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Writing Prophecies In Fantasy Novels, by Kate Forsyth

I happen to love prophecies in a fantasy novel. I know lots of people hate them because they find them clichéd and contrived. I cannot help it. I really love them, both to read and to write. I agree that many prophecies weaken a story, undermining the element of surprise. I agree they are often poorly written. I agree there’s often no real need for them, apart to add a sense of inflated importance to it all: ‘Stop the cuckoo’s cry, else you shall all die!” However, sometimes a prophecy just seems necessary.

I have lots of prophecies in my teen fantasy novel, The Starthorn Tree. One of my key characters is a boy called Durrik who has the habit of blurting out prophecies at the very worst moment. He hears them only in fragments and is compelled to utter them at once, even though he may displease his listeners to the point they might want him dead.

‘Cursed is the son of light!’ he shouts in his dreams. ‘Cursed the tower shining bright.’

Most of these prophecies I had planned, and written carefully with the help of a rhyming dictionary and my old poetry textbook full of terms like iambic pentameter and trochee and anapest.

However, there is one prophecy in the book I did not plan in advance, and write carefully, making sure the rhythm and rhyme was as it should be.

This prophecy came to me… well, like a prophecy.

Uncalled for, unplanned, unwanted.

It came to me in a kind of lucid dreaming late one night, when I was up and feeding my newborn son. I had been working on The Starthorn Tree for about a year, and had always thought of it as a stand-alone novel. However, that night, as I sat in the darkness, feeding my baby and listening to the wind and the rain howling about my house, it came to me that there should be three books set in this magical world I had invented, not just one. The heroes of the second book would be the children of the heroes of The Starthorn Tree, and the heroes of the third book would be their grandchildren. Three generations, three adventures, three books.

I caught up my notebook and pen, and scribbled down a string of words or images that came very vividly to my mind’s eye.

‘Three times a babe shall be born,’ I wrote, then a rough estimation of the words ‘between star-crowned and iron-bound’ (I polished this up later.)  Then I wrote: ‘First, the sower of seeds, the soothsayer, though lame he must travel far.’

That first child was clearly Durrik, my lame boy who can hear the future. So far, so good.

But then I wrote, hardly knowing where the words came from:

‘Next shall be the king-breaker, the king-maker, though broken himself he shall be.’

In my mind’s eye I saw a boy falling from an impossibly high crystal tower, falling through clouds, falling down to smash into the sea crawling so far below. The scene was as vivid as a snippet of a film, and I had no idea where it came from.

But more words were beating insistently at my mind’s ear, determined to be told. I scribbled down a few more lines in my notebook, virtually word perfect for how they appeared in the novel:

‘Last, the smallest and greatest –
In him the blood of wise and wild,
Farseeing ones and starseeing ones.
Though he must be lost before he can find
Though, before he sees, he must be blind,
If he can find and if he can see
The true king of all he shall be.’

In my mind’s eye, I had a vision of a boy – small and thin – stumbling through a swamp, his eyes bandaged. A lame girl led him by the hand. That was it – a couple of fragmented images and a prophecy I didn’t understand myself. Yet out of that came two more novels, The Wildkin’s Curse and The Starkin Crown, and my stand-alone fantasy novel became a trilogy.

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Kate Forsyth’s author website: www.kateforsyth.com.au

Kate Forsyth’s bio page

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How To Tell Good Literary Agents From Bad Literary Agents, by Amy Kathleen Ryan

In my previous post, I discussed why a novelist should have an agent. What follows is a step by step process for how to tell the good agents from the bad.

A good agent doesn’t ask for money up front. Every book and magazine on being a writer will tell you this. Everything agents earn from you comes out of sales of your work. Most agents make about 15% on domestic sales and 20% on international sales. I’ve heard some agents are asking for a bit more but this is the basic guideline. Many good agents will also deduct some expenses from your take home pay, for example any travel, postage and long distance costs that were incurred during the sale of your manuscript. My agent does this and I’m okay with it. If someone asks for a “reading fee” or charges you for their editing services up front, I’d be very wary.

A good agent has a list of recent sales to reputable publishers and is capable of landing a decent advance. Most agents will list their clients on their website and you can check there for recent sales but the best way to determine an agent’s negotiating prowess is to buy an inexpensive subscription to The Literary Marketplace, where almost every sale to a publisher is trumpeted with a little code key for how much money the author landed for his/her manuscript. If an agent has gotten a “Significant Deal” or a “Major Deal” for a client within the last few years, you know this agent is capable of successfully running a bidding war. This doesn’t guarantee a bidding war for your work but at least you’ll know it’s a possibility.

A good agent gets good reviews from their clients. Before signing an agency contract, you can ask for references for your agent. I believe most agents are very willing to have current clients speak with prospective clients. You might want to ask things like how long it takes for the agent returns the author’s phone calls and emails, how long the author had to wait for the agent to submit their first book, and how the author would describe the agent’s communication style. I would caution you not to be too stringent with the way you evaluate these answers. A good agent will have a lot of clients and can get very busy, and might not always return calls/emails as promptly as you might wish. Also, I had to wait about six months for my agent to submit the first book I sold with her but I’ve never had to wait that long since. In other words, sometimes a good agent is worth waiting for. Only you can decide how long you’re willing to spend waiting for your agent to get around to you.

But how do you get an agent in the first place? My next post will answer that question. Stay tuned!

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Amy Kathleen Ryan’s author website: www.amykathleenryan.com

Amy Kathleen Ryan’s bio page

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Writing The Engelsfors Trilogy Together, by Sara B Elfgren and Mats Strandberg (guest article)

We hardly knew each other - but the ideas we had were too good to resist. So we took a leap of faith, in the same way you do when you fall in love with someone and move in together, even though statistics tell you that a lot of relationships end up in break-ups and heartbreak.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe how incredibly naïve we were, sitting in a café in Stockholm, deciding that we were going to write together – not just one book but three books that we decided were going to be 500+ pages each, with multiple points of view and long story arcs. Or maybe we weren’t naïve; maybe we were megalomaniacs. Either way, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

When we are writing this blog post, the first two parts of The Engelsfors Trilogy (The Circle and Fire) have been published here in Sweden. We are working on the third and final book, The Key. The response to the trilogy has been overwhelming. The books will be translated into 20+ languages, including English.

Working together is wonderful. Writing can be one of the loneliest jobs on Earth, but we have each other. Our ideas get so much better when they bounce them back and forth between us. If one of us is tired or despairs, the other one can help with pep talks and take-away dinners. We get to share the joy of success, or having written a really good sentence, with someone who is equally involved. Plus, we always have company when no one turns up at a book signing.

We are lucky and we know it. It has made us realize even more how badly things could have gone. Because writing together is also really hard. You have to expose yourself and be vulnerable. Sometimes you are going to disagree on major issues in the book. You are going to be locked up in a room together editing for days and nights, sleep-depraved and sick of the whole thing.

We often get questions about writing together. How does it work? And how do you make it work? There probably aren’t any universal answers to these questions. But here are some of the things that we have learned.

1. You don’t have to be friends

We weren’t friends before we started writing together. This may have made things run smoother, since we didn’t share a common history. These days however, we know a lot more about each other than some of our ‘real’ friends do. Writing YA fiction has forced us to talk about our own teen years, our innermost fears and our views on life and death. But we rarely socialize.  Talking about work on the phone ten times a day is enough. We are looking forward to hanging out once the trilogy is finished, though. So if you have a gut feeling that you could work well together - be brave and go ahead and try. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t – but if it does, you’ll have an amazing time.

2. Make sure you share the same vision

Firstly, discuss the practical stuff. What does it actually mean to work together? Do you share the same views? We are, for example,  both extremely detail-oriented. For us, it would be a nightmare to work with someone who is not. Not to mention what a nightmare we would be to the wrong partner. These things are important to talk about before you start working together. Think about what potentially annoying traits you have, and tell your partner about them. Try to ask the right questions about him or her, get answers on issues that are important to you.

Also, talk a lot about books, film and tv shows that you like and dislike. We bonded over things like our love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars, Carnivàle, Curtis Sittenfeld’s book Prep, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let Me In and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. But we also bonded over things we didn’t like, for instance certain character clichés in the YA genre. Make sure you have a common ground.

We also share some important views on life. Our goal is to write books that entertain, but your personal opinions on for example ethics are always going to shine through. Make sure you can agree on them.

It’s important that you share the same vision for the book, and that you agree on that what’s best for the book always comes first.

3. Get to know your story and your characters

When the book is still just an idea, the air is full of possibilities. Make the most of this period, before the hard work begins.

From the beginning we decided what would be the main conflict in every book. That gave us a sense of security, and inspiration.

We discussed our characters thoroughly, making lists of their different traits and their home situations. We even made playlists for them with what we guessed were their favourite songs. We had fun. We fantasized. You can’t, and probably shouldn’t, decide on everything about the characters before you start writing but it’s great for the process to know basic things about them and have general ideas about how they relate to the other characters.

4. Agree to agree

When you begin writing, have lots of meetings to talk to each other often and in detail. Make sure your mental hard drives are in sync. We decided early on that we were both going to agree on every line in the books. Nothing, not even the smallest detail, is ever going to be ‘Mats’ thing’ or ‘Sara’s thing’; everything should be ‘our thing’. This means that we can’t start blaming each other afterwards if we make mistakes or have regrets. It also means we have to ignore our pride. It’s hard to kill your darlings but even harder when your partner kills them. We never try to win an argument just for the sake of winning when we disagree on something.

5. Don’t be afraid to compromise

Compromising has gotten a bad rep. It makes you think of a situation where no one is really happy. What we have found is the complete opposite; when we have two completely different ideas, one of us either convinces the other or thinks of a new option. These ‘compromises’ have, in retrospect, become some of our favourite parts of the books.

6. Find your method

When we wrote the first book, The Circle, it completely took over our lives. We called each other in the middle of the night, we sent text back and forth, editing and re-editing ad nauseum. Perhaps this was a necessary part of our process, for us to find our common language. Before we started working on the seconde book, we realized that we had to set some rules. For instance, no work-related calls after 6 pm, only emails.

Our process has evolved into this: we have meetings where we break down four chapters and discuss in detail what happens in them. Then we write two of these chapters each, switch texts with each other and edit without mercy. When we get our chapters back, we read them and then discuss them, until we find a version that we both like. Sometimes we take breaks and get a rest from the text. Then we read from the beginning and edit. Once we have a first draft, we go back and edit the whole thing from then beginning, over and over.

7. Be generous but not self-effacing

Don’t try to count how many words you each have written. Statistics aren’t going to show if you share the same work load. There are weeks when one of us have too much stuff on their plate, personal problems, or other work. It all levels out in the end. If you do feel like you are taking more responsibility or have to save the other one’s sloppy writing one time too many, don’t be afraid to bring it up. Don’t let it simmer until it becomes really infected. Be prepared to take criticism - in fact, be happy for it because it means that your partner cares enough to want to solve the problem. Always question yourself: do you pull as much weight as the other one? Honestly?

8. Don’t let the sun go down on an argument

We all have bad days. You are going to have arguments, mostly about stupid things that only seem important when you are over-worked and sleep-deprived and the concept of a social life seems a distant memory. A bad mood is okay – for a couple of minutes. Let it out. Then make up and say you’re sorry. Don’t let your partner be sad or upset for a second longer than necessary.

9. Don’t forget your pom-poms!

Work, especially the editing process, consists of a lot of problem solving. Finding flaws and fixing them. Make sure you give each other credit. Show appreciation. A partner with boosted self-confidence and energy is also much more fun to write with.

10. Take care of the boring/scary stuff

If you get published, hire a lawyer to draw up a contract regarding copyrights to all things related to your book/books. It’s not at all fun to think of all things that can go wrong in your working relationship but it’s a huge relief when it’s done. As improbable as it may seem when all is fine and dandy, bad stuff happens. The world is full of examples of bitter feuds that could have been avoided. Save yourself from worrying by taking care of these things once and for all.

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The Engelsfors Trilogy website: www.worldofengelsfors.com

Sara B Elfgren on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SaraBElfgren
Mats Strandberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MatsStrandberg_

The Engelsfors Trilogy is a #1 bestseller in Sweden and is being published around the world.

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Writing My Novel ‘The Gypsy Crown’, by Kate Forsyth

The idea for The Gypsy Crown came out of the blue like a lightning bolt. This is how it happened.

When I was a little girl, I used to go and visit my Great-Aunt Bobby, an elderly and rather eccentric lady who always gave us tea out of fine bone china cups with violets on them.  She had an old charm bracelet, passed down through the family for generations, and I used to like to look at all the charms and hear the stories behind them. Some of the charms were very old. The oldest of all was nothing but a small brown pebble, smooth from years of being rubbed for luck. It had been picked up from the banks of the River Thames by my great-great-great-great-grandmother, before she left England to travel the long and dangerous journey to Australia. I loved to hear this story, and wanted a charm bracelet of my own, one in which each charm had a story behind it.

Many years later, my great-aunt died and the charm bracelet was inherited by my mother. I remember having lunch with her, and she showed me the beautiful old bracelet, heavy with charms, and I remembered how much I had loved it as a little girl.

Then I thought to myself, imagine if a bracelet like this was broken and someone had to go on a quest to find all the lost charms. What an amazing quest story it would make.

Each charm could have some kind of meaning … each could be won only after some kind of adventure, the overcoming of obstacles, the payment of some kind of cost …

All the hairs rose on my arms. I felt a jolt of electricity run down my spine. It was a good idea, I knew it at once.

But who and where and when and why?

These are the key questions I always ask myself when a story idea comes to me. Sometimes it takes a long time to answer those questions. But in the case of The Gypsy Crown, the solution came to me at once, in a flash.

I had always wanted to be a Gypsy, ever since my grandmother had told me – perhaps jokingly – that there was Gypsy blood in our family. As a girl, I used to pretend to be a Gypsy all the time. I’d dress in a long, layered skirt in all different fabrics and a white embroidered blouse with puffed sleeves, and put on lots of gold bangles, and imagine I was travelling the roads of the world, barefoot and fancy-free . Sometimes on the weekend, in summer, my mother used to let my sister and brother and me light a campfire in our back garden and we’d camp out under the stars and cook sausages on sticks.  I pretended I could play the violin so people could not help but dance, and that I had a pet monkey that caused all kinds of mischief.

I remembered this childhood fascination of mine, in what felt like less than a second after thinking of writing a story about a quest for a charm bracelet. Gypsies used to believe in charms and talismans, I thought. Surely they wore charm bracelets?

In my mind’s eye, I saw at once two Romany children – a boy and a girl – with flashing dark eyes and black curly hair, dressed in ragged, bright, old-fashioned clothes. The girl was laughing and dancing and clapping her hands, tattered skirts swirling about her dirty bare feet. The boy was playing a violin, a tiny monkey passing around her hat for coins. A grumpy old dancing bear danced too, a ring through her nose. From the shadows, a man with a sword watched, meaning them harm …

I wrote the first book, or section, of The Gypsy Crown in only three weeks, the fastest I’ve ever written a book. It just seemed to leap from my fingers.

(In Australia, The Gypsy Crown is the first in a series of 6 books. In the UK & the US and other territories, the series was published in a condensed version as one single book).

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Kate Forsyth’s author website: www.kateforsyth.com.au

Kate Forsyth’s bio page

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On Finding Story Ideas, by Kate Forsyth

All writers are asked the same question over and over again.

‘Where do you get your ideas?’ people want to know.

This is very difficult question to answer because the truth is ideas come to me all the time. Sometimes they just drift into my mind as I’m daydreaming out a window. Sometimes it’ll be an image, or a sequence of words, or I’ll start to wonder idly about something I’ve seen or read or heard, and suddenly I’ll get an idea like a flash of light, and I see how it could be a story.

I might be flicking through a magazine, reading a book, chatting to a friend, eavesdropping on a conversation in a restaurant, digging up weeds in my garden, doodling on the edge of the newspaper.

Many of my ideas come to me while I’m writing – they seem to rise up out of the deepest, most shadowy part of my brain and flow through my blood to my fingertips. It’s terribly exciting when this happens – I feel as if I am not writing the story, but merely being the conduit for it – as if the story already existed somewhere else and I am just doing my imperfect best to give it life.

Another reason why this is a difficult question to answer is that a novel is never just one idea. It’s hundreds of them. Maybe even thousands of them. Some come easily, without any conscious volition, others need to be searched out, blindly and dumbly, fumbling about in the darkness, not knowing what it is I need until I find it.

If I am ever asked this question, I generally pick just one of my books and then explain the story behind its writing.

For example, my first book for young readers, The Starthorn Tree, began as an image that came to me as I was hovering in that dim, secret place between being awake and falling asleep. I saw a high tower, and a girl climbing out the window and down the steep wall, on a thread no thicker than a cobweb. As she climbed down the thread, I climbed down into sleep, and the image was swallowed up by darkness. I remembered only that fragment in the morning, but I wondered about it every now and again. Who was the girl? Why was she running away?

Another dream image – or almost-dream image – was that of a boy rowing a heavily laden boat across a moonlit lake to an island. There was strange, eerie singing … and a sense of great danger … and also great anticipation …

The two images seemed to belong together – I felt a sort of magnetic charge between them, dragging them together.  A boy, a girl, a tower, an island, a magical thread, dangerous singing … I began to imagine how they might be linked.  Slowly a story grew out of these few stray images …

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Kate Forsyth’s author website: www.kateforsyth.com.au

Kate Forsyth’s bio page

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Avoid Writing Characters Who Are Unrelatable, by Rhiannon Hart

When you’re writing a novel, it’s so important to make characters relatable and realistic. If you don’t, your readers will be rolling their eyes every time your character opens their mouth.

Have you noticed how so much of writing advice is what not to do? Show don’t tell. Go easy on the adverbs. You can have the same approach when you’re looking at characters. Some of my pet hates when it comes to what not to do when writing characters are:

Making them perfect

Little Miss goody-goody is respectful to her parents, kind to animals and is wracked with guilt if she thinks she’s crushing on the same guy as her BFF. She’s never impulsive, eats her vegetables, has neat handwriting and a pencil case full of all those beautifully coloured gel pens. Unchewed. And she never loses a pen cap. Oh, and bluebirds make her bed every morning. These girls make me feel frumpy and erratic in real life. I certainly don’t want to read about them. The highest praise I have received from reviewers who enjoyed my first book, Blood Song, is that they love how Zeraphina (my main character) isn’t perfect. She is selfish, and then feels ashamed. She’s impulsive and she knows it, but she just can’t help herself when there are people keeping secrets from her. This dissonance springs from her cravings for blood, and her subsequent horror that it might mean she’s a monster.

Making characters self-centred

The other day I opened a WIP from a year or two or go that I have been intending to finish. I reread several chapters, and I was bored. Every single character is excruciatingly self-centred. No one likes anyone else. Even best friends are secretly mortal enemies. Crushes are superficial. If I ever revisit this piece it’s going to require some serious surgery.

Having them fall in love with someone they don’t like, or don’t even know

This one comes from my experience as a reader. I have a favourite writer of non-fiction who also wrote some novels early in his career. When I began his the first one, I was quickly put off by how the main character met and quickly fell for a woman when the reader had been given only a superficial description of her. I wasn’t doing the falling with the character; I was watching it from the sidelines, askance. Not long after that I put the book down. When falling in love is so often central many novels (even when they’re not romance), it’s important to look at why and how quickly two characters fall for one another. Crushes can be baseless and superficial, of course. As can jealously. But the falling in love part has to be logical (which does sound absurd, but it’s true), timely and thoroughly examined.

Which brings me to my next point: when the ‘realisation moment’, the first kiss or confession or declaration or however it comes, falls flat. Some writers build up tension exquisitely between two characters and it’s not until just before the denouement (which I think is the best place to put the declaration moment, right before the climax of the story, when it’s not a straight romance) that they confess their love and finally kiss — and it’s done in the most off-hand, peremptory manner. A sort of ‘duh’ is written between the lines, and the two characters seem to squeeze each others arms and go, ‘Oh yeah, we love each other. We sort of knew it and it’s no big deal.’ Fade to black. Wha? No big deal?! It’s a MEGA deal. In real life when you discover someone likes you the way you like them it’s like a supernova goes off in your world. There’s a sense of wonder. Electricity. Joy. Perhaps some writers feel it’s a little cliché by now to make a big deal of a romantic scene. But I need it. And I’m sure a lot of other readers do too.

I canvassed Twitter for other readers opinions on what makes characters unrelatable, and variations on the above came up, as well as: love triangles in general, when motivations are confusing and illogical, general illogical behaviour, the ‘it’s behind you’ factor*, and when everyone’s dialogue sounds exactly the same. (I wanted to give proper credit for these, but Twitter is playing up. I will favourite Tweets and do better in the future, promise.)

What are your pet peeves that make characters unrelatable?

*Does everyone know what I mean when I say the ‘it’s behind you’ factor? It’s when something is staring the heroine (usually) right in the face or breathing down her neck, and she remains oblivious. Gah.

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Rhiannon Hart author website: www.rhiannon-hart.blogspot.com

Blood Song (Lharmell)Plot Versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great FictionCharacters, Emotions and Viewpoint: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Dynamic Characters and Effective Viewpoints (Write Great Fiction)The The Sookie Stackhouse Companion: A Complete Guide to the Sookie Stackhouse SeriesFictional Minds (Frontiers of Narrative)Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification

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