A Fantasy Author's Adventures in Fiction & Life

Tag: Writer Advice (Page 1 of 2)

LGBTQIA+ Visibility

Writing Diverse Characters LGBTQIA+ will cover; general advice on referring to humans’ gender and romantic/sex lives in a queer inclusive way, that doesn’t perpetuate the myth of heteronormativity. It will offer suggestions on writing that queer rep that is visibly inclusive of a range of LGBTQIA+ identities, avoiding erasure, and some tips on writing authentic LGBTQIA+ representation.

As a child, I assumed books referring to ‘humans’ were talking about men, women and children. By around age eight (in the 1990’s), I became aware that history was mostly written about men, by men, for men. Meanwhile most news was about men and lo and behold, men were the usual main characters in fiction. I grew up in a world that frequently ignored, omitted and when it got away with it, excluded women, let alone the entire LGBTQIA+ community.

Now I write as a nonbinary, asexual, aromantic person who mostly encounters fiction which ignores, excludes and appears mostly oblivious to the existence of my gender and sexuality. This is why I want writers to make conscious word choices, which allow people of any gender or sexual orientation to see themselves in your writing and to perceive themselves as belonging in the world of your fiction. So I’ll start there, before looking at writing specific queer identities.

In How Not To Write Diverse Characters, I mentioned the inherent bias and prejudice of the world in which we have all been raised. In relation to perceiving gender in books, there’s the still the chance readers will assume your use of the words; ‘doctors’, ‘police,’ ‘lawyers,’ ‘scientists,’ ‘soldiers’ and jobs in historically male-dominated fields refer to men. Conversely, they may assume your ‘teachers’ and ‘nurses’ are women and that no term refers to nonbinary people.

To get around this, I suggest also using gendered nouns when referring to people whose job title readers may assume refer to men. In my Ruarnon Trilogy, the umbrella term for nonbinary genders is ‘midlun.’ So when referring to soldiers, I refer to ‘men, women and midluns’. In our world, you could refer to ‘men women and nonbinary people.’ Explicitly mentioning nonbinary people has the added bonus of implying that ‘men’ and ‘women’ both very much include trans men and trans women.

This is simple. A character mentions having a crush on someone, dating someone, finding someone attractive or having a partner. Do you have other characters respond using gender neutral language, until they know the pronouns/ gender of the love interest/ partner?

This is not just gender diverse inclusive by not assigning gender on the basis of names. Its acknowledging that people of any gender can be attracted to any gender and that gay, lesbian, bi and pansexual identities exist and it challenges the idea that cis/heterosexual is the ‘norm.’

Your characters use of gender neutral language in reference to, and their interest in the love interest/partner suggests and normalise those characters acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and pansexual relationships. A small gesture from you as a writer, that can mean a lot to readers within the LGBTQIA+ community.

If you’re a cis, binary gender writer, you may not yet feel ready to (having researched us), include nonbinary characters in your cast. But you can acknowledge the existence of nonbinary people, and help the world realise we exist without doing that.

Little things, like having a toilet with an icon of a person half in a dress and half in pants to signal a gender neutral toilet. Or including ‘Mx.’ as on option for titles in paperwork your characters fill in. Hell, you could go wild and have a department store with a gender neutral clothing section instead of Ladies-wear and Mens-ware only! (I would LOOOOOVVVVE this! Why on earth does clothing almost ALWAYs ‘have’ to be sold by binary gender? GAH!)

Again, even if you have no trans or nonbinary characters, when characters meet new people in your fiction, have them mention their pronouns as well as their names. Having someone say, “Hey, I’m Tom, he/him” acknowledges that just because Tom’s biological sex is likely male doesn’t mean he is therefore, necessarily male. And when you stop assuming that, you signal the possibility that trans and nonbinary people exist. Suddenly we’re no longer invisible in the world of your writing.

Try to be conscious of situations where characters take on gender roles, or are divided and required to act by gender. I don’t just mean go beyond sexist, heteronormative tropes like dad is the breadwinner, and mum is stay at home housewife (cue vomit). Be conscious of fields and jobs in our world (like front line soldiers, or in the Australian conservative political party, cabinet ministers) where women tend to be excluded and men to dominate.

If you’re going to have female sex workers, have male ones. Female strippers? Where are the naked men? Housewife? Where’s the house husband? Why are all the presidents men? Write more male teachers, nurses and happy, healthy fathers! Write women soldiers/ crime bosses, presidents etc. Have nonbinary characters do literally any job under the sun; because if we’re out, we’re not going to let biological sex get in our way!

Bottom line; consciously avoid limiting roles by gender! (Unless its your plot/ historical, BUT some people have ALWAYS defied binary gender norms –look at women pirates of the 19th and 20th centuries, for eg.)

In My Big Fat Wedding 3, there’s a scene where the bride asks women to line up on one side of the room and copy her dance, and the groom asks men to line up on his side and copy his dance. And I thought, but what will the nonbinary character do?

First they danced with the men and did the men’s dance. Then they switched to the women’s side and did the women’s dance. The other dancers were visibly fine with this. Its a great example of how characters in your story may adhere to traditional gender norms, but there can still be a place for gender nonconforming characters.

So if you have traditional gender roles in your writing, how will you create space for nonbinary and gender nonconforming people to exist in your fictional world?

I’m a BIG fan of Wheel of Time and well aware it was written before it occurred to nonbinary people such as myself that we needn’t accept ill-fitting binary pronouns, nor conform to binary norms, nor had even heard the word ‘nonbinary’. So I don’t feel left out when women wield Saidar, and men wield Saidin and nonbinary people don’t seem to exist in the world the wheel weaves. But if you’re writing now, and planning a gendered magic system —don’t forget to think carefully how you’ll include gender nonconforming people!

In my third novel (War in Sorcery’s Shadow), magic and its wielders live in hiding. Children who can wield magic are taught by secret organisations. Sorcery being first mastered during a sexist age, and used in violence against women, Luvaras Priests (Luvaras being god of sorcery) teach boys magic, and Luvaras Priestesses created a safe space to teach girls magic separately.

But if magical education is binary gendered, and gendered behaviours are encouraged because of the gender segregation of magical learning, what about kids who aren’t binary male or female? Who teaches them? So came a third order, The Devoted, adults of various nonbinary genders who educate children of similar identities. Unbound by binary notions of gender, these tend to be the most flexible, and some of the most highly skilled sorcerers on Umarinaris. (Also because many of them are neurodiverse, and or physically disabled).

My point being: consider situations where a scene may divide your characters by gender, and consciously create a space for nonbinary and gender nonconforming characters to be present as their authentic selves.

Situations where people relate to one another, select their clothes and otherwise behave according to binary gender ‘norms’ are when I feel most like a bystander, a visitor passing through (yes, I relate to Dr Who in this) in life and fiction. Its a big disconnect I’ve felt my whole life. And spending a moment to phrase a sentence gender inclusively, or mention a minor character’s nonbinary existence in passing can easily change that disconnection for your gender-nonconforming readers to a feeling of inclusion.

Writing Visible Trans Characters

I assume if you’re still reading, I assume you disagree with US states legislating gender diverse people out of existence and are concerned about respectfully representing trans people in your fiction. I’ve spoken to writers who’ve said, ‘I write my trans woman as a woman, because she’s a woman, but how do I show that she’s trans?’
If you don’t indicate she’s trans, let alone show it clearly, there’s every chance she’ll be cis-washed by cis readers who assume she’s yet another cis woman.

Trans Visibility

If your character has socially (and perhaps medically) transitioned and is living their best life presenting as their gender identity, how do you indicate that they are indeed trans? How do you respectfully let trans readers see themselves on the page and acknowledge and normalise the existence of trans characters in your writing? How do you do so in a way that feels natural to the story and doesn’t come across as forced?

It could be as simple as a pronoun slip. A character refers to your trans/ nonbinary character by the wrong binary pronoun, then apologises and corrects the pronoun. If the pronoun change occurred in recent years, you could even have another character comment about, ‘we’re all learning’, to indicate that characters are still adjusting to the trans character’s social transition.

What if you want to be more explicit, and ensure that trans presences in your work are indeed seen, and not cis-gender washed? You could go further, as Dr Who did with Donna’s trans daughter Rose. In a scene where boys are teasing Rose as she enters her house, Donna’s mother says to Donna, ‘They didn’t pick on him when he was– sorry.’ Thus Rose’s trans identity is explicitly shown, in a respectful manner.

For more on writing trans characters, see this great advice by Charlie Jane.

Nonbinary Visibility

This can also be as simple to reveal as a pronoun slip. When my nonbinary character Ruarnon meets a foreign dignitary who refers to Ruarnon as ‘he’, Ruarnon’s advisor says, ‘their Benevelonce uses they.’ For people who are ‘up’ with pronouns, its clear we’re dealing with a nonbinary character.

The catch is, I came out as nonbinary in 2020 and had a complete stranger politely respond to my public request to be referred to as they/them by saying, ‘I’m not sure what that means.’ This amounted to, ‘I don’t know what ‘nonbinary’ means.’ My family and colleagues response was pretty much, ‘We like/ love you, but we don’t really get what nonbinary is.’

So how can writers explicitly and respectfully signal that a character is nonbinary (and perhaps what that could mean)? And how will this be relevant to the story?

Nonbinary Visibility and Inclusive Language

This is where inclusive language choices come in. When you are referring to a crowd, consider how you refer not just to ‘men and women’ or ‘ladies and gentleman.’ In my Ruarnon Trilogy, I invented a word for nonbinary (midlun) and when naming genders I state; men, women AND midluns.

If there’s a show, consider ‘ladies, gentlemen and friends beyond the binary,’ or if you’re North American, ‘guys, gals and nonbinary pals.’ Consider, ‘colleagues,’ ‘friends’, ‘folks’, ‘people’ or a gender inclusive term instead of ‘ladies’ when its a group of women and one nonbinary person, or vice versa with men. (Every time people at work address me and female colleagues as ‘ladies’ I have to remind myself that they include me in that term, because I’ve never seen myself in it and would otherwise feel excluded by it).

Beyond that, if your they/them has a beard and is wearing a dress, or doesn’t wear make up when everyone else expects them to, or pairs a ‘men’s’ top with a ‘women’s’ skirt or makes gender ambiguous clothing choices —we’ll get the picture. Especially with gender inclusive language and nonbinary pronouns in use (whether it be they/them pronouns or neo pronouns like ne/nir).

Asexual Visibility

Again, I’m flagging this individually as a lesser known queer identity, in this case one the asexuals I know often feel writers get wrong. A common mistake seems to labelling a character as ‘asexual’ and then having them behave like an allosexual person. If you want to write an asexual character, the first thing you need to do is know that asexual (like ‘nonbinary’) is an umbrella term and will present in different ways for different asexual people.

So when it comes to actually showing an asexual character, you might show them date someone and become very emotionally attached before showing any signs of being sexually attracted to them (demisexual). You may have a character who will read/ view a sex scene but expresses disinterest in having sex with another person (aegosexual). You may write a character who expresses no interest in sexual or romantic relationships and is perfectly content with the platonic relationships in their life (*waves in aromantic asexual*).

If you don’t know much about asexuality or writing asexual characters, The Asexual Awareness and Education Centre is a good place to start.

Bi and Pansexual Visibility

To step out of my lane for a moment, don’t be the heterosexual writer who writes ‘bisexual’ or ‘pansexual’ characters who only ever demonstrate attraction to, or interest in, the opposite biological sex. Absolutely, your bisexual or pansexual character could be a woman in a long-term, monogamous relationship with a man, or vice versa (and yes, still totally bi/ pan). But if you only write that character attracted to or showing interest in people of the opposite biological sex (and their life isn’t endangered by demonstrating queer attraction); you’re mislabelling a heterosexual character ‘bisexual/ pansexual’/ or just plain misrepresenting bi/pansexual people.

Writing outside your identity means writing outside your personal life experience. It means questioning every assumption and thing you personally consider ‘normal’. For queer identities, this can mean throwing everything you know/ assume/ have personally experienced about gender, sexual and romantic attraction out the window. Don’t forget to step out of your shoes, before trying to step into those of a character from a different identity to yours.

Queer Character and Relationship Visibility & Queer Normative

If you haven’t explicitly decided whether settings in your book are going to be queer normative, queer positive or trans/homophobic, now is the time to decide. Will it be safe for recognisably queer couples to engage in public displays of affection? Will your same-sex couples dance intimately together on the public dance floor? Will they kiss at sunset on the beach? Will you have a same-sex married couple(s) or marriage?

What spaces are publicly out trans and nonbinary people seen and known to occupy? Which positions and which institutions are trans, nobinary and recognisable characters of all LGBTQIA+ identities employed in? The level of LGBTQIA+ normativeness/ acceptance etc can be clearly indicated by these things. (Same can be asked and shown of women characters and levels of sexism in your society).

Queer Normative Representation in Speculative Fiction

If you’re writing speculative fiction, this is where you can say ‘yes’ to all of the above. Heck, you can write a world where whenever a character mentions being attracted to someone or having a partner, no one makes assumptions about that person’s gender.

You can write a world in which no one refers to a child using binary pronouns until that child has decided and articulated which pronouns fit them (and in which everyone respects that child changing their mind, because its for the individual to identify their gender, not for society to impose gender on anyone).

If only the heterosexual couple get to kiss, you’ve normalised that, but are you also normalising the idea that queer couples don’t (or shouldn’t) display affection for each other? Or are you writing a queer couple in a way that homophobic readers can easily interpret as ‘just friends’, thus erasing their queer identities?

If you genuinely want to write inclusively I’m sure the above is not your intention. The problem is the above interpretations align with age-old prejudices and are easy for readers to make, if there is a double standard in how you present marginalised vs. non-marginalised sexualities. So be conscious of times when you treat a marginalised character differently (in anyway, full stop), how you’re treating them differently and clear on your purpose in doing so.

Inclusive Fiction Examples

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3 has a nonbinary mayor who is the epitome of queer joy, and a perfect example of letting a character be their authentic queer self and other characters being cool with it.

Umbrella Academy (Netflix) has a trans and a nonbinary pansexual main character, who just happen to be two of seven siblings at the centre of the world’s destruction. Its also in the ‘be gay, do crime’ genre, trans Victor being very troubled and destructive, and Klaus a (recovering) drug addict. This is a great example of how when characters just happen to be marginalised, they can also happen to be anything else. (Fall of the House of Usher takes ‘be gay, do crime’ to even greater extremes, though serious dark horror warning on that one).

Imperfects (Netflix) does double duty with an asexual character whose sexuality is initially shown through her taste in skin-covering, not-too-clingy clothing, who’s romantically attracted to women.

People To Help You Write The Other

Find Sensitivity Readers or Editors

Bisexual/ Pansexual/ Fluidity Sensitivity Readers Spreadsheet (lists emails of 100+ sensitivity readers, courtesy of @saltandsagebook).

As with other marginalised identities, post on whichever social media you use, and or search posts for sensitivity readers (I’ve seen a few offering their services on Bsky).

Writing Diverse Characters (3): LGBTQIA+ Incusivity

Further Reading/ Resources Linked Further Above

Insights from my blogs;
Identifying as Nonbinary
What Does Pride Mean to You?

The Asexual Awareness and Education Centre

Charlie Jane’s Article on Writing Trans Characters

My blogs on How Not To Write Diverse Characters

And on Writing Neurodiverse and Disabled Characters


Publishing Paths, a Multi-Author Interview

Like many writers, I liked the sound of working with a literary agent, receiving editorial feedback and signing with a (big) traditional publisher, who would help with marketing. The dream was write full time and earn a living from it. But with the pandemic, the publishing industry catching fire, supply chain issues, the great resignation hitting editors etc, let’s just say 2020-2021 was a particularly bad time to be querying.

What about small presses? Many querying authors only query literary agents, so the competition would be less extreme. I wouldn’t have to pay out of pocket for cover art or editing and they may still offer marketing advice. But querying was such a passive, SLOW experience for me, and as an active person whose ADHD has two speeds (FAST and sleeping) querying was a terrible match for me. And so I began my indie authoring journey. I’m two books in, with book 3 of my trilogy on preorder. I haven’t had time (or the health) to promote or sell many books yet… though I still love being indie.

But I’m just one person. We all bring different life experiences, skill sets, brains (mine being neurodiverse), temperaments, personalities, needs, expectations and goals to the process. How can you be sure which publishing path is right for you (or for a particular project)? I pursue that by interviewing 5 authors on different publishing paths about why they chose that path, how it meets their needs, why it’s working for them and what turned them off alternatives.

Which publishing path are you on?

Head and shoulders shot of Adam in a red shirt, smiling, seated on a couch with a house plant in the background. Adam had short brown hair, a short beard, blue eyes and is caucasian.
Waist up shot of Maggie wearing a purple, blue and pink scarf wrapped around the lower half of her face, black glasses and her light brown hair half out, half tied back.
Black and white portrait of Megaera in a coloured, checked shirt, short hair combed to the right, wearing dark lipstick, with pale skin contrasting with the black background.

Adam J
Currently pursuing traditional publishing; I have queried once, in 2021 (unsuccessfully), and plan to query another book this year.

Maggie Stone
Pursuing traditional publishing. I only sent a few queries for my first book before pulling back to retool, then switched genres and landed an agent with my second book.

Megaera Lorenz
I’m publishing traditionally with a small press, CamCat Books. I sold my debut novel to them without an agent about a year ago. 

Headshot of Mara wearing a big toothy smile, natural pink/red lipstick, long brown hair flowing over shoulders and a green, embroidered top.
Head and shoulder shot of Joyce (caucasian) wearing a blue brimmed hat, glasses, blonde hair tied back and a bright blue shirt.

Mara Lynn Johnstone

I’m going the indie route for the foreseeable future.

Joyce Reynolds Ward
I am a hybrid writer. While I’m not actively on submission at the moment, I have published around thirty short stories in various anthologies and magazines. My novels, however, are strictly self-published. I had one minor flirtation with small press publication and…it did not go well. I was fortunate enough to get reversion letters for both books before the publisher crashed and burned.

What Appeals Most About Your Publishing Path?

Querying Agents

Adam J: I like the notion of having a team to work with (an agent, editor, cover designer, publicist) with experience in the publishing industry, who can guide me and my books forward. Also, there is a certain repute in having your book chosen by the various gatekeepers of publishing. While I realize that’s mostly bunk — the true judges of any book are its readers — there’s still that little voice in my mind that says I want my book to be good enough to make it through those gatekeepers.

MS: Echoing everything Adam said. I’m not equipped to do this myself, either in skill or in financial resources. Being in a team, a network, gives me the drive to keep going instead of growing anxious over the small details.

Small Press 

ML: love the collaborative, personalized nature of working with an indie press. The CamCat team has been very supportive. They’ve worked with me closely or at least gotten my input on just about every aspect of the publication and production process, including developmental and line editing, finalizing the cover design, creating a marketing plan specific to my book, and even selecting an audiobook narrator.

Indie Author

MLJ: I like being able to take my books from idea to finished product at my own pace, without having to wait years for other people to decide they’re worthwhile. And I also like having the final say over my own covers. 

JRW–Short stories can gain a lot of visibility for any novelist, depending on the market. Novels are where I really turn myself loose to write what intrigues me.

What do you find most challenging about it?

Querying

Adam J: As much as I’d like to say it’s always the quality of the book that makes it worthy of traditional publication, a major element is luck, whether that’s with timing, finding the right person, or hitting the right trend (and sometimes, sadly, luck supersedes quality). There is also a massive time investment often with very little return, and it can be quite a mental struggle to overcome the sheer volume of rejection.

MS: Again, Adam’s beaten me to what I would say. Having a good book isn’t good enough. You have to have a good book that fits what a publisher is looking for now – not that you have to write to a publisher’s specifications, but if they’ve recently acquired (e.g.) two workplace romcoms, they might not be looking for another one right now. Rejection is bad. You can help mitigate it with the right support group, but it’s still going to hurt.

Indie Author

MLJ: Definitely getting the word out. Building an audience is slow when you don’t have a publisher’s advertising budget. 

JRW–Market churn for both the short stories and self-published novels. I tend to say that marketing changes every quarter–that is definitely true for self-publishing, and sadly these days it seems like the magazine market is much the same way.

Which Skills or Life Experiences Help You On Your Chosen Path?

Querying Agents

Adam J: I’ve worked both as a professor at a large institution and as a government consultant, so I’m used to things moving far slower than they really need to (oh, bureaucracy) and I’m also used to rejection, as in consulting you don’t win every contract you bid on. I suppose these impart upon me a certain measure of patience and a thicker skin, both necessary survival traits for the world of traditional publishing.

MS: Also a government person and used to things moving slowly. But I also had a previous life as a musician, so balancing love of creative arts with the (unpleasant) practical aspects of that life (rejection and whatnot). Also, dealing with mental health issues for decades means I’ve built a library of coping mechanisms for when rejections come.

Small Press

ML: I have a lot of professional experience writing educational copy for a general audience, which is an advantage when putting together succinct, snappy pitch materials (such as query letters, blurbs, synopses, and elevator pitches). I’m good at boiling complicated concepts down to their essentials.

Indie Author

MLJ: I’m good at organizing and planning, all that meticulous stuff that’s stereotypically not always part of the artist brain. I’m very glad that I can keep track of everything that needs doing! And my secondary interest after writing has always been visual art, so I’m working on levelling up my skills to where I can reliably make my own spectacular book covers. I’m getting there.

JRW: A couple of years working as a complex securities litigation paralegal as well as ten years of special education case management has helped with the organizational piece.

Why did you prioritise this path?

Querying Agents

Adam J: Admittedly, when I started writing, it was the only way I knew existed. I’ve learned much since — including that marketing kidlit through indie publishing is one of the hardest paths to take (kids don’t buy books online). As I write middle grade, I’m sticking with traditional publishing for now.

MS: This path, if successful, would be most compatible with my skills. I’m not a marketing expert/business manager. Obviously, even with traditional publishing, there’s housekeeping stuff I’d have to take care of, but traditional publishing puts me in a network with shared resources, and has a wider distribution network than I’d be able to establish on my own.

Small Press

ML: I prioritised traditional publishing as opposed to self-publishing because I knew it would help me a lot to have the support of a team that understands how the industry works. I’m a good writer, and I enjoy certain parts of the marketing process, but I have very little business acumen and almost no budget for things like advertising, hiring a professional editor and cover designer, and so on.

Indie Author

MLJ: My original plan was to get an agent, and seek fame and fortune in traditional publishing. But after fifteen years of querying, with multiple novels and many near-acceptances, I finally decided that I was better off self-publishing the many books I’d written in that time.
The current state of the publishing industry made it an easy choice: I’d been active on Twitter at the height of publishing activity there, and I saw firsthand how many editors got laid off from the big publishing houses during the pandemic, how many agents had to leave the industry due to burnout or unsustainability, and how many trad pub authors weren’t getting any more support from their publishers than the average indie writer got from their friends. Self-publishing is a far more viable option than when I first started querying.

JRW: While my short stories have found homes, my books generally received rejections along the lines of “love your voice, love your work…can’t sell it.”

If you haven’t already said, why did you choose against
alternative publishing paths?

Adam J: I’d love to make writing my full-time job, but I know I still have a lot to learn. I also know that the best way to make money (as any kind of author) is with a back catalogue to build a following on. If I go for indie publishing now, and fail, my chances of making it into traditional publication are even less, and I don’t have many books to market. But if I go for traditional publishing first, and fail, I’ll have a back catalogue of books that I think are publishable to turn around and market as an indie author.
I’ve set myself a milestone: if I write ten publisher-ready books and still can’t get a publishing deal, then I’ll turn to indie publishing.

ML: Mostly due to the reasons I mentioned above. However, I was always open to alternatives if the traditional path didn’t work out. I had a three-part plan: try querying agents first, then go directly to small presses that accept unagented material, then do self-pub if the other options didn’t work out. I’d been querying agents for about six months when I saw that CamCat was having a pitching event on Twitter, and I decided on the spur of the moment to toss my pitch into the ring. They liked it, I sent them a query, and a couple months later I had signed with them. I couldn’t be happier with how it worked out.

MLJ: I found that the support I’d been hoping to get from an agent and a publishing house wasn’t likely to live up to the hype, while I could get similar support from a network of writer friends. Better, in some ways! 

If you haven’t already said, what do you see as the main advantages of querying agents, querying small presses, self-publishing or a mix?

Querying Agents

Adam J: There used to be more that traditional publishing could offer over indie publishing, but it’s fairly balanced now. One of the nice things about traditional publishing is that your primary investment is time — even if you don’t get a large advance, you still do not have to pay people to edit your book, design your cover, or (sometimes) run a marketing campaign.
And there are still connections to bookstores, school visits for kidlit, or major conferences that traditional publishers can get, which indie publishers may find more difficult. However, with indie publishing, you have full control, and everything can happen much faster: when you are ready to publish your book, it gets published.

MS: A benefit of having an agent is that I no longer have to focus on a sub list. She reaches out to editors, checking in with me on the way to see if I have input, and handles all that. It takes a load off of me so I can focus on writing, and leaves open the possibility of landing a contract that will be more financially beneficial to me.
Small press, while it means me still handling my own subs, has a faster turnaround time. There are also smaller advances (or sometimes no advances), but the contracts are often one-book, meaning you can easily change your mind after your first book if the experience doesn’t work for you anymore. Indie gives you complete control, if that’s what you’re looking for.

Small Press

ML: The main advantage of working with an agent is that they help authors navigate the complexities of the publishing process and also give them opportunities to get their work in front of publishers and editors who wouldn’t otherwise look at it.

Querying small publishers directly cuts out the middleman and spares authors the agony of finding an agent (not just any agent, but the right agent), which really is a brutal slog. For books that don’t necessarily fit the mould of whatever mysterious marketing trends agents are currently looking for, this can also be a good alternative.

Self-pub gives authors the most control over every aspect of the process, from book design and editing to income from sales.

Indie Author

MLJ: Agents can (hopefully) get you a contract with a big publisher, who will (theoretically) spend a lot of money on making your books famous. Small presses are more likely to accept your manuscript than the big publishers. Self-publishing gives you all the control you could ever want over your own work: you can publish a book any time you want, with no gatekeeping in the way. Doing a mix of both can get you the best of both worlds.

JRW: mixing both provides me with more visibility and flexibility.

Again, if you haven’t already said, what do you think are the cons of querying agents, small presses, self-publishing or a mix of both?

Querying Agents

Adam J: The downside to traditional publishing, aside from there being so much luck involved, is the timescales. Querying will take months, then subbing may take months after that, then your book must be slotted into a publishing schedule, and maybe your book comes out two years after you actually decided it was ready to publish.
I exaggerate a little, and certainly smaller presses who accept unagented submissions can move faster, but the timescales are still quite long.
For indie publishing, the biggest downside is the huge investment in both time and capital required. That’s not to say you can’t get lucky and become a runaway success, but if you truly want to make money, you need to put money in, for a good editor, cover designer, marketing campaign, and anything else you feel would give you and your books a boost in such a crowded market.

MS: I accidentally put a couple of cons in the last question, but really Adam hit a lot of what I’d say. I’ll add for agents that if after you sign with an agent, you decide you want to write something that’s outside of what they represent, you could find yourself looking for supplementary representation, or possibly looking for a new agent, which takes time you could spend writing.
Smaller presses can also sometimes be a total unknown, or collapse after years of success if the wrong person leaves.
Indie can be a huge gamble, particularly if you don’t have a good support network to guide you away from bad decisions that are marketed as easy solutions.

Indie Author

MLJ: Agents have more writers clamoring for their attention than they could ever take on, and your odds of getting an acceptance are low, even if you do everything right.
Small presses have a smaller reach and smaller budget than the big publishers; sometimes all they’re saving you is the hassle of putting the book together into a final product yourself.
Self-publishing comes with no one to tell you no – for good or ill. If you publish a book full of errors with a terrible cover, because you didn’t get enough feedback from others (or didn’t listen to it), that’s all on you.
Going the hybrid route can be both time-consuming and tricky to orchestrate, with far more balls in the air. Best of luck, everybody! Make your choices with eyes open. 

Small Press

ML: ​​Querying agents is a slow, agonizing process that requires a lot of time and mental/emotional energy. Even if you do get a yes from an agent, they might not be the right fit for you or your book. I’ve known several authors who went through multiple agents before finding a good match. As gatekeepers in the publishing industry, agents are also going to filter out books that they don’t think they can sell easily in favour of whatever they see as marketable and on-trend. This means a lot of interesting and innovative books will never make it out into the world if querying authors decide to shelve them instead of trying alternative paths. 

Working with small presses directly can have pitfalls for authors who don’t have access to legal knowledge or resources. Without an agent, you’re more likely to end up signing an unfair contract. (I strongly recommend using the Authors Guild’s contract review service if you go this route.)
And of course, small presses have more limited resources than the larger publishing houses that agents tend to work with. That translates to smaller advances and less of a marketing/production/distribution budget for your books. However, not all small/indie presses are created equal in this regard! Some of them offer an impressive amount of support for their authors in all those areas.

Self-pub requires a ton of time and business smarts that not all authors necessarily have (looking significantly at myself, here). If you want professional editing, cover design, advertising, etc., you’ll need a significant budget, too. Some of the horror stories about Amazon pulling the plug on KDP authors and holding their earnings hostage for inexplicable reasons also give me pause, although I know KDP isn’t the only player in town when it comes to self-publishing.

Indie Author

JRW: The effort required to stay current with recent publishing trends in both magazines and self-publishing is not very different, and striving to gain visibility without spending my life on social media is sometimes a challenge.

Has ‘marketability’ of your writing influenced your publishing path?

Adam: You can get: ‘amazing book, wonderful, but too different and we don’t know what to do with it.’
If you don’t fit the definition its very hard to market. If you have runaway success they all want it because there’s a market for it.

JRW: I have run into this with indie competitions. ‘Excellent writing, different take on this concept, we’re cutting it in the first round.’
These are the competitions dealing with reviewers. They don’t seem to be interested in stuff that’s all that different from trad pub.

Do you identify as marginalised and has that influenced your publishing path?
Does the level of innovation in your writing influence your path?

MLJ: I write my characters inclusive to resonate with everyone as much as I can. I don’t have to care if an agent resonates with it.

JRW Gay couples, lesbian couples, bi couples, throuples, I write them all.

Adam: The fun of writing fantasy is you get to just play and be as representative as you feel like. This is the yellow civilisation, this is the green civilisation —we don’t have to do this anymore. My first book had a female lead and people said ‘you can’t do that.’ -doesn’t apply now.

Have Publishing Industry changes impacted your choice of publishing path?

MLJ: I self published because I gave up on that long list of agents. Everything I’m hearing about the industry now is not what I was told it would be previously. So I’ll self publish while all that is going on and wait till things change.

Adam: I started querying in 2020, first book, so I don’t know any different.

JRW: I started in the 90’s. You could directly query a lot more publishers. I did nonfiction for local journals, just before electronic submissions kicked in. Still the same thing, ‘love your voice/ work/ can’t sell it.’ Jamie Ford sat me down at a workshop and said, “You’re 90% there. You should be trad publishing.” I was going to query, but it was 2020 and we know what happened next.

ML: I came into this right before Twitter fell apart, summer 2022. Started to establish myself in Twitter #WritingCommunity, was finding all these agents and writers, then it crashed and burned. I slid in right before that happened, finding my publisher through a Twitter contest.
A friend was doing one pitch contest on Discord -DVPit- but it was impossible to keep up with and it sounded terrible.

JRW: That’s the element of luck. I was all set to do a big break through reading. A few day’s before the ceiling of the bookstore fell. There is such an element of luck.

Did any Other factors influence you?

JRW: I went to an editor panel with several friends, small press, self pub, all in between, all middle aged ladies at a convention in 2012. We walked out at the end going, “New York does not want us” in 2012.

Were there any surprises on your publishing path? Good? Bad? Did they affirm your choice, or did you stick to your guns despite them?

MLJ: I was a little surprised how hard it was to get an agent since everyone was saying I was doing everything right. I was surprised how little support publishers were giving.
The promise was you would have more people on your side who would make you more successful. Then a big book got 4k for a year to get by and I thought really? That’s not the dream I was promised! So maybe its not that different to go it myself.

JRW: If you can crank out two books a year, in the 90’s, it was a nice living. A friend’s joke was, “Oh that’s Conan the Hot tub. That’s Conan (elsewhere).”
A friend of mine was part of a group of later, middle-aged women midlist writers who reliably turned out 2-3 books a year and hit their deadlines. In about 2008 they decided to form an indie co-op that became the Book View Cafe in order to promote their work. Shortly after Kindle, Smashwords, and then Draft2Digital kicked in. That was when self publishing really took off.

MLJ: All those new indie options made it professional and easy at the same time. Before all the authors had to be on Tik Tok or whatever. Nowadays even the trad authors are pressured to self-promote just like the indies, so the publishers can save some money.

MS: Now if your book is indie its no longer true its dead to trad. If its not identical to 90% of what’s out there -women’s/ romantic comedy- they won’t take it. Most people don’t have the money to make a self pub book popular enough to be taken on by trad publishers.

JRW: Some are spending 9k to make 10k. That’s the deep dark secret of 20BooksTo50k.

MLJ: Amazon does prioritise books that sell better to show up more in ‘you may also like.’

Adam: Its never been easy. Entrepreneurship has always been hard. Some paths will cost money and be better than others but there are paths.

Querying: what is or would be your limit of queries sent before you shelve a book? Is that a factor for you? Or is how many books you shelve a factor?

Adam: ‘10 books. If I have 10 books that haven’t made it, I have 10 books to publish.

MLJ: I didn’t have a limit because 15 years ago I thought that was the way to go. So I didn’t consider change till I heard how the industry was changing.

MS: I don’t have a set number for sub. When I’m done I’m done.

MLJ: I never had a set limit for querying, since the plan was to keep going until I got there. I sent out hundreds of queries, for multiple novels. It was only in the pandemic era when the publishing industry started visibly changing that I decided to switch gears and throw all my efforts into the indie side of things.

What advice would you give on choosing a publishing path for a particular book/ series?

MLJ: I’d tell my earlier self to seek out more writer friends earlier, and do more networking. I didn’t have writer friends. I didn’t know there was a writer club in town until I’d published my first book. The friends I have now across the internet would have been so helpful earlier on. Yes you’re good at writing. But getting someone else’s feedback is always helpful. There will always be people who know stuff you didn’t realise you needed to ask and who have suggestions you wouldn’t have thought of.

Adam: Read more. Read 50 books a year. I did it last year, MG books. If you don’t read you will not know what works and what doesn’t work. I’ve seen a marked improvement in my writing since reading those books. Like a lot of people I thought I’d read them all. I read all the genres.

MS: One piece of advice that always make me cringe a little bit is read widely in your genre. It gets pushed so hard the genres collapse in on themselves. You can tell when you’re reading a romance book by someone who only reads romance books and they always sound alike. I would say its equally important to read outside your genre and to be aware of your genres conventions.

JRW: Ask yourself what you really want–and decide which path is most likely to provide that option

ML: I would say to start by checking out resources like this that break down the different paths so you know what the different options really entail before you get started: https://janefriedman.com/key-book-publishing-path/.
And be cautious about some of the advice that’s out there in the various writing communities online, which can be misleading. For instance, one thing I come across a lot is this notion that getting an agent or going self-pub are the only viable options. Hardly anyone is talking about the route I went, selling directly to a small press.

Head and shoulder shot of Joyce (caucasian) wearing a blue brimmed hat, glasses, blonde hair tied back and a bright blue shirt.

Joyce’s Website

Twitter: JoyceReynoldsW#1

Blue Sky

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Related Reading

Querying Your First Novel

Why I Chose to Self Publish

Becoming an Indie Author Part 1
and Part 2 (Book Launch).

Signing With an Indie Publisher (a multi author interview)

Indie Authors on Indie Authoring

To write diverse characters, you need to consider which diverse identities you’re including, why and how to naturally indicate that a certain character is diverse/ marginalised and in what way. You need to include characters respectfully, without alienating that character/ identity. But also to consider and show ‘normal’ as that character experiences it, including situations in which their behaviour will ‘normally’ not conform to what ‘most people’ are doing. And in all of this, you need to be mindful using inclusive language in your writing.
This blog will unpack all of these things, but first, some general notes on writing marginalised characters from Vaela and Micah. (If you missed my post on avoiding problematic representation, maybe start there).

Stay In Your Lane -Defined by Vaela & Micah

Every book should have diversity. Every book that shows our world or a world like ours, should have it. And that’s why it’s important to distinguish between – writing a marginalized character vs – writing the struggles of a marginalized character.

Basically, write your Black or Indigenous characters, but don’t write their oppression and their struggle against it unless you are a member of that group. If you haven’t experienced that struggle, it is not your place to portray it as though you know it. You don’t.

You might know what their oppression looks like from the outside, but don’t try to tell stories that quite literally aren’t yours. That’s not diversity, that’s appropriation.

Even when simply putting marginalized characters into your books, it’s a good idea to hire a sensitivity reader of that character’s community. Sensitivity readers can stop glaring flaws and offensive depictions, and can enrich and add to a marginalized character with their own experiences and input.

Research is of course always important. And here it’s necessary that it’s not a matter of “how much research is enough,” but rather that research is a process. Learning about other identities is a continual process, and one that is usually never finished. But it’s well worth it.

You can read Vaela and Micah’s full thread here.

Know Why You’re Writing This Marginalised Character

Before we dive into the writing of diverse characters, I think its important to be clear about which diverse identities you’re including and why. Intent gives you purpose, and guides how you go about completing a task. So consider: are you writing a marginalised identity to:

Have people in your story world resemble the diversity of humanity in real life?

Have marginalised readers pick up your book and see themselves on its pages? And realise this isn’t yet another book about other people, its actually about them too?

To spread awareness (of any particular?) marginalised people’s existence and or to normalise their presence in fiction?

To give non-marginalised people the chance to emotionally connect with/ relate to/ sympathise with marginalised people they may not interact with in real life? (This is easier when you’re writing own voices, but likely if you’re an empathetic writer, though I’d recommend a sensitivity reader if this is part of your purpose or inclination.)

To subvert, challenge or destroy stereotypes with more rounded, more authentic representation of a certain identities? (Great, though again I suggest a sensitivity reader to help you with the ‘authentic’ part).

Write Inclusively

When you first plan characters, think outside the box of your own identities, life experience and upbringing. Every character who sets foot on the page is an opportunity for diversity. That assistant might use speech to text technology to make notes because they’re dyslexic. That autistic side character may hesitate to join the party because bright lights, loud music and crowds make them deeply uncomfortable. The friend your MC confides in may bounce from one topic to another at great speed in conversation, because they have ADHD or are in a hyper stage of bipolar.

Job one on my writing diverse characters list is: look for opportunities to incidentally reveal that a character is in some way a marginalised person. If you do this for multiple identities, you could tick the ‘writing a world as diverse as our own box’ —even if only minor characters in your story are diverse. You’d also be raising awareness of and normalising the existence of people with these identities, and letting marginalised people glimpse themselves on the page. Sure, this is surface and entry level stuff, but if you’re new to writing diverse characters, this is all it takes to get started.

Writing Inclusive, Non-alienating Descriptions

To ensure you do write inclusively, its good to monitor if there are any times in your story when a marginalised character is singled out or alienated from the other characters (or the reader). Some of these times may reflect prejudice, bigotry and or discrimination in the world of your story, as you intend. But some may not.

For example, describing the appearance of people of colour and not white characters. Not commenting on white characters accessories, but being sure to point out the character wearing a turban or hijab. Or not describing what the white kids eat at lunch time, but mentioning the ‘strange’ meats in sauces and green or purple, crumpet-like bread the African kids are eating.

If you only describe the appearance and culture of characters who aren’t like you, you’re positioning them so its obvious how ‘other’ and ‘different’ and ‘not like us/ the other characters’ the marginalised characters are. You’re positioning them to be isolated from fellow characters and the reader the moment you introduce them. So when it comes to describing marginalised characters, try to evade double standards in what you do and don’t mention about appearances and culture.

Write Fully Rounded Diverse Characters,
Not Defined by their ‘diverse’ identity

Focus on the big picture of your ‘diverse’ characters —initially. Consider their family, friends, foes, hopes, dreams etc. Don’t let what makes them different define the way you write them. Give them strengths, weaknesses, backstory, aspirations, fears, loves etc —like your other characters. And don’t let how they are ‘different’ define their aspirations, fears, backstory etc. Let characters exist beyond the manner in which they are marginalised.

What this Means (in part) for Disabled Characters

Yes, if your character is disabled/ neurodiverse, this may mean researching assistive technology and or strategies/ adjustments/ treatments that enable your characters to pursue their dreams despite the limitations of their disability. Don’t just write them off because they’re vision impaired, or ‘its too crowded for an autistic person to function’ or ‘all soldiers must depend solely on brute force to survive battle’ —must they?

I would love to see more disabled characters finding ways to work with/ around their disability, at the heart of stories action. So often in action movies, fantasy, SciFi even in romance you see the muscular man. The thin woman. Physically ‘attractive’ people with 20-20 vision, all of their limbs and senses functioning at full capacity, unimpeded by chronic illness or disability, their brains mostly co-operating with them.

There’s a saying, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. And I’ve seen so few fictional characters readers with disabilities can aspire to be. So please include disabled characters in your books! (But not to inspire or motivate other characters/ the reader. There’s a lot of issues with that, explored unapologetically in this article by a disabled author.)

Write Your Diverse Adult Characters as Adults

Certain marginalised identities get infantilised. My open, honest expression of ADHD excitement and impulsivity often leads people to view me as 15-20 years younger than I am. Sure, I can be a big kid by nature (and enjoy doing so). I also hold the views of the highly educated, extensively life experienced adult that I am. But people who stereotype me because of my ADHD, or mistake my unfiltered ADHD behaviour for lack of intelligence, are oblivious to my adult capacity.

Asexual people can also be infantilised. Like they aren’t ‘grown up enough’ to want to have sex with other people, or to be sexually attracted to other people. Just in case anyone is confused: having sex with other people is not a milestone of maturity that must be crossed to claim adult status. A tiny minority of the population do not experience sexual attraction to other people (or don’t unless they’re already emotionally intimate) and may not wish to have sex with other people *waves in asexual*.

Then there are disabled people or older people, particularly those dependent on carers to, for example, get in and out of the shower. Just because a person’s physical capacity is reduced does not mean they lack the maturity, life experience and knowledge —the intellect— of the adult they are. (Alzheimer’s and Dementia being more variable, grey categories here).

Then there’s white characters longing to save poor, ‘helpless’ people of colour —the white saviours I warned you to avoid writing in my diverse characters big don’ts blog. I suspect all white saviours are infantilising people of colour.

So even if your marginalised character appears to you ‘child-like’ in some way, don’t lose sight of the knowledge, experience and intellectual capacity they also have as an adult —and write it.

Know the Specific Identity
& Write It Authentically

Stop assuming (anything). Step out of your shoes. Put yourself in your character’s shoes. This is where you start researching the particular identity/ marginalisation you’re representing.

What May be Normal for That Identity?

Once you’ve tried to step out of your life experience and the expectations it and your upbringing, culture etc have given you, its time to research what may be normal for the diverse identity you are writing, so you can imagine their world. I stress ‘may be normal for that identity’ because as they tell us in teacher training, ‘if you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism.’ People’s experiences will vary, even among people with the same diverse identity, especially if that person/ character is marginalised in multiple ways.

Possible Examples of Marginalised Identity ‘Normal’

-always eating with your hands (some people of colour).

-using assistive devices to read/ write/ view/ move (some disabled people).

-carefully pacing yourself with physical activities and balancing them with rest every day. And avoiding prolonged standing or sitting (disabled people with chronic/ invisible illness, particularly chronic fatigue and long covid).

-a preference for uncluttered, neutral coloured, quiet living, working and digital spaces (actually autistic and ADHD people).

-a predisposition to assume they have done something wrong, or their company is unwanted (some forms of anxiety).

-struggling to get out of bed or perform physical activities because you’re so weighed down by the pointlessness of everything (one experience of depression).

-characters buying and wearing clothing and accessories irrespective of their biological sex (many trans and some nonbinary people).

-being attracted to and dating people of the opposite or multiple genders or being in a romantic/ sexual relationship with more than one partner (LGBTQIA+).

-not being sexually or romantically attracted to anyone, period (some asexual spectrum people).

How Might A Marginalised Identity
Not Conform to Majority Expectations?

As marginalised characters live different versions of ‘normal’ than non-marginalised characters, there are times when marginalised will not behave the same way as other characters. They may not even behave in ways many people expect, or defy other character’s (and the reader’s) expectations. So in showing each diverse person, consider the contexts in which they may present/ feel/ think/ behave differently to non-marginalised people.

A Disabled example of Nonconformity

Your characters attend a public event where everyone is expected to stand. It may be a person in a wheel chair who remains seated. Or maybe its someone with an invisible illness like long covid, chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromalgia limiting their stamina and making prolonged standing (more than a few minutes) painful, uncomfortable and or impossible. (I really should have got medical exemption from yard duty and standing during assembly when I had long covid).

A Gender Diverse Example

Its a special occasion. Men are wearing suits and women are wearing fancy dresses. But do all women want to wear dresses? And what are nonbinary people wearing? Are there feminine and masculine suits? Suit jackets with skirts? Is the gender of everyone’s formal clothing matching their biological sex (assigned at birth)? And as a nonbinary person, let me tell you that gender diverse people’s clothes may not fit their figure as well as cis people’s —where our gender identity expression and biological sex don’t match.

Asexual Spectrum Example

Your characters are teenagers and everyone is gossiping about their boyfriend, girlfriend or whoever they have a crush on. Except the asexual, aromantic character. They don’t seem to ‘like’ anyone in the same way people ‘like’ them or that their friends ‘like’ people of the opposite/ same sex/ both. (*waves in asexual aromantic*)

First Nations’ People Example

Its the characters national country day. Everyone is celebrating the public holiday with family meals. Except the country’s First Nations people, who are holding a national day of mourning and commemorating being invaded and colonised. (*jabs finger at Australia and tells their country to get its shit sorted*).

ADHD Example

Technology is being a nuisance in your characters office. Everyone is logically trying to problem solve it, aside from the wildly impatient ADHD character. They keep leaping between multiple solutions, forgeting what they’ve tried, why it didn’t work or what to do next. And get frustrated because tech is moving so slowly they’ve forgotten why they had that tab open and the three things they planned to do after it. Because when things move slowly they swiftly become bored, then distracted by multiple other things. (*waves in ADHD*)

Mind Your Words

Two Wrong Words about a Nonbinary Character= BAD

Without context and knowledge, you can incidentally, needlessly slap marginalised readers in the face. I experienced it in a review of my debut. The reviewers clearly, sincerely wanted to encourage nonbinary main characters. But in reviewing my book, they criticised the ‘gender reveal’ of my nonbinary MC.

If you know anything about current transphobia, you’ll know that since 2008, ‘Gender Reveal Parties’ have celebrated how a baby’s biological sex ‘reveals’ their gender identity. You’ll know such a perspective erases the existence of trans and nonbinary people and recognise ‘gender reveal parties’ as the transphobic practice they are. But if you didn’t know this -words matter, history matters and context matters.

I can give you additional context here too. No-one ever refers to the ‘gender reveal’ of a male or female character. Because we know the character will be male or female. We expect it. Its ‘normal’. And sometimes we forget nonbinary people exist, and they’re never main characters, so when we come across one as a main character its like, ‘Oh yeah! Nonbinary people exist (and can be characters, even main characters). I forgot! What a revelation!’

Here I am, being referred to by the wrong pronouns (by people who know my pronouns) and mis-gendered by strangers everyday in my real life. And people are reminding me in writing that most people forget I exist.

That’s how easy it is as a non-marginalised person, ignorant of context, to blunder in and accidentally slap a marginalised reader with a mere two terrible word choices.

Research Your Words

So if you’re about to describe a marginalised character… stop.
1. Did you research respectful terms to describe them first?
You’ll find plenty in White Writers Writing POC and for not using ableist language; (after the list ableist terms) this list of better alternatives.

2. Did you Google the adjective you’re considering describing a marginalised identity by and that identity’s name together? This is a simple way to get context you may lack from not having lived as a marginalised character, or not belonging to the same communities as they do.

Inclusive Fiction Examples

Shallan (PTSD rep) and Renarin (autism rep) in the Stormlight Archives. These are interesting because they are point of view characters, and Brandon Sanderson didn’t write either as own voices. He did however do his homework and wrote both the impact of Shallan’s experience of PTSD and Renarin’s autism sensitively.

Lupin (Netflix) has a male main character who’s black. He’s French (as is the show), street smart (tough upbringing), charming, clever, highly capable and a loving (ex) husband and father, countering many negative stereotypes of black men.

Locke & Key (Netlix) has a secondary character who is a double amputee. Yet how he lost his feet isn’t mentioned, because this isn’t a story about his experience as a disabled person. Its a fantasy story in which he ends up playing an important role.

People To Help You Write The Other

Listen To People

Your writing community (on whichever social media/ Discord servers you talk to writers) is a good place to listen to people marginalised in the same way as your characters. Try searching hashtags like: #neurodiverse, #actuallyautistic, #ADHD, #ChronicIllness/ #longcovid, #disability, #BLM etc.
On Blue sky, hear what life is like from posts by people living it on; neurodiversity, chronic illness, disability, LGBTQIA+, BlackSky.

If you’re a children’s fiction author, you may be able to talk to marginalised people by submitting a form to Inclusive Minds, a paid service connecting children’s book authors to marginalised people, whose experience and advice can help you write their identities authentically.

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More Resources to Help You Write Neurodiverse Characters

Writing Diverse Characters Part 1: Big Don’ts

Writing Diverse Characters Part 3: LGBTQIA+

I Think I’m Neurodiverse (ADHD?)
Managing my Neurodiversity —ADHD

List of Neurodiverse Definitions and some behaviours by Best Resources for Achievement and Intervention re Neurodiversity in Higher Education.

Writing Characters With Autism by Disability in Kidlit.

Salt and Sage Books Incomplete Guides book series on writing asexual, black and autistic characters, fat positivity and sexual assault, written by own voices authors.

Writing ‘Diverse’ Characters 1: How Not To

I assume you’re here because you’re interested in writing diverse characters and inclusive books that represent the human diversity of our world. You probably aim to write a range of identities and character backgrounds sensitively, respectfully and in a way that prompts diverse readers to be thrilled to see themselves in your book’s pages (as opposed to hurt by offensive, ignorant, prejudiced representation). This two part blog, written by a white, nonbinary, aromantic, asexual, neurodiverse, chronically ill/ disabled author, aims to introduce you to or help you evaluate your knowledge of common pitfalls in diverse rep. It contains many links to further reading (by more qualified authors in the case of BIPOC rep) along the way.

Why Write Diverse Characters? -My Identity Reasons

I first drafted this blog around 3 years ago, thinking, ‘I’d like to write more diverse characters. I’d like to not perpetuate the myth that ‘everyone’ is white, and cishet, able-bodied and neurotypical in my books —by only writing those characters. I need to educate myself about many marginalised identities.’

Guess what? As a 90’s child, where ‘queer’ meant gay, lesbian or ‘transexual,’ and ADHD and autism were ‘boy things’, it turned out the world I grew up in was so ignorant and devoid of diverse representation that it hadn’t allowed me to recognise my own diverse identities.

I am one of many people who grew up knowing they had ‘quirks’, which I later realised neatly fit under ADHD. Who thought the differences between ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are vastly over exaggerated and mostly mythical —easy to think when you’re nonbinary). And who thought most adults are obsessed with sex and fixated on romance —easy to think as an asexual who doesn’t experience sexual attraction and an aromantic who’s never been ‘in love’.

I grew up almost NEVER seeing who I was in ANYONE else. To such an extent I didn’t have the words or labels to articulate to other humans who I AM. To this day, many people are mystified by the fact I don’t have a romantic partner. I’m the first nonbinary person most people I’ve met have met. And people frequently underestimate the extent to which my ADHD and, courtesy of long covid, my chronic illness (fibromaylgia) impact my life on a daily basis. This is why I think it would be awesome to see more diverse characters in books.

Writing ‘The Other’ Complications

Our challenge as writers is having been raised in a society built on foundations of racism, white supremacy, ableism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia. A multi-generational hangover of deep-seated prejudices makes it so easy (and likely) for us to have internalised unconscious, ignorant bias. And because of that, we’re at risk of perpetuating harmful stereotypes and of alienating and hurting the people we’re trying to include in our stories.

Be concious of how, when and why you set diverse characters apart. I assume we arrived at calling people of colour, first nations, queer and disabled people (including chronically ill, neurodiverse, and people facing mental health challenges) ‘diverse’ because they’re ‘different’ or ‘other’. Different to what? To white, heterosexual, cis and binary gender, able-bodied, neurotypical; aka ‘normal’ people?

Historically to be ‘diverse’ was to be ‘abnormal’, to have something ‘wrong’ with you. Enter white supremacy, sexism, ableism, homophobia etc and prejudice-packed, lying narratives they spawned, like supposed superiority of white, male, cishet, able-bodied, neurotypical people. If you leave diverse your characters out, or highlight their traits -but not those of ‘normal’ characters- or treat diverse characters differently, could prejudice could be in play? What do your critical readers think?

On top of that, you may never have had a face to face (or digital) conversation with one (let alone a group) of individuals sharing many identities you’d like to include in your books. Even if you have, you may never have heard them share, with uncensored honesty, their personal experiences as a ‘diverse’ person.

And while focused on diversity and not representing people offensively, you could fall into the trap of losing sight of that character as a fully rounded human -not limited to and defined by their diverse identity- and fail to write them as that fully rounded human.

How Do You Begin Writing A Marginalized Person Whose Identity You Don’t Share?

Every stereotype we don’t notice, every prejudiced or biased view that was ‘normal’ and ‘mainstream’ when we were growing up is at risk of perpetuating itself in our writing. So what do we need to know to avoid that?

Learn What Problematic Rep Looks Like,
—then don’t write it

Physical ‘Abnormalities’ Are ‘Evil’
Sexism, Ageism, Fatphobia & Ableism

Be conscious of traits you give human antagonists. Consider that in fairytales the villain is often an ugly old witch —and you NEVER saw kindly, wise, older women who were positive characters. Or the villain was wicked, jealous stepmothers —so much so I’ve had primary school students ask me why fairytales portray all stepmothers as evil. And nowhere do such stories comment on the systematic sexism and misogyny that disempowered and made women vulnerable historically, and so often the hero is a man. The message in these tales seems to be, ‘any woman with power is evil’ and ‘all good rulers are men.’

What sort of message does your villain tell readers? If the message is ‘being an arsehole is bad’ —you’re fine. But if the villain is the only person of colour, the only older woman, neurodiverse, disabled or the only plus sized character? (See Dudley and Vernon Dursley for fatphobia). What does that say about those identities, traits and people?

Be especially conscious of traits. Have you noticed how often baddies in films have skin defects, physical ailments or other forms of disability? And until very recently other disabled characters tended to be non-existent in fiction? Looks like a pretty clear message that disabled people are bad.

Have you ever seen villains who move their hands, feet or engage in other rhythmic, repetitive ‘weird’/ ‘scary’ movements? (Especially in cartoons). My (autistic) mother recently pointed out to me that this is stimming, a behaviour autistic and sometimes ADHD people use to regulate our emotions and or bodies when we’re under or over stimulated. So don’t make your only stimming, and by extension, your only neurodiverse character the villain!

(For disability stereotypes to avoid, see this post from the Disability History Museum.)

Marginalised Characters as Villains

If you’re worrying you can’t make marginalized characters villains, please don’t. I’d like to see a lot more neurodiverse and disabled characters represented at all —let alone as main characters— before I feel the world is ready for us as villains (without continuing to stigmatise us).

But if you have neurodiverse/ disabled characters as baddies AND gooddies AND neutral characters and the character who’s technically good but also kind of an obstacle? And you’re representing all your (quite a few) marginalised characters as fully rounded identities? —It follows that some of them may be villains, like Desire in The Sandman (a nonbinary character whom I as an enby viewer loved).

Or you may write deeply flawed/ morally grey characters who also happen to be marginalised. For example, Klaus in The Umbrella Academy, who’s initially a barely functional drug addict, but I LOVE them too. And they’re also a hero —again, balance matters. Or Victor in the same show, again, a deeply flawed character who (spoilers) the world, and also happens to be trans.

Just be careful that ARE writing villains who HAPPEN to be queer/ POC etc. NOT villains because they are gay, or black or a (woman). And this needs saying because writers are STILL getting it wrong. Take the 2016 film Split for example. Mental health challenges make you a serial killer? No, they fucking don’t! LOADs of people combatting a whole range of mental health challenges are NOT murderers. Please don’t blame extreme violence in your writing on ‘mental illness.’ Which leads to the next section.

Mad = Bad & Ableism

How many times have you heard opinions you vehemently object to in recent years and called the person, ‘mad’, a ‘lunatic,’ ‘blind’ or ‘deaf’? Sorry, you’re guilty of ableism 101, differentiating between you and people you disagree with by implying those you disagree with are disabled (I’ve also been guilty of this). I know, it’s so tempting to call Trumpists and TERFs crazy and stupid, and blind to the way the hands they worship bite, rather than feed us all. But it isn’t maddness, and it isn’t blindness. These people are NOT disabled. There’s nothing neurologically different in their minds (with the exception of Trump and narcism).

The difference is that covid minimizers, climate change deniers, TERFs etc are wilfully ignorant. They choose not to know. They choose not to believe. But when we call them ‘mad’ alongside ‘bad’… we’re insulting everyone and anyone who’s ever genuinely struggled with their mental health. We’re insulting people who fight their own mental health to function, by lumping them in the same category as people who are too cowardly or too lazy or too gullibly believing Murdoch media to bother facing reality.

So when your characters describe or respond to your book’s equivalent of MAGA characters, please don’t write them doing so in a way that insults actual disabled people.

Ableist language is still rife in the western world, so for a list of common ableist adjectives to avoid and for more accurate, non-ableist adjectives and terms, see this list from Augsberg University. And for how to respectfully write neurodiverse and disabled characters, see part 2 of this blog series.

Bury Your Gays/ Sad Gays

There’s a history of that one token gay character dying in chapter/ act one, while the cishet characters live on. (For details of a bunch of problematic gay and lesbian rep see ‘Bury Your Gays‘ on TV Tropes, a useful resources for identifying tropes, stereotypes and among them, harmful ones).

If you have a minor character who’s going to die quickly —don’t make them gay. Don’t make them your only queer (or otherwise marginalised )character either.

Yes, a book in which loads of people die and some of them are queer can be fine —provided you DON’T kill off ALL the ONLY queer side/ main characters/ couples. Some of them need to survive, just as some of the cishet ones will —see Bury Your Gays for why this is historically and contextually important.

And don’t just write the ‘sad gay’ who’s sad because of ‘the struggle to be queer’. In looking for competitions I could enter my book in, I was astounded that I, queer author of a queer MC didn’t fit the criteria of an LGBTQIA book competition because… I wrote a civilisation (in an epic fantasy) in which being queer is normal and queer joy is a thing! Life can be shitty for LGBTQIA+ (especially trans) people in the real world. Can you give us some queer joy in fiction?

Queer Rep Resources

For why Queer rep is needed, why queer struggles need to be shown in literature but also why queer people like myself want to see some queer joy, this article on Queer Rep in Media is a good (and brief) summary.

More resources with details of problematic queer tropes:
No Bisexuals and Hide Your Lesbians from TV Tropes.
You’ll also find problematic tropes mixed in among common, unharmful queer stereotypes (all linked to explanations of each trope on the list) on Tv Trope’s Queer As Tropes and Homophobia Index.

Part 3 of this Blog: Writing LGBTQIA+ Characters

White Saviours & Racism

While reading to clarify my understanding of ‘white saviour’ for this post, I came across an article (Content Warning on this one!) about a real life white saviour. A story about a modern white person so convinced of their own good will and superiority that they decided to administer medical treatment to Ugandans (via a charity), despite not having any medical qualifications. Yes, their actions killed patients as well as ‘saving’ them. No, this white ‘saviour’ faced no legal ramifications.

In the articles I browsed, white saviours seem to have in common the desire to help BIPOC, often via charity/ foreign aid (as much to make themselves feel better as to benefit others). This may not be a problem, if white saviours didn’t also believe in their ‘superior’ ability to help BIPOC, whilst ignoring how being heirs of white colonialism and supremacy benefits white people on one hand and failing to see how systems built on both systematically disadvantage BIPOC on the other (as mentioned in this article.)

My current thoughts on white saviours is their racism and white supremacy corrupts, can impair and severely limits their capacity to ‘do good’. So if you’re writing a white person who wants to help others… be careful you don’t unintentionally write a white saviour.

(For more examples of how white saviours may present, see an extensive list of them on Wikepedia.)

White Saviours & Racism Resources

As a white writer living on the land of the Wurundjeri people, land that was never ceded and always was and always will be Aboriginal land (aka as an heir of racist colonialism), this is where I point you to BIPOC people to tell us how to represent them.

But first, if you’re unsure, unclear or feeling ambivalent about how racism may have tainted the perspective you’re writing from, I highly recommend the book White Women, Everything you already know about your own racism and how to do better by Regina Jackson and Saira Rao. (Men and nonbinary people, this book will also give you insights into sexism from a cis women’s perspective, which I found educational as a nonbinary person).

For many resources citing potential pitfalls of white people writing POC, see White Writers Writing POC.

For racial stereotypes (and advice on positively writing POC), see Writing With Colour.

Next in This Blog Series

Writing Diverse Characters Part 2: Gives advice on and provides more resources about how to naturally, respectfully and authentically include neurodiverse and disabled and some POC characters, with inclusive language.

Part 3: will focus on Writing LGBTQIA+ characters, and be published in April.

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Further Reading/ Resources Linked Further Above

White Writers Writing POC

Writing With Colour

Ableist Terms and more accurate, non-ableist alternatives.

Disability Stereo Types to avoid

Queer Tropes to avoid from TV Tropes: Bury Your Gays, No Bisexuals, Hide Your Lesbians and Homophobia Index.

Part 2 of this Blog: Writing Neurodiverse and Disabled Characters

Part 3 of this Blog: Writing LGBTQIA+ Characters

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

Critical Reader Checklist: Act 3

Blonde woman reading a book seated on a window sill with early morning sun pouring through the bow window, open behind her.
Photo by Yuri Efremov

Your book has covered a lot of ground to reach Act 3. Now its time for reader payoff. If you’re a writer, this critical reader checklist of questions will help you ensure Act 3 is clear and rewarding for readers. If you’re a critical reader, responding to these questions will help you provide invaluable feedback to the writer. (Missed my previous checklists? You may like to start with Chapter 1 or Act 1.)

Story Progression and Reader Engagement

Does each scene build your anticipation of the final resolution of the conflict?

Does each character realisation build towards the character’s Moment of Truth?
(Or even foreshadow their final state, particularly if the character is an antagonist with a positive arc, who changes sides at the end)?

Does the tension of Act 3 pull you in and hold you in from start to finish?

Scene Level Considerations

Do scenes give you enough time to absorb events and information, especially character deaths?

Are there thematic or scene-level elements (too many things going on) which distract you from the resolution or which make it harder to follow?

Climactic Moment

Are you with the main character, whose at the heart of the action during the climatic moment?

Or does narration flit between point of view characters scattered between conflict locations too often?

Or does the main character observe others actions too much, making this scene feel emotionally distant?

Does anything else distract you, or make you impatient for the scene to get a move on or reduce its tension?

Has the writer positioned you to scream encouragement at the main character through the climactic moment? Are you excited, thrilled or really happy when they triumph? Or shattered if they don’t?
Or did you not connect emotionally to them well enough throughout the novel to care much either way?

The Resolution

Is each aspect of the conflict, and each step of how it needs to be resolved and why clear to you?

Do particular skills or abilities of each pov and secondary character play a relevant and fulfilling role in the resolution of the conflict?

Does the resolution deliver on thematic promises, e.g. character lessons, framing key themes of the story and showing the role they play in the resolution?
Or was it mentioned that Tom needed to learn to make friends, and that subplot was forgotten? Did it play no role in the resolution, breaking that promise to you as a reader?

A Satisfying Ending?

Are you feeling satisfied by the way characters resolve their differences?

By how supporting characters being their typical self helped resolve the story problem?

Are you satisfied with how the story is wrapped up, and with the state in which you depart the story world and its characters?

If not, is this because the ending feels rushed? Or did the story stop too soon, leaving things unresolved that you wanted to know about and which would have made the ending more satisfying for you?
Or does an epic conflict leave the world in a state of devastation, instead of fast forwarding to a scene showing that the world does in fact recover?

Not the Last Book in a Series?

If this book marks the end of one stage in an epic conflict (as opposed to a stand alone novel), do you still feel there was a clear beginning, significant plot development and that it took you on a journey? Is Act 3 leaving you satisfied with the ground covered in this book?

Are you satisfied with how much characters have grown in this book, or did they feel flat or their growth stagnate at any point?

Does this book’s final state scene show which things pov characters are still grappling with, foreshadowing what their character development may involve in the next book?

Is it clear how, despite this book’s main conflict being resolved, a significant element of conflict is still out there? and are you left with some idea of who it still threatens and how?
Does this suggested continuance of conflict feel like an organic continuance of story, or like its been tacked on? Does it feel like another great instalment in a saga, or a prequel movie designed to make it producers money?

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Critical Reader Checklist: Act 2

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Photo by Seven Shooter

Some writers dread the middle of a novel. Its an easy place for characters, themes, plots and subplots to get stuck, lost, or to go on unnecessary tangents. The critical reader questions in this post are designed to help reader feedback to support the writer in keeping Act 2 on track, and ensuring it gives the reader a good experience. (I developed them while working with and as a beta reader, and they have companion blogs for Chapter One and an Act 1).

Are the Characters Engaging?

Are you seeing enough character actions, and hearing enough dialogue and internal thoughts to feel tensions between characters?

Have you seen enough of character’s personalities to understand why certain characters are drawn to or inclined to be in conflict with each other?

Do you react to some character actions with ‘of course he/ she/ they did!” because you feel you are getting to know them?

Do you know any characters well enough to guess what they may do next? Does this make the story more engaging?

Is the Story Engaging?

Does each chapter end by doing at least one of the following:

-adding tension between key players?

-providing another clue in the overall mystery?

-affirming or challenging the lie the pov character believes?

-adding another complication the pov character must overcome to resolve the main conflict? Eg. the character gets something wrong and makes their own life harder.

-moved the pov character nearer to getting what they want, what they need or (if it differs from both) does each chapter take them a step closer to resolving the main story conflict?

Character Development & Plausibility

Can you follow the character’s logic as they persist in believing a lie, or begin to realise the truth?

Do you see and are you convinced by why the character still clings to the lie?

Are you convinced by how characters experiences are changing them?

Progression

Are you being shown or reminded of things you’ve already seen (especially when it seems unnecessary?) Or is each scene making you feel like the story is moving forward and drawing you on to its next stage?

If you don’t feel the story is moving, and you’re starting to lose interest -which bits aren’t appealing to you? Do you know why or what the writer could change to resolve this?

Are relationship dynamics between characters -positive or negative- being tested and changing? Or is everyone getting along perfectly? And is the supporting cast solely focused on helping the MC achieve their goal (instead of characters having their own goals? And are character relationships too idealistic and or flat?

Story Tone

Occasionally, I’ve beta read books with an Act One mixing serious themes, humour and playfulness, then in Act 2 -boom! The story turns a corner and is suddenly twice as dark or twice as violent as Act 1’s tone led me to think it would be. So are you jolted by how light or heavy, how serious or playful, how gentle or violent later chapters are, compared to earlier ones?

Story Focus

Does the story home in on particular themes, particular relationships and particular character goals?

Does it focus on too many things for you to follow or appreciate?

Or does it focus only on one or two main things, when there’s room and other things you’d like to see further developed to give you a real sense of payoff?

Connections

If the characters went to that place, or the MC was given that thing, or we know a secondary character loves x, does the middle of the story start referring back to and building on these?

Examples:

Does the secondary character’s knowledge because of an interest you’ve already read about, or skills from a hobby mentioned earlier start helping the MC tackle aspects of the story problem?

Does the location where we met key players later yield clues in solving the murder? Or is it a place about which we know family secrets are kept or where other allies are now being sought?

If there something about a character, a place, a device etc that got your interest, but hasn’t been developed and that you would like to see more of?

Action Scenes

Can you picture who is where, doing what? Or are there so many details that you lose sight of the main actions in a scene?

Are you hanging on the edge of your seat, reading short, sharp sentences which narrate at the speed the scene unfolds? Or is some of the suspense and tension killed by long winded sentences?

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Author Newsletter, The Basics

Unlike social media posts, your author newsletter is a direct line to people interested in hearing from you, and receiving your content. It sits in an inbox where interested people can read it a their leisure, instead of on a social media feed where it may be drowned out by thousands of posts vying for attention. Newsletters effectively reach your people, but what you can offer in yours to make it worthwhile for your subscribers?

What Should I Write About?

Imposter syndrome can hit hard when it comes to writing a newsletter, especially if you don’t have a release date for your first book yet (I would know, being about to send out my fourth newsletter, and still querying and researching self publishing, with no release date in sight yet ?). The good news is, a newsletter can be a lot more than just a means for people to learn when and where your next book is out.

In considering what to offer in your newsletter, I’d think about:
-General interests and life experiences (ones you’re comfortable sharing) which you may have in common with your readers to help them connect with you.
-Things that will make you relatable to your readers, or help them connect with you.
-Things that may entertain or educate your readers.
-Your own thoughts or experiences related to major themes in your writing, which are likely to also impact on your readers lives, or be topics they care about.

Personal/ Wip/ Book Updates

Share your personal, wip or book updates first with the people who trusted you with their email address. Give them more of the juicy details than you do on social media. Tell them the jokes or show sides of your personality that don’t fit into your social posts. Share your reflection on a life event you and your main character have experienced and your readers are likely to relate to.

Tell your subscribers how your pet’s or child’s demands for attention forced you into making productive use of what time you have to write without interruption. Think about experiences, actions and thoughts which make you human and which your readers can relate to and marry the two in your update. This is what I meant above when I said ‘things that make you relatable to your readers, help them connect with you.’

Novel Teasers

This isn’t just for published authors. If you’re editing or querying a novel, you may also want to include blurbs about your characters, settings or the struggles your characters face, to generate interest in and allow your subscribers to enter the world of your stories. This could be blurbs, or creative writing, eg. news sources or diaries ‘produced’ by characters in your fictional world.

If you commission character art or create mood boards for your book, this is a good space to show them and or cover reveals off. Again, give your subscribers the v.i.p. treatment and share these things with them first. (This being one of many reasons monthly newsletters are a good idea, as I find it impossible to tell my subscribers things first when my newsletter is only quarterly).

Reader Magnet

The thing a reader gets when they sign up to your newsletter. A common recommendation is a short story. For example, take a character’s backstory and write a short story about an episode from it. Later in a series, write a short about an event between books, or a scene after the series finishes, possibly wrapping up any final loose ends.

I know, not everyone writes shorts, but as your newsletter will appeal to people interested in your books, its worth giving them a sampler of your fiction as your reader magnet. I put off writing one for ages because I don’t do shorts, but after writing four picture books and a Middle Grade novel, I was surprised how easily I adapted my knowledge of story structure and character arcs to a 7,500 word story set before Manipulator’s War.

Alternately, or better yet additionally, you may like to use merchandise. For example, Emma Lombard created postcards using character art from her Historical Fiction debut, Discerning Grace, as a reader magnet. What digital merch could you include in a welcome email?

Blog Links

If you blog about topics like the inspiration for your books, book reviews etc, there’s a good chance your subscribers will be interested in your blogs. Sharing a concise blog blurb and a link to it lets you repurpose something you’ve already put the work in for. (I started off sharing my blog’s opening paragraphs in my newsletters, but I think a concise, personalised introduction for subscribers creates a more welcoming tone).

Interviews

These can be interviews you’ve given, or conducted. I’d consider who you’re interviewing and how the interview relates to your subscriber’s interests. For example, are you interviewing an author who writes a similar genre or themes to your books? Or sharing your interview with an ‘expert’ that you did as part of your book’s research?

Events/ Calendar

These could be events you personally are involved in. Or third party events of topical, thematic or genre interest to your readers, like festivals, readings, conferences, competitions, related identity group events, etc.

Giveaways

You might sponsor other writers giveaways and share them in your newsletter, an option for collaborative book promotion, particularly if you’re an Indie Author. A giveaway may also be merchandise (if you have it), or a query letter/ first chapter critique (especially if you’re also a freelance editor, or an agented author giving back to querying writers).

Newsletter Swaps

If you know authors writing in similar genres and audience ages, sharing a blurb and sign up link to their newsletter, and them doing the same for you in theirs, can help grow both newsletters. If you’re a fellow SFF writer, here’s a Facebook Group for arranging newsletter swaps.

Social Media

Your email provider probably has a footer block to add to your newsletter template, with icons to link to your social media accounts. I display this below my sign off for each newsletter, to make it easy for my subscribers to visit my social media.

How Often Do I Send it?

The most common recommendation I’ve heard is monthly. Often enough for people to remember who you are, what you’re about and to eagerly open your newsletter. I started with quarterly because I had too many balls in the air to manage monthly newsletters as well, then moved to every two months in the lead up to my debut’s release. This is how often I feel I have something of personal and bookish of interest to say, and is often enough to share two blogs each time.

How to Design & Write My Newsletter?

Read Examples

Before designing yours, I suggest (if you haven’t already), subscribing to the newsletters of a few writers you know (including some same genre authors). Look at what they include in their newsletters, how their content is organised, but also their presentation, tone etc. Consider what will suit your personality/ brand and your goals in designing and selecting content for your newsletter.


My favourite author newsletters are by Emma Lombard (Historical Fiction Author) for her personable tone and bookish content (you can read her January newsletter here). And Rue Sparks (Magical Realism, Mystery, Spec. Fic. Author), who illustrates what I mean when I talk about personal reflections on topics in this newsletter. If you’re wondering what my attempts to do the above look like, my November newsletter gives you a good idea.

Branding

If you haven’t looked into branding yet, the main thing to bear in mind here is using consistent fonts and consistent colour schemes across your site and newsletter, and for any promo graphics you make which include text. You may also like to design your own newsletter graphic to promote your NL on your site, socials etc. I use the image on the right (made on canva) as my email header. It has the same font as the titles of my Ruarnon Trilogy.

Author Newsletter, The Basics

Personal Style

This is something to consider throughout your entire newsletter.
What style of writing suits your personality and how you want to interact with your subscribers? How does your newsletter style compare to your books and their tone?

Are you aiming to invite readers to connect with you, to entertain them, to inform them and or to educate them in some way? What type of tone best suits your style and that purpose/ those purposes?

I’m Aussie, and we tend to be blunt, so my newsletters (like my blogs) speak quite directly. Entertainment isn’t my main goal, but I like to include some humour and show some personality in my personal updates, to make them an enjoyable read. My blogs aim to share my learnings as a writer and to help fellow writers on their journeys (which will shift gears to focus more on potential readers when I prepare to publish my first book). So at the moment, my blog and external resources sections aim to help writers (when my blog focuses on readers, this purpose/ aim will also include entertaining, connecting with and engaging readers.)

As you figure out your style, tone and purpose, you may also like to consider:
What do you want your reader to feel as they read your newsletter? How do you want them to respond to it? How can you style and structure your newsletter to meet those aims?

Voice

If imposter syndrome is on your back, and or you don’t think you’ve found your author platform voice yet, I suggest trying blogging before drafting a newsletter. Chances are your blog readers aren’t signed up to your blog. They haven’t made a commitment to you, so you’re under less pressure on a blog. And you’ve got space to practice writing longer-than-social-media messages to your readers, in your author voice.
It took me around six or seven blogs before I felt comfortable drafting a newsletter. My blog is where I’ve experimented with and developed my newsletter voice, developed my non-fiction writing style and played around with how to use those to connect with my readers, and to entertain and help them. I suggest experimenting with all that on your blog. And installing a page visit counter to see which blogs and styles are getting the most reads, and considering what worked well with your blog when writing your newsletter.

Developing a blog (and sharing it on your social media) gives your potential newsletter audience a chance to sample your content and realise that they may want to sign up. Alternately, giving your blog readers the chance to subscribe directly to your blog opens up a line of communication with people who don’t want to subscribe to your newsletter.

Mailing List Providers and Set Up

Which Mailing service provider should I use?

Mailchimp is free until you hit 2,000 subscribers (then pricy), Mailerlite being free for up to 1,000 subscribers, while Convertkit is expensive. To help you choose a provider, here’s a guest post on Jane Friedman’s blog comparing the three.

What Does a Mailing List Do?

If the term ‘mailing list’ is new to you, you may be wondering what’s physically involved in setting up your newsletter and mailing list, so I’ll unpack that. Whether you set up a sign up form on your site or on a landing page via your provider (more on sign ups below), once someone signs up to your newsletter, your provider will store their emails on a list. From there, it will provide you with newsletter templates. If the templates aren’t much chop, you should have the option to add content blocks of your choice from a menu. When your newsletter is finished, you can send it to everyone on your list via your provider.

Where do I send Emails to my List From?

Not your personal email account. Attempting to do this can cause tech issues (yes I know people who’ve tried it and had a lot of trouble). Most website hosts offer an email account to match your site, yourname@yoursite.com, which looks more professional and doesn’t have those issues.

Which Emails Should I Set Up?

I recommend setting up an automated welcome email, thanking subscribers for signing up to your newsletter and stating its name. If your name isn’t clear in your newsletter title, I’d state your name too, so people know who’s speaking to them and that their sign up was successful. If you’re using Mailchimp and can only set up one automated email, I’d include your reader maget in this welcome email.

Then I suggest creating (and saving) a template for your regular newsletter. If you save it as both an email and a template, you can use the template (with your choice of fonts, colour schemes etc) to populate next month’s newsletter.

A goodbye letter for un-subscribers. I’m sure you’ve seen the ‘sorry to see you go’ type emails you get from third parties. As my newsletter is called ‘Fiction Frolics’, I sign it off by wishing them well in their fiction endeavours. You might also like to remind people that they can follow you on social media to stay in touch in this email.

Do you still want to receive these newsletters? This email is important to send out periodically, to the people your provider thinks aren’t opening your emails. Why? Because if people persistently don’t open your emails, your sender rating can be effected, which means your newsletters are more likely to end up in everyone’s spam folder. For more information about this and comprehensive newsletter set up tips, I recommend buying Newsletter Ninja.

Where Do I Promote My Newsletter On My Site?

If you have a single page site, at the top (for attention) or bottom of that page (by then, people will have some idea of what they’re signing up for, from your homepage’s content).

If you have a multi page site and no blog, you may like to put your newsletter blurb and sign up form on your contact page. However, if your contact page also includes your social media and or is crowded (like mine), its worth giving your newsletter its own page, mine being here.

The advantage of a newsletter-only page is that you can link your newsletter sign up directly to your social media bio, as well as your main site or blog (I’m trialling this on Insta too).

If you have a blog too, I would do whichever of the above applies AND place a sign up form and newsletter blurb, or a link to your newsletter sign up page at the bottom of each blog. That way, people interested enough in reading your blogs get the chance to sign up for more content.

Do I Need a Separate Landing Page for my Newsletter? If you’re using Story Origin or other external newsletter promoters, they may have landing pages for you to use for their set up. But for your set up, why give Mailchimp or other providers page visits from your social media, when your site could get those visits, and people could browse your site instead? (Making everything involve as few clicks as possible is also an effective SEO strategy).

What Should Your Newsletter Blurb and or Sign Up Say and Look Like?

I suggest creating a newsletter header. You’ll see mine in my site’s sidebar and footer. Every newsletter blurb I’ve read says at least ‘sign up for updates.’ That doesn’t tell potential subscribers anything specific or let them know what value they personally will get from your newsletter. So whatever else your blurb says, I’d at least tell people about the reader magnet they get for signing up, including audience age, genre and perhaps a one line blurb. For example my sign up page initially said:

Get the short story Urmillian: Rebellion is due and accompany me on my Fiction Frolics via personal updates, behind the scenes snippets, author interviews and blogs every two months.

If you have an option for site visitors to subscribe just to your blog, I also suggest displaying that sign up on your newsletter page. For a visual of all the above, visit my sign up page.

Privacy Policy

If you can, include a link to your privacy policy where you place newsletter sign up forms on your site. Potential subscribers are the most relevant audience for your site’s privacy policy, so make it easy for them to find.

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Newsletter Resources & Related Reading

Interested in a space to discuss newsletters, author platforms and book marketing with other authors? Let me know by replying to my posts on Blue Sky on Mastodon, or via my contact page and I’ll send you an invite link to my Indie Author Discord.

Unpublished Author Newsletters by Emma Lombard.

Newsletter Ninja (book), by Tammi L. Labrecque.

Story Origin and Book Funnel are popular for gaining newsletter subscribers (I prefer group promos on Bookfunnel).

For Social Media: Social Media for Writers

For blogging & site tips: Author Website Set Up Tips.

For Indie Authoring: Becoming an Indie Author part 1, and 2 –book launch.

Author Website Tips

Deciding what to put on your author website can seem daunting, especially if you publish it before your first book. But your author bio and writing samples can go on your site, and you can start blogging at any time. I’ll suggest site content, and give tips on carefully selecting your theme in this post. I’ll also recommend plugins for WordPress (sorry, I don’t do Wix or Squarespace, though I hear good things). Ultimately, I’ll share what I’ve learnt tweaking my site and blog over the past ten months (yes, as an unpublished author!), to help you hit the ground running with yours.

What Should I Put On My Site?

Author Bio

Your bio ought to be written in third person, so other people can copy and paste it into author interviews you give. You might like to include things like places you’ve lived, your education, life events etc, but I’d also try and inject some personality and personal interests too. Your bio may be the place where potential readers, writer colleagues or potential agents and publishers get their first feel for who you are. For an example of showing personality and humour, I offer my bio. (I’ll use the short ‘about me’ paragraph on my home page for interviews, as my About page bio is too long).

I suggest accompanying your bio with your standard author profile photo (the one you use for social media and sites like Goodreads), so you’re instantly recognisable to anyone who’s interacted with you online. If your bio is on a separate page, you may like to share other photos too and give more details for people to get to know you better.

Your Writing

This could be book adds, descriptions of your works in progress, sample chapters, your poetry or short stories. You may want a Works in Progress page, and or a page for each short story, and or a page for poetry. In choosing writing samples, I’d consider how well each showcases your writing, your main genre and themes, and your writing style to potential readers. I’d also consider: are you displaying shorts which are prequels to your novels, aimed at building a readership? Are your book teasers from works in progress, aiming to generate reader interest, or upcoming release blurbs aiming to entice potential readers to preorder? (Strong, polished book pitches being more crucial for the latter, though I recommend seeking critical feedback for both, to overcome any author bias blind spots which may trip up potential readers).

What if I have multiple writing styles, genres and or audience ages?

That’s when you might want to consider a pen name for some books, and a separate author site for your pen name, especially if you write unrelated genres, or themes appropriate for different age groups, like erotica and children’s fiction.

Character Art

Author Website Tips
My MC, Prince Ruarnon, by Glint of Mischief.

Images are a great way to capture people’s imaginations, and a unique way to indicate the atmosphere and mood of your writing. You may like to commission a portrait of your MC to generate interest about your book and to illustrate the book blurb section on your site (and share on social media or in your newsletter), and yes, that’s what I did on my works in progress page (which is now my books page).

Alternately, you can find high quality photos on unsplash.com and some great public domain artwork on canva.com, to format into a mood board or graphic to illustrate your book blurb. I prefer Unsplash, because it lets you credit photographers for their work. Remember to use alt text, so vision impaired visitors know what images show (more on this in Image Accessibility below).

Newsletter Sign Up

I highly recommend a newsletter, especially if you plan to self publish, and especially as Twitter is spectacularly demonstrating the volatility of social media. My next post focuses on newsletters, so all I’ll say here is make your sign up form is prominent on your site and tell people what they get for signing up, eg. a short story.

Blog

A blog is a great way to attract potential readers to your website. Whether you blog monthly, fortnightly, weekly or are a super-human who blogs more often, every post is an opportunity to drive traffic to your site. Writing a number of quality blogs encourages people to spend time exploring your site, and to revisit it. If you’re lucky, that may lead them to sign up to your newsletter, to get your content in their inbox.

Privacy Policy

If people can comment on your site, log into it or sign up to your newsletter, if you use Google Analytics or other data collection like cookies, you need a privacy policy. Handily, Wix and WordPress both have policy templates you can use, and or adapt. If your site uses cookies, you’ll also need a cookie banner to inform visitors of this. I use Complianz.

SEO

To get your website showing up in Google search results, complete this (free) Attracta site map form. This alone created a steady increase in the number of visits my site and blog posts received.

Yes analytics can help with SEO, but as a layperson I find Google Analytics has far too many options and too much information, which I lack the time and intuition to utilise. I just read its monthly reports. So shop around!

Dotstore Plugins (my page counter), told me 3/4 of my website visits were via Twitter (I no longer have an account there). It also displays a graph of daily page and blog visits, for a week at a time. It suggested that (as I rarely tweet my blog), most people visited via links on my Twitter profile page, or in my Twitter bio. So put your site link in your social media bio!

Choosing A Theme

I suggest experimenting with different themes to see what appeals to you, but also consider…

Display & Visual Accessibility

Does my theme display page menus and social media clearly, in an easy to see space? Is site navigation easy?

Colour Scheme

When choosing colours, try to be as conscious of making your site visually accessible as you are about designing it to your personal taste. Ensure there is enough contrast between text colour and background colour for text to be easy to read. Be wary of big slabs of text on a white background, with no images, colour or sub-headings to break it up, which could bore some visitors and be a visual impairment access issue to others. (If you’re curious, this site’s theme was Katha (on WordPress), which many people have said they find clean and easy to read.)

Style, Genre and Audience Age

If you’re writing a dark and haunting Horror, you’re probably after a theme with dark colours, and images which evoke the mood and feel of your stories. If you’re writing children’s fiction, you may gravitate towards bright colours and lots of pictures. I suggest neutral colours, as opposed to glaringly bright tones of each colour and not too many pictures, which may overstimulate neurodiverse visitors.

For any genre and audience age, consider whether the tone, atmosphere and mood of images on your Home and other pages evoke your books style. Creating a site which feels like an ‘experience’ is another way to generate interest, so if that interests you, I’d have fun experimenting with it.

Themes With Images

Themes with background images can be great for giving your site a genre-related feel, especially if the background image you choose displays off-world art for SFF. I suggest choosing a theme with side borders of that image/ art, and a single colour background for the middle, over which text is displayed clearly, so it has a genre vibe, but isn’t visual stimulation overload/ inaccessible. A header image with a fantasy feel also sets the mood (images on mine being from the front cover’s of my debut Manipulator’s War, and my second novel, Secrets of the Sorcery War.)

Text: Elise Carlson, A fantasy author's adventures in fiction and life.Torch lit battlements on a dark night, beside a sailing ship sailing on bright blue waters between sunlit cliffs.
Cover art by Glint of Mischief.)

Image Accessibility

Visitors with visual impairments may depend on digital readers, which cannot read print formatted onto images, eg. promo images you’ve overlaid with text on Canva. So I’d make text on images on your site accessible by putting text in alt text too. Also say what the image is in alt text (unless its purely decorative).

Consistency

Whatever your colour, art and font choices: make them consistent across your pages and your blog. Try to have your own style of promo images, with similar colours and backgrounds. This also gives your site its own distinct feel, and will make it easier on people navigating across pages of your site, by not requiring them to adjust to different colour schemes before they can read and access each page. A great example of this is emmalombard.com (Historical Fiction author site).

Does my theme have a banner? + Site Icons & Logos

A banner is an easy way to put images of yourself (your brand) and your book covers on each page. It can help people visually associate your site’s content with you and says clearly, “I have books to sell!” NB: If you’ve got a series, give pride-of-visibility-place to book one’s cover in your banner (the gateway book ?) and maybe a few others, but try not to overwhelm us with too many covers.

If, like me, you don’t have books out yet or coming soon, you may wish to make your site logo and browser icon (as displayed in the browser tab) your face. My goal there is enabling people to visually associate my site’s content with me. You could use an author logo, but I find them forgettable and faces memorable, so I prefer faces.

Social Media Links

Ideally, you want a theme which displays social media icons linking to your socials clearly, at the top and or bottom of your pages. As my theme displays them below comments, and the footer, I use Ultimate Social Media Icons to display ‘follow me’ buttons (the ones below) in my side bar menu, where they’re more likely to be seen.

Does my theme have a sidebar?

If your site has multiple pages and or you’re blogging, I’d pick a theme with a sidebar to display ‘Follow Me On Social Media’ buttons and a ‘Sign Up To My Newsletter’ form. I also recommend displaying a category menu for blog posts, and assigning your blogs to categories. That way, visitors can identify posts which interest them, as opposed to your latest posts, or archives listed by month and giving readers no clue what they’re about.

Blog

What Do I blog About?

Not everything under the sun. As with books, you’re trying to build a regular readership on your blog. Ideally, your blog readership and book readership will be the same. So when thinking what to blog, ask yourself, ‘what might readers of my books be interested in reading?’ (Side note, yes, this blog is writer advice and I write YA Fantasy, not non-fiction. For now, this blog is me sharing what I’ve learnt, not trying to appeal to potential readers of my books).

Which blog topics are relevant to your books audience? I write YA and I identified as nonbinary soon after starting this site, so I’ve blogged about gender identity, something young people may question, relevant to the coming of age stories I write, and something I’d hope people who buy books for young people would want to support them with. If you’re unclear what your equivalent of this is, consider themes and ideas your books explore, and your experiences with those things, or thoughts you’re willing to share about them.

On another track, a blog is a much more extensive space than a bio for potential readers to get to know you, your books etc. If you’re unsure how to utilise it or if you’d enjoy jamming time to blog into your busy schedule, take a look at 100 Blog Ideas for Unpublished Authors by @mixtusmedia (which is excellent), then see how you feel.

Blog Links On Your Site

Every blog post can draw potential site visitors, and linking your blogs can encourage them to stick around. If your current post touches on topics you’ve already blogged about, mention and link your old posts where relevant, and or end your current blog with related links (yours or other people’s articles, which help with SEO).

Your theme may display other posts, but not make related posts visible. My WordPress theme links only to ‘previous’ and next ‘posts’ at the end of each blog, so I installed a plugin (Shareaholic), which displays eight of my blogs below every post. (Adds NB: Shareaholic also lets you opt in (or out) of displaying adds in this panel. I like this option because it contains adds at the end of your posts, where they neither impersonate paragraphs of your blog posts, nor obscure them with a pop up).

Blog Tags

These do make a difference. I suggest choosing them by selecting key words from your blog posts, entering them in Google, and seeing which of the most popularly searched phrases in Google are most relevant to your blog, and using them as tags. Also, check if key words you associate with your post mostly turn up similar content before using them as tags. I considered ‘querying’, but on Google that turned up results for every type of human enquiry, so I experimented till my search terms turned up agent and publishing related results.

Blog Titles

9 Tips for the First 5 Pages was my first popular blog. I think that’s a combination of a topic many fiction writers want advice on, and a title which aligns with Google search terms. So when seeking popular search phrases for blog tags, consider using one as your blog title, if its relevant and specific enough. Also, keep your title short. I generally find anything longer than five words gets less hits for each word I add. Browsing in incognito mode to see popular search results and integrating them into your title may help. If you get few hits over a few months, keep tinkering with the title.

Install Social Media Sharing buttons

Social Warfare is my top pick. It’s style suits my theme (its the floating social bar) and the paid version lets me determine the text and images which display when people share my links on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest (no, I’m not an affiliate getting paid to say that). I also tried Shareaholic’s share buttons, which displayed photo credit text and some Google Analytics code before the first line of my blog posts on FB and looked awful. And Ultimate Social Media, whose floating share buttons had a time delay, obscuring paragraphs as I scrolled.

Blogs and Pinterest

Images on my site cannot be pinned to Pinterest, which is popular with certain demographics. The easiest fix if you have this issue, is to create a pin for your blog on Pinterest (including a link to your blog in the pin), then use this Pinterest widget builder to create short code and paste the code into a short code block in your post. That displays the blog’s pin in the blog, so site visitors can pin it.

Share Links in Your Newsletter

Sharing your latest or popular blogs in your newsletter is a great way to recycle content you’ve invested time and effort in. It also gives people who appreciate your blog an easy means of staying in touch, at their leisure.

WordPress Recommendations

Recommended Plugins

If you want like buttons, page counters, social media share buttons (and any other plugins I’ve mentioned above), on WordPress, you’ll have to be manually install them. (If you don’t know how, see this guide from WP beginner, or search for WordPress plugin instructions from your web host.) I suggest installing these plugins as soon as you publish your blog, so your like, visit and share counts (technical issues notwithstanding) accurately reflect your blog’s popularity.

I use

Ultimate Social Media Icons to display ‘follow me’ buttons in my side bar menu (using their short code).

-Dotstore’s Page Visit Counter

Shareaholic to display photos and titles of my blog below each post (I don’t use their social media buttons).

Optin Forms for my sidebar Newsletter Sign Up Form.

Yoast for SEO optimisation and readability basic analysis and recommendations per site page and blog.

And Complianz to scan my site to produce and display a relevant Cookie banner.

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Further Reading

Interested in a space to discuss author websites, newsletters, platforms and book marketing with other authors?
Let me know by let me know by replying to my posts on Blue Sky on Mastodon, or via my contact page and I’ll send you an invite to my Writing or Indie Author Discord.

For blog post ideas, see 100 Blog Ideas for Unpublished Authors by @mixtusmedia.

For tips on Growing Your BlogTips to Make Readers Continue Reading, 3 More Blog Tips & Being a Guest Blogger see Marc Guberti (a marketing prodigy’s) blog.

For getting started on writer/author social media, see my Social Media For Writers post. For Blue Sky, see my Blue Sky Newby Guide.

For getting started as an indie author, see Becoming an indie Author Part 1, and Becoming an Indie Author, Book Launch.

Halla Williams #Pitmad Success Story

What lies beyond querying, should we be fortunate enough to have a literary agent offer us representation? In this #Pitmad success story, Halla Williams describes how she came to write the March 2020 #Pitmad pitch which led to signing with her literary agent, and what signing and the early stages of working with her agent have been like, over the course of a year like few others (2020).

What was pitching your Epic Fantasy like?

My first experience of pitching felt like jumping in at the deep end without learning to swim first. After I’d got the manuscript as polished as I could, even getting a developmental edit to check the very complex multi-POV plot worked,  I went to a writers’ day run by the SFF publisher at Gollancz. I paid £65 to go but it was worth it. Gollancz authors like Joanne Harris and Ben Aaronovitch and some agents and editors were doing panels and then they moved around the audience tables, heard what you were doing and gave you feedback. It was so useful. Jo Abercrombie loved the written pitch he kindly agreed to read. One of the Gollancz editors hated my very under-confident spoken version. I realised that I had no idea how to sell this book verbally.

I thought, ok, I need to slow down and think about what sells. What were the ideas that people could relate to and latch onto, that evoke what I’m offering – which is really complicated and multi layered, and doesn’t have clear main characters and doesn’t have a single clear plot? It was going to be a struggle.

I started writing my query then and foolishly sent it too soon to Joe Abercrombie’s agent and ‘said Jo Abercrombie liked it.” I got a form rejection. Those first few are hard because they just confirm that dread that it’s not going to be easy. So I took it slowly because I knew I didn’t know how to sell it. I only sent them out gradually. 

Query Feedback

I started getting in touch with people on Twitter who were also querying. We talked and my query evolved. Then Flights of Foundry [an SFF convention that went online because of the pandemic] came up. There was a lottery for a critique of your query by Jose Iriarte and Elle Ire. I was lucky enough to win a place only 6 people got. I sent it off in advance and they were going to give feedback on the day but the connection was awful. They said, “We’ll email it and you can send your next draft as well.” Jose didn’t like it and Lisa loved it. She really related to the query and he didn’t at all. Then I re-wrote it based on that feedback and Jose said he was amazed at how much I improved it based on what they said. I thought, “Oo, I’m feeling a bit more confident now!”

What was your experience of pitch parties and follow up querying?

After that I wrote a few pitches in response and shared them on Facebook for people to respond to. I looked at feedback and went by my gut to choose which ones to pitch. I pitched in #Pitmad and got no likes. Then I pitched in #SFFPit and botched it. An American agent liked my pitch. He said on his Twitter, “Find out about me. It’s a wooing process. Don’t just send me stuff and don’t know who I am.” So I did loads and loads of research. I wasn’t aware of how far back in the past it went but I picked the most appropriate connection I found. I just got a form rejection back and was disappointed. But at the same con I mentioned earlier, Flights of Foundry, he said, not knowing I was there, “Don’t do what this stalker did and dig years into the past to find something that connects you.”

Elise: And you sat there going, “Awesome. That was me…”

Halla: Yes! I was mortified even though I wasn’t digging through his trash, or hacking his account! I guess it wasn’t meant to be. Just because you’ve got a like doesn’t mean anything. You still need to be able to connect with that person. Just be yourself. Have confidence that you’re offering something that will connect with that person. Don’t scrabble around like an idiot, trying to find a connection that isn’t there.

Query Length

By the time we got to the March Pitmad, I knew my query said what I wanted it to say. It was nearly 400 words – outside the guidelines for what people say is an appropriate length for a query! But the more good examples in high fantasy I see, the less I think it should go down to 300.

Elise I saw a post where an agent reported on average query length in their inbox. Some went up to 450 and the agent believed there were appropriate reasons for them to be that long. I guess that’s the problem with hard and fast rules -they don’t apply across the board.

Halla: It’s quite a long complex novel. At that point, it was 130k words of epicness.

You never know if someone’s going to like the enigmatic ex-mercenary, or the courtesan or if they’re going to be attracted to a rebellious Fae. Skimping too much means you could leave out the ideas that could appeal to the right person.

Getting that down into a Twitter pitch was hard but the same applies – get in the appealing ideas. Although there are so many pitches going by that you may not get seen by agents, it’s still great practice.

Elise: From the pitch parties I attended in 2020, I think if you’re writing adult there’s a chance, but for YA Fantasy the odds of being seen by the industry seem astronomical. I’ve had a few press likes in SFFPit, but that’s the only party my YA Fantasy has got industry attention in. I can see myself querying publishers and then self publishing.

Halla: That’s what I thought I was going to have to do.

How did you know that you have the right agent?

Good First Impressions

After I got the like in the March PitMad, I did some digging into him and I could see that he was a new agent. I liked what he’d been posting and how he came across on Twitter. When I sent the query in, he responded almost immediately. He rang me up and said, “I know people don’t normally ring, but I really like what you sent me and can I have the full please?” No one else had shown interest. He sounded really nice on the phone. We had a chat and a laugh. Afterwards, I realised I hadn’t sent the full to anyone, so I had to format it… chapters a third down the page… Times  12 New Roman 12pt. I worried whether I’d got the right, most up-to-date version. It only took me four hours, but it was really intense between feeding a small child and other things going on to distract me.

He emailed me the next morning and said, “I’m a few chapters in. I really liked when… has anyone else got it?” He was obviously really keen.

Three days later he said, ”Can I call you and talk to you about it?” I thought, is this going to be a revise and resubmit? A phone call was a good thing, but I didn’t know how good. I was having a hell of a day the day he wanted to call me, so I put it off to the next day. 

More Good Signs

He called me up and said it was as brilliant as he hoped. He gave me some constructive feedback so I’d get a feel for his edits: “This is happening off stage and is reported. You need to write some actions scenes and get a thrill pulse going.”

He told me so much about my novel that resonated with me that I thought you get what I’m trying to do. We had a good chat and formed a good bond. 

I got the references off him. He only had two other clients before me. He’d said, “I want to work with you for your whole career, not just this book.” That was what I wanted and needed. I thought he’s an agent with a small list, I’ll get loads of attention. And he seemed to be a rising star. I was pretty sure he was the one. But the other person who had my query was someone I was really interested in, so I did nudge her and she said, “Send me the full.”

Good References

Just after I sent her the full, I got his references and they were glowing. Both authors were keen to talk to me and sing his praises. Apparently, he’s got a great eye for edits!

I ended up emailing the other agent and saying, “I’m sorry, I’ve made my decision.” It just felt really right and I wanted to move forward. I contacted him and said “I really want to come and work with you. Let’s do it.” And he seemed delighted!

What was signing your agency agreement like?

There were a couple of things I wasn’t sure about, so we talked through the contract. After that I was happy and celebrated and posted a picture of me and my contract – blurred out – on Twitter.

And the next client he signed after me won the Rivers of London Prize. So he’s been able to talk to editors he wouldn’t otherwise have been able to. That book is fantasy, so it has opened doors to talk about mine. I’m very happy about that.

Halla holding up her contract.

What stage is your book at now, and when might it go on submission?

2020 was a difficult year in terms of getting things done and moving forward. I got my full edits in January (2021). We’re going to make the changes we need to make, then we’ll go on submission. You think you’re going to just do some revisions then it’s going to go out there, but because it’s a big, complicated book, it’s going to take longer than I’d imagined.

Elise: Did he give you feedback officially to do some edits earlier? Has it been multiple rounds?

Halla: He gave me some things to work on when we did the signing at the end of May. I got some broad comments in December. The people he’s signed since are behind me in the queue, so they’re going to take longer. Somebody told me a publishing house editor had hers for 5 months before she heard anything.

Elise: It seems to be the thing with traditional publishing – that it will take time full stop – at all stages.

Halla: However keen I am to push it on and hurry it, you’ve just got to wait for other people.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

How much of it feels like luck.

Just connecting with the right person at the right time is staggeringly unlikely. You’ve got to be good, but you’ve also got to be lucky. Lots of people saying no isn’t necessarily because you’re not good. There are so many reasons why people say no that have nothing to do with you. 

I had been getting to the point where I’d queried for a while and I was wondering if it was the pages and whether I should cut the first few chapters. You get to a point where you feel like you should change something. I’m glad I didn’t because I didn’t need to.

What advice would you give people in the querying trenches?

Get lots of people to give feedback on your query and don’t believe everybody. Just take on board what makes sense to you and opens your mind to how other people are perceiving what you’ve written. You know the story so well that you can’t know what the words you’ve chosen are suggesting to other people. They may come across quite differently. Ask people to tell you what kind of person they’re finding that character to be. Are you finding that person engaging? What is charming about what I’ve written? What stands out to you? Really interrogate that. 

[I was one who gave Halla feedback on her query. She wasn’t afraid to seek clarification or additional feedback from people who’d already given her feedback. I remember being impressed by how much her queries developed from one revision to the next.]

Different people are going to like different things about it. Take what seems to you to be good advice.

But if you’re trying to write lots of subtlety, you have to cheat it. Make your pitch not quite as complex as it is, to get an agent to read it. You’ve just got to get them to pay attention enough to get hooked into reading. Then they’ll see that it’s subtle and complex.

It is collecting together the ideas that make a good pitch, rather than trying to convey the essence of the story.

I think my pitch makes it sound a bit like a romantic relationship between Ashari and Westorr. That isn’t the case, but there is something about the ambiguity of that relationship which is intriguing. It doesn’t do what it says on the tin, but it was accurate as written and enough to pull somebody in.

More About Halla

Halla Williams writes high fantasy. She’s also a developmental and copyeditor and sings in an acoustic duo called Telhalla.

Having grown up in the small town of Nailsea in England, Halla studied Drama at Exeter University. She then toured as an actor for six years, performing in everything from Shakespeare to comedy musicals to children’s theatre.

Halla singing.

Although she discovered many wonderful places, she came back to live in Bristol, near where she grew up, to work as an English teacher. After 16 years, she left teaching to become a proofreader and editor and finally finish Song of the Storm.

Bristol’s live music scene is a particular joy for her and she sings regularly at the ‘famous’ open mic at The Oxford pub in Totterdown. Her favourite local band is the Dusk Brothers.

As a fantasy reader, her favourites include Robin Hobb, Janny Wurts, Steven Erikson, Joe Abercrombie, Mercedes Lackey and Brandon Sanderson. She has a Facebook page and you can follow her on Twitter if you are interested in the writing/publishing process.

You’ll find her website here.

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.
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Further Reading

If you’re curious about the alternative -signing with Indie publishers- here’s my interview with three authors about how they found, signed with and knew they had the right Indie Publisher for their book.

For more information about querying, all of my favourite querying resources are linked in Querying Links: Letters & Literary Agents.

You’ll find my best advice on query letter structure and a query pitch breakdown in Comprehensive Query Letter Tips.

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