Elise Carlson

A Fantasy Author's Adventures in Fiction & Life

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World Building: Power & Conflict

When I develop ideas for a new fantasy series, I think first of the overall conflict, the positions the point of view characters occupy in their world, what forms of power they wield, and what role they can play in the story’s epic conflict. (Yes, I very approach this from an epic fantasy perspective, so you may need to adapt how you apply these ideas). In discussing power and conflict in world building, I’ll walk you through my thought process of identifying multiple forms of power and influence various characters, traditions, international bodies and more your world may contain and help you start thinking how these may impact on your story’s conflict.

Power and Tradition

Approaching world building as a history major, I’m very much aware of the contribution tradition can make to the status quo. So how much weight do societies in your world give tradition? Does it determine whose head of households? Or people’s seniority based on birth, or skills they utilise in the home and or village? Does tradition govern gender expectations? Are attitudes towards people of different skills, social classes, nationalities or religious beliefs determined by tradition? And what are the social and political consequences for anyone who defies traditions?

Specific Traditions

Is government based on traditions of patriarchal or matriarchal dynasties? Does your world include regional governors or nobility who inherit their positions due to traditions of feudalism/ monarchy/ imperial rule?

Do traditions protect or prohibit slavery, serfdom or indentured servants? Does it preserve a hierarchy of increasing privilege for a few elites, or equal rights and or opportunity? Are rights equal and opportunity available to everyone, or just people of certain skills, abilities or political, religious or magical status?

Is there a tradition of Elders or Town Councillors gaining status via their life experience, and local or cultural knowledge? Does tradition determine who teaches the young in the village/ family about their people’s ways?

How does tradition impact on foreign relations? Does it promote fair trade and treating foreigners as equals, or is it imperialist, viewing foreigners as inferiors or worse as subhuman?

In what ways do traditions in your world benefit or disadvantage each member of society? eg. who has the road of least resistance to career choices and positions of power, the path of least resistance to personal and social content, and how has tradition shaped either path?

Resistance

If tradition, whether by social class, gender, religion, foreign conquest or other disempowers any one group, do they organise? Do they gather and form a resistance? To whom or which interests do such groups appeal? What resources, knowledge and experience do they gather? How much power do they have? Whom do they wish to improve life for, and what forms of persuasion and or power do they wield as they seek it? How does tension between resistance groups, people who are neither resistance nor in power, and people in power play out?

Two long-necked, wide-winged birds locked in aerial combat above the sea.
Photo by Chris Sabor on Unsplash

Power Through Religion

What’s the power balance between religion and the state? Do priests advise the ruler/ government? Does organised religion have its own rival agenda to politicians? Or do you have a theocratic government?

Are gods a real, physical presence in your world? How does their presence increase or decrease the power of their ranking and ordinary followers?

Republics

Whether a region of your world is small (eg. a city-state), or whether its intergalactic, is there a republic? And if so, is there radical democracy like ancient Rome, where any ordinary citizen can be elected to a council which passes laws, determines policy, declares war etc? Are their gender, religious, social status, ethnic, national, magical or other limitations on who can be elected to a democratic body which governs people?

Is there a tendency for a certain social class (perhaps a wealthy or well resourced one) to dominate the elected governing body? What tensions does this cause within the government? What tensions does it cause among the governed? Eg, do government policies tend to favour people of a certain rank, or who inhabit certain regions, and neglect others? Is it all about exploiting the regions, the outer territories/ outskirts of the empire for the good of the imperial capital/ centre/ planet?

Regional Power

Are some territories in your world wealthier? Are some militarily strongly or technologically better equiped? How do differences like these influence the balance of power across continents? Is there an empire or colonial power who dominates wherever they travel? Do some rulers greet each other as equals, and are some client rulers to more powerful rulers?
Are some countries dominating trade and or control of natural resources? Are there countries with failed governments who cannot control their borders, and are being exploited by other powerful countries, or criminal organisations?

How do differences in power between cities, or countries, foster international co-operation (and between who and excluding who)? And between which countries do power imbalances generate tension and lead to war (hot, open war or cold by proxy or guerrilla warfare)? And should war beckon, which geographical entities will ally with whom, against whom?

International Bodies

Political

Was there a time when multiple nations had cause to unite with a goal of protecting human rights across nations/ countries/ continents/ galaxies? Is there an international body representing people of all countries —a U.N. equivalent? What kinds of decisions is it authorised to make? Does it have a police force? An army? A judiciary? Is it symbolic and paying lip service to international values, is it hindered by powerful countries or other entities, or is it the greatest power in your world? What powers does it have -if any- over individual countries, and what tensions and conflicts of interest can this result in?

Religious

Do religions have international organisational structure? Is there a hierarchy and any one place considered to be that religion’s capital? Is there a single person who heads any one religion? What influence do religious organisations wield internationally in your world? Who funds them? How well resourced are they? Do they come into conflict with, are they endangered by or a threat to any particular country or group within it?

Magical

Is there an international magical or technological body that governs magic and or technology? How it is organised and where is it based globally/ galactically? On what terms is it with each nation? Are their nations who fear and reject magic or technology, and who refuse to have anything to do with such an organisation? Can its members be hired out, to work for countries or groups within them? Whether that’s legal or not, does it still happen?

Organised Crime

Is organised crime limited to cities, and countries or do some crime groups organise, resource and expand to the point they become international organisations? Are they in conflict with particular countries or authorities? Eg. a country’s government, an international body, or a particular religion?

Power Through Magic

Is a person’s magical ability what determines their status, legal and other privileges in life? Do you have an institution which trains people in magic? Is it controlled by politicians or religious authorities? Or is it autonomous?

Are powerful magic wielders pawns of the state, privileged state employees, or did they rise up and seize power for themselves? Or can everyone wield magic of some sort? Do the government and police have magic wielders among them, and is it an aid, and or cause/tool of warfare and conflict?

Power Through Technology

Do you have an empire with chariots, bronze suits of armour and iron weapons fighting naked soldiers armed with weapons of wood and bone? Bronze armour combating catapults, long bows and iron armour? Or higher tech vs. low tech? Does technology give a particular kingdom or empire the advantage and lead to attempts at a mass expansion and conquest or colonisation? Does space age tech lead one particular nation or group to dominate space colonisation in any region of any galaxy?

Power To Influence Through Advising Decision Makers

Having written a main character whose a ruler, I’m very aware of the importance of these side characters and their influence on events in Umarinaris, my fantasy world. So does anyone in certain positions have the respect of their people and or leaders? Do magicians advise rulers in how to combat magic? Do physicians or healers advise how to combat plague? Is there a person in each household versed in basic first aid, and homemade cures consulted for medical support? And in any of these situations of advising and influence, do any of these people exploit their position or distort advice they give to pursue their personal interests?

Masters

If your world has slavery or servitude, how much power does your legal system grant masters over slaves? Can they beat them? Kill them? Is the latter a crime? Is the penalty for killing a slave merely a fine (as it often was in the ancient world)? Are slaves well treated and considered part of the family, or are they mistreated and likely to seize the first sign of family weakness to escape, or rebel?

Same question for servants -are they treated with respect, decency and loyal to the family they serve? Or do they serve with resentment, fear or anger? How does this impact tension or conflict in your fantasy world?

Educators

Who educates the young? Are the children of wealthy people privately educated by scholars? Are schools open to all children, or —if you have a more Bronze Age civilisation— is literacy only required for people working for the government, and do only the children of the ruling class go to school? As I suggested in the Tradition section above, is it stories by Elders or certain members of the family who teach most children how to behave and the ways of their people?

Privately or publicly, who are your educators? Scholars? Governesses? Priests/ priestesses? Do they have political or religious teachings, or do they encourage the children they educate to decide for themselves which side they think is ‘right’ in societal, political, racial, religious or familial disputes?

Allies

Whether your main character is a servant or works for national government, do they have allies? Is it a single person of the same status and power? An organisation? Individuals of different rank and power within the same government/ kingdom/ organisation? Do alliances threaten or force power structures in your world to adapt? Whether that be a middle class allying with people of higher political or religious rank to campaign for more rights, or international alliances ganging up on another country or forcing an international body to make concessions, or even going to war with it. And do allies continuously support, or splinter off and become enemies where conflicts reach a point when point when their goals and or needs differ or conflict?

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Further Reading/ Viewing

Just in case I haven’t given you enough food for thought, here’s some more world-building blogs.

Geography considers how geography may influence everything from general and defensive architecture, to water supply, heating, farming and how geography may connect to religious beliefs, sacred spaces and magic.

Humanoid Life offers suggestions on how physical things like clothing, food, work, pastimes, family life, legal status and opportunities may differ among social classes and offers food for thought on sexual and gender diversity.

Cultures asks probing questions about The Arts, Science, Religion and death.

Six Sources of Conflict for Your World gives you more ideas on what people in your world may be fighting about.

Where Fantasy World Come From, a multi author interview on what inspired their fantasy worlds.

Editing a Novel: Scene & Line Edit Tips

Before delving into specific novel editing tips, I’ll state clearly for anyone who stumbled across this blog in search of a fiction editing start point, DON’T start here. This blog assumes all of your characters are fully developed (including your antagonist, whether its a person or an internal or external force). So if there’s any chance they’re not, I suggest reading my Character Development Checklists. If your characters and overall story structure are good to go, its time to check your writing is clear and engaging in each scene and line. Read on for a list of the main scene and line edit tips I’ve given fellow writers feedback on, as their critical reader.

Novel Scene Level Edit Tips

Orient the reader first

Yes, adjectives, similes, imagery, metaphors etc can enrich your setting and help your writing pull a reader into a scene. But before you throw lots of scenic details at the reader, give them a chance to get orientated. Show them who is where, show a bit of that character via what that person is doing, then drip feed in some scenic details. Be wary of obscuring your main character and the role they’re playing in the opening scene by bombarding the reader with too much scenic detail.

Count Your Cast

On the same note, don’t have your office worker greet every co-worker by name as they enter the office. (And if you have a party in the first few chapters, limit who your main character interacts with to significant characters only, not half the guest list). Naming, let alone describing too many characters before they start playing an active role in the story can jumble people together in the reader’s head. If the reader doesn’t have a clear sense of who’s who, it can be extremely difficult to follow what’s happening in the opening scene (or what the book is about when successive chapters are overcrowded with named characters).

Try to give the reader time with the first point of view character you introduce, and bring other cast members on set gradually, preferably as each does something typical of themself and or contributes to the plot. That will make your characters easier to remember, and your main story easier to follow.

And literally keep a count of how many characters you name. In epic fantasy in particular, with multiple pov characters who have family, friends etc, its easy to create a named cast in the hundreds, even though Susan the maid’s only role is to open the curtains in scene three. Don’t name Susan. Just call her ‘the maid.’ If you’ve got minor characters who don’t appear often but do perform necessary on-screen roles, refer to them by role, or relationship to a more important character. Eg. ‘Barry’s cousin.’

Description and Action or Pacy Scenes

If you’re writing an action scene, or a tense or otherwise fast pace —drop the scenic details. Omit them entirely. In first or close third-person narration, the pov character is unlikely to note the type of metal, decorative style and likely national origins of the sword slashing at their face —they’re too busy trying not to get their head split open. And writing that way isn’t just about plausibly narrating a character’s view point. Detailed scenic descriptions can obscure rapid events or key conversations the reader is trying to follow.

Action Scenes

They happen fast. So write short sentences. Think powerful verbs, not adverbs. Narrate action at the speed it unfolds. And remember: your character doesn’t have time to notice much. So don’t wax poetic.

Point of View Consistency

Is every sentence in that character’s pov chapter really from their point of view? Or is Tim noticing things about Geoff that only Geoff would notice (or even know)? Or did we open the scene through Sarah’s eyes, then end up floating vaguely over her head, seeing everyone and everything?

Did you write mostly in close third person, but write the occasional sentence in which you as the narrator pass moral judgement on the scene (suddenly switch to third person omniscient)? Any one of these things can make a scene jarring for a reader, or even pull them out of your story.

Telling Feelings, Instead of Showing them

When you see Tom hunch over, his hands protectively clasping a newly forged sword, as if shielding it and himself from his master screaming: Can’t you get anything right?” you feel more for Tom than if I said: his master’s relentless criticisms made Tom feel small.
Yes ‘show don’t tell’ may have been pushed too indiscriminately as writer advice, but showing character feelings makes invites readers to connect with and emotionally invest in your characters. Its part of what persuades readers to stick with characters, seeing them through their challenges (or to see a villain get their comeuppance). A popular resource to help you choose physical reactions or internal sensations to describe to show your character’s emotions is The Emotion Thesaurus, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

Hands typing on a silver keyboard, a put plant, glasses, a phone and two pencils artfully arranged on one side of the round white table.
 Photo by Corinne Kutz 

Line Edit Tips

Before we zoom in on line level, try to resist perfecting the dialogue, dialogue tags and scenic descriptions of chapter four. Because when you get to chapter five, you’re going to realise that most of chapter four is info dumping and you’ll delete most of it, and merge its remnants with chapter five.
If you’re a pantser or plantser like myself, you may re-read and do some edits while drafting, to keep the story on track and ensure it does arrive at its ending. You may quickly fix typos that hurt your eyes, or the odd sentence so mangled you simply can’t leave it. But try not to get bogged down about how this sentence is phrased, or how the word choices in that bit of dialogue don’t quite match that character’s personality. First, judge whether or not that scene is purposeful, is worthy of remaining in your novel, well paced, and that the only thing you now need to do with it is refine it at word level.

Personal Pronoun Clarity

My golden rule with pronouns, especially if you’re writing a nonbinary character using they/ them/ their or other pronouns is: the most recently named character is the character the personal pronouns belong to.

Eg. It’s not: She didn’t want to clean her room. She said, ‘Clean it now!’ because this sounds like the same woman arguing with herself. You need to state clearly that it was Sarah who didn’t want to clean her room, and Mum who said, “Clean it now!”

This is even more important if sometimes “they” means those men and women, and sometimes “they” means that nonbinary person. If your nonbinary character and their friend of whatever gender are doing something together, I sometimes say ‘the pair did x,’ after naming both. You could also use collective nouns instead of ‘they’. Eg. ‘the students,’ ‘the workers’ ‘the friends’ etc. Another option is ze/zir or other personal pronouns for the nonbinary character, so ‘they’ as a group of people can’t be confused with ‘they’ the individual nonbinary person.

Repetition

Have you used the same noun ten words apart? Eg. She slung her bag over her shoulder. She stuffed the potion ingredients into the bag. Is the bag important, is the potion important, is packing the bag important, or is it the fact she’s delivering a mind-reading potion to the Prime Minister that matters?
Keep an eye out for when you’ve accidentally repeated words that don’t matter. Those can jar the reader, and prompt them to focus on unimportant things. Similarly, don’t repeat adjectives with nouns unless its really important to the story that the reader remembers that, for example, its a ‘high window’ instead of just a ‘window.’

He clutched at the retreating horse. How would he ever escape now? There was nothing he could do. He was so angry. He was so worried. He was so sick of the author saying ‘he’ repeatedly?.
My personal preference for changing it up here is to alternate between starting a sentence with or using the character’s name in one sentence, and their pronouns in the next. However, when the character is nonbinary and ‘they’ could be plural or singular, I make sure ‘they’ singular always comes after the nonbinary characters’ name, so its clear ‘they’ is my nonbinary main character Ruarnon, as opposed to ‘they’ being Ruarnon AND Ruarnon’s friends.

Dialogue Tags

When its: Earasin says, “Did you get the package?”

And Merador replies, “No.”

Then Erasin says, “What if someone intercepted it?”

And Merador replies, “Then we’re in deep shit”

—there are more dialogue tags than necessary. If this conversation continued between only these two characters, you could break it up with character actions. Example, having Earasin rake his hands through his hair and Merador pace restlessly, instead of relentless ‘said whoever’ or ‘replied the other.’ Or you could drop dialogue tags altogether, because we know who both speakers are and that Erasin speaks first while Merador responds. Ideally, each character significant character has their own style of speech, favourite words etc which remind the reader who is saying which bit of the conversation. (And later in the book we will ideally know that character well enough to have a good idea what they are likely to feel or think in response to story events and that will also help us know who is speaking.)

Dialogue Spacing

As an English teacher (in Australia, England and New Zealand) the rule I’m familiar with is: new speaker =new paragraph. You might have a sentence narrating an action, thought or feeling applied to that speaker afterwards, and perhaps the same speaker speaks again. But if it’s: “Then we’re in deep shit,” Merador replied. Erasin slumped. I’d write it:

“We’re in deep shit,” Merador replied.

Erasin slumped.

With the above paragraphing, its super clear to the reader who said what and who did what. And if your story has a lot going on (especially if there’s lots of characters doing it), paragraphing (or phrasing) events as clearly as possible makes it easier for the reader to not get confused.

Said

Yes, you want to avoid using fancy synonyms for ‘said’ that may pull a reader out of the story, eg. ‘He pontificated.’ So if you’re worried about how many times you’ve said ‘said,’ try substituting it for neutral-sounding words. Eg. ‘asked, suggested, objected.’

Word Choices

Have you used powerful verbs instead of adverbs? Eg. instead of ‘They walked swiftly’ try ‘They rushed/ hurried/ raced.’ This is particularly useful in action scenes when you want fast-paced sentences. It can also help your sentences flow better.

Excess words

There are phrases that require more words to get meaning across, which don’t add any value to sentences. I suggest doing a search and replace for the phrases below and any others your critical readers spot.

Eg. ‘In order to’ =’to.’ ‘Was able to’ =’could.’

Filler words

On the same note, filler words are single words that add to your word count without telling the reader anything they don’t already know and without adding value to a sentence.

Eg. Just, even, turned, only, that (NB. sometimes ‘that’ is necessary for meaning and sometimes it’s merely a filler word, so be mindful of that before you auto-cull it).

Again, do a search for filler words and see how many unnecessary words that removes from your novel. For a list of these, see the second link below.

Filter Words

These are words that remind the reader they are looking through someone else’s eyes, which can make the story feel more distant, or even pull the reader out of the story.

Eg. Sarah looked at Tom who was… vs. Tom was…

‘Felt’ can also remind the reader, ‘this is how character x is feeling,’ ie. ‘you’re not there, you’re not feeling it’. Reminding the reader that they are merely reading can push them away from the character, emotionally distancing them from your writing. This can make the reading experience less emotionally powerful, and less satisfying.

‘Looked’ and ‘felt’ are some good ones to do a search and replace for.

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Further Reading

Character Development Checklists, by me.

9 Tips for the First 5 Pages, by me.

Filter Words and Phrases to Avoid in Fiction, by Anne R. Allen, which categorises filter word lists, and offers suggestions on alternative phrasings.

Writer Pantser Interviews

Confession: the earliest incarnation of Manipulator’s War was not planned. I swiftly created a cast of thousands, moving sometimes with purpose, sometimes without and usually taking too long to get there. I’d imagine a scene or two, then sit down and write —I was a pantser. From the murk emerged main ideas and characters. The rest got deleted and the best re-written, informed by character craft and story structure studies. From there, several rounds of critical reader and editor feedback informed notes that led to a full fleshing out of my characters and story. If your first pantsed novel or two are a mess, what can help you bring structure to pantsing and help you minimise epic edits? I’ll interview three SFF authors below to find out, tracking their journeys from their pantser’s journey from story chaos to a semblance of order.

Book Beginnings

In the beginning, did you have scenes, themes or conflict ideas in mind?

A. E. Bennett: I had an overall idea of where I wanted the story to go and who my characters were, but when I wrote the initial draft of Gathering of the Four, I didn’t have any of what you might call the “meat” of the story. My characters had vague motivations, but nothing concrete to really do, which is I think part of the reason why my first draft was such a mess.

Azalea: I’d have characters and a general idea of certain scenes and plot, but nothing really concrete. I just went for it, with whatever came to mind at the time. I’d usually burn out after a few chapters.

Miriam: I had a general idea of the world I wanted to play in and a few snips of witty banter, that was it.

Did you know your main character, what makes them tick, or how they would grow?

A. E. Bennett: Oh, The Four were well-developed when I started. I already knew what Leora, Roland, Aurora, and Leopold looked like and all about their personalities. What I didn’t have was how to get them from point A to B to C. I was in search of a plot!

Azalea: I thought I had them figured out, but once I moved away from pantsing, it took a lot more planning and deep-diving to actually get into the meat of them. There were some stories I’d tried to write that I had zero idea who they were—I planned to find that out in the first draft.

Miriam: Not at all. I knew the MC was sexy and had wings haha.

Critical Readers

When did you first let a critical reader read your work? 

A. E. Bennett: I sent a version to critique partners before my editor. Some were incredibly helpful, others… not so much. I was new to understanding what makes a good critique partner and I didn’t properly vet some of the folks I sent my work to. Lessons learned!

Azalea: When I started writing Witch in the Lighthouse, it was the first time I tried bullet outlining. It was the first time I felt like I had come to the keyboard prepared, and with some semblance of confidence that I could at least finish a story. It was extremely barebones, but I had made a commitment to myself to bring the novella to completion. I wasn’t even sure it would reach novella status—short story at best. I may have let my critical reader at the time read some early chapters before I completed the first draft, but they definitely helped me work on all the drafts I had after that.

Miriam: I initially made the mistake of letting friends and family critique my work, and none of them had the balls to tell me it was awful. They either thought it was amazing, or were “too busy” to finish it.


How did critical readers help your pantser’s journey produce a well structured book? 

A. E. Bennett: Well, I think the critique partners who helped me the most made me realize that, for something like the epic story I’m writing, pantsing doesn’t really work for me. As I’ve started work on the second book, I’ve realized that I do need an outline and structure in order to make The Serrulata Saga work. I guess you could call me a “reformed pantser” – haha!

Azalea: It wasn’t until I started structuring and writing a general bullet-outline that I started taking writing more seriously, and felt like I was capable of completing a story. Critical readers have helped me strengthen said outlines, however. If I had stuck to pantsing, I don’t think I’d have ever finished a story. I don’t mind being a bit loosey-goosey with chapter outlines at times, but I find the more structured I get, the less work I have in the long run. 

Miriam: Finding people who weren’t afraid to hurt my feelings shot my writing forward, but I would say it was attending writing  conferences that made the real difference in my career. I ended up shelving that pantsed series and plotting something completely new. Working with a group of critical readers is important because all writers have different skills and struggles.

How could you work more efficiently with critical readers?

A. E. Bennett: I’ve gotten much more selective about who I share my work with and whose work I critique with regards to genre. My books don’t appeal to everyone (which is fine, obviously) but I’m not going to get the feedback I need from someone who’s writing high fantasy, when that’s not what I do. I also don’t tend to enjoy critiquing certain genres myself, and I’m much more open about what types of books I will/will not make a good critique partner of. It’s been a learning process! 

Azalea: Knowing what I want out of a read-through/critique helps, and asking for that particular feedback helps everyone stay on the right track. If I feel like a certain area is weak, I try to focus on questions in that area.

Miriam: As Azalea said, know what you want out of a critique. So many times I’ve sent out an early draft looking for plot holes and structural issues, and a reader has fixed the grammar instead. Those readers need to be cut from your team or brought on later in the writing process.

Structure/ Plantsing

When or how did you move towards a form of outlining?

A. E. Bennett: I now make an overall outline – where I want the story to go and how I want it to end up. Some of my books are starting to overlap now, so I use an Excel calendar to keep everything sorted. I then go back and write bullet points about what needs to happen in each chapter to keep things moving. Sometimes my characters surprise me – I’ll certainly admit that – and I have to move things around, but after all of the pain involved with ripping Gathering of the Four apart and putting it back together again, I find this method to be much more efficient. 

Azalea: My outlining started in 2017, when I started writing Witch in the Lighthouse. It was very light bullet outlining, one to two sentences per chapter of basic scenes, and I’d figure out the details as I went along.  Now my outlining has evolved to one to several paragraphs per chapter, and I like utilising character sheets. I started using Fantasia Archive to help me stay more organised, and this helps tremendously.

Miriam: My outlining started just shy of a decade (or 300,000 words) into my writing career. I start with my character’s goal, motivation and conflict, and then outline the end of the novel so I know where I’m heading. From there I write a line or two per scene for the entire novel. Namesakes was the first novel I properly outlined, but I didn’t have a good handle on structure until I wrote Blessed Prey.


With the benefit of hindsight, when was the best time to plan?

A. E. Bennett: I should have thought about some of my side characters earlier. In the first draft of Gathering of the Four, I had a lot of side characters standing around doing nothing or entering or exiting scenes with no real purpose. I could have saved myself some time – and heart ache – if I had thought more about why they existed. 

Azalea: It feels like every time I start a new novel, my method changes, even if just slightly, but one thing that never changes is that there are some things I just can’t predict in the planning that I end up having to scramble over later. There is still a pantser in me, I guess.

In my current WIP, my first draft has been very transformed from what I had written initially, all just from changing the attitude of a single character. That led me to push deeper into the background of what happened offscreen, to really get a handle on why characters were behaving the way they were onscreen, and for it to make sense to the reader. Planning all of these aspects before I’d even written the first draft would have been a blessing, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20. I’m learning all the time!

Miriam: I wouldn’t change it. I learned the things when I was ready to learn them.

Where You’re At

Are you a pantser, plantser or plotter now, and what’s your current process?

A. E. Bennett: I’m much more of a plotter now. Since The Serrulata Saga is shaping up to be more books than I originally planned. I do need to think more carefully about who is doing what and when and why. 

Azalea: I’d call myself a plantser, with an emphasis on plotting. Each time I try to plot more and more, but as usual, you can’t predict everything. I am much more detail oriented now than I was in 2017, my writing has improved by quite a lot, and I’ve found, for now, what works for me with critical readers and who helps me more than otherwise. I still wind up editing many, many drafts! 

Miriam: I’d call myself a planner. I don’t have every aspect of a book or series plotted out, but I do have a solid road map before I go in. I know how the series ends before I begin the first book. My writing time is planned so that I always have something to work on, even if a WIP is off with critique partners. I draft fast and messy, then go though 6-10 rounds of revisions and edits, first working with early readers for character, structure, and plot, then more feedback from another group of readers to make sure those issues are fixed and address scene and line-level stuff. One of my readers is specifically for consistency (makes sure if the character had a coffee at the start of the scene she doesn’t have boba at the end etc) and other readers for sensitivity.

I use ProWritingAid so that my editor gets the cleanest draft possible, and when she’s done, I have the book proofread.

Advice

What advice would you give to pantsers, plantsers or aspiring plotters?

A. E. Bennett: Take your time! There is a lot of pressure to churn books out (at least, in my opinion) and you won’t do yourself any favours by rushing. I self-published two books last year and I should have held off on pushing out Gathering of the Four. It was sloppy and I think a lot of people gave up on it because of that. It’s in much better shape now, and I’m proud of it, but for a long time I wasn’t and that was really painful. Don’t be like me – have patience!

Azalea: Find a method that works for you, but try many. Ask questions, opinions, for help, and take your time. I also like to tell writers to just get the first draft down—you can edit later. Little, minute edits aren’t going to stop your progress (usually), but getting hung up on a sentence or paragraph can really turn your process into a slog. Leaving yourself notes in areas you’d like to go deeper on later can help to keep your momentum instead of stalling. Keep going!

Miriam: No one is interested in stealing your stuff, they have their own books to work on, and your early work is awful. Don’t worry, it’s supposed to be awful! But no one wants to steal it, so get it out there, get feedback from other people who write your genre. And show up. So much of writer culture is complaining about writing, making memes and tweets about not writing… that won’t get you anywhere. Do the work.

A. E. Bennett
Headshot of Azalea Forrest, long strawberry blonde hair, black-rimmed glasses, white.
Azalea Forrest
Photo of Miriam holding zir first two books. Miriam has shaved short dark blue-black hair, pale skin with pink cheeks and brown eyes.
Miriam Cumming
Gathering of Four Bookcover. Four characters depicted, the lead a black woman with arms wide wielding fire magic from both hands.
Witch in the Light House cover. Cloudy sky with lighthouse on dark horizon.
Namesakes cover. Mixed race MC wearing tie and white shirt, green headscarf concealing hair and holding glowing books, encircled in green glow with glowing circle archway in background.

Becoming an Indie Author (Part 2: Book Launch)

Having covered the steps of the editing process, setting up your author platform and choosing distributors in this blog, it’s time to talk indie book launch tips. On to self-publishing step 8!

8. Book Launch (Marketing Plan)

Your marketing plan depends on publishing on KU or publishing wide, and your goals. For KU you’ll want social media posts, perhaps a paid cover reveal, a giveaway and or other to ‘generate buzz’ about your book. Your goal will be to chase a good Amazon ranking on launch day.

If you plan to publish wide, Amazon rankings won’t matter so match, but you’ll still want to do a cover reveal and spread the word about your book. If you’re aiming for a softer launch, this blog detailing Emma Lombard’s marketing plan and experience is worth a read. Whether you choose a buzz filled hard release, or a soft release, many things bellow will need considering.

Research Marketing Mistakes to Avoid

To put it bluntly, from reading, viewing and talking to fellow indies, it seems that paid advertising offers many ways to set your money on fire. Step one to avoid that seems to be take a course before spending money you don’t intend to lose on Facebook or Amazon adds. For any other paid services, I highly recommend talking to other indies to see what they recommend based on their experiences. If you don’t have many to talk to, read the article bellow.

Resources: 17 Author Tips and Biggest Blunders by Emma Lombard.

Set Up Pre-orders

You may want to set up pre-orders (especially for a book 2 or later, in which case do so before you publish book 1, so book 2’s preorder is in book 1’s back matter when its first published). You’ll also need a pre-order if this is your first book, as you can’t set up author profiles or put your book on review sites to start gathering reviews until you have a purchase link.

This can take the pressure off leading up to launch today, because setting up the pre-order means having the blurb, keywords, categories, meta data and price all set on retailers well in advance. (Uploading all this stuff for stores is unpacked in step 12 below). Having a pre-order means you can share an active purchase link when you do your cover reveal on social media and in your newsletter too. And on any social media posts leading up to launch day.

Book Links For Pre-orders. Before posting pre-order links, use booklinker to generate a link that will take people clicking on it to the Amazon store selling in their local currency. If you’re releasing wide, use bookstoread to create a link to a page displaying icons linked to your book’s page on each retailer your ebook and paperback are available at.

Grow Your Newsletter

Consider newsletter swaps with writers in the same genre, writing for the same audience age. Building your list means more people to tell when your book drops. Your reader magnet can get its own landing page on BookFunnel, where you can join group promos. I suggest choosing the promos with the most participants in your genre. This maximises your chances of the download page with all participating author’s reader magnets getting you the most amount of sign ups.

Story Origin is another good site for swaps, though the group promos hear tend to be smaller, so I find it best for swapping directly with authors (each author displaying the reader magnet’s cover and link in their newsletter, instead of a group landing page image, blurb and link).

If you write SFF, here’s a facebook group for organising swaps with SFF authors (though you may want to file it for it for later as these FB lists seem to be 2k+). If you don’t write SFF, its worth searching for FB newsletter swaps in your genre. This is something you can put more focus on after the book is out if you run out of time beforehand (which I had to do after releasing Manipulator’s War.)

Also: Keep Subscribers Engaged. Here’s some content ideas from Bookfunnel to help with that.

Multi-Author Promotions

Again, this is something I’ll keep in mind for later, but you may like to consider Social Media Author Hops with other authors. For a Facebook example. see this guest post by Anna Campbell). If you’re on Book Funnel, here’s a FB Group for organising multi-author promos.

Resources: Designing Your Own Virtual Book Tour Basics.

Reviews and Blog Tours

Reviews don’t just show potential readers what they may enjoy about your book, getting enough of them makes you eligible to be featured on Bookbub, and can make your book more visible on Amazon (displaying it as an ‘also bought’). But don’t pay for reviews. Amazon don’t like that and I know people who have been rigorously policed by them, losing reviews Amazon suspect they paid for.

The alternative I’m finding works well is blog tours. This isn’t paying for reviews, its paying for a tour organiser to make your book accessible to reviewers and or book bloggers, and for your book (and sometimes you as an author) to be featured on blogs and or social media.

Which tours are worth the cost? I’d say the ones that get reviews, though reviews may not be guaranteed. Rachel’s Resources has been recommended to me by indies who were happy with reviews they received. Itsy Bitsy has landed between 19-30 reviews on Amazon, Goodreads and Bookbub for my first two books and I was very happy with Colleen (the organiser, who runs a tight ship).

Promotion Sites & Paid Newsletters

Check out platforms which host giveaways, or promote books. Group giveaways are a good way to grow your newsletter or Bookbub following, depending which of the two readers are required to do to enter the giveaway. Sites like BookSweeps or Prolific Works may help.

A relatively safe way to spend money when you’re still learning how to market books wisely can be paying for a feature in newsletters. First: ensure you did get critical reader feedback on your blurb, that your cover is genre-appropriate and up to scratch (for more see part 1 of this blog) and your price appropriate. Any of those three needing work can still waste money (I know because my first paid newsletter was an expensive way to sell 0 books).

Again: ask people publishing in a similar genre what they’ve had success with, or read this post of paid newsletters Nicholas Erik has had good experiences promoting a range of genres in.

Advertising

I’ve seen so many authors say that Facebook adds or Amazon adds ‘don’t work for them’, yet for some authors they seem to be AM-A-ZING. I haven’t tried either, but the fact people have designed week long courses and written whole books about one or the other tells me that if you plan to use either without thorough research —you’re wasting money. Even with study, you may still find one, the other or both just aren’t your jam. So proceed with caution (and see the free courses linked below).

Measuring Sales
Book Report is handy for this, and syncs with Amazon Kindle to analyse your sales data.

Press Kit
Its not like a newspaper, or magazine is going to interview me, random indie author is it? But they may (as Emma Lombard can tell you). And if they do and they ask you questions, do you know what you’ll say? If they want easy access to pertinent info, do you have a page on your website they can refer to, to check any details and ensure their interview article is accurate?
For an example press kit, see mine.

Marketing Resources

Facebook Group 20booksto50k is a great space to discuss and learn to market indie books. Wide for the Win is a great starting point if you publish wide.

Free Courses: 5 Day Amazon Add Course, by Dave Cheeson (Kindleprenuer).

Starting From Zero, with David Gaughran.

Google Air, free Google add workshops (you have to register using your Google account.)

Wondering about sales trends? K-lytics is a handy (free) blog to follow, though their paid services are expensive.

9. Set up Author Profiles (Goodreads, Bookbub, Storygraph etc)

To seek reviews, you need an author profile and your book’s information up on review sites. Your book needs to be on sale or pre-order to do this. For Goodreads, you have to add your book to Goodreads first, then you can claim your author profile on it. This is worth doing early on, as reviews can be uploaded to Goodreads well before launch day. Tip: get your betas to add their reviews when they finish reading your late draft.

On other sites, you simply need to sign up, add a purchase link for your book, a profile photo, fill in your bio etc. I suggest using the same profile photo and short bio for all these sites, your website, social media etc., so people you ‘meet’ on any digital space recognise you on others.

If you seek ARC reviewers, I suggest giving them your Amazon, Goodreads and Bookbub profile links, and encouraging reviews on all three. Bookbub reviews may one day help you become eligible for a coveted Bookbub feature.

I have author profiles set up on Amazon, Goodreads, All Author (purely to enter their cover of the month contest), Bookbub and Storygraph —another review site, popular because it isn’t Amazon affiliated, unlike Goodreads. (The Amazon and Goodreads links above are to instructions to set up your author page while the All Author, Bookbub and Storygraph links will take you to the sign-up pages for those platforms).

10. Update your Socials

Now is a good time to put a book banner on your website’s header and a cover, blurb and pre-order or purchase link front and centre on your site’s home page. It’s also a good time to place a book banner as your social media cover image and to do and pin a post about your upcoming release (this may be your cover reveal).


11. Get Your Street Team Set Up

A ‘street team’ for a traditionally published author may be a large group of people excited about the upcoming book, formally organised on a Discord server, or other digital space. It probably has an application form to join and hundreds of applicants. It will definitely be an organised group effort to ‘generate hype’ about the upcoming book.

For debut indie authors, your ‘street team’ may simply be a few friends you privately message for help spreading the word about your book. Ideally, it’s (and in my experience it works well to have) a mutual indie support group, which helps in any (or all) of the below three ways. Yes, I have an Indie Author Discord for this. Feel free to reply to this Blue Sky post, this Mastdon post or use my contact page if you’d like an invite link.)

Social Media Boosting

True, social media is primarily for socialising, not selling and buying stuff. But you want help telling everyone you’re been interacting with on social media (and ideally potential readers beyond those people) that your book will soon be released. I suggest doing this by creating or joining mutual support groups of indie authors writing similar genres likely to be read by your potential readers. Before Twitter died, dm groups there were useful for this. Depending which social media your writing community is on, this may vary. I tend to use the Discord mentioned above for social media boosting now, with my writer friends scattered across Instagram, Blue Sky and Mastadon.

Blog Visibility

I’ve heard that blogging is more useful for promoting non-fiction books, and may have little impact with fiction. But my first interview was met with a detailed reply from someone I didn’t know on Twitter, who had read and enjoyed the interview. Blog reach may be small, but a lot of indies I know are interviewing each other about writing, life and their books. Again, ideally the people you interview and are interviewed by, write similar books and have a similar audience to you, the goal being getting your name and book’s existence out there and helping them do the same.

Reviews

Ask people interested in your genre if they’d like an ARC (advanced reader copy) for free, in exchange for an honest review (ideally posted on launch day or soon after on retailers, Goodreads and Bookbub). Your ‘review street team’ may include finding ARC readers on Booksprout, a subscription service with a monthly fee. I paid around $12 a month for a few months, getting 1 or less reviews, then cancelled, but others have done better). Or Netgalley, one off or monthly subscription service, price on request, also used by trad publishing, though I haven’t investigated this yet).

If you’re releasing a fantasy book, this FB group for finding beta readers and reviewers may help you get more ARC reviews (I got one from there).

How do you reach people for social media support and author interviews?
Hopefully, your social media networking since step 2 has led you into author groups, or built you enough of a following to organise your own, or your newsletter has enough reach to do so. If not, again, SFF authors feel free to reply to this Blue Sky post or use my contact page to join my Discord for help with this.

12. Format Your E-book (+paperback if applicable)

Paperback

Perhaps ironically, I found formatting paperback (in Word) easy. You choose your paper size (I chose 5.5 by 8.5 for my YA Fantasy, a common size), set your margins (do this early because when I changed them last, Word re-inserted page numbers into the front matter). I followed Chloe Alice Balkin’s youtube tutorial, using ‘layout,’ ‘page breaks’, ‘next page’ to add page-number-free front matter, created styles in Word for front matter, back matter, titles, chapter headings, chapter header art, dingus and for body text.

Then I saved the Word doc as a pdf and the book was uploaded to Amazon without mishap. (Ingram Spark warned my chapter heading art, author bio pic etc could cause print issues, but they didn’t).

Ebook Formatting (in Word)

This I found fiddlier. If you format a paperback yourself in Word, mistakes can insert random blank pages throughout the book, or splice content across pages.

Don’t

-Hit ‘enter’ for page breaks (your book may format without page breaks, and for multiple pov books this will present to readers as head-hopping.)
-Let Word generate a Table Of Contents for you (there are many ways this can go wrong).

-Leave any images without a style (my chapter header images were displayed on separate pages to chapter headings when I converted to epub because of this).

Do

Use a tool to do the formatting for you. Reedsy’s tool is popular. Draft2Digital will format your book for you (though check it, as it couldn’t handle the chapter header art in mine). If you’re a Mac user willing to pay a one off fee, Vellum is very popular (no, I’m not an affiliate for them or anyone else linked in this post).

OR Use a Style Guide. Smashwords Style Guide is good, but wordy.

Formatting In Word
-Use styles for EVERYTHING (headings, copyright page, all images, body text etc).
-Manually create your contents page by bookmarking each chapter and linking the bookmark to the chapter heading on the contents page. (Smashwords Style Guide, page 20 has a video showing you how).

-If you’re wide, upload your interior file everywhere at the same time. Kobo and Smashwords spotted issues with my ebook that Amazon didn’t, while Ingram noted potential paperback issues Amazon didn’t. Cross-checking issues each distributor and or store spots, then making final tweaks, can help you give a better-formatted version to all of them.

get proofs for every format on every store/ distributor to ensure they turn out ok. (Kobo converted my Word doc to epub without mishap, but Draft to Digital had one issue throughout, while the Smashwords epub conversion was so bad that I converted the epub myself (using Convertio).

Front Matter Tips

-Keep it short so readers can get to the book and the online look inside feature shows the opening pages.
-Look at the copyright notices of other indie books to help you phrase yours.
-Mention other or upcoming titles on your ‘also by author ____’ page.
-Include a digital table of contents in ebooks.
-Consider a map and or personis dramatis for epic fantasy or similar, so readers can see where things are happening and check who is who as they read. (I kept both as front matter when a reviewer said they didn’t notice the dramatis personae until the end and would have used it sooner had they known it was there).

Back Matter Tips

-Link to your website, newsletter sign up and if you like, your social media/ Goodreads/ Bookbub.
-You may like to politely ask for reviews, but only include an Amazon link for reviews in the Kindle ebook. Apple will reject your book if it has an Amazon link in it. Tip: link to Goodreads/ Bookbub or Storyorigin in review requests for all non-Amazon stores, seeing as none of those review sites are store competitors (this means you can have the same file for all non-Amazon stores).
-Write a book 2 blurb and include in the ebook a pre-order link to book 2.

Formatting Error Checklist

Is your front matter free of page numbers?
Does your ebook contents page display appropriately and do its contents link correctly to pages?
Does your epub have random blank pages anywhere?
Are your front and back matter spaced as you wish?
Are your chapter headings (and images) spaced appropriately and consistently?
Does your back matter only contain links to Amazon in the copy you’re uploading to Amazon? (Other stores may reject interior files with Amazon links).
Does your Ingram Spark file only contain black and white or greyscale text, styles and images? (NB: They’ll warn you off colour, even colour overlaid with greyscale, but my colour overlaid with greyscale chapter header art, author profile pic etc. printed fine).

13 Uploading your Book

Meta Data

If you’re going wide, I suggest creating a file that has all the meta data you’ll need to copy and paste everywhere you upload your book (your name, book name, genre, categories, tags, blurb, contributors, ISBN etc).

Choosing Amazon Categories.
Check which categories your comp titles are listed under using this category checker.
Have a look at which sub-genre/ fiction headings match your book using Book Industry Study Group’s List.
Check the number of competitors in relevant categories. Standard advice says ‘pick obscure categories you can rank in.’ But my best rankings (in the US) weren’t in completely obscure categories. On the US store they were:

Elise's Amazon rankings.
130 IN Teen & Young Adult LGBTQ+ Fiction (Kindle
383 in Teen & Young Adult LGBTQ+ Fiction (Books)
919 LGBTQ+ Fantasy (Kindle)

Amazon will let you choose three categories, and insist you answer whether your book is 18+ or not before letting you do so. (They used to give you two categories, then let you email requesting 8 more, but that’s changes in 2023).

Bad category news: every Amazon national store has different categories, so you’ll have to contact them telling them the exact category string for EVERY store you want categories on. NB: English language categories aren’t just on the US, Canada, UK and Australia. India and Germany’s categories are also in English, Germany being where I initially had the second highest no. of clicks.

Choosing Amazon Key Words
Use ‘incognito’ mode on your browser, then on Google, Goodreads or Amazon, type your genre and audience age, and see which search terms your browser suggests (popularly searched ones) and which are relevant to your book. You’re not limited to 7 of these —jam as many as you can fit into Amazon’s 7 key word boxes. Also, there’s no need for key words to repeat your category, title or subtitle.

Pricing

To determine a price in any currency, this article outlines factors you may like to consider.
My best advice:
-Get on the Amazon store of each region of the world it sells to (Important NB: a reasonable $US price converts into what Brits consider to be a too-expensive UK price, so don’t just let retailers convert international pricing from Us dollars, check which pricing appears reasonable by currency and national store).
-Search books of your genre and audience age and note pricing.
-Get an idea of cheap prices, moderate prices and outrageously expensive prices (you will see the latter, especially for traditionally published ebooks).
-Observe whether you think a book is indie or traditionally published and how prices vary because of that.
-Check how many pages a books has to get an idea of a reasonable price for a 70k vs. a 100k+ book.
-Choose a price taking the above and your personal publishing/ marketing goals and factors in the article linked above into account.
(Standard indie prices seem to be $4.99 US for ebook and they were $14.99 for paperback. But post-pandemic supply chain chaos and supplier pricing increases has put costs up, mostly forcing indie authors to increase prices so we don’t publish paperbacks at a loss).

Check the profit margin in every currency. Does it leave you room to put the book on sale without losing money? In the UK, books are so cheap that you may struggle to discount your book there and still break even. But if you aim to make the smallest of profits on every sale (as opposed to freebies), you’ll need to check regular vs. sale price profit margins carefully.

Sale Pricing

If you’re discounting your pre-orders or book, don’t just change the pricing in KDP’s or any other distributor’s dashboard. Sale prices are entered separately. On KDP, as with categories, go to your KDP dashboard. Select ‘help,’ ‘contact us’ at the bottom of the menu, then ‘pricing’ and read the information.
NB: if requesting a price match you’ll need to have links to the Apple/ Barnes and Noble/ Kobo price for each countries store you want price matched on Amazon.
Wide NB: we have to request price changes manually and Amazon won’t always agree to the price we want, even when we advise them what its already set to on other stores. But the bonus we get is that on DraftoDigital and Kobo direct (and possibly other stores -I’m not sure), we can schedule sale prices start and end dates ourselves, in advance.

Uploading

To Distributors. Before you upload your book to any distributor, be clear about which distributor you want to send your books to which retailer (or other distributor), so you don’t double up.

Upload To Libraries. If you’re American or Canadian, you can upload your books to the Indie Author Project to get your book into libraries in both countries. And yes, you’ll earn royalties -see the FAQ page.
Fellow Australian authors, we can register our books at the National Library of Australia Legal Deposit. We can register to be compensated for having our books in libraries via Australia Lending Rights Schemes, if you register your book within 5 years of its publication date.

Local Brick and Mortar Stores. This involves being bold, but I’ve spoken to indies who’ve told local booksellers they’ve published a book and the booksellers wanted to see it (yeah, carry it or have a photo of your cover on your phone) and then stocked it on consignment (meaning they pay you if it sells, and hand it back to you if it doesn’t). So it pays to be bold! To help you prepare to approach book shops, here’s some comprehensive (Uk sourced) advice on Getting Your Book into a High End Store.

14. Cover Reveal

Post your cover on your social media, share it in your newsletter and share it on any promo sites you’ve joined which feature cover reveals, such as xpressbooktours. You may wish your cover reveal to be the first of a series of social media promo posts counting down to launch day, featuring teasers, character introductions, ARC review snippets etc and containing or naming the location of your pre-order purchase link.

15. Release Day

Put purchase links on your site and author profiles. Post your launch day post on social media (a selfie with an author copy goes down well) and interact with everyone who replies. I hope it goes well for you!

(And if you’d like to join an Indie Author Discord to discuss any of the above, let me know by replying to my posts about it on Blue Sky on Mastodon, or via my contact page.)

Acknowledgements

I learnt A LOT of the above from conversations with and between the following indie authors:

Cheryls headshot. 70-something white woman with neck length white hair.
Cheryl Burman, Historical and SFF author.
Website
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram
Pineapple with love heart art -Chloe's symbol.
Chloe Alice Balkin, Speculative Romance
Website
Facebook
Instagram
Cartoon of Chris with a green mo hawk, raised left brow, holding glasses on the end of his nose.
Chris Vandyke, SFF Author
Website
Facebook
Instagram
Bitmoji of Brown, shoulder length haired, black round classes waring Becky waving.
Rebecca Jonesee, Romance
website
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram
Headshot of black curly haired, brown eyed Dreena wearing glasses and smiling.
Dreena Collins
(Jane Harvey)
Website
Twitter
Instagram
Facebook
Waist to head shot of K.W. wearing a black training top and cap with her long blonde hair in a pigtale, and a white-toothed smile.
K. W. Kenny, YA Fantasy Website
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram
Elderly Jay's grey eyes peer out of this headshot.
Jay Veloso Batista, Fantasy Author. Website
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram
Leia in a fluffy purple hat, blue eyes on camera, pink lips smiling.
Leia Talon, Fantasy author.
Website
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram
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Further Reading

Just in case your head isn’t exploding with information already, there are more resources on many of the above topics on my Writers Resources Page. I’ll also point you towards a Self Publishing pro, David Gaughram.
If your head is exploding, I suggest bookmarking this post so you can revisit a few of its steps at a time.

Whichever of the above steps you’re at –Good Luck!

Editing a Novel: Character Development Checklists

You’ve just finished the first draft of your novel; what now? First, I’d check the big picture of your story. Does your main character and the antagonist develop and do the stakes increase throughout your story? Do you have a fully rounded antagonist and fully developed secondary characters, or is your main character facing a stereotypical villain with the aid of allies who exist solely to help them achieve their goals? Do you have realistic tension in relationships between key characters? Does each chapter actually need to be in your story? And once all of the above is looking good, is the tone (relatively) consistent throughout?
This checklist will unpack all of these things to help you evaluate character development, character arcs and story tension throughout your novel.

Main Character & Antagonist

First things first: what drives your main character and antagonist? If both are human, why do they believe they are right? How do they believe what they want will make things better? And for who?
Have you made their motivations clear throughout the story (when relevant)?

Main Character Considerations

To check your character arc is on track and that each chapter contributes to the development of your MC (main character) or point of view (POV) character’s arc, here’s a few questions.

Youthful heir Ruarnon in bronze full body armour, holding a bronze helmet and leaning on a spear.
Whom else would I illustrate characters with than my nonbinary main character, Heir Ruarnon?
Art by GlintofMischief.

What does your main MC want? What do they think is in their way? What’s actually in their way? Does their goal change as they learn and grow throughout the story? How?

Which is the sequence of steps your pov characters take to achieve their goals?

What obstacles do they face along the way?

When do internal demons, doubtful or worried allies or ‘friends’ with conflicting interests hold them back?

At which point do the characters learn or discover things which aid their ultimate success?

When do they hit roadblocks, and does overcoming roadblocks help them grow and lead to success later on? 

Is there a lie they believe and if so, what helps them begin to see and ultimately brings them to accept the truth?

Does every chapter do at least one of the above? (ie. does every chapter pull the character’s arc forwards?) If it doesn’t, how is that chapter pulling its weight? Has it earned its right to remain in your novel?

Antagonist Considerations

Whether your antagonist (antag) is a human, an internal force like self-doubt or an external force, here are some questions to check their development, and to check human antagonists are fully rounded characters.

What steps does the antagonist take towards achieving their goal? If the antagonist is a force of nature or inner demons of the main character, how do they obstruct the MC and at which points?

What obstacles does the antag face? If your antag is a force of nature or internal demons, approaching it this way may help deepen your awareness of and how you portray your protagonist(s), who are likely obstacles to your antag.

Does a human antag have revelations that prompt them to progress along a negative character arc? Possibly as they resort to increasingly harsh/ immoral means of obtaining good ends?

How does the antag respond to roadblocks? If they’re human, are they resilient, or able to charm and win over people who oppose them, or do they throw tantrums and become more aggressive —do roadblocks drive their negative arc? 

Even if the human antag has a distorted worldview, does the narration from their point of view show how, to them, what they believe is rational and right?

If the antag is inner demons, does it counter the MC’s success with irrational reasoning, guilt or other powerful emotional reactions to story obstacles?

If the antag is a virus/ monster/ climate change —does it keep evolving in a way that threatens humanity, as humanity learns to adapt to/ combat it?

Is there a lie the antagonist believes and what in the story confirms and strengthens their belief in the lie?

Does each chapter in which the antagonist/ antagonistic force appears move the story’s conflict forwards?

Later Structural Edits

If you’ve achieved the above, but would like to kick your story up a notch, here’s two suggestions for doing that.

1. Make it harder for the MC. Use contagonists, insecurities or roadblocks to make the MC’s struggle greater.

2. Up the stakes. Now the reader knows what the story’s all about and everyone involved, threaten more people or increase the severity of the threat.

Secondary Characters

A trap with secondary characters is making them subservient to the main character’s goals —the faithful friend stereotype. That may mean you write secondary characters who don’t seem to have lives of their own, or whose goals perfectly align with the MC’s. So your MC and secondary character may co-exist in harmonious unity —not very likely, or realistic, or good for story tension.

Who supports the MC? Who is officially onside but disagrees with the MC’s supporters or challenges the MCs methods?

What are the secondary characters goals and how do they align or compete with the MC’s goals?

Are characters sometimes helpful but sometimes arguing? For example, do your secondary characters have any conflicting interests with the MC? Does this lead to rising relationship/ story tension throughout?

Do you have secondary characters who are very similar or playing a very similar role in the story? Can you merge these characters, so there’s a smaller cast the reader gets to know better and connect more deeply with?

All Characters

Before we get into characters generally, I’d like to flag diverse characters. That’s a whole different ball game of informing yourself of problematic stereotypes born of racism, white supremacy, ableism, sexsim, misogyny, homophbia and transphobia. There’s so much involved that I’ve written a separate blog post on the benefits of writing diverse characters and problematic representations to avoid.

General character considerations;

Are character actions and logic believable and does backstory indicate why they are predisposed to be that way? (This is a good question to ask your beta readers).

As characters speak, act and pursue goals, are the biases, knowledge, prejudices, sympathies or passions that guide (or misguide) them clear? How do these things influence character actions?

Does each character speak with their own voice? (In dialogue and especially if you have multiple point of view characters).
Possible voice influences: socioeconomic status, education, are they speaking from a position of authority or servitude? Publicly or privately? To a friend, family member or stranger?

All Characters

If all of the above is going well, I’d do an edit focusing on the internal consistency of character beliefs, opinions, actions, dialogue and voice.

Focus on Chapters

How does each chapter reveal what drives a point of view character in the story?

Does each chapter bring point of view characters closer to or push them further away from achieving their goals?

How do relationships or revelations prompt the MC to reevaluate their goal? 

How often do chapters raise the stakes of the story goal?

Story Tone

Now we know who’s in this story, what journey they’re on and what they’re up against: What is the overall tone of your story? Serious and heavy? Light? Playful? Casual? A mix of deep, possibly dark themes and comic relief?

As you edit —how do scenes and character interactions fit with the overall tone? Do some scenes clash with the overall tone? Ie. are some scenes too light and funny, or too dark compared to the tone of the rest of the book?
This may not be an issue in chapter 10 (especially if it’s a grim story with comic relief), but if the tone and events of chapter one hilariously silly and innocent and then chapter two gets violent and nasty —the reader won’t know what kind of story this is. So I’d check your events and character interactions in the early chapters set the tone for the book.

Becoming an Indie Author (Part 1/2)

You’ve written a book, you’re considering self publishing and you wonder what it involves. In short: a lot! This post is a concise summary from editing, through self publishing and book launching, with many links to tools and information to help you along the way. It contains almost everything I’ve learned from indie author discussions in a Self Publishing Twitter group by Cheryl Burman, and what I’ve learned while self publishing my first book.

I’m Writing/ Have Drafted My Book, What Now?

1. Craft Knowledge

If this is your First book, and or you haven’t already researched how to develop your characters and plot, or read up on story structure, now is a a good time! Make notes to help get your head around character development, story structure and how they intertwine. Then use your notes to write character and plot focused outlines or revision/ structural edit lists to address potential character/ plot holes in your draft.

Resources to Help: KM Weiland’s Blog Series’: Developing Character Arcs, Story Structure and Scene Structure.

2. Start Building Your Author Platform: Social Media

Yes, I’m talking about social media before you’ve even edited your manuscript, let alone have a book seeking a publishing path. Why? Because it takes time to grow a following. And the writing and editing stages are great opportunities to get to know fellow writers, build friendships and learn from each other. This is also the time to begin describing interesting features of your book and start generating interest in your story!

Post about the contents and the experience (or process) of writing your book. Talk to other writers on a social media platform of your choice’s #WritingCommunity (my favourite being Blue Sky. I’ve also heard good things about Instagram’s, though Twitter’s is clearly dying with the site). Connect with people you share interests with on social media (local interests, genres, themes that inspired and tie in to your story etc).

To begin with —pick ONE social media you feel is a natural (or least uncomfortable) fit for you. Get comfortable calling yourself a writer there, and publicly interacting as one. (FYI: there’s no such thing as an aspiring writer. If you write —you ARE a writer!). Experiment, and learn the ropes of your first platform. Then start on a second platform. (Unless you’re bursting with restless energy *waves* and would rather choose the chaotic path of tackling multiple things at once over the easier one *waves again*).

Resources: Social Media for Writers, Facebook For Authors by Jane Friedman, #WritingCommunity Hashtags Twitter & Instagram, Blue Sky Newby Guide.


3. Critical Readers

Get at least three beta readers (if you can find more, I’d do so) to comment on how they find your characters, plot, pacing, story tension ect. If all they say is, ‘this is great and I liked this bit,’ I’d be asking, do my betas have the: Experience and ability to critically evaluate my story?
Willingness and time to honestly comment on things they find problematic (or less than ideal) as a reader?
Communication skills to spell out how any particular aspect of my writing confused, bored or otherwise put them off?
Or do my betas think I only want encouragement (or a positivity pass), as opposed to constructive feedback to help me grow as a writer and to ensure my story is clear and engaging to unfamiliar readers?

If you suspect any of the above is an issue with one of your beta readers, I’d get another/ an extra beta reader. I wouldn’t be satisfied readers will be satisfied with my book until I’ve had that rigorous critical reader who pulls me up on every potential crease, tear or hole in the reading experience. —And I’ve repaired and ironed those things accordingly. Having attempted that for Manipulator’s War, I’ve now got reviews complimenting things (pacing and characters) the reviews may have complained about, if not for my critical readers.

Resources to Help: Finding Critical Readers, Mentors & Editors.
Checklists to aid Critical Reader feedback: Chapter one, Act 1, Act 2, Act 3.
Self Editing advice: Developing Characters, Scene & Line Edit Tips.

4. Editing

Consider your goals for this book/ series and your budget. If you can’t afford an editor, get a second round of critical readers to comment on your post-beta-edited draft. Then, if you’re happy with it —get other, sharp eyed people to proofread it.
If you can afford an editor, consider which type(s) of editing you can afford: developmental (structural), stylistic (line editing), copy editing (word level technical & factual edits) and proofreading. Manuscript Critiques/ Reports can be pricy, but are a cheaper alternative to (prohibitively expensive for most people) developmental edits. Bear in mind, some freelance copy editors charge by the hour instead of by the word. So if you tend to write fairly clean 100k books for example (like me), paying by the hour is more affordable and better value for money.

Resources: Different Levels of Editing and Critical Reader Services by editor Amelia Wiens (who did my manuscript critique) and 5 Things Authors Need to Know Before Hiring an Editor.

5. Decide on Cover Art

In choosing an artist or creating your own cover, research current covers in your genre and audience age. You want a cover design that clearly says to the reader “this book is (insert your genre)”. You also want a design that appeals to readers of that genre in ways they’re used to seeing. Pay attention to current trends in your genre, by researching new releases and studying their covers. For example, dark covers are a thing with YA Fantasy at the movement, and if characters are on epic fantasy covers — they’ve got weapons. So my cover for Manipulator’s War is dark and features weapons.

Creating Your Own Cover

Remember that you need copyright permission for the art and fonts you use.
These fonts are public domain and free on Google. You can also purchase fonts from Creative Market.
You’ll find free public domain images on Pixaby, Smithsonian Open Acess and paid ones on Shutterstock. To make the most of those resources, you may like cover design support from fellow indies via FB Group Book Design 101 and feedback on your cover and blurb from FB group Indie Cover Project.

Blurbs

Traditionally published authors will have honed their pitches near to perfection. Their blurbs will have had a LOT of critical feedback, editing by a literary agent, and possibly by an editor before a back cover exists to place those blurbs on. So for your blurbs to compete at online retailers —hone your pitch craft! You can get pitch critiques from the facebook group Author Unleashed, which focuses on this skill and on my Authoring Discord. You’ll find my best advice for writing an engaging blurb in this post.

Cover Artist

Text: Manipulator's War (book cover)
Image: red glyphs outline a stone archway, through which fire arrows rain down on torch-lit battlements atop a castle, at night time. Spears in the foreground indicate an advancing invading army.
Cover by GlintofMischief.

If hiring a cover artist, check the contract to see if you own the art, and if you need to pay the artist fees for using the art in your merchandise, on your website and in any promotional graphics you make. If you’re unsure which of multiple pieces of concept art to use for the final cover, try posting a poll on social media and or consulting your newsletter subscribers. In considering cover artists, you may also like to ask how they work, and how much your cover design can change within the negotiated price. For example, my cover artist Judah (GlintofMischief) and I built a set of Pinterest pins as well as discussing my cover, and I reviewed multiple concept sketches before we chose (and modified) the published cover. I also chose my fonts, and designed the glyphs on Manipulator’s Wars cover.

If you want to be actively involved but don’t have the skills to produce your own cover, check you’re hiring an artist as prepared to work collaboratively with you as Judah is with me. If you’ve got Indie Author friends, I suggest beginning your cover artist hunt by asking them (or tweeting) for recommendations.

6. Choose Your Distributer(s)

Kindle Unlimited or Wide?

In choosing a distributer, you’ll have to decide whether you want your ebooks available on Kindle Unlimited (where readers pay a monthly rate to access Kindle’s library, as opposed to buying your ebook, and you are paid per page read). This means your ebooks are exclusive to Kindle. Alternatively, your books can be sold in multiple digital spaces —publishing wide and available on Kindle, but not Kindle Unlimited. Wide vs. Exclusive: A Tale of Two Marketing Systems by David Gaughran is a good resource to help you weigh factors and understand both options. If you’re considering wide, I highly recommend the Facebook Group Wide for the Win, who discuss marketing strategies and have information threads on publishing wide.

Publishing Wide, Distributor Factors to Note

Do you want to publish ebook and paperback or just ebook?
Do you want pre-orders? Again —ebook (and paperback)?
How do you feel about managing multiple dashboards on difference distributors/ stores?
Do you want your book to be distributed to libraries as well as stores?
Do you want access to retailers in-house promotions?
Resource: Why Ingram Spark expanded distribution for print books is preferable to Amazon’s, including ISBN advice, by Eric V. Van Der Hope.

Ingram Spark

Allows paper back preorders via Amazon (KDP/ Amazon only allows ebook pre-orders).
-Lets you order paperback author copies before publication, (Amazon doesn’t).
-Requires you to purchase an ISBN for paperbacks.
-Distributes ebook and paperback globally, but multiple sources I’ve read discourage using their ebook distribution.

Draft 2 Digital

D2D charges a 10% commission and has paperback distribution in beta, using Ingram Spark print books.
In-house Apple and Kobo promotions are available via D2D (and not otherwise unless you go direct to these retailers).
DraftToDigital is now merged with Smashwords, so having books on D2D distributes all the same locations as Smashwords (whose dashboard I found horrendous to use, so I’d go with D2D if you’re considering either). Also, D2D now uses Ingram Spark’s infrastucture to publish paperbacks (I also find Ingram’s dashboard unfriendly to use, so in future will Ingram for paperbacks).

Distributer Links: Kindle Self Publishing, Ingram Spark, Draft2 Digital.

Going Direct, Some Considerations

By going direct, I mean which stores will you create an account with and upload to directly? In answering that, I’d consider:

Which stores dominate and have the most reach generally?
In which countries do you want to sell your book in and what are the biggest retailers in those markets?
Which retailers have the biggest share of the market in your home country?
Does the store you’re considering pay in your local currency? (Being based outside the US can be a disadvantage here).
What do other indies have to say about their experiences with specific distributors? Have they had issues, what kind and how did they find customer service/ support?

Amazon is obvious for market share and reach. Googleplay store is hardly a leading book retailer, but they’re Google, so that appeals to some indies. (They were unable to verify my Aussie bank account, which is why I’m not direct with them). Barnes and Noble are another logical choice for popularity in America and an indie friend said the standard of their print books was better than Amazon print books for her book (they only pay Australians in US dollars and the currency conversion fees may be higher than my earnings, so I’m not direct with them). Beyond that, I’d be considering the questions above to decide who to go direct with.

Imprints: do you Need or Want One?

Amazon will display information about your book to potential readers, including ‘publisher.’ If you don’t want Amazon to display ‘publisher (insert your legal name)’, I suggest creating an imprint. Mine is Faraway Fiction Press. I’ve registered it as a business name with the relevant Australian body for tax purposes and it has its own website (to reserve and link the .com domain name to my books).

Resource: For info on the benefits of having your own press, see this post by David Wogan.

ISBNs: Do you Need or Want them?

Many retailers offer a free ISBN, which can only be used for your book at that retailer. So if you use free ISBNs, your ebook will be registered under a different ISBN at each retailer, and that ISBN will link back to that retailer. If you purchase and choose to use your own ISBNs, each format needs its own ISBN, but you can use the same ISBN for your print or audio or ebook at different retailers. ISBNs are free in some countries (Canada and Sweden among them), and are best purchased by their official seller (Bowker) in the US, Australia and elsewhere.

NB: If you distribute print books via Ingram or DraftoDigital paperback, you must purchase an ISBN. If you only plan to have print books on Amazon, you may prefer to use free ISBNs for everything. Which ISBNs are best —free or paid— depends on which factors you prioritise: saving money, having sequential ISBNs pointing back to you instead of a retailer or other. Many indie authors seem happy with either option.

7. Extend your Author Platform

Website

I suggest setting this up after social media because imposter syndrome is real, and hopefully having been on social media and presented as a writer for at least a few months (I was on social media over a year before I took this step), you will find it more natural to write an author bio and present yourself professionally as an author on your site. Blogs are optional and of course take more time, but they bring a lot more traffic to your site than an author name and book title no-one has heard of, so I recommend them.

If you decide to have a blog, I recommend drafting posts ahead of time. (I teach full time, so I write most blogs in the summer holidays, then edit and publish them once a month).

Resources: Author Website Set Up Tips, Unpublished Authors and Websites by Jane Friedman, 100 Unpublished Author Blog Ideas by Mixtus Media.

NewsLetter

Once your site and social media presence are established, its a good time to think about your newsletter. If you only have time for a blog OR a newsletter, here’s a post by Jane Friedman weighing pros and cons of having only either. If you start a newsletter, you’ll need a reader magnet. A 10-20k short story, maybe the origin or background story of a central character or a subplot you had to edit out of your novel can work nicely for this.

To build your subscriber base, I’ve found Bookfunnel group promos get the most sign ups, while it seems that for direct newsletter swaps between authors (each author sharing the other’s reader magnet in an agreed upon newsletter), Story Origin has a lot of authors and authors with larger lists.

Resources: Not sure what to say in your newsletter or where to promote it and how? I’ve blogged ideas in Author Newsletters: the Basics. See also Unpublished Author Newsletters by @LombardEmma.
For newsletter providers and more information, see Jane Friedman’s Newsletters for Authors Getting Started Guide.

Part 2

I suspect that’s more than enough information to get you started, and possibly enough to make your head spin, so I’ll end this blog here. Part 2 is packed with ideas and resources for your book launch and initial marketing plan, author profiles, formatting and uploading your book and tips right up to launch day.

Acknowledgements

I learnt A LOT of the above from conversations with and between the following indie authors:

Headshot of silver haired, pale skinned, blue eyed Cheryl.
Cheryl Burman, Historical and SFF author.
Website
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram
Pineapple picture with a red heart on it, Chloe's logo
Chloe Alice Balkin, Speculative Romance
Website
Facebook
Instagram
Cartoon headshot of green mohawked Chris, raising a grey eyebrow over his brown rimmed glasses, holding the frames with his right hand.
Chris Vandyke, SFF Author
Website
Facebook
Instagram
Rebecca (white) smiling in a cafe seat, wearing rectangular rimmed glasses, her hair dyed light brown.
Rebecca Jonesee, Romance
website
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram
Headshot of Dreena (white), with dark curls hanging free (right), black topped glasses, red lipstick and a small smile.
Dreena Collins
(Jane Harvey)
Website
Twitter
Instagram
Facebook
K.W. in a black cap and black sports top, standing before boulders (she's white, blue eyed and blonde haired).
K. W. Kenny, YA Fantasy Website
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram
Headshot of small blue eyed Jay, wth rectangular shaped face, thin, short blonde hair and broad nose, wearing collared grey top.
Jay Veloso Batista, Fantasy Author. Website
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram
Headshot of Leia wearing a bright purple, fluffy brimmed hate and a pink lipped smile.
Leia Talon, Fantasy author.
Website
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram
Headshot of Lily smiling broadly and holding her back her brown hair.
Lily, poet & kidlit author
Website
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram
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Further Reading

Just in case your head isn’t exploding with information already, there are more resources on many of the above topics on my Writers Resources Page. I’ll also point you towards a Self Publishing pro, David Gaughram.
If your head is exploding, I suggest bookmarking this post so you can revisit a few of its steps at a time.

Whichever of the above steps you’re at –Good Luck!

LGBTQIA+ Life: Identifying as Nonbinary

Recognising your nonbinary gender in a binary, cis gender world is no picnic. You can’t name something the English language fails to hav relevant nouns and pronouns for, or that society fails to educate you about the existence of. So you blunder along, wondering why you don’t fit the man/ woman cookie cutters the world you are born and raised in tries to jam you into for the first thirty years of your life. It took me a few decades, but I figured things out in the end. This blog records my journey.

As a Kid, Gender didn’t matter as much

I’m a nineties kid, born and raised in Australia. Back then, their were boys and girls -that was it. In lower primary, I had two friendship groups. Girls with whom I played imaginary games. And tough boys, who, like me, were inclined to hit back when punched by random bullies in the yard. I got to wear pretty clothes and play with girly toys when I wanted. Alternately, I got to wear baggy t-shirts and shorts when I felt like it. And when I wanted to play with boys toys, my brothers were at my disposal. It was in later primary (around puberty) that I started to feel adrift.

I Don’t Quite Fit

Even before then, as young as eight, female friends had seemed closer to me than I was to them. And I didn’t quite like who I was around them. Something was off about me. Then, I changed schools and made new friends, but they were all girls. I didn’t feel like I connected to them as well as I had connected to boys. But boys saw me differently now. I was a ‘girl’ and someone they did or didn’t have a crush on. And that was it. And it was very disappointing. I had crushes as a teen, but as an asexual, friendship is infinitely more important to me than romantic relationships. I liked a boy at the time, but I didn’t actually want a boyfriend.

Early Teens

In hindsight, something that fuelled what was probably clinical levels of depression in my early teenage years (when I had a lot of non-gender related baggage to sort out), was my isolation. On one hand I was vastly more emotionally mature than most kids my age. On the other, I didn’t relate to a single kid at school when it came to gender identity.

Friendship groups were very much boys or girls in early high school. Boyfriends and dating were a thing. I had no prospect of male friendship. I related to girls even less than I had at primary school. And while I’m asexual, I could find certain boys aesthetically pleasing, or like their personality, but I always felt like they were more into me than I was into them. In hindsight, that’s because I’m also inclined towards a-romantic. So my gender neutral side was not destined to find a partner it related to, as I’ve never really wanted a romantic partner (beyond intellectual curiosity.)

Struggling to Relate

Late high school was bittersweet for me. I made some great friends, but the divide between single me and friends with boyfriends began. I knew some lovely girls in high school. But it wasn’t just the ones who had or sought boyfriends that I drifted away from. It was the more girly ones. They were lovely people, but I didn’t relate to them. They were too feminine. I did have some male friends around this time. There were a few boys who could see me not as a potential girlfriend or a ‘female’, just as a friend. I treasured them.

Boys brought out my gender neutral side. Girls generally brought out my feminine side. But when I’ve been surrounded by girls or women, with no break, I’ve felt kind of smothered. Its like those times use up all my femininity, and my gender neutrality was kind of shut in a room by itself. That was what felt off about having only female friends. That was why I couldn’t connect to girls and I haven’t been able to connect or relate to women the same way they usually connect and relate to me. Because I’m not a woman. The feminine is only half of who I am. When people only respond to my feminine side, displaying awareness of only its existence, it can feel like they only see me on the surface. Like they don’t truly know who I am.

In my Twenties, Nonbinary Clues

At Uni, there was more opportunity for female and male companionship. But I didn’t meet anyone who recognised me, or I them, as nonbinary. So who did I relate to more than 50% of the time? I often (pre-covid) travel by myself, and strike up conversations with retail assistants, people in hospitality and fellow tourists. Since joining Twitter, I’ve been very active in its WritingCommunity and created not one, but three writer Discord Servers. I’m a people loving person, whose always sensed an invisible barrier between myself and most people.

For my entire life, everyone I meet has assumed I am female. Girls and women have welcomed me as such. I have the lived experience of ‘girlhood’ and ‘womanhood’ so yes, I can relate to much of what women say. But in a conversation with multiple women, there always comes that point where the women are connecting more and more, and I’m feeling increasingly emotionally distant from them. I’m like a guest in their world. A welcome guest. On the surface, I fit in very well. But I don’t belong there.

That’s why male friendship and colleagues have always been so important to me. When men see me not as a ‘female’, nor as a potential date, just a person they can chat to and hang out with, my gender neutral side naturally engages with them. The other half of me gets to live. Its like oxygen after a bad head cold. Like pulling off too tight clothing that hinders your movements.

Selfie headshot of Elise wearing a long sleeve, blue patterned shirt and black frame topped glasses, and a blue-eyed, pink cheeked smile, Thin, pale trunked, sun dappled gum trees rising behind.
In the Aussie mountains, Victoria, 2023.

Gender Fluid Clues

And this is probably a good point for me to define the problem with ‘woman’ as an identity for me. Yes, I can relate to much of it. I can relate to the feminine as a feminine person. But at the end of the day, its a garment that’s too tight. It doesn’t allow me to be all I am. It masks my gender neutrality and my masculine side with make up and pretty clothes and all the cis female expectations society attaches to those.

When I told my mum I’m nonbinary, she tried to relate by saying how she enjoyed dressing up as a man at a dress up party once. When I wear a pretty dress and make up to dinner (very rarely), that’s almost the same to me as going to dinner dressed as a man. Why? Because it isn’t who I am. Yes, I do sometimes wear dresses. But I’ve donated the prettiest to charity. I like them, but I’d rather pin them to my wall and admire them. Or admire them on women. I don’t actually feel like wearing them much, because they’re not me.

I talk about ‘women’ -not me. I talk about ‘men’ -also not me. If you’ve noticed this, it shouldn’t surprise you that in my twenties I defined myself simply as, ‘I am not most people. I do not do what most people do. I cannot relate to either binary gender the way they relate to themselves, or each other.’

I know Who I Want to Be When I Grow Up!

Other kids looked to pop stars etc, and said, ‘I want to be like that when I grow up!’ I never felt that way. I saw only little bits of me in any one person, perhaps in part because they were all binary men and women. But in my early twenties, I saw much of myself in a fictional character. A sociable, people loving person. A traveler, passing through, helping out where they can: Dr Who. No, not Jodie Whitaker. David Tenant’s portrayal. And Matt Smith’s. I find Dr Who in the new seasons quite androgynous. Unbound by gender in character, behaviour, thinking and feeling. And that removes what would otherwise have been a barrier to other Dr Who traits I relate to.

Gender Fluid –Wardrobe Development

When I started teaching in 2011, I was drawn to women’s professional clothing. Its more stylish, interesting, arty or attractive. And I like elegance. So in summer, when I noticed very few smart shorts for women, I found myself in dresses five days a week. By Friday, I felt like the wind had gone out of my sails. I wasn’t quite myself. I also noticed that when I skipped my usual evening run, I felt sad. In hindsight, it wasn’t exercise I missed most. It was doing what has traditionally been a masculine activity, in gender neutral clothes, which gave my gender neutral side room to breathe.

From then onwards, I made a point of wearing gender neutral casual clothes at home, and for exercise. I reserved feminine clothing as much as practical for work. Dressing half the time in a feminine way and half the time gender neutral worked for me. That’s a nice clear point to establish that I’m not only nonbinary, I’m gender fluid. My mood, my responses, which other gender I relate to best changes not just every day, but can change throughout the day as well.

In recent years, I’ve removed the prettiest clothing in my wardrobe. I’m happiest in clothing I can be comfortable in whether I’m in a feminine or a more gender neutral mood, as that’s likely to change after I get dressed for the day. And while I can be happy in androgynous clothing for five days in a row, I’ll often wear dresses for a couple of days after that. Its all about balancing gender neutral and feminine for me.

Still Not Relating

A teacher in my twenties, its after 2011 and I still haven’t claimed ‘gender fluid’ or ‘nonbinary’ as my identity. One of many schools I’ve worked at liked Friday night drinks. It was usually a few women and a few men. Every time, we’d start off sitting and talking together. Then came that inevitable point when the women gravitated towards and chatted with one another and the men did the same. I always, usually quite literally, found myself sitting in the middle, drawn to neither. I’d sit looking from one to the other, and have to choose which to make an effort to join in with. Sometimes I’d just listen and sip my drink for twenty minutes, before saying a word. That’s unlike me. Here was more proof that I simply did not relate, connect or gravitate to a binary gender the way either gravitates towards itself.

Appropriate Labels

So when did I FINALLY find the words to name the identity I’d pretty much figured out by now? It was after Miley Cyrus identified as ‘girl’ and ‘boy.’ After a celebrity or two announced that they would like to be referred to by the personal pronoun ‘they’. In a society seeing and expecting nothing but binary male or female, words were finally finding me.

That wasn’t the end. By now, I was in my thirties. Still teaching. I’d had a lifetime of not relating to either binary gender the way they related to each other. A lifetime of being a stranger, just passing through, who meets, likes and helps people, then moves on, without fully connecting. I defined myself now as simply ‘other’. As ‘labels, boxes, societal conventions, blah, blah, blah don’t apply to me’.

In my teens, I was often labelled an ‘airhead’ because being a pretty, female-presenting, thin person was perceived as scientific proof of lack of brain cells (or so thought many a moron). I’d been labelled a ‘slut’ in my teens at times too (oh yes, despite zero dating, kissing or even hand holding and oh yeah, being asexual!) I was used to not being seen, being mislabelled (and in my teenage years, to thinking most people were idiots because they consistently failed to notice SO MANY things that were bloody obvious to me).

Gender Identity Became A Thing

Now, I was 33 and had joined Twitter’s WritingCommunity. By this time, ‘sex’ was no longer a synonymn for ‘gender’. People didn’t speak of ‘gender reassignment surgery’, like they had in the nineties. Now, I’d come more often across the word ‘trans’. I was introduced to the idea that gender identity, who a person is in their mind, their heart, their soul can differ from biological sex. I started hearing that trans men are men, and trans women are women. For the first time in my life, a fact that was self evident to me was finally visible to other people: that biological sex does not determine a person’s gender.

Twitter was the first time in my life that I was given the choice of stating my personal pronouns. Not having them dictated to me by a cis, binary gender society. Of actually telling people who I was, myself. But what the fuck words did I use?

Label & Personal Pronoun Aversion

Then there was the other problem. I’d privately concluded that when it comes to my gender, people have no fucking clue what I am. There was no point trying to tell them something they knew nothing about, using words that didn’t exist. I’d forgiven them for their ignorance and was moving on with my life.

Now the words did exist. But for thirty three years I’d never applied them to me. Since the age of fifteen, I’d had an aversion to boxes, labels or categories of any sort. After all that time resisting boxes, did I now elect to put myself into one? And having called myself simply ‘nonconformist’ in my teens, ‘other’ in my twenties and simply ‘me’ by my thirties, did I now want to give my gender a name that was foreign to me? I’d heard that ‘they’ singular was becoming a thing, but it too had had nothing to do with me for my entire life.

I totally accepted the idea of putting personal pronouns in Twitter bios. It challenged the assumption that biological sex is the sole determinant of gender. It encouraged cis people looking at a profile pic, going ‘biological male = man’, to stop, and recognise that actually, she is a trans woman. I also liked the idea of normalising personal pronouns in bios, so the onus of identifying gender isn’t just on trans people, its on everyone. Why am I not mentioning nonbinary folks here? Because the conversation I saw at that time didn’t yet include nonbinary people.

Overcoming my Label Aversion

My problem? Other people called me she/ her/ woman all my life. They were the only personal pronouns. Suddenly I had the choice to use ‘they’. I didn’t, at first. I used she/her to signal my Twitter feed was a trans friendly space. But it felt wrong. So I pulled back to ‘she’. On its own, ‘she’ wasn’t enough. ‘They’ was still alien, so for a year, I went to no pronouns. (If you’re in this boat, ‘all pronouns welcome’ or ‘pronouns any’ is a good way to indicate your account is trans friendly. I only heard of it later).

By now, its was 2020. Months of lockdown awaited me, as did unemployment when I spent lockdown in Australia and couldn’t return to teaching in New Zealand. I had time to think. To reflect. And FINALLY, I met and interacted with nobinary people on Twitter. It was a short leap to realise I’d found my people. To re-writing my author bio on this site using they/ them/ their pronouns, to try it on.

For a few weeks, I felt painfully aware of personal pronouns in general. Every pronoun in my author bio seemed to be shouting. But I kept switching my pronouns, on Discord, then Twitter. Because it felt right. It fit. And in telling people my personal pronouns aren’t just ‘she/her’, they’re ‘they/ them and their’, I felt like I was giving myself room to breath. To speak, act, dress and relate to others in a gender neutral way when I was in a gender neutral mood. To be masculine on occasion and to act feminine when I felt that. With a balance of feminine and gender neutral, in clothing, speech, actions and how I relate to other people, throughout my day and week, I’m comfortable. Happiest. Myself.

Blue edged, pink, orange and yellow rainbow scroll with text: Get blogs in your inbox & updates from Elise every second month. Join my Fiction Frolics. Select this image to learn more.
Total Page Visits: 2702

Related Reading

What Does Pride Mean To You? by me.

I Just Came Out as Nonbinary, Here’s What That Means, by Arlo, at Minus18.

Gender Definitions and Personal Pronoun info & advice, by NPR.

On perceiving nonbinary: Some Thoughts on Being Nonbinary by Luke Roelofs.

I Think I’m Neurodiverse. ADHD? by me.

Manipulator’s War: A YA Fantasy’s Origins

My first novel began as a speculative mission seeking answers to things teenage me wanted to know. Like, if grown ups are so mature, with so much knowledge, patience ect, why do sane adults start wars? And where can I hang out with people as emotionally mature as me? And when can teenagers do shit that actually matters, instead of stereotypical, hormonal, dull, monotonous real-world crap? Where’s the action, adventure and interesting places? And how fast can you rush through them, trying to achieve how many goals? This blog explores the influences that answered these questions in my first YA Fantasy Manipulator’s War.

Narnia’s Influence

My escapism into fantasy began with Narnia, read to four-year-old me by my mum. To this day, I enjoy re-reading the books periodically, so naturally my first fantasy featured a royal heir and characters from the real world. I liked contrasting a blunt, irreverent Aussie cast with posh, British-inspired rulers, so Linh, Troy, Fiona and Michael are Australian. And while Narnia seemed a place for C.S. Lewis to revisit his childhood, teenage me was grappling with grief and trying to understand the world I lived in. So my Ruarnon Trilogy was going to be darker. It would be as uncertain and insecure as I found life (and later the pandemic). There wouldn’t be physically present gods, this would be an antheist’s reply to Narnia.

Archaeology and Realism

Teenage me knew that in kids books bad guys are bad and good guys are good and those are the lies adults tell kids, the real world being far more complicated (and hopefully less sexist and gender diverse oblivious now than it was when I was a kid).

At Uni, I studied the ancient Mediterranean World. I learned that for all the talk of nobility and what’s right and just in kids books, usually people start wars because other people have stuff, and they want it. But that was boring. A king who believed in pacifism declaring war would be much more interesting. Maybe I could have the greedy bastards wanting to seize stuff somehow twisting said ruler’s arm to make them go to war against their will? What would that take? Yes, Manipulator’s War answers this question.

As for ‘bad guys are bad and good guys are good’, wouldn’t it more interesting if the ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ had the same values, goals and desires? The same motivations? So Kyura and his traitor-filled court came to be, opposite Ruarnon and their generally more loyal court.

My external conflict would be people wanting stuff. Those people (the Zaldeans) philosophies and beliefs about the afterlife are influenced by Celtic Warrior culture. To make it interesting, they’d need to be an empire. But ’empire conquers kingdom in exponential expansion’ = boring. Rome vs. Carthage is more interesting because it could go either way. What about a war that had gone both ways, between an empire invading a colony-turned-kingdom allied to a second empire? The allied empire would need to be a sometimes selfish, unreliable ally, because undying loyalty is predictable. Enter the Timbalen Empire.

The Ancient World

Manipulator's War cover on fragmented yellow paint background.
Cover by GlintofMischief.

As for a setting, I studied ancient Egypt at Uni, so there was every chance fashion, architecture and Tarlahn afterlife beliefs would have Egyptian influences. I particularly liked the idea of the heir becoming co-ruler with the current king, for on-the-job learning. Meanwhile, in the Zaldean Realm, the governors would be siblings of the king, the royal family’s power being more comparable to that of Persian emperors —over life and death—not weak medieval dependence on nobility for wealth and resources.

The fashions would be more androgynous than the world I’d grown up in, and Tarlahns would be more accepting of nonbinary and gender non-comforming people than say, the Romans. Pharoah Akhenaten’s style of art and fashion would influence this. Meanwhile, the Zaldean Empire would be hardcore warrior culture and generally toxic masculinity, hence the Zaldean insatiable appetite for war, wealth expansion (again, similar to the Celts, but to be fair, also the Romans).

Characters Getting Bits of Me

But what of characters? I’d have a ‘prince,’ yes. But I’m nonbinary, and I wanted to write an alternate form of ‘masculinity’. In hindsight this was a nonbinary main character using he/him and they/them pronouns. But mixed pronouns for a point of view character written in third person may do reader’s heads in, so I stuck to they/ them. To balance the patriarchy and sexism of the Zaldeans, and ‘good guy’ Tarlahns, I’d need ‘gender non-comforming’ (read kick arse and highly competent ?) women: enter Ruarnon’s best friend Lenaris and General Takanis.

What of the Aussie characters? As recently as 2020 I thought, I really should write some more diverse characters. So Michael became an Aboriginal Australian. (The Murai were always BIPOC, and never colonised or enslaved). But what of LGBTQ+ and neurodiversity? Well, my aversion to labels had, it turned out, prevented me from identifying as nonbinary. I knew I was asexual, though only later in life did I hear of a-romantic. When I did, sure enough, I realised I’d subconsciously written a nonbinary main character (Ruarnon) and subconsciously written them as asexual and aromantic, with an Aussie offsider who was also asexual and aromantic (Linh).

Diverse Characters & Creating Character Voice

So it only seemed fair to give other LGBTQIA+ identities a place as well. When I thought about it, it made a lot of sense for people loving Troy to be pan-romantic. It wouldn’t just be trauma and a lone wolf nature that introverted Michael was quiet about, he’d be queer too. And it would be wrong not have lesbians. And in this day and age I feel trans people’s humanity needs to front and centre in their representation, so both trans women in this trilogy are in loving relationships.

I decided to give the portal characters their own personalities and voices by portioning my own character traits between them and exaggerating those traits. Again, only later in life with the benefit of much reflection, can I spot that Michael got my autistic traits, while Troy embraced my ADHD ones wholeheartedly and Linh I think has a smattering of both. Fiona was the ‘normal’ character, but she’s a sweety, so I think we can forgive her.

Internal Struggles

Ruarnon would carry the weight of their people’s survival on their shoulders. They would be a bookish heir, standing in the shadow of a war hero father, defending their people. Inexperience and an introverted personality would make them struggle to persuade others to follow them. They would be quiet and thoughtful, when the people are used to loud, large leaders swinging their spears around (yep, this would not be sword and sorcery ????).

As for Linh and my portal characters, having apparently stumbled into a fantasy world by accident (it wasn’t accidental ofcourse, but only later do they learn why), uncertainty would be the bain of their existence. Restlessness, and having to choose between staying safe and never seeing loved ones back home again would propel them into danger. And through the experience none of us wanted of uncertainty during a pandemic, their challenge would mirror ours. As may the strategies they would learn to maintain perspective and to manage their mental health.

L.O.T.R, Final Fantasy & Shakespeare

I love the fellowship in Lord of the Rings, and how close knit (after Edmund sees the light) the Pevensie children are. Friendship in the face of adversity was an obvious theme to explore. But so would be manipulation, treachery for self-gain and the struggle to sustain belief in what is right in the face of overwhelming opposition. That way was likely to lead to tragedy and is how I suspect studying Macbeth, and learning that tragedy in ancient Greek stories was thought to expunge the spirit of evil thoughts, bled into Manipulator’s War and Kyura’s character arc.

Another large thread of my Ruarnon Trilogy was influenced by playing Final Fantasy, a thread of mystery. I loved the experience in those games of learning about the big baddies piece by piece, fighting their lieutenants first, then finally meeting the big baddie in a dramatic in person clash.

Cozy Mysteries Influence

I also love murder mysteries, Midsummer Murders and Poirot being among my favourites. But the standard elements of a Who Dunnit are SO familiar to readers and viewers. I wanted something less predictable, an alternative, like why is Nartzeer only sending his lieutenants abroad to fulfil his will?

But the greatest mystery I could align with my story was who is Nartzeer, what does he want, and how can everything my characters learn about him be turned up-sidedown? How can Ruarnon and allies anticipate, let alone combat an enemy whose acts of hostility make no sense to them?

That mystery, and developing my ultimate antagonist, King Nartzeer and his backstory were my favourite parts in writing this trilogy. I hope you have (or will) enjoy reading Manipulator’s War and the Ruarnon Trilogy nearly as much as I enjoyed writing them.

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Related Reading

You’ll find Manipulator’s War and the rest of the Ruarnon Trilogy on my books page.

For more about me and my writing, see my interview by fellow author and poet Lily or my answers to fellow YA Fantasy author Nikky Lee’s 10 Questions.

For more about my queer identities: Identifying as Nonbinary, and What Does Pride Mean to You?

And my neurodiversity: I Think I’m Neurodiverse and Managing my Neurodiversity.

Why I Chose to Self Publish

Birds eye view of a market table lined with books and prospective browsing buyers.
Photo credit: Maico Pereira.

Self Publishing wasn’t the first publishing path that appealed to me. Nor were small presses. Like many writers, I figured I’d need a literary agent, because they’re the gatekeepers of middling to large publishing companies and because I didn’t know much about book marketing. Then I worked with multiple critical readers, discovered how difficult it is to know when you’ve finished editing, and figured an editorial agent would do nicely. But when I really thought about it, I was facing down all the usual querying obstacles, plus a couple of large experience-related and some personal ones. The following are the factors I weighed and measured before deciding to self publish my first trilogy.

The Early Querying Journey

It was fine at first. As anyone whose pitched an 80+ thousand word novel will tell you, writing 280 character tweet pitches is HARD. As is writing a query pitch. And a synopsis. All were challenges. I like challenges, and learning. I quickly found these things worked better when people helped each other. So I created a query letter critique group, which quickly became five Twitter DMs, each with five writers trading query letter feedback.

I made a Twitter DM for discussing querying, and another for tweet pitch critiquing and supporting each other in pitch parties (there were 3 of those at one point!) Then I consolidated query package feedback and query discussion onto a Craft & Querying Discord. I met fellow querying writers, we shared our journeys, helped each other hone our querying craft, and encouraged each other with the uphill struggle that is querying.

By the time I made my first foray into the querying trenches, I’d spent three months talking to querying writers. I was well aware I may need to send out 50 queries to get a few full requests. Later, I realised I could send out 100 queries and still get very few full requests, and no offer of an agent contract.

I saw friends write entertaining stories, with well rounded characters, querying till they ran out of agents to query (over two or three years), shelve book that book, write the next and query it. Yes, a very small minority did sign with agents and a few with a small press, but over a two year period, the vast majority didn’t.

Killer one: Time

I spent YEARS writing and more YEARS editing. I was studying full time and am still teaching full time. I’ve lived and worked overseas and generally done a lot. It doesn’t leave much time for writing.

By the time I’d pantsed a trilogy, re-written it, read up on writing craft and worked with critical readers -and completed a structural edit based on a manuscript critique- I was TIRED. It had taken 20 years for a series of novellas to become a fully drafted, near query-ready trilogy (with a second trilogy not far behind). So how did I feel about waiting years before someone else let me publish? Not very motivated.

If not for lockdowns bringing most things writing related to a grinding halt for me (yes, I queried in 2020), I’d intended to query at least 50 agents, over 6 months to an absolute maximum of two years, then move on. But the pandemic hit, lockdowns dragged on and it took me 1.5 years to query 19 agents and 14 presses. It was taking too long. I’d worked too hard, I just wanted my books published already!

Killer two: Interest

By this stage, I’d critiqued over an estimated 200 tweet pitches and probably around 50 query letters). I’d learned loads about what makes a good pitch. As much as I could from querying this particular novel, and I had a second ready. So I started pitching wip two in pitch parties and continued to hone my skills. But the issues I had with my pitches and queries now weren’t about general pitching skills. They were how best to pitch, in one case, a multi-pov, portal, epic fantasy in which writing only one pov in a query or synopsis felt like pitching a (misleading) book fragment. Compared to the first three months of query writing and critiquing, I was learning next to nothing. And because of that, I was losing interest.

Killer three: Patience and Tolerance

Here’s where my querying story differs. In my state one year teaching contracts are FAR more common than ongoing positions. So, almost every year, for 8 years, I’ve filled in the same bloody paperwork. I’ve updated the same six, single page mini essays, updated the same interview notes, and spent HOURS looking at potential jobs, schools etc. How does this relate to querying? Its a LOT like searching for agents. Do we have the same goals? The same work ethics? Will my style of teaching go well with this school/ my personality and writing style match this agent?

Querying is a numbers game, but so is continuing to have a job as a teacher. I forget how many jobs I applied for before getting my first. 50? 60? It was similar the second year and the third. By the forth (year in a row), I reached burn out after applying for 80 jobs that year alone. I went from enjoying reflecting on my teaching practice, to fed up. From hopeful and curious about where the next job was, to stressed about facing potential unemployment every year, while writing student reports, because job application season coincides with the busiest time of the teaching year.

Burnout and Swearing Time

In year four of job re-appling, I thought, fuck this shit, I want to go the Europe and travel. I calmed down, thought it through and moved to England, which has a serious shortage of teachers (understandable, given their system is brilliant at chewing teachers up and spitting us back out again). I went through agencies who found schools for me, and didn’t have to apply for as many positions.

When I returned to Australia, I applied for around 20 positions. In my eighth year of reapplying (yep, my eighth year in a supposedly professional job of proving I’m worth continuing to employ), I realised I was beyond burnt out, and past caring. I had so little interest in the reapplication process that I seriously considered leaving the profession, despite that I love and am just as passionate about teaching as I am about writing.

I didn’t leave teaching. Instead, I moved to New Zealand, where an agency asked my criteria for schools and handed my resume (yep, just a resume!) to four schools, the first offering me a job. This is when I began querying. The process of endlessly trying to make teaching application paperwork perfect, of spending countless hours researching who to send it to annually, the enormous investment over a period of weeks (usually 2 to three months) over eight years of teaching, was day one of querying for me. So my tolerance for doing the same shit over and over and getting the same results was low from the outset.

Killer Four: Marketability and Motivation

I may be wrong here. It may be that my YA Fantasy Manipulator’s War is sufficiently ‘fresh’, and ‘unique’ and ‘stand out’ enough for a literary agent and sizeable publisher to think it will sell. (Getting an honourable mention in the YA category for Pitch It may indicate so.) Maybe my writing craft and querying skills don’t do the marketable idea of my novel justice, and that’s why all 19 agents (yes, that’s not many) gave me form rejections. Maybe that’s why I had to pitch in around 15 pitch parties before getting my first (and second) literary agent like. But setting aside that YA Fantasy is very competitive, and visibility at pitch parties is almost winning the lottery in itself, my gut always said ‘prince’ (even a nonbinary one) + ‘war’ =’insufficiently original and marketable’ to appeal to a literary agent or sizeable publisher.

Yes, the right literary agent for it may exist. Yes, if I send enough queries, I may get lucky enough to one day query that agent. But in the face of waning interest for the process (a point I’ve reached with teaching twice, and overcome), with my impatience to have a book out, my intolerance of monotony and potentially endless waiting, doubt and lack of motivation tipped my scales for this trilogy well onto the side of ‘nope’.

Killer Five: the Need to Achieve

If you’re querying and plan to do so longer, I recommend also pursuing writing related things that let you experience a sense of achievement. Write a short story (and submit to anthologies!) Start your website, or a blog. Kick off your newsletter! Whatever you choose, make it something writing related you can point to and say: see? Finished! Because a novel without a literary agent or publishing contract can feel unfinished, and can make you feel like you aren’t achieving anything.

I didn’t set out to develop my author platform for this reason. Having moved back to Australia to spend lockdown with family, my personality clash with remaining indoors and extreme cabin fever made me so restless and unfocused that I couldn’t focus on wips. Building a website? Easy! Writing blogs? -perfect length! As for an author newsletter, I figured I needed to develop my voice in speaking to people as an author, and getting used to writing one would help me overcome imposter syndrome. So being me, I took on the website, blog and newsletter all at once (NB: don’t be me. Do one thing at a time -its much easier!).

Developing my author platform was fun, and engaging. It was new and novel and most importantly (as a former technophobe) it was a challenge which involved learning to do lots of new things. I was motivated and happy again, just as I’d felt when I began querying. But for me, the sense of achievement at having developed a blog, newsletter and website made me question. I wondered, why should I spend more time, effort and energy querying with (likely) no book to show for it, when with my blog and newsletter established, my next big step could be self publishing and having books to show for it?

Personality Factors

In considering which publishing path is right for you, I think personality is an important factor. The first time I considered that, I immediately thought: I’m adventurous, impatient, restless and a very sociable person. My personality is perfect fit for self publishing. My love of challenges and learning positions me well to learn to self publish, and book marketing clearly poses challenges and opportunities to learn new skills. In January 2021 I was thinking, is traditional publishing the right path for me on personality grounds alone? No. I’ll need to get lucky, because I have no desire to stick around for the numbers game of querying.

Industry Factors

What I say here is my personal -and not hugely informed impression- which is that the pandemic seemed to throw a spanner in the works of traditional publishing. I saw one agent talk at a conference where he said his agency quietly shut their doors to queries while editing with existing clients in 2020, then remained closed while putting those clients on submission in early 2021. I wondered, is this a shit time to be querying?

Then there are the issues of labour and supply shortages, (more details in this blog by Kathryn Rusch), which again make me think now is not a good time to debut in traditional publishing. In a few years, after I’ve self published my YA Fantasy trilogy? Then I’ll sniff the air, see what’s happening and maybe reconsider.


Alternatives? Small Presses?

Back in January I thought: let’s give small presses a shot. From conversations I’ve had with many people who enjoy fantasy, my YA Fantasy does have reader appeal. Perhaps a small press focused on fantasy and more willing to take a risk on a debut book than literary agents and big publishers, was a good idea. If I signed with a small publisher, I would still have an editor (and wouldn’t have to pay them out of my own pocket). I’d get to work with people with more editorial and marketing experience than myself. I assumed those conversations could be invaluable as a newbie author. And as a sociable person whose worked in close collaboration with colleagues in my varied teaching roles, I liked the idea of working with a small team to bring my book into the world.

How many presses did I query? At final count, 14. Why? Well, I was busy moving house, starting a new teaching job, then learning to teach students via video call over multiple lockdowns, which became a second big lockdown. It was exhausting, it was all consuming and 2021 wasn’t the right time for me personally to query.

The return to teaching on site was so hectic I figured I might as well throw out a final round of queries while I waited for the school year to end, and the time, headspace and energy to self publish. The summer school holidays (January) would be the best time to self publish my first book. If I didn’t do it then, I’d have to wait another YEAR to take control of when my book FINALLY became available to friends, family and colleagues I’ve been telling about it since FOREVER.

Do I Self Publish?

It would be a LOT to learn. LOTs of work. But I like learning. And challenges. I find them stimulating, interesting and energising. Everything that querying no longer is to me- self publishing is likely to be. Sure, I’ll probably make hardly any money and most likely won’t sell many books. I don’t care. I understand that you need a good back catalog to make money self publishing and that takes years, spending money and serious work. I’m prepared to tackle that. And I love teaching too much to give it up, so I’m not relying on writing to pay my bills or put a roof over my head. (I’ll be relying on teaching to pay for covers and editing very soon).

The thing that appealed to me most about self publishing, was that after two years getting my books and then query package to the best standard I could get them, self publishing is efficient. It moves fast. I could choose to make my book available in a matter of months, instead of waiting unknown years, over which I have no control, for other people to make that happen. After all the uncertainty covid brought into our lives, having the ability to make the decision to publish -and when- had more appeal to me than ever.

But what about the two years I spent honing my pitch craft and supporting other writers to hone theirs? Well, it should put me in good stead to write book blurbs, and advertising copy for my books. No skills will go to waste! (And yes, maybe I’ll query another trilogy/ series in future and have a head start in writing queries for them).

If I Self Publish, am I Quitting?

I once had this idea that I ‘wasn’t a quitter.’ The things is, we don’t always choose what’s best for us. I slogged through a job once, for as long as I could stand it. The day I handed in my resume, I could not stop smiling! I was so happy! Only then could I admit how much I hated working there!

Why did I ‘quit’? Because staying on would have meant killing myself trying to please people I believed were holding me (and everyone else) to ridiculous standards. They seemed to expect that we overwork ourselves (8am to 10pm Mon to Fri or spend all weekend working too), to the point we were under constant stress, always tired, didn’t have the energy or time to enjoy life. tI at least, was putting my mental health on the line for that stupid job.

Having had that experience with non-writing work, I don’t see choosing an alternate publishing path over querying as quitting. I tried a path for a particular trilogy. It wasn’t for me or that trilogy. Now its time to move forward on the path that lets me do just that.

Conclusion

For me, for my first trilogy, at this point in time: self publishing is the option I feel happiest and most motivated about. I can’t wait to dive in! (and probably will have by the time you read this.) Will I query something else in future? I’ve also written a MG Fantasy that’s high concept, and I feel is much more marketable. It will take time to hone its pitches (the one thing I haven’t done is paid critiques or querying workshops- which I would like to attend).

But in a couple of years, having brought closure on a trilogy I’ve worked on and off for over twenty years by self publishing it, and finished editing the SciFi Fantasy trilogy I’ve worked on, and off, for the same length of time, maybe I’ll query again. If, with rest, closure and the achievement of having published my first trilogy balances the above factors above the right way, and querying books appeals in future, yes, I’ll consider it.

Choosing Your Publishing Path

If you’re debating publishing paths, I suggest talking to other writers. Find out which personality factors, motivations, experiences and book goals led (or are leading them) to a particular path. Consider which of those factors do or don’t apply to your personality, skill set, lifestyle, book and goals, and to what extent. When you weigh everything up, which publishing path do you feel will best meet your needs? Your books needs? Is it one path for now, different paths for different books, or do you lean strongly to a single publishing path for everything?

2023 Addendum

Its been two years. book #1 and #2 are out in the wild, and book #3 (War in Sorcery’s Shadow) is set to join them in April 2024. Since going indie, I’ve seen a lot of anecdotal evidence of marginalised authors being gate-keeped out of traditional publishing. I’ve heard of the Great Resignation hitting editors at major publishing houses and seen literary agents posting about taking on a third job because agenting and their second job isn’t earning enough to pay their bills. The latter two seem to mean that manuscripts need to be close to publishable standard at the time of querying, requiring less input than in previous years from agents and editors alike.

Yes, a few more of my friends have signed with literary agents over the past two years. For the rest, it still seems an exceptionally competitive, soul destroying time to be querying, and traditional publishing still seems to be in a state of crisis, or at least a huge mess. With the death of Twitter seeing pitch parties suspended, post-poned or leaving the platform (updates on those in this post), even my idea of pitching my more marketable MG contemporary fantasy has little appeal.

Having heard mostly very bad news about the state of traditional publishing since before the pandemic, this queer, neurodiverse author currently feels that the best publishing path for their future books is indie. I’m now planning to self publish my middle grade Fantasy and YA SciFi trilogy, then review the state of trad publishing again in 2027/28, when I hope to begin writing a new series (I suspect I’ll be fully committed to staying indie by then, but never say never.)

Total Page Visits: 3170

Related Reading

Querying Your First Novel (a suggested querying process)

Publishing Paths Interviews

Halla Williams #Pitmad Success Story

Signing with an Indie Publisher

Indie Authors on Indie Authoring

Querying Your First Novel

Congratulations on finishing your novel! Savour the moment, then buckle up. There’s a whole new skill set to learn, resources to peruse and critique partners to work with, on your query and synopsis craft. To help you with this, and on the challenging and honestly, often discouraging querying journey, I’ll also delve into networking with querying writers for mutual support (you’ll need this!).

Crafting a Query Letter: Suggested Steps

Research: the Content of Query Letters

If you google ‘what should I put in my query letter’ you’ll get a list like:

-Greet the agent/ publisher by name

-write a hook for your book

-pitch your book in 2-3 paragraphs and around 300 words

-include two comparison titles which give an idea of the tone and style of your novel (within its genre and audience range, published in the last 1-5 years)

-write a short bio, including your day job and publishing credits (if applicable)

-thank the agent/ editor for their time

Research: How to Write Effective Queries

Query letter ingredient lists will tell you what goes in a query letter, but often neglect to tell you how a query letter is written. For example, the above list says nothing about how to craft a pitch which clearly introduces your main character, your conflict and the main characters personal stakes in it. It gives no advice on crafting a query likely to entice anyone to read your opening pages. To learn how to do these things, I suggest reading detailed resources like:

Patrick Bohan’s Mad Libs Formula Blog Post (a fictional query, which uses humor to nail pitching).

Susan Dennard’s first (and annotated) successful query letter.

My detailed query letter and query pitch break down.

Then read some of the 600+ successful query letter examples in your genre linked to this spreadsheet.

Take notes on what the above resources do that you haven’t, what they do more effectively than you have so far, and any ideas they give you for revising your query.

Query Revising and Critical Feedback

This is how I write and revise queries. Whether you’re editing for the first time or are mid-revision, I hope it gives a good idea of steps you can take to avoid VERY common premature querying.

  1. Revise query, multiple times.

2. Cross check query with notes on query letter ingredients to check you’ve included everything.

3. Read successful queries and detailed query advice blogs above (again). Make more notes on what they do well and you’re still revising.

4. Revise your query using step 3’s insights.

5. Feedback. Get writer feedback on your query. Author bias can blind you to how successfully you implement everything you’ve read. And as you know everything about your book, it can be very difficult to tell how clearly you’ve communicated your character, conflict and stakes to someone who knows nothing. As for your novel, so with your query letter and synopsis, fellow writers are your rear and sideview mirrors, helping you see your blind spots.

6. Content Revision. Revise using writer feedback (suggestions which fit your story, its tone etc). Your goal here is to get all the details that belong in a query pitch in, everything that obscures key pitch ingredients out, and to word everything clearly enough for unfamiliar readers to understand. This may take more than one round of feedback and revising.

7. Wording Revision. It’s easy to go round in circles of query pitch feedback, revise, query pitch feedback revise. BUT, I suggest once you and your readers are happy with your pitch contents, get one more round of feedback. When your pitch ideas are solid, it’s easier for other writers to suggest removing unnecessary words, rearranging your ideas for effect, or adding imagination catching details/ adjectives. Your goal this time is to polish your wording for maximum reader impact.

What Feedback Should I Discard?

Some query feedback might be, ‘but what about’ and ask you to explain EVERY thing your query mentions (or alludes to). In your query, it’s unimportant whether the murder victim was found inside, or outside, or on which day of the week. The ONLY thing that matters is the victim was found at your MC’s house, because that’s the inciting event which gives your MC personal stakes and pushes them into the conflict. The ins and outs don’t matter and are details which can overload the reader, and obscure your character, conflict and stakes.

As with beta readers, its handy to get feedback from multiple people. Do multiple people flag the same points as needing editing? Or does one get hung up on things you don’t think matter -and no one else seems to think they matter? And while feedback will aim to make your pitch sound great, does it represent your story and tone well enough? Or is that great suggestion open to misinterpretation, and potentially selling a story other than the one you wrote?

Query Readiness Checklist

According to you and writers who gave you feedback, does your query pitch clearly:

State your conflict, MC’s role in it and your MC’s (and world’s) stakes?

Include details which make your characters motives/ goals/ conflict/ stakes unique (eg. the MC is the only one without special powers)?

Evoke the tone/ style of your novel?

Is it around the 300 word mark?
(SFF may have good reasons for being nearer 400, but if you have only one point of view character and one main conflict, a 500 word query letter probably has details it doesn’t need, which can weaken your pitch.)

Do the writers who gave you feedback think its ready?
Yes, some feedback will be subjective and not a sign of unreadiness. No, not everyone will realise when they are or aren’t being objective, including you and all of your critical readers. This is where it gets messy, and having multiple people’s feedback agree can help you make decisions about what to edit and overall readiness.

A word of warning, “That sounds great to me, I don’t have any(more) suggestions,” may not mean your query is agent-ready. It may just mean that person hasn’t read enough successful queries, or spent enough time revising their own, or had enough experience critiquing pitches to identify and suggest possible improvements. So when using feedback to help you decide whether your query is ready, consider whether feedback from multiple writers agrees, AND how much pitch critiquing experience the people giving it have. If you know someone whose quite experienced with pitching and they can’t see any objective holes/ weak points -that’s a good sign of readiness.

Querying Resources, written on envelop with wax seal.

Realistic Expectations

Premature Querying

Querying writers I know have tended to either confidently begin premature querying, or not know when to stop editing and begin querying (or do both in that order.) So how can you judge querying readiness?

  1. After each major edit, did you shelve the book and query long enough that when you returned, you clearly, instantly spotted multiple areas for improvement? (For me, this is a good indicator of whether I still have the ability to view my work objectively, or have edited it too many times and lost perspective).
  2. Acting on the Best Feedback. Yes, as the person most invested in your book, you know it best and will spend the most time evaluating its and it’s pitches readiness. But don’t undervalue critical feedback just because it surprises you. Keep an open mind when considering critical reader feedback to act on. If you’re unsure, try it out. If it doesn’t work, you can be confident you’ve edited based on the best feedback you have and made your book and query the best you can.
  3. Do you think you AND and a second round of readers think you addressed the areas of development/ clarity your first critical readers raised?
    As a pantser, for me this step is crucial. My latest wip has been through three rounds of feedback, the first and second compensating for my tendency to underwrite, the third to forth targeting specific critical reader feedback and elaborating on ideas that gave me.
  4. If after 2+ rounds of critical reader feedback and editing, all you are doing is taking a word out here, substituting that word and generally making minor changes, then it sounds like you’ve done the best you can alone, with feedback. It’s time to let go, and send out your first round of queries!

The First Query Round

Querying in rounds is popular among Twitter’s #WritingCommunity. While those 5-10 queries are out, you’re taking a break from editing your query, hopefully talking to other querying writers, and perhaps pitching in pitch parties. This gives you more time to learn about querying and pitch craft, and to distance yourself from your query. After getting 5-20 form rejections -variations on ‘thanks, but no thanks, my opinion is subjective, other agents may disagree, etc’, you’ll likely realise you’ve learnt some new things. You may find that your query is not so ready as you had thought (many of us do to a greater or lesser extent ?).

Sending batches of queries gives you time, space, and a chance to revise, so agents you query later get a stronger version of your query. This is why I highly recommend not querying any agent you have any emotions about in the first round. Seriously, pick 10 or so agents who represent your genre and audience age, whose MSWL only vaguely relates to your manuscript (or just ticks ‘surprise me’), and query those ten agents.

“But what if one of them offers to represent me and there were others I wanted to query first?”, you ask. I’ve talked to several hundred querying writers, and do you know how many got an offer of representation on their first round of queries? Zero. Some got full requests, when querying their second, third or later novel, but they all resulted in rejection. If you can’t bare the thought of not having an agent you’re keen on in round one, pick the one you’re happiest to be rejected by, and query them.

Rejections

Time for the bad news. Expect rejections. Many of them. Expect form rejections, which will occasionally not even include your name or will spell it wrong. “Dear Author, Your book is not a good fit for my list at this time. Other agents may feel differently. Best of luck -Agent.”

You’ll see many variations of this. Some are helpful, for example, some form rejections say “the pages didn’t pull me in”. Then, you know your opening chapter, and perhaps manuscript need editing. So you can post pone sending your next round of queries until you’ve finished editing (yes, you may well need to pause querying to edit your MS. This is not unusual).

Do Rejections Signal an Issue with My Query or Pages?

Many rejections unfortunately, leave you guessing. Does my query or manuscript need more editing? Or did the agents not fall sufficiently in love with it to help me edit it to publisher submission standard? Do I need to work on my craft, or did the highly subjective (and competitive) nature of the industry mean I missed out on one of very few client vacancies at an agency?

If you keep getting short, vague form rejections, yes, your query may need editing and agents may not be reading your pages. But how many form rejections signals this?

I suggest seeing how many agents you want to query in total, then deciding after how many form rejections you want to edit your query package. That way, you’ve still got people to show your hindsight-benefitted, most polished query to. For example, if you’re only querying 60 agents, consider getting more feedback and editing at the 20 and 40 rejections marks, so you don’t get 50 rejections, THEN realise you need to fix something after most agents have rejected your query.

Personalised Rejections

These are RARE. I’ve had a form rejection from someone who requested my full manuscript. Yes, you might get personalised feedback on a query and opening pages an agent really liked, but didn’t think they had the editorial or marketing experience to take on. But don’t expect personalised feedback. Even if you get a full request, be aware that you may get not only a rejection, but a form rejection. When I first started talking to querying writers early in 2020, personalised feedback for (full or partial) requests was the norm, but unfortunately that has changed.

Why Was My Manuscript Rejected?

Reasons we’ve read about and discussed in one of my querying groups.

“The pages didn’t pull me in.”

“There wasn’t enough voice/ the voice didn’t resonate with me.”

“I don’t have the burning passion required to provide one or more sets of edit notes to prepare your novel for submission to a large publisher and to sell it.”

“I don’t feel I have the editorial experience to help you prepare this particular book for submission.”

“Don’t believe I have the knowledge/ experience or contacts to sell this particular book.”

“One of my clients has or is planning to write something similar to your book,” and existing clients come first.

I say ‘particular book’ because maybe they rep SFF and you sent them an SFF of a sub-genre or with a strong theme or element they don’t have experience with. So your book could be ‘of the genre’ an agent represents and still not the right fit.

Then there are things form rejections are too polite to mention: underdeveloped characters, underdeveloped plots, structural issues like lack of story tension and pacing, and general craft issues.

If you’ve bothered to read this post down to here, I doubt you’ve skipped enough homework to have this issue, but critical readers only have so much time to analyse your writing and communicate feedback to you, and sometimes things get missed that way. That’s another reason I like a second round of critical readers for everything -they may catch things the first round missed, or tried to tell you, but couldn’t convey clearly enough.

If there’s any chance you still harbour unrealistic querying expectations, here’s literary agent Rachelle Gardner’s list and rebuttal, covering unrealistic expectations all the way to promotion and sales.

Don’t have a ‘Dream Agent’

Bearing in mind everything I’ve said about rejections, don’t have a dream agent. As you’ll see in Jericho Writers article Having Realistic Expectations, one agent may receive several thousand queries a year and sign 2-3 authors a year. In New York, those are the odds. The chances of you getting an agent aren’t good, while the chances of being offered a contract by your dream agent are astronomical.

When researching an agent, I’d just take a cursory look at why they may be a good fit for you and your books -or why not. Then read/ view a bare minimum of details to perhaps personalise your query (if you have a relevant connection) and try not to get attached!

So the odds aren’t good and querying is a ton of work- Now What?

Find Your Querying Community!

If you’ve read the How I Got My Agent or Indie Publisher interviews on this blog, you’ll notice a common theme is how important and helpful community has been to these authors. I created a group of querying writers on Twitter in March 2020, then one on Discord in September. Sharing our experiences, advice and helpful resources we found with each other (I’ve cataloged resources here), taught me pretty much everything I needed to know about having realistic expectations. Being in querying writer groups also made participation in pitch parties an infinitely better experience.

Where Can You Meet Querying Writers?

I’d search hashtag’s like #AmQuerying or #Querying using the search function on your favourite writing community social media. If that’s Instagram, Blue Sky, Mastodon or the dead bird app, you’re likely to find individual writers posting about querying that way, and have the opportunity to interact with them.

Before & During Twitter Pitch Parties

Tweet to say you’re pitching, on the party hashtag. If you’d like to trade pitch feedback, say so. To get to know other pitching writers, ask them to share a pitch, mood board or other information about their novel to encourage them to interact.

If you’re happy to comment (word is this is just as effective a boost as RTs) on fellow writers pitches, say so. Talking to writers by commenting on their pitches and replying to their comments on yours is a great way to get to know fellow querying writers and to make friends. If you’re not in a pitch DM Group, its also a great way to feel less alone in a sea of pitching writers.

But I think the best option (in addition to posting) is trying to find a Direct Message Group of pitching writers, where pitch feedback, comments and rts may all happen, along with conversation and company. This gives you people to ask party, agent or querying related questions of, to get help from and to cheer on and be cheered on by. Its my favourite way to pitch in parties and the sole reason I’ve pitched in so many. Other writers make it fun, I’ve enjoyed their company and they’ve helped motivate me when the odds would otherwise have made me give up.

Finding Querying Writers On Discord

Originally a space for gamers to create their own forums, a lot of writers groups started on Discord in 2020. The Strictly Writing Discord Community (of which I’m co-admin) has a channel for querying discussion, one for seeking/ giving pitch feedback and one for seeking/ giving query letter and synopsis feedback. If you’d like an invite to access it, send me a message on my contact page, or reply to my posts about Discords on Blue Sky or Mastadon.

To search for other Discord servers, you can you use your social media search bar to see who’s been posting about their server, by typing ‘Discord’ and ‘#WritingCommunity’/ writers into it.

Where can I find Literary Agents?

For resources introducing you to literary agents (including warnings on finding a reliable, non-shonky one), databases to find literary agents and what they’re looking for, and advice on communicating with them, see Querying & Literary Agents in my Querying Links post.

How Long Do I Query?

This is a question to which I think every querying writer should have an answer. Sure, it would be great to sign up with a literary agent and a big publisher. But how many years and hours of your life are you prepared to invest in that process? And what if the novel you’re querying isn’t the one that will appeal to literary agents (or that publishers think will sell)? What if no-one you submit to feels the connection and burning passion required to help you edit that first novel and sell it?

If you post saying you’re thinking of giving up querying, many well meaning writers will reply encouraging you to keep it up. But some writers don’t sign a contract with a literary agent until their third, fourth or later book (or don’t get a literary agent).

So how long are you prepared to query each wip? If 100+ agents represent your genre and audience age, will you query them all? How many rejections suggests this book is not marketable (money making enough) for agents/ big publishers to take it on? 50? 100? Every agent you can find? Do you have other wips you want to query and when will it be their turn? And how long do you think you can sustain balancing querying, writing the next book, your life and wellbeing? (Burn out is real, and mental health matters!)

Things I Suggest Considering While Querying Long Term

How is my mental health?

When do I need a break from querying and how long for?

Have I fallen out of love with writing, and do I need to take time off querying to focus on writing and just enjoying the creative process again?

Do I know enough querying writers or need to extend my querying community for support?

Am I open minded to querying small presses and if so, when should I start?

Am I open minded to self publishing? Do I wish to learn more about it while querying? If I’m prepared to self publish, how much time do I want to spend querying before switching publishing paths?

If you somehow made it to the end of one of my longest blogs, well done and more importantly, I wish you well on your querying journey!

Further Reading

Query Letters

Patrick Bohan’s Mad Libs Formula Blog Post (a fictional query, which uses humor to nail pitching).

Susan Dennard’s first (annotated) successful query letter.

My detailed query letter and query pitch break down.

Querying Links: Letters Through to Literary Agents

Pitch Parties

Twitter Pitch Parties

Crafting A Quality Pitch

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Expectations

Having Realistic Expectations by Jericho Writers.

Rachelle Gardner’s list and rebuttal of unrealistic expectations.

Querying Writer Communities

My Craft and Querying Discord.

Or search your favourite social media for ‘Querying’ and ‘Discord’ and see what you can find.

Publishing Paths Interviews

Halla Williams #Pitmad Success Story

Signing with an Indie Publisher

Indie Authors on Indie Authoring

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