Have you ever gotten feedback from someone who you respect, saying they hated your work? They liked the idea, but think you should have done it a completely different way?
No? Just me?
Recently, I submitted a couple of short stories to different markets, but after a pair of quick rejections, I sent them to friends for another look. Most of the feedback was along the same lines, so I looked at what I could fix and what I couldn’t.
But for the reader who hated the story? We sat down and talked about what they did and didn’t like about the story.
The real issue was the set-up — it was a horror/suspense sort of story and I was giving away too much too soon.
That was entirely in line with other feedback I’d had, although more precise in what parts worked, versus what parts should be changed.
So? I sat on that for a week. I pouted. I thought. I considered if these were even changes I wanted to make.
But my knee-jerk reaction (for once) wasn’t “they don’t get my story”, it was more of a, “I don’t wanna!” mixed with “How do I do that? While making sure the ending is still properly supported” (i.e. doesn’t seem to come out of nowhere).
Last night? I sat down to start on the changes, taking out the heavy foreshadowing (easily found in italics, on their own lines). And replaced those instances with more subtle hints at what lay ahead.
Fifteen minutes later? I was done.
I still need to do a re-read, to make sure the updates are smooth. I still need a second set of eyes (maybe fresh ones to make sure the ending wasn’t too abrupt), but this huge change? That seemed like massive structural issue?
With a few short line changes, I fixed it.
Remember when setting something up in your writing, be it foreshadowing, backstory, world-building, or more — oftentimes, less is more. You only need enough to spark the imagination and flesh out the world. Not enough to slow the story.
Have you ever been intimidated by a suggested change you agreed probably needed to happen in your work?
Were you ever surprised at how little you needed to change your story to make a completely different impression on the reader?
Some people work with partners. And some people like to work with their romantic partner. But whether you’re romantically involved or not, there’s techniques that could work for you.
At WorldCon2019, Heidi Goody led the working couples of Peter Morwood and Diane Duane, plus Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner in discussing how to maintain working and romantic relationships — with the same person.
Maintain Separate Offices
In rural Ireland, Duane’s office is the living room and Morwood’s is the second bedroom.
When they’re working on a project together, they stay in their room and don’t talk. When it’s time to fraternize or collaborate, they meet in the kitchen.
In New York City, Sherman and Kushner mostly write separately — by hand — in their studies on opposite sides of the apartment. (They left Boston because they were “tired of being the most colorful couple in the room.”) They like to take long walks and discuss character building, writing theory, or whatever they’re working on.
Both couples find it hard to stop talking shop, but Sherman and Kushner find it helps to have other passions.
Duane and Morwood’s biggest interruptions are the neighbor’s loud sheep. Known to the neighbors as “The Trekkie’s”, they’re considered boring because they don’t raise sheep or horses.
How Their Writing Partnerships Began
On Morwood and Duane’s honeymoon, her book was late, so they wrote it together. It helps that Duane is a big outliner, especially for screen. As she says, screen writing is very formulaic.
For Sherman and Kushner, a year or so after they moved in together, they learned to negotiate through writing. But for them, it is the ‘Spirit of Fun!’ Like playing Barbies together.
Sharing Drafts and Blending Portions
Some people consider their drafts sacred, others see theirs as horrible piles of —
Duane never shows her rough draft to another human soul. The next draft though is fine.
Morwood doesn’t count how many drafts he goes through. As he says, “I’m a professional.”
Sherman and Kushner typically have interweaving plotlines, with Kushner woking on the more social scenes, while Sherman works on the academic ones (when they started collaborating, she had just graduated and had scores to settle.)
When writing each other’s characters, the other keeps the veto power. They do their best to keep personal ego out of the story — only really argueing over semicolons.
When it comes time to edit, Sherman reads aloud to Kushner, her bits and the printouts. Although, Sherman is stronger on description, while Kushner does dialogue, when they revise drafts, they overwrite each other. By 5 drafts in it’s fully blended.
Morwood and Duane work together similarly. Plus, they’re pretty good literary mimics. One usually has veto power. Duane is best at plotting and screen writing. Morwood has veto power on fight scenes and tactics.
Just remember when collaborating, there are competing needs for validation, love, and “listen to MY story.”
Music to Collaborate to?
Duane stopped listening to music — it interfered with her dialogue. But movies work fine for her as background.
Kushner used to listen to music, although it couldn’t be in English or had to be something she knew inside and out. Now, she writes at home in silence.
Morwood listens to tons of things, but turns off his Audible when writing dialogue. He likes to have Dragon Naturally Speaking play back his dialogue to him.
Sherman and Duane both like to write in cafes, with that background chatter, gathering faces for characters. If Sherman can’t have that, she needs complete silence.
When deadlines are piling up, Duane will go to a friend’s flat in the middle of no-where-Switzerland for weeks, while Kushner will head off to a friend’s house. The change of location helps with productivity. No chores — or partner — around to distract.
Collaboration can be a tricky beast. Have you worked on a collaborative work? What techniques worked best for you?
Have you worked with a romantic partner? Did it strain your relationship?
All writers who want to share their work with the world want to be published. Some want to self-publish while others would prefer to have the backing — and distribution — of a publishing house.
At the titular panel at WorldCon 2019, George Sandison, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Rachel Winterbottom, E.C. Ambrose, and Michelle Sagara talked about the realities of traditional publishing — when you’re not an A-list author.
The Top 3 Ways Writers Make It Hard On Themselves When Getting Published
Quitting their dayjob
A publishing contract is great! It’s a huge amount of money. But, look at it as a year’s salary (or 5 years). There is no guarantee your next book will find the same market — or that your current book will perform as well as the publishers hope.
If you get an advance, there are shockingly few authors who ever “earn out” — or make back for the publishing house — what the publishing house gave them.
Many authors see their advances getting smaller and smaller, until they reflect what the market will give.
Of course it’s always best to write what you’re most passionate about. If you’re forcing the writing, it usually comes through to the readers as a lack-lustre book.
That said, if you change genres and markets, it can be like building your audience from scratch. Except, without the “like”. you ARE building your audience from scratch.
Getting the wrong agent
If you get a contract before you have an agent, it is usually very easy to find an agent. It is always wise to get an agent or contract lawyer to look over your publishing contract, but unless the lawyer specializes in book sales, the agent will likely be better versed in industry standards — what’s expected and what’s not.
That said, make sure you know if the agent you’re working with is invested in your career, or just here to help you through this single contract. Misunderstandings can leave your career in shambles.
Is It Three Strikes and You’re Out?
Usually, what it looks like from the writers’ end is…
Your first novel? Floats on clouds of hope and optimism — and the traditional publisher advance reflects this.
Your second novel? Well, they like to give writers second chances.
Your third novel? Good luck.
The reality is that publishers need to sell a writer and their voice, not necessarily just one genre. Plenty of authors have more than one type of story in them.
Typically, writers query agents, and agents submit manuscripts to acquiring editors. Occasionally, some publishing houses will be open to unagented submissions. But, once you’ve sold a book or two, a working-relationship can evolve.
Acquiring Editors Can Work For An Author
Editors that select works for publication at publishing houses can have working relationships as close as an agent with a given writer.
And, of course, the more senior the editor, the more clout they have when it comes to deciding what gets published.
Here are 4 ways they can help a writer.
They can go to bat for your novel, versus the publishing board, even if the numbers aren’t there. (i.e. We messed up marketing last time, but this writer is too good!)
Publishers can pitch ideas internally, and bring in the author they want to write it.
Even after a slump, if your pitch is keen enough, they can get you an offer.
Some have success changing by-lines, to re-introduce authors to new audiences.
But sometimes? You need to walk away.
Reasons to find a new publisher
Sometimes, a new publisher is what you need after a slump. The old one has already used all it’s connections and marketing techniques. It’s time to try something new.
Sometimes, the editor you’ve worked with leaves and no one has the passion for the manuscripts they left behind.
But not everything relies on the publisher. There’s a lot you can do to make sure you’re ready for the market.
Ways To Set Yourself Up For Success
Network Make friends in the industry. Hit conventions (if you have the time/energy but no money — volunteer! Or, you can just keep reading my notes).
But, be sure you’re making a good impression when you do. Everyone knows somebody here, so be friendly but respectful of boundaries.
Be prepared Rejection stinks. Seeing friends (or frenemies) succeed while your novel is passed over hurts — whether you’re at the “hoping for an agent” level, “hoping to publish” level, or the “hoping for awards” stage.
Know that you aren’t alone. Know what you need to keep your passion from burning out.
Read! Write! Ignore jealousy. Or acknowledge it — and then move on.
Don’t give up the day job Even if you do get a huge contract, or tons of steady ones, fear of bills and falling behind can put too much pressure on you, and take away the love of the writing. Remember to take care of yourself.
Age doesn’t matter, but financial security can affect your approach.
Remember what you’re comparing When you see social media feeds and think about all the ways you don’t measure up? You’re comparing their highlight reels to your blooper reel. Take a break if you need to. Step away if you need to.
How does maternity/health leaves of absences affect your career?
If you’re writing on a schedule, know this: 1. Publishing schedules are flexible – but… 2. Write first — as much as possible, if the leave is scheduled, and drop everything you can to make it happen.
If you don’t have a schedule, it’s up to you.
Should I self-publish?
The more niche your book it, the more successful it could be as a self-published book.
What does it take to succeed as a writer?
Ideas are a dime a dozen, it’s all about the writing.
Can you write a sentence? How about a paragraph? A chapter? Can you plot?
There is a huge cliff between a great book and a ho-hum, not bad book. Most are ho-hum.
You know stories need stakes. You know you need to get your readers to care. So? You try to make the stakes big enough and scary enough to drive the story forward. But you don’t HAVE to traumatize characters — or readers — to advance your story.
From the titular panel at Balticon53, Jean Marie Ward, Eric Hardenbrook, Steven Wilson, Jamaila Brinkley, and Mattie Brahen shared their tips and tricks.
Conflict versus Trauma
We all know that stories thrive on conflict. If everyone is in agreement, marching forward, you don’t have much of a story.
So, what’s the difference? When you boil it down to their core:
when two or more entities have opposing goals — or at least, not-aligned ones
a change that damages you
Now, a caveat: There isn’t a one-size-fits-all definition of what is traumatic. Thanks to people’s pasts, their mental health, and their current emotional state, what is traumatic to one person may be fine for another person.
Where Some People Draw The Line
This is clearly not a comprehensive list, but the panelists shared their following lines.
Explicit sexual abuse
Kids shoved out of windows
Killing the cat/dog
How To Raise the Stakes
Without trauma, what are other ways you can raise the stakes?
Handling with their expectations
Dealing with the family history and fraught relationships
Human versus nature (or space) is a classic story of stakes.
Trying not to disappoint people
Satisfying the needs of different people
Handling emotional baggage — the main characters OR those they love
Take them away from their friends or family — this can be as serious as fleeing in the night or as light hearted as a RomCom
If You Do Include Trauma: What About ‘Trigger Warnings’?
On one hand – Books shouldn’t shy away from hard topics. Sometimes, trauma is exactly what needs to be worked through in a story. Plus, you don’t want to give away spoilers!
On the other, there people are dealing with depression and loss and are trying to avoid stories about suicides. Or have dealt with miscarriages and find it upsetting to read about them.
Since we’re talking about books, and the characters being traumatized are usually the main characters — we typically get to watch them work through their trauma, grow and manage to move past it. (Or, become Batman.) And seeing that healing can be good for people.
However – dealing with that can be exhausting, especially with a good writer and an immersive story.
Especially in genre fiction, people are looking for escape from the real world. And there’s plenty of books that offer that without triggering content — if the reader knows where to look.
Clearly, one cannot give a trigger warning about everything that might be traumatic to anyone. But, some are some triggers implicit in certain genres – like suspense, or thrillers, or military fiction.
Personally, I think there are ways of writing blurbs that can hint at the content within. We already rate these things for movies.
When books are used in schools, they often have themes listed, I think we should be able to do that.
Mine would probably be something like: “This book deals with themes of: religion, magic, suicide ideation, violence, and the killing of both humans and animals.” Then again, I’m mostly writing young adult, so letting libraries and teachers know can help them know if my book is right for their freshman class, or if they should save it for their seniors.
Clearly, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. This one is mine.
Once you’ve decided that your story should include traumatic events, you need to look at who you’re traumatizing.
This is obviously not always the case, but very often, when you look at which characters are being traumatized in books, you can see a pattern. It’s not usually the man in authority. It’s the woman. The person of color. The lgbtqa character.
Is this due to cultural biases about who can be traumatized? Maybe. It’s impossible to know.
There are obvious exemptions from this: look at Iron Man and his phobias.
But, if you’re traumatizing women, people of color, non-cis het characters in order to motivate your main character? You’ve fallen into what is known as the “fridging” trope — named after a Green Lantern comic where his girlfriend was killed and shoved in a fridge just to motivate him.
Try to do better. It’s lazy writing, overdone, and often done to a 2-dimensional character.
Moving Beyond Trauma
Can limiting characters, through trauma or otherwise, make them stronger?
It makes for a more compelling story. We’re drawn to stories of people overcoming obstacles. Just be sure to avoid stereotypes — like the brave little disabled kid, who, with relentless optimism, overcomes ALL obstacles.
But without limits, there’s no conflict.
Be certain that you’re giving your traumatized characters agency to make decisions — not just react to what you do to them.
Captain America dealt with his trauma through altruism.
Black Widow dealt with hers by devoting herself to her job.
Which brings us to the flip side, you can give characters advantages — and regrets about what they had to give up to get them.
I know these notes covered array of topics, some only tangentially related to the premise. But, it’s good to remember that stakes don’t always have to be paid in flesh and blood.
Let me know what you think! Do you hate the idea of sharing themes about your novel? Do you have a better method in mind? Do you have some ideas of new ways to raise the stakes — without destroying your character’s psyche?
NOTE: Opinions are welcome, as are discussions, but I’m not going to argue with people. I know I’m unlikely to sway your mind.
Doomsday cults have been around for a long time, probably since the dawn of civilization. Writers and readers alike have found them endlessly fascinating. But, what motivates someone to start a doomsday cult? And why do people join?
In the titular panel, Gail Z. Martin, Lisa Hawkridge, Tom Doyle, and Darrell Schweitzer discuss real world cults and how to apply them to your writing.
Who Starts Doomsday Cults?
No two doomsday cults are the same, but many leaders share similar traits.
A charismatic leader
A need for control
A professed conviction that something is wrong in society
The ability to turn anything into a sign that they were right
Why Do People Join Doomsday Cults?
For those who have never been involved in a cult, it can seem fascinating and curious, but humans aren’t that complicated.
Typically, people feel drawn to doomsday cults when they are in a transitory period in their lives
Ending a relationship
Death of an immediate family member
Often people who have suffered personal trauma are vulnerable, especially to someone who says they have the answers
They want to believe, and feel that by joining, they will be able to avoid death. Or have a clean death. Or be rewarded in the afterlife.
People enjoy feeling smarter/better/more pious than everyone else.
The peace of not having to make a decision can be addictive.
And some were simply born into cults.
The 5 Stages Of A Doomsday Cult
Recruiting and preaching. Doomsday is often about 30 years out, because it’s not too immediate, but a generation is soon enough to feel like you should care.
Members are encouraged to give away their worldly belongings, and donate their money and services to the “good of the cult.”
Isolate the members from normal society and other opinions.
People start to see cracks in the leader’s story, but because of the sunk-cost fallacy, often don’t want to admit to themselves, (or others), that they were duped.
What Happens After Doomsday?
When doomsday arrives and nothing happens, the leaders and the followers are left with few options.
The leaders can make something happen
Jonesville – Revolutionary suicide – they drank the “kool aid”
Aum Shinrikyo – the leaders secretly set off the sarin attacks in Tokyo, causing the ‘end times chaos’ that the faithful expected.
The followers may turn to violence
Turn on the leaders – riot, etc
The leaders may double-down
Claim this was ‘a test of our faith’
Declare they miscalculated, and move the date out a few years
The followers can outlive the leader
Either it slowly falls apart into nothing OR
It becomes a religion (7th Day Adventists, some say the Mormons, others say Christianity)
A lot to think about, but somehow simpler than it feels it should be.
Note, most doomsday cults take something from reality, some tiny grain of truth, and preach it through the looking glass. Understanding what factors go into real world doomsday cults can help you create people and worlds that contain them. And remember, when writing your own doomsday cult, you need something that is believable, truth can be stranger than fiction.
Anything the panel ran out of time to mention? Anything I got wrong?
Let me know how YOU’VE incorporated doomsday cults in your writing. And your favorite fictional cult you’ve read!
And stay tuned as I share more writing tips from the over-24-hours-of-programming I hit at Balticon53.