A Fantasy Author's Adventures in Fiction & Life

Tag: Writer Tips (Page 1 of 2)

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

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.

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.

Why I Chose to Self Publish

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

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

The Early Querying Journey

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

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

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

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

Killer one: Time

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

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

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

Killer two: Interest

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

Killer three: Patience and Tolerance

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

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

Burnout and Swearing Time

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

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

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

Killer Four: Marketability and Motivation

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

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

Killer Five: the Need to Achieve

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

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

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

Personality Factors

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

Industry Factors

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

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


Alternatives? Small Presses?

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

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

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

Do I Self Publish?

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

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

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

If I Self Publish, am I Quitting?

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Choosing Your Publishing Path

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

2023 Addendum

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

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

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

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Related Reading

Querying Your First Novel (a suggested querying process)

Publishing Paths Interviews

Halla Williams #Pitmad Success Story

Signing with an Indie Publisher

Indie Authors on Indie Authoring

Querying Your First Novel

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

Crafting a Query Letter: Suggested Steps

Research: the Content of Query Letters

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

-Greet the agent/ publisher by name

-write a hook for your book

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

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

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

-thank the agent/ editor for their time

Research: How to Write Effective Queries

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

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

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

My detailed query letter and query pitch break down.

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

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

Query Revising and Critical Feedback

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

  1. Revise query, multiple times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Feedback Should I Discard?

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

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

Query Readiness Checklist

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

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

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

Evoke the tone/ style of your novel?

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

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

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

Querying Resources, written on envelop with wax seal.

Realistic Expectations

Premature Querying

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

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

The First Query Round

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

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

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

Rejections

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

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

Do Rejections Signal an Issue with My Query or Pages?

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

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

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

Personalised Rejections

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

Why Was My Manuscript Rejected?

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

“The pages didn’t pull me in.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t have a ‘Dream Agent’

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

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

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

Find Your Querying Community!

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

Where Can You Meet Querying Writers?

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

Before & During Twitter Pitch Parties

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

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

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

Finding Querying Writers On Discord

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

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

Where can I find Literary Agents?

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

How Long Do I Query?

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

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

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

Things I Suggest Considering While Querying Long Term

How is my mental health?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

Query Letters

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

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

My detailed query letter and query pitch break down.

Querying Links: Letters Through to Literary Agents

Pitch Parties

Twitter Pitch Parties

Crafting A Quality Pitch

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Expectations

Having Realistic Expectations by Jericho Writers.

Rachelle Gardner’s list and rebuttal of unrealistic expectations.

Querying Writer Communities

My Craft and Querying Discord.

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

Publishing Paths Interviews

Halla Williams #Pitmad Success Story

Signing with an Indie Publisher

Indie Authors on Indie Authoring

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

Mixed race woman with long curly black hair in black velvet hat sitting cross legged on a sofa reading, with a bookshelf
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.

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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.

Signing with an Indie Publisher -3 Author Interviews

Most querying writers hope for a literary agent, but what if you get a pitch party like and ultimately are offered a contract by a small press? How will you know if they’re the right press for you, or for this particular book? And what would signing with them be like? In these publisher signing interviews, I talk to authors Nikky Lee, Alexandra Beaumont and C.G. Volgars about their experiences of querying, determining that the press making them an offer was right for their book and signing contracts with their small presses.

What was your experience of querying?

Nikky's head shot.

Nikky

Which pitch parties did you participate in and what responses did you get?

Pretty much everything I was eligible for: #SFFpit, #Pitmad and #PitDark were the main ones. 

All up I got 18 likes from agents and publishers across 10 twitter pitching events.

The most interest I had by far was at my first pitching event, #SFFpit in Jan 2019, where I got 6 likes in the one event. Unfortunately, I blew it because my book wasn’t ready. 

Lesson learned: don’t waste your pitch party “debut” pitching a book that isn’t ready. 

I had the most success at the #SFFpit events – 10 of my likes came from those. I was pitching under Adult and YA. My book sits in that awkward New Adult space ideal for 18-25 year olds, though it could happily be read by a mature YA reader or adults who enjoy YA reads [YA crossover being the latest term for this].

How long were you querying all up?

Nikky Jan 2019 to May 2020. But in that were two periods where I stopped querying to do a round of revisions. In hindsight, I started querying too early. The book was not ready and it became pretty clear after that first batch of queries. I like to think of that as my test run. I stopped querying and did some big structural edits and a lot of darling killing. When I came back a second time, it was in August 2019 and I queried fairly consistently with it until May 2020.

Was your contract a result of cold querying or a pitch party?

From #PitDark. I got two likes from my editor at Parliament House Press in that event. 

How did the way you got it and how long it took compare to your expectations?

Nikky To be honest, I expected to be querying for a while. I’d read stories of people querying hundreds of agents until one finally said yes, and all up I barely queried 30. I was prepared to query 100 agents before shelving the book and working on something else.

Alexandra's head shot.

Alexandra

I pitched in #Pitmad in Sept, #DVPit and #Pitdark in October 2020. I got more speed on it by the time I did #Pitdark. It suited me better because my book is dark fantasy. That was how I found the small press that is publishing it. The responses I got were pretty good. Someone on Twitter commented, “That’s like something Neil Gaiman would write,” and I thought, “Great. Publishers and agents looking at pitches might , if I’m lucky, see that someone thinks its like Neil Gaiman.” I thought, “No way is my writing close to as good as Neil Gaiman’s, but I’ll take it if it gets me the exposure.”

When did you feel like you got the hang of pitching?

Alex I think at my second party I got a feel for pitches. I’m quite a straight spoken person, so it took me a bit to get a feel for writing really evocative pitches. I think for the second one I upped the drama a bit more. Its high drama stuff, which I guess is how you get the attention.

I never assumed that this would go anywhere, partly because my partner is a development editor and has worked with books before, as have some of our friends, and everyone said it’s really hard to get a publishing contract. I went into it hoping it was going to go somewhere but also with a very realistic expectation that probably it wasn’t going to. That said, their support and experience really helped get me over the line and helped me know what to do.


Signing with an Indie Publisher -3 Author Interviews

C. G.

C. G.’s Querying Experience

Looking back, I can’t lie–it wasn’t the most fun time period in my life. Every time I got an email alert, my heart jumped into my throat. A twitter friend suggested using a secondary email purely for queries, so I wouldn’t have a mini heart attack at every Gmail notification. That definitely helped. But no, I didn’t really enjoy querying. 

That said, I met a lot of talented writers through #AmQuerying and #StrictlyWriting and learned a lot about pitching and querying with them. Also, because I’m with an indie press I’ve been able to incorporate some of my pitches into promo materials and even parts of my query and synopsis into marketing copy. Querying was rough, but it made me practice explaining and selling my book to people. So, I guess I got something out of it. Meh.

When did you feel like you got the hang of pitching?

I felt a lot more comfortable pitching the second time I started querying Static Over Space. The first time I had no idea what I was doing: I didn’t know the rules of writing a pitch. I didn’t know what made my story stand out. I didn’t know how to connect with other #AmQuerying authors. 

The second time was about a year and a half later. I had several killer pitches ready that I’d been retooling for months, I had a good group of writer friends to help me hone them, especially the #StrictlyWriting gang. Most importantly, I knew what made my writing stand out–VOICE. By the time I jumped back in, I felt really excited and pumped!

Which pitch parties did you participate in and what sort of responses did you get?

The first go-around I was doing everything under the sun–#Kisspit, #Pitdark, anything you could remotely fit a genre fiction under. The second time I knew I had to be real and narrow it down. My first pitch party after rebooting was April 2020 for #DVPit. I got 16 likes… three of which were actually people in publishing! [In Twitter Pitch Parties, liking tweet pitches is reserved for agents and publishers to request submissions, but some writers always forget and like pitches anyway].

How long were you querying all up?

My querying journey was spread over three years, but totalled two. The first year and a half, I got one full MS request from a cold query and no Twitter pitch love. After I stepped back and retooled, I queried for 6 months before an offer was made.

How did the way you got a publishing contract and how long it took compare to your expectations?

Interesting question. I don’t love that it took as long as it did… But there’s also no question in my mind that this version of Static Over Space is infinitely better than the first one. So double meh.

Querying Specs

AuthorsHome CountryGenreAudience AgeHow long did you query and
where before signing your contract?
Nikky Lee?? (New Zealand)Dark FantasyYA crossover1 year & 3 months
Mostly in US, some UK.
C.G. Volgers??SciFi FantasyYA Crossover3 years, mostly US, some UK.
Alexandra Beaumont??Dark FantasyAdult4 months
(NB: this is exceptionally rare)
Uk, US & Europe.

How did you know you had the right publisher?

Alexandra

You kind of go with the one you’ve got the offer on right?

Elise not necessarily. [We had an off the record conversation about other writer’s experiences confirming this statement].

Alex I did get an R and R, with a publisher that was more of a coffee subscription box who published books on the side. I didn’t go with them. 

When I researched Gurt Dog Press, they seemed very friendly and professional and I liked the artwork that they’d done and some of their other books. A lot of their other authors seemed to have good experiences. 

Elise Was there any particular person you had contact with who made you feel that way about them?

Alex I spoke to the editor and the marketing manager. They seemed to be everything that I expected and were really friendly. They’re early on in their publishing house journey. It was quite nice in a way, having a first novel being out with a publisher that’s also starting out, both being in it together. They are working on expanding and have had some great successes in their first year, so it feels like a really exciting place to be.

Elise Do you know who they sell to?

I think it’s mostly Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords and online, but they’re looking to expand. Some of the authors have got their books placed in local bookshops too.

Nikky

What struck me about Parliament House Press was they had a good range of books and they published regularly—they were clearly an indie press working towards becoming a mid-sized publisher. 

They also had a “monster shop” section in their online store, which I loved. And I could see my book fitting into that. They also had very professional looking covers.

On the business side, they had recently teamed up with a digital distributor to help spread their books. 

Audiobook rights were on the table too—I’m a big fan of audiobooks so that really sold it for me that this publisher was future focused and knew where the trends were. 

I contacted three of their authors, and they had nothing but good things to say. There were the usual caveats of going through a small to mid-sized publisher e.g. you have to be prepared to roll up your sleeves and put in the effort to market and promote the book. But to be honest, you still have to do that anyway, even if you’re published with the big 4. And I work in marketing, so that bit wasn’t so daunting.

C. G.

I had sooo many signs Outland Entertainment was the right place for SOS! First, my editor, Alana Joli, made a really funny Avarian joke while we were discussing Outland’s offer. I knew right then not only did she understand the story, but really understood the characters and world. She also has a great sense of humor and a keen eye for what makes a story shine. Her idea to switch Yula’s gender (a big Wookie-like character) to female will forever be one of the most genius edits for Static Over Space ever.

The second sign was when I saw the Art Director and Founder’s art portfolio and larger career. Jeremy Mohler not only teaches art at the college level, he’s worked with some of the biggest comic book names out there- Marvel, Blizzard, and IDW Comics. His street cred and art style was exactly what I’d always dreamed of finding for SOS.

Third, I sent the contract to the Author’s Guild Legal team [the Author’s Guild offers free Contract Review to paying members]. They looked over the contract, gave me a few pointers, but overall agreed it was really fair and even-handed.

The final green light was from someone I trusted inside publishing. Through #LatinXpitch I’d made a connection with an editor from a prominent imprint. He wasn’t looking for a YA SciFi when we met, but he’d remained a trusted mentor. Later when Outland made the offer, he asked around and gave them the thumbs up!

What stage is your novel at?

Alexandra's head shot.

I’m waiting on the full edits, and the book will be out in April.

C.G's headshot.

I just handed off the MS to my editor [January 10th]. From here we’ll do initial editing, then copy editing, then layout!

Nikky's head shot.

I’ve just finished my first round of edits from my editor. There’ll be a few more to come in the next six months or so. My publisher has already set up the digital preorders for it. 

We’re looking at a tentative April/May 2020 release for book 1. It’s still too soon to say for Books 2 and 3.

What Advice Would You Give Querying Writers?

Alex

I don’t have a lot of advice that I imagine people aren’t already doing, but perseverance is definitely a strong part of this. I was initially like I’ll just query 10 favourite agents and that didn’t go anywhere. My main one is everyone understandably thinks I’ll go through an agent, and my books will go to the big publishers and be published by the end of the year.

But that’s not always the case. I think there needs to be more recognition of other routes to publishing. Like it’s all valid. I came through it not knowing a lot about the small presses and only thinking about the big 5, but then I got into it and thought ok, there’s a mid band of publishing houses and a whole load of small presses as well. At the end of the day, getting your book out doesn’t have to be in that way. Getting a book out is still an achievement.

That’s the main thing i’ve taken away from it: not everyone’s going to be best selling authors and that’s ok. It depends what your ambitions are, but as long as your story’s out there, that’s the main thing for me.

The small press I’m going with is Swedish so I don’t think it needs to be in your own country. I was originally like ‘I’ll only query UK agents’ but someone said to me, “It’s a fairly international audience these days so you don’t need to pigeonhole yourself in your own country.” I think there’s no reason not to go wide.

Nikky

This is hard because everyone’s journey is so different. But based on my own experience, make sure the book is truly ready before you send it out. That means beta read -several rounds if need be, edited and proofed to the best of your ability. I blew my chances with several major NYC agents because I sent it to them before it was ready.

As for querying, I do think it is a numbers and timing game, and I do think it’s smart to try different avenues for getting noticed i.e. cold query, twitter pitching, conference pitching where possible.

C. G.

Find a great writer, preferably someone in the industry, to give you real, no-holds-barred feedback. After querying the first time I sent my MS to three #AmQuerying authors that I knew were amazing storytellers and Gina Damico, a YA author with several published books who offered novel consulting through Grubstreet

I couldn’t afford to pay her to look through the entire MS, but I got her advice on the first chunk. She told me, point-blank: here’s what you’re good at, here’s what you have to work on if you’re going to break through querying. It was painful at first. I basically had to rewrite half my book! But in the end, it was worth it. 

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Alex

It’s become a Twitter #WritingCommunity cliche, but I never expected the level of support and community there is on Twitter. I’ve met some great people in a Query DM Group who have read the opening chapters. I’d say while the online presence is helpful, don’t worry too much about it.

Its easy to go down the rabbit hole of spending a lot of time thinking about your writing, and having an author platform -I work full time in a busy job, so my time is fairly constrained. Making sure you’re not spending all your time doing all of this stuff is important for your sanity.

Speaking as someone who both wrote a pitch and signed a contract within half a year, it was a big effort to do all that and I kind of gave my life over to it for half a year. So my reflection and advice to people doing this for the first time is: its great and do calve out time to do this stuff if you’re passionate, but don’t kill yourself, because the market will still be there next year.

C.G

Yes! Edelweiss.plus is a great way to find comps for books that have no comp. And trust me– I would know!

Alexandra

Alexandra's head shot.

Nikky

Nikky's head shot.

Alexandra was raised on fairy tales, folklore and legends. She followed adventures at every turn: exploring the old parts of London, taking part in medieval re-enactments, and writing in every spare moment. ​ When not writing, Alexandra has a wanderlust for exploring new places, roaming the countryside and taking part in Live Action Fantasy Role Play. (Meaning she’s often covered in mud, grass and leaves.) Her passion for exploring new worlds drives her creative endeavours. Her debut novel, Testament of the Stars, will be published in April 2021 by Gurt Dog Press.

On Testament of the Stars:

Astrologers govern the lives of both the blessed from the plateau of Gemynd and the downtrodden from the planes of Rask.

When Einya reluctantly joins the settlement’s ruling star-cult, she thinks only of the rights it will give her: the permission to marry her Raskian lover. Instead she is thrown onto a treacherous path of betrayal and political strife, trapped within the cult persecuting Rask.

Forced to drink the blood of the stars and steal their thoughts, Einya ends up at the heart of a fierce rebellion, caught between a fight for freedom and the strange luring power of the stars.

Alexandra’s website.

Nikky is a New Zealand-based writer who grew up as a barefoot 90s kid in Perth, Western Australia. With eight years in content marketing and copywriting, she’s published numerous articles on behalf of businesses and for magazines.

In her free time, she writes speculative fiction, often burning the candle at both ends to explore fantastic worlds, mine asteroids and meet wizards. She’s had over a dozen short stories published in magazines and in anthologies around the world. Her debut novel, The Rarkyn’s Familiar—a dark tale of a girl bonded to a monster—will be published by Parliament House Press in 2022. Nikky’s Website.

C. G. Volgars

C.G's headshot.

CG Volars is the debut author of STATIC OVER SPACE, that Gender-Bending Scifi coming from Outland Entertainment in Spring 2022. 

CG currently resides in California with her family and two grey cats—Skittles and Rosie. In her spare time, she writes, uses potty language and collects SciFi pins. Join the #SpaceShip today at www.StaticOverSpace.com.

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Further Reading

If you’re sad the Twitter referred to in this post no longer exists, I recommend trying Blue Sky. This Guide will help you get started.

For more information about Pitch Parties, see this post.

For definitions of different publisher types and pros and cons of publishing with them, see Writer Beware’s: Small Presses and Hybrid Publishers & Vanity Publishers (I’d steer clear of the latter!).

To avoid infamous publishers, see Writer Beware’s Thumbs Down Publishers List.

A great place to see other writers experiences with particular publishers is Absolute Write’s Water Cooler.

Another useful site in researching publishers is Preditors & Editors, which is unfortunately in maintenance mode, but you’ll find their resources and updates on their Facebook Page.

For more Querying and Publishing resource links, see my Writers Resources Page.

If you’re wondering what Finding & Signing with a Literary Agent is like, see this interview with Fantasy Author Halla Williams.

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