5 Writing Tips for Making Fantasy Feel ‘Real’

If you ask a group of writers how they approach a part of their writing process, you’re going to get as many answers as there are writers–and sometimes more.

Today I’m reviewing a discussion by a group of writers on how to make fantasy feel real.

No matter if you prefer:

  • to write a story based on reality — with just enough fantastic elements to make your story work
  • to create your world from the ground up
  • to mix it up a bit

and no matter if:

  • you’re a pantser with no magic system
  • a world builder who adds the characters later
  • a white rabbit chaser til the end of the plot, when you look back and realize everything happens in ‘white rooms’ (before you edit…)
  • or your approach changes from world to world

these tips for writing fantasy worlds should work to help you draw your readers in, without invoking their sense of disbelief!


***

Top 5 Writing Tips For Making Fantasy Feel Real

  1. Keep it internally consistent
    • The effort used to invoke the magic and the scope of the magic should match from spell to spell, no matter the scale.
  2. Look at economics
    • If magic gives someone an ability, someone else will come up with a way to:
      • counter it
      • sell it
      • steal it
  3. Make sure your character’s motivations make sense
    • Both for them,
    • AND for the world they live in
      • Different norms and cultural expectations exist in different times, places, social classes, and worlds
  4. Avoid Anachronisms
    • You don’t want to mentally throw people out of your story
      • Check the weaponry in that time AND place
      • Stew takes four hours to cook
      • EVEN if you’re right, if most people don’t think that happened in your technological period or location, they’ll be pulled out of the story
      • NOTE: Ignore this tip for diversity. People in the dominant culture tend to paint everything in their history with a brush to match themselves. The real world isn’t usually that segmented.
  5. If you can’t be true to a period, write around the edges
    • There are always the fringes of society, where the ‘norms’ break down
    • If your character doesn’t fit in, there’s usually SOMEWHERE they can go
      • If they’re willing to pay the price

***

How much are you willing to give to enthrall your readers with your world?

 

These notes are from the Balticon 52 panel, “Making Fantasy Feel Realistic”. The panelists were Leah Cypress, Lisa Hawkridge, Brenda Clough, and Jean Marie Ward.

Do you have any favorite tips for making fantasy seem real that I missed? Feel free to comment!

Thanks for watching. Please subscribe [<<<<] and tune in next Thursday for more writing tips and writerly musings.

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#23 Query Corner: ‘NAVIGATING NESSA’

Welcome to:

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Morgan’s Query Corner:

Fresh Eyes For Your Query Quandaries

NAVIGATING NESSA is a YA contemporary.

After her father’s death, Nessa struggled to gain control over her anxiety. When she falls for the new boy, her control slips and she sinks into the hardcore party scene. Now, Nessa must find the strength to reach out for help, before she destroys her future and the respect of those that matter most to her.

NOTE: If you submit your query to me (morgan.s.hazelwood@gmail.com), and you are selected for inclusion, I will give you a high-level review, in-line feedback, and my own draft of your query. If this is your query, feel free to use or ignore as much of the advice and suggestions as you wish.

[Disclaimer: Any query selected for the page will be posted on this website for perpetuity. I am an amateur with no actual accepted queries and a good number of form rejections. This does not guarantee an agent or even an amazing query, just a new take by someone who’s read The Query Shark archives twice and enjoys playing with queries.]

This querist sent me their old version and their new version, with worries that they were getting worse, not better. So, with a quick overview, I was happy I was able to soothe those fears.

Overall Impression:

The querist was told to add specificity and, as is natural, started to make the query a little too synopsis-like.

We all do it. *Morgan shoves her own query letter drafts version 4-7 behind her*

Things to think about

  1. Specificity doesn’t need all the backstory.
  2. Specificity doesn’t need to be long, keep it under 250 if possible, under 300 words always.

Querist’s Original:

[my comments are in blue/italics/brackets]

Dear Agent,

Nessa Walker is finally getting to a healthy place six months after her dad’s unexpected death. Yoga, romance books, time spent lying in the tub — she’s got coping covered. She even drums up enough courage to try out for the dance team, believing that if she makes the cut, it will be enough of a distraction to pull herself out from under that blanket of sadness once and for all. Then she meets Tanner.

Tanner’s everything Nessa isn’t — artistic, laid-back, and his prowess on the football field makes him instantly popular in a town that shuts down every time their high school has a home game. He’s also made it clear that his next goal is finding a way to know Nessa.

But Nessa isn’t an easy girl to know. There’s a reason most guys steer clear of her, an anxiety about her that she struggled with even before her dad’s death. Tanner could be the swoon-worthy epic romance she’s been waiting for, or the complication that finally forces her over the edge.

NAVIGATING NESSA is a Young Adult Contemporary novel with romantic elements complete at 65,000 words.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Q23


Querist’s Revision:

Dear Agent,

Sixteen-year old Nessa Walker is well-acquainted with panic. It’s followed her around since elementary school, and she’s learned the best way to keep it at bay is to not think about the things that scare her. Like her dad’s recent death, for example. She has many distractions in place, including trying out for the dance team with her best friend and spending time under her favorite old oak tree that she visits every chance she gets. All she wants is a normal junior year.

Then Tanner moves to town. [THIS is where the story starts] He’s everything Nessa isn’t – artistic, laid-back, and his prowess on the football field makes him instantly popular in a town that shuts down every time the high school has a home game. He’s also made it clear that his next goal is to get to know Nessa. As their attraction to each other grows, Nessa’s anxiety gets worse. It becomes increasingly difficult for her to hide her problem from Tanner, and her best friend is suddenly MIA, having found her own boyfriend to swoon over.

Nessa begins to look for distraction in more destructive places, turning to a new friend group bent on dangerous stunts and wild parties. It’s enough to keep her panic at bay, but Nessa’s behavior starts to alienate everyone around her, isolating her from her friends and family, not to mention Tanner.

If Nessa can come up for air long enough to get the help she needs and take advantage of her support system, she might just get the year she’s hoping for, and even the guy. If she continues on her dangerous path, she might just lose herself.

NAVIGATING NESSA is a Contemporary YA novel complete at 65,000 words. It’s told in a tone comparable to AWKWARD meets THE DUFF.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Q23


***

My Revision:

Dear Agent,

Nessa Walker is finally getting to a healthy place six months after her dad’s unexpected death. Yoga, romance books, time spent lying in the tub — she’s got coping covered. She even drums up enough courage to try out for the dance team, convinced that if she makes the cut, it will be enough of a distraction to pull herself out from under that blanket of sadness once and for all. Then she meets Tanner.

Tanner’s everything Nessa isn’t — artistic, laid-back, and his prowess on the football field makes him instantly popular in a town that shuts down every time their high school has a home game. He’s also made it clear that his next goal is finding a way to know Nessa.

As their attraction grows, Nessa’s anxiety spins back out of control and the party-crowd seems like the place to forget her anxiety. Soon, her partying grows out of control and her new friends egg her on to join their dangerous drunken stunts. If Nessa can’t find a way to face her anxiety head on, she’s going to alienate her real friends, flunk out, and lose the respect of the one guy she can’t stop thinking about.

NAVIGATING NESSA is a Young Adult Contemporary novel with romantic elements complete at 65,000 words. I write from [City, State]. When not writing, you can find me [having a hobby].

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Q23

Still long, but the details are there– the inciting incident, the ‘bad guy’ (her own darker impulses and anxiety), and the goal (win the boy, and regain a healthy mental balance).

Best of luck to Q23! (And Nessa)


And for the rest of you out there?
Best of luck in the query trenches!

Agents and Editors Share–Pitches We’re Sick Of!

What do agents want? What are publishers sick of? At Balticon52, I got the opportunity to hear a few of the industry leaders voice their opinions.

The panel was entitled “Pitches We’re Sick Of (And One’s We’d Like To See More Of), but since that’s not enough to fill an hour, it turned into a Question and Answer session.

***

Whose Opinions Were Shared And Why Should You Care?

Joshua Bilmes is the President of JABberwocky Literary Agency, which he founded in 1994. His clients include NY Times bestselling authors Brandon Sanderson, Charlaine Harris, Peter V. Brett, Jack Campbell, Elizabeth Moon and Simon R. Green.

Neil Clarke is best known as the editor and publisher of the Hugo and World Fantasy Award-winning magazine, Clarkesworld. He is a six-time and current finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Editor Short Form.

The panel was moderated by Sarah Avery. Sarah’s first book, Tales from Rugosa Coven, won the 2015 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Fantasy Scroll, Great Jones Street, and Jim Baen’s Universe, as well as Black Gate, where she was a regular contributor on series fantasy and teaching fantasy literature. With David Sklar, she coedited the Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic anthology.

***

Skull and bones, half buried in a forest.

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Pitches They’re Sick Of*

  • The Paranormal Boom is DEAD.
  • Superhero piles are getting supersaturated.
  • Zombies are rotting.
  • Some urban fantasy subgenres are being overplayed.
  • Oz.

Note: Even if stories are still being published in a genre, that’s often because publishing contracts and schedules are arranged years in advance. Even when a genre is dead, it can take 2-3 years for a publishing agency to get rid of their backlog.

***

Pitches They’d Like To See More Of*

  • ‘HopePunk’ (even if the term stinks)
    • I *think* it’s a dystopian future, where we actually solve current crisis. Like climate change or evolve into a more accepting species.
  • Diversified stories
    • It’s what the publishers are looking for
    • As the book reviewers themselves become more diverse, a wider variety of stories resonates with the reviewers.
  • Vampires seem to be coming back
  • Steampunk can’t be counted out for the next 3-5 years, but it’s on a downswing.
  • Short Sci-Fi sells better than short Fantasy.
  • But really? Whatever you’re passionate about! Agents can tell if you’re just chasing trends, and earnestness shows through. THAT’S the spark they want.

***

When To Approach Agents or Editors

  • NOT when they’re going into the bathroom – that’s their safe place
  • If they’re attending a convention and are on panels, they typically want to be found.
  • If they’re in a restaurant?
    • Is it next to the convention?
    • Are they at the bar, chatting away? Or off at a table in the back with one of their writers? Pay attention to context clues.

***

Rejections!

As any querying writer can tell you, a personalized rejection is worth its weight in gold!

What does it mean when an agent/publisher says, “It’s too similar to something I just bought/sold”?

It depends.

  • For some, it’s a polite brush-off.
  • For others, they only say it when it’s true.
  • For anthologies? Very likely true.
  • For magazine publishers? They can stagger release dates if needed…

*** Now, we pause for a brief interlude and the story of…***

Rejectomancy!

Once upon a time, Joshua submitted a story he was excited about from one of his writers to an editor. And this is what he heard back.

“I had to get a second read…”

“… because I couldn’t believe you’d sent me something so bad.”

Even agents get rejected.

***

Player 20 winding up to throw a pitch.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Pitching Your Story

The Dos and Don’ts of Preparing Your Pitch

  • Don’t use an adjective to describe your book itself
  • Don’t go over a page!
  • Don’t be cute or suck up
    • Your query letter is somewhere between a job interview and a cover letter for a resume.
  • Don’t write it from the main character’s point of view
  • Don’t summarize your story, especially when querying a short story
  • Don’t have a query longer than the story itself
  • Do include wordcount
  • Do follow the guidelines
  • Do pick a genre
    • Decide where your book goes on the library shelves and pick one.

Is it ever appropriate to respond to a rejection letter?

  • If they personalized the rejection, you can send a very brief ‘Thank You’ note.
  • NEVER respond negatively. If you can’t say anything nice, this is when you really shouldn’t say anything at all.

Is ManuscriptWishList.Com useful?

Joshua doesn’t use it, but at least one of his other agents does. Lack of inclusion doesn’t mean the agent isn’t skilled, inclusion doesn’t mean they are skilled. You still need to do your research.

Comp Titles

Comp titles (comparison titles) are often included in a query letter. Typically either two authors with similar writing styles and markets, or mash-ups where you can specify what aspect of that story you’re using. They have to be under 5 years, (preferably under 3), in your genre, and not run-away successes.

As I’ve said before, what sold 50 years ago isn’t what appeals to most modern audiences. Pacing, themes, POV preferences change.

So, what did our panelists have to say?

By using current novels, you’re showing that the trend you’re writing for isn’t dead.

Verdict? Useful for novels, but only if it’s a good match. If you’re trying too hard, it’s obvious and you should skip it.

Joshua noted here that no one can use Game of Thrones as a comp, (even if it wasn’t too popular) because there hasn’t been a new one published in over 5 years.

Not useful for magazines, but can be useful for anthologies.

***

Writing Contests Tips

  • NEVER pay to enter a contest or pay a “reader’s fee”
    • EXCEPT – Tenure-track professors often pay the entrance fee for college magazines…
    • EXCEPT – Some contests offer critiques/other services as a matter of course for having entered (RWA)
      • Fees currently should be <$50, preferably under $30
      • Verify their validity first, though.
  • Look at the contest’s readers
    • Who are you writing for?
      • Is that the path you want to go down?
  • Look at the past winners’ work
    • Did they write just for the contest, or are they writing like they want to be published?
      • Often, these will read very differently
  • Pay attention to how much time it takes away from your writing
    • Do you have to campaign for votes?
    • What other obligations does it create for you?

***

And finally:

When Is My Story Ready To Query?

As long as you feel that each round of edits is significantly improving your story, keep at it!

Storytime!

Brandon (Sanderson) submitted several manuscripts to Joshua. And Brandon kept getting rejected despite his wonderful (and steadily improving writing) because he couldn’t plot. Finally, when he submitted Elantris, Joshua looked at it and saw that the plotting could be fixed. That’s when he made the offer.

Submitting different stories to the same agent can pay off. But only if you keep working at your craft.

Person holding a blue ballpoint pen writing.

Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

***

Make sure to reread these dos, don’ts, and preferences! And best of luck as you work towards perfecting your craft.

* Yep. I ended those with prepositions. Whatcha gonna do? Throw red ink at me? Besides, it was the title of the panel!

Happy Independence Day!

Even if Americans can’t all agree on values, priorities, or who’s right (clearly: ME), I still have hope for a brighter future for our nation.

America has made me what I am today and, for better or worse, she’s my home.

In honor of the holiday, here’s my recording of the Star Spangled Banner from last year. (I’m not much better now.)

P.S. It was originally broadcast live. NOT the culmination of clips of 25 million different takes.

#22 Query Corner: ‘MIRADEN’S FOLLY’

Welcome to:

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Morgan’s Query Corner:

Answering Your Query Quandaries

MIRADEN’S FOLLY is a YA fantasy.

When the devilish ashenkin steal the wrong child, Miraden, a young ranger, volunteers to rescue the chieftain’s younger daughter. All he wants is to earn her big sister’s favor. What he gets is a lot more complicated.

NOTE: If you submit your query to me (morgan.s.hazelwood@gmail.com), and you are selected for inclusion, I will give you a high-level review, in-line feedback, and my own draft of your query. If this is your query, feel free to use or ignore as much of the advice and suggestions as you wish.

[Disclaimer: Any query selected for the page will be posted on this website for perpetuity. I am an amateur with no actual accepted queries and a good number of form rejections. This does not guarantee an agent or even an amazing query, just a new take by someone who’s read The Query Shark archives twice and enjoys playing with queries.]

Overall Impression:

Nice elven fantasy! The query has got the formatting and pacing just right!

Things to think about

  1. Make sure you’re not making the women sound like McGuffins – objects to be won. Be sure to emphasize their agency or you’ve got a bad 80s RomCom.
  2. If you have 2 main characters, give them each a paragraph! (if you have more is where it gets tricky)

Original:

[my comments are in blue/italics/brackets]

Dear Agent,

Aspiring ranger, Miraden is in love with Ceychell, the chieftain’s daughter. After she turns him down for the millionth time, he nearly loses hope. But when her sister Kyradel–who adores Miraden–is abducted in the night by ashenkin, Miraden jumps at the opportunity to save her in hopes to gain Ceychell’s favor. [Oh! Here’s the inciting incident!] 

Miraden sends letters back to Ceychell accounting his journeys and affection. [Is the story partially epistolary? That can be a selling point] Ceychell continues to reject his love, but as she finally understands her true feelings for him, it transforms her from a cold bitter teenager into a young leader taking her father’s place as village chieftain [Really? His love is the catalyst? Not her own growing up?]. Despite her efforts to return letters to Miraden, they fail to reach him. 

Once Miraden is on the verge of closing an Ashengate and rescuing Kyradel, he loses focus of his original quest to earn Ceychell’s favor and is left with bitter resolve. He rescues Kyradel and on the journey home, he realizes he’s falling for a companion who has accompanied him on his quest.   [Whoops! The first 3 times I read this, I thought that he’d gone solo, and was falling for Kyradel. Just realized it was a group adventure] Just before returning to his village, he receives a love letter from Ceychell and is left with a choice: embrace the woman he’s loved his entire life, or continue to battle the ashenkin with his new love interest [Love interest? She doesn’t get a description of her own?]. 

Miraden’s Folly is a YA Fantasy novel professionally at 85k words [‘professionally’ is assumed] with potential for series [not quite proper English].   

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Q22


My Revision:

Dear Agent,

When Miraden volunteers to help rescue the chieftain’s younger daughter, Kyradel, from the ashenkin that abducted her, his priority is gaining the favor of her big sister, Ceychell. The [describe them a little: humanoid/monstrous/cultists] ashenkin recognize the value of their hostage. As the rescue party journeys, Miraden sends letters back to Ceychell accounting his journeys and affection.

At first, Ceychell is only concerned with her sister’s loss, ignoring the emotional comments in Miraden’s letters. As she steps up at home to help her father run the village [maybe be more explicit? starts to sit on her father’s council/steps up to help with harvest, since so much of the village is off to rescue her sister/helps deal with the aftermath of the growing ashenkin attacks], she begins to value the skills and care Miraden put, not only into the village but is using to save her sister. Realizing her feelings have shifted, she writes back to let him know that his advances are finally not only welcome but encouraged. 

Miraden is disheartened by Ceychell’s silence, but nothing will prevent his rescue of Kyradel, who has always been fond of him [cut this subordinate clause if Kyradel isn’t the love interest]. On the journey home, Miraden realizes he’s falling for the rescue party’s [other ranger/warrior]. Days out from the village, Ceychell’s letter finally reaches him. Miraden is forced to choose: embrace the woman he’s loved his entire life, or continue to battle the ashenkin with the [warrior/ranger] who’s always had his back. 

Miraden’s Folly is a YA Fantasy novel complete at 85,000 words with series potential. [Any comps? Either books it’s similar to, or authors?] I write from the [Blah blah, area]. When not writing, you can find me [interesting tidbit.] 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Q22


***

I clearly still had a lot of unanswered questions in that draft! I just plain didn’t know enough about the story, so Q22 wrote back, with their new version!

 

Dear Agent,

The devilish ashenkin keep parents awake each night as children continue to disappear. Young ranger Miraden volunteers to rescue the chieftain’s daughter, Kyradel, from the ashenkin to gain favour of her sister, Ceychell.  As the rescue party journeys, Miraden sends letters back to Ceychell accounting his adventure and affection.

At first, Ceychell is consumed with grief and ignores the emotional recounts of Miraden’s letters. As she rises to her own challenges, she begins to value Miraden’s lasting impact, not only on the village but the hero he reluctantly is becoming. Realizing her feelings have rekindled, she makes every effort to return letters, but each effort is thwarted.

Miraden grows bitter from Ceychell’s silence, but his mission remains true and when his party storms the ashengate, he rescues Kyradel. On the voyage home, Miraden realizes he’s falling for a mage in his party. Days out from the village, Ceychell’s most heartfelt letter finally reaches him. Miraden is forced to choose: embrace the woman he’s loved his entire life or continue to battle the ashenkin with the mage who’s had his back and shares his new affection.

Since you represented [BOOK], I thought you might be interested in this book since, like [CHARACTER], Miraden is an unlikely hero in a fast-paced adventure with high stakes and unexpected transformation. Miraden’s Folly is a YA Fantasy novel complete at 85,000 words with a series potential. Large tech companies such as NetApp have published 18 technical whitepapers/expert blogs I’ve written in the past year. I live in [CITY] with my wife and daughter.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Q22


***

But then it started to get a little long. So, we had another couple passes and this is where we ended up.

Dear [AGENT]

When the devilish ashenkin steal the chieftain’s daughter to be one of their sacrificial children, Miraden a young ranger, volunteers to help rescue her. Hoping to gain the favour of her sister, Ceychell, he sends letters to Ceychell recounting both the rescue party’s adventures and his great devotion for her personally.

At first, Ceychell is consumed with grief and resents the affectionate content of Miraden’s letters. As she rises to aid her grief-stricken parents in their duties, she starts to value not only Miraden’s lasting impact in her village but also the hero he’s becoming. Accepting her growing fondness, Ceychell tries her best to reply to his letters, but is continually thwarted.

Bitter at Ceychell’s silence, Miraden nonetheless stays true to his mission. When his party storms the ashengate, he’s the one who rescues Ceychell’s sister. On the voyage home, Miraden and the group’s mage grow close. Then, days out from the village, Ceychell’s most heartfelt letter finally reaches him. Now, Miraden is forced to choose: battle the ashenkin with the mage who’s had his back and shares his growing affections, or abandon her to embrace his childhood crush.

Since you represented [AUTHOR]’s [TITLE], I thought you might be interested in this book since, like [CHARACTER], Miraden is an unlikely hero in a fast-paced adventure with high stakes and unexpected transformation. Miraden’s Folly is a YA Fantasy novel complete at 85,000 words with a series potential. I’m also a technical writer, having had 18 white papers and expert blog posts published by large tech companies, such as NetApp, within the past year. I live in [CITY], [STATE] with my wife and daughter.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Q22

 

Still long, but not too long and with a decent amount of personalization left.
Best of luck to Q22!


And for the rest of you out there?
Best of luck in the query trenches!