Want to know how to become a bestselling author? Let’s dig into to this question via a cheeky little bugger wrote into the blog:
So, is anyone ever able to quit their day job after selling their first MG or chapter book? I need a writing reality check.
How to Become a Bestselling Author: Keep Your Day Job
No. Not even close. Keep your day job. If your day job makes you miserable, get a better one. Here’s your writing reality check: Only 3-5% of published writers make a living on their published writing income (advances and royalties) alone*. Want to know how to become a bestselling author? You might have a better shot at winning the lottery.
Some YA writers can quit their day jobs after a major sale/auction (though I still don’t know if I would advise this) because, if it’s going to get big, YA money tends to be bigger than MG, chapter book, early reader or picture book money. But even with YA, it’s rare that an author can quit their day job after their first book sells. It’s even more rare that all this wonderful stuff happens with a debut creator.
You Can Build a Career with Writing, But…
That said, most writers do end up making a career and an income with their writing, just not by publishing books alone. They’re not wasting time figuring out how to become a bestselling author; they work hard at related writing pursuits. They teach workshops, they teach at a school or university, they freelance for newspapers and magazines, they write nonfiction, they copywrite, they edit, they tutor…there are lots of trades that use a writer’s skillset.
More often than not in today’s publishing world, I see people who have fingers in lots of different pies and who cobble together a cohesive livelihood from lots of separate but related income streams. And not just writers or illustrators do this. I know of agents who freelance edit and editors who teach classes on the side, too. I think this is smart, actually. With multiple income streams, you face less risk of your only cash flow drying up.
Not everyone has the temperament to freelance or to multitask like this, though. There are also a lot of writers who hold down full-time or part-time desk jobs and have a steady income (plus health insurance!) while they publish their work. When you’re considering how to become a novelist, this multi-stream approach is the way to go.
The Feasibility of Quitting Your Day Job for Writing
But in terms of locking down how to become a bestselling author and quitting your day job the next day…that kind of thinking needs a writing reality check. (Consider this: after your initial deal is struck, your editor and agent can sometimes spend months negotiating the finer points of your contract…then it might spend months getting drawn up by the contracts department…then it’ll go to accounting and it’ll take more months, in the worst case, to get your signing check. What’s a signing check? Sometimes it’ll be 50% of your advance (less your agent’s 15%, of course) but, these days, more often than not, your publisher has structured payouts so that you’ll only get a third or a quarter of your money upon signing the contract. On the other hand, the glacial pace at which publishing moves does mean you’ll have a lot of time to grovel your way back into your former-but-soon-to-be-again employer’s good graces after you impulsively quit!)
I’m always on the side of cautious optimism (hence this writing reality check), so I urge you all to have a stable source of income, even when you do end up selling your work. And, seriously, if your’e doing something that you hate for a salary, do something else. You never know how long you’ll need it.
* Updated 8/18/2011: From Stephen King’s On Writing, page 238. Thanks so much for finding this, Garbo!
Are you committed to building a career as a writer? An investment in my editorial services will help you improve your craft and keep you on the right trajectory towards achieving your goal.
There are a few things I want to focus on in today’s post: writing imagery, theme, and description. They’re important considerations when revising a manuscript, but they usually come into play below the surface. Things like plot, character and dialogue are obvious, they’re right in the reader’s face.
It’s the subtler things that can really make or break your work, though. And a huge part of revising is seeing what common threads and themes you’ve left for yourself. It’s like magic. Your subconscious usually puts lots of things in your manuscript for you to find on a second or third read… connections you never knew you’d made, common images and ideas that resonate with the larger meaning of your work, all sorts of interesting stuff.
Theme Emerges During Revision
When you revise, think about what your work is saying. You’ve got to have a reason for writing it. There should be distinct themes and ideas that you could point to as the center of your book. GRACELING isn’t just an awesome fantasy story about people with special talents, for example. It’s also about one’s place in the world, duty, honor and empowerment. Those are the ideas that Kristin Cashore weaves into the manuscript, her themes.
Once you know what these are — and you usually won’t until you’ve started revising — you can use them as a lens for when you’re writing imagery and description. This sort of fits with the point I’ll be making about developing writing voice before the month is out. A theme for your work should color everything in it, subtly, especially the descriptions. If you’re working with a theme and a plot with a lot of loneliness in it, settings aren’t “empty,” they’re “desolate,” which has a much stronger resonance with the themes you’ve set out to play with. When you’re working on thematic writing, look at all your descriptions and characterizations through the lens of the bigger idea you want to work with.
Theme as a Lens for Writing Imagery and Description
The next time you’re reading a really well-written book, think about how the author is writing imagery, description, metaphor, all of those fancy-pantsy literary devices that usually crystalize during revision. I bet all of the author’s prose seems to just fit with the plot and the theme of the work. In writing, everything is a choice. When you get to the really fine-tuning work of a fifth or sixth pass revision, you’re looking for all the little places where you can make the right choice. If you’re setting up a scene where a person is alone in their snowbound house, you wouldn’t say that a “boisterous” wind rattled the windows, you’d maybe say, “a pang of wind made the glass shiver,” or whatever.
Everything has to fit. From the way you describe a scene to the verbs you use to the seemingly-innocuous metaphor you choose for your character’s frame of mind at the moment. I hate putting labels on it like “theme” or “message” (because you really don’t want to be teaching anyone stuff with your thematic writing, readers, especially kids, don’t cop to that sort of thing) but there really should be something larger at work, something subtle but everpresent, in your novel. It’s in revision that it gets teased out and crafted. Every sentence should ring with it… whatever it is that you want your reader to feel and experience as they’re moving through your story.
Watch Out for Purple Prose
In that same vein, don’t overload on the literary stuff either. Don’t go crazy with metaphors and similes to the point where every sentence has a “like” or “as” in it. And don’t go crazy with description, either. Those days when readers indulged in long, lavish scene-setting and endless purple prose are over.
When you’re writing imagery and description, you want to get the job done quickly and economically. I like to tell people that the best writing comes from very specific, extremely well-chosen details. Let one or two perfectly-picked specifics do the work of paragraphs. Isn’t it enough for me to say, “Dinah saw that her thong was sticking out past the waistband of her jeans, blushed, and pulled her pants a notch lower,” for you to get what Dinah’s about as a character? I don’t have to describe her push-up bra or skimpy tank top or hooker heels or the silver cross nestled ironically in her cleavage… you get it right from the thong-flash.
So when you’re working on thematic writing, make intelligent choices that fit the larger goal of your work. Think like an MFA student for a day and make sure your images and descriptions match your theme. Cut out blocks of description and replace them with well-chosen details. See if you can’t make your writing tighter and more effective, sentence to sentence, page by page.
When you hire me as your book editor, we can create a customized plan to achieve your writing goals. Do you want help fine-tuning your thematic writing? Let’s work on it together!
ChristaCarol asked this question of how long should a children’s book be via email. I thought I’d answer it for everyone, since manuscript length really is on writers’ minds. I almost hesitate to get into the children’s book length discussion publicly because it can be controversial. But, well, that’s never stopped me before. 🙂
Here’s the question:
I have a question about your opinion on word count in YA fantasy. And this may be one of those subjective things that drive us all nuts, but my manuscript length is at 90K, which I’d thought (for a Fantasy) was high, but okay. A wonderful agent who offered to critique the query through a contest mentioned she would pass on the project just because of the high word count. Is this done often? Should I be scared? Should I go back and find a way to chop out 10K? How long should a children’s book be? Another writer mentioned just querying it at 80K even if it’s 90K, but I’m not sure, wouldn’t this dirty up my integrity or something?
This is a great question. I love getting publishing myth/rumors that I can confirm or deny. Now, ChristaCarol is astute when she mentions that this might be one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts, because… this is one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts.
How Long Should a Children’s Book Be?
I can give you two answers. First, the cute and fuzzy one: As long as the manuscript and the story has earned every single one of those vital and carefully chosen words, the word count doesn’t matter. There are those very rare exceptions where I see a word count in a query, have a mini heart attack, but then the author convinces me that each word is necessary and I agree whole-heartedly. If given enough reason, people (and that includes editors and agents) will read long books.
Now for the more practical, everyday truth. Personally — and this sounds extremely crass and judgmental of me, I know — the lower your word count, the more I like you, right off the bat. For example, at any given time, I’ve got about 150 queries and 8 manuscripts in my queue. And that’s from, like, the last couple of days. That’s a lot of words for me to read. When I get a query for anything over 80k words that sounds really cool, I groan a little bit inside.
Word Count Can Be Flexible
It’s not the word count, per se, because, if something sounds cool, I really do get excited to read it. It’s that I have so many other submissions on my plate, so I half-dread loving it a lot and having to read all those 80k words. And if I take it on, I’ll have to read those 80k words over and over again as we revise. It represents a big time commitment. I realize this is arbitrary and perhaps lazy of me but… welcome to the world of a very busy agent. Sometimes, we have these thoughts.
There are times, though, (and these are the rule, not the exception, I find) when an inflated word count isn’t earned, isn’t awesome, isn’t because every word deserves to be there.
When Manuscript Length Is an Issue
I usually find that first-time fantasy, paranormal or sci-fi authors are the worst offenders. They craft a redundant manuscript full of lavish description that moves at a snail’s pace. Then they send it to me and proudly say that there are 155k words and that it’s the first in a trilogy. I read the writing sample and see paragraph after paragraph of dense text with no breaks for dialogue or scene. These are the high word count manuscripts that are problematic.
Because, clearly, the author hasn’t revised enough. And if I tell them what really needs to happen — that they need to lose about 50% of their words — they’ll have an aneurysm.
But, truthfully, if your children’s book length is anything over 100k, it better be higher-than-high YA fantasy. And all those words better be good. Cutting words and scenes and “killing your darlings,” as I like to put it, is one of the most hard-won revision skills any writer can have. And it usually comes after you’ve done lots and lots and lots of revision in your life. Many debut authors haven’t yet learned how to make — and enjoy — this type of word sacrifice. It shows.
The Problem With High Word Count Manuscript Length
Now, there’s also a real reason I usually balk at manuscripts with a high word count, besides my own busy inbox and the fact that most really wordy manuscripts reflect a lack of polish and revision. So, as we’ve already established, a lot of my highest word count submissions come from debut authors. For editors, debut authors are an exciting but fundamental risk. They’re untested in the marketplace, they could potentially lose the publisher a lot of money.
Words equal pages and pages equal money in terms of production costs. Longer books are also heavier and bigger, so the publisher will have to invest more in shipping costs and warehouse space, which all figures into their bottom line before they even acquire the book. (All editors have to guess how much money their house will have to spend to publish this book and how much earning potential the book has. They have to put it together and present it to their team before they can make an offer. It’s called a Profit and Loss Statement or, in my mind, The Spreadsheet of Terror.)
The more words a manuscript has, the more expensive it’ll be to turn into a book. So editors will frown if I try to send them a really long book from a debut author. Their investment in this book will have to be much higher and, these days especially, there’s less chance they’ll take that kind of risk on a debut. So I have to think about that when I think about representing a longer manuscript, too. I’m here to sell your many words, not just enjoy them by myself. 🙂
Ideal Children’s Book Length
As ChristaCarol says, there are different accepted manuscript length word count limits for different genres and age groups. This is the part I hesitate to do, but I will throw my hat in the ring and suggest some ballpark and maximum word counts for different types of projects.
How long should a children’s book be?
Board Book — 100 words max
Early Picture Book — 400 words max
Picture Book — 600 words max (Seriously. Max.)
Nonfiction Picture Book — 3,000 words max, but closer to 1,000 to 2,000 words
Early Reader — 1,500 words is the max
Chapter Book — This varies widely, depending on grade and reader level, usually starting at 4,000 words and 15,000 words max
Young Middle Grade or MG — 15,000 to 25,000 words
Middle Grade or MG — 45,000 words max for contemporary, mystery, humor
Upper Middle Grade — 65,000 words max for fantasy/sci-fi, adventure and historical
Young Adult or YA — 85,000 words max for contemporary, humor, mystery, historical, romance, etc. 95,000 words max for fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, etc.
New Adult — 65,000 to 85,000 words
Now, again, these are just estimates I’ve gathered from my experience. If a manuscript length goes over the maximum that editors usually deal with, there has to be a damn good reason.
The Problem With Early Middle Grade and Tween
Let me also address right now that I’ve been seeing some queries for “Early Middle Grade” in the 7,000 word range. No, no, no. That’s too tiny. The categories below middle grade are chapter book and early reader, and you can read about them in a different article. Middle Grade, even Early Middle Grade, beings at around 15,000 words minimum. But this does bring to light that there are all sorts of gray areas. Upper Middle Grade. Lower YA. The sometimes-mocked label of “tween.” So word count is a tricky wicket. How about this? If you’re worried that your book is too long and you sometimes dread doing yet another revision because there’s so much of it to read… cut!
And know that some agents do automatically reject manuscripts because of their length. I’m not quite there yet but, if I do see something over 80k, it has to work pretty darn hard to convince me that all those words are necessary.
Do you need help bringing your manuscript word count up or down into an acceptable range? I am happy to be your developmental editor and suggest ways to expand or cut your work in a way that preserves your manuscript’s integrity.
This question about writing a series query letter is from Elan:
How do you feel about authors querying about a series? Is it important to mention that in the initial query letter, or is that something that can be discussed once an author/agent relationship is established? Let’s say the first book is complete but the others in the series are not.
Good question, Elan. Writing a series query letter is something a lot of writers should be researching beforehand, because — if you’ve been under a rock for the last year or so and haven’t heard — the rules in publishing have changed a little bit since the economy tanked. This might not be my answer forever, but this is my answer right now.
Writing a Series Query Letter: Past and Present
Series have been snapped up left and right by the big houses in the recent past, ever since Harry Potter proved that you could keep the cash flowing for many, many books. A few years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see two, three or even four-book deals right out of the gate, a healthy number of these going to debut authors. Fantasy, sci-fi and paranormal are three genres that lend themselves especially well to series and, if you asked the blogs a little while ago, they’d all say that writing “This project has strong series potential and I’m currently writing books two through five” in your query could very well be melodious to an agent’s ear.
Now houses are taking fewer risks. The average debut author is lucky if they can secure two books with their first contract. I was talking to an editor recently and she outlined the way her house has been approaching series: they buy the first book, maybe in a two-book deal but maybe as a stand-alone, release it, see how it does, and only then do they consider turning it into a series. If they do, they’ll commit through probably a trilogy (so two more books) or more. I like this model, maybe not from a bank account or a prestige standpoint but from an intellectual one. It’s cautious. It’s logical. It’s practical. It doesn’t assume the risk of a series right away, it makes the author and their debut earn the subsequent books. Intimidating thought, I know, but are you really writing a children’s book series for the easy money? 🙂 Didn’t think so.
Series are Risky for Publishers
This isn’t fun to hear for the fantasy, paranormal, or sci-fi writer who’s planning to write a series query letter for their seven-book story arc. But it’s smart. Publishing can’t really be handing out four-book deals like candy anymore. It’s bad for the house because they’re spending a lot of money on untested talent and will have to compete in a very crowded fantasy/paranormal/sci-fi marketplace. It’s bad for the author, too, because the last thing you want people saying about you is: “Wow, poor writer, Publishing House gave her a four-book deal and the first book didn’t even sell that well. Now she’s stuck, her editor isn’t enthusiastic about the project anymore and the house lost a ton money. Bummer.”
It’ll be that much harder to get a new contract for future work from your publisher — why invest more in a product that doesn’t leave the shelves? — or attract a new house because everyone can see your dismal sales numbers. The conventional wisdom of “If a house pays more for a book or series, they’ll do more to promote it” isn’t necessarily true anymore. Big books and series still tank and, when they do, they tank big.
Create Stand-Alone Stories
So, when you’re imagining a series in all its shiny, multi-book glory, the best thing you can do with the first book is make it a complete, stand-alone story. There’s definitely a pattern with series, in terms of what function each book serves. A trilogy, for example, will sometimes go like this:
Book One: set-up and background and initiation
Book Two: exploration and character development
Book Three: showdown!
But if you send an agent a book that’s all set-up and background info and initiation, it doesn’t stand alone. I’m going to say: “Well, that’s great, but what actually happens? This all seems like prologue…” There has to be a full and compelling plot, rich character development, a climax and a denouement for this manuscript, and it has to be satisfying, even if there are other books planned. And why wouldn’t you put all of your best work and your best effort into this first book? Don’t hold on to the good stuff for Book Six. You might never get there. If the market can only bear your debut, you should still feel good that you’ve created a wonderful story. Even if GRACELING didn’t have two other books attached to it, it would still have stood alone and been a perfect, utterly satisfying fantasy novel. That’s what it takes in today’s market.
Gauge Interest Before Writing a Series
I’d also warn unagented, unpublished writers away from developing an entire series and finishing all those manuscripts a) before querying and b) before landing a publishing contract for your first book(s). The most painful thing to see is seven completed series manuscripts that are gathering dust because the author couldn’t attract an agent for or sell the first one.
So it’s fine to send agents a series query letter. But now, instead of hearing about how you’re working on Book Twenty-Nine, the following sentence would be music to my ears: “This project has strong series potential but this manuscript tells a complete tale and stands alone.*”
* And, you know, have this be true.
Writing a series? When you hire me as your children’s book editor, I can help you structure your novel so that there’s subtle potential for a sequel.
More writers should be wondering how to write action scenes. Because the more action sequences I read, the more I’m convinced that they’re the Achilles’ heel of even the most seasoned writer (with the exception of thriller writers, of course). Lovely and agile prose sometimes tends to fall apart when an action sequence is called for.
How to Write Action Scenes With the Movies in Mind
This is a difficult situation for writers who have to contend with an action movie world. Cinematography can do things that prose can’t. It can show us five quick moves from a martial arts sequence in the space of one second.
Take this example from page 83 of SKULLDUGGERY PLEASANT*, a perfectly lovely book that came out with HarperCollins in 2008, written by Derek Landry, a screenwriter, as it happens:
He screamed and let her go and staggered back, cursing, and Stephanie rolled off the car and ran to the Bentley.
Give that sentence a coffee break, it’s been working too hard!
Action Sequence Writing Needs to Flow
As you can see, there’s a bit of conjunctivitis going on (and no, I’m not talking about pink eye, I’m talking about an overload of conjunctions). The author’s “and” addiction sends way too many images shooting at the reader and we can’t quite make a clear picture of the action. Put this sentence in a group of similar sentences and we’ll get whiplash.
Tips on How to Write Action Scenes
This is a reminder to check back on all of your action sequence chapters and run through these revision tips:
Clarity. If you hadn’t written it, would you be able to tell what’s going on? So much, well, action happens in an action sequence that clarity is of the utmost importance.
Consistency. Just because they’re in an action sequence, characters should still act and speak like themselves. They should not develop any surprising but convenient powers or skills in the heat of the action.
Sentence variety. The heavy emphasis on description in an action sequence usually means that style takes a backseat. For example, you get an entire paragraph of sentences that start the same: “He grabbed his gun… He volleyed over the wall… He slid into the driver’s seat… He skidded to a halt to smell the roses…” Make sure your sentences have structural variety. Your readers will get bored with all the “Subject verb” construction, or of any other sentence tic that you develop.
Brevity. Even if your plot calls for the longest action sequence in the world, make sure there are pauses in between bouts of action. Break it up with some snappy dialogue, let the character take a breather. No one can be an action machine 24/7, that includes the reader whose heartbeat has been (hopefully) racing for the last ten pages. Let them take a rest. Some readers are great at reading action sequences, other gloss over them (I have to admit, I skimmed most of the Quidditch sequences and the big finale fights in the HARRY POTTER series, because I am just not that great at reading action scenes and keeping all those pieces and images in my head.)
Believability. Alas, every action sequence must come to an end sometime. Make sure yours ends in a believable way. No “how convenient!” scrapes. No deus ex machina**. And don’t be afraid to let something go wrong or to let someone get hurt. There are always winners AND losers in an action sequence. Give us a taste of both.
There you have it. Now go forth and blow our action-movie-addled minds!
* This awkward action sequence aside, you should definitely read SKULLDUGGERY PLEASANT or any of its sequels if you write MG. It’s a great mix of action and adventure that appeals to girls and boys, realistic and fantasy lovers alike.
* Latin: “god from the machine.” This term refers to “a plot device in which a person or thing appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty” (nice, articulate definition from Wikipedia). This means that if something feels like a “cop out” in your book…if ane scape is too easy or too good to be true…your reader will probably think so, too, and you’ll lose credibility and authenticity points with them.
Plot and action can be hard to master in a vacuum. Hire me as your manuscript consultant, and you’ll never write alone.
Every once in a while, I stumble upon dead scene writing. One where, technically, nothing happens. It usually involves either an author who is brimming with information or really loves writing descriptions or witty banter.
Why Dead Scene Writing Happens
In two manuscripts I’ve read recently, I’ve encountered dead scene writing. These dead scenes occurred for two completely different reasons. For one, the author felt compelled to outline the bulk of a fantasy world in the form of a more-experienced person filling a newbie in. The second MS, the author had established some good tension and a compelling plot with potential danger, then spent about 40 or 50 pages writing: witty banter at a family dinner, a witty scene at the best friend’s house, witty banter at another family dinner, witty banter at the coffee house, witty banter by the lockers at school.
Are you getting my drift? What do the two above mss. have in common? What’s that? Did you say “lot’s o’ blabbing while writing a scene”? Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner!
Editors And Agents Are Looking For Story
When you find scene writing in your MS with nothing but dialogue, you’re most likely in trouble. *cue wails of distress, cries of “but my MS is different!”* That very well might be, but editors and agents are looking for story, they’re looking for plot. In most cases, even a literary, character-driven masterpiece will only be half the package.
I’ve never met a publishing professional who wouldn’t also want to know: “What happens next?”
An author who’s writing a scene that’s heavy on conversation usually intends for it to serve as a) an info-dump (about a world, a situation, a threat, a character, etc.), or b) to bask in their own wit/wordplay/writing.
Both of these pose huge revision problems. Huge. Make-you-want-to-eat-a-sheet-of-tiramisu-from-Costco huge (I know from experience… I can still taste the powdered chocolate dusting my tear-stained cheeks). The first author wails: “But how else do I introduce all that information??? It’s the crux of my story!!!”
Layer in Information and Backstory
When you’re writing a scene, introduce one thing. Then add another layer to it. Add some backstory in another conversation. Better yet, make your explanation triggered by something. Your characters find something and it starts a story. Or something happens and a character explains something. Instead of having a conversation triggered by your urge to worldbuild and spill the framework of your concept, have it be triggered by action. And don’t give it to us all in one burst of scene writing. Put the pieces together as they arise naturally through plot.
The second writer will balk at this advice: “But this is hilarious. It’s so fun to read!” Sure, you wrote some funny stuff. And I’ll probably enjoy reading it. But most writers can’t keep a book in suspended plot animation for long before a reader gets antsy. If you want to showcase your wit, punctuate it with action. Have a witty moment discussing something that happened. De-stress after a long day of ACTION by hanging out with your BFF and bantering. Don’t let the witty banter be the entire book, though. That’s the grave mistake.
“What Happens Here?”
As you can see, the answer to both examples of scene writing is action. Something happening. Plot. Every scene and every chapter must not only develop character and story and world, they must also move the plot forward. Another reason to avoid long dialogue scenes without plot is that dialogue leads toward telling, not showing.
Are you worried about writing a scene after this? Good. If you’re the fantasy writer in my examples, start with the chapters you loathe re-reading the most. The ones dense with info you already know, the ones you tend to skim in revisions. That’s where your problem lies. If you’re the second writer, start with the chapters you love the most. The ones that make you feel the most satisfied. The ones where you’re showing off. My guess is that they’re the witty banter ones.
Neither is easy. But when you’re revising, ask yourself about every scene, every chapter: “What happens here?”
Honesty is important. If your honest answer is: “Two characters walk into a room, sit down at the table and talk,” that’s trouble.
Having trouble with your scene writing? Hire me as your freelance book editor and I’ll help you weed out the fluff and focus on the elements that drive your plot forward.
There’s tons of fantasy worldbuilding going on nowadays, with all the manuscripts out there whose main characters have magic powers. This can be fun and interesting, but the more I read of them, the more a strange habit rears its little head. Writing magic systems is difficult work, since magic is, by its very nature, fantastical. But sometimes, characters’ magic powers are a little too, er, convenient. Not only does this affect the integrity of your novel worldbuilding, but the plot, too.
An Example of Convenient Fantasy Worldbuilding
Lizzie’s powers were absolutely ineffective against the charm-locked door. Not even her Open Sesame spell could break the lock. Conveniently, any wizard of the Caldecott Bloodline, which Lizzie just happened to be a descendant of, could breeze right through. Luckily I remembered that! Saved me a lot of trouble, Lizzie thought as she jumped through the enchanted doorway.
This is, obviously, an exaggeration. But note a few things here. First, we go from a situation with tension and potential danger (a door locked by magic) to a situation with no tension whatsoever. Instead of making it hard for the character, instead of making the character work, the author (in this case, me) has given the MC an easy way out. Also, every time you catch yourself using words like “conveniently” or “luckily” or “just happened to…” take another look at how you’re writing your magic system. See if you can’t scare up some more danger or tension.
Luck, Accidents, and Coincidences Feel Cheap to Readers
We don’t pick up fiction to read about characters in easy-breezy situations. We don’t read read to see a magical coincidence at work. Sure, there are coincidences and happy accidents in life. And sure, sometimes we’re getting chased by werewolves and realize that our blood is powerful lupine repellent, just as their jaws close around our throats, or whatever, but fiction isn’t life transcribed, it’s life enhanced and structured to bring out tension and high stakes.
When you’re writing magic systems, luck, accidents, coincidences and other “Whew! What a nice surprise!” moments feel…cheap to the reader. Like the writer ran out of ideas and needed to get out of a pinch. That makes the reader think two things: “Wow, all the tension fell out of this scene,” and, possibly, “Why should I bother getting invested in the next high stakes scene? The author might just whip out another magical coincidence.”
Some much wiser writer once said that the crux of good fiction is getting a character in trouble, getting them in deeper trouble, then getting them in the deepest trouble of their life. There are too many manuscripts where the character’s magic helps them out right when they should be getting into trouble instead.
When You’re Writing Magic Systems, Set the Rules Early On
Like I mentioned above, this is a rules and boundaries issue. Every time you have fantasy worldbuilding in a manuscript, you’ve got to set rules and boundaries for how the fantastical elements function. When can a power be used? When can’t it be used?
Sometimes an author will pull a character out of danger in a very contrived way. Other times, the author will land a character in the very lap of danger by convenient means instead of raising stakes realistically. Neither is a good strategy when you’re writing magic systems. An example of the latter:
Our valiant hero, Lizzie, squinted up at the cave opening. She was trapped so far down in this underground hole that she thought she’d never get out. Then she remembered her pole-vaulting superpower! She readied her pole and prepared to vault when her shoulder grazed part of the cave wall. Oh, no! Was this limestone? Her grandmother had repeatedly told her, when she was a child, that only limestone would make her pole-vaulting magic fizzle. Lizzie was stuck again and the leprechauns could be heard drawing ever closer!
Challenge Yourself to Overcome Writerly Laziness or Convenience
Next time you work on fantasy worldbuilding, make sure you’re not doing anything for the sake of writerly laziness or convenience. Outline the rules and set boundaries for the magic throughout the manuscript. Give us, if not the powers in action, a taste of every power that your character will have throughout the story in the first 100 pages. That way, your character, and the reader, will know their strengths and limitations as they head into the rest of the story and, especially, the climax. Ideally, once the character gets in a certain situation, you will have put the work into writing a magic system so the rules of their magic are clear. And I’m talking rules here. Like, the reader should be able to articulate and detail when magic can’t and can come into play in your story.
Introducing a new rule about magic right when the main character can either benefit or suffer from that rule is not usually a very provocative technique. It will be much easier to get your character out of trouble using convenient magic than it will to win your readers back after such a stroke of luck.
If you want to master fantasy worldbuilding, hire me as your developmental editor and we’ll dig deep together.