Young Adult Critique: Workshop Submission #2

Thank you all for your participation on last week’s middle grade critique! That turned out to be very fun and I’m super stoked to be doing these workshop submissions. This week, I join you for a young adult submission from A. L.

An inspiring notecard, not a threatening one … but a notecard nonetheless!

Let’s Begin the Workshop Critique!

The end of the world didn’t begin with the accumulation of carbon or the thawing of ice; those had already begun by the time Georgia received the letter. It arrived with smudgy, snaky writing across a grainy, cream card – a throwback – a rejection of centuries of progress in technological design and electronic communication, with a message that was succinctly malevolent,

Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa. A lot to unpack here! So I like the tension of the beginning. The world ending is thrown right into the mix right away. But first we spend time learning how the world didn’t begin to end—I’d maybe avoid defining something in the negative, since it’s not the clearest way of describing an event.

Then we get the card. But the writer spends more time making a commentary about how a card sends a social message—rather than actually focusing on the message! I wonder if this is the right way to introduce the card because the focus is completely elsewhere. It may be distracting.

I know that you stole.

Now they will too.

It wasn’t Georgia’s manner to rush to wild hysteria, much less to believe that bad news could come in such a low-key and classy fashion.

We’re still concentrating quite a bit on the card, which seems to me a minor detail. The writer here indulges in something I wouldn’t recommend: telling about character. Instead, let’s see Gerogia’s thoughts when she reads this.

Still half asleep, she examined the stylish sheet of cardboard in her hand – and always prone to think first, act later, she wondered what it was trying to say.

This brings us to grounding the reader in setting and time. Where and when is she? What’s she doing? Was she just asleep? Did the Tooth Fairy bring the card and put it in her hand? Instead of focusing on the social ramifications of writing a card, let’s actually place the character in scene.

She considered her stealing about as worthy of anyone’s attention as the other mindless habits in her day-to-day life, like the way she wriggled her leg incessantly or the way she might pick a juicy scab on her scalp. Instead her brain absent-mindedly wandered to a time when she used to write messages to dear friends. When everyone, not just her, had kept themselves throbbing to the pretty hum of calendars, diaries and sparkly invitations.

I’m afraid that this opening works counter to the tension you’re trying to establish. We learn that Georgia steals. I like the “juicy scab” description, it’s quite gross but the language is strong. But why open with a threatening card that amps up the tension if Georgia herself doesn’t react to the tension that the card brings? That seems like a huge missed opportunity. And if Georgia couldn’t care less about the threatening message in the card, why start with it at all? The dramatic card and Georgia’s totally nonchalant reaction seem at odds. Especially since all anyone wants to talk about is the delivery mechanism for messages. That seems like the least compelling part of this opening—in terms of story tension—but that’s where all of the attention is still going.

The letter had obviously been hand-delivered. There was no stamp, because there was no postal service. Not anymore. The postman had carried on with his rounds for a few weeks after the post office closed, much as most people with old-school “useful” professions had.

Ah, so now the lack of cards and calendars makes a bit more sense. A dystopian slant here with the postal service being decommissioned. Let’s get that earlier then. “She hadn’t seen an actual honest-to-god handwritten card in years” or whatever adds tension and context to the story. It deserves to go earlier.

For me, this passage is a great lesson in directing the reader’s attention. The reader will pay attention to what you want them to. So make sure you’re focusing on the most compelling part, so that readers also focus there. Here, it was very unclear to me why I needed to focus so much on cards and “old school” methods of communication … until the very last paragraph. If something is important, readers need to know why, especially at the beginning of a novel, when you’re first introducing the world-building.

Want personalized advice on your own writing? You can always hire me as your developmental editor.

Dropping Threads

I’ve worked with a few manuscripts recently where the writers established and then promptly forgot about important threads. In my book, I talk about shining a spotlight. If something is important, it’s your job as a writer to shine the spotlight on it. You pick where to aim that light, and how bright it is.

What do I mean about dropping threads? Well, let’s say that your character is a musician. They speak in musical metaphors and seem to see the world through a Beautiful Mind-esque musical lens. Until this fades from the manuscript about a third of the way through. And music doesn’t really factor into the plot itself.

I often see this in manuscripts. Just like voice sometimes fades in and out (the writer is focusing on voice when they’re writing certain passages, then they shift focus to something else and the narrative tone changes), so do various other elements of novel craft.

Character attributes (musicality), secondary characters (a supposed best friend disappears for 50 pages and nobody thinks anything of it), world-building elements (the world is on the brink of war and yet there’s no danger or news of danger in the middle of a story), and plot points (the character says their objective is to seek something, then they get wrapped up in a romance and the desired object seems to fade into the background) can all be lost in the shuffle.

Your job as a writer is to analyze your story and see if you’re dropping any threads. Are you swearing up and down that something is important, then abandoning it? Does everything that’s vital to the story and introduced at the beginning wrap up by the end? Do all of the important elements get some kind of closure?

This is a common note that I give. “Whatever happened to XYZ?” Make sure your story feels cohesive from beginning to end, leaving nothing/nobody of note behind.

Novel World Building and Adding Emotion to Writing

When I talk to client about novel world building, I talk a lot about context. If, for example, there is a magic in worldbuilding, I want to know if a) magic is common, b) the protagonist has experienced magic before (if yes, how much? what kind? etc.), and c) how they feel about it. So when a streak of green lightning flies across the room, I am looking to the protagonist for clues. How they react to it will tell me a lot about how magic operates in the world.

But this sort of approach isn’t just for novel world building. You can add an emotional stance to almost everything, even if your book is set very much in the real world. Think of it as a worldbuilding approach to all of your writing. It’s also a principal tenet of interiority. How does your character see the world? How they react to stuff will be a very good guide.

novel world building, worldbuilding, interiority, writing emotions
Adding emotional layers to a story is just like novel world building, only without the unicorns (in most cases).

Emotional Novel World Building

For example, if they see the new kid in school, they might say:

There’s Bo, the new kid in school.

This is merely factual, but is there an emotional signature there? No. Do some worldbuilding! So the reader is still wondering … so what’s the deal with this Bo guy? Do we like him? Is he weird? If he’s important, I want to know more about him right away. One answer (other than putting Bo in the plot or in scene with the protagonist, which I would also recommend) would be to add an emotional stance into your novel world building.

For example, here are some more complex reactions we can have to seeing Bo:

There goes that Bo, swaggering like a show pony. Who does he think he is?

There’s Bo, on the fringes of the cafeteria with the cool drama kids already . Would he say something to me today? I hope so.

And then there was Bo. Was he the one who shot off that green bolt during homeroom? What if he’s an algae elemental? What if he can help me figure out the Slime Pond mystery?

Worldbuilding As It Applies to Character

Here we have three different attitudes about Bo, because I’ve let the narrator have an emotional stance in addition to providing basic information (“There’s Bo”). In the first example, the emotion about Bo is quite negative. In the second example, it’s attraction to Bo. He’s already off fraternizing with some other group, but the narrator hopes that he’ll come pay him or her some attention, too. The third example gives world-building context but there’s also an emotional signature of intrigue. We get the feeling that algae elementals (ha!) are quite rare, and they’re desirable, at least for the narrator.

I could play with this stuff forever. For example, what if algae elementals weren’t rare? How would we convey that idea through the narrator’s emotional stance?

And then there was Bo. Was he the one who shot off that green bolt during homeroom? Great. The first new kid we’ve had in ages and he’s another dang algae elemental. This stupid school is teeming with them.

Don’t just settle for describing something or someone. It’s in how you describe them that the reader will be able to read the narrator’s attitude and emotion toward them. It’s all about context, folks!

Layering interiority into your story can be hard. If you want to master character worldbuilding, hire me as your developmental editor and we’ll dig deep together.

High Stakes In Writing Are Tricky

Is it possible for stakes in writing to be too high?

It seemed that, for a while in the early 2010s, every book I was getting in the slush as an agent had something to do with the end of the world. Dystopian fiction was all the rage, The Hunger Games were exploding off the shelves, and the Mayans had supposedly hinted that the end times would happen in 2012. (Maybe they did and we are all a dream that one of my pugs, who sleeps pretty much continuously, is having?)

stakes in writing, high stakes
Stakes in writing: find a balance between too small and too huge, and always make them specific to your character.

Point being, I saw the same iteration of high stakes in writing over and over:

Kid is arbitrarily chosen to save the world, because the world is definitely ending, usually by a mechanism that is large, ominous, and largely outside of anyone’s control. The phenomenon is either natural (disaster, asteroid, climate collapse, virus, etc.) or manmade (shadowy government forces, global war, etc.).

Stakes in Writing: the “Chosen One”

I’ve written before about the unique challenges of the “chosen one” style of story, where a child is, seemingly, arbitrarily plucked from obscurity to avert global disaster. This is a very tough type of book to pull off, and yet that doesn’t stop pretty much everyone from trying. Basically, it opens up a lot of questions that never seem answered quite to my satisfaction. Why this totally ordinary kid? Why such profound magical powers out of nowhere? If this kid is so special, why haven’t they been groomed for the task from birth? Who decided that this one child, on a planet of 8 billion people, was the only hope?

Structurally, these stories also seem to follow a lot of the same steps, which now seem cliché. A milestone happens and they discover a secret about themselves that reveals a destiny. Then they are thrust into a completely new group of people. Cue meet and greets. Then they have to learn a whole new set of skills. Cue training montages (which contribute to a rather static “muddy middle,” since you can only write a few scenes of learning how to do XYZ before they start to run into one another). There’s a rival and a big challenge, then the character must do the thing they were destined to do. It looks unlikely for a second, and the Earth is splintering apart and shaking, and then, suddenly, they persevere at the last moment and the whole world is saved!

Can Stakes Be Too High?

The big issue with these stories, other than their relative sameness, is that the sky high stakes are maybe…too high.

Now, I can imagine you, dear reader, are about to throw your laptop at me. I keep talking about stakes and stakes and stakes and tension and friction and raising the stakes, and then I show up one fine Monday morning to tell you that, well, stakes can be too high. What do I want? Why am I so finicky? Is nothing ever good enough for Little Miss Goldilocks over here?

Hear me out. The issue with most manuscripts is, indeed, that stakes in writing tend to be too low. The action is small, there’s not enough personal investment from the character, and the consequences of each action and plot point are barely registering on the charts. However, the opposite extreme is also problematic. If someone ran down my street right now in their boxer shorts, screaming that the world was ending, I would…shrug? Go to a news website? Call my husband? Throw caution to the wind and eat a whole thing of ice cream? I don’t know. That’s such an improbable event (no matter how many times our imaginations have gone there) that it’s too big to believe.

Selling Huge Stakes Is Difficult

Once your inciting incident kicks off, you have a lot of convincing to do — starting with the character, then the reader. Is the world really going to end? Readers, by this point, are savvy customers. We know how these types of stories go. And we know that the world ain’t ended yet. And if it was going to, it would probably be turned over to the professionals rather than landing squarely in the lap of a 12-year-old kid.

So should you even bother with an apocalypse story? You can. There’s always something deeply fascinating to humans about the idea of the world exploding or being decimated by virus. I would imagine there are some hastily written zika virus manuscripts popping into agent inboxes right about now. If you still want to do this sort of thing, I would suggest that the character and plot need to be inextricably tied to make your high stakes believable.

High Stakes Need to be Tied to Your Specific Character

This specific kid needs to match this specific apocalypse in a way that makes them the only possible answer. Let’s say that their mother was a leading climate scientist who was recently kidnapped. Life sucks for the character as they try to put the pieces back together. Then it’s revealed that the reason for the kidnapping was that Mom had just stumbled upon a shadowy government conspiracy to overheat the Middle East in a desperate bid to end the conflict there. But it worked too well, and now the entire planet is in grave danger. Mom is presumed dead, but Kid has his doubts. Worse yet, Mom told Kid some very classified information right before she was taken, almost as if she knew what was going to happen. Now Kid might be the only one to reverse the runaway climate. But, even with the world (theoretically) at stake, Kid has their own skin in the game: to see if Mom is actually alive, and to bring those responsible for the kidnapping to justice.

Apocalypse story. Shadowy government conspiracy. Runaway climate change (giving the story a timely hook). But what do we notice about this premise? It’s not just some random kid. In fact, the kid has deeply personal reasons for springing into action. And averting the apocalypse is almost a byproduct of more intimate, meaningful goals.

Make Your Stakes More Personal

That’s what I would suggest doing if your stakes are too high: make them smaller (not in scope, but in terms of intimacy of objective and motivation). Make them more personal. Make it believable that a kid would rise up against huge forces to get what they want, because what they want is very close to their hearts. The stakes can remain huge (there’s still an apocalypse scenario) but their impact on your specific character is what has the power to set you apart in this very crowded category.

Hire me to be your book editor and I’ll help you evaluate if your stakes are too low or too high, and give you actionable steps to make them compelling yet believable.

Breaking the Rules When You’re Creating a Fictional World

Creating a fictional world is one of the most challenging aspects of writing fantasy. If done well, it’s also one of the most satisfying (ideally) aspects of reading fantasy or science fiction. Where you are immersed in a world by an author who knows what they’re doing. Worldbuilding in writing, at its heart, is just establishing a set of rules for what does and doesn’t happen in your world.

creating a fictional world, worldbuilding in writing
When you’re creating a fictional world, you have to establish the rules for magic before you can break them.

Establish Rules Clearly and Early On When Creating a Fictional World

When I’m reading a manuscript and a cat starts talking to the main character on page three (this is probably the inciting incident), I need to know a few things before we ever get to Fluffy. Do cats talk in this world? What role do animals play in terms of animal/human relations? When Fluffy opens his maw, I should know immediately: this is or isn’t normal according to the writer’s worldbuilding.

The more rules we’ve established when creating a fictional world, the clearer the world comes across. There’s logic and order imposed. Which becomes all the more important when you decide to break one of your own rules. This is what I want to get into here.

I talked a bit about this stuff in a much earlier post about fantasy worldbuilding. Basically, when you’re dealing with magic powers, you want them to be well-defined, so that your character isn’t getting out of trouble by pulling never-before-seen tricks out of her hat. That’s lame, and it betrays your worldbuilding. Why bother creating any rules when you circumvent them at every turn?

Can You Break the Rules You’ve Established?

You might think that, since I’m advocating for rules when creating a fictional world, I am against breaking the rules. Not true. Breaking well-crafted rules when worldbuilding in writing is exciting. It raises stakes and tension. Let’s stick with magical worldbuilding. What happens when someone tries a spell that nobody has tried before? The answer to this question lies in more rules, not fewer. The better your reader knows the world and the parameters of the magic, the more they will start to anticipate what might happen when the character goes “off the grid,” so to speak.

“Will it be like using Power X or Spell Y? Will the outcome be A or B, like that one time the character did something like this?” This anticipation builds because the reader knows what to expect in the world of your story, and it’s only after this familiarity is established that we start to truly engage. And when flirting with breaking the rules starts to become fun and interesting.

You Have to Set the Rules Before You Can Break Them

If your world has no limits or rules, everything is a free-for-all. How can you build anticipation when literally anything can happen? The best stories become their own worlds, constantly referring back to what has come before as the action moves forward. Without strong rules to govern worldbuilding in writing, none of the stuff you’ve done so far in the book matters, because it’s not precedent for anything.

If there’s magic, we need to know the limits, how it works, etc. If there are different races/classes of people or creatures in your fantasy hierarchy, we need to know what each does, means, and how they relate to one another. If you’ve established that the dragons hate the polar bears and will do anything to start a war, once a dragon shows up, it better not be a low stakes event. And if it is, it’ll be that much more surprising, and you’ll get a reaction out of the reader. This is conscious rule-breaking.

Set yourself up to succeed with worldbuilding in writing by nailing down all of your key elements, and only then can you start to mess with them.

If you’re working on creating a fictional world, hire me as your developmental editor and we’ll dig deep together.

Writing Voice and Building a Lexicon

Great manuscripts create their own writing voice, dictionaries, and lexicons, in a way.

writing voice, slang, lexicon, dictionary, word choice, creative writing, narrative voice, developing voice in writing
Writing voice means having specific words and ways of speaking become a natural part of your manuscript.

This is pretty commonplace in fantasy, where you rack up terms, place names, slang, and other words that are part of complex novel world building. Many fantasy series, in fact, have their own affiliated or “unofficial” encyclopedias published once the series runs out and a publisher senses that there is still money in ‘dem dere hills to be made from fans.

Building Inside Jokes With Your Reader

Developing a voice in writing that includes special words, repeating images, inside jokes and the like serves to bring readers further into your world because they feel like a member of an exclusive club.

But non-fantasy novels can have this inclusive, worldbuilding effect, too. One of the best examples I can think of has been stuck in my head because we’ve randomly named our GPS voice “Patty.” Relevant? Hardly. Stick with me for a minute, though, because it’s about to get more random. The only thing I can think of when I hear the name “Patty” is Tina Fey.

I have her and her book BOSSYPANTS on the brain often, actually, because I have played the excellent audiobook of her reading it on no less than three road trips. If you’ve read BOSSYPANTS, you may remember an episode from her summer theatre days where her melodramatic friend throws himself a coming-out party, a “gay-but.”

To the apparent surprise of his girlfriend. Whose name is Patty, and who has a face that resembles a scone. That’s a funny enough detail in and of itself. But what does Tina Fey, an expert at turns of phrase and building inside jokes, if you’ve seen 30 Rock, do next? She keeps elaborating on Patty’s sconelike face shape in several iterations throughout the story. My favorite is when she calls her “Sconeface Patty.”

Each time it’s mentioned, not only do we laugh harder, because it’s always an unexpected riff on what we’re already expecting, but we feel closer to the story because we get it. We’re right there in it.

Writing Voice and Word Choice

Creating a lexicon is especially important when you’re working on two elements: a sense of place, and a sense of writing voice. If your novel’s setting has a quarry in it where everyone goes to make out, you can invent your own shorthand, just like you would in real life. “We drove past Makeout Mountain to hit up the Dairy Queen” will become familiar to your readers as they try to picture your small town.

Keep mentioning it to make those streets and country roads feel intimate. You’re creating a place out of thin air, after all. You need to give it some grip. And once something is established, think of ways to refer to it that bring the reader into the fold.

In terms of developing voice in writing, different characters should have distinct ways of talking. That involves turns of phrase, images, words, etc. that will create their own lexicons for each character. Don’t take this to a caricature place, though. Just like you’d never want a dialect to completely take over what the character is saying, don’t layer on catch-phrases and weird slang too thick.

But think about rhythm, word choice, way of describing something. I don’t think Tina Fey would’ve settled for “Sconeface Patty” if she’d genuinely liked the girl, for example. Think of how your characters describe good things, bad things, things when they’re in a good mood, things when they’re feeling annoyed, on and on and on.

Your goal with a book is to draw in your reader. One way of doing that is to get them in on the joke of your very own lexicon.

Developing voice in writing is an elusive concept to grasp. With me as your developmental editor, we’ll be able to drill right into it and take yours to the next level.

Writing for the Reader by Anticipating Reader Wants

Writing for the reader by anticipating what readers want comes up when I’m discussing worldbuilding. For example, imagine a reader brand new to the fantasy world you’re creating. They’ve just dropped out of the sky and landed in the middle of it. They are fully immersed. (A good analogy for opening a book). What are your first few questions going to be? (“Why is the sky purple? Can everyone shoot lightning from their fingertips? Why does only the royal class get to wear clothes?”) A skillful worldbuilder, then, incorporates the answers to these implied questions into their narrative so that the reader doesn’t have to be distracted from the story by the stuff they’re wondering about. They can just know it and move on to what’s happening in front of them. Otherwise, you have a situation where your reader is stuck on the details (“No, but seriously, hold the phone, why is the sky purple?”) and they’re missing the forest of your story for the trees.

writing for the reader, what readers want, what do people want to read
Make the reader comfortable in your story by providing important details right away. That lets your audience relax and surrender to the experience.

Writing For The Reader Means Anticipating Reader Questions

This principle can be blown out to apply to every story. In a job interview, candidates are taught to anticipate the questions and give answers that satisfy that unique company’s requirements. Same principle. If you’re truly writing for the reader, you need to ask yourself: What does your reader want to see? What are you setting them up for? What promises are you making that you need to deliver on? (Check out my post on setting reader expectations for more on this topic.)

An Example

You’re writing a MG about some neighborhood kids who want to prove that the old, crotchety woman in the dilapidated mansion at the end of the cul-de-sac is a witch who’s responsible for the town’s trees dying. We’ve all heard variations on this “A witch lives in that house!” tall tale. The wrong way to go about this sort of story would be to spend the first half of the manuscript discussing the backstory of what she’s done that’s crazy, sneaking around her house at night when she’s asleep, going to the local bookstore to look up books on local legends, having a seance in the woods to talk about the woman, trying to interview her neighbors, having a bake sale to raise money for better flashlights to sneak into the house again, etc. etc. etc. What is missing in all of this? What readers want to know about: THE OLD WOMAN.

Show Big Story Elements Sooner Rather Than Later

The reader will not be invested in the story until we meet this crone in the wrinkly flesh. See her interact with the kids. Try and suss out what about her is so creepy. Make up our own minds. This is a classic case of telling versus showing. But since the woman is such a big part of this story, the longer we go without meeting her, the more the writer fails to address what readers want. The same goes for any big story element. If all your character can do is talk about the fact that school is making him miserable, let’s see a classroom scene. If a girl goes on and on about her crush, get him on stage sooner rather than later. I say all the time that something grows in importance the more it’s mentioned or seen in a story. This is a balance. You’re not writing for the reader if something is mentioned and not put into action. (Unless it’s someone like Oz, the Great and Powerful, whose reputation is built up to ridiculous heights on purpose to make the final reveal all the more shocking.)

Too Much Teasing And The Reader Will Stop Chasing The Carrot

Like the unanswered question about your fantasy world that sticks in your reader’s craw and won’t let them immerse themselves in the rest of the story, failing to address what readers want is a huge missed opportunity. When it comes to crafting your story, especially at the beginning, identify the most important characters, settings, plot events and other elements. Then see if you’re leaving the reader hanging with any of them. A little teasing is good and builds tension. Too much and the reader will want to stop chasing the dangling carrot. Is there any point where they’re left sitting and feeling antsy, thinking, “If we could just meet that old woman already, I would know so much more about what’s going on!” When you’re writing for the reader, you need to act like a luxury hotel that anticipates their guest’s every need, from just the right number of towels to the preferred newspaper by the door in the morning. That lets your audience relax and surrender to the experience.

Having troubling figuring out how to anticipate reader wants in your story? Hire me as your manuscript editor and I’ll help you make sure you’re writing for the reader.

Fantasy Writing: Introducing Fantasy Elements

With the proliferation of paranormal and fantasy writing on the market, I need a lot of clues when I start reading a manuscript about whether or not I’m in the real world or an augmented version. Most readers will not have the benefit of a query letter or synopsis when sitting down to read. They may also be picking up an ebook or library-bound version where the cover (often a reliable source of hints about paranormal content) isn’t going to be front and center. (Note: I’m using the terms “fantasy” and “paranormal” interchangeably here to mean “story elements that do not usually exist in realistic fiction.”)

fantasy writing, writing fantasy
‘Brenda, I’ve told you a million times that I don’t want to participate in your stupid Ewok cosplay!’ Given the world you’ve created, make sure that Brenda responds appropriately to this (adorable) outburst.

There’s More to it Than Introducing the Fantasy Element

For example, imagine that speaking dogs are the extraordinary element in your fantasy writing. You’ve read advice (perhaps even mine) about introducing the fantasy premise early on so that the reader knows what kind of story they’re diving into. Excellent. So in the first chapter, you have a dog open up and say something in perfect English. Your work here is done, no?

Well, there’s a lot more to it than simply introducing the fantasy part of the story. Now that the reader’s antennae are up that there’s something odd afoot, you have an opportunity to worldbuild. Most writers miss this opportunity when they’re writing fantasy. The missing piece is often what happens immediately AFTER the introduction of the paranormal element. That’s what actually teaches us about what kind of world you’re creating.

Match Character Reactions to the World You’re Creating

The two most common types of world in fantasy writing are: the kind where something strange is possible and happens all the time and the kind where something strange is possible but happens very rarely (which is often what launches the story). In HARRY POTTER, for example, the Muggle world is flooded by owls and everyone freaks out! It turns out that a world where the paranormal is pedestrian is finally meeting the world where nothing strange ever happens. All because of one boy.

In our dog example, here are two reactions that correspond with the types of worlds listed above. For a world where something strange is pedestrian, it’s:

Dog: You know, I would rather fancy some of that bacon you’re cooking.
Protagonist: Oh, shut it, Scraps. I’m sick of your begging.

If you’re writing fantasy where something strange is an unexpected event:

Dog: You know, I actually detest belly rubs. That spot behind my ear, however…
Protagonist: (jumps back, looks around, looks back to dog) Scraps? Did you just…talk?

Fantasy Writing Tip: Anticipate Reader Questions

The reactions here are key to the reader’s understanding of how widespread your fantasy twist is. Once you’ve gone ahead and introduced the paranormal element, the reader’s next question is going to be, “Okay, so is this a big deal or just part of everyday life?” Go ahead and answer so that you can ease them into your world in a way that follows, naturally, what they want to know about it. Proper worldbuilding in fantasy writing often means anticipating a reader’s questions and answering them so that they’re not stuck wondering something important and, as a result, pull themselves out of the narrative.

In unrelated news, my book was written up along with a slew of other writing guidebooks in the D.C./Virginia Mid-Atlantic SCBWI newsletter by Dionna L. Mann. SCBWI members who are logged into the SCBWI website can access the wonderful newsletter here.

Are you writing fantasy? With my fiction editing services, you’re investing in an expert set of eyes to review your fantasy elements. I’ll point out areas that need improvement, and give you actionable steps to get there.

Is Your Story Premise Juicing Emotion?

This post relates to notes I’ve found myself giving to writers about juicing emotion from their story premise. The theme is the same: You’ve done all this work, created this thing, so why not make it truly emotional fiction?

story premise, novel premise, emotional fiction
If you’ve got a story premise that’s loaded with the high-stakes potential for emotion, you have to make your protagonist walk through that fire.

Does Your Story Premise Live Up to Its Potential?

The note that originally elicited this response was a scene with high emotional potential that, for some reason, didn’t live up to its potential. Rather than becoming a sensitive life wire of emotion, the character drifted through, basically, the climax of the story with all of the interiority and sensitivity of a crash test dummy. (For all those who are new to my story theory rhetoric, I define interiority as having access to your character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. This is possible to accomplish in either first or third person.) There was the potential for emotional fiction in this intense scene, but the writer wasn’t going there.

GO THERE

More and more, my advice to writers can be summed up as: GO THERE. If you set up a story premise with a really unique element, exploit that element to the fullest and design as many plot points around it. If you’re writing a grief story and there’s a lot of potential for your protagonist to hit rock bottom, have them crash into it at high speeds. If you’re writing a love story, give us that moment when he loses himself in her eyes entirely and becomes vulnerable for the first time ever. There are a million story opportunities for your characters to become a raw nerve.

As a group, writers–and don’t think I’m insulting writers here, this sentence could just as easily read “humans”–like to play it safe. They have their pet storytelling techniques, their favorite plot twists, their go-to phrases, their easy physical clichés that they deploy instead of having to write about the messy world of emotions. But the writer’s job isn’t to play it safe. It isn’t to tread the familiar path, because the familiar path isn’t going to electrify readers. Artists in general search for the truth of the human condition by getting out of their comfort zones…and by taking their audiences with them.

When You Play it Safe, You Shortchange Your Readers

If you yourself are unwilling to GO THERE, your reader’s potential to suffer, triumph, and understand diminishes. I’m constantly impressed by how many manuscripts scratch the surface in precisely those moments when they should be plunging in. Interiority flourishes during a boring classroom scene but is oddly silent when it’s time to visit Dad in the hospice, for example. Or we spend a lot of time on happy emotions but completely sidestep anything negative. (Reverse this dynamic for a dystopian manuscript!)

Let me get down to it: The scene that feels the hollowest in your manuscript should either be cut or you should screw your courage to the sticking place and GO THERE with it. Especially when the events transpiring call for high, noble, intense, painful, or otherwise uncomfortable emotions.

An Example of Playing it Safe

To call upon a book outside the kidlit canon, this was my biggest problem with THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER, an insanely successful adult novel by Kim Edwards that came out in 2005 and was incredibly successful. (SPOILERS) While it’s definitely emotional fiction, there is one glaring missed opportunity, a moment begging the author to GO THERE that was never realized. Briefly, the story is about a husband who immediately realizes that one of his newborn twins has Down’s syndrome. This is another era and he quickly spirits the girl away to a nurse, then lies to his wife, saying the second child died. Flash forward many years and the secret is close to coming out. Just as I was expecting the BLISTERING reveal and ensuing confrontation between husband and wife, the husband dies suddenly. The wife finds out another way and rages at his memory.

I know plenty of people who loved this book. But I really, really, really would’ve loved to see the scene where husband and wife stand naked before the truth. It’s one thing to rage at someone’s memory, it’s another to confront him in the flesh. And not just him, but the past and the future. I would never call this author a coward, but I wondered what kept her from GOING THERE and giving us this highly emotional scene using both characters, not just one.

Unleash Those Feelings

So if you’ve got a story premise that’s locked and loaded with the high-stakes potential for emotion, don’t just skirt around it or do the next best thing. It’s going to be challenging, because you have a lot wrapped up in these characters and part of you probably wants to protect them, but you have to think of the most emotional points in your plot as an invitation to unleash those feelings without holding back. GO THERE.

Hire me as your freelance book editor and I’ll help you GO THERE in your work.

Pimp Your Fantasy Premise

Building a fantasy premise is tricky business. You need to convey the unique fictional world you’ve created without dumping a bunch of information inelegantly in your reader’s lap. You have to give them enough context to understand what’s going on and to make sure that the framework, boundaries, rules, and unique qualities of your universe are conveyed clearly.

fantasy premise, how to write a unique fantasy novel
If this is a world where people can fly, why save that unique tidbit until the very end?

Get More Mileage Out Of Your Fantasy Premise

Let’s say that people can fly in your fantasy premise. This isn’t a unique book premise but it is your premise, and that’s what matters. Now, let’s say that you choose to hold off on this fact and use it as a reveal at the climax of the book. The character has no idea that people can fly in this world and only learns it at one of the last moments. Thrilling, right? Well, maybe. If it’s done right. But if this is a world where people can fly, why save that unique tidbit until the very end? Why not blow your character’s mind right at the beginning and get more mileage out of the flying than you would if you hid it away?

Your job is to attract readers to the fantasy premise you’ve created by giving them something that will get them interested in your unique idea. You certainly can tease and hint and withhold things about your world, but I would do this sparingly. Instead of counting on a big surprise to raise stakes and elevate tension, get the coolest stuff about your idea out in the open early. If you’re wondering how to write a unique fantasy novel, this is an effective approach.

How to Write a Unique Fantasy Novel: SELL IT

Instead of hiding your world, SELL IT to your readers by dropping clues for them to follow or exposing the elements that made you fall in love with your story and pursue it. This is a great way of drawing in your audience. It’s saying, “Sure, you’ve read a lot of fantasy before but MY fantasy premise has people flying, and glittering unicorns, and a giant who only falls asleep while guarding his cave of precious treasure once every hundred years.”

So if you want to know how to write a unique fantasy novel, remember this: The more we’re in that world and understand how it works–all of which takes information and revealing these elements in a timely manner–the more we can focus on the other elements of your storytelling. Compared to a rich fantasy premise full of interesting elements, the cheap fizzle of a last-minute surprise starts to feel like a bummer.

If you’re struggling with how to write a unique fantasy novel, hire me as your novel editor and I’ll help you work through premise, plot, character, and voice.