Back in October, I wrote an article about virtual author visits for the Society for Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators blog, Kite Tales. In that article, I offer some new models for authors engage with schools, libraries, and bookstores virtually.
With COVID cases rising, adapting to virtual technologies is more important than ever. While traditional author visits aren’t possible, there are a lot of opportunities for authors to connect with their audiences. Many of the technologies surrounding school and library visits are woefully outdated anyway, and authors need to think outside the box in order to make themselves more accessible–even after the pandemic has passed.
As a writer, I’ve spent years trying to build a “platform.” You hear it time and again: if you want publishers to invest in you, they need to know that you can build and maintain an audience. They want to publish books by authors with a built-in fan base. Follower counts on Instagram and Twitter often equal dollar signs for them.
As a result, I invested a lot of time into Twitter. Twitter seems to be the place where other authors hang out, so I’ve been diligent about forging connections with other writers there. When I meet people at conferences I make sure to follow them. I try to tweet timely comments with relevant hashtags. I make sure to interact with authors I admire.
I have about 2,500 followers on Twitter, which isn’t big-time by any means but was something I was a bit proud of. It took me about five years to reach that number, and I get pretty good engagement on my tweets.
The only problem with Twitter is the platform itself. Like Facebook, using it has become a depressing slog. Like many others, I use Twitter to vent about my life in addition to making writing-related quips, and since 2020 has been a particularly awful year for most, my Twitter feed has matched that mentality. It’s hard for me to spend more than a couple minutes a day on the site anymore.
Throughout the pandemic, there’s one platform that I’d become increasingly reliant on for a daily serotonin boost: TikTok.
TikTok is hailed as being the social media of Gen Z, and as such, I didn’t actually download it until January 2020, after my teen volunteers at the library tried recording a group Renegade dance before storytime. I went home that day and downloaded it, and became instantly hooked on the customer service stories, D&D memes, and cat videos.
For months, TikTok was my ultimate escape. Where else could I get an endless stream of drag queen transitions, Doug Dimmadome hats, and Waluigi twerking to WAP? Somehow their algorithm pinpointed my exact sexuality and showed me videos of people who had the exact same experiences with anxiety that I did.
There’s a lot of criticisms of TikTok’s ownership and their algorithm, but that’s neither here nor there for the purposes of this post. TikTok is one of the things that kept me sane in 2020.
Backing up a little bit to trying to create a platform for writing purposes. One of the things I always meant to do but never really had the stamina or drive for was blogging. I have a few writer friends who are fairly successful bloggers with a steady readership, and it always seemed to be an appealing and appropriate way to build an audience. After all, what better way to showcase your writing ability than to have a long, regularly updated body of work exemplifying it?
My biggest issue was deciding what to blog about. I’ve always felt that blogging about writing was a bit overplayed, and I don’t think I have anything new to say on the topic. But something I’ve always enjoyed, as both a librarian and a writer, is learning new, random information. So on December 6th, 2020, I posited this question to my Twitter following.
This received a fairly warm reception from, well, three people. But my good friend Eddie Louise suggested this:
At first, I was hesitant. While there is educational content on TikTok, to be honest, I never really watch it. Furthermore, I was worried that I had too much to say than would fit in a one minute video. But after thinking on it and realizing that blogging has limited reach and YouTube editing takes way more time than I’m willing to invest, I decided to post my first video on December 7th.
I sent this video to about five people, and for the first twenty-four hours, I had a grand total of 20 likes. That seemed promising, however, so I decided that I’d make a few more videos and see how it went.
But something changed the day after I posted the video.
My notifications on TikTok started to climb. I was suddenly getting a lot of followers very, very quickly. In about two hours, I gained about 1200 followers.
Twenty minutes later, I had nearly 2000.
By 6:30pm, I had over 10,000 followers. It’d been just over twenty-four hours since I’d posted the video, and I already had five times the amount of followers I’d spent eleven years gaining on Twitter.
But this was just the beginning. I was going viral.
As I sat down to dinner, I was gaining about 100 followers per minute. By the time I went to bed, I had 40,000 followers. When I woke up the next morning, I had 65,000 followers.
It has been three weeks since that video went viral, and I continued to make videos in the same vein—random did-you-know facts based on Wikipedia articles or other various places on the internet. I now have 31 videos total (although some of them are responses to comments I received) and 185,000 followers. I haven’t been able to replicate the success of that first video. Some videos seem to get picked up and get over 100,000 views. Some that I thought would do well languish and die with under 10,000 views.
And the thing is, I have no idea what the difference is. Is it the color of my sweater? Is it the way I present the subject matter? Is it the subject itself? What causes the algorithm to pick up my videos and show them to a ton of people, or to let them lie there, ignored?
I haven’t figured it out and I am not sure I ever will. But there’s one thing that I know for certain, and this is what I want you to walk away with: my success was not connected to my effort.
After all, I’d spent years of effort trying to build a Twitter following and got very little for it. But a one minute video, in which I summarize a Wikipedia page, that only took me an hour to make, took off. Clearly, effort is not connected to success.
But I do think this success demonstrates a few key points.
There are more consumers on TikTok than producers, so it’s easier to viral than other places.
TikTok was the number one downloaded app in 2019 and is on track to hit the same record in 2020. Despite its political contention, it’s no secret that it’s the hottest social media around right now. But because it’s so new, there are a lot of opportunities to build a following there compared to other social media platforms that are already pretty saturated.
It’s okay to throw things at the wall until something sticks.
As I’d mentioned, I’d already tried Twitter. I’ve tried blogging, tried offering writing classes, tried Facebook groups, tried Instagram—I’ve tried a LOT of things. And what works for one person might not work for another. But what’s important is to keep trying, get your fingers in every pie, and spread as broad as you can until you hit the right nerve.
You don’t need to be perfect.
Don’t wait to have the right conditions, the right equipment, the right look. As long as you are passionate about what you’re making, that’s enough. That video that has 2.5 million views? I’m literally sitting in my bed, not wearing makeup, talking about Wikipedia. I don’t have a fancy mic or camera setup and I don’t have the “look” of some beautiful influencer. I’m just me, and my audience is okay with that.
And yeah, people have made comments about my appearance, both positive and negative. That’s not an easy pill to swallow, but I’m learning to ignore it. And my husband got me this great, thematically-appropriate mug for Christmas.
It is all completely out of your control.
I can’t control how many people see or comment on my videos. The only thing I can really do is keep making them and hope that the audience translates to my other presences online. There’s a lot of luck and hope involved, and I don’t think videos being unpopular means they are bad videos—it just means they didn’t check the ineffable boxes of The Algorithm.
So, what’s next? I’m going to keep making videos, and keep writing, and hope that a publisher sees nearly 200,000 followers as a “platform.” After all, the point of the “platform” is not to be TikTok famous, but to have a way to connect to potential readers and to have a clearer avenue to publication.
Have you found success on TikTok? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments.
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When I wrote my post about being on submission, I realized I’ve never shared the story of how I got my agent. You’ve probably heard that there are a lot of different paths to getting an agent or getting published. The most common is to send agents query letters until you find one who connects with your book. This was the path I’d intended to take, but reality played out a bit different.
I wrote a novel in November of 2015 as a NaNoWriMo project. I’d written many novels before this, but this was the first one I’d written with the intention of revising and publishing. It was around this time I discovered book Twitter, MSWL, and all the other resources out there for aspiring authors, and so it was the first time I had a serious go at publishing. After I finished drafting, I began to revise—and trust me when I say that that book was a trash fire at first and needed a lot of revision.
As part of this whole “taking myself seriously as a writer” thing, I attended my very first conference—the 2016 AWP conference, which happened to be in Los Angeles that year. I bought a student membership and stayed at my aunt’s house about twenty minutes away. That conference showed me the value of conferences, not necessarily for finding agents but for its networking potential.
Before the conference, I heard on Twitter about an off-site Kidlit meetup, and decided to crash it. I bought myself two glasses of wine and decided to talk to every single person. This took a lot of courage because before this event, I considered myself an extremely shy and anxious person. I still do, in many respects. But I told myself I might not have an opportunity to network like this again—after all, the conference is in a different city every year—so I forced myself to talk to people.
I met a lot of really awesome writers, some of whom I’m still friends with on Twitter. This is where I got added to some really amazing Facebook groups, which have made a big impact on my career because of the support they provide and are honestly the only reason I still use Facebook. But the big connection I made was with the editor of a small press. He asked me to pitch him my book (I never pitched it without being invited to, because that felt tacky, but I did have an elevator pitch prepared). He asked me to submit it to him when I was done revising, and I connected with him on Facebook and Twitter.
I spent the next year revising my novel (most of that time spent procrastinating revising my novel, but you get the idea). Sometime in spring of 2017, he posted that his small press was open for submissions. I finished revising as quickly as I could and sent it in.
And then crickets. I graduated college in spring of 2017, so I was very busy. I got my first post-college job as a library assistant, which is still my current job. I didn’t write much until that November, where I wrote the first draft of what would eventually become MAGIC BOOK, which is now done and on submission.
In December of 2017, in that weird week between Christmas and New Years, the editor of the small press sent me an offer letter. He wanted to publish my book, with revisions, at his small press. He sent me a contract.
It’s an understatement to say that I was freaking out. This was it! I was finally going to be published! My career was going to take off!
But wait. I’d done enough internet research about publishing to realize that I can’t just sign the first contract put in front of me. I’d always wanted an agent, and I realized that already having a publication offer gave me a leg up in my agent search. I consulted those Facebook support groups and crafted a query letter with a big ol’ OFFER OF PUB in the subject line. And I waited.
The great thing about already having an offer from a publisher, even a small one, is that agents paid attention. I think I queried a total of seven agents—a fraction of what people usually query—and got two agents that read my book and offered me representation within a few weeks. Ultimately, I signed with my current agent, Travis.
Now remember—this all happened in the first few months of 2018. It’s 2020, and I still do not have a book deal. So what happened?
After signing with my agent, he consulted the other agents at his agency and told me that the contract I received from the small press wasn’t the greatest. There was no advance, first of all, and no guarantee that I would ever make money off my book if it was published with them. He gave me a choice: he would represent me and shop my book elsewhere, or I could walk away and sign with the small press.
Ultimately, I chose to sign. I talked about this in my last post, but that first book never did sell to another publisher. However, as an agented author I have a lot more resources at my disposal and a lot of hope for my future. And that book might not be dead—it can still sell in the future, but I’ve moved on to other projects in the meantime. There’s obviously no way of knowing how my life would’ve played out if I did publish my book with the small press. There are many authors who are published with small presses and have wonderful careers. But I didn’t feel like it was the right choice for me. If you’re ever faced with a similar choice, you may decide differently!
So that’s how I got my agent. It was a very roundabout way to get one, but a lot of things in publishing are. I find it helpful to read about all the different paths, because if you hyper-fixate on doing something just one way, you might shut yourself out of new opportunities. I definitely have a “plan” I try to follow, but I’m also flexible and try to keep an open mind. Especially with a global pandemic going on, no one really knows what the state of publishing will be like in six months, a year, or five years from now. The only thing I can do is keep writing, and keep moving forward.
Last week, my agent informed me that my most recent book—which I’ve been calling, descriptively, MAGIC BOOK, to avoid the risk of getting too attached to a title I may have to change—will be going on submission to editors. This is exciting! But it also elicits a lot of conflicted feelings for me. But first…
What does it mean to go on submission?
A writing career is a series of submitting your work again and again and again and again until eventually it is book-shaped. At least, that’s how I’ve begun to see it. When I first started writing novels, my big goal was to land an agent. That seemed like the ultimate success, the one thing that would launch me on a path to greatness. Get an agent and then it’s easy sailing from there, I told myself! It turns out getting an agent is just the beginning. There is still a LOT of submitting that happens after that. And a lot of waiting.
Every agent does things differently, but in general, after you sign with an agent and you complete any edits they want you to do, your agent will submit your book to publishers. This is called “being on submission” or “on sub.” Much like how authors query one agent at an agency, agents will submit your book to one editor at a publishing house. The big difference is that your agent will already have a relationship with those editors, so your novel is less likely to end up in the trash heap. The editors will probably (hopefully) read your novel.
Unfortunately, this can be an extremely long process and still doesn’t guarantee your novel will become a book. Hence my conflicted feelings. It’s hard to feel excited about going on submission.
Why? Because my first book—the book that landed me my agent in the first place—never sold.
I signed with my agent in February of 2018 (which is a long and strange story that I wrote about here) and went on submission shortly after. My agent sent me lists of editors at huge publishing houses, and I thought, this is it!This is the beginning of my career!All I have to do is wait!
So I started waiting. A lot of things happened in my life while I was waiting—I started and dropped out of grad school, my mother-in-law passed away, I moved to a new apartment. I didn’t start writing another book because I was waiting to see what would happen. I waited. And waited. And waited.
And it turned out, nothing would happen with it. I got a lot of feedback from the editors who read it but didn’t want to acquire it for one reason or another. One editor said she loved the voice but didn’t like the plot. Another editor said she loved the plot but didn’t like the voice. Too dark, not dark enough. No room on the list for a book like this. Etc. etc.
I asked my agent if I should revise, but since the feedback was so conflicting, it was clear it was a matter of personal taste. My agent told me to write another book.
At the time, I was devastated. It’d taken me three years to write this first book and I had nothing to show for it. It was another heavy weight on my shoulders after a year of heavy weights. I’d lost a few good friends along the way, too, and I felt like a complete failure. And the worst part was that I hadn’t written a single thing in at least six months (that was the biggest mistake).
You can see how this was an extremely discouraging process. I’d spent years dreaming about getting an agent, and then I was stuck in this weird limbo. Agented but not published. I was terrified that I was going to fail before I even got off the ground as an author. I joined some Facebook support groups, which helped, but I still had a hard time writing.
This was a really tough period of my life. But in 2019 I attended a few conferences that really helped me overcome this. I attended a local SCBWI conference, as well as the SFWA Nebula conference. These two—especially the latter—changed my perspective on myself as a writer. When you interact with other authors who take you seriously, you start to take yourself more seriously. I talked to a lot of people who got excited when I talked about my novels and encouraged me to keep going. This sense of community is now an invaluable part of my experience as a writer. Without it, I’m afraid I would’ve given up.
But I didn’t! Last year, I wrote another book. Well, rewrote another book. I repurposed an old NaNoWriMo draft and rewrote it from scratch. That became MAGIC BOOK. I’m really proud of it. I finished the draft in about five months, then spent another three months revising. Most of that three months was spent procrastinating revising, but I eventually finished it. I sent it to my agent in March, and as of last week, we are officially on submission with editors.
This is exciting but, as I explained above, also nerve-wracking. I’m excited because I’m proud of this book and I hope it connects with editors more than the last one did. Knowing that a bunch of people are reading your book is also a really cool feeling.
But I’m nervous, too. After all, my last book was on submission for a long time and it didn’t sell, so it’s hard to be hopeful about this one. The disappointment before was crushing, and I’m trying not to get my hopes up too high. I don’t want to feel that way again.
Then there’s the whole COVID-19 situation. Editors are being laid off en-mass, which means many of my agent’s contacts are out of jobs. The entire submission process, already complicated, is now up in the air. It’s not a good situation for anyone, and I empathize with those who’ve lost their jobs. I’ve been out of work, too, which is another difficult thing for me emotionally that I won’t really get into right now.
I don’t want to be all doom and gloom, though. Being on submission is exciting! And if nothing else, I feel resilient—I wrote a book, it didn’t sell, and I could’ve given up but I didn’t. I wrote another book. And if this one doesn’t sell, well, I’ve already started writing another. For anyone going on submission for the first time, my biggest recommendation is to keep writing. Even if you just write for fun and it doesn’t turn into a book, do something. Don’t just wait around. Even if your book sells quickly, or sells at all, you’ll still need to write another thing eventually, so you might as well get started.
In the process of writing this post, I realized there’s a lot of other things I can talk about on this blog. I’m feeling inspired to keep writing here and share more about my writing journey. If there are any topics you’d like me to talk about, let me know in the comments.
Whenever anyone asks how I started writing, I think back to the beginning. My answer usually has something to do with fanfiction, or with sitting at my computer screen with one of Meg Cabot’s books propped open in my lap to use as a model. Sometimes I talk about the hours I spent roleplaying on the Neopets forums, or the life-changing experience of studying creative writing at an arts boarding school for my last two years of high school.
Whichever way I slice it, writing has been an important part of my life since middle school. I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, and every decision I’ve made in my life has led me closer and closer to that goal.
But as I gained more knowledge and experience about the craft and business of writing, something happened that I didn’t realize. I put up a wall of fear around myself. Rather than writing for the thrill of creating something new for the world, I’ve become a nervous writer: I don’t tend to talk about what I’m working on; I have a hard time taking myself seriously; I think constantly about whether what I’m writing will sell, or if it’s worth it; I rarely think anything I write is any good at all. It is a wall of fear and self-doubt that I wear like a comforting blanket so that I avoid doing any sort of writing work at all. Writing’s become work, a strain, a struggle, something that needs to be dragged out of me kicking and screaming.
I know I wasn’t always this way. It happened gradually, little invisible doubts and fears piling up on themselves without my knowledge. It’s only now that they’ve congregated around me in such large numbers that I’m starting to notice them.
I might never have noticed them if I hadn’t been working on cleaning out my old room at my parent’s house. We’ll be moving in with them this summer, which means the various boxes of books and memories need to be gone through and consolidated and sent away to storage. One of these boxes was a box I packed hastily when I moved out of my dorm at the end of my senior year of boarding school. Not being anything immediately useful, like clothes, it was never unpacked. It was filled with photos I’d had pinned to the walls, as well as a stockpile of old schoolwork. I found science notes stacked with old poetry homework and several copies of stories I’d written for a fiction workshop.
I haven’t written a short story or a poem since I left high school. I’ve always had the intention of being a novelist—of taking characters on a long, long journey, so that when you reach the end, the characters are so dramatically changed you look back on the beginning with a sense of nostalgia. That’s something that’s difficult to attain in a short story. And in a poem—forget it. I only took poetry classes because they were part of the creative writing package. It was never something I took great pleasure in writing.
But as I read through sheaves of old prose and poetry I’d written and promptly forgotten about, an odd realization dawned on me. Seventeen-year-old Amber knew less about writing than I currently do. She’d read fewer books on crafting plots and characters, she’d never been to a conference, she didn’t have an agent—heck, she hadn’t even written a full novel.
But the most important thing she didn’t have was the wall of fear. She wrote as if she knew she was the best writer in the world. She wasn’t worried about whether these stories would sell. She wrote as if she were saying, Look at this. Aren’t you impressed? It’s good, isn’t it? She wasn’t afraid to try new things, to push boundaries, to write and show it off. She didn’t worry if the things she said were worth saying—she just said them with confidence, threw them out into the world and didn’t look back.
These days, I don’t write short stories. Hell, I don’t even blog. I’m constantly worried about what other people will think (that old self-doubt drilled into me from childhood) or whether what I’m doing is good enough. I’ve surrounded myself with a paralyzing wall of fear that’s prevented me from moving forward.
The worst thing about this wall is that it’s invisible, and it’s incredibly persuasive. It convinces me not to turn something in yet because it’s not ready, it could be better. It stamps down ideas I have before they’ve turned into anything, because it tells it me won’t be good enough before I’ve even tried. And in the process of doing all this, it convinces me that these are rational, logical conclusions—that I should be proud of myself for being responsible and revising again, or that it’s a good thing I didn’t speak my mind on a topic because someone might disagree with me and then I’ll be in trouble. The wall of fear convinced me it was a safety blanket, when really it cut me off from my dreams, my goals, and I what I really, truly want.
If you’re reading this, then maybe you have a wall of fear of your own. Maybe you’re looking for ways to dismantle it, and to write with the confidence a teenager with a world of possibility in front of her can write. I hate to disappoint (another self-conscious fear attributed to my childhood), but I don’t have the answer. Not yet, anyway. But I hope that by becoming aware of this wall of fear, and consciously making an effort to not be afraid, I begin to rebuild my confidence and take it apart bit by bit.
And hey, I wrote this and put it out into the world—it’s just one crack in the wall, but it’s a start.
This article was featured in The Aramchek Dispatch, a zine put together by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature Club and Creative Writing Club at Cal State Fullerton. Unfortunately, the block quotes around quoted material were omitted in that edition. Please note that full attribution of sources appears in the text below.
Magic systems vary widely across the literary world, but almost all works of fiction that include magic have certain things in common. Usually, a character discovers that they have an innate ability to do magic, whether it’s through using wands or speaking words or some other method (or multiple methods). In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, not anyone can be chosen to go to Hogwarts–they are selected based on an inherent ability that exists within them and is detectable by the Ministry of Magic. In V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic, magic users begin to learn their affinity for a certain type of magic by use of an elemental game board at a young age. In both of these worlds, and in many others besides, there are characters that are extremely skilled at magic–and some that have no magic at all. Even in worlds where magic is treated like a natural resource, such as the ley lines in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle, the method used to tap into that source varies widely from character to character. Magic in these instances is inextricably tied to the individual and their own skills and abilities.
Why is magic so focused on the individual? First, let’s define magic, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The use of ritual activities or observances which are intended to influence the course of events or to manipulate the natural world, usually involving the use of an occult or secret body of knowledge; sorcery, witchcraft. Also: this practice as a subject of study.
In terms of fictional magic systems I would argue that this definition is incomplete. When magic is included in the world of a story it is used as a plot device–it will serve as a method to propel the characters forward in their goals or hold the characters back. It is the means by which the characters function in order to get what they want, whether it is used by the protagonist or the antagonist. Magic is a tool, often used in lieu of technology available to those in the real world, or as a way to supplement it. Think of Arthur Weasley from Harry Potter, a blustering wizard enamored with “Muggle” technology that was unnecessary for wizards, such as telephones and cars. In this sense, magic and technology are interchangeable–both are used as a means for humans to achieve their goals, whether they be small, mundane tasks or world-saving objectives.
Thinking of magic like a as a technological endeavor is not a new concept. Some scholars argue that magic was a precursor to modern scientific and technological thought, and that the reason was capitalism. Capitalism is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the possession of capital or wealth; an economic system in which private capital or wealth is used in the production or distribution of goods and prices are determined mainly in a free market; the dominance of private owners of capital and of production for profit.” Greed and desire for profit, wealth, and control are what drove the industrial revolution, and so, too, drove the desire for magic. Magic was the bridge between desire and execution of achieving that desire. In his book Technics and Civilization, Lewis Mumford argues that “It was in magic that the general conquest of the external environment was decisively instituted.” Think of the alchemists and the occultists of the 15th and 16th centuries that aimed to turn lead into gold–to use magic for material and capitalistic means.
C.S. Lewis, writing in his 1943 book The Abolition of Man, argues that magic was not a precursor to science, but rather a concurrent practice.
There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. I allow that some (certainly not all) of the early scientists were actuated by a pure love of knowledge. But if we consider the temper of that age as a whole we can discern the impulse of which I speak … There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages … For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men.
When we think of magic like a machine, or as a tool for humanity to use to bend reality to their own wishes, it is impossible to separate it from the world of economics. Magic was born from capitalist desires and is still inextricably caught up in it in modern fantasy fiction. It makes sense, then, why so much fiction involving magic is based on individualistic ideals. If magic is predicated by a capitalist desire to acquire wealth and power for an individual, an individual’s skill and ability to do such things are valued above all else. Characters with better magical ability are seen as competitors, not co-conspirators. And those with no magical ability, like Mr. Filch from Harry Potter, fall into the cracks of the magical society. As readers we accept this. In fact, we almost applaud the way that he is allowed to remain at Hogwarts and at least hang out with the wizards we admire, even if he’ll never be one of them. His identity is synonymous with his individual ability to do magic, a handicap of which there is no way to overcome.
The pervasive characteristics of individuality and capitalism within fantasy fiction is extremely problematic. These values that are intrinsic to our society find their way into worlds that are supposed to be drastically different than our own. Even in dystopian novels and end-of-civilization zombie movies, capitalism persists despite irreversible global changes. In the 2005 documentary Zizek! about Slovenian sociologist and philosopher Slavoj Zizek, Zizek states that “it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.” Capitalism is inevitably laced through our fiction, even in worlds that are supposed to be decidedly not our contemporary society.
This dependence on individualism and capitalism is stunting the growth of fantasy as a genre. Of course most magic systems are bound by certain rules in order to maintain suspension of belief–but what if those rules were different than the rules of capitalism? Magic would be a very different thing if it was imagined outside the scope of greed and wealth accumulation, outside the ways that it can benefit the individual. Magic could take many new forms–like social magic, coming from a collective rather than one individual source. Magic could work like a choir, a melding of voices of all types, not just a solo. In its current form, assumptions about its purpose and usefulness are placed upon magic without regard to why it exists, only what we can do with it. To reimagine magic outside the constraints of individualism would be to reimagine fantasy fiction as a genre.[/et_pb_text][/et_pb_column]
Two weeks ago I attended AWP 2016 in Los Angeles. This three day conference features panels, lectures, discussions, readings, and a huge exhibit hall filled with small presses and lit mags. I felt like a kid in a candy store, ready to gobble up as much delicious writing wisdom as I could fit in my mouth. I went to roughly a dozen panels and filled an entire notebook with notes. I can’t recapture the magic or the energy of the conference in a single blog post, but I will try to recount some of the wisdom I acquired. This will likely be the first in a series of posts, each one recounting a specific aspect of the conference.
This first post is about an amazing panel I attended on the second day called, “Staging the Story: Film Techniques to Engage YA Readers,” featuring authors Cori McCarthy, Ingrid Sundberg, Jennifer Bosworth, and Amy Rose Capetta. This captivating panel discussed using screenwriting techniques in order to create a tight, engaging work of fiction, especially in the realm of YA. Of all the panels I attended, this one featured the most thorough and in-depth craft talk and left me feeling like I had tangible, concrete tools to make my writing better. I couldn’t help but start scribbling down my new ideas while simultaneously trying to take detailed notes–it was that inspiring! Here are a few of the main points touched on in the panel and my major takeaways.
Don’t Be Afraid of Structure
A lot of writers are afraid that they are stifling their creativity or making a “cookie cutter” plot if they use traditional story structure. However, the rigid structure of screenplays can actually create a tighter novel–one where your audience anticipates the story in an engaging way. It’s not cheating on “falling back” on a cheap trick when you use structure, either. The panelists quoted the wise Joss Whedon on the issue of structure: “Anything that means you don’t go in blind is useful.” Structure is a framework for keeping your writing–and yourself–under control.
Ingrid Sundberg noted in the importance of of “The Midpoint.” When we think of plot in the typical 3-act structure, most writers focus on the inciting incident and the climax as the most important plot points of the story. However, the midpoint–which serves as its own de facto act break in the middle of Act II–can be just as important.
Ingrid used a lot of famous movie examples to push this point: In Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs escape at the midpoint; in The Hunger Games, the actual games start at the midpoint; in Back to the Future, Marty McFly ruins his parents’ relationship at the midpoint; in Toy Story, Buzz realizes that he’s a toy at the midpoint.
You get the idea. The midpoint is important. Ingrid says that by moving a major emotional revelation to the middle, you energize the rest of your novel. This is a great tip for avoiding the dreaded “murky middle.”
Cinematic Motifs and Visual Imagery
While movies are very visual, it seems counterintuitive that books would be as well considering they’re just text. But there are actually a lot of cinematic techniques you can use in order to add important visual representation to your novel. Jennifer Bosworth suggested creating elaborate Pinterest boards for everything; adding concrete and specific details to your writing helps the reader visualize and fill in the blanks.
When we think of cinema we often think of action movies–big elaborate fight scenes and Michael Bay-level explosions. But the panelists urged writers to find the cinematic nature of the story beyond fights. Cori gave the example of using metaphors as emotional language–for example, in her novel Breaking Sky, she would describe the characters’ emotions as being “revved up” or “stalled out,” which fit in thematically with the novel’s overall theme (it’s a school for elite fighter pilots).
Another good tip is to use film cuts in your writing. This is knowing where to clip off emotional scenes in order to preserve tension. For example, instead of resolving a fight, clip off the scene before it’s finished. Leave bits and pieces in the subsequent scenes so that readers don’t know exactly what happened.
And if you need to reveal major information, don’t do a “walk and talk”–where characters simply word vomit all over each other while walking down a hallway. Make it more active. Show the reader more and tell them less–use visual and physical cues as well as objects to show what the characters are thinking and feeling and what they are trying to convey. And don’t resort to mundane actions, either: “shrugging” and “nodding” can almost always be cut because the actions are implied in the dialog.
Cinema in Genre and Contemporary Fiction
When it comes to genre fiction, the panelists talked about the use of constraint and creative limitation. By limiting the magic, you carve the story. Don’t try to do everything at once. As Jennifer Bosworth suggests, don’t try to write, “Buffy meets The Ring meets the Bible meets Twilight.” Focusing in on one idea and confining yourself to its limitations will help create a stronger story.
But when it comes to contemporary, how do you make real life interesting? According to Cori, “Contemporary writing is cinematic in nature because memories are cinematic.” When we remember an important moment in our lives–our first boyfriend, senior prom–we remember very specific and vivid moments, not a play-by-play of everything that happened. Think about how the character will remember these moments fifteen years from now, and that should be the root of your scenes. And don’t forget that contemporary isn’t just straight real life–it can feel whimsical, too. “Fantasy has to be relatable, but contemporary can be fanciful.” (Cori’s one liners were totally on point during this panel.)
It’s hard to convey how amazing and informative this panel was, so I hope this post passes on some of the great tips I got from Cori, Ingrid, Jennifer, and Amy Rose. It was difficult trying to take detailed notes of everything they were saying while writing down all of the ideas for my own novel that were simultaneously whizzing through my head. Thank you so much to these amazing ladies for such a great panel!
I’ve been very lucky in the past month or so to have the opportunity to meet with two authors that I admire: V.E. Schwab, the author of Vicious and the A Darker Shade of Magic series, and Marissa Meyer, author of The Lunar Chronicles series. Meeting an author is more than simply an opportunity to get your books signed and pose for a photo–which I definitely do, but these things don’t represent the total value.
To me, the most valuable thing about meeting authors I admire is perspective. Even if you interact with an author online, getting to meet them in person confirms that they are a flesh-and-blood person and not a magical-goddess-robot-writing machine (though they may also be that. Who knows.).
But seriously: meeting an author not only puts their writing into perspective, but also your own. Every time I meet an author I go home feeling inspired and reinvigorated to keep writing.
For one thing, authors often talk about their origin stories–at V.E. Schwab’s signing in Huntington Beach last month, with Gretchen McNeil and Marie Lu, the three authors dedicated an entire segment of the panel to their origin story. They discussed not only the origins of their characters and stories but also their publishing journeys, and all the sweat and blood and tears that go into the arduous, lengthy process. This is all about perspective–it gives context to the wonderful book you hold in your hands, and it reminds you that one day your random word vomit might also be a wonderful book.
I always leave author events running through all the imaginary panels I might one day be on through my head. What will I tell budding writers about the writing process? About the misery and pain it takes to create long form fiction? What will my signature look like? What will my origin story be?
With the internet, published and aspiring writers can interact easier than ever. I follow most of my favorite writers on Twitter, and often we might exchange a few words together. How invigorating it is! How amazing it feels when one of your favorite authors likes a tweet you sent them, or one that you simply mentioned them in. To put your heroes on a pedestal far above you, but to have them reach down and touch you in the smallest ways. It makes a difference.
I have a slew of events planned this spring where I will have the opportunity to meet many more authors and creative people. I’ll be attending the annual AWP conference, the LA Times Festival of Books, and YALLWEST. But no matter how many times I get to meet authors I’m still always excited about it. My pulse quickens and I can’t help but fangirl a little bit once I lay eyes on them in real life. When it comes to your heroes, you really can’t meet them enough.
At a recent signing I attended, I saw a girl bring a book up to Andrew Smith to get signed. He’d already signed it the last time she’d seen him, but she wanted him to sign it again. One signature is a stamp in time: it’s “that one time I met the author and it was awesome.” But two signatures creates a new temporality, one that’s a constant exchange between author and reader, one that says, “I care enough about you and your work to come back again and again.” I hope I have that experience myself someday.
I’ve had about a week to recover from the start of the New Year, but I still can’t get over some of the great books I read in 2015. I figured since I didn’t post all my reviews here for those books that I could do a small round up of my favorite books from the past year. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t like the other 34 books I read–on the contrary, I read some amazing stories and I’ve been taken to wild, thrilling worlds. I read more this year than any other year in my life, and consequently I think I learned more about the world–and about myself–this year. Some of the books that might have made this list are actually 2016 releases, so it felt unfair to include them. These are the absolute BEST books I read, in no particular order.
Okay, I know I said these books were in no particular order. But ADSoM is easily my favorite book published in 2015, and it’s the only 2015 release on this list. I love the worldbuilding the most. A Darker Shade of Magic encompasses four parallel Londons–although we only see three of them, they each have such definitive and beautifully crafted character that I was so enthralled with every detail of them.
The magic in this novel follows a set of rules that are simple but make perfect sense. By the time we get to the climax, it is believable and exciting because the magic system is so solid.
Schwab is also a master at crafting a compelling plot. The characters get into trouble, make a plan, but then everything goes wrong. Super wrong. The worst things that can happen DO happen. I was constantly excited and honestly scared, because there is so much mystery entwined with the worlds. I felt on the edge of my seat to the very last page.
Cinder completely blew me away. I’ve been hearing about this book both online and through word-of-mouth from some friends, and it absolutely met the high expectations.
Cinder is a strong, caring, and relatable character, and I love that she uses her skills and her wit to get her out of (and in to) perilous situations. She’s not afraid to do what’s right, even when faced with crazy challenges and an abusive family. In fact, Cinder impressed me time and again with her strength even when her “family” mentally and physically abused her.
I thought the love story was trite at first, but it really does develop to be believable and honest. I love the mishmash of Cinderella and Anastasia and CYBORGS!
While there were some plot points I totally saw coming, the ride getting to them was such a thrill.
I’ve been citing THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE as my “favorite novel ever” for a while now. It’s always my go-to recommendation for someone that likes fantasy but wants something thoughtful and different. It’s short and sweet and absolutely brilliant. Neil Gaiman knows how to craft an emotional and meaningful story. A beautiful, magical journey that really captures the contrast between childhood and adulthood and the way our memories can play tricks on us. It’s a very uncomplicated story, almost like a fairy tale, but it sticks with you.
I’ve been participating in National Novel Writing Month since 2007. As a freshman in high school, my very first novel rode the heels of the Twilight craze and was a very convoluted paranormal romance in a town populated by billionaires. It involved genetically engineered humans and artificial wombs, a slightly incestuous romance, and also this strange scene where the main character and her love interest go to a Taco Bell for wealthy people, complete with silver platters and black tie waiters. I hit 50,000 words (and some of that was hastily copy-and-pasted song lyrics in a last-minute karaoke scene written on November 30th) but I never actually wrote an ending, so God knows where that story was actually going. But it was that year that I realized that I might actually be able to pull off this writer thing (still working on that part).
The point is, NaNoWriMo is my favorite time of year. Not only does it distract me from the pre-Christmas psychosis that seems to obsess everyone else, but I can lose myself in a new totally random and whacked out writing creation with absolutely to obligation to making it “good.” Plus, I happen to live in a super active NaNo Region, meaning I have the chance to get together with other crazy writers and have a damn good time. We do some awesome activities, like writing on the train or writing in IKEA or taking over half a Panera Bread. Some of these people have become year-long writing partners and very good friends.
This year, I originally planned on continuing a current WIP. It’s a YA fantasy novel and I’ve been working on it for about two years now. This is the third rewrite, but this is the draft that feels like it’s working. At the same time it makes me feel super bogged down. I’m too invested, it’s too overthought, and I know I won’t be able to enjoy the freedom that NaNo usually encourages if I try to write 50,000 words of that in-progress novel.
Instead, I’m doing something different. Something new! And just the thought of letting go of this current novel, even just for a month, is ridiculously refreshing. This new idea I have is going to be a fun adventure story, and it’s not going to be as doom-and-gloom as the YA I was writing. Plus, it’s a middle grade, so there’s no icky romance in it! (Ew, boys! Gross!). I made it a middle grade for a few reasons. One, I really want to focus in on themes of self-discovery. Two, I just really don’t feel like writing about romance or sexual tension or anything like that. And three, I feel like a middle grade novel can actually be written to completion in 50,000 words, and I want this to be a self-contained drafting project. I want to write THE END as words 49,999 and 50,000. I want to have a complete zero draft on November 30th, not just three-quarters of one.
NaNoWriMo starts in two days! Will you be participating?