If you’re like me, you’ve wondered if Vella is a good use of your time, writing, and marketing resources. The short answer: Maybe. The longer answer: Possibly, if you have a marketing platform already. And the longest answer? Well, that’s a complicated algorithm, as Amazon would say… and it’s perhaps as mysterious as how they compute their bonuses or select featured authors.
Amazon’s new platform offers authors the chance to share their works, short or long, in a serial format much like those offered on Wattpad and other “mobile first” (as Amazon describes it) platforms. This month I jumped on the Vella train and began publishing my own serial (A People’s History of Magic). In a true Novemberish Nanowrimo-like burst of energy, I’ve been releasing episodes in a frenzy by reworking a novel I had reluctantly set aside, thinking I’d never have the time to edit.
Of course, I still don’t have the time. I just write it anyway. Vella is addictive.
sage arcane newly-gleaned knowledge:
Tip # 1: The greatest downfall of Vella is that Amazon doesn’t know how to promote it. Be prepared to promote yourself, and find a way to make it fun.
Tip # 2: Sure. You don’t have to put this work in. After all, you’re busy writing a serial! But if you’d rather have an audience than languish in obscurity, you’ll want to find a way to enjoy the marketing process. At that point, consider a new marketing launch with every episode, or even every other. Why is this important? Because when you launch a traditional book on Amazon, that’s when you create the biggest buzz. But then the buzzing stops buzzing… and before long your hard work is a dead fly littering Amazon’s shop window.
Statistically, with a traditional Kindle release, if you miss this brief window of momentum, you’re sunk. All that can save you is an expensive booklist blitz or the happy chance that Neil Gaiman tweets about your novel. But with Vella, readers who tune in at any point will be directed to episode 1. So even if a title or graphic for episode 10 is what finally grabs someone, they’ll still be funneled to the start of your serial.
Also, when promoting new episodes instead of the serial in general, marketing yourself won’t feel as repetitive. After all, you’re genuinely sharing fresh content (and hopefully some fresh artwork) with readers.
Tip # 3: Compose interesting episode titles. Now is not the time to be literarily uptight or conduct yourself like you’re in a stuffy MFA program. Create titles that would grab your attention. If you’re posting to social media, who knows what new, unique base each of your funky titles might reach through SEO’s.
As an example, my last two episodes were titled “Palantirs, Monkeys’ Paws, and Pomegranates” and “Occam’s Razor and Kevin Spacey Coffee.” Why? I dunno. Because it was fun. I have no regrets. (All right, that’s not true. I feel slightly guilty for positioning William of Ockham anywhere near Kevin Spacey.)
Tip # 4: Another technique is to utilize the comments area at the bottom of each episode to improve story pacing. Most authors use this feature to engage with the reader or offer their contact info, since no links are allowed in Vella. But Vella lends itself to short, fast-paced plotting, and if you’re breaking down a more traditional novel, like I am, it can be difficult to find stopping points that will hook the reader.
Voila! A teaser in the comments area can help propel readers to the next episode even if your current episode wraps up rather neatly.
Tip # 5: Lastly, if you’re unable to devote the amount of time (or to imbibe the amount of caffeine) necessary to frequently release new content, try adapting writing that you weren’t planning to sell in a traditional format anytime soon. There’s little to lose by publishing on Vella (Amazon currently allows authors to later re-release their stories in book form), and you can experiment with reader response rates and build a following while practicing your craft.
My current Vella is a comedic science fantasy and adventure mashup that crosses several genres and would be hard for me to traditionally promote, but on Vella, I’m already addicted to watching it unfold. Now I get to learn if there’s a market for my bizarre Umbrella Academy-meets-Luke Danes from the Gilmore Girls-meets-The Office ensemble cast of misfits.
And if there’s not? At least I had fun naming the episodes.
Please drop me a line and send your thoughts on Vella; I’ll be posting another blog with more tips soon!
Kendra Griffin is an indie author, writing teacher, and developmental editor who has never met a good dog or a good underdog she didn’t fall in love with. Learn more about Kendra on her website or follow her on Twitter or Facebook. Her Vella serial is called A People’s History of Magic, and the first 3 episodes, like all Vella serials, are free.
I love giving feedback on first chapters of novels, especially in the young adult genre, and especially to young writers.
So from now until April 23 at midnight (Mountain Time) I’ll take the first chapters of 5 Young Adult novels and offer some free critique and feedback. For more extensive details, click here or see below. (***To qualify, you must meet and agree to the guidelines at the bottom). I particularly love apocalyptic and dystopian and paranormal.
Now, the promised tips, gleaned in part from agent panels at writing conferences as well as my own students’ and critique group’s process.
Make sure your character is doing something active right away. It’s too easy to have the character waking up, sitting at a desk daydreaming, or riding a car, bus, train, plane, etc. to somewhere else in the first scene. Readers want to immediately connect to a main character (MC) who is doing something and sharing who they are.
If your first scene does begin this way, don’t despair. You might want to take what works from those first few paragraphs and then work in those details a bit later, once there’s action. For example, if you wrote the best line ever describing a bug crawling across your MC’s ceiling as the MC is lying in bed, get the MC out of bed and doing something, like throwing darts at the bug. Or trying to save the bug, which is limping. Or heck, maybe your MC eats the bug. That’s definitely interesting.
Show agency. What does your main character want and how will they try to get it? Even if they are failing at something (like eating the bug) showing them trying to do something is way more interesting to the reader than a character who is just thinking. Yes, teenagers do lie around running thoughts through their heads — a lot — in fact, I still do that for hours at a time — but try to weave their amazing thoughts into some great internal or external dialogue while they’re interacting with other people or items.
This means that no matter what fun first scene you begin with, you want your reader to glimpse, and root for the MC’s real wishes, desires, or character arc. Sure, there’s a bug crawling across the ceiling that’s the size of an upside-down squirrel. That’s a conflict. But the MC wants to be a dancer. Make the reader know this. Maybe the MC throws a ballet shoe which weighs nothing and accomplishes nothing. Maybe the MC makes some kind of heroic leap toward the ceiling to catch the bug. Maybe they befriend the bug and learn to imitate its movements and invent a new dance craze!
Avoid overwhelming the reader with complicated backstory, epic battles, or lengthy conversations with numerous other characters in the first scene. Make the MC the star. Help us care about them and get to know them before introducing a chaotic scene. No matter how interesting that scene might be, especially if the bug is part of an alien plot to take over the world, we’re not going to care that much unless we have met the MC and become invested in their career as a dancer. Once that happens, as readers, we won’t want to see their goals thwarted by the bug apocalypse.
Lastly, don’t worry if your first chapter breaks any of these guidelines I warned about. The first chapter is the one you’ll revise the most often, anyway, and it’s better to do after you’ve written the end of your novel and understand how to link it back thematically. For now, just write! Have fun! Get to know your characters, immerse yourself in their world, and just get your story down on the page, because it needs to be told!
I hope you spare the bug. Its name is Herman. I’m certain of it. Well, maybe Henrietta.
**If you want to submit your chapter for critique, please visit my website (here) and then respond to this post there letting me know your name and the (tentative) title of your work. Then email me through the “contact me” link on that website. If you’re one of the first to respond, I’ll get back to you and ask for up to 12 pages of the first chapter (industry standard; Times Font double-spaced).
Have fun, and happy writing! If you’re stuck, I have a blog post on writer’s block to get you unstuck.
Kendra Griffin, Professor of English at Aims Community College, is the author of Young Adult speculative fiction novels The Pox Ward and Apocalypse Thoughts. Learn more about her work and creative writing workshops here or sign up for her newsletter (Get The Pox). Apocalypse Thoughts will be free on Amazon through midnight on -4/12, or you can enter the Goodreads Giveaway through April!
If you’re like me, you spent January 6, 2021 watching social media whenever you could, cringing, and wondering how, or even if, you should stay focused on your creative endeavors.
You can. You should.
I’m not going to be blithe here — this has been a dark day. Or as might be better said, a pale day. I can’t worry that this post might seem to pick a side. I am picking a side. The side of voice. Voice and vote matter, and any person who serves to undermine another person’s right to share in the governing of their country — well, that’s an arch nemesis of epic proportions. So stop reading if you think voices that don’t sound like your voice should be quashed; stop reading if you believe, “Their vote isn’t valid because it was different from my vote.”
Artists don’t think that way. Dogma asphyxiates art.
Focusing on our creative projects was incredibly difficult in 2020 and is shaping up to be so in 2021. These suggestions are tailored to helping you push through your novel draft and reminding you why it matters.
Trust that your work can espouse the values you want to see in the world. Commit to including these themes in your WIP, no matter the genre. You don’t have to be writing high literature to convey the idea that all people matter, or that a kind action is more important than a sarcastic wisecrack. Even a minor character can echo an important theme.
If you’re feeling dispirited, try writing a happy ending even for the characters you know won’t get one. You may never include it, but this will help you meet your characters, cement motivation, and sharpen backstory. Likely it will enrich the plot or arc. And if nothing else, it will cheer you the heck up.
Consider new forms of diversity. I believe in the Own Voices movement and in seeing more equity in the publishing world, and I’m not trying to tell you to write anything that feels inauthentic to your experiences. But including diversity in any way supports the general idea of less regimented, non-binary thinking. It’s not all about race and religion or other hot-button issues you may feel unequipped to tackle capably. Can you include characters of varying socioeconomic status? Region? Talent? Educational level? Height? Learning styles? Family complexion? Age? Dig into your own experiences for details or events that might not depicted in the mainstream. My father owned a pet raccoon as a kid. Why? Because he grew up poor, in Appalachia, and it got injured in one of his traps. Also, it was free. Including a detail like that not only represents a wider swath of readers and experiences, it’s more interesting than simply plunking another pet golden retriever named Lucky into your book.
Remember you can’t fix all of the world’s problems in one work, so don’t put that pressure on yourself. Focus on one goal that makes you feel like a part of the solution. In my current WIP revision, I worked hard to not allow “darkness” to constantly connote negativity. This was tricky, since my characters are often running through the woods at night from feral cannibals on a hiking trail. Halfway through, I brainstormed positive images of “darkness” my protagonists might encounter in the woods. The musty smell of wet tree bark. The quiet stillness of a night sky after a muggy day. The mysterious, cool depths of a lake. Rich hot cocoa and strong coffee (when my characters/kids could get their hands on some — they’re living through a pandemic, after all!) The smell of soil after rain. The sheltering timbers of cabin logs and lean-tos. Wise black pupils on white birches. Tanned, weatherworn Appalachian faces. Thick-boiled, blackstrap molasses and real maple syrup. Dappled hound dogs… Sorry: I digress. This was fun for me. I have to go work the molasses into the novel now! My protagonists will like that. I’m at the all-is-lost point, and their stomachs are growling.
No, I didn’t censor. Flashlights are still a useful tool; the moon is still gorgeous (though it has a dark side!) and the white trail blazes are still a welcome sight when lost in the woods. But choosing just one stereotype to defy not only gave me a sense of purpose, it likely made my writing less cliché.
Visualize yourself telling others how you pushed through writing your book/completing your art process. “That’s amazing! And then what did you do? And how did you come up with the idea to use this word/color/ink/router bit/glaze?” Answer your interviewer with confidence. Your art matters. You completing your project and having faith in your process is a way of demonstrating your faith in the world.
Find a cohort of writers that will help you set and support goals. (Through writers groups, Nanowrimo, your local library, for starters). Plus, in Covid times, you might even get the human contact you need to stay emotionally healthy enough to finish the project.
And last and perhaps least, when writing I like to turn off my wifi, set a timer on my phone, and set the phone to airplane mode. This is all to shame myself into not checking Twitter every few seconds to notice if the world has plunged further into chaos or to check if Thoughts of Dog can pull me back out of said ensuing despair. Having to log in again sometimes gives me just the reminder that I turned it off out of self discipline. I consider this the equivalent of that horrible 80’s “refrigerator pig” gimmick that oinked whenever the fridge door opened.
I hope you finish your novel. If you are an artist of any kind, then you must believe that your voice, metaphorical or not, matters. I’ve spent nearly twenty years teaching creative writing, ESL, comp, literature, and critical thinking in general, and I’ve seen firsthand, over and over, that engaging with the human condition does help foster empathy in others. Our creative voice, as well as our human voice, is sacred.
I won’t make you work for it — this book was immediately useful, genuinely interesting, and greatly improved my novel.
I picked up this book for two reasons. First, I had the uncomfortable feeling I should have studied story structure sooner and that my current WIP was lacking something. I also wanted to be able to articulate plot structure better for my own creative writing students. Save the Cat! helped with both goals. The real aha moment was when I realized my “theme stated” wasn’t actually stated. Yikes. With this clarification, my character went from not knowing what he wanted (not a very interesting goal) to knowing exactly what he wanted while having to learn how to overcome his flaws to get it. It’s been a lengthy process to unravel my novel’s plot points and restructure with Save the Cat!, but it’s been worth it. Even more encouraging is that I’ve been better able to plot the sequel having now internalized this structure.
Like many books on craft, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need, written by Jessica Brody and published in 2018, begins with an introduction that is probably an expendable eleven minutes of your time. (Disclaimer: I listened to the audio version). Save the Cat! Writes a Novel follows the celebrated, highly successful version written originally for screenwriters, and no doubt Brody wanted to frame the “story beat” context and honor the insights of Blake Snyder’s original Save the Cat method.
But you? You’re a busy writer, with barely enough time to perfect your new “stuck at home during the end times” bread-making, ice-cream churning, terrace-hydroponics gardening or essential-oils candle-making skills. Meanwhile, you’re reading a book on craft to motivate yourself to write a novel (perhaps about a bread-making, ice-cream churning housebound superhero) or, more likely, to work through a sticky structure issue. So skip the intro unless you need to be convinced the book will be useful. It will be. (And hey, besides, haven’t we all been warned dozens of times we’ll never be one of the chosen few agented authors if we dare present them with a prologue? Why then are we reading one?)
Unsurprisingly for me, I digress. Brass tacks time: figuring out how to plot, improve, or edit your novel.
Summary: Brody structures this book around the now-famous “story beats” which break down how and when certain plot points and thematic events must occur. Brody points out these beats, done successfully, in novel after novel, analyzing classics and recent best sellers from numerous genres. Brody does urge you to listen to the chapters in order, saying that your being stuck somewhere in your writing process is likely the “symptom, not the real ailment,” meaning that you need to understand your character’s arc in order to know how to lead them through events. Brody explains that her book is about “plot, structure, and character transformation,” referring to them as “the holy trinity of story.” The book comes with worksheets and pdfs on “Ten Universal Lessons,” various exercises to make your hero “story-worthy” or brainstorm important aspects of character arc, and of course, the book includes a timeline of the ever-important “story beats.”
I didn’t wholly follow Brody’s advice regarding how to use the book. I read the first several chapters in order, in which the story beats and general principles are discussed, and then starting skipping around to listen to the different genre examples based on my own writing interests. But in the end, I listened to them all, because each genre has something important to teach about novel writing.
Why this book works: Yes. Save the Cat! breaks down novel-writing into a semi-formula. And this approach, so loudly discouraged in MFA programs and literary circles, can have its drawbacks. Any novel that relies too heavily on formula can lose its fluidity and become staid and predictable. However, the real artistic integrity behind Save the Cat! is that it espouses character over plot, arguing that the structure of a story is woven through a successful combination of both character development and the timely plotting of events that resonate with said development. The examples provided by Brody, with genre breakdowns such as “monster in the house” and “fool triumphant,” are thorough and well-explained, thus helping the reader immediately connect to Brody’s points.
I’m on board. To accompany a character as they transform, to be taken by the hand as they reveal how they became such a perfectly flawed, wonderful, complex bundle of ganglia and neurons and neuroses — that’s why I write. Writing novels is addictive. Magical. Surprising. Transformative. And Save the Cat! proves that while plot matters, it’s the thematic resonance behind each plot point and story beat that makes us care about the protagonist’s story.
Lastly, and I say this after having taught creative writing for years, the worksheets provide genuinely useful activities and questions for consideration regarding character development. Many books teaching story structure for commercial writers provide such rigid guidelines that they leave little room for actual creativity, thus becoming a parody of themselves as structure guides. Not so with Save the Cat! (Follow me if you’re interested in my upcoming review of the Story Grid). Save the Cat! will teach you how current, commercial novels are being plotted and will surprise you with is consideration of theme.
Sure, each writer has a different need when it comes to a book on craft. If you want something literary and articulate that makes you remember why you want to write, or even exist, try Lamott. If you want a workbook or regular practice to get you writing, try Cameron. If you want an intensive book on line-level craft and devices, try Gardner. And of course, if you just want to read a fascinating memoir about the life of a novelist steeped in the human condition, try King.
You might want to try Save the Cat! if:
You have imposter syndrome about being a novel-writer. After reading this, you’ll know more about structure than many exiting MFA programs. Four years deconstructing the description of a coatrack in Maugham may not always translate into the writing of a satisfying novel that hooks readers.
You have always wanted to write a novel but haven’t made much progress. Reading this book and following the exercises may well tell you if you’re ready, or even truly interested, in the longer pursuit. If you are ready, you’ll have a path for moving forward.
You are stuck for ideas/stuck in the middle of your novel. Checking in on where you should be at a certain point in the story, structurally, can often jog your brain and help you rediscover where the energy resides.
You’ve written your novel but suspect the arc and structure need a tune-up. Yup. This was me. I had no trouble writing my last novel, but I knew it did not fulfill a clear arc. STC! helped me see what I was unwilling to admit: my character, though beloved to me, had muddy development on the page. Here’s a link to my revised novel (a dystopian YA about a post-plague world).
You’re thinking about trying NaNoWriMo. This book is a fantastic opportunity to work on story plotting for the week before Nano so that you can hit the ground running (though the NaNoWriMo website also has excellent resources).
Disclaimer: I listened to the audio version of STC!, which included the necessary beat sheets and story exercises as pdfs. The narration, by Brody, was commendably upbeat without being overbearing, and I also give her credit for sounding equally enthusiastic about the lengthy deconstruction of dozens of novels.
Anti-disclaimer: I am not an affiliate and in no way benefit from your purchase of STC! I’ve been evaluating books on craft for my teaching of college creative writing courses and have been commenting on my findings on my blog. (There you can find reviews of other books on craft and my suggestions on various writing skills such as reducing word count, writing distinctive dialogue, and/or overcoming writers block).
Otherwise known as: what do you do with a drunken sailor?
So it’s been smoothing sailing so far in your story-writing, or to use another cliché, it’s been clear skies until the writing of an important scene in relation to both your plot and character development. Now the storm hits. You’ve got to include numerous characters without confusing the reader. Suddenly, you’re knee-deep in speech tags, waves sloshing over the bow, and trying to bail.
So what’s the event? Well, you’re having a party, everyone’s invited, including Old Cap’n Two-Parrots, and you’ve got to help the reader keep track of names, personalities, motivations and plot developments.
You can do this, though. (So keep your eye on the horizon). What’s more, you probably really need to do this. Many novels can benefit from this kind of party scene, all-hands-on-deck moment. Remember how juicy and satisfying it was to see Jim and Pam from The Office (American version) interact on a cruise ship while sporting evening wear? Or to watch Hermione and Luna and Neville transform at the Yule Ball? Or even experience the awkwardness of a large dinner party full of smug marrieds in Bridget Jones’s Diary? A group scene is often necessary to up the tension, demonstrate how delightfully characters can play off each other, and move the plot forward. But here, naturally, arise some concerns.
How to keep characters memorable and distinct
Not overwhelming reader with names and characters to keep straight
Not letting confusion cloud plot/events
How to show who is speaking and when w/o overdoing speaker tags
Maintaining authentic voices
And now, the promised tips:
Keeping the voices distinct here is crucial. It’s okay, if the three teens who are not central to the plot, all sound a little similar. But if you’re writing YA, then you’d need to dive down deeper and flesh out personality in each voice. Either way, there is more than one way to keep voices distinct (see my blog on this topic).
If this is the first time you’re introducing your characters, you’ll want to go back later and flesh out voice once you’ve written the entire novel and know them better. You’ll need to lean on and draw from all you know about their personalities to keep readers following who is who.
Make both what they say and how they say it relevant to the plot and authentic to the character. Are they bossy? Do they ask questions? Use rejoinders or epithets?
INTRODUCTION OF CHARACTERS:
Don’t introduce them all at once. At least a few sentences, purposeful, not just for characterization/description, are useful for any major character the reader must keep track of.
Add a few visual and personality traits, and make sure to reinforce them quickly. Ideally, the names will resonate with these qualities. Link concepts in readers’ minds, even subtly. Try, if possible, to attach names, when introduced, to a grounding, character detail.
Particularly if this is the first time a character has appeared in the story, make sure names are not too visually or auditorily similar.
You may need to use names during this scene more often than if only two characters were in the room (instead of mere pronouns).
CHARACTER WORK BEHIND THE SCENES:
Consider roles. If one character is bossy, can they be the one who argues no one at the table can have more than one roll on the first pass around of the dish, etc.? This will help readers immediately realize who is talking. Cap’n Two-Parrots isn’t going to be the one asking all the questions; he’ll be the one singing off-key sea chanties. Bonus– he won’t need a speech tag if we know he’s the one slurring his words!
Do the character work first, before writing the scene. Once you do, it will be a delight to write and indulge in the recognition that yes, if Hector begins choking, Chandra will be the one to help him, and Hiro will be the one to dive under the table to retrieve the fork. Why? Because you know them. If you do the character work ahead of time, writing these interactive scenes feels like coming home.
Yes, it’s a no-brainer. But have a friend read the scene and tell you if and when they were lost as to characters. You might even try handing them the scene (as an experiment) with extremely minimal speech tags. If you can write a scene with multiple characters and the voice is so distinct that no tags are needed, you’ve succeeded brilliantly with character development. It’s like hitting that sweet spot between the gears on a standard transmission; if you know when to switch, if you know your engine, you may not even have to clutch. Yes, I know. I’ve lost the pirate ship analogy. I’m sure you’re thankful at this point. Argh.
Don’t overcompensate by overdoing speech tags or exhaustively repeating characters’ names in speech. However, you may need to lean on this a little more heavily than usual.
Don’t forget to use action tags to break up the monotony of dialogue tags.
Don’t slow down the pacing with long character descriptions. Work in one or two unique, identifying details naturally. If you must include a setting and or character info dump, do it at natural conversational lulls, not in the middle of the action.
DO: Have fun! Who knows what Cap’n Two Parrots will do when he meets up with Aunt Edna at the annual Swashbuckler’s Ball? Unless you write a party scene, you’ll never know.
Experiencing writer’s block? Check this out.
Trying to reduce wordcount? Check this out.
Check back soon – I’ll include some dialogue examples and offer a prompt to practice on this topic! I’ll also offer a chance to get some free feedback on your party/group scene!
I’m pretty sure I offended an abacus in a past life. And I’m pretty sure my downward spiral into the underworld of negative zeros and ones is the karmic result. (Don’t tell me there’s no such thing as a negative zero; have you ever tasted plain seltzer?) Most tech hates me, even the tech that isn’t secretly hiding its evil sentience.
But I finally did it. I told the my mental critic that this was 2020, and that their constant yelling about how “any route besides traditional publishing would make me a failure” was no longer helpful. And so I released an ebook on Amazon. And then a KPD book. And someday soon I’ll really know what I’m doing and maybe take it on the road. But I can’t tell you how relieved, proud, and inspired that I’ve found the agency and confidence to undertake this process.
It wasn’t easy. First came a long argument in which my inner critic revealed themselves as a multi-personed “they” who includes:
The ex boyfriend. (Which one? Who cares. They’ve become a blur of soft t-shirts and sharp comments).
The Girl Scout troop leader. She shamed me for not selling enough cookies the winter my mother died. Yes, really. “Sorry, girls; we can’t attend the jamboree because someone (long horse-faced stare my way) didn’t make their quota.” I’m totally over it, though. Tagalongs, what?
The nuns. I doomed them to Limbo when I panicked and forgot their instructions during my First Communion.
Another blurry ex boyfriend.
Possibly Gandalf. The jury is still out on this, but I’ve always feared I accidentally knocked a loud metaphorical object down into an endless well and drew a horde of Orc into this realm.
My parents. The have staunchly declared they are not part of the critic’s miasma. But I’ve always believed they’d somehow finally be proud of me from the other side if I were a print author.
Innumerable others. Enough said.
After winning this argument mostly by shoving the critic into a mental broom closet, I began my new life as the author of ebooks. (As I write this, the critic is sulking about the spiders. A fair point. I don’t clean much.)
Yup. Here is it– the obligatory link to my book. Do I expect a massive sales rush from my few WordPress readers? No. Am I super proud of it and do I want to show it off? Yes. You got me. https://urldefense.com/v3/__http://www.amazon.com/dp/B08CXD4W91__;!!DV0tHk0!LCAaNIXJb64vQB2ts4kKl9r22N45oQm8mU1lSCsJmU_PflJlSzIn4sIkUCgbautSO4wl$
Why can’t I hyperlink this and call it by its name– The Pox Ward? Because zeroes and ones hate me. Sigh. Sorry, Abacus.
Seriously, feel free back to this blog and ask me questions about this process!
Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
I won’t minimize the work agents do. They work hard. Really hard. And the cut from the publisher isn’t stellar in the first place, and their cut is even smaller than yours, and they want you to succeed. I still recommend trying both routes.
Just don’t, if you decide to step into the world of self-publishing, don’t let yourself think for a minute you aren’t good enough. Gaining agency in your life is healthy and brave. Experiencing new things, taking chances, and jumping off a cliff — that’s why we’re here. It may be that deciding you want to “choose your life,” instead of waiting to “be chosen” is a good enough reason to jump.
I know. Authors writing blogs about writing to other authors is weird, right? If YOU publish a book, that might be one less I sell. Sure, I get that. But I can’t live in that kind of world. I just wish you luck! I want to believe the universe is infinite and there’s room for all of us.
In my next post I’ll talk more about my hints and tips for undertaking this process w/o losing the will to live. I can’t wait to teach my students what I learned!
***Photo of sunrise on bridge by Donal Conn
Wouldn’t it be awesome if I could straight up just tell you how to land an agent in this post? And wouldn’t you think I had a ton more credibility if I’d already secured one?
I’m heading to a writing conference this weekend to learn more about craft and marketing, and I’m hopeful. (See my post on PPWC and questions I’ll try to get answered). I’ve only recently begun querying, having waited a long time for my 10,000 plus hours of “mastery” to ennoble me. I’ve also done a copious amount of revision on both my series and and standalones. My first recent rejections have reminded me that I chose to be in this for the long haul and cannot let myself be stuck in the swamps of despair.
It’s okay. I’m new at this, but determined. As a writer, you’re probably like me– you’d rather do your taxes, clean the sink traps, gutters, and even your friends’ sink traps and gutters, and then do your back taxes (not based on a real incident), than begin querying.
I’ll tell you that querying will be daunting, time consuming, and ultimately, a learning process that will improve your manuscript and your skills. I know it has mine. Also, I like to put things in the positive. Yes, I realize there’s a finite number of agents, book deals, and Harry Potters. Meanwhile, we’re competing with a possibly infinite number of monkeys on an infinite number of typewriters. But since I’ve begun writing my novels, the creative process has been kind to me in that the more I write, the happier I am. I can only believe that honoring our creativity means we’re on the right path for our lives.
I teach creative writing at a college and have an endless (and perhaps annoying) amount of optimism for the craft. So here are a few pick me ups as we wander that path together…
Not finding an agent right away means you have more time to work on that next novel. That’s right–you can’t stop writing just because you’ve finished that first book. You have too much to learn by writing your second! The process will give you clarity on your previous work and teach you about your strengths, weaknesses, patterns, and process. While waiting for those slow-to-arrive responses, if you’ve been working away, you’re already even better at writing than when you sent the query!
Rejections of your query letter itself tell you that you need a better query, and this is useful info. Really. The query is not the book. It’s an animal unto itself, and if agents are not responding, then you need to reconsider how you’re approaching them. Luckily, there are many resources for writing good queries, and I’ve linked a few at the bottom of this post.
If you are getting asked for pages based on your query, you can take heart that the main features of your query (genre, concept, word count, pitch, character arc, comps, and overall author demeanor) must hold some appeal. But if agents are not getting past those first ten pages, that also indicates that you need to write better first pages. Why is this good? Well… okay. I’ll stall and admit something here: that back taxes thing was based on a real incident, which I suspect you knew.
Seriously, though… the opening pages of any book are the hardest to write, and very likely, you can improve them! So take heart. If your novel concept appeals to agents but you’re having trouble leading in to the book, it’s easily fixable. Often authors hit their stride a few chapters in. Your work on other projects as you wait for query responses will again help give you the perspective to improve the start. However, since you might not see this rewriting endeavor with quite as much optimism as I do at this moment, I’ll move on.
Most importantly, you’ll have time to work on that author platform! You don’t want to miss out because an agent liked your query and pages but checked out your public persona and found you had none. No, not all agents care about platforms, but some do, and you should have some awareness of this by researching each agents’ own platforms. You’ll also learn more about their personalities, wishlists, and if you two would work well together.
Pitfalls to avoid (I need a better verb here. Who swerves toward a pitfall?)
Don’t give up. You don’t suck. Probably. And even if so, that’s a subjective judgment you have no time for. Once you keep going, and keep writing, and keep learning, you will no longer suck, anyway. So tell that critical voice in your head to take a vacation or jump off a cliff, depending on your mood. The creative process loves you and wants only the best for you. Publishing is beyond its ethereal control, but writing regularly and with passion is within yours.
Don’t tear the book apart with massive reconstruction until you’ve written at least one more book and have a better sense of how novels are constructed. Most authors’ first books are not published, or at least, not published as their breakthrough novel. Frustrating as that is, keep going. That’s what a writer does. So write. Write. Write. Drink water occasionally. Then write more.
Don’t turn to self-publishing as a knee-jerk reaction. It may well be the best option, and I’m all for fighting the power and resisting the massive profit portions that publishing houses take. But if you do turn to self publishing, again, wait until you’ve had time to thoughtfully edit and revise the manuscript. You don’t want to immortalize something you might later realize wasn’t ready to be published! You also need to thoroughly research self publishing. You might not be able to ever market that book to an agent afterward. We’re better than random monkeys, but we’re not all Andy Weir, either.
Okay, enough with the pep talk! Here’s a great blog by a compatriot on the trials and tribulations of beginning the search for an agent.
And below, some good resources on queries:
If you’ve been considering checking out Amazon’s episodic Vella serials, I’m here to recommend five original, polished products that start with an opening that will get you hooked.
Vella, if you didn’t know, offers readers an interactive reading experience through author notes and “thumbs up” of episodes. Readers can also vote for their favorite Vellas by offering faves in hopes that their beloved stories earn a crown. More importantly, all Vella serials are free for the first three episodes, and Amazon also gives readers 200 credits at the minimum to kick off their experience on the Vella platform.
Since I’m both a Vella author and an editor, I recently offered a free first-page critique for serials of varying genres. I was impressed by the quality of the writing as well as the variety of crossover genres and inventive strategies for presenting author comments. (And this is the fun part, because that’s where you can see the inside scoop or find opportunities to give suggestions or feedback in real time on their websites). You can also join Vella Facebook author groups to get talk directly with authors. For example, here’s a great site for lovers of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Science Fiction and Fantasy Readers.
There were so many stories I loved (and some I didn’t), but here are my top five Vella recommendations, based on a stellar first page, for January 2022.
N. Y. Seely
“Sidekick Wanted. No experience necessary. This sounds like the perfect side hustle for a financially-challenged bicycle courier like me. Besides, who doesn’t want to be a hero?”
Sidekick is a smart, slick, comedic ride through the streets of near-future Portland, Oregon on the back of a twenty-something courier-turned-superhero-sidekick’s bike. Seely’s voice deftly propels the story as it weaves through pop culture and superheroic jargon and allusions. Ride with Callisto as she dodges traffic and carries out mysterious missions for her faceless boss. The writing is fluid and fast-paced with a seemingly effortless pepper-spray of jargon. This genre-crossing comedic futuristic adventure story is as entertaining as it is well-written, and the author notes will keep you reading to learn more about Callisto’s hijinks.
“On paper, Detective Fox Argall is a hero: handsome, wildly over-educated, eccentric, adoring his wife with epic passion. When a string of broken children arrive on his doorstep like offerings, Fox is forced to follow the breadcrumbs to a showdown with an old and dangerous enemy.”
Looking for a mystery story that’s as polished as it is suspenseful? Welcome to book one of the Fox Argall Mystery series. Chapter One: “The Beginning: Countdown from Darkness,” is lyrical and character driven. You’ll be hooked from the moment you experience the terror of the “small soul” in the woods who might yet live and find “helping hands and deliverance” if Fox can solve the mystery quickly enough. In Ruin, MacCrae pulls off a rare feat — a unique POV in which we learn about our protagonist through the eyes of those who both love and fear his quirky, self-absorbed, and brilliant persona. Through MacCrae’s skillful narration, you’ll be as invested in his wife and detective partners as you are Fox. You might even like them more than Fox — but ultimately only Fox can save the day.
“For as long as they can remember, Arron and Pix have known life in a woodland tower with the man they call Father — a grizzled old mage from a bygone era. But when the past deeds of their benefactor come calling, they suddenly find themselves deep in a world foreign and perilous.”
The Wizard’s Kin is a young adult story that is complex and rich enough for adults and kids alike. It opens with humor: a fresh take on human/elf relations is depicted through a conversation as unscrupulous and bickery humans discuss the oddity of elves. The scene ends satisfyingly with the scoundrels being outwitted by the elf-teens, Arron and Pix. However, young Arron and Pix are quickly plunged into an even deeper and more complex fantasy world as they discover more about their powers and the dangers that surround them. With a compelling storyline and warm themes of family, loyalty, and self-discovery, you’ll enjoy Grayson’s talented depiction of these Wizards’ Kin coming-of-age.
“Betsy Dark is 87 years old. She cooks BBQ, helps her neighbors, and, two years ago, became a vampire.”
Told through multiple POV, the narration is sardonic, dark (as promised) and tongue in cheek. How could it not be, when the protagonist is a grandmother turned during a tryst with a vampiric Earl MacDonell of Dorcha? This seduction in part is because Betsy had drunk “far more whiskey than a woman her age should have. What, with her bladder issues and all. Chuckle as you will, dear reader. But Betsy would challenge you to have four children naturally, then live to be eighty-five years old and see if you don’t soil a knicker or two.” Despite this fantastic scene, it’s the opening that really delivers — a punch. For Hallford begins our story with a boxing batch in which Betsy Dark gets her dentures knocked out and then stops time — for just a moment– so that she can reinsert her dentures and take just a nibble at her opponent.
“When Amy falls through a portal, she finds herself in a world where mythological creatures exist and humans don’t. Captured by a terrifying insect warlord … she must navigate a bizarre new land and stay one step ahead of a creature bent on ruling his world. With technology from hers. Technology that only exists in the movies.”
Meet Amy, a young anthropologist who begins episode one by performing a fascinating autopsy on an equally fascinating and inexplicably strange-looking and mystical bear. The quirky, inventive opening (aptly titled “Amy and the Unbearable Bear”) soon requires Amy to harness all her anthropological skills, as well as to suspend her disbelief, when the creature reveals itself to be related to a “single horned, three eyed, shaggy black creature from Cantabrian folklore.” The kicker is that this creature is the same one featured on the cover of Amy’s deceased mother’s book. A book which, until now, Amy assumed was fiction. With strong characters, original worldbuilding, and a fun metafictional blend of mystery and adventure, you’ll watch Amy navigate the fantasy realm that ensnares her.
I’ll be critiquing and reviewing more Vellas next month, so stay tuned. Meanwhile, remember: while Amazon makes you log into your account to view its Vella platform, the first three episodes are always free, so you can shop around and get to know the authors. If you enjoy reading serials and interacting with authors, check out the FB Vella groups to ask authors questions and let them know what you think of their work!
Kendra Griffin is an indie author, writing teacher, and developmental editor who has never met a good dog or a good underdog she didn’t fall in love with. Learn more about Kendra on her website or follow her on Twitter or Facebook. Her Vella serial is called A People’s History of Magic, and the first 3 episodes, like all Vella serials, are free.
You’re knee-deep in your series about ambidextrous alien octogenarian acrobats who take over the world one trapeze act at a time. You’ve got a first novel published, another in the editing stage, and at least three more half written or mapped out on coffee-stained notecards in your writing room. (This room is actually a walk-in closet you’ve soundproofed with recycled packing materials from the past year’s mail-order binges, but hey, what struggling author has an entire writing room?)
Okay. Suddenly, in “real life,” ambidextrous octogenarian acrobats land their spaceship in Death Valley. Now you’re writing a series that needs to stay relevant and incorporate the fact that apparently such villains have three legs and are myopic. The myopia is a real problem for you, plot-wise, since it’s hard to hypnotize prey through coke-bottle glasses or bi-focal contact lenses.
In short: how do you keep your series authentic and relevant when technology and large scale current events change how readers interact with your worldbuilding?
My Pox series, begun in 2012, is set in a post-plague world. I built it slowly, putting it aside frequently while improving my craft and of course, attending to my day job. Last March I decided it was then or never, and I’ve since released two books on Amazon and will soon release a third.
Here are a few things I’ve learned about this process of keeping your world relevant:
Don’t Forget the Toilet Paper
Include a few eternal key details that give your work authenticity. You can rely on the human condition here. For example, after the horror movie that was 2020, it’s only logical that any scene in which YA characters are packing their car to flee for the hills during a pandemic requires a snarky comment about how much it will suck to run out of toilet paper. That’s because people will always need toilet paper. It’s never going to be irrelevant. This, as well as something like Zoom fatigue, has become part of our shared experience.
Now, the future version of Zoom may not be called Zoom. But if you use a name that is recognizable in context, like “V-room” or “Emeet” you’ll be covered. We’ll always need to connect. And people will always be frustrated by tech glitches even if we don’t specify what kind of tech or what kind of glitch. Ask yourself: what changes are likely to remain a part of our shared experience?
I’m guessing murder hornets. Ugh.
Take a Wiki Approach
By this I mean: Pitch crucial technology or plot details toward a “layperson” audience.
Most likely, experts in a field, if they’re enjoying your story, aren’t going to roll their eyes too much over your getting a high-level tech detail wrong. Unless you’re writing in a niche market, aim for the middle of the road with your jargon and scientific explanations.
For example, before Covid hit, sketchy details on viruses and poxes and mutations and vaccines would have sufficed for my series. But now the average person knows viruses can’t be cured through antibiotics and would expect masks to play some part in post-plague world attire. Thus, for dystopian worldbuilding after March 2020, I’ve had to figure out for myself, as well as my readers, if the feral-cannibal-producing strain in my series is due to a mutation or a variant or a bacterial reaction, and so on.
This info admittedly wasn’t easy to deliver concisely in the novel itself, but Wiki helped me get a grasp of what readers might need to know. Basically, I look at what Wiki shares on a topic, assume the average person will know about half of that, explain it at that level in the novel wherever it needs to go (while avoiding an info dump), and try not to use any language that would require a footnote if on Wiki. In short, your readers probably don’t care if you use the Latin plural of virus, but if you do include it, get it right!
I made that up. Sort of. Anyone know if there is one?
Which brings us to…
Balance, Some Teetering on the Brink, and More Balance.
If you create a detailed, futuristic world intended to be Earth, you will always run the risk of your premise later seeming outdated or negated by technology or world events. We can boil this down to the “cell-phone effect.” How many older movie or novel conflicts would have been resolved with a simple phone call, etc? A novel set in 2040 about a black-market organ harvesting ring will fall pretty flat if we’ve figured out by then how to make affordable organs with 3-D printing. This idea can scare writers into not writing future worlds.
However, we must not fail to embed specific, concrete details into our worldbuilding. That’s what makes our writing vivid. So the key here is balance. Decide what you can leave vague and what you need to define. Leave room where you can so you’re not painted into a corner. Focus on the danger, the drama, the conflict. That won’t age out. Unless you’re writing hard sci fi, you probably want to get into the crux of the problem and not the minutia of the solution or technology. Say the protagonist lives in a world where, oh, I don’t know, teenaged tributes are forced to fight in arenas while horrific cyberdogs attack them just as they’re about to escape. The hook is the conflict, the fight, and the characters, not how the cyberdogs were created or colorized or dropped into the arena.
Lastly, Get Something Right.
Do this by picking at least one detail of your world to expand upon that you can get right and which cannot be updated into being wrong. An example of this would be the desert in the Dune series. Herbert went for authenticity and evocation of emotion. These scenes were hot, dry, sandy, eyeball-scorching, and gritty. No matter how many times I read Dune, I still find myself stopping mid chapter to get a drink of water.
Sure, it’s a fictionalized world, which helps the author avoid technology advances muddying up his series, but moreso, the setting details steal the show and will always eclipse any minor incongruity re space travel. No one cares if there’s a plot hole involving g-force. Why? Because Herbert was an expert on Arrakis! And giant sandworms! And stillsuits! And partying on spice!
Yes, it’s been challenging to write about a post-pandemic world while we’re enduring a pandemic, but it’s also been fascinating to watch life imitate my art. I hope you allow yourself the freedom to create the world your heart longs to write about. In the end, readers will connect with your ideas and characters more than the technicalities of one or two plot details. Have fun, and happy worldbuilding! If you’re stuck, I have a blog post on writer’s block to get you unstuck.
Kendra Griffin, Professor of English at Aims Community College, is the author of Young Adult speculative fiction novels The Pox Ward and Apocalypse Thoughts. Learn more about her work and creative writing workshops here or sign up for her newsletter (Get The Pox). Apocalypse Thoughts will be free on Amazon from 4/9-4/12, or you can enter the Goodreads Giveaway!
I can’t figure out how all my friends are finding so much free time lately. They’re learning to bake bread with pumpkin glaze, how to give self haircuts, how to construct elaborate home art projects like mini Sistine Chapels with their kids–meanwhile, between my teaching job (now done remotely) and wiping down the house a zillion times for germs, I’m not learning any cute new skills. And I’m certainly not bored. I’m just writing–and it’s a joy.
If you’ve thought about embarking on your own writing project now that you’re home more, you’re not alone. Many people are turning inward, examining themselves, delving into their creative sides, and finding the courage (and inspiration) to write their memoirs, pen that chapbook of poems, or tackle that novel idea they’ve always (maybe literally) dreamed of writing.
Whatever you do, make sure you take the time to cultivate a strong critique group. You need this not only because you need support during this opportunity, but because you will inspire each other to write more, write better, and write with more focus. Finding a good critique group isn’t easy even in non-Covid times, and likely now you’ll need to conduct this online. Don’t despair. I’ve started two great critique groups online since March, and you can, too.
Such a group can be found in many places, especially since distance and commute now have little bearing on the endeavor. Start with your local library programming. If they don’t offer a group, request one. You’d be surprised how often and how quickly public libraries respond to programming requests, especially those that allow librarians to enjoy their creative side. Since this will be online, reach out to any library or group that interests you. I started one this way a year ago; we’ve since transitioned to Zoom sessions and meet regularly with a strong core group of writers.
Additionally, you can try a local writers’ organization. Search them in your area and see if any host writing circles. Membership costs are usually low and go toward a dedicated group of volunteers; some are free. Other benefits will likely include creative writing workshops and sessions by industry professionals. I’ve been a member of this type of group for three years and wouldn’t trade their feedback on my novels for anything. Lastly, of course, there’s Meetup. And with Nanowrimo coming up this fall, be on the lookout for local write-ins and writer’s circles.
Now, once you find your group, you’ll want to set some ground rules. I recommend meeting regularly to gain momentum. Even if no one is willing to share at first, try discussing a sample work. Once you get going, consider limiting submissions to ten pages so that readers aren’t overwhelmed. Eventually, you’ll get savvier at figuring out who gives useful feedback and who just keeps saying, “I really like this.” Lastly, don’t make your meeting links public. That’s not safe. And if anyone is hearing impaired, Google Hangouts has an excellent closed-captioning transcription.
Now get going! The only way to be a writer is to write!
Kendra Griffin is a writer and teacher of writing; her website can be found at www.kendragriffin.com
This summer I’m giving myself a mini self-guided MFA program on novel craft. As I perused numerous books that purport to teach me the craft of writing, I decided, what better way to absorb their material than to write a brief review of each?
Brief being the goal. I’ve actually never been brief in my life.
You can read my first two reviews on Goodreads here:
The First Five Pages: For novice writers looking to avoid common writing pitfalls, and for any level of writer hoping for good writing exercises to stretch themselves.
The Art and Craft of Fiction: For all levels looking for breezy, feel-good, albeit digression-filled insights on the writing life (and some techniques.)
Writing Blockbuster Plots: coming soon
As I launch the project, I pose a few thoughts about what makes for a useful book on craft. Why? Because asking ourselves what a “good book” on craft should teach requires us to define those intangible questions we’ve been struggling with in our own writing life. So please, in response to this post, pose the questions you’d love to see addressed by a non-fiction book on craft.
Personally, I’d love a book detailing what current, saleable novel arcs should look like. We all know that we won’t make our debut with an arc such as House of Leaves or Slaughterhouse Five, or with a word count like Rowling’s. So next—The Plot Whisperer, and then I plan to also evaluate Save the Cat, On Writing, The Story Grid, and at least one other on the topic of overall novel pacing/plotting.
Any suggestions for what you’d like me to review?
Lastly… here are some questions to ask yourself that I’ve gleaned from teaching writing (and some “tells” I spot with new students that I use to keep in mind to meet them where they’re at.) I can’t provide an exact equation for the list below, but if you say yes to several, you’re probably at least in the intermediate-plus range. The problem inherent with this list, as with the art of writing in itself, is subjectivity. And you well may be an accomplished dialogue-writer with a serious lack of awareness of plot and story arc. Or vice versa. I’ll discuss techniques for gaining reflection on yourself as a writer, and thus a better audience awareness, in a future blog—once I’ve finished reading all these books!
Do you write four plus days a week?
Do you write at least an hour when you do write?
Do you read in your genre regularly?
Have you attended any creative writing conferences?
Have you taken any classes in creative writing?
Have you taken any MFA courses?
Have you published any short stories, poems, or novels?
Have you written any short stories or poems in the last month?
Have you finished a novel (first draft?)
Have you finished a novel (edited?)
Have you published a novel?
After reading my blog on “Distinct Dialogue” did you already know most of the basics mentioned in the first few sentences?
I promise, these questions are not meant to engender guilt or a feeling of inadequacy. We’re all amazing creatures with complicated lives that conspire at times to keep us from writing as much as we’d like. If you want to accomplish any of these goals, you eventually will!
So stay tuned for Part 2 of my search for the most useful books on writing!
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Contact me for quality, affordable editorial assessments and developmental editing. I specialize in fantasy, sci fi, women’s fiction, and all aspects of young adult and middle grade novels. You can also find me through https://www.statusquill.com