If You’re Not Making Progress, Change Direction

There was an inauguration yesterday. The United States of America swore in a new president.

But. This is a writing blog, so let’s talk about writing.

I may have complained some about how my space fantasy story that I started during NaNoWriMo went off the rails and I wasn’t sure where it was going. I might have been getting words in, but I have been struggling to advance the plot.

This weekend, I took a drive, thought about my story, and realized the problem.

When a story is fighting you, the problem just might be that you’re going the wrong direction. Sometimes, you’re writing the wrong story.

Types of Stories

We’re all familiar with the different types of stories, even if we don’t have the lists memorized. While different people split them up differently, let’s go with this subset of six categories of stories.

  1. “Human versus human” – Someone is standing in your way, blocking you from achieving your goals.
  2. “Human versus nature” – A survival tale.
  3. “Human versus machine” – Technology, at whatever level, might be your undoing.
  4. “Human versus fate” – Can you fight the gods and/or destiny?
  5. “Human versus society” – Where you’re fighting ‘the man’, the system, the government, the corporation…
  6. “Human versus self” – When you really are your own worst enemy

What Was Wrong In Morgan’s Story

For me, I typically write “human versus society”, where the problem is social expectations, or a corrupt government, that sort of thing. That’s my – for lack of a better term – comfort zone.

Which is a bit silly, because in my personal life, I’m the sort that is comfortable being a cog in the wheel. I can rationalize a lot, and I typically go along with authority unless I have a clear reason to fight back. Which doesn’t happen often.

With my space fantasy, I was trying to base the story structure on classic fairy tales… while still having the enemy be a nebulous corporation — or at least a debt to them.

But fairytales thrive on conflict. Well, all stories do. But fairytales thrive specifically on interpersonal conflict.

I was driving down that tree-lined highway in the mountains, thinking about my story and how to get it from where it was to the ending I needed, when the solution dawned on me.

I need an enemy, one close at hand, with motivations and reasons all their own. And I knew exactly who it was, who I’d been trying to reform since the very beginning. That was my mistake.

Not all antagonists can be swayed to the side of the main character. Some are just in it for themselves.

I’ve attended panels on writing villains before, but I’ve never written one. Let’s see how this turns out.


Have you ever been writing the wrong story?

Have you ever read a story that you thought was going to be one type, but ended up being another? Did you like the shift?

Morgan’s 2021 Resolutions

Now that we’re firmly into January, it’s time to determine what my goals for the year are.

Last year was intended to be a year of querying/submitting, revision, and networking.

Thusly, I listed my goals:

  1. Revising
  2. Querying and submitting
  3. Blogging/Vlogging
  4. Reading
  5. Writing
  6. Beta-reading
  7. Conventions

As I shared last week, I did great on everything on that list — except my revisions and querying — you know, the parts of the list that actually get me closer to publication. Does anyone else see the problem here?

This year? This year my focus is on writing, revisions, and querying/submitting.

As always, I like to set SMART goals –

  • Specific – you’ll see numbers and dates!
  • Measurable – you’ll still see numbers and dates
  • Achievable – I set goals for things I have influence over. I’m aiming for an agent, getting something published, but unless I self-pub, I have no control over that.
  • Relevant – I’m keeping my exercise goals and healthy eating off this post. These are all about my writing, the relevance should be clear.
  • Time-sensitive – Obviously, these are intended to be completed in 2021, but some items may have specific dates associated.

So? Let’s take last year’s list and put it in a new priority order.

Morgan, a long-haired brunette, is laying on a carpet, legs in slippers kicked up behind her, writing in a notebook.

Behind her is a table and a bookshelf.

1. Writing

Finish my NaNoWriMo space fantasy! Preferably by April. At least the rough draft.

I’m not sure if I want to do OctPoWriMo again — writing a poem a day for all of October. I skipped it last year. But, I really like participating in NaNoWriMo — writing 50,000 words in November. If I’m really stumped in November, I’ll rebel and revise either 5 shorts or a full manuscript. But, knowing me, I’ll probably make new words.

2. Revising

I managed last year’s goals to finish my revisions before Balticon! And then was query-shy in the wake of the 2020 querying climate. And I managed to at least edit my middle grade fantasy.

Remembering, of course, that rewriting IS writing, this makes revision half of my writing goals. But? The final goal is publication and I’ve got 4 manuscripts, 21+ short stories, and 30+ poems just waiting for a home.

So much to polish!

This year’s goals? Revise three of the short stories I drafted during my NaNo-Of-Shorts back in 2019.


3. Querying & Submitting

I’ve talked a lot about the differences between querying and submitting, but basically — one is to get an agent to sell your book, and one is to publishers to buy your stories. Typically, writers submit their own short stories, but publishers usually want agents to submit full length manuscripts.

Querying is a intro-letter and first chapter or so that you send to a literary agent. Once you have an agent, they often make you do revisions, before submitting your work to a publishing house.

Submitting a manuscript/short story/poem is what you can do to any editor/publisher who is open to it: publishers (who are open to unagented work), literary magazines, anthologies, etc.

This year, for my short stories and poetry, I’m going to try to actively submit at least 6 short stories to at least 3 markets each markets. Plus? At least the first round of the submissions needs to be by March (for the stories that are already prepped). And query my YA fantasy 3 times a month, unless revising.


4. Blogging/Vlogging/Podcast

You are my supporters, my community, my friends. You cheer me on and watch me learn and grow. As always, blogging helps keep me out there, keeps me accountable, and gives me a way to give back to the community.

Plus? I haven’t missed a week on my blog since February of 2016 (although, I have done reruns) nor a vlog-post since I started vlogging on June 27, 2017. Since we all know how much I hate ending a streak, I’m going to keep at it. You’ll be seeing my a new blog/vlog every Thursday with writing tips or writerly musings.

I’ve also started a podcast and weekly live-stream. I plan on taking a week or so off between seasons, and no more than one live-stream off a quarter (unless double-booked with a convention).

Morgan taking a selfie while sitting near the front of a room full of chairs. (She's at a writing panel at a convention)

5. Conventions | Writer Groups

My goals here are: to panel at 3+ conventions, attend 6+ open mic nights, 4+ monthly writer meetings, and 3 NaNoWriMo events (kickoff, 1 write in, and the all-nighter till 11pm). Plus? Staff Balticon and maybe another virtual con..

Ravencon pushed out my panelists dates from last year to this, I’m staff and panelist for Balticon again (May), and — if everything works out — WorldCon (August) in Washington DC. My panels were well received last year, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be accepted back. (All of my panels were topics from this blog that I feel I can talk competently on, where my unpublished perspective won’t be a detriment to my authority on the subject).

Plus, I’m running social media for Balticon’s parent group. So… there’s another time suck!

What does being on panels net me? Why do I want to do this?

First, it’s a greater reach for my blog/vlog/podcast that’s supposed to lead to a larger audience when I do get published. It’s a great way to network and meet more writers and readers who like the same stuff I do. Plus, a chance to talk about all the stuff I obsess over on my blog and on my vlog in person with actual people.

But how does attending conventions count as a writing goal? Isn’t it just fun? Or part of your social media addiction?

Well, if you’ve been following my blog, you’ve probably noticed that over half the content is actually write ups from notes at convention panels! I attend the panels, for those who can’t (or don’t). Also? My sister teases me that I act like a teacher, trying to get her recertification credits, all in one weekend.

And? Well, I talked about it in my post on attending conventions, but, of course, there’s the networking aspect. The science-fiction and fantasy conventions I prefer are full of readers, writers, and even some publishers and agents!

Quote on a grey board on a brown shelf with books behind it.
“And to think, some of life’s best stories haven’t even begun”

6. Reading

Thanks to this year being what it was, I managed to read 46 books, with 35 of them being physical and nearly all of the physical books being from the pile that moved into the house with me.

So? I’m upping my goal from last year of reading 26 books – to 36 books! Three a month is less than I’ve achieved the last couple years. Plus, half of them should be physical and already on my to-read bookcase.

7. Beta Readers

This year, again, I’m going to try not to beta-read more than 3 full manuscripts for others.

I will need the short stories I’m preparing for publication beta read. As always, I like to keep my beta reader pool to no more than 8 readers, typically from different backgrounds. I usually give them separate copies, so that their feedback won’t influence each other.

I’m still a contributing editor to The Oddville Press, an online literary magazine of odd, but not really fantastical tales.


In Summary

This year, I’m starting off with my focus on drafting, not my usual revision, but plan to do a lot of querying and submitting. The middle of my year will be rather convention heavy, but by October/November, I should be back in the writer’s seat. Plus, I’ll be reading and blogging and vlogging and podcasting throughout the year.

Except December. I’m not a writer in December — everyone needs a chance to breath.

We’ll have to wait until next January to see if I had 2021 foresight.


What does your plan look like for 2021

Did you build in flexibility?

And, how SMART are your goals?


See my previous years resolutions and reflections:
2017 Resolutions | 2017 Retrospective
2018 Resolutions | 2018 Retrospective
2019 Resolutions | 2019 Retrospective

2020 Resolutions | 2020 Retrospective

What Does a Form Rejection Mean When Querying A Novel?

I’ve queried before.

I’ve queried this story before.

Thirty-six rejections in, this story has been decently queried, but has not blanketed the literary agent world. (Especially since I find myself revising the entire piece every ten rejections or so.)

One of those revisions was based on a revise-and-resubmit, one of those times was based on finding a writing mentor who could help me bring my writing to the next level.

After I finished my latest round of revisions, I queried five agents back in July. The most recent rejection arrived just last week — two months after I’d closed out the agent as “no reply means no thank you.” But, closure is kind.

Why haven’t I queried more? Well, I told myself I was finishing the revisions on my middle-grade story for Pitch Wars. I was prepping for my NaNoWriMo story. And I wanted to see how my new query and first pages worked.

All I’ve gotten is a stack of form rejection letters.

How to handle rejection

  1. Indulge in self-pity — Not forever. Not even for a week (unless you really need it). But? For a night or two? Wallow in it. Let yourself grieve over the hope that has been shattered and eat chocolate or junk food. Complain (privately) to a few trusted friends.
  2. Distraction — Got other projects to work on? Books or shows to binge? Maybe you’re also moving, or helping school your children. There’s always stress-cleaning your house from top to bottom and re-alphabetizing your bookcase (forgetting this sorted-by-color trend). Distraction can help a lot.
  3. Track it — If you can, see every rejection as a step closer to publication. Maybe you’re going for 100 rejections. Maybe you’ve decided if you hit a certain number without getting an agent, you’re going to self-publish. So, update your querytracker.net account, or your spreadsheet, or wherever you’re tracking who you’re querying and from which agency (because some agencies only allow one query for all their agents combined). Some people paper walls with printed out rejection letters, or add a bead to a necklace, or in some way commemorate every rejection on their path.
  4. Assess — What is the problem? Do you have a writer friend you can trust to tell you? Can you glean anything from the rejection? Some tell you something… others, are just polite form rejections.

What can one gleam from form rejections?

A form rejection tells you… nothing. Although, there are a few different things one can think.

  1. The query is badly written and not pulling people in. But… I felt my query letter was solid, if not amazing. Although, it is easier to write someone else’s query, I feel confident in my query writing skills.
  2. The query is well-written, but the story is trite and no one is interested. Maybe. I’m my own target audience, but sometimes, from a higher level, a lot of fantasy quests can feel repetitive.
  3. The first ten pages let the story down, and that’s why no one wants more. It feels weird to say this, but… the last time I read through my story, my first third of my book even impressed ME, and I’m the one who wrote it. Although, the one revise-and-resubmit did suggest more backstory before the inciting incident, and maybe I am starting too quickly, before you care about the characters?
  4. Maybe 2020 was a horrid time to be querying, especially young adult fantasy. Agents were too wary and not picking up much of anything. I mean, it can always be the market, right. My book is on the cusp of YA and adult, should I do a few edits so I can query it in the wider adult fantasy market? Should I just wait a little for people to recover from 2020 and then send out, as people feel more eager for new stories?
  5. Those five agents weren’t right for the story, but the right agent (and publisher) are out there waiting. Possibly! This is what I keep telling myself. Maybe I’ll start querying again in mid-January, waiting a week or so after the agents re-open to not get lost in the flood, probably a Tuesday morning, after the coffee’s kicked in, before the lunch hunger starts to distract them…

Querying is scary. There’s very little solid feedback — thanks to both outlier writers-of-yore-and-today who argued and harassed agents, as well as the massive number of querying writers these days, as technology makes the process more accessible than ever. One has to have faith in one’s writing abilities, confidence that the story can stand on its own, and the perseverance to see it through.

Best of luck to all of you in the query trenches. If you’re self-publishing, I salute your bravery! And? Wish me luck in 2021!

Querying and Agents: Now I’m Confused

While I consider myself rather well-versed with the querying writer’s life and expectations, I recently ran across something new and worrying.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, literary agents are well-read people, familiar with the industry, who are versed in contract law and help writers find a publishing house. While you can go it alone, the larger publishing houses often do not even accept submissions from un-agented writers. Querying is the process by which we entice the agent with the characters and stakes of our story, let them know where our story fits in the market, and include any relevant biographical information. It’s a one page letter that works almost like a job application — only, if the agent selects us (with that lovely external validation) — they’re working for us, to promote our writing.

Back toward the end of October, I was gearing up for NaNoWriMo, waiting to hear that I did NOT make the cut (again) for PitchWars, when someone in my Middle Grade Waves PitchWars support group (middle grade is what comes before YA books, but after chapter books) mentioned that they’d queried an agent… and the agent had:

a – gone on twitter to complain about someone querying outside of business hours
and
b – rejected them promptly

Wait. WHAT?

First of all, email is asynchronous communication.

Secondly? Queries are business emails. No querying writer should ever expect a response at 2 am on a Saturday night. But, that might be the time of day that the house is quiet and they can put their thoughts together and work up the nerve to send the email.

We should never expect a response at 2 am on a Saturday night. In fact, most of us expect our query letters to be filtered into a ‘queries’ folder and only looked at when the agent has finished dealing with their pre-existing clients. Maybe just before lunch on Wednesday, or Friday evening before they head out for the weekend. Sometimes, we suspect agents just set aside a day, maybe not even once a month, where they go through and clear out the queries that are pushing ‘past due’.

An immediate response was never an expectation most of us even thought could be a possibility.

So. Now I’m not just worried that my story isn’t ready, or that my query needs work, or that the market is oversaturated, no matter how good my story and query are. Now I get to obsess over timing of my email!

I’m already factoring holidays, school schedules, and elections into the mix. I usually hold off if there was just a pitch contest on twitter, because I know agents usually bump those to the top of their queue because they seem a bit more time sensitive.

How do I handle this?

Was this just one agent? Do I just assume an agent who dislikes this is not the match for me? Or is this more a common pet peeve?

Maybe I’ll start prepping my query letters and schedule them to submit on Tuesday mornings. Not Monday, because they’ll have all the weekend backlog, but not so close to lunch that they’re hungry and distracted…


Agents — is this a common practice?
Do you feel frustrated when you get emails outside of regular business hours?

Querying writers — what else have I missed about properly timing my query letters?
Anything else I should be stressing about?

In Space, No One Can See You Hide The Evidence: Crimes In Space

Welcome to Part 12, my final WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write up.

The panelists for the titular panel were as follows: Trish Matson (as moderator), Valarie Valdes, Carl Fink, and Kat Clay.

The panel description was brief and to the point (since the title covered so much): The panel discusses SF mysteries set in space.

What Is Crime?

Where ever you find people, you find good people and you fine bad people. But, what makes certain people’s behavior qualify as ‘bad’? Well, there is typically an official and/or unofficial codification of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. Hurting others, putting others at risk, or taking advantage of others to their detriment usually tops the list. These days, the law of your country and the society in which you find yourself defines what is and is not a crime.

In our own world, we see groups like Black Lives Matter protesting what they see as the law being excessively enforced against Black Americans — among others — without accountability. Additionally, we also see justice somehow coming down on the side with the most money more often than statistically it should.

In speculative fiction, though, we often set humanity in situations where, through ignorance, (willful or not), the humans or the aliens hurt one another. In the classic Orson Scott Card Ender’s Game series, the bugs had a hive mind and didn’t realize that killing individual bodies was ending the consciousness of another sentient being, forever, (give-or-take some sort of afterlife or reincarnation).

Crimes take place in all sorts of novels, but here are some of the major crime genres.

Types of Crime Novels

  1. Cozy mystery
  2. Thriller
  3. Suspense
  4. Private Eye
  5. Classic Detective – like ‘locked room’ mysteries
  6. Police Procedural
  7. Hard-Boiled
  8. Capers

Things To Think About When Writing About Crime in Speculative Fiction:

Three Things To Think About When Writing Laws

  1. Who is creating the laws?

    Very often in speculative fiction, and often in life, the people creating the laws do not expect them to be enforced on themselves or their families. They bring in their own prejudices and assumptions about “those-types-of-people”. Or, you have people making laws based on theory, who are out of touch with the realities of life and the deviousness of people.

    If you’re in a closed environment, like a generational ship, it would likely be the officer level crew making the laws – like the Captain and those working closely with the Captain.
  2. Who is enforcing the laws?

    We expect it to be brave people and/or artificial intelligences who follow the letter of the law with a compassionate, (but far from naive), interpretation. That’s not always the case. In some societies, bribes are so expected, they’re counted as business expenses. Often, people from a particular class or background end up in law enforcement. Those enforcing the laws see people on their worst day, or only the worst people, and it can jade them, so that they come to expect that from everyone. That sort of attitude can lead to them prioritizing their own over justice, or the law.

    On that generational ship, it would likely be the enlisted level crew enforcing the laws. Security has a lot of authority, but most of us know just how expendable ‘Red Shirts’ are on Star Trek: The Original Series.
  3. Who is being policed?

    We expect it to be everyone, equally, with none above the law. Historically, we have often seen poorer areas heavily policed and heavily punished in an attempt to cut down on crime, while better off areas were less heavily policed and their residents punished with a gentler touch. And we can’t forget that those with money can often make trouble with the law go away.

    In the States, it used to be that children getting in trouble in school would end up in suspension – in school or out. Now, cops are called in, charges filed, and jail is becoming common.

    Back to the generational ship example. Most of the policing would be of the passengers, but are there class distinctions there?
    Perhaps, there some who paid for a large suite for their families, while others bought just a bunk? Are there criminals assigned to the ship to work off their debts? What happens to the later generations? Do these roles become a caste system?

    Things to think about when creating your speculative world. Which leads us to a few other thoughts.

Two Things To Think About Regarding The Speculative Aspect

  1. What are the technical limitations?

    If we’re futuristic, do we have cameras? If we’re magic, can we cast a truth spell or seeing spell? With the tech level, for less advanced societies, don’t give them modern forensics. For more advanced societies, think about how far forensics has come in the last century!

    Play fair with the reader!

    If you’re writing a who-dunnit in space, you want to establish what the laws are and at least hint at what the technology is capable of. Mystery readers typically enjoy stories better if they can either work it out themselves in advance from the clues, without it being too blatant, or see it’s obvious in retrospect.

    If you make the twist something that wasn’t explained, the readers often feel cheated.

    And we all know, readers who feel cheated leave 1-star bashing reviews.

    If there are AIs (created beings with artificial intelligence), are they the criminal? The tool used to commit the crime? The detective? Is there a thing in their programming that’s preventing them from solving the crime?

    Some of the best speculative mysteries are when the world building sets up the ‘smoking gun’, where it’s only obvious in retrospect.
  2. Who are people?

    Can you create backups of people from their last transporter session. Or from clones? So, would killing a body still count as murder.

    And delving into this, are clones recognized as people? What about other species that we may or may not recognize as fully sentient? And should we enforce our morality and expectations on alien societies?

    PERSONAL NOTE: I will always believe that the moment a clone experiences life differently than the original, they are creating their own memories and are their own person, with all the rights that entails. Why yes, I’m a second-born identical twin, why do you ask?

All The Book Recommendations!

  • The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun (The Robot Series) – Isaac Asimov
  • Long Arm of Gil Hamilton – Larry Niven
  • Six Wakes – Mur Lafferty
  • Retrieval Artist Series – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
  • All Systems Red (Murderbot) – Martha Wells
  • A Pale White In The Black – K. B. Wagers
  • A Memory Called Empire – Arkady Martine
  • Lord Darcy Series – Randall Garrett
  • The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia – Ursula Le Guin
  • An Unkindness of Ghosts – Rivers Solomon
  • Ethan of Athos – Lois Bujold
  • And Then There Were (N-One) [Uncanny Magazine] – Sarah Pinsker
  • Revelation Space – Alistair Reynolds
  • Deadly Litter – James White

What other things do you consider when you set a crime in space?

Do you have any favorite ‘crimes in space’ novels you’d like to recommend?