Characters Done Right: Turning the Tables

I have a weak spot for betrayals in my fiction. There’s just something beautifully heartbreaking about beloved characters suddenly changing course. Whether I’m reading it, writing it, or watching it on TV, done right, it’s one of my absolute favorite things.

The key words being: done right. I’ve seen a lot of very poorly executed betrayals. You either see it coming a mile away or get to the end still scratching your head over why they would ever have done that. So, for my example of this character done to perfection, I’m going to be talking about Tunstall from Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper books.

For a good betrayal, I need three ingredients. The first of those is trust. Every good stab in the back starts with a seed of trust. I have to love the character who’s going to hurt me, but more importantly I have to feel that the protagonist loves them. That’s what makes the pain so delicious.

Pierce does this with Tunstall–the reader gets two full books with him before the event. We see his wit, his dogged determination, how deeply he cares for Beka and she for him. That, more than anything else, is what sells the end of his arc and puts me right in Beka’s skin, reeling right along with her.

The second thing I need is foreshadowing in the traitor’s character. A thing that they want but would never chase because it would mean going against the protagonist or their professed morals or goals. It has to be believable, though, and a thing that’s present in the narrative before the double-cross is brought to light. It’s especially important that, after the fact, the reader (and the protagonist) can look back and pick up on all those clues that something wasn’t right and throw the whole relationship into question.

With respect to Tunstall, I got this in spades. Once I finished the book, I literally sat there for a good fifteen or twenty minutes, going back through the story and rereading key scenes. The betrayal is right there on the page, present in every fiber of his character, and I still didn’t see it coming.

The third thing I need is a red herring. If the main character–and by extension the reader–has their attention focused on others, they take it for granted that their loved one is with them through thick and thin. It’s a simple ingredient, but it builds upon the idea of trust and foreshadowing. It creates an us-against-them mentality that makes the protagonist and the traitor seem to playing on the same side. It also makes the ulterior motive for the traitor easier to overlook.

In the case of Mastiff, there are two red herrings. Both are great characters, but we haven’t known or loved them for as long as we have Tunstall, so our–and Beka’s–focus is on them when we’re trying to suss out who the spy in the party might be. Tunstall easily fades into the background against these other two more overt possibilities.

Be sure to also check out Rachel Serbicki’s take on betrayals at her blog!

Agent Hunt #1: Basic Dos and Don’ts

You now have a completed manuscript and a killer query letter! Excellent! The question now is, who do you send it to? Step one is to make a list of agents who may be interested in reading your work. Ideally, you’ve already been doing a little of this while you worked on your query, but now is the perfect time to start if you haven’t already.

Here are some quick things to keep in mind while you’re compiling your agent wishlist:

  1. DO read the agent’s bio and follow their blog or Twitter. Agents will list their preferred genres or mention books or authors that they like. Look for people whose tastes closely mirror your work;  there’s a better chance that they’ll take your work on.
  2. DO NOT submit your work to someone who expressly says they don’t represent your kind of story. No agent will thank you for sending them something that squarely falls outside of their interests of expertise. First of all, they probably don’t have the contacts they would need to sell your story or to effectively represent it. And, secondly, it’s just plain rude.
  3. DO research their most recent sales in Publisher’s Marketplace or similar sales listings. You want to be sure that the agents you’re targeting are making regular sales in genres and markets that you want to break into.
  4. DO NOT query agents who expressly say that they’re not accepting unsolicited manuscripts. Some agents already have an established client pool and aren’t looking to expand it. Don’t push them.
  5. DO attend literary conferences and pitchfests, if you can afford to. It’s a great way to connect with agents, editors, and fellow authors and to garner interest.
  6. DO NOT, if you are lucky enough to go to a convention and meet an agent there, give them your whole manuscript or even a paper query or teaser to carry with them. Instead, get their card and ask if it would be okay for you to send your work (or part of it) to them after the convention.
  7. DO look at agents from all stratospheres. Lots of authors dream of getting the big-name agent at the top-end agency. Very few actually land those gigs, and even fewer work well in that atmosphere. You might fit better at a smaller agency or boutique. Don’t count them out!
  8. DO NOT pay an agent up front for any kind of reading or submission fee. Any agency who asks you to pay before the book is sold is likely a scam!
  9. DO research every agency and agent that you want to query on the Absolute Write Water Cooler or Preditors and Editors and look for red flags. Selling to a lot of vanity presses, taking reading fees, or offering to send your book to a freelance editor–among other things–can be signs of a scam.
  10. DO NOT let fear get the better of you! I know it’s a scary step to take, and that there’s a lot to do before you can even start, but you can do it!

Five Things: To Do to Organize Your Worldbuilding

It’s Twin Thursday, so for my post with the lovely Rachel from Undivinelight, I’m talking about ways to keep track of your worldbuilding. When crafting a fantasy universe, it’s easy to let ideas run all over the place. Strange language, food, clothing, customs… You’re just one person; how do you keep track of it all?

  1. Set up a Pinterest for your project. Or, if you prefer to have a physical thing to play with, make a scrap book or cork board. This will help you keep visual cues for your setting, costuming, and other world notes.
  2. Build a glossary. A lot of fantasy comes with new terminology, whether it’s pertaining to magic, landmarks, social status, or so on. To be sure you’re using it consistently and correctly, it can be helpful to have a quick-reference document for strange words.
  3. Set up a bookmarks list in your web browser. This is especially important if you’re using a real place or time as a template, doubly so if that someplace is somewhere you don’t actually live. If you need to know at a moment’s notice what the shoulder-pieces of a knight’s armor are called or whether or not it snows in the Greek mountains, you should have a quick way to find those answers and to get them right consistently.
  4. Write a history for your world. The more time you spend in your world and the more detail you’re able to pack in, the more real it will be to you. If you know that the long-standing tension between these two kingdoms is who owns that mountain, you can bring some of that to the your main characters. Even if they don’t give two figs about the mountain or the war, some of the animosity between their countries will carry over.
  5. Make recipe cards. They don’t have to be functional recipes, like exactly how much honey goes on the honey bread, but it will help you keep track of the flavor profile of your setting. It will also help if you double back to your research tabs and look at comparable areas and the kinds of foods that will be available in a region like that. Everything comes full-circle!

 

Query Letters #12: Polish Until it Shines

By now, you have all the pieces of your query. Your pitch is engaging, tantalizing, and specific to your story. It showcases your protagonist’s voice and demonstrates exactly what kind of trouble they’re about to get themselves in. Your housekeeping is concise and to the point and clearly communicates the nuts and bolts of your manuscript genre and audience. Your bio is personable without being overly-familiar, and it lists your qualifications and experience as they are relevant to your novel. You’ve even trimmed the fat out to turn your query into a lean, mean, interest-inviting machine! That wasn’t too hard, was it?

Now what? The next step is to make sure that your prose is the absolute best it can be. Here’s a couple ways to shine up your query even further.

  1. Read your query out loud. Where do you trip up your sentences? Where does it sound unnatural, repetitive, or stagnant? Make notes and fix it.
  2. Record yourself or have someone read it to you. See if it sounds different to you when you’re not the one reading it.
  3. Give the query to a brand-new reader that you trust, someone who doesn’t know your story. Are they interested in reading more? Are they confused by the way you have your query set up or the phrases that you use?
  4. Play jigsaw with your query. Are the sentences in the best possible order? What happens if you move this sentence from late in the query to earlier? Experiment a little with the structure, and see if it shakes new ideas loose.
  5. Personalize the query to the agent you’re intending to send it to. If they represent your favorite author, mention it. If your book has an element to it that they said on their blog that they like, tell them that. If you saw them speak at a panel and it really struck a chord with you, bring that up.

Five Things: To Improve Your Fight Scenes

A lot of people in my writing circle have a hard time with action sequences, especially fight scenes. There’s a temptation, I feel, to go very cinematic with the way they’re structured; after all, that’s what anime and action movies have gotten us used to. But in general, things work very differently on the page, and what works great in your mind might lose a little something in translation to the written word. Be sure to also check out my sister blog at Undivinelight headed up by Rachel!

  1. Stay true to your character’s voice. If your character is new to fighting, they might panic. If your character isn’t on the front lines but rather watching someone they love fight, they might be afraid. An experienced mercenary might be excited. A soldier might run drills in their mind to try to stay calm. These little moments of character are vital because they color the way the reader experiences the fight.
  2. Limit your perspective to exactly what your POV character is experiencing. This falls along the same lines as the above. Restricting your viewpoint makes everything feel more immediate. It keeps you from going to a bird’s eye or bouncing camera type of experience, which often doesn’t work on the page. It also gives you the benefit of letting you zoom in on tangible details of the fight, like the way the knife hilt sits in her hand or the burn from the bullet graze on his arm. Sensory details like that are key to keeping me immersed in the action.
  3. Use short sentences. It builds the illusion of speed on the page because the eye can take them in quickly, process what happened, and move on to the next one. During down moments, either between battles or even just between blows when the characters are trying to recollect themselves and think, then you can mix it up with longer sentences.
  4. Don’t choreograph every blow. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but letting the reader fill in some of the gaps with their own imagination will make the fight ten times more brutal than anything you can put into their minds. Instead, just give the major pieces of blocking in the fight: if someone gets injured; their relationship to the landscape, when the tables turn, and so on. Otherwise, it can begin to read as a technical, blow-by-blow sort of narrative, and it’s easy to disengage.
  5. And, most importantly: keep the danger real. If the hero never gets hurt, never honestly seems to be in peril of losing–to whatever end–then the response too often is “Yeah, so?” Let your protagonist make mistakes. Let some of those mistakes have lasting consequences. Let the antagonist sometimes genuinely be better than the hero. Let your main experience loss; it keeps the reader on their toes.

Query Letters 11: Trim to Fit

So now you have your glorious query letter! It’s witty! It’s funny! It gorgeously shows off your character’s voice! Aaaand it’s six pages long. Now what?

It’s time for the hard cuts. You’ve written all of these beautiful sentences, and now you need to make some of them vanish to get it down to the golden window of 250 to 300 words. Fortunately, there are a couple ways to make the trimming down process a little less painful. I’ll show you exactly what I mean below.

  1. Start by eliminating redundant language. Anywhere you find yourself being repetitive, cut it out. 
  2. Make sure your query is focused on just one main story thread: the best friend’s illness the love triangle the protagonist’s primary goal and the obstacles they face.
  3. Anywhere you find yourself getting excessively wordy or your sentences erring on the side of too long or too complex, be diligent in finding ways to simplify your work.  Simplicity is best. If you find a long sentence, try breaking it into two shorter ones.
  4. Look for unnecessary, cluttering adjectives. If they’re not vital to the sentence or plot, they can go.
  5. The same goes for adverbs; look carefully search for them and replace them with stronger verbs.
  6.  Look, also, for unnecessary linking words.
  7. Hunt down filler words. They can be very sneaky.
  8. Actually, almost any word in a sentence that isn’t doing any legwork is fair game.
  9. Check for Name Soup excessive named characters and other forms of jargon. If you have to spend words explaining a concept, you risk going over budget.
  10. Make multiple passes. I’ve found it’s always easier to make a dozen small passes, doing tiny cuts to my wordcount, rather than doing all of it in one go.

If you find it hard to cut your own words, try practicing on someone else’s first. Take a paragraph from a book you like–or, better, one you hate–and trim out all of the unnecessary words to get it down to its core.

Five Things: Writing Goals

Sorry that I didn’t get the query post up this week! With Camp NaNoWriMo in full swing, I underestimated how much time I would have to write. I do intend to still post all this month, but the Query Tuesdays will have to be moved to Mondays, the only day of the week I’ll probably have time to work on them. Just two left in the series!

But onward to today’s Twin Thursday with Rachel from Undivinelight. Today, we’re laying out five writing goals for the rest of the year. In general, I think it’s more of a new year’s kind of post? But it’s never too late to start!

  1. Establish a daily writing habit. Yeeeeah, this is something that I harp on my critique partner, my writing kiddo, and just about everyone else for: making your writing a priority in your life. If you’re serious about it, carve out a little time every day to see it done. And yet it’s something I very rarely manage to do, myself. My hope is to fix that.
  2. Complete at least two trashdrafts. Along the same lines as making time to write every day, this is a more exact project-related goal. I currently have two stories in various states of completion and another that’s simmering on the back burner and waiting for its turn. Ideally, I’ll have a first draft (called trashdraft in my writing circle) done within the next eight months. With writing every day, I think that’s definitely a possibility.
  3. Better representation in my stories. I spend a lot of time worrying about if I’m doing myself, my stories, and other communities a disservice by trying to be more inclusive with my fiction. As a white woman, what do I know about the struggles a Black person faces? Since I’m cisgendered, how can I possibly relate to what a non-binary or trans person goes through? How dare I try to tell those stories!
    But then I remember the first time I, as a lesbian, read about a girl attracted to another girl and how normally it was treated, how important it was for me to see that in my fiction. And giving that feeling to someone else, I feel, is many times more important than my comfort level.
  4. More immersive worlds. I feel like I struggle a bit with full-sensory immersion in my settings. I’ll get a clear idea of how something looks or sounds but not necessarily the other senses. What does the fabric feel like? What does the food taste like? What does the perfume smell like? I’ve got a few exercises that I’ll probably be sharing here later, and we’ll see how this one goes.
  5. Continue querying with my completed vampire history novel. I’ve got just a few avenues left to pursue with it, but I want to get those squared away by the end of the year. If it comes down that it’s not the right time for me to sell this story, then I’m at peace with trunking it for a bit. But I want to be sure before I do that I’ve left no stone unturned!

Five Things: I Love in Magic

For our Twin Thursday post with the fantastic Rachel of Undivinelight fame, we’re looking at five things we love in magic. This was another toughie for me since there’s sooo much  that I love about magic of just about any kind in my fiction.

  1. Limitations. I like there to be things that mages, witches, sorcerers, etc. physically or morally cannot do with their magic. A sense of constraint, of cans and cannots–or shoulds and should nots–makes it feel more real to me.
  2. Consequences. Along the same vein from limitations, when a magic-user goes too far, I like to see that there’s some sort of ramification for it. Whether it be a physical cost like exhaustion or a social consequence like criminal charges, I need there to be some sort of penalty when a limitation is crossed.
  3. Cultural coherency. One of the reasons I like consequences is that they serve to remind me that the magic doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s a part of the setting and culture of the story, so it should have a tangible effect on the world around it, and the world should have an effect on it. People are going to react to death very differently if it’s quite normal for the deceased to just sit back up after an hour or two.
  4. Ordinary or small magics. One thing that I adored about Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic books was the idea of ambient magic, of power latent in everyday things. In weather, in plants. In metal and stone and simple thread. As a Pagan, this is a big part of how I see the world, so first of all it’s refreshing to see a representation of that in fiction. Secondly, it’s a constant joy to me to see characters simply enjoying their magic, taking pleasure in the little things. That wonder is often lost in high-stakes wizard wars and grand feats of power (not that those aren’t fun, too. But the small things are my bread and butter.)
  5. Creativity! Both in terms of seeing new kinds of magic that I’d never thought of before–like Beka Cooper hearing spirits on pigeons or catching snatches of conversations from whirlwinds–and in how the characters use their gifts. To go back to the Circle books, a few people that I’ve talked to in the fandom have made fun of Sandry. Thread magic? I’ve heard them say. What kind of lame power is that? I imagine other characters in the books feel the same. Until Sandry uses their own clothes as restraints or makes their weapons fall apart. More than the way people break the rules, I love the way they find innovative, unexpected ways to work inside them. It keeps me guessing!