Now we’re getting into the more advanced techniques.
- Concept- You might wonder why this isn’t a basic thing, but it’s deceptively hard. Some concepts just obviously don’t fit with their age range. If the concept sounds too young or too old for the age group, it’s going to have a harder time selling. The line between MG and YA is especially tough, as upper MG and lower YA overlap. The best way to figure that out? If the story’s emotional arc is focused on the character finding themselves within a stable structure, like in relation to family or school, it’s probably MG. If the story’s emotional arc is focused on finding their place in an unstable world, and creating their own identity/what they want, it’s probably YA. (Obviously there are exceptions!) This is where being super familiar with the age/genre/subgenre you’re working in is so critical. If no one’s ever written an adult novel about a purple unicorn princess saving the Death Star, well, there’s probably a very good reason for that. Push the edges of your tropes, flip them and swirl them together, yes. But if you go too far outside your target area, agents and editors won’t know how to frame it, and so they won’t know how to sell it. (I blame this for why some agents tend to get a lot of clients but end up selling few books.) It’s a HARD skill to say a book is like X and Y but fresh because Z, and have them all be marketable comps. Harder still, doing that across multiple ages/genres. The tighter you focus, at first, the better you’ll be able to see where the already existing stories fit, and how yours belongs within that.
- Grounding in a scene- This one needed an example, but I didn’t think ungrounding something someone else published would be as useful as seeing something fresh. So I’m going to show you two different versions of a piece of a scene. One is the rough draft with no grounding, one is the edited version. I write very slim and then add texture/setting in editing, for the most part.
Neither, of course, is a finished version. This was my nano in 2016, so I’m still finishing the story itself off. (I’d wanted to use a more edited scene from another project, but I couldn’t find the original version anymore! Backups are important, guys!) This just happened to be a section with a chunk of dialogue, which I find is often the hardest thing to ground.
For context-This conversation happens about a chapter before the first midpoint twist. The POV character, Alynia, was raised in the human world after her royal parents were killed. Cenyia is her best friend/body guard (and if I pull it off right, love interest), and they’ve just recently returned to the alternate dimension where she is the niece of the current queen. Her cousin, the Crown Princess Elleth, is gravely ill with a magic disease that they hope Alynia’s magic can solve. Bucaen is the man Alynia was betrothed to as a baby, in a political match.
Bucaen is waiting in the hall just outside the Court chamber. The cobalt blue sash over the silver suit looks fabulous on him. For the briefest moment, I want him to fall in actual love with me. When he sees me, he swoops into an instantaneous bow, as if he’d primed the whole time for just that moment.
I nod, but the last thing I want to do right now is talk to him, no matter how nice he’s looking all polished up. It’s not even personal, but I feel like crap and I still want to try to practice working with my magic. There’s something about him I just don’t like, on a gut level.
“I heard you were working out some of your details for our Betrothal, and I thought I might impose on a moment of your time. It’s rather important about the ceremony.”
I glance at Cenyia, who shrugs slightly. “I have something I need to be doing, but we can walk and talk.”
“Something more important than the ceremony?”
I weigh my words carefully. What I want to say is too blunt, and I know myself well enough to know that impulse. “My first goal here is to save the Crown Princess. Everything else is secondary to that. Not only is she the rightful heir to the throne, and from everything I’ve seen, eminently well suited to the role, but she’s a delightful girl. I’m sure we’ll get to know each other in time, and I’m sure you’re a nice guy, but her condition is serious. I need to work on that, more than any of this other stuff.”
“Your sacrifice and honor are noted, Your Highness. There are many who believe she won’t recover, however, and they need this ceremony to ensure the stability of the throne. You don’t understand the workings of the court yet, nor would any expect you to. But I assure you, this is just as much a potential matter of life and death as your attempts to save the Crown Princess.””
Major issues here, right? There’s telling, the dialogue is a bit too on the nose, and it doesn’t give you much of a sense of this POV character. It has attitude, but not much of it is focused.
So I gave it a quick polish.
A flash of silver suit and cobalt sash against the far wall catches my attention as I emerge from the Court Chamber. Bucaen’s bow is swift, and when he looks up, the amused glimmer in his dark eyes almost makes me want him to fall in love with me. There’s no doubt he’s handsome, but the flutter dies down almost as soon as he walks towards me.
I nod, letting the smile stay on my face. The competing demands of Elleth’s illness and my magic training pull my steps automatically towards that end of the castle, so hopefully he can make this short.
His smile is shark like, all teeth and flash. It sends chills down my spine. “I heard you were working out some of your details for our betrothal, and I thought I might impose for a moment. It’s rather important about the ceremony.”
A quick glance at Cenyia leaves me with no better answer. He’s no threat, at least, but that doesn’t help much.“We can walk and talk. I’m afraid my day is quite busy.” I try to keep the tone light, but I can tell from my bodyguard’s wince that I’ve failed.
“Something more important than the ceremony?”
A deep breath centers me and lets me resist my sharper impulsive words. I lick my lips hesitantly, then pause and look him in the eyes. I see no malice there, but his calculating gaze seems to weigh my every movement. “My first goal here is to save the Crown Princess. Everything else is secondary to that.” I glance down the hall leading towards her rooms, making sure the door was safely closed. “Not only is she the rightful heir to the throne, and from everything I’ve seen, eminently well suited to the role, but I’m growing fond of her.”
At that, he scowls. Feeling guilty, I hastily dig for something kind to say about him. “I’m sure we’ll get to know each other in time. Once her condition stabilizes, I promise I will devote an equal balance of time to our betrothal and getting to know you.”
“Your sacrifice and honor are noted, Your Highness.” He bows slightly, the sly smile on the edge of his mouth, making me wonder which part he views as a sacrifice. “There are many who believe she won’t recover, however, and they need this ceremony to ensure the stability of the throne. You don’t understand the workings of the court yet, nor would any expect you to. But I assure you, this is just as much a potential matter of life and death as your attempts to save the Crown Princess.”
His words sting, but I can’t argue the truth behind his spiked words, even if it was classic mansplaining. “Noted. I appreciate your advice and will take it into consideration. You’ll excuse me.”
Not perfect, obviously, there’s a lot of I still going on, but it gives you a better idea.. This also has rather long sentences still, which brings me to…
- Varying sentence structures- It’s easy to write long sentences, especially in rough drafts. I tend to err on the side of adding a bit more detail on a section while initially editing, then I go through and pare the spare words out after. I’ll also have better luck telling where a one or two worth plithy remarks will land well once I have an idea of the flow of the rest of the scene. Like, in the case of the above scene, the next piece gets more interactive as she’s fighting against a problem with her magic, so I didn’t want to get too into the physical details here. The next section more than has it covered. Short, precise sentences balanced against longer, fluid sentences act almost like music. You need the slow bits to make the fast bits stand out, and the fast bits to make the slow bits get a move on.
Any questions,or other areas you’d wanted covered but I didn’t get to?
If you got picked for Pitchmadness, congratulations! If not, don’t give up. There were easily 300 I could have picked based on the overall writing, and easily 100 I could see as completely polished and ready to go based on their entry. You didn’t make it easy for the judges, and I can’t wait to see where you take your stories from here. Keep growing, keep pushing yourself to improve with every setback. Rejection is everywhere in this industry. Even once you get an agent, you’ll get rejections from editors. Even once you have a book deal, you’ll have readers/reviewers who reject it, or give it bad reviews. It’s subjective, every bit of it. Sometimes you will have to compromise to get your work out there, sometimes you will have to stand alone and shout into the void for what feels like forever. But don’t give up. You’ve got this. And I’ll be cheering you all on!