7 Tips For Writing Better Villains

Write The Villain Your Story Deserves

As I’ve discussed before, there’s a difference between an antagonist and a villain. Your story doesn’t need a villain, but if you’re going to have one, you should have a memorable one.

  • Prince Humperdink/Count Rugen
  • The Joker
  • Voldemort
  • Emperor Palpatine

These are the names and the stories that stick with us. And sometimes? We love them anyway.

But how does one create a memorable villain, worthy of one’s story? Here are some tips.

#1 – Avoid under-developed villains

Remember, villains have their own lives, outside of thwarting your protagonist. They need to be 3-dimensional characters with motivations that make sense — even if you disagree with their decisions.

#2 – If you must use a cliche, add a twist

The childhood trauma, the revenge on the government/mob/whatever, the delusion that they’re doing good…make sure you’re not following the formula too closely.

#3 – Make Sure Your Villain Isn’t Underpowered

The protagonist has to work for their win, you don’t want to just hand it to them. There has to be credible belief that the villain might win. Readers appreciate (while they’re cursing you) the anticipation and anxiety they experience during a narrow win, much better than the easily thwarted villain.

#4 – Flawed Villains

Villains are only human. (Most of them) Typically, it’s their own personal flaw that leads to the protagonist’s ability to win the day–or at least a stalemate. Pride is traditional, but something has to get them to lose control of themselves and/or the situation.

NOTE: The flip side to this is that the protagonist should win by CONQUERING their own personal flaw. Maybe not permanently, but facing it and accepting it during the story’s climax.

#5 – Villain Doesn’t Need To Mean Evil

Bad guys don’t have to be evil to oppose the protagonist. Was Mr. Smith evil (at least at first)? They just need to have conflicting goals. The teacher who’s trying to get the class to behave, the parents who just want what’s best for their children, the dedicated priestess of Cthulu who just wants the ancient ones to devour humanity… Oh, wait. Ignore that last one.

In one recent movie that I won’t name for fear of spoilers, the protagonist ends up agreeing with the villain’s argument–albeit, not their methods. Just because you’re the bad guy, doesn’t mean you aren’t right.

#6 – The Villain doesn’t have to be there in person

Often, your protagonist doesn’t even know who they’re up against when they start out on their journey. They just keep running into impediments and/or conflicts without finding the source.

And if they do figure out who’s to blame? Often, it starts with just a little whisper. A rumor.

Voldemort. Fisk. The Serpent Queen.

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#7 – The Villain can be representational

Sometimes, the villain isn’t a distant bad guy. Sometimes, the true bad guy is an organization. And, be it the government, the mob, or some other sort of societal aim, you can use an agent of said organization to embody the villain for your protagonists.

The Operative in Firefly, Ms. Coulter in The Golden Compass, they’re both stand-ins for the true enemy.

 

And there you have it. 7 tips for writing better villains!


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Good protagonists deserve great villains.

Who’s your favorite villain?

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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!


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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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!

What Good Is An Agent? Answers From Writers.

https://youtu.be/8bsDxJ7awgM%5BPrevious related topics: Why? How? What? ]

If you’ve been paying attention to the literary agency world in the last month or so, you probably heard about the embezzlement conviction of Darin Webb, the accountant for the 49-year-old UK literary agency: Donadio & Olson. Webb’s total theft? $3.4 MILLION DOLLARS.

Then, this opinion piece came out on kriswrites.com and was passed around, warning of the dangers and lack of oversight for all agents. It may have left you wondering… with all the risks, why would I want a literary agent?

Well, at Balticon 52, I got to hear a variety of perspectives from published authors who’ve had every sort of agent possible. Here are the stories of Leah Cypess, Keith RA DeCandido, CS Friedman, Tee Morris, and their hunt for a quality agent.

How These Writers Got Their Current Agent

CS Friedman started off with just a publisher. They handled all her negotiations and used their standard, boilerplate contract. After book 2 was published, two agents contacted her.

THAT’S when she found out that the standard contract with agents has her share at 80% of foreign sales or tv deals and the standard one, when it’s just publishers, had her share at 50%. Not a scam, just the standard rates.

Keith DeCandido got his start as an editor and broke into writing with media tie-in work, where there’s not much room for negotiation. So? Once he started original pieces, he already had contacts and knew who he wanted to ask and had the track record to appeal.

Leah Cypess spent years sending her works to publishers… 20 years ago when the market was different. And eventually, began to get rejections saying, “Not this, but do you have anything else?” Once they accepted her book, they suggested she get an agent.

Not knowing any better, she asked for their suggestions. This wasn’t a great idea for several reasons:

  • The agent felt compelled to say yes to maintain a good relationship with the publisher
  • She felt compelled to accept their suggestion
  • The agent wasn’t actually very familiar with her genre and market, and they were a mediocre match.

What Do Agents Do For You?

Other than the money, which a good contract lawyer might help with, what other reasons are there to get an agent?

  • They are your biggest fan
  • Many are editors and can make your story better
    • Or hire someone to do it for them
  • They take off the negotiation pressure
    • It’s a lot harder and trickier to run a bidding war for yourself!
  • They can yell at Editors FOR you so you can keep a good relationship with the editor
  • They have relationships with the Editors already
    • They know what books the publishers are looking for
  • They can vouch that you will fix [whatever] and that your ego won’t get in the way
    • It’s more convincing when someone else believes it
  • They manage your IP [Intellectual Property]
  • A good agent is neither a pushover nor belligerent
    • They’ll do right by you without making the editor’s life hell
Two people shaking hands, clipped to see just the arms.

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Once You Have An Offer In Hand

Once you have an offer from an agent, it’s considered professional to send a notice to the other agents sitting on your query, giving them 1-2 weeks to decide.

Do NOT lie to get agents to make them respond faster. Agents talk.

Two weeks is about the limit, maybe three if it’s summer or a holiday. Longer than that will make an agent feel like you’re using their offer to find a better deal. Don’t do it.

When Should You LEAVE An Agent?

You worked so hard to GET an agent, you thought this meant you’d made it.

But sometimes, it just doesn’t work out. Now, this is something you don’t usually hear writers talk about, but 3/4ths of professional writers have left an agent.

Warning Signs

  • No news is NOT good news.
    • They should check in regularly and let you know what they’re doing for you (2-3 months is fine).
  • They’re not submitting your work or following up with the publishers.
    • 6-9 months is a reasonable wait with publishers, but your agent shouldn’t just be sitting on their thumbs.
  • They’ve gone from no-contact to immediate deadlines with little warning.
  • Your career has changed direction and they don’t know your new market.
  • Your agent stopped fighting FOR you!
    • Maybe you didn’t sell like they’d hoped
    • Maybe they signed some fresher or bigger names
    • Maybe life came up and they’re distracted

It doesn’t matter the reason, once they’ve stopped being your supporter, it’s time to move on.

Orange scissors cutting an orange rose and a piece of paper that starts with the words "Marriage Certificate: This is to certi-fy that the .."

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Dealing With Leaving An Agent

No matter your personal relationship, an agent-writer partnership is a professional one. And once they’ve accepted you on as their client? Your agent is actually your employee.

You should write a VERY professional (and not personal) break-up letter.

Remember, they STILL get their percentage on all contracts they’d negotiated for you. Like a divorce, you’re sharing custody of the “kids”. And typically? Your money goes to their agency and they pay out your portion.

WHAT? It should be the other way around! — Well, maybe. But this way, you don’t have to pay taxes on THEIR portion of the money.

When Don’t You Need An Agent?

  • Short story submissions. The money isn’t there and they typically don’t come into play.
    • Note: A cover letter from an agent CAN help with the top markets, though
  • If the publisher does ANYTHING to ask for stuff
    • That turns your manuscript into ‘SOLICITED’!
    • Note: Usually, waiting to hear back this way is even LONGER than with agents.
  • If they’re shmoozing about how they can ‘see it as a movie’. Movies are a hard field to break into, and literary agents have about nill influence there.

A Few Notes About Publishers

  • Publishers are ALWAYS looking for the “Next Big Thing”
  • Small publishers are hungry
    • But before you opt to go with them, pay attention to:
      • their audience
      • their resources
      • their current market
      • the quality of their products
  • Traditional publishers have known names lined up and will bump new authors back if they’re worried about the market impact
    • Their lead books get all the marketing money and the rest are ignored
    • BUT! They get you into every bookstore in the nation, so their lack of marketing is still exponentially greater than most small publishers can hope to achieve.
      • You typically get a smaller advance — for a wider distribution

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Getting an agent is hard, but getting the RIGHT agent is harder. Here’s to hoping it’s a good match when you both swipe right.

Top 4 Questions From An Editors & Publishers AMA (Ask Me Anything)

Sunflowers in full bloom against a bright, clear blue sky.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 (Happy Summer Solstice!)

At Balticon52, I had the opportunity to attend an Ask Me Anything panel of Editors and Publishers. Usually in my panel notes, I skim over the panelists to get to the meat, but in this case, I feel their expertise was part of the draw.

The publishers and editors in question were:

  • Walt Boyes – an award-winning journalist, writer, and editor of the Industrial Automation INSIDER, the Grantville Gazette, (the magazine of the 1632 Universe), co-editor of Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire Press, and a member of the 1632 Editorial Board.
  • Scott H. Andrews – a writer, musician, and the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of the online fantasy magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies. He’s a six-time Hugo Award finalist and with his podcast, a five-time Parsec Award finalist. [Fun fact: he always gives personalized rejections!]
    • For non-querying writers, I know that sounds kinda… pathetic. But if you’re in the querying trenches, you know what that’s worth.
  • Neil Clarke – the editor and publisher of the Hugo and World Fantasy Award-winning magazine, Clarkesworld.
  • Ian Randal Strock– a writer, plus the owner and editor-in-chief of Gray Rabbit Publications/Fantastic Books (www.FantasticBooks.biz). Previously, he edited and published Artemis Magazine and SFScope. He also worked on the editorial staffs of Analog, Asimov’s, Science Fiction Chronicle, and many others.
  • (moderated by) Jeff Young – an award-winning author, bookseller, and editor of several anthologies.

So let’s get this rolling. Here are the questions.

1. What is Your Biggest Pet Peeve?

The top three answers were:

  1. Zombie Stories — they’ve been done to past death
  2. Writers who don’t READ THE GUIDELINES
  3. Writers who argue with critiques
    Even if you disagree with the critique or the suggestion, don’t argue with someone who spent their time and energy to give you feedback.
         Give that section of your prose a closer look

    • Is it moving the story along?
    • What is it adding?
    • Could you do it better–not necessarily the way they suggested.

Person holding a blue ballpoint pen writing.

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2. Should A Writer Use Different Names For Different Genres?

As with all writing advice, it depends on the situation:

  • If you’re doing your own marketing, starting over with a new name doubles the amount of work you have to do to get traction.
  • If you’re with a large publisher, it can be helpful for the marketing.

That said, there are of course caveats:

  • You can end up getting shelved in the library/bookstores alongside whatever genre you first published in.
  • If you’re doing both Children’s books and explicit erotica — it can be helpful to make sure kids don’t end up with a book they probably didn’t mean to get.

Regarding publishing names in general:

When choosing which name to be published under (birth name or pen name), searchability reigns supreme.

You want to be high in the search result, but also easy to spell.

Simplified spelling, middle initials, mining family names, or deciding who you want to be shelved next to are good places to start.


Shelves full of books, in a decently lit library.

3. How Has The Market Changed In The Last Ten Years?

The top 3 ways the market’s changed:

  1. More exploring of the human condition in fantasy, a lot of the exploration is reactionary — which has a shorter shelf life.  Morgan’s side note: It might be more overt, but I’d argue that fantasy has ALWAYS explored the human condition.
  2. The rise in the respectability of online magazines.
  3. Massive growth in international markets.

Wood signpost, with worn red arrow pointing right. Greyed out mountains faintly behind it.

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4. Where Do Querying Writers Lose You?

There was a lot of discussion on this question, so I’ll break it into high-level and specifics.

The top three high-level answers were:

  1. When I quit caring.
  2. If you make it work to follow the narrative.
  3. If they don’t remember it the next day.
    • Note: This editor also said that the bad stories blur together, they don’t typically remember them.

Top 4 things that break their buy-in:

  1. ‘Red line of death’ – Boredom, implausibility, names that don’t fit the setting
  2. Implausibility – where all emotions are explicit rather than undercurrents. Most people don’t spell everything out for each other in real life.
  3. External commentary (even by the narrator) – “If I’d only known then…”
  4. A character doing something stupid or out-of-character (OOC)

A thought bubble drawn in chalk, with a lightbulb resting in the bubble

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I always find getting an insider perspective on the industry enlightening. Hopefully, these answers help you as much as they helped me.