Creating Languages for Science Fiction or Fantasy

Earlier this week, I did Ten Tips on Orson Scott Card’s wonderful book, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. I decided his advice on language needed its own post. OSC gives a great deal of helpful information on a topic I have seen done poorly numerous times. Here’s his list of language do’s and don’ts.

Language No-Nos:

1. If you’re not a linguist like Tolkien, don’t create an entire language because you’ll likely just embarrass yourself. A few words are generally sufficient.

2. Don’t make up words or phrases just to sound foreign. If mugubasala is bread, just say bread! Save new words for ideas and objects that you created that truly have no English equivalent.

3. If the human mouth can’t pronounce it, don’t use it. This goes for names, too.

4. Don’t throw in a word or phrase you created and then not translate it for the reader. This is highly irritating. It’s most common to immediately translate it, although you can delay the translation a little bit if it’s for a good reason.

Name tag for a badly named character

Language Tips:

1. Remember it might be more powerful to show differences in culture than in language. For example, instead of your standard greeting being the made up word, “Zurple,” OSC suggests, “God give me strength not to kill you for having seen my ugliness.” To which the appropriate reply might be, “God forgive me for not blinding myself at once after having beheld your glory.”

2. Use your made up language, jargon, or slang judiciously. It’s a lot more fun to create than it is for your reader to slog through. Most of the time, you’ll use just a few terms to imply a jargon or cant. This goes for all of you writing a character with a cockney accent, too. Don’t drive your readers crazy with language.

3. When writing about people of high station living in heroic times, a more formal, elevated level of diction is called for. Here’s a sentence OSC wrote three times to illustrate this point:

Too coarse:  He dragged her over by the fireplace and yelled for Crimond to go the doctor because Sevora was out cold.

Too over the top:  Gently he laid her on the pliant bearskin before the merrily dancing flames of the hearth, then send Crimond, his astonished and frantic dwarf, to fetch the cirurgeon (notice the ridiculous spelling).

The correct level of diction:  He laid her gently on the thick fur before the hearth, then sent his dwarf to fetch the surgeon.

4.  When dealing with profanity or vulgarity, once again, OSC challenges you to think creatively. He insists that simply making up a new curse word doesn’t work and cited a few examples. This was pre-Battlestar Galactica, though, and I don’t think anyone can argue with the success of “Frak.” Still, I liked his advice to once again think of this culturally. In the US, one of our big taboos is sex. What if an alien came from a very casual sex culture but on his planet keeping property that you withhold from general use is seen as terrible as we see adultry?  He’s going to get his face slapped by a lot of women, but he might be outraged at his date’s walk-in closets.

Up Next:  The Four Basic Story Models for Science Fiction and Fantasy, or, How to Finish the Story You Started.

Ten Tips from How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card

osc sf & f

This is an older book, printed in 1990, and is hard to find in bookstores and libraries. It’s still in print, though, and it can be ordered from Amazon. I got lucky and found a used copy at Powell’s when we visited Portland last week. If you don’t write in this genre, I don’t know how helpful this book would be to you, but if this is your genre, it’s a must own. I had been reluctant to order it sight unseen, especially since the publishing information in it is pretty dated. However, the world building chapter alone makes the book worth buying. In fact, there was so much good stuff, after these Ten Tips, I’m going to do two more posts specifically dealing with creating languages and the four basic SF and fantasy story models.

1. Mistakes are often the beginning of the best ideas. OSC notes that because they weren’t intended, they are rarely clichéd. So if you can figure out why the mistake isn’t a mistake at all, you could have something fresh and wonderful.

2. When world building, remember that a great event in history or a new innovation never has only one result. For example, the invention of the car didn’t produce only a new form of transportation. Other results included drive-in movies, drive-thru windows, freeways, pollution, the political ramifications of OPEC, and some would even argue two Gulf wars.

3. Establish the rules of your world early, and then don’t break them. Yes, you need rules. Your story will be stronger and your readers will crave some sort of order so they can make sense of your world. You can’t have gravity one minute and gone the next, at least without a good reason, or you’ll just confuse people. Also, don’t make the solution to your hero’s problem at the end of the book that he found a work around to a major rule or that he is exempt from the rule. This is cheating. Your readers will rightfully throw your book across the room.  Just because Doctor Who does it routinely doesn’t make it right.

Doctor Who the Cheater

4. Magic should cost something. This isn’t a hard and fast rule as much as a suggestion. I’ve read good books where magic was essentially free. However, I will say the best fantasy books I’ve read deal with the idea that to gain the power of magic, you must sacrifice something. If you want to see a beautifully written example of this, read Laini Taylor’s Daugher of Smoke and Bone trilogy.

5. When writing aliens, creatures, or a new race, you should determine why, in evolutionary terms, their unusual features would have developed. You don’t have to give the mechanics of how, but you do need to think about why the features have survival value. “It’s cool,” is not a legitimate reason. This will give your characters and world more depth and believability.

6. Remember that the hero, main character, and the viewpoint character don’t all have to be the same person.  OSC reminds us that the most important character and the one that makes everything happen is sometimes a slimeball. He also cautions against making kings, queens, and other royalty the point of view character because while they have a lot of power, they don’t generally have much freedom of movement.

7. Know both the history and biography of your towns and characters. I did not follow this rule with my first novel, and it really came back to haunt me. Even if you don’t intend to give this background information (in fact, a lot of times that would be unnecessary and just slow down your action), you need to know the how and the why. Otherwise, your readers can end up confused by your characters’ motivations and actions. By the third book I knew why my characters where doing what they were doing, but it meant a lot of rewrites for that first book.

8. Avoid exposition dump in dialogue. Those of us writing SF and fantasy have a lot more to explain up front because of our new worlds, rules of magic, etc. The good news is readers of the genre tend to be more patient and will give you some time to explain. What they can’t stomach is terrible exposition. Don’t unload a ton of details into dialogue so that your characters are having unrealistic conversations about stuff they already now. For an example of this, watch any episode of Castle. Sometimes I think Ryan and Esposito’s characters are only there to rattle off facts of the case that the writers were too lazy to show us.

Ryan and Esposito on exposition in dialogue

9. You must send your work out.  I love how OSC puts this.  “You grow a whole lot more as a writer by getting old stories out of the house and letting new ones come in and live with you.  Don’t let the old ones stay there and grow fat and cranky and eat all the food out of the refrigerator.”

10. Writers have to simultaneously believe the following two things:

a. The story I am now working on is the greatest work of genius ever written in English.

b. The story I am now working on is worthless drivel.

You need A when deciding to mail the story out, B when revising, A when choosing which market to submit to, B when the story is rejected (of course, I expected to get this back), and A when sending it back out again.

If this post was helpful to you, I highly recommend checking out Michelle Proulx’s recent post about world building and population.  Heck, just follow her.  Michelle is not only helpful, but highly entertaining.

Up Next:  Creating Language for Science Fiction and Fantasy, or, Thou Shalt Not Write What the Human Mouth Cannot Pronounce

Ten Tips from Stephen King’s On Writing

I mentioned in one of my first posts that I’ve been reading a lot of books on writing and publishing that I hoped to put together into a separate writer’s resource page. That will still happen.  However, as I’ve been reading and taking copious notes, I decided I wanted to do more than just give a list of helpful books. I decided to do a series of blog posts that summarize some of the best advice and try to let you know if it’s worth reading the whole book.


The first up is Stephen King’s On Writing. I have to confess the only Stephen King I’d read up until this point was his column in Entertainment Weekly, which I miss greatly. I don’t know what his horror is like, but the man’s nonfiction is funny!

This book had been referenced in multiple other writers’ resources and on countless blogs, so I thought it was probably worth a look. On Writing has been out for thirteen years and my county library has five copies. I can’t renew it because there are two people on the waiting list.  Yes, it’s that good.  The book is half memoir and half practical writing advice, but all of it is fabulous. At the very least, put it on your must read list, but it might be one worth owning.  Until you can get around to it, here are what I thought were the ten best tips.

1. “If you write, someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.” This is not a practical tip of the craft, but an important life lesson King illustrated with a childhood story about a teacher that disapproved of his subject matter. Perhaps you aspire to write great literary fiction that wins Pulitzers, but I just want to write fantasy that entertains people. King writes what I have felt after receiving similar criticism for simply wanting to write in a genre that wasn’t considered high brow enough, “. . . in my heart I stayed ashamed. I kept hearing Miss Hisler asking why I wanted to waste my talent, why I wanted to waste my time, why I wanted to write junk.”

2. Perseverance. This is not something King specifically mentions, but you can’t read about his early years and not realize this was part of why he succeeded. He used to hang his rejection slips for his short stories on a nail. Eventually he had to switch to a spike to hold them all up. The first novel he ever sold, Carrie, was actually the fourth novel he had written, and he wrote it while holding down two jobs and helping his wife raise two small children.

3. “The road to hell is paved with adverbs. King seems to hate this part of speech in general, but he’s particularly against it in dialogue. For example:

“Put it down!” she shouted menacingly.

I winced as I read because I do this all the time. I thought I had a solution to the problem, and then I read, “Some writers try to evade the no-adverb rule by shooting the attribution verb full of steroids.” For instance:

“Never stop kissing me!” Shayna gasped.

Well crap. Now I’m in trouble. King’s point is you should have written the scene well enough via showing not telling that the adverbs and super verbs are unnecessary. A simple “she said” should do the trick. I had a beta reader tell me this already, but I was trying to ignore what I knew was excellent advice because it would mean a lot of revising. Dang it, now I’m going to have to do it.

4. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others:  read a lot and write a lot.” This piece of advice has been quoted in numerous other books, and it was a relief to me. I felt like the time I spent reading was time I stole directly from writing. King counts it as part of his daily working routine. That’s right, it’s work time. It doesn’t all have to be War and Peace, either. Read what you like, and often you can learn just as much from the terrible books as the good ones. If what you read just made you go “blech!” make sure you don’t do that yourself. Don’t neglect the second piece of advice, either. King says as a new writer you should have a goal of at least a thousand words a day and write six days a week. He reads about eighty books a year and writes two thousand words a day, seven days a week (even on Christmas and his birthday).

5.  You need a door. Your writing space doesn’t have to be fancy, and it doesn’t have to be absolutely silent if you work better with music, but it must have a door. You must close it. I write in a comfy chair in our living room. This space is rife with interruptions, and I keep telling myself I need to move to an empty bedroom upstairs. I haven’t done it, and if I’m honest about why, it’s because I kind of like the interruptions.

6. “What are you going to write about? Anything at all . . . as long as you tell the truth.” King talks about this at length and what it means, but the part about being true to what you want to write was particularly spot on:

“If you happen to be a science fiction fan, it’s natural that you should want to write science fiction . . . If you’re a mystery fan, you’ll want to write mysteries, and if you enjoy romances, it’s natural for you to want to write romances of your own. There’s nothing wrong with writing any of these things. What would be very wrong, I think, is to turn away from what you know and like . . . in favor of things you believe will impress your friends, relatives, and writing-circle colleagues. What’s equally wrong is the deliberate turning towards some genre or type of fiction in order to make money. It’s morally wonky, for one thing—the job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies, not to commit intellectual dishonesty in the hunt for the buck. Also brothers and sisters, it doesn’t work.”

7. “In real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character.” King reminds us that no one thinks of themselves as “the bad guy” or “the best friend” or the “whore with the heart of gold.” If we stop thinking of our characters in this way, we’re less likely to get “the one-dimensional dopes that populate so much pop fiction.”

8. “The first draft . . . should be written with no help (or interference) from anyone else.” This forces you to focus on telling the story, not fixing things based on criticism or slacking off if you get too much praise. It also helps keep the momentum going while you’re excited about what you’re writing. I’m not sure how I feel about this one. I’ve always had at least one beta reader giving me feedback as I write each new chapter. I’m willing to give it a try, though, and see how it’s different.

9. Let the first draft rest for at least six weeks. That’s right, six weeks. No rereading yourself, and if you give it to beta readers, they have to keep their comments to themselves for those six weeks. Start on your next project and don’t think about the old one at all. Once you’ve got six weeks between you and the initial frenzy of writing, you can go back and start revising for your second draft. You can be a lot more objective this way.

10. Second draft = First draft – 10%. King got this piece of advice written on one of his early rejection slips. He still adheres to it religiously. “What the formula taught me is that every story and novel is collapsible to some degree. If you can’t get out ten per cent of it while retaining the basic story and flavor, you’re not trying very hard.” I’d have to agree. In my own editing, I’ve found most of what makes my writing sound better is Strunk and White’s mantra, “Omit needless words!

Up Next:  Ten Tips from How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card

Epic Romance: A Character Study from Lost

The couples of the TV series Lost

Recently while my husband and I were grocery shopping and trying to locate some Goo Gone, he asked me a surprising question.

Husband:  “What’s Desmond’s wife’s name?”

Me, with absolutely no hesitation: “Penny.”

Husband gets a blank look on his face, followed by a frown. I have come to learn this means I have said something he wasn’t expecting, and he’s trying to figure out my mental leap. He smiles when he finally makes the connection to the character on Lost. He clarifies:  “I mean our neighbor Desmond.”

Me:  “Oh!  Hmm, I have no idea.”

There’s undoubtedly some social commentary here about knowing a fictional TV character better than the man that lives fifty feet from me, but that’s not where I’m going. I heard the name Desmond, and my brain immediately retrieved the name Penny with it. The two names are inseparable to me, even though the characters spent more time apart in the series than they did together.

Lost had no shortage of couples. It seemed each character in its sprawling cast had at least one significant other except for poor Boone. As everyone paired off two by two, fans picked their favorites. I certainly had couples I liked better than others, but there was only one couple on the show I would have given the label “epic,” and that was Desmond and Penny. I’d never really thought about why until an article appeared in Entertainment Weekly last month asking fans to vote for the best TV couples ever.

The only Lost couple that made the list was Sawyer and Juliet. I mentioned this to a few friends who had also watched the series, and the debating ensued. I’ve found if you get any five people in a room and ask them who their favorite Lost character was, you’ll get five different responses. However, while many of us did like the S & J pairing, it was Desmond and Penny that were universally loved.

As a writer, I have to come up with new characters continually. I want my characters to be so well loved that my readers see them as old friends. Additionally, what I write almost always has an element of romance to it. All of this Lost debate made me wonder what makes an audience root for a couple. What made D & P  or S & J so compelling? I decided to take a look at who I saw as the four main couples of Lost and try to analyze why they did or didn’t work. As with all things Lost, I’m sure some people will heartily disagree with me.  That’s fine; I’m not against some lively debate in the comments section.

Jin and Sun fight to the bitter end.

Jin & Sun:  These two certainly had an interesting storyline, and I absolutely wanted them to work through their martial issues and fall in love again. The redemption theme in their relationship was compelling, but in the end, these two were never going to be the “it” couple because they were just exhausting. As a side plot they were fine, but I’d never write a couple like them as my main characters just because I think my readers would give up in despair. An occasional fight can make the romance interesting, but I think this couple crossed the line into depressing one too many times.

Jack and Kate never worked as a couple.

Jack & Kate:  Blech, I don’t even know where to start with these two. Jack missed so many opportunities with Kate early on. She would kiss him, and he’d pretend like nothing happened. She’d tell him she liked him, and he would respond by ignoring her and running off into the jungle. He had the relationship skills of a middle schooler. I kept expecting him to put gum in her hair.

Kate was no better. If Jack did anything, anything, she didn’t like, she just threw herself at Sawyer, even long after Sawyer had any interest in her. She shuttled back and forth between the two of them so fast, there were some episodes I got a crick in my neck. By the end of the series I felt they deserved each other, but mostly because I wouldn’t have wished them on anyone else. In fact, I disliked them together so much, I stopped liking them as individual characters.  Considering Jack and Kate were the leads of Lost, that seems like a critical error authors should avoid.

Lost kills off Juliet.

Sawyer & Juliet:  I can see why these two made EW’s list. Once they extricated themselves from the Kate/Jack/Sawyer/Juliet quadrangle mess, they were a solid couple. I have to acknowledge the writing genius here.  S & J were only together for roughly a season, and we never actually got to watch them fall in love, yet I absolutely was convinced of their dedication. How did the writers pull it off? They changed Sawyer.

We had seen Sawyer love Cassidy poorly in flashbacks and love Kate slightly better for the past few seasons. Still, he himself admits he’d make Kate a terrible boyfriend. So when we suddenly see Sawyer in a steady respectable job happily cohabiting with Juliet, it begs the question, “What happened?” We instantly know that what they have has to be real because the impossible has occurred:  Sawyer has settled down. When Kate and company reappear three years later, he’s not happy. He’s angry that they’ve disrupted his happily ever after.

desmond penny and charlie

Desmond & Penny:  So why are these two the only couple I’d label epic? S & J were in the running, but ultimately their romance was just too short. If you’re going to make me wade through several seasons of love triangle then quadrangle, then you need to make up for that later. Lost’s way of making up for it was killing off Juliet. Not okay. What made D & P triumph over the others was their constancy–a theme the writers captured brilliantly in “The Constant,” arguably Lost’s best episode. For Desmond there was only Penny, and it was the same for her. Each searched for the other overcoming both an island impossible to find and even time itself. Nothing deterred them, and unlike other characters (uh-hem, Kate) there was no “loving the one you’re with.”

There is much advice written about plotting that involves giving your hero a desire and then putting obstacles in the way of him getting it. The ending is just a matter of the hero finally getting his heart’s desire. Lost followed this formula with D & P really well but also in unexpected ways (the time travel element was fascinating). A lot of books I read and shows I watch make the obstacle a love triangle. I am not a fan of this plot device because I don’t often see it done well. Either it descends into a mess like it did on Lost, or it’s just never believable because the winner is clear from the beginning. I can count on one hand the number of love triangles I’ve liked, Cassandra Clare’s Will/Tessa/Jem triangle in The Infernal Devices being the best I’ve read so far. I applaud the D & P storyline for being moving and fulfilling without the need for a third person distraction, and for that, I deem it epic.

Now, in the spirit of all things Lost, let the disagreeing commence!  The comment button is in the left margin.

Up Next Ten Tips–a new blog series that will give highlights from helpful books for writers.

Sprinting Towards Insanity: Driving Yourself and Others Crazy With Your Writing

Friend #1: “So the other day on my way to the store–”

Friend #2:  “Tommy goes to the store!”

Friend #1 gives #2 an annoyed look, but continues: “Anyway, I was picking up some bread, when–”

Friend #2: “Tommy loves bread!”

Friend #1:  “I get it.  You like your boyfriend.  I’m trying to tell you about how I broke my arm.”

Friend #2:  “Tommy has arms!”

We’ve all been there, right? In the early stages of a relationship, sometimes a friend can only talk about the new significant other. It’s understandable. They’re discovering all these interesting characteristics and they want the important people in their lives to share in the excitement.

Now, go back and re-read that conversation and every place I wrote “Tommy” insert “my book,” or your main character’s first name. Did you just get uncomfortable?


I had a very squirmy moment myself this week that has been building for a while. Yes, I talk about my book way too much. I do try to moderate discussing it with friends. (I’m sure I’m going to get some snarky comments from them along the lines of, “Egads! I’d hate to see what it’s like if you weren’t trying!”) However, I realized that my poor beleaguered husband is one book conversation away from wearing earplugs around the house.

It’s more than just the obsessive talking about it, though. I can’t stop writing, editing, blogging, researching, and thinking, thinking, thinking. When I woke up yesterday, my first thoughts were of a series of edits I needed to incorporate from a couple of my beta readers. As I fell asleep that night, I was mentally world building for a fantasy project I won’t even let myself write down yet because I know it will only sidetrack me from my current project.

I made myself a rule that after 7:00 pm I have to cease and desist all working on the book project and then immediately started breaking it. On Monday I stopped at 12:30 am and Tuesday it was 9:30 pm. On Wednesday night we had people over to our house, so I was forced to quit at about 6:00 pm, but then I started up again after they left. I asked my husband for help with a WordPress widget that was giving me trouble at 10:30 pm. He gently reminded me that I was supposed to quit at 7:00 pm (I’ve asked him to do this). I told him that I just needed to finish this one thing. His response was a serious wakeup call:

“Yes, but there’s always one more thing, isn’t there?”

Darn wise husband with the caring and the worrying about me.

I know several people that run. Despite this glaring personality flaw, we are still friends. Believe it or not, I do more than just roll my eyes when they talk about training for marathons. Who knew that I might learn something about writing?

I have been treating my career in writing like a sprint. I need to get everything done NOW! IMMEDIATELY! MUST CONQUER AUTHOR PLATFORM TONIGHT!

I’m pretty sure the cat went through with the whole mailing herself to get away from me thing. At least, she hasn’t been trying to sit on my lap in a while. How could she? There’s never space for her because the laptop is always there.

Thursday and Friday I stopped at 7:00 pm. Much to my surprise, the world did not cave in, and the cat is still living here. She had a few choice words for my recent neglect, but I guess I deserved them.

Up Next:  A Character Study of the Couples of Lost, or, What Writers Can Learn about Romance From the Mess that was Jack and Kate

Traditional vs. Self-Publishing: How Do You Choose?

When I started writing, I was sure I wanted to go with a traditional publishing house. I don’t own an e-reader, so I wasn’t really aware of the self-publishing market. I knew about vanity publishing (where an author pays a press to print their book), so every time I heard someone talk about self-publishing, that’s what I thought they were referring to. Eventually I happened upon an article or two that informed me that self-publishing now usually refers to e-books and print on demand services like Kindle and Create Space. I filed away the information in my brain with a level of importance about equal to my weekly grocery specials. Mmm, maybe slightly less. Those buy 2 get 3 free Coke specials demand my attention.

One day while I was happily typing away on my laptop, my husband asked from the dining room if I’d heard of Hugh Howey. I had, but not because of his self-publishing prowess. I’d read a book review of Wool and had added it to my never ending spreadsheet of books to read. I didn’t see why my husband cared, however. He doesn’t read fiction as a rule. He does, however, devour his Wall Street Journal, which is what had prompted the question. The Journal, like nearly every other media outlet, had done a piece on Howey and the rise of self-publishing.

I read the article, my brain exploded, and after I got done mopping up the mess, I decided I should look into this self-publishing thing a bit more. I read article after article about how glorious it was and how I would be an idiot, a brain-dead idiot, if I did not go the self-publishing route. Clearly I didn’t want to be an idiot, so I decided I should self-publish. I hired an editor, looked into book cover artists, and downloaded all the formatting guidelines for Kindle and Nook.

Then I had coffee. A friend of mine put me in touch with an author she knew, Jay Posey. Jay’s first book, Three, comes out July 30, so he is further along in this new author process than me. Over frappuccinos, he very kindly let me pepper him with questions for an hour and a half. Mostly I wanted to know why he had decided not to self-publish. Jay had a number of reasons, but the two biggest that stuck out to me were the desire for greater distribution and some statistics on self-publishing I hadn’t heard before.

I went home and did some more research, and this time I dug a little deeper.  Here’s a few of the things I discovered from a particularly eye opening article:

4 out of every 5 books sold is still a print book.

50% of self-published authors make less than $500 on their book.

10% of self-published authors earn 75% of the money in that field, thus skewing the average.

I also discovered via Chuck Wendig, who writes on the topic of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing frequently, that self-publishing is not necessarily the best path for authors writing young adult books. At the time I read it, I still thought I was writing young adult fiction. A warning for sensitive readers: while the link below is very useful, Wendig will offend your sensibilities. His blog is called terribleminds, after all. If that doesn’t bother you, Wendig covers a number of situations when self-publishing might not be your best option.

If I wasn’t already alarmed, then I certainly was after this week, when Tobias Buckell posted this. I’m surprised every single writer’s forum didn’t crash. I’ve seen this article reposted several times, and some people are absolutely foaming at the mouth about it. I didn’t want to engage in rabid fighting about which method of publishing was best. I just wanted to figure out which one would work for me.

I was glad I had a more realistic view of self-publishing now, but it didn’t help solve my problem of which route to try. I needed to see the pros and cons and weigh the decision. This is where Jane Friedman’s infographic on the various paths to publishing came in handy:

5 Key Book Publishing Paths

publishing infographic

In the end, like Jay, it came down to the issue of distribution for me. If I want my book to be in bookstores and libraries, then traditional publishing still makes the most sense. I’m going to try that route first. I might still end up in self-publishing. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I discovered I had written a new adult book instead of a young adult book without realizing it. The NA market is almost entirely e-books at the moment.

For the other writers out there, how did you decide?

Up Next:  Sprinting Towards Insanity, or, Driving Your Friends, Family, and Yourself Crazy While Writing

Author Platform: Don’t jump from it. I promise it will be okay.

With the exception of a rejection letter, it seems there is little else that strikes as much fear in the hearts of fiction writers as marketing themselves. I, too, share this phobia. In college I was originally a marketing major. Then I remembered I was an introvert.

One of the things I adore about being a writer is that I can lock myself in a room for hours surrounded by complete silence. I had envisioned occasionally emerging from my writing cave to get something published, maybe do a book tour, and that was it. Wrong. Can I just take a moment here to say I was getting really tired of being wrong?

New mantra: research first, write second. Say it with me now!

To say that the world of publishing has changed a lot in the last ten years is a drastic understatement. It’s along the same lines of Monty Python’s Black Knight insisting that his loss of several limbs is “Only a flesh wound!” (See it here.) Authors are expected to market themselves, period. They do this by establishing what the industry calls a platform.

There are a number of definitions floating around out there for platform, but simply put, it’s about growing your audience. Former publisher of Writer’s Digest Jane Friedman has a great summary article on platform. She emphasizes that it’s not just about begging people to like you on social media. It’s about being authentic and producing quality work.

To be fair, unlike not knowing how to write well or not knowing your market, you do not absolutely have to start working on platform before you start writing (unless you’re writing non-fiction). However, every time I ask someone when is the best time to start working on platform, the answer always is, “Yesterday.”

Platform is easily the trickiest part of getting published that I have had to face thus far. It just seems like such an overwhelming task. Hiding under the covers with my cat and chocolate ice cream really is the only way of coping. I can’t do the Twitter! Insert hysterical sobbing noises here.

carolina disgust

What’s a girl to do? First of all, I told myself to get a grip and stop scaring the cat. Then I did what I always do. I read. Christina Katz has written a very helpful how-to book called Get Known Before the Book Deal. It skews very heavily toward non-fiction writers, but there’s still a lot of great advice that can be transferred to those of us in fiction, too. I found, an amazing website dedicated to teaching authors how to grow their platform, blog, use social media effectively, and create websites. I’m also slowly making my way through the encyclopedia that is CopyBlogger.

I started a blog.  I now have a Twitter account. I announced both steps on Facebook. I’m going to an event at my local bookstore tonight. I broke out in hives. Just kidding! I survived. You will, too. I promise.

Up Next:  Traditional vs. Self Publishing, or, Playing Emotional Ping Pong

Publishing First Steps: Finding Your Market or Lack Thereof

In a post last week, I mentioned that when I decided to start writing a novel, I made the rookie mistake of beginning the process by writing. One of the key steps I failed to take was researching which publishing market would want to buy what I was creating. I didn’t really see why it mattered. I just needed to write a great book with an intriguing premise and compelling characters. After that was done, then I’d do some research and send it off to the publishing houses most likely to be interested. Again, this seemed completely reasonable.

Note to self:  Do not assume anything in the publishing world is reasonable or logical. Assume you know nothing.

So what did I do that was so horrible? I made my heroine nineteen. Those of you who know about publishing are probably already gasping and clutching your chests. For the rest of you, who like me did not know about this huge faux pas, let me explain.

I love young adult fantasy, so I was aiming to write for that genre. However, I didn’t want to have to mess with my character going to high school. I could have solved this problem a la Vampire Dairies (the TV show, not the books) by having my characters simply never go to school. Seriously, how have they not all been expelled for truancy? They only show up for school dances.   I don’t mind that the teenagers in the show never go to school, since nothing interesting ever happens to them in history class anyway.

vampire diaries class

Still, this solution for the high school problem seemed like cheating to me, so I instead I made my main character a few measly years older. No biggie.

Wrong.  The young adult genre is one of the best for letting its authors take risks. There aren’t many hard and fast rules, but there is one:  your characters have to be between the ages of 12 to 18. When I finally stumbled upon this rule, I did not want to accept it.

But what about all the crossover success of Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Harry Potter? I had just read an article about how 55% of young adult books were now being bought by adults.  Surely that huge adult audience of young adult fiction would not care that my protagonist was nineteen. In fact, they probably don’t, but YA publishers care a lot. Just because adults are reading them now doesn’t mean the 12 to 18 rule has changed.

I was discouraged, but not defeated. Okay, so YA wouldn’t want me anymore.  I’d just head over to the adult fantasy market. Not so fast. Publishers of adult fiction don’t want to read about nineteen-year-olds, either. I had stepped into a no man’s land that I didn’t know existed. Books are not written about characters in their early twenties. I dare you—try to think of one single book you’ve read where the characters were in their college years. If you think of any, leave a comment (button is to the left near the blog title), because I’d love to read it. I could only think of one: Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.

Only one option seemed to be available to me; namely, have a good cry and eat some chocolate. Thankfully, before I picked up the Kleenex and Edy’s Double Fudge Brownie, my stubbornness kicked in, and I did one last search for a market for my book. What I found was the emerging market called New Adult.

New Adult targets readers ages 18 to 30, appealing to both older teens and adults. The characters in New Adult usually face more mature challenges than in YA books. For a full description for the difference between New Adult and Young Adult, Writer’s Relief has an excellent write up.

So problem solved, right? Not quite. New Adult is so new that Publishers are still a little wary. So far the genre exists almost entirely in self publishing. Book sellers aren’t even sure where to shelve the books that are being published. Also, New Adult is currently almost entirely contemporary romance, with very little subgenre breakouts. While there is romance in my book, it’s first and foremost a fantasy novel. Perhaps the worst part is New Adult’s awful nickname, “YA with porn.” Ick.  That doesn’t seem like the best tagline for a genre trying to gain respect in the industry, although I’m sure someone other than the NA authors themselves saddled them with that label.

I haven’t given up, and I’m trying to explore New Adult more, as well as other options in adult fantasy fiction. However, much like exploring how to write better, this is a lesson I wish I had learned before I started writing. Would I have made my heroine 17 instead of 19? Maybe. At least I would have known I had an uphill battle ahead of me.

Research your potential market. Find out its rules and preferences. If you know of other such industry no-no’s, share your wisdom in the comments section.

Next Up:  Establishing Your Platform, or, When I Gave in and Reached for the Kleenex and Edy’s Double Fudge Brownie

Writing and Publishing: Where Do I Start?

I wanted to write a novel, so to begin, I wrote a novel.  I thought this made a terrific amount of sense.  Turns out, this might not have been the best first step.  In retrospect, I think it maybe should have been number four.  So what should have come first?

Learn How to Not Write Bad

I wish I had read more on how to write well.  I had two college degrees, could construct complete sentences, and read a lot.  In my mind, that was all I needed to be off and running.  Perhaps if I hadn’t had an idea for plot or characters, I might have slowed down enough to consult some writing guides or gone to a conference or two. 

It wasn’t until I began the process of editing that I bothered to do any research on the craft of writing.  This isn’t to say that my first draft was worthless.  Still, I could have saved myself a lot of revision time if I had just known beforehand simple rules like using “all right” not “alright.”  That correction might just take a minute or two with a find and replace command, but there were other errors that weren’t as quick fixes.  For example, I had incorrectly used the subjunctive case repeatedly.  What’s the subjunctive case you ask?  Yeah, I didn’t know either, and that was part of the problem. 


This is my current stack of reading.  Not only have I learned how to avoid common grammatical pitfalls, but I have gleaned a lot of wonderful advice on how to make my writing more precise, detailed, and clear.   As I make my way through all of them, I’ll be adding the helpful ones to a resources page on the blog.  For right now, if you only read one book, make it Ben Yagoda’s How to Not Write Bad.

Yagoda is a professor at the University of Delaware, and the book came out of the mistakes he observed students making over and over in his twenty years of teaching writing.  I am a notorious cheapskate when it comes to buying books.  Why do libraries exist if not for taxpayers to subsidize my book addiction?  After reading Yagoda’s book, however, I immediately bought a copy.  It’s a reference you’ll return to over and over.  He also has a helpful website.

Up Next:  Discover Your Market or How I Discovered I Wrote a Novel for a Nearly Nonexistent Market.  Oops.

In Progress

I have not arrived.  Neither have most people I know.  It is not their stories that I hear, however, but those of experts who already have everything figured out.  There is certainly wisdom to that logic.  As someone who had the misfortune of getting a resident (doctor in progress) on an emergency room visit that went comically wrong, I understand why expertise is important.

There is a danger to only telling the stories of those who have made it, though.  We lose the voices of those still slogging through, still trying to figure things out.  By the time the expert goes back to write about the process they have conquered, they are no longer experiencing the frustration, fear, or elation that was so real to them in the moment.

I am a novelist who has just started trying to navigate the publishing world.  As I figure it out, I’ll keep you updated, but not just about what went right.  I’ll tell you what went horribly wrong, too, so you can avoid making my mistakes.  I hope to not just share technical details, though, but help you get a sense of what life in progress as a writer feels like.

Part of what I find so powerful about fiction is finding yourself in the world the author has created.  A character most resonates with me when I’ve felt what they are feeling.  I have made it very easy to leave comments on this blog because I want readers to be able to engage with me.  Was a post encouraging or helpful?  Tell me.  Was it confusing gibberish?  Tell me that, too.  Have a question?  Ask it.