Using Unsafe Places To Propel Your Characters Forward

Returning to share notes from yet another World Fantasy Con panel: Unsafe Places and Why Characters Go There (see Gender 401 and Writing as Sanctuary, for other panels). The panelists were Ysabeau Wike, Nina K. Hoffman, Rajan Khanma, Joe Haldeman, and Suzy Charnas.

I expected this panel to be about the journey troupe – stories following those who chose to stand up and go, not the ones who are reasonable and stay home. But, the panel itself ended up being more of a discussion on how to use unsafe places to propel the story forward.

What is an Unsafe Place?

Just because a place is safe for one person, doesn’t mean it’s safe for everyone. Places can be unsafe due to the environment itself, or because of the people in the place.

Sometimes? Home is the unsafe place. And it can be unsafe because of external factors, or because of internal ones.

According to Charnas, when fate is against you, no place is safe. And old age is a very unsafe place.

Finding the Conflict That Initiates the Story

When you begin a story, you should make clear what is missing in the main character’s life — or at least, what they THINK is missing.

Often, the strongest stories are about the true thing that is hidden. In those cases, the missing thing identified at the beginning is simply a symptom, not the cause of the conflict.

It’s okay if you don’t know what the true cause is when you start writing the story. Writing can be a search process, a way of finding your way out of the dark. WARNING: If you go into the story with an agenda, stories often come out rather contrived. Strive to avoid that.

Sometimes, the unsafe thing didn’t exist prior to the story’s start. It can be that the world changed and became unsafe for your character.

When The Conflict Is Internal

The internal conflict can either be a mental health issue, or an uncontrolled ability (like magic). It can be an internal need — to control one’s temper, to belong, to be loved. These are the things that make characters relatable and human.

When The Character Doesn’t See It Coming

Betrayal — when the main character thinks they’re safe, but they’re not.

The Joy Of YA

The joy of YA is that kids or teens will defeat problems long after the adults have resigned themselves to a world where the problems are insurmountable.

What Happens Next?

If you need to enhance conflict you can always limit resources. Be it allies, money, magic, or time.

Once you’ve addressed that first conflict — to fix the thing that was making your character unsafe — the main character usually finds something else they need to do — some new issue that’s often the consequence of the first fix.

And that’s it. That’s all the panel had time to discuss. Defining, exploring, and exploiting unsafe places to drive a plot forward.


If you’ve written a story, what was the factor that made your character’s space ‘unsafe’?

If you’re not a writer, share the factor that made a space unsafe for one of your favorite books.

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#29 Query Corner – Render

Welcome to:

Morgan’s Query Corner:

Fresh eyes for your query quandaries.

RENDER is a contemporary fantasy where secret telepaths can hack other people’s brains and manipulate their realities.

When medical resident, Dr. Kivrin Welch’s ex-boyfriend shows up, wanted for assassinating the senator he was paid to protect. That’s when she learns about renderers — telepathic mind hackers. Her ex admits he’s one, but someone’s learned how to turn rending into physical actions. How can they clear his name when his body did the killing?

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:

RENDER sounds like a fantasy and a thriller in one. Fascinating world building. Your query was pretty solid and didn’t need much to polish it. My three big suggestions for your query are:

  • Minimize backstory – focus on goals
  • Keep it chronological
  • Having the perpetrator be someone close to them is normal in thrillers, so I wouldn’t spell it out in the query

Queryist’s Original:

<blockquote class="wp-block-quote “>

Dear [Agent],

RENDER is an adult contemporary fantasy, complete at 78,000 words, that will appeal to fans of V.E. Schwab’s VICIOUS.
[Nice. Short and crisp with a relevant comp.]

Medical resident Dr. Kivrin Welch struggles to focus on patients when Cara, her hallucinated alter-ego, keeps popping up at inopportune times to berate her for any mistake she makes. When Kivrin’s ex-boyfriend, Clark, finally tells her about renderers—gifted individuals who can hack into other people’s minds and manipulate their perception of reality—it answers questions she’s long had about her hallucinations and her troubled past.

Clark Bantam, the ex Kivrin still pines for, is a renderer. He uses his abilities to escape police custody after being arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. Or rather, a crime he couldn’t stop himself from committing. Someone out there is a new kind of renderer—one who can hack not just minds, but bodies. They made Clark walk onstage at a political rally and shoot the U.S. Senator he was supposed to protect.

Kivrin agrees to hide Clark from the authorities if he tells her more about rendering. But then a friend’s betrayal sends them both on the run, with the FBI hot on their heels. Together, they navigate family secrets and unresolved feelings for each other in order to find the real culprit and clear Clark’s name. They think they’re hunting a stranger, but they will discover that the perpetrator was known to them all along.
[Cliche!]


My Revision:

Dear [Agent],

RENDER is an adult contemporary fantasy, complete at 78,000 words, that will appeal to fans of V.E. Schwab’s VICIOUS.

Medical resident Dr. Kivrin Welch struggles to focus on her patients, but Cara, her hallucinated alter-ego, keeps popping up at inopportune times to berate her for any mistake she makes. When Kivrin’s ex-boyfriend, Clark, pops up and reveals his abilities as a so-called renderer—a gifted individual who can hack into other people’s minds and manipulate their perception of reality—it answers questions she’s long had about her hallucinations and her troubled past.

Clark Bantam is a renderer in trouble. Someone out there is a new kind of renderer—one who can hack not just minds, but bodies. They made Clark walk onstage at a political rally and shoot the U.S. Senator he was supposed to protect. Only Clark’s own abilities allowed him to escape police custody after being arrested for the crime he couldn’t stop himself from committing.

Kivrin agrees to hide Clark from the authorities if he tells her more about rendering–and how to protect herself. But then a friend’s betrayal sends them both on the run, with the FBI hot on their heels. If they can’t resolve their past and find the real killer, they might be the next victims.

[Insert Bio here]

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,


[Q29]


I think Q29 has a chilling thriller, where even the characters don’t know what’s real!

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

Writer Confessions

After last week’s post on avoiding burn out, I thought I’d give myself a break. But, I’ve got a few confessions to make…

On Accepting Limits

Writer Confession #1: I am, indeed, quite bad at taking my own advice.

Once I’ve accomplished a thing two or three times, I have trouble letting myself stop. See: this blog. See also: my NaNo word count. Even when it might not be the healthiest choice for me.

Instead of accepting the inevitable, I’ve buckled down and written past my bedtime every night since we last spoke. I wrote while on a date, I wrote at one of the three Thanksgiving’s I attended, I wrote through an evening visiting my mother. As a coder-by-day, I’ve taken my work laptop home to meet deadlines and wrote during the 3 minute breaks while my new code was compiling.

As expected, everything non-essential in my life is being sorely neglected and I’m eagerly burning the candle at both ends, praying for December.

On being a Plantser

Writer Confession #2: My story looks nothing like I intended. (or at least, expected)

I’ve written about being a plantser before, but every time, it looks a little different.

Instead of kids saving parents from a brain-washing book, my story is ninety percent about a school play. Then again, as I sort of had the 90’s TV show “Wishbone” in my head as my mental concept of what sort of story to aim at a Middle Grade audience, I suppose it shouldn’t be too surprising.

There are several meal scenes that likely serve no purpose — although, of course, I can probably fix that in edits. Although, I probably shouldn’t repeat a breakfast scene unless I make it part of my character’s preferences? Why have I decided that my characters love bacon and breakfast foods? Well, I mean, who (whose diet includes pork) doesn’t?

Warning — if you write a story that centers around books and a play, that means you’re gonna have to sort of plot ALL of these things. Separately!

My play currently has roles such as “Sworsdswoman”, “Storyteller”, and “Sidekick”. I made up half a song from another non-existent kids’ musical about “The Flannel Bear” (my world’s Velveteen Rabbit, which my sister was in during OUR middle-school years). [If enough people ask, I might post a video singing it for you. Although, be warned, I can follow a tune, but I can’t carry one.]

With the changes in my story, I’m not really sure what a satisfying ending will look like, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to end at the cast party, so that’s what I’m writing towards now.

On Novel Prep Work

Writer Confession #3: My prep work wasn’t actually a waste of time.

Despite my story looking nothing like I intended, my first 9 chapters almost aligned, and then it kinda went sideways because of the new direction.

But! Working out the main characters, their personalities and families was helpful. Charting out that the two main characters would alternate chapters and would be friends but NOT romantically invested has been a cornerstone of my novel.

And? My massive list of random names definitely came in handy to help me keep up my pace while writing. Although, next time, I should note who they got assigned to. Especially when they only get mentioned once or twice.

On Writing Sprints

Writer Confession #4: My novel would NOT exist without these.

Three years ago, I started using Twitter to ‘clock in’, as sort of a type of accountability. Usually something like, “It’s 9pm and I’m clocking in”. Last year, NaNoWriMo.org created sprint timers integrated in their website where you could invite people to your sprints and race each other for the most words. Or, at least, have a focused 15 minutes where you could usually convince yourself to ignore social media and just write.

The timer breaks this massive “must write all the words” into an achievable chunk. 50,000 words sounds intimidating. 1,666 words a day seem to drag on forever. But 10 minutes? 15 minutes? I can sprint that long.

This year? My NaNo region has a Discord channel. It’s a chat application (often used by online gamer and, it can do audio), that has a sprint feature built in. You type in “_sprint” and anyone can join in. When the timer goes off, you enter how many words you’ve written and it tallies the ‘winner’.

Knowing you’re not writing alone, seeing everyone else’s progress, and comparing your own words-per-minute against your results last sprint can be very encouraging. Or shame you into focusing better next sprint. I’ll even sprint against myself, if no one else is on. But, there are early writers, day writers, and evening writers. You can usually find someone on the channel

On Rewarding Myself

Writer Confession #5: It’s all about TV and chocolate.

I got a large box of dark chocolate and orange truffles as my NaNo writing treat. They’ve lasted a lot better than I’d feared. I’m not sure if I’ve slowed down my consumption as I’ve gotten used to them, or if I greatly overestimated how fast I was going through them. Because the store sell them in bags of 15, and I got a box of a 150.

My daily reward for getting my words in? Getting to go to bed.

And if I have a spare hour, I’ve been catching up on the new Doctor Who. But really? I’m looking at the December 5th arrival of season two of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel as my reward for making it through NaNoWriMo. 


Confess to me!
Does your writing look like you expected it to?
What about your writing process?

If you’re not a writer, how do you handle deadlines and staying focused?

#28 Query Corner: THE EYE BEGINS TO SEE

Welcome to:

logo5

Morgan’s Query Corner:

Fresh Eyes For Your Query Quandaries

THE EYE BEGINS TO SEE is an upmarket novel that explores the coercive sterilization efforts in America.

When a privileged perfectionist and an ambitious street rat are hair-on-fire-late to their first law-school class and collide, it’s the beginning of a fast friendship. After the women discover a dark link, they must learn to forgive the past in order to embrace their futures.

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:

THE EYE BEGINS TO SEE sounds like an intriguing upmarket story, with a sincere exploration of the sterilization efforts in America, even after WWII.

My main comments are just organizational for the query:

  • Try to keep the query under 300 words.
  • You don’t need to show all your research.
  • You only capitalize names in a synopsis, not queries. But do try to keep the number of names to 4 or fewer.

Querist’s Original:

[my comments are in blue/italics/brackets]

Dear [Mr./Ms. Agent Name Here],

[Personalization.]

The Eye Begins to See, dual narrative complete at 92K words, is upmarket/ book club fiction. A modern examination of eugenics, what it means to be coerced into or secretly sterilized, that will share an audience with Before We Were Yours (Lisa Wingate), Necessary Lies (Diane Chamberlain), and Second Glance (Jodi Picoult).

The story of two women on a parallel journey through Duke Law School discover personal worth and what it means to be enough. BERYL McCLAREN [Capitalized names are for synopsis] is privileged, driven, fearless. And certain she’ll never meet the expectations of her painfully perfect mother. METHEA ‘THEA’ CATTERSON is inner-city Chicago, tough, funny as hell. Brave and determined to escape the streets that devoured her mother and brother. They collide at Duke, hair-on-fire-late to their first class and become fast friends. Thea introduces Beryl to GRAYSON ‘GRAY’ HEGGS and HAZEL TANAKA. Gray is charming and hot nough to melt stone. He might be serious about Beryl, but falling in love with your best friend’s honorary brother could be a mistake. Hazel is an elegant Zen waif with a passion for gardening and an incalculable capacity for fostering community and compassion. She’s also the life-partner Thea never expected to meet. [This is a little heavy into synopsis]

Both women, after walking the long and sometimes heartbreaking path to personal and professional realization, find themselves buried by dozens of archived documents alleging eugenic sterilization authorized by the state of North Carolina. The search reveals a potential and startling link between Beryl and Thea: DR. HARPER ENDRISS, the nightmare they never saw coming.

Most states ended forced sterilization after World War II. North Carolina, backed by powerful elites including heirs to Procter &amp; Gamble and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, didn’t. More than 7,600 individuals were sterilized during this chapter. However, the topic remains centered on the world stage. The Eugenics Crusade, documentary – PBS (2018); Black Mirror (Men Against Fire) –
Netflix (2016). Prominent scientist Stephen Hawking (2018) predicted widespread use of eugenics to edit traits such as intelligence. Psychology professor Aurelio Figuerdo (AZ) received $458K research dollars (2003-2018) from the estate of pro-eugenics textile magnate, Wickliffe Draper, then used a portion of the funds to attend the 2017 London Conference on Intelligence at
University of London. [You don’t need to show all your research in the query.]

This is my first novel and is a fictionalized version of my experience of sterilization in North Carolina. [I think we can reword a little smoother.]

Thank you for your consideration of representation. [A little blunt.]

Regards,

Q28


My Revision:

Dear Agent,

Thea Catterson’s made it out of inner-city Chicago and into Duke Law School. Determined to escape the streets that devoured her mother and brother, she’s going to have to make friends if she’s going to survive schooling with the elite. And maybe even find a girlfriend.

Beryl McClaren is determined to do her best to meet the expectations of her painfully perfect mother and become the best darn lawyer out there. When she literally collides with Thea, as they’re both hair-on-fire-late to their first class, it’s the beginning of a fast friendship. And that was before she met Thea’s hot, honorary brother. Through school, loves, and loss, the pair is there to support each other. Their professional lives lead them into the dark side of North Carolina’s past — eugenics — and deep in the papers, the friends find another, darker personal connection. The pair must learn to forgive the past or be torn apart by a wrong done before they were born. [Are these the stakes?]

Inspired by true events, The Eye Begins to See is an LGBT [since I took out the reference earlier. Oh wait, I just tried to add some back in] dual narrative upmarket/book club novel, complete at 92K words. It is a modern examination of eugenics and what it means to be coerced or secretly sterilized that will share an audience with Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours, Diane Chamberlain’s Necessary Lies, and Jodi Picoult’s Second Glance. [see if you can pick 2. And if you move this back up top, I’d remove the ‘inspired by true events part, or work it in later. Unless you’re marketing this as a memoir, I wouldn’t launch with that.]

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Yours Sincerely,

Q28

 


And with a few tweaks to make sure their voice showed through, here’s the final version.

Dear Agent,

[Personalization.]

Beryl McClaren is privileged, driven, and certain she’ll never meet the expectations of her painfully perfect mother. Thea Catterson is inner-city Chicago-tough, funny as hell, and determined to escape the streets that devoured her mother and brother. They collide at Duke, hair-on-fire-late to their first class, and become fast friends. Through excruciating coursework, love and loss, they support each other to the finish line to achieve their dreams.

Beryl detours into an unexpected relationship and must escape the shackles of unimaginable abuse to right her course. Thea must repair the damage her family’s endured following the violent death of the junkie mother she never knew, bringing her face-to-face with the drug-dealing brother she thought she left behind. Beryl and Thea walk an arduous, heartbreaking path – a journey to enough. As public prosecutors, they land on a collision course toward a truth to rock their world. In 2003, drowning in heart-wrenching archives confirming unwanted and often clandestine eugenic sterilizations. The pair discovers a darkly startling link that binds them: Dr. Harper Endriss, a nightmare they never saw coming. The challenge? Forgive the past in order to embrace the future.

Most states abandoned forced sterilization after World War II. North Carolina did not. Almost 7,700 individuals were sterilized during this chapter in the state’s history. This topic remains centered on the world stage – The Eugenics Crusade, PBS (2018), Black Mirror (Men Against Fire) Netflix (2016), Stephen Hawking’s (2018) prediction of widespread use of eugenics to edit traits such as intelligence.

Inspired by true events, The Eye Begins to See is a dual narrative upmarket/book club novel, complete at 92K words.  It is a modern examination of eugenics and what it means to be coerced into or secretly sterilized that will share an audience with Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours, Diane Chamberlain’s Necessary Lies, and Jodi Picoult’s Second Glance.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Regards,

Q28

 

An intense story of adulthood and dealing with consequences of the darker side of things.

Best of luck to Q28!


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

Finding Your Own Pace: A Writer’s Struggle

Finding Your Own Pace: A Writer’s Struggle

All writers work differently, but since I started with NaNoWriMo, I’ve come to look at NaNo as my novel kick-off season. Even if it takes me months and months after to finish the story, (not to mention editing, revising, and querying the sucker) I can get at least the first 50,000 words out. Usually.
When it comes to daily word targets, like NaNoWriMo encourages, I’ve run the gamut.
For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo sets the goal at 50,000 words– approximately 200 pages which is a bit short for a novel. Which breaks down to 1,666 words per day, or about 6 pages.

Pick Your Pace

I’ve failed NaNo, won NaNo by the skin of my teeth, and done 75k one glorious November. Different stories, voices, and points-of-view write faster or slower for me.Some writers wait for the spirit to be upon them and crank out 30,000 words in a weekend. Some write 5-6k on the weekends and a couple hundred on the occasional workday.

This might be you!

Me? Not so much.

As I’ve talked about before, I’m not a sprinter, I’m a marathoner, but 1,666 words is usually achievable for me. With the right story? I can hit an average of 2,500 words per day.

But.

I can only do it by writing EVERY DAY. If I wait until the weekend to sprint? I’m doomed.

I have NEVER written two-NaNo days worth of words (3,332) in a single day. If I get more than 1 or 2 days behind, I cannot catch up.
Left on my own, when it’s not November, I set daily word count goals (or at least weekly ones), but my writing pace (fit in around my day job) is approximately half-the-speed of a NaNo.

If you’ve never NaNo-ed before (look, I verbed it!), it can seem daunting. And it feels like there are just people who can commit and do it, and people who can’t.

But just because I’ve “won” NaNoWriMo once (by hitting that 50k target before midnight on November 30th), doesn’t mean I always win.

My Past NaNoWriMo’s

I’ve rebelled with half-Nano’s, spent a November edited instead. I’ve started to draft a sequel, but it petered out. My first NaNo win was my 3rd NaNo attempt — at writing the exact same book.
Two years ago, I did that nano-and-a-half in November. It was a sequel, so I knew the world and the characters, and how the magic works. Plus? My life was pretty settled that month.

 

Last year? I started a new job, had a full outline I wanted to follow because my story was a Robin Hood variant, and I barely squeaked out my words.

When my life is settled, I commit and focus — that’s what it takes for me to win NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo18

This year? I’ve got a very rough outline that I need to revamp for the age range I’m writing for.

My story involves school-aged kids dealing with parents. So, that means middle grade or younger. YA typically are coming-of-age stories, where they have adventures without adults.

In prep, I’ve already created a list of about 50 names that fit my world, so I can grab and go. Left to my own devices, picking a name for a character can take longer than my daily allotment of time for writing.

But, placeholder names don’t really work for me. Remember that nano-and-a-half I mentioned? It’s filled with 30 place-holder names and is sitting as a rough draft on my googleDrive. (No offense, but Alice, Bob, Carol, and the invaders from Canadia don’t actually fit my fantasy world’s aesthetic.) I’ve gotta admit, it feels pretty daunting to fix.

I’ve got a few obstacles:

  • I’ve never written for this age range
    • so I’m not familiar with writing at this pacing.
  • I’ve never written a story in this world
    • so I’ll be having to think through the intricacies of the world as I go.
  • Plus, I’ve got a day-job deadline coming up.
  • It might end up being a chapter book
    • Those are typically around 20,000 words.
    • If that’s the case, what do I do?
      • write 2 novels? Start a series?
      • or call it a day

So now? The only way for me to find out what happens to those cool characters I’ve got half-formed in my head though? Is to write it!