Reasons I Didn’t Accept Your Review Request

photo-1424115087662-5845efc6b366Awhile back I wrote an article entitled “Four Reasons I Didn’t Finish Your Book”; it was a basic rundown of reasons why I usually DNF books. The article is one of my most liked articles, and thinking back on it, I decided to take the same idea in another direction.

Here’s the thing: I get a lot of review requests. I’m three years into my Author Unpublished blog and I now get sometimes upwards of 10-40 e-mails each week from authors who are interested in having me review their books. It’s awesome—it really is—but as much as I’d love to, I can’t accept every review request sent my way. It’s just not possible to read that many books each year. I mean, that’s like 520-2,080 review requests in a year. Even if I read a book a day, there’s no way I could get that done. It’s inevitable that I will turn some requests down… but I also understand that being on the other end of things, authors may not always realize why they aren’t getting responses, or why their requests are denied. So, I thought I’d sit down today and shed some light on the complicated process of whittling down a year’s worth of review requests to something a bit more manageable.

First of all, understand that I only read 50-112 books a year on average, and that’s my ideal number barring illness, vacations, computer issues, or whatever else that may pop up to prevent me from reading and posting reviews. So the number one reason your book may get denied is that I simply already have too many books on my list that I’ve agreed to review. This is made worse by the fact that if I do end up agreeing to a review and then not getting it done… that book review request is then rolled forward into the next year. So already, that 50-112 books a year is starting to look more like 30-92.

book-1171564_1920The second hurdle is whether or not you’ve read my Review Policy & FAQs. I can tell when you haven’t. To be fair, I’m a pretty good sport about it. If you haven’t read my FAQs, I may give you some leeway, because I understand that you, as an author, have probably sent review requests to any number of reviewers, and as long as my FAQs page is, you probably didn’t bother to read it. I get it. At the same time, however, the FAQs is important because all the steps I wrote into it for you to follow… yah… it makes the process of deciding if I want to read your book easier. So if you didn’t follow my FAQs, well, sometimes I just can’t be bothered. A lot of what I’m going to be including on this list from this point forward is directly related to my Review Policy & FAQs, so seriously… read it.

Super nice, personable authors are more likely to have their books reviewed. I’m all for the professional, impersonal review request, but the less human you seem, the less likely I am to feel bad about turning your review request down. Sometimes I accept review requests because authors are super nice and friendly, and I want to do a favor for them. I know, it’s ridiculous, but it works. By the same token, if you’re demanding, sound arrogant, or you’re just a good old fashioned jerk… I’ll probably toss out your review request without reading any of it.

pen-1329258I also throw out review requests from authors if I’ve read their work before and didn’t like it because they’re wasting my time. Chances are if I didn’t give your previous book at least a 3-star review, I’m not going to like any books you write after that… so don’t bother. Really. It’s nothing personal, I just don’t want to write you another negative review. I know it hurts your feelings, and I feel bad about it. Don’t make me.

Another reason I might toss out a review request is if the cover is terrible. I feel like I need a caveat here. Your book cover has to be really terrible for me to toss out your review request—like you’ve put in almost no effort at all. If your cover is just sort of “meh” then I’ll still go on to investigate further. Don’t freak out.

If your back-cover blurb isn’t interesting, or contains a topic that I’m not a fan of, you’ll probably get tossed… because let me be honest, I don’t want to read a boring book, and if you can’t hook me with a blurb, there’s no way you’re going to hook me with the actual book. That doesn’t mean your book is bad, every reader has a genre they just aren’t a fan of, and if you fall into that category, I’m not going to waste my time or your stars.

book-15584_1920So here’s where things become less of a checklist and more of a process. When I receive a review request, the first thing I do is read the genre, any personal note you’ve included, and then the back-cover blurb. If you haven’t included any of those things, your book is in the trash. (Okay, that’s not true. I have an actual folder dedicated to rejected review requests. Yes, I keep track of them.) If I don’t immediately throw out your request because it sounds sort of interesting in any way shape or form, I’ll do further investigation. Step one of that process is to see if you’ve bothered to send me the book file. If I’m only sort of interested in your request and you don’t send a file, it’s trashed. I don’t want to waste time e-mailing you to get ahold of a file if I’m not really into the book in the first place. As an author, this is an easily passable step. Just follow my FAQs and include the file. It’s as simple as that.

If I’m still interested (and by interested I mean I’m anywhere from “OMG this sounds so good! Gimme!” to “Meh. Maybe it’s okay?”) I’ll go look up your book on Amazon and Goodreads. What am I looking for? Your previous reviews. Let me state it now: If you copy and pasted your previous positive reviews or quotes about your book into your review request… I don’t care. I guarantee you that I won’t read them, because obviously you’re only going to include the most glowing of reviews—and usually those sound fake. No, what I’m looking for are your worst reviews. The one, two, and three-star reviews. If you don’t have any and I was on the fence about your review request, it’s immediately in the trash. The only time this doesn’t apply is if you have zero reviews. I like to give new authors a chance, so if you don’t have any reviews, period, you might still make it through my process.

stamp-114438_1920So, I read the negative reviews—and I mean, really read them. I look to see if there’s a running theme for why people didn’t like your book – or if they’re just being jerks. If the reasons your books got negative reviews aren’t horrendous, you’re probably still in the running. So what qualifies as horrendous? 1. Anything that is my personal pet peeve. 2. Characters that have little to no depth and make decisions that make no logical sense. 3. Rumors of stolen property. 4. Egregious typos. (anywhere under 20 typos is fine… but if you can’t even complete a grammatical sentence, I’m not going to bother.)

If I’m still not sure if I want to read your book, I’ll then go look at the sample on Amazon. I read the first page. If it’s not terrible, your book is in. I’ve accepted it. If it’s boring or ill-written—and believe me, after three years or reviewing, I know if your book is terrible after the first page—I’ll throw it out.

The process I have for accepting and rejecting book reviews isn’t as simple as it first appears. I genuinely don’t arbitrarily reject books very often (and if I do, it’s probably because it was a novella, about poetry, or it had something to do with the military because I can’t be bothered with my least favorite topics). I investigate. I read and re-read requests… and if your book sounds even remotely interesting, I’ll probably read it. I will go out of my way to give your book a fair shot at being read—but again, I can’t read everything. I do reject a lot of books.

Finally, here’s a list of things that won’t get your book arbitrarily rejected—because sometimes I don’t care. If it sounds interesting, I’m going to read it.

  • You followed my Review Policy & FAQs and your book sounds even remotely interesting.approval-15914_1280
  • Your book sounds interesting despite not following my FAQs.
  • Your cover isn’t great, but it doesn’t look like it was painted by a 6-year-old in MS paint.
  • Your book falls into a genre or category that I don’t usually read… but It’s not a novella or poetry.
  • You’ve never had a review.
  • You are an indie author.
  • You’re a brand new author who’s never written a book before.
  • Your book has some typos.
  • Your book/plot sounds weird.
  • Your book’s plot or topic is considered taboo.
  • Your book is x-rated.
  • I’ve reached my quota of review requests for the year. Honestly, I never even look at my quota. You may have to wait awhile, but I won’t dismiss your request because I have too many books on my TBR list.

I try to give authors a shot. So, even though I do reject book review requests quite often, I also don’t arbitrarily dismiss a request for flippant reasons. There are lots of times when I make exceptions. Even though I hate novellas, sometimes I read them. A book’s genre isn’t necessarily going to make me throw it out. I don’t care if your editing is perfect (though I’ll mention it), and I don’t care if you’re an indie author. In fact, 90% of the books I read are from indie authors, not publishers.

So don’t be intimidated in sending me a review request. Yes, I turn a lot of them down, but that shouldn’t keep you from sending them because I honestly try to give a fair shot to every request I get. It’s a complicated process. Just follow the rules and cross your fingers.

Plot Structure–A Worksheet

With the absence of my computer over the last few weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time working on my various writing projects lately. One of those projects has been working on the plot structure/outline for one of my newer novels, The Night Parade. I’ve spent the better half of the last week researching different plot structures in an attempt to make up plot structure worksheet that will work for any of the various novels I’ve been working on, and after hours of ironing things out, I think I’ve finally gotten something reasonable to work with. So, I now present to you, my plot structure worksheet—I hope it proves useful to you. I’ve pulled the information/structure of this plot outline worksheet from multiple different sources across the internet as well as from my own experiences, so there is a lot of information contained within it, but hopefully it’s not too jumbled for anyone to use.

The basic plot structure could be used in some context for most genres with some adjustment, but assumes a simple three-act story.

NOTE: Though a lot of the questions in this worksheet are specifically geared towards the protagonist/antagonist, may of them could, and should also be asked of the other minor characters in the story—this will help you build up a believable set of events throughout your story as motivations and consequences for each character will lead to further action/reactions to drive the conflict of the story forward.

Of course, thiswork sheet doesn’t cover all genres and types of plots, and it doesn’t account for every question you will need to ask yourself as you write, but it should give you a pretty good foundation to work from, and some interesting things to think about as you discover your plot.


ACT ONE

Introductions: This is the pre-story where we introduce the main character(s) and the world in which they live. Things are relatively normal at this point and the protagonist is busy leading their everyday life. We use this time to introduce the setting for the story and to set up a snapshot of what the character was like before the story happens so that it’s clear at the end how much has changed.

  • Who/What is the protagonist?
  • Who/What are your characters? (It is important to know the kind of people they are and how they got to where they are in the story at this point in order to make their actions/reactions fit their character).
  • What is the place/time/setting of your story?
  • What is the genre?
  • What is the story theme?
  • What will be the opening visual that will draw the reader in?
  • Prior to the opening, what internal or external forces have been at work to make your characters suffer?
  • How are these internal/external forces tied to your character’s initial needs/wants/goals?
  • What does each of your characters want the most right now?
  • What does each of your characters need the most right now?
  • What are each of your character’s current goals both for the immediate and far off future?

The Big Bang: Something happens to throw everything off balance. This event should come as a surprise to the main character that shifts the story into a new direction and makes it clear that the protagonist’s life will never be the same beyond this point. The protagonist should be forced to deal with something they normally wouldn’t have to. It is at this point that the protagonist will meet the other main characters/their future allies/enemies, and possibly, any future love interests.

  • What obstacle or event will change the protagonist’s life forever?
  • What is the protagonist’s ultimate goal, and what is it they desperately want/need?
  • What does the protagonist have to do in order to achieve their goal/get what they want?
  • Why must they do this RIGHT NOW, and what are the consequences if they don’t?
  • What is the payoff if the protagonist reaches their goal?
  • Does the protagonist actively demonstrate a reluctance to change the status quo, and if so, how?
  • Does the protagonist’s refusal to change make the immediate trouble worse, and if so, how?
  • What does the protagonist hope for?
  • What does the protagonist fear?
  • Who are the protagonist’s perceived allies at this point?
  • Who are the protagonist’s perceived enemies at this point?
  • Who are the protagonist’s possible love interests at this point?

The Call to Action: The protagonist makes an action or emotionally-based plan and takes the first steps to cope with the trouble handed to them by The Big Bang. This is a spur of the moment decision based on their previously established wants/needs. It may not be realistic, but they haven’t yet changed enough to make the decision that will ultimately spur them further into the story ahead.

  • Is the call to action in conflict with what the character previously wanted, and if so, why or how?
  • How does the protagonist demonstrate that they don’t really understand the problem at hand, or the severity of the problem presented to them?
  • What makes the protagonist commit to the change ahead of them?
  • What is the main conflict of the story (The biggest challenge that thwarts the character’s main goal)?

The Trouble Gets Worse: Something happens to thwart the protagonist’s plan or make the situation more dire. The stakes get higher and the protagonist does something they wouldn’t have done/been able to do/chosen to do at the beginning of the story.

  • How does the protagonist get past this first threshold and demonstrate that a change in mindset has taken place?
  • Does crossing this first threshold thwart the protagonist’s initial wants/needs/goals, and if so, how?
  • How does crossing this first threshold raise the overall stakes for the protagonist?
  • What spurs on the protagonist’s choice of reaction to this trouble?
  • Who is the antagonist?
  • How is the antagonist introduced or foreshadowed?
  • If the antagonist is only foreshadowed, who is the main minion that appears, and are thy a reoccurring character central to the overall plot?
  • How is the main minion foreshadowed/introduced?

ACT TWO

Conflict Ahead: Act two is all about conflict. This is the character’s physical and emotional journey where they deal with obstacles and challenges, ad actively struggle towards their goal. With each chapter in act two the stakes/tension/conflict should be raised. The character should deal with bouts of hopefulness and disappointment as each obstacle in their way at first seems merely challenging and then is made increasingly more impossible to surpass. These chapters should include unexpected turns of events and reversals of fortune—lots of surprises! Here, betrayals and changes of sides will happen, as well as a definite turn into the romance subplot of the story if it is present. There should be at least three, if not more, problems/challenges in this act for the protagonist to overcome and with each resolution of challenge, another more difficult challenge is presented.

  • Problems: What might get in your character’s way? (Have at least 3)
  • What will your character do to try and get past these problems?
  • What will be the result of the character’s efforts?
  • How will the character’s plans change because of these problems?
  • How will the character change because of the outcome of these conflicts?

New Reality: The protagonist accepts (or is forced to accept) the new status quo and amasses the helpers and resources they will need to help fight in the escalating conflict ahead. They will experiment with the first changes in their character, and will learn to sacrifice or delay getting their wants.

  • Who are the protagonist’s perceived allies at this point?
  • Who are the protagonist’s actual allies at this point?
  • Who are the protagonist’s perceived enemies at this point?
  • Who are the protagonist’s actual enemies at this point?
  • Who is the protagonist’s mentor?
  • What is the antagonist’s overall goal?
  • What is the antagonist’s plan to reach their goal, and how has it changed with each new compromise or defeat?
  • What training/knowledge/experiences are needed for the protagonist to surpass the perceived challenges ahead?
  • How has the protagonist had to prove themselves in order to show that they are ready for the challenges ahead?
  • What must the protagonist do to win over each new ally?
  • What does the protagonist do to gain each new enemy?

The First Failure: The protagonist makes a plan to deal with the conflict as they understand it, but either doesn’t have sufficient understanding of the problem, or isn’t yet willing to make a large enough permanent change/sacrifice/commitment to overcome the challenge. As a result they will make things worse and narrowly escape disaster. The protagonist may feel burdened by this first major loss and will question their ability to reach their goal. This is their first disappointment where they will question their ability to reach their goals.

  • What is the protagonist’s plan to cope with the new reality and get back to their usual world?
  • How do they prepare to put their plan into action?
  • How does the antagonist’s plan thwart the protagonist’s plan?
  • What does the protagonist do in executing their plan that makes the antagonist’s job a little easier?
  • How does the antagonist take advantage of the error?
  • What does the protagonist do in response to the antagonist’s move?
  • How does the protagonist demonstrate heroic or admirable qualities in their response?(This is especially necessary if a mentor provides assistance!)

Burning Bridges: As the stakes get even higher, the protagonist shows that they have changed to o much to go back to the same environment/outlook/cubbyhole where they began the story. They knuckle down and continue training, amassing knowledge and allies, working towards the ordeal ahead.

  • How does the previous attack and subsequent failure increase the overall stakes?
  • How does the protagonist change in response to the previous attack and subsequent failure or near-miss?
  • What does the protagonist now know or understand that they didn’t know/understand before?
  • What is the next perceived challenge, and what does the protagonist plan to do to get past it?
  • Once past the next challenge, what does the protagonist do to foreshadow acceptance of the self-sacrifice that will be necessary?
  • How has the protagonist changed?
  • How has the protagonist demonstrated a greater awareness of their needs/wants/goals?
  • How does the protagonist demonstrate that they have not completely relinquished the desires with which they began the book?

A Second Chance: The second challenge is in sight, which will thrust the story in another unexpected direction. Though previously defeated, the protagonist rallies and again, the goal now seems reachable—though some fears/doubts may still be present. The protagonist will hatch a new plan which now takes the full reality of the situation into account. Now aware of the stakes, the protagonist accepts the real or potential sacrifices to come. They are pushed to the edge of their endurance, resolve, skills, and will struggle to prepare themselves for the upcoming confrontation. There is hope for the upcoming challenge.

  • What does the protagonist do to prepare themselves?
  • How does the protagonist demonstrate courage and determination?
  • Does this new resolve win them any new allies or enemies?
  • What does the protagonist do to demonstrate that they have accepted their participation in this struggle?
  • What tools is the protagonist given in reward to help in the upcoming fight?
  • How is their new resolve/knowledge tested?
  • What propels the protagonist into the test?
  • What hard choices does the protagonist have to make?
  • How does the protagonist break the rules, cross moral lines, compromise their integrity, or otherwise set themselves up for failure?
  • How does the antagonist take advantage of it?
  • What does the protagonist rely on that will fail them?
  • What does the protagonist do to temporary drive the antagonist away?
  • How does the protagonist demonstrate that they have changed?
    How does the protagonist demonstrate a greater awareness of their true needs?
  • How do we know the protagonist hasn’t completely given up on their stated goals?
  • Is there a sense of escalating action?
  • Do any characters betray the protagonist or switch sides in the conflict?
  • What spurred on this betrayal/switching of sides?
  • Is this betrayal/switching of sides genuine, or part of the antagonist’s plan to defeat the protagonist?

The Second Failure: The protagonist encounters the antagonist in “the big ordeal”, engages, and fails spectacularly and unexpectedly. (Possibly due to betrayal).

  • How does the antagonist’s plan manipulate the battle to throw more obstacles into the protagonist’s plan?
  • What shows the protagonist’s rededication to the ordeal?
  • What twist sheds light on a previously misunderstood situation (or otherwise makes the reason for the protagonist’s continual failure clear?)
  • What shortens the timeline or propels them into the battle before they are truly ready?
  • How does the antagonist take advantage of this?
  • How does the protagonist lose allies?
  • How is the protagonist injured?
  • How does the protagonist display heroism and selflessness they didn’t know they had?
  • What does the protagonist do to temporarily drive the antagonist away?
  • How have the stakes changed/increased?

Abandon All Hope: The protagonist is knocked down, wrung out, and is soon to be beyond recovery. They can’t imagine surviving this much pain or loss. What previously seemed like their darkest moment now seems minor in comparison. The protagonist is ready to give up, but they now fully understand the ultimate stakes of the obstacle keeping them from their true goal, and they now understand exactly how difficult their journey towards that goal is. The closest the protagonist will ever come to losing their love interest(s) is at the middle to end of this act.

  • What steps has the protagonist taken towards further understanding or achieving their true need?
  • What new revelations start to make them believe they can’t ultimately win?
  • What new understanding helps the protagonist understand the consequences of losing?
  • What does the protagonist realize they are losing that they cannot bear to lose?
  • What demonstrates their renewed dedication to defeating the antagonist?
  • Why do they do it?
    Does the protagonist give up on the characters who previously betrayed them, or do they try to win them back, and if so, how?
  • Does the protagonist temporarily or permanently lose a love interest, and if so, how/why?
  • If temporary, how is the situation resolved? (This resolution may come during act three).

ACT THREE

Resolution – Planning Ahead: The third act shows how the character is able to succeed or become a better person. The major loose ends of the story are tied up (though not necessarily all of them). Here we see evidence of the changes in the character that have occurred throughout the story, and the character will make their final rally towards reaching their goal.

  • Possible Ending 1: What will happen if my character gets what they want/reaches their goal?
  • Possible Ending 2: What will happen if my character doesn’t get what they want/doesn’t reach their goal?

There’s No Going Back: Finally understand the full consequences of losing, the protagonist decides they cannot live with those consequences. There is no choice but to fight on, no matter the cost. They find a new plan, a new weapon, or a new twist that will arise relating to something they’ve already done that will allow them another, probably futile crack at resolving the major obstacle. The protagonist and their team may be resigned to the sacrifice ahead.

  • What does the protagonist do that will throw away their chance at happiness in favor of pursuing their stated desire and simultaneously fulfilling the task they have accepted?
  • How does the protagonist demonstrate that they understand the magnitude of their loss, but also believe that they have no other choice?
  • Who else understands or pushes the protagonist into making that sacrifice?
  • Does that individual want the same outcome the protagonist and their allies have been fighting toward, or do they have an alternate agenda?
  • If the loss of a love interest is resolved here, how is it resolved?

The Final Showdown: The protagonist rejoins the struggle and attacks the antagonist head on in a gamble for all or nothing. They fight and only one of them will emerge victorious. The other may, possibly, live to fight another day, but their goal has been thwarted for the foreseeable future.

  • En route to the battle, does the protagonist demonstrate any character development that will improve or hinder their ability to fight the antagonist?
  • How has the protagonist changed since the beginning of the book?
  • How does the final battle tie back to something that the protagonist feared or hated in ACT ONE?
  • How do the location and the battle circle back towards the initial conflict?
  • How has the antagonist changed (if at all)?
  • What has the protagonist failed to consider in their battle preparations?
  • How does the antagonist capitalize on this?
  • What surprising revelations or twists emerge during the final battle?
  • Does the protagonist or antagonist lose anything vital to their current or past happiness, and if so, is that loss permanent?
  • If temporary, how does the protagonist or antagonist regain what they’ve lost, and is it during the hero’s return, or in a sequel?

The Hero’s Return: The vision of the new world order, either positive or negative that suggests how things will fare for the protagonist and antagonist after the battle. For any love interests of the protagonist/antagonist, this is where the final decision/outcome is made for the future of their relationship in the foreseeable future.

  • How does the protagonist reunite with their allies?
  • How do they respond
  • How does the protagonist reunite with those they left behind at the very beginning of the book?
    How do they react to the changes in the protagonist?
  • Is there more conflict to come? (a sequel).
  • Is there ultimately potential for a happy ending?
  • Did the protagonist get what they wanted?
  • Did the protagonist get what they needed?
  • Is the overall goal accomplished?
  • If not, what suggests a small hope that it can still be accomplished?
  • What has the protagonist learned?
  • What has the protagonist lost or regained at the end of the book?
  • If the protagonist won the final challenge, what did they lose along the journey to this conclusion, and how did they deal with that loss?
  • Has the protagonist/antagonist come to grips with the status of their love interest(s) during this final sequence, and if so, how?
  • What is the closing visual that will stick in the reader’s mind?

Sources:

Writer’s Tip: Outlining—The Ups and Downs of Figuring Stuff Out

Khet6

What It Means To Be A Pantster

I used to be a pantster; someone who wrote books by the seat of their pants so-to-speak. Writing from the top of your head can be a freeing experience, and one that I’d suggest all writers try out at one point or another. I went through a phase where I was cranking out 6-10k words a day—practically blazing through the first draft of a novel.

Don’t get me wrong, being a panster is great; the creativity flows non-stop and you get a lot of writing done in a short period of time. It makes you feel like you can do anything, and it helps train your brain to write without significant pauses… that is, until you hit the brick wall of not knowing what comes next.

The Inherent Problems With Being A Pantster

Every pantster eventually comes to a point where they pause and say “okay, what’s next?” Because they didn’t take the time to plot out their novel ahead of time, they reach a point where they aren’t sure where to go with the plot. Sometimes the plot gets so entangled that they can’t see an easy way out. Sometimes the on-the-fly novel lacks the appropriate amount of character development or conflict. Some writers get past it; they roll up their sleeves, fix a few things, and keep pushing—but not everyone can. Sometimes things go so awry that you have to start all over. I know, because I’ve done it.

Khet

Once upon a time, not so long ago, I began a novel writing project I hesitantly named Khet. It was originally the story of a girl named Khet, and was set in pre-historic times. It was a fantasy/paranormal/historical/romance mishmash that explored the idea of what would happen if a stubborn little girl stood up to an ancient god. That was about as much as I knew about the story when I began writing, and at about nine chapters in, I got stuck. I didn’t know what kind of story I was writing. I didn’t know the characters. I got to the point where I sat back and took a good look at my story and said “I have to fix this.”

What Is An Outline?

Of course, the easiest way to “fix” Khet, was to start over and begin an outline. Think of an outline as a roadmap: it tells you all the stopping points along the journey to the story… who you’re going to meet, where you’re going to meet them, and what your plans with them are. Some outlines are simple—just a few important points to keep the story on track, like when to introduce a particular character or an outside conflict scenario—and sometimes outlines are remarkably thorough, detailing each step in how a scene plays out, conversations that need to be had between characters, and how tiny details from previous chapters play into the current scene. There’s no wrong way to write an outline, but I’d like to share with you one method of setting up an outline that I’ve personally found useful. I like to refer to it as the branch method.

Branching Out

The idea behind the branch method of outlining is that you start with big, vague concepts and begin to define and detail each concept until you’ve whittled things down to the tiny details. The best way to show this is probably by throwing myself under the bus (yet again) and give you an example from Khet’s outlining process.

When I started re-writing Khet, I started with the big, vague concepts of what the story was about. I chose the themes of my story first:

  • Romance
  • Fantasy

This helped me define what the story was going to be about, and helped me pick the setting. I decided that Khet was going to be about a girl (Khet) that is caught in a war between two species. Her love interest, Leander, is of the dominant species (Felnatherin), and she is a half-breed of Human and Felnatherin decent. This introduced conflict for Khet to overcome.

The next step, was to figure out the conflict points of the story… the bits of drama that spur the story on. So I decided that:

  • There would be a war raging between Humans and Felantherin, and Khet/Leander would have to be on opposite sides of that war.
  • There would have to be an outside conflict to drive the couple together and pose more problems for them. In this case, because of Leander’s love for Khet, he breaks the laws of the Felnatherin to keep her alive. This pits Leander against his own kind, and forces Leander and Khet to get along.

Of course, these aren’t the only points of conflict in the story, but these were the major points. Then I took a step deeper and thought to myself “If Leander hates Humans (as do all Felnatherin), what would make him fall in love with Khet? What keeps him from following the law of his people?” Light bulb! Khet looks just like the sister (Arielle) that Leander was forced to kill in the past (because she sided with the humans and broke Felnatherin law herself. He is a peacekeeper for his people). Because Khet looks identical to Arielle, Leander has to step back and take a moment to think before he executes her. He didn’t enjoy doling out punishment to his sister the first time around, and he couldn’t bring himself to do it a second time. Not only that, he was also curious to see WHY this girl had suddenly appeared that looked so much like his dead sister.

This brought up all sorts of conflict. Suddenly I had the beginnings of a real story. From there, I branched out yet again, taking time to decide why certain characters made the choices they did and what the consequences of those choices could be. I introduced new characters and started to plot out how those characters were involved with the overarching plot and how they worked to help or hinder the story of Leander and Khet. I spent time creating the rules of my universe: how bloodlines of Felnatherin transferred from generation to generation, the laws of the Felnatherin Court, the history between the two races that created the war.

Before I knew it, I had an entire notebook detailing the overall plot of my story and a list of characters. From there, I went one step deeper. I went back over my notes, throwing in sticky notes and comments in the margins—dividing my story into scenes, POV’s, and listing important conversations or incidents that needed to happen for the story to work. This gave me time to go back and fix continuity errors, add and remove characters, introduce new sub-plots, love interests, and details, and change things around that didn’t work on a second look (or replace them with better ideas!).

The next step was to organize it all. I started to write out a detailed outline detailing each scene, the location it took place, the time of day, weather, the characters involved, and a run through of how the chapters would play out from the first line to the last. It wasn’t super-thorough… I didn’t write out dialogue or actions, just general ideas, feelings, and context such as:

Chapter 8: The River Valley Village, Mid-Morning, Summer, Hot & Humid. Characters: Khet, Harith (brother), Safiya (sister), Hala (mother). POV: Khet.

Khet enters town, blinded, but she can get around easily enough. The village is alive with the sound of drumbeats and the smell of roasting meat. People move past Khet with purpose, barely paying her any mind. Everyone is focused on the upcoming ceremonies. By now, most people are used to the crippled girl getting around on her own and maybe, are even a bit wary of the fact that despite her blindness, she navigates with certainty and ease. They may believe there is some supernatural aspect to it.

The drumbeats at the village center reach a crescendo and then stop abruptly—signaling the arrival of the Felnatherin presiding over the maturing ceremony. The sudden silence sends a chill up Khet’s spine and she stops in her steps for a moment, turning towards the center of town—though blinded or not, she would not have been close enough to see.

A hand grabs her arm and a familiar voice guides her away from the center of the village, towards her home. She recognizes the voice immediately as that of her elder brother, Harith, and she is glad that he’s come to greet her. She needs to watch her actions and be careful not to draw attention to herself while the Felnatherin is in town, and without being able to take off her blind, it was difficult for her to tell who was around, even in so familiar a place.

He scolds her in a not-unfriendly way, telling her she is late and their mother is agitated beyond belief. Khet apologizes, but they both know her mind is on other things. If her ceremony ends up in marriage, these will be the last few hours where Khet has any freedom without her blind. It’s a daunting prospect. He compliments her on her new necklace (given by Adala in the previous scene).

Harith guides Khet home and then leaves (he has duties to attend?). Khet enters their meager family hut, which is bustling with activity.

Transition Setting: Khet’s family hut inside the river valley village, mid-morning, summer, hot and humid—but cooler indoors, and dark. Characters: Khet, Safiya, Hala. POV: Khet.

Khet removes her blind. Her elder sister (Safiya) is diligently finishing the last few bits of adornment on her ceremony outfit. When Khet enters, her sister scolds her for being late and threatens Khet to be sure that she pretends they aren’t related. She doesn’t want her association with the blind girl to ruin her last chance at marriage (Having failed to secure a husband at her first ceremony the year before).

Their mother scolds Safiya for being cruel to her sister, but asks Khet to understand… Safiya is nervous that she may miss out again this year. Khet shakes her head and says that Safiya is right. She has no intention of ruining her day, and she certainly hopes she doesn’t find a groom for herself. Her mother chastises her for wishing something so odd, but Khet explains her worst fears: that she will have to hide her secret for the rest of her life. She can’t explain to a husband that she’s been pretending to be blind her entire life, and she can’t explain why their children would be born with green eyes—the eyes of the Felnatherin. The voiced fear puts a stop to her family’s activities. She shrugs and says that she’d rather live the rest of her life alone than live with that fear.

Safiya tells Khet not to sulk, and ready, leaves to join the ceremony. Khet’s mother tells her not to worry and helps her to quickly get read.

Notes: Make Safiya’s dislike of her sister clear. Show that although she puts on a brave front, Khet is frightened by what her future might entail, and though she says she hopes to never get married or have children, she secretly wants both… just not at the expense of her freedom. Khet at some point should ask about Ruwa (Khet’s eldest sister)—where she is, what she’s doing. (Side note: Ruwa is also unmarried)—she is helping their grandmother set up the ceremony. (Side note: The Grandmother is one of the village elders).

As you can see, there’s enough detail to give a complete run-through of what will happen in the chapter and any important points that need to be made, but not so much detail that it’s a chapter in-and-of itself. I didn’t add in their conversations word-for-word or the little movements they make (like ducking under the entrance to the hut, or removing Khet’s blind and tucking it in her waistband), but I have a pretty good  idea of where the chapter will go, what will happen, and what conversations need to take place. The next step would be the First Draft.

There are a lot of ways to outline. Some people make point-by-point lists. Some organize scenes onto notecards. Some outlines are incredibly detailed, and some are vague. This isn’t the only way to create an outline, and it won’t work for everyone. I like it because it allows me to study the bigger picture of my story first, and then slowly whittle it down to the details. By the time I get to this final version that’s scene-for-scene, I don’t have any major points that need to be moved around or fixed. If I get ideas along the way for new characters or new conflict, it’s easy to write them on a sticky note and slide them into the outline. I can go back chapters ahead of where I am and add in side-notes of things that need to be addressed that have an impact on later chapters. This kind of outline feels natural to me because as the outline progresses, so does the fleshing out of the story. It’s easy to fix, and in the end, I pretty much know what’s going to happen in my story, all that’s left to do is to get to the fun part: writing it.

As I’ve said before: there’s nothing wrong with being a pantster—I encourage everyone to try it—but personally, I like being a prepared pantster. I can sit down and write my heart out after I know where the story is going rather than trying to figure it out on the fly. Ultimately, I know it’s going to lead me to having a better book because I’ve had time to really stop and think about things like bloodlines, historical events, the reasoning behind character’s actions, and the possibilities that their dialogues spur on. By the time I’ve gotten to the first draft, I know I’ve made sure I have enough conflict and that the characters actions will make sense… and the most pressing problem I’ll have is my sentence structure and punctuation.

Outlining isn’t an easy process. It takes time—lots of time. Sometimes it takes me a day or two to figure out how to solve a problem Khet and Leander face. Sometimes I create more problems for myself by changing a scene that other scenes relied on later in the story, and I have to then go back and figure out how that change butterfly-effected it’s way on down through the rest of the plot. There were times I got to chapter thirty-something and realized that I had a much better idea for how a scenario would play out and I had to go back to chapter one and remove a character that no longer needed to be in the book. Outlining is like trying to piece together a puzzle that is constantly changing it’s picture…. but it’s a lot of fun, and it’s so worth it in the end when you sit back and say “I know where my story is going.” and then sit down and write it.

Writer’s Tip: Mary Sue

girl-487072_1280Mary Sue. It’s the phrase that makes nearly every writer cringe. To have a character labeled a Mary Sue is probably one of the worst feelings in the world, but why is that? What exactly is a Mary Sue?

The term Mary Sue originated as, yah you guessed it, a character named Mary Sue in the 1973 Paula Smith story entitled “A Trekkie’s Tale”. The story was a parody fan fiction centered around a 15 year old girl who epitomized the Mary Sue term we know and dread today. She was the youngest, smartest, prettiest, most well-trained teen ever to grace the Star Trek universe. Not surprisingly, the character was so ridiculously over-done that readers could only sit back, shake their heads, and laugh over how nauseating the character was.

Now, the original Mary Sue was a parody, but what she stood for was a very real problem. Throughout fan fiction and amateur writing at the time there was a prevalent trend of young female characters often characterized by an overblown assortment of skills, beauty, and intelligence. These characters were often the protégé’s or love interests of older canonized characters, and Paula Smith was right to point a finger at them and say “Look how ridiculous these characters are. Why are we letting authors get away with this?”

The term Mary Sue has changed a bit since then, but the core definition remains the same: A Mary Sue is a character that is often categorized as wish-fulfilling or as a self-insertion/proxy of the author. The character is usually endowed with a wide assortment of positive characteristics that makes all but the very worst of plot conflicts a breeze. They are usually “the best”at any number of things, or somehow special in a way that no other characters in the story are.

Chances are, if you’re a budding writer, you’re probably worried about creating a Mary Sue. No one likes to be told that their characters fall into this category, and there are any number of articles and “tests” you can find on the internet that will tell you what you can and can’t do to a character to prevent them from becoming a Mary Sue. These usually also get tagged with the advice “your character should have an equal amount of positive traits/flaws”. They aren’t wrong, but before you freak out and start taking quizzes that are somehow magically supposed to tell you if your character is a dreaded Mary Sue, take a deep breath.

Okay. Here’s the thing… no quiz, no single article is going to be able to tell you which traits you can and can’t use on your characters in order to avoid turning them into a Mary Sue. Characters are complex, and I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to use your common sense for a moment. I know it’s scary. I promise I’m right here with you.

There’s this trend going around right now where writers and bloggers are telling other writers and bloggers “You can’t use this trait. Your character can’t have this color hair. Don’t do this… don’t do that.” and it is complete and utter rubbish. There are a million and one ways to make a character with any number of these so-called “off limits traits” that won’t turn your character into a Mary Sue. Your character CAN have pink hair. They CAN have two different colored eyes, and they can shape-shift. It’s okay if they’re extraordinarily beautiful, smart, and witty.  Soak that in for a second. I’ll wait.

The main thing you need to remember when it comes to avoiding Mary Sue’s is this—be realistic. There’s no magic number of flaws that is going to make your character okay. There’s no limit of positive traits that will stop you just this side of becoming a Mary Sue. There’s no particular hair/eye color or superpower that is going to turn your character into the dreaded “she who shall not be named”. You just need to aim for realism. If your character is beautiful, witty, and a shape-shifter. That’s fine. Go for it. If she can also speak 3 languages and hack… you better have a pretty damn good reason for it… but it’s not impossible. Your characters need to fit within the world you’ve built for them, and there needs to be logical reasons for why they are the way they are. If you keep this simple fact in mind… you, and your characters, are going to be okay.

The phrase “Mary Sue” gets thrown around a lot these days, but if it were me, we’d replace it. “Mary Sue” isn’t a phrase that tells us anything. New writers don’t inherently know what it means when someone accuses their character of being a Mary Sue, and it leads to a whole lot of panicked writers freaking out because they aren’t sure what’s wrong with their characters. So let’s call it what it is: unrealistic character building.

If you find yourself wondering if your character is a dreaded Mary Sue, or heaven forbid, someone accuses you of already having done it… take a deep breath. You can fix it. Just ask yourself a few questions:

  • Do all my character’s physical traits make sense based on their family genetics and/or circumstance?
  • Are my character’s super powers or abilities relevant and necessary to the plot?
  • Is my character the correct age, social standing, and intelligence level to have realistically earned the knowledge I’ve given them?
  • Do my character’s relationships with other characters make sense based on personality, situation and age?
  • Did I give my character a reasonable amount of personality/physical flaws to offset the amount of positive traits I gave them?

This isn’t the end-all, be-all of checklists, but I think you get the general idea. It’s safe to say that if you answer these questions, you’ll have a decent idea of where your character falls into the Mary Sue spectrum. Just keep telling yourself it’s all going to be okay, remember to breathe, and of course remember: nobody’s perfect.

Make sure your fan fiction is legal (or regret it later)

Some stories involve us so deeply that they can no longer be enjoyed passively: a character or setting grabs a reader in a way that only creation can satisfy. For these readers, writing fan fiction stories featuring pre-existing aspects of other works is a fantastic outlet for their creativity and their love of a particular story.

Fan fiction stories can be incredibly high quality, after all they’re labors of love written by people who possess an encyclopedic knowledge of stories that have already been proven to work. In fact, the quality is frequently high enough to sustain entire communities who share, appreciate, and write fan fiction.

The fly in the ointment is that fan fiction deals with legally protected works. By writing stories featuring someone else’s characters, fan fiction authors are treading on risky legal ground. This is doubly the case when they publish their work for others to enjoy.

So, in this article, I’ll provide some legal facts to help fan fiction authors stay out of trouble while they create, and work in harmony with the creators of their beloved source material.

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