myself anyway, so this isn’t massively important to me personally, but the search capabilities are amazingly useful. This site is a brilliant resource if you’re trying to figure out where to submit your work.

Enjoy, and best of luck with your story and fiction submissions.

There was a blog post

It’s interesting what you don’t notice about your own writing until you have an editor go through it and point things out. I’m currently going through edits for the upcoming Wolf Unleashed and I’ve discovered that I have a serious problem with “there was.” A rather embarrassingly high number of sentences start with “there was” or “there were”. This is weak phrasing because it merely tells the reader that something exists, but doesn’t tell the reader anything about how that thing is.

“There was a man on the couch,” doesn’t tell us anything about the man except that he is there, but “A man lounged on the couch,” gives us some indications of his posture, which could be compared to, “A man perched on the couch.” Even “sat” would give us more information because it rules out the possibility he’s lying on it. By making the sentence more active, we can get more information across without really having to add anything by way of descriptions, just simply changing a generic “to be” verb for something more precise.

Sometimes the information is there in a different way, but getting rid of this phrasing makes the sentence more efficient. “There was a man lounging on the couch” and “A man lounged on the couch” get exactly the same information across, but the second sentence saves you two words. Two words might not sound like a great deal, but if you’re trying to get your word count down, especially if you write short stories, these can add up.

I hadn’t realised how guilty I was about using this phrasing until I got the edits back for Wolf Unleashed, but now I hope I will notice as my fingers type out “there were” or “there was” at the start of a new sentence.

I’ve been writing books for about a decade now, but I’m still making mistakes and slipping into bad habits. Learning how to be a writer never really stops.

A Case Study in Complex Characters

I want to take an example of a work of fiction and use it as a demonstration of how to write complex characters. The work of fiction I’m using here is the anime show Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, and I will be including some spoilers for the character development of some of the major characters (though I’ll try to avoid spoiling the main plot of the series as a whole).

One of the characters of this show:

  • Is a war criminal who slaughtered innocent people, including children
  • Wants to take over his country and leads a military coup
  • Joins forces with a mass murderer
  • Compares one of his followers to a pawn
  • Can be ruthless in achieving his ambitions

There is also a character in this show:

  • Who is fiercely loyal to the people who follow him
  • Cares deeply about getting justice for a murdered man
  • Wants more than anything to protect the people he loves and would sacrifice his life to save them
  • Wants to improve his country
  • Would risk his life to protect the innocent.

Screenshot of Mustang with chess setThe first character sounds like a villain, the second like a hero. The thing is, they’re both the same person. The character of Colonel Mustang is one of the main characters of the series through its entire run and he is interesting for his depth. He is a very powerful alchemist, capable of causing enormous damage with his power. It’s revealed that during a war that took place prior to the main events of the series, he was a soldier sent in to commit genocide. He and several others of the characters were involved in this fight almost wiping out an entire people. When the fighting was over, he was the first to admit that he and his associates were war criminals.

Filled with guilt over the blood he had shed, he decided to change his country for the better and bring an end to the military rule and constant warfare that was a huge feature of his country. He decided that he was going to work his way up the ranks until he has enough power to make significant changes.

Over the course of the show, he is shown to be highly ambitious, but that ambition doesn’t stop him from protecting the people who serve under him and in fact one of the main drivers behind his desire for power is to have more power to protect people. When one of his people is murdered, he is the most determined figure in tracking the killer. When another is framed for a crime, he helps her fake her death and escape from those following her. His people are fiercely loyal to him, but he is just as loyal to them. When going into battle, he orders his followers not to die and later tells people to leave him and run if things go badly.

The comment about treating his people as pawns came from a single moment in an episode. When his enemies have out maneuvered him and scattered his people, he has a scene where he is looking at a chess set and thinking of those he’s lost: “They’ve taken my knight. They’ve taken my rook.” All of the pieces – pawn, knight, rook, bishop, and queen – are mentioned in this context. So while one of his men does get describe as his pawn, it’s not in the sense that might be expected.

Screenshot of the Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood thumbnail on NetflixAs for the military coup and teaming up with a mass murderer, both of these are done to take out a threat, a villain who plans on causing a massive loss of life, and through the coup he avoids killing and has his followers do the same. His actions in this case are heroic. I find it interesting that one of the images Netflix uses on thumbnails of this show is an image of Mustang looking thoroughly evil. He is a character who has many of the character traits and goals associated with a villain, and who occasionally starts down a villainous path, but who remains ultimately one of the good guys.

The mass murderer in question is another interesting character. Scar is introduced in the early episodes as a villain. He is a murderer who goes around killing alchemists, and even tries to take out the protagonist of the show. He is shown repeatedly to be a ruthless killer. Yet, even in these early episodes, he is shown to have more to his character. When he is faced with a girl who has been the subject of a cruel, alchemical experiment, he feels pity for her. Her death at his hands is portrayed as an act of mercy because there’s no way for her to be saved. These events also show, even though his actions are vile, he might have a point about how some alchemists use their powers to commit atrocious acts.

At a later stage, Scar protects another girl, saving and defending her even though he has nothing to gain. Despite his clear position as a villain in the story, he shows humanity. As the audience, we gradually learn more about his background and it’s revealed that he was from the nation that was wiped out in the genocidal war. Despite his horrific actions, as an audience we can feel some measure of sympathy for him because he has very good reason to hate the alchemists. In the war of extermination, the alchemists were very much the bad guys and he feels his murders of them are justified. As each piece of information is revealed, we are able to understand what drives Scar to act as he does.

Later on, when he learns who orchestrated the war, he changes his tactics. Instead of going after the alchemists, he decides to go after those who gave them their orders and triggered the war in the first place. He stops wanting to destroy the country that destroyed his and ends up being one of those who saves it.

Screenshot of ScarHis actions are not forgiven. When he is confronted by the child of two of the people he murdered, he doesn’t deny that what he did to them was a crime. He doesn’t try and excuse it, even though there were excuses he could make. In this instance, he’d been caught up in an attack and just seen his family slaughtered. When he woke up in a hospital, he was disorientated and confused, and saw two people who were of the same race that had been waging war on his land. His instinctive reaction was that they were the enemy. But even though he had this excuse, he accepted that those deaths were wrong. His actions were unforgivable, but he as a person can earn forgiveness and changes. He is accepted by those he hurt and they are all able to move beyond their past.

His redemption arc works so well because even as a villain he was understandable. He had good reason for his hatred. Without ever condoning his actions, his motivations made sense.

This complexity of characterisation isn’t reserved for these two. So many of the characters in the series are shown to be interesting people with many facets to their personalities. One thing I found interesting was that even those characters which are framed absolutely as the villains of the series can have moments of humanity. One villain speaks fondly of his wife as being the one aspect of his life where he was able to choose what he wanted. One character has a death scene, after many episodes of him being shown as monstrous, in which he is a sad, pitiful thing, crying and alone. The audience can still feel a moment of sympathy for a character who is otherwise vile.

I found that really interesting, that even the most evil characters have motivations that can be understood – even if their actions were beyond awful. At one end of the spectrum, there are characters who are evil but who occasionally show rare moments of compassion or humanity. At the other end, you get the heroes, who are definitely good people but who have their flaws (like Ed’s short temper any time anyone calls him short). In the middle, there are a range of characters who aren’t quite good or evil, like the character of Greed who is extremely selfish but not really evil. Then there are characters like Mustang and Scar who fall at different points of this spectrum at different points in their character arcs, in a way that feels completely natural.

This show provides a great example of how a story can have characters with depth and layers, and the world of the show is filled with people who are flawed but understandable individuals. It’s a great case study if you want to learn how to build more complexity into your characters and write excellent redemption arcs.

Submissions

A couple of days ago, I was on the train and near to where I was sitting, a mother and daughter were having a conversation. I wasn’t deliberately eavesdropping, but I couldn’t help overhearing some of their conversation and at one point they started talking about the fact they were both writers aspiring to get published. The mother was talking about sending the work to agents. She said a few things that made me want to jump across the carriage to correct. I couldn’t do so at the time because it was a crowded train and there were people sitting between us, as well as it being awkward to just barge into someone else’s conversation.

But I’ve been thinking about that conversation and the things I might have said if I’d been sitting right next to them.

The woman said at one point that you don’t need to have a completed book to go out and hunt for an agent or a publisher. She said that you send out a synopsis and sample chapter but don’t need to have the rest of the book finished.

There is a grain of truth to what she said. When you submit a book for consideration, you do send out samples rather than the whole thing. Most publishers ask for the first three chapters and a synopsis (a summary of the whole book) but this can vary. Some publishers ask for a number of words or a number of pages instead, and the length of the synopsis can vary (500 word, 1000 words, 1000-2000 words, 2-3 pages, 1 page, etc.). If you are sending your book out, it’s vital that you check the submission guidelines of the publisher or agency you are approaching and tailor your submission according.

The main point I would question though is her assertion that you don’t need to have the book finished. If you are working on a fiction book, you should have the book completed before you send the samples out. There are a few different reasons for this. The first is simply: what will you do if they say yes? If you send out your three sample chapters and an agency or publisher comes back and says they like it, you have to be ready to send the rest of the book. You don’t want to get a positive response but have to go back and say that you’re only halfway through writing the book. The publisher is not going to wait.

The other big reason is that books change over the course of writing them. When I started writing Child of the Hive, Rachel wasn’t a character. I didn’t plan on her at all. I just needed someone to interact with Alex and Will at one point and I gave her a name. But then she kept coming back… and developed a crush on Drew… and insisted on being part of the plot. By the second half of the book, the story doesn’t work without her and I had to go and write her back into the opening chapters so that she wouldn’t just appear out of nowhere. If I had submitted the story when I’d only written the first three chapters, the synopsis and opening I sent would have only vaguely resembled the finished book. I had some major changes with Shadows of Tomorrow too. When I started that book, Cassie was the main character, but I realised a few chapters in that Gareth was the one making all the decisions and participating in all the action. I completely rewrote the opening chapters to focus on him as the main character to avoid confusing people as to who was the protagonist. Maybe writers who stick more closely to their initial plans than me won’t have this issue, but I wouldn’t be able to submit opening chapters at the start of the writing process because I would need to completely change them at a later point when the story changed.

A related point to this is that you shouldn’t submit the first draft of your book. When writing, you should go through different drafts. For me, the first draft is about getting the bones of the story down, working out the rough flow, and getting the plot sorted out. The second draft is about fixing the plot holes, making sure the whole thing hangs together, and, where necessary, inserting new characters into the beginning because they refused to get out of the story. The third draft is then all about tidying up. This is where I improve confusing sections, cut the boring bits, and fix the wording in places where it’s a bit awkward. I also attempt to hunt typos but I struggle with this. I only submit the story after all of this.

What you send to a publisher or agent should be the best book you can possibly make it and that means revising the book before you send it off. Not everyone needs three drafts. Some people who spend more time on the planning stages can probably do it in two because they have less plot hole hunting to do, but the fact remains that you still have to work on the story before it goes out. Just because the publishers and agents only ask for the opening of the book in a submission, it doesn’t mean you should submit when you’ve only written that far.

You might have noticed though that I specified ‘fiction book’ near the start of this post. The rules are slightly different when submitting a non-fiction book. Usually, you will submit sample chapters along with some information about the book (the target audience, what it’s similar to, what its unique selling point is, etc.) and a breakdown of what you will cover (similar to the synopsis). When submitting a non-fiction book, what you are submitting is a proposal for a book you intend to write. You don’t necessarily have to have finished writing it in this case, but as before, check the guidelines on the website of whatever publisher or agency you are thinking of sending your submission to.

Alien aliens

I recently read The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (UK link, US link), which is a great book for a lot of reasons, but one thing I particularly liked about it is that the aliens really felt alien. That may seem like a strange thing to say, but sometimes in science fiction you get alien species that are basically humans but with pointy ears or green skin. Some are given characteristics of a minority group for the sake of analogy, and some get exaggerated physical traits or, sometimes, mystical powers, but in a lot of ways they feel like humans.

One particularly common example of this is in terms of gender, sex, and physical relationships. In films in particular, but sometimes in books, alien women look like human women but with some superficial appearance changes. Alien races appear attractive to humans in standardly human ways. Alien races have two genders and follow stereotypical patterns of gender dynamics. It is as though every species in the universe is based on the template of white, European gender dynamics.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a refreshing change from this approach. In this book, there are several alien species, and there is an emphasis placed on how different gender and sexuality would be for these different species. So there is a species where every member of the species starts out female but becomes male later in life. There is a species that coexists with a parasitic virus so they are all referred to as they because they consider themselves a joint organism – the host and the virus. There is a species that has three different families as a standard – the family that raises the children is not the same as the family that provided the genetic material. This species doesn’t consider children to be people until they reach adulthood.

There is a sense of a vast and complicated universe, with every species having their own biology that influences their behaviour and attitudes. This is a complete contrast to another book I read recently (which I won’t name because I didn’t enjoy it) where every single character from half a dozen different species would have fit right in with a gathering of middle class white Americans (plus every single character in the book was male, except for the protagonist’s love interest who showed up for about a page and a half).

When it comes to science fiction, that old adage of “write what you know” is less applicable than ever, because the point of science fiction is to explore the unknown. When writing alien species, we should think about the variety of biology that exists even on our own planet, and imagine the implications of a sentient alien race having more in common with say bees or clownfish than humans. Those differences can be in everything from their methods of communication (the aliens in The Bride by Janine Ellen Young (UK link, US link) live in a vacuum so they don’t have verbal communication but communicate using viruses), or in terms of family dynamics (in Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon (UK link, US link) the alien young are protected by an older person who doesn’t have offspring of her own), or in terms of gender and sexuality as discussed with regards to The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet. When coming up with an alien race, let your imagination run wild or look at some of the weirder species on Earth for inspiration and design aliens that really feel significantly alien from us.