Writing Fantasy: The Kiss of Life by Gail Carson Levine

I’m very excited to present this article on writing fantasy, exclusively for Kidlit by Gail Carson Levine.

writing fantasy, gail carson levine, fantasy writing
The key to writing fantasy is relatable detail.

The Magic of Fantasy Writing

The great thing about reading fantasy (and writing fantasy) is that we get to have experiences not available to us in ordinary life. The great thing about writing fantasy is that we’re able to take a deep dive into what those experiences might be like.

As a reader, I feel disappointed when the dive is a belly flop. For example, an invisible force field hitting an invisible, immovable object frustrates me, especially if the hero I’m rooting for is trapped behind the object. How can she engage with it if she doesn’t know what it is? Then, if she does engage and it gives way but I don’t know how, I’m doubly annoyed. I can’t rejoice with her if I don’t understand her triumph.

Here’s a confession: I don’t believe in magic or elves or fairies.

Seven Suggestions for Writing Fantasy

So I know that I face a high bar to persuade at least some readers to buy what I’m laying out. How do we do it? Here are seven suggestions for writing fantasy:

  • Start the fantasy early, before the reader has time to imagine a realistic world. Take Ogre Enchanted, my latest novel, a prequel to Ella Enchanted. My main character, Evie, is a dedicated healer, but her methods wouldn’t survive scrutiny by the American Medical Association. I introduce the magic in the first sentence of the book, when Evie’s friend Wormy forgets to mash her inglebot fungus—there’s no such thing as inglebot. Grimwood, a fever remedy, shows up a page later, and, soon after, pig bladder, which certainly exists, but no one uses it to heal sprains!On page 5, the adolescent giant Oobeeg is mentioned, though he’s too large to fit through Evie’s mother’s front door–a mite of sensory information. Oobeeg is there because his mother’s leg was gashed by an ogre and a healer is needed. Now we have giants and ogres. On page 9, Evie herself is turned into an ogre by the fairy Lucinda of Ella Enchanted fame. Giants, fairies, ogres, and weird medicine. The world taking shape and we’re just on page 9.
  • Writing fantasy elements that develop characters. With Evie’s transformation, I give the reader an understanding of how it might feel to be an ogre. Coarse hair grows on Evie’s hands. Her fingernails are long and filthy. She’s bigger than she was before, so seams have split; her apron is squeezing her stomach; the soles of her shoes are flapping. Significantly, she’s ravenous, even though she had breakfast only a little while earlier. Even more significantly, she calls Wormy’s earlobes “the sweetest part.” Not much later, I let the reader know how easily she gets angry, which is unlike her human self. Rather than an invisible force field, Evie’s ogre side becomes one of her antagonists. The way she deals with it, including what she eats and doesn’t eat, are important in defining her.
  • Set things up beforehand to prepare the reader. Much later in Ogre Enchanted I need Evie to get the better of a dragon, and dragons in this world are vastly bigger than ogres, plus they have flames and flight. It took me a while to figure out how to do this when writing fantasy, but when I did, I introduced on page 82 a historical enmity between dragons and ogres, and I showed the over-the-top reaction of Evie and the ogre band she’s with to the sight of just a dragon’s tooth. When she faces an entire dragon forty pages later, the reader is ready to believe she can survive.
  • Include detail, especially sensory detail. Sensation puts the reader there. Once we’ve made our world solid with sight, sound, touch, and smell, we can’t write an invisible force field, because it won’t fit.Smell isn’t our species’ strongest sense, but it’s uniquely tied to our emotions. In her ogre form, Evie sweats copiously–and stinks. Baths last only briefly. Her ogre side likes the smell, but her human side wants to crawl out of her hairy skin.
  • Make the humans and the creatures relatable. Evie, who craves relief from her isolation from humans, is painfully aware of her looks and her odor. And she can barely tolerate the terror she strikes in people. Anyone who’s ever felt unwanted, even for a moment, suffers with her.Not that appearance is the only way to make readers identify with fantasy writing. They feel for Ella in Ella Enchanted because of her curse of obedience–we’ve all many times had to do what we don’t want to. In my Princess Tale, For Biddle’s Sake, the very flawed fairy Bombina (who loves to turn people into toads) is sympathetic because of her desperate love for a girl named Parsley.
  • Writing fantasy that embraces the reader with touches of wonder. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, sorcerers are born when lightning strikes marble, which ignites a flame that contains the new sorcerer, who rockets into the sky. Just dreaming up this kind of thing makes me happy, a feeling I hope readers will share.
  • Invent your own creatures. Don’t go with stereotypes. Dragons don’t have to be big, and elves don’t have to be small, as Tolkien proved. At a conference, I once mentored a young writer who had a charming voice. My only criticism about his fantasy writing was that he leaned on stereotypes. When describing a certain wizard, he used direct address to say to the reader, “You know how wizards are.” I don’t. I have my own ideas, but this was his story, and I wanted to meet his wizard.

    Writing Fantasy Isn’t Easy, But It’s Worth It

Just saying, all of this isn’t easy. Maybe none of it is. A young writer I know has an ongoing dispute with her brother about which is harder, writing or basketball. Writers know, and it isn’t even close. But it’s a joy to invent worlds with creatures who live under an unknown sun and to invite readers to share the fun.

Find Gail Online:

If you’re struggling with writing fantasy that pulls readers in and doesn’t let them go, hire me as your developmental editor.

Guest Post: The Crowdfunded Publication Model

The following article is written by Helena Echlin, a client of mine who wanted to share her experience with Inkshares, a crowdfunded publishing platform. As you know, I don’t often do guest posts, but I made an exception because I find this particular experience very interesting. While I haven’t done a lot of research on Inkshares and haven’t fully formed an opinion on this specific mode of getting a manuscript out to readers, I can’t help but acknowledge and be curious about the various platforms available to writers today. Consider pre-ordering SPARKED and enjoy!

unnamed-1 As you read this, I’m probably hitting the refresh button on my phone’s browser to check how many preorders of my novel, Sparked, I’ve sold. Or taking my five-year-old to a birthday party purely so I can hand out promotional bookmarks. Along with my co-author Malena Watrous, I’m working with a publisher called Inkshares—think Kickstarter for books—and ever since our launch on September 1, we’ve been obsessively selling preorders, even though our book has no publication date yet. Inkshares authors raise funds this way in order to subsidize the initial publication costs. Malena and I have both published adult novels with traditional publishing houses. How did we end up here?

Back in 2012, Malena had an idea for a young adult novel: what if that clique of mean girls in high school got superpowers? By the time we finished writing it, editors at traditional publishing houses informed us that the paranormal genre was “down-trending” in YA. But we quailed at the thought of self-publishing, which would take money—$5-10K—and require us to do everything ourselves, from copyediting to marketing.

Then we discovered Inkshares, a crowd-funded publisher based in Oakland. The gatekeepers aren’t New York editors, but readers, who care less about New York publishing trends than finding books they enjoy. These readers subsidize your initial publication costs by preordering your book. Sell 250 preorders, and you get light publishing. Sell 750 and Inkshares will do everything a traditional publisher does, including help with marketing and distributing the book into bookstores. You get a percentage of the profit that they say is better than what a traditional publisher would give you. And hey, they seem to be good at selling movie rights, so we can hope.

It seemed like the perfect fit, although crowd-funded publishing does have its own challenges. The biggest: how do you sell 750 copies of a book without a publication date? If the book doesn’t exist yet, people are not ordering a book so much as they are supporting your dream. Only people who know you want to do that, while strangers want to spend their $10-20 on a book they can have right away. Most of us have about 150 people in our network. Between the two of us we could sell 300, but that still left 450 total strangers to win over. One advantage we were lucky to have: we are both published authors already, so we didn’t have to convince people we can write a book.

After strategizing for months, here’s what we learned:

  1. Prepare your marketing materials. Minimum: a book cover, a website, the first few chapters of the book that are edited and ready to read. If you are a debut author it’s even more important to make these look professional. And if you’re going to persuade strangers to invest in your dream, then make your dream compelling. As well as the story itself, sell “the story of the story”—tell people who you are and why you wrote the book.
  2. Prime as many friends as possible to order on day one. People want to believe they really can help you realize your vision, which means they want to see you’ve got dozens of orders already. Email people individually to let them know day one is important. Your friends want to help you but your book could easily fall to the bottom of their to-do lists. This won’t happen if they put your launch date on their calendars.
  3. Segment your emails. Emails are more effective when you tailor them to specific groups. MailChimp is great for this. For instance, I sent an email to all my mom friends reminding them that Sparked was the book they’d heard me talk about at the playground so many times, and it’s a great escapist read for tired moms.
  4. Offer freebies. Your friends buy a non-existent book because they love you. Strangers want something more, so think of something to give them, preferably something that costs you little or nothing. In our case, it’s a free writing coaching session.
  5. Sell to friends of friends. Where strangers won’t buy, sometimes friends of friends will. Have people post about you on Facebook. Better yet, get your “Connector” friends to reach out individually to their friends.

We were incredibly grateful to get over 250 orders on the first day, so we’ll get “light publishing,” whatever happens. Many people kindly ordered the book simply they wanted to help us make our goal and we’d never have been able to sell them our teen thriller otherwise. Now we’re working on those remaining orders: 160 to go. Now, if only I had the willpower not to check that number every five seconds.

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SPARKED authors Malena Watrous, left, and Helena Echlin, right.

The Crowdfunding Alternative, Part 2: Mid-Campaign

Scott Plumbe checking in again about his Kickstarter campaign to publish his illustrated novel, THE UNCLUKY FOX via digital installments. Really interesting stuff, I’m really enjoying seeing a glimpse from the other side of the crowd-funding curtain! Please check out his campaign if you’re interested. It promises to be a very cool project if the funding is successful.

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My Kickstarter campaign has been equal doses exhausting and rewarding. So far The Unlucky Fox has nearly 100 backers. I am grateful for this solid base, but the campaign still has a long way to go to make the $30,000 goal. In fact, financially I’m only just over 10% of the way there. I’m now considering ways to tune up my campaign mid-stride.

Going on the assumption that my project isn’t completely undesirable, the first place to look is the rewards. Kickstarter allows you to edit and add new rewards once the campaign is underway. Some people have mentioned that they want the physical book as a reward. I understand that. I’m a bibliophile too. I’d love to be able to offer it, and it is tempting, but I’m not sure realistically how many people would be willing to pay up front and wait almost two years for a hard copy. That was one of the considerations for choosing the incremental release model. So I’ve decided to stick with my original offering, especially as so many people have already pledged on the current reward tier. It seems disrespectful to change that now.

Recently there have been articles surfacing from news sites like Gawker Media about how successful KS campaigns often have a hired ‘guru’ who is responsible for preparing and presenting the campaigns. I did find a few such individuals online during the pre-launch stage but confess I was skeptical. Essentially, they work as a PR company to position your project, devise rewards that will pique a backer’s interest, and spread the word through social media, blogs and various media outlets. Some such consultants even guarantee success! When I reviewed my rewards and calculated the time it would take me to fulfill what I’d promised, I didn’t see any room left for a consultant’s commission.

Some people have suggested I set my financial goal too high. Conversely, I have had people tell me I’m not ambitious enough with my project! They advise that I should aim for more and deliver my story in a variety of formats and through numerous channels. While I appreciate that kind of strategy and input, I don’t feel it squares with who I am. I want to guarantee that I fulfill my promises. I have a realistic understanding of what is achievable and can be delivered with quality and professionalism. I’m a firm believer in the practice of ‘bootstrapping’ for small businesses — and that is exactly how I think of The Unlucky Fox, as an emerging small business. Furthermore, doing it in steps allows it to happen on my terms. That may at first seem narcissistic, but what’s the point of following your passion if you’re not going to be true to yourself as a creator? I could have easily set a much lower goal in hopes it would be easier to reach. I have seen many projects on KS that have done so. But they’re not honoring their backers and are selling themselves and the crowdfunding platform short. Especially if they then struggle to fulfill their rewards in a timely manner — one of the #1 criticisms of crowdfunding.

So where does this leave me? I’m an independent creator who has spent countless hours getting this project underway and is now asking for an injection of support to bring it to fruition. So far, I’ve felt genuinely blessed to have so many backers that believe in my quirky project. The enthusiasm shown by absolute strangers is utterly humbling. More than ever, I feel a deep obligation to ensure The Unlucky Fox happens for those who have entrusted me with their hard-earned money!

Now that the campaign has launched, there is a limit to what I can do, yet I do still have a few avenues. Spread more press releases and woo various bloggers. Continue to engage on art and writing forums like DeviantArt, Wattpad and others. I’ll continue to post updates to my Kickstarter page and provide answers to the questions I receive daily. Social media, you ask. Yes — I can do that too, although not being ‘social’ by nature makes it particularly agonizing! Ironic, yes. As many other creators can understand, being less social is how I’ve found the time to hone my art! Now it’s time to flip the switch in the other direction.
In a few weeks time, I plan to submit my final report on my crowdfunding process. I look forward to reaching this to a conclusion.

Why Manuscripts Are Rejected: Guest Blog by Chuck Sambuchino

Today’s guest post digs into why manuscripts are rejected, and comes from the fantastic Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest and Guide to Literary Agents blog and book fame. He’s celebrating the recent release of this fabulous book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK: DEFEND YOURSELF WHEN THE LAWN WARRIORS STRIKE (AND THEY WILL). Here, he shares the reason that you have a rejected manuscript on your hands, and I wholeheartedly agree. While I have posted on this topic a few times (like this post that addresses the question, I wrote a book, now what?), maybe Chuck’s take will finally make folks listen. 🙂

why manuscripts are rejected, rejected manuscript
Don’t give in to the “frustration submission.” Chip away at those problems until they’re corrected — THEN your work will be ready for agent eyes.

Why Manuscripts Are Rejected: Three Reasons

why manuscripts are rejected, rejected manuscriptWhen agents review pages of your manuscript, they may reject you for one of three reasons.

  1. They may realize that the story they’re reading is in a genre or category outside of what they handle. Rejected manuscript.
  2. Poor writing skills: grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, etc. Rejected manuscript.
  3. A writer’s story just plain isn’t ready yet. In other words, it’s good—but simply being good doesn’t cut it. A piece of fiction has to be great to catch an agent’s eye.

Is Your Work Ready?

One of the main reasons why manuscripts are rejected is that writers turn in their work too early. As a writer myself, this is a problem I sympathize with. We work on a story for what seems like an eternity and then you get to a point where you just say, “If I read this darn thing one more time, I will KILL SOMEBODY. I am so sick of looking at this thing that my eyeballs hurt. I am going to send it out and take my chances.”

So you’ve decided to send it out. But is it ready?

When is your work really ready? By that, I mean: When is your manuscript edited enough and polished to the point where you can confidently submit it to agents? I used to think there was no answer to this question, and that each project was so vastly different that it would be misleading to address the subject. But I was wrong.

If You Think It Has a Problem, It Does

The best answer I can give regarding why manuscripts are rejected is this: If you think the story has a problem, it does—and any story with a problem is not ready. When I have edited full-length manuscripts (some for SCBWI friends and others on a freelance editor basis) and then met with the writers personally to discuss my thoughts, a strange thing happens. When I address a concern in the book, the writer will nod before I even finish the sentence. What this means is that they knew about the problem and suspected it was a weak point in the story. I have simply confirmed that which they already knew.

For Example…

  • “This part where he gets beat up—it doesn’t seem believable that so many kids just took off school like that.”
  • “If the main character is so stealth, then how come he gets caught by the bad guys here?”
  • “The story starts too slow. We need more action.”

A Manuscript With a Problem Isn’t Ready For Agent Eyes

In my experience, writers all seem to know many of their problematic issues before anyone even tells them. So all this brings me back to my main point: If you think your work has a problem, then it more than likely does—and any manuscript with a problem is not ready for agent eyes. If you find yourself saying, “Hmmm. I think the map just being there in the attic is kind of too lucky for the kids,” other readers will likely agree with you—and that is a great example of a typical problem. And every problem needs to be fixed before you submit to agents — or you’ll end up with a rejected manuscript.

This shows the importance of engaging beta readers for a manuscript critique—friends who will review the work once it’s written. They will come back to you with concerns, both big and small. You address the concerns in your next revision and send the work to more readers. Once readers stop coming back with concerns, you’re starting to get somewhere. If you think you have issues, or multiple critiquers agree on a problem, then you’re not ready for Querytime. When you and your readers can look at a book and say that all concerns are adequately addressed (and it therefore lacks any major problems), then and only then will you be ready.

My manuscript critique services will help you resolve problems in your work so it’s ready for agent eyes.

Direct Address When Writing a Query Letter to An Agent

Readers, let me tell what what NOT to do when you’re writing a query letter to an agent:

Dear Ms. Kole,

You are an aspiring garbagegirl in Brooklyn who is allergic to flies. And your mom says you have to go to beauty college when you get out of high school. Your world turns upside down one day when a faerie vampire crashes through your bedroom window…

writing a query letter to an agent, how to address a query letter
‘Look at this beautiful handwr– HEY! I’m not a garbagegirl!’

Writing a Query Letter to an Agent: My Pet Peeve

This is a <sarcasm>fun</sarcasm> new spin on my absolute pet peeve: the rhetorical question query. And the use of second person writing in general, when it’s not earned or warranted. I don’t understand this technique for writing a query letter to an agent… and there are several examples of it in my slush. Did some blog somewhere tell well-meaning writers that this was the new no-fail query fad?

Ditch the Second Person Writing

I’ve got news for you: this isn’t how to address a query letter. I understand it’s meant to be arresting and pulse-pounding, it’s meant to grab me and never let me go and all that junk, but here’s the reason it bugs me: I want to read about you and your work. LEAVE ME OUT OF IT!

The example up there is one I wrote. But it’s not too far off from what I’ve been seeing. And honestly? Instead of thinking “Wow, that sounds cool,” I immediately think: “I am NOT a garbagegirl, my mom does NOT want me to go to beauty college and there’s no way in heck that a faerie vampire is crashing through MY window without picking up the repair bill!”

And you don’t want me to be thinking about ME when I’m reading YOUR query, right? Didn’t think so.

Struggling with how to address a query letter? I’d love to be your query letter editor and help you figure out the appropriate tone and voice.