On my list of favorite things, fantasy books rank right up there with dark chocolate ice cream smothered in hot fudge. Part of the reason I like fantasy books is because, as one of my critique partners pointed out, many of them take place in a Vaguely Medieval Land Where Everyone Rides Horses Always,* and I love horses. Unfortunately, a lot of fantasy writers aren’t necessarily knowledgeable about horses, which can result in cringe-worthy errors.
Not every writer has to be a horse expert (we can’t all be experts on everything, after all), but the reason getting horse facts right is important is because this is a real life example of what happens when people who know nothing about horses decide to go on an Epic Quest: (WARNING, GRAPHIC PHOTOS). The men responsible have since been charged with multiple counts of animal cruelty. Here are a few useful facts to help avoid common horse-related pitfalls in writing:
- Horses do not whinny and paw all the time to express themselves to humans. Movies are full of this rubbish, and it makes me want to hurl manure at the television. Horses whinny to communicate with one another, particularly when they are at a distance from the herd. They may nicker when you show up with treats, or if another horse is approaching. A horse with a fractious personality may paw if tied at the hitching rail for a long period of time, or bang on the stall door with a front hoof when impatient for his dinner. Beyond that, horses are extremely quiet for such large creatures.
- You can’t gallop your horse all day. The four basic gaits that the average horse has are walk, trot, canter, and gallop. One of the mistakes I see most often is horses galloping over rough terrain or for extended periods of time. It’s definitely possible for a horse to gallop for a few miles, but it’s very strenuous. The absolute limit is about ten miles, and that horse is going to be exhausted at the end even if it started out in peak condition. A brisk trot is a good, ground-covering pace for a long ride, even if it’s likely to make your characters’ butts sore.
- Horses can’t vomit. It is physically impossible. If a horse ingests something poisonous, they’re most likely to colic (get a stomachache). Part of the reason colic is such a serious problem is that horses can’t throw up to get rid of whatever toxin they ate. A colicky horse may lie down and refuse to get up, roll, or bite at its sides. Many horses are also fussy eaters. Unless they’re very hungry, they aren’t likely to eat something toxic that is offered to them (i.e., moldy hay or a poisonous plant).
- Horses eat a lot. You know that saying, “eat like a horse?” It’s true. A horse in regular exercise is probably going to need a minimum of about 10lbs of hay or grass per day. On an Epic Quest, where a horse is being ridden heavily, it would need more than that. Grass is more important than grain, so a handful of oats isn’t going to cut it when your heroes are winding through a treacherous mountain pass for days on end.
- Horses are claustrophobic by nature. Even an exceptionally trained horse is probably not going to want to go into the Scary Dragon Cave, even if it’s the only way to hide from the Impending Stormpocalypse.
- Tying horses by the reins is unsafe. If your characters are knowledgeable horse people, they should always tie horses by their halters. A horse that shies and tries to run away while tied by the reins could do devastating damage to its mouth and even slice through the tongue depending on the type of bit it wears. (A halter is what you put on the horse’s head to lead it, with a rope attached under the chin. A bridle is what you use to ride, and the reins are attached to a metal bit in the horse’s mouth).
- Stallions: just say no. Most colts should be gelded at a relatively young age. There are not that many horses that should be passing on their genes unless they are truly stunning examples of their breed and are also accomplished in the discipline for which they were bred. Stallions tend to be sensitive, hormonal creatures that are 95% focused on breeding the nearest breedable thing. They certainly can make good riding horses, and often compete at the top of their disciplines, but they require consistent, expert handling to get there. Your King or Your Hero should not go charging into battle on a stallion unless he or she is an exceptional horse person.
The moral of this story is that if horses play a significant role in your book, try to keep things at a broad, high level, and fact-check carefully. The best solution is to find a beta reader who is an experienced horse person and can let you know where you may have gone astray. If you’re more the do-it-yourself type, consider taking a few lessons at a reputable stable near you. That said, there’s only so much you can learn in a short period of time. I’ve been riding and training horses for over twenty years and there is no limit to what I still have to learn. That’s what makes horses so magical.
Have a horse question? Drop me a note and I’ll write about it for a future post!
*The lack of diversity among fantasy book settings is a problem in and of itself that deserves another post.
Hordes of writers near and far are stocking up on coffee and wine and are installing fresh padding on the walls of their writing caves for the month of November. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is officially upon us. It’s time for a month of writing intense enough to wear one’s fingers to bloody stumps and the ingestion of enough caffeine to create a violent eye twitch that will linger well into December.
The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in thirty days.
Every November seems so fresh and new to me that sometimes I forget my veteran status. This will be my ninth year as a participant. Now that I’ve been around the 50,000-word block a few times, I’d like to share some survival tips I’ve accumulated over the years.
- Don’t edit. I’m serious. Don’t even edit the last two sentences you wrote at the end of your previous writing session when you pick up to keep going. Just read them for context and move on. If you don’t let the words pour out of you like pure literary vomit, 50k will elude you like a greased sardine.
- When you stop writing for the day, stop in the middle of a scene. It will make it much easier to pick back up and gain momentum as opposed to trying to start a new chapter the next day.
- Whether you plot everything out in advance or write by the seat of your pants, have at least one thing you know you’re writing toward that happens near the end of the book. Knowing that Character A and Character B are going to have to pull a pterodactyl wishbone for dominance and the fate of the universe while standing in a pool of baby seal tears at the climax of your book will help keep you always writing toward that scene.
- If you ever get stuck, ask yourself what the worst thing is that could happen to your characters. Then do it to them. It’ll keep things moving and drive the plot forward. Never be afraid to make your characters suffer, particularly at the hands of 3,000 axe-wielding space weasels. Getting characters untangled from bad situations is one of the best ways to work your creative muscles and increase wordcount.
- Bank extra words before Thanksgiving if you reside in the USA. Even if you’re on track up until that point, Thanksgiving weekend can decimate your wordcount, especially if you are visiting family or friends. It’s particularly important this year since Thanksgiving falls right at the very end of the month with little time to recover afterward.
- Word war your way out of a wordcount hole (no, that’s not a euphemism). If your wordcount is so far in the latrine that it seems that all hope is lost, gather a few other NaNoWriMo pals or some strangers on the internet and do a word war. Short, intense sprints tend to work the best (between 15 and 30 minutes). You’ll be shocked by how fast your word count will build if you do 2-3 sprints per hour with relaxing breaks in between to giggle manaiacally at cat gifs while chugging your favored form of caffeine.
See you at the finish line!
PS: If you’re in need of some quick and dirty plotting tips, check out Deanna Roy’s post on the Nine Box method of structuring your novel. Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet is also an excellent tool to map out your story.
Malinda Lo has been doing a fantastic series for YA Pride this month. As part of that, I am featured today as a guest blogger! Head on over to Malinda’s blog to read about how her book Ash inspired me, and why it’s important to write what you crave as a reader.
In light of the US government shutdown, it’s a good time to talk about votes that count. This shutdown points to a truth about living in a capitalist world: your dollar is often the most powerful vote you have—apparently sometimes even more powerful than the government. I’m pretty confident that with enough money behind it, presidential candidates could be forced to wear rubber unicorn masks during debates. Even my apolitical TV-averse butt would be on the couch for that…but I digress.
In the land of books, some readers bemoan their underrepresentation in fiction, or in the genre they want to read. Personally, I’ve always hungered for more fantasy books with queer female leads, particularly those in which the sexuality of the lead character is a non-issue. I can only name a handful of those books, and I’ve made a point of seeking them out for years. Unfortunately, even when they do get published, they often don’t sell well. Malinda Lo has some interesting statistics gathered about diversity in the YA bestsellers of 2012.
So how do we as readers change that? The answer is simple: buy books, and make sure that they aren’t all by or about straight white people. Until the dollars are where our mouths are, there’s still only going to be one slot for a LGBTQ book on a publisher’s roster in any given season. Ultimately, voting with your dollar will help any author whose work you love. The best way to make sure that author keeps writing what you love to read is to ensure they’re getting paid to do it. Now, I understand that not everyone has the capital to indulge the kind of sick hardback book hoarding that I indulge in. That’s okay! You’re less powerless than you think. Ebooks are less expensive, and better yet, libraries are FREE.
Ways you can keep authors employed and support a more diverse literary world:
- Seek out diversity and buy those books. Diversity in YA is an excellent source for reading inspiration! You can even go one step further and make sure to buy books at your local independent bookstore. If you don’t have a good local indie in town, shop online at Powell’s. Their shipping rates are very reasonable and they often do free shipping deals.
- Check out books from your local library, and if you love them, recommend them to friends, review them on Goodreads, or share them on social media. In many cases, authors with “less marketable” (aka, more diverse) books don’t get as much money put into their publicity campaigns. It’s on us as readers to spread the word.
- Don’t pirate books. Every time you illegally download an author’s book, you directly damage their ability to eat and pay rent. Your local library exists to fulfill your need for free reads.
- Don’t sell or purchase ARCs (advance reader copies). They are usually riddled with errors that get fixed before the final print run anyway. Authors are not paid royalties on ARCs.
Now go forth and make change!
Last Saturday morning I popped out of bed with the energy of a squirrel on crack to spend a fun-filled day at the Austin Teen Book Festival. It’s awesome to live in a city that has such a big YA book event, even if the heat tries to obliterate my will to live every summer.
- I bought my first gay boy book, Openly Straight, and was reminded how important it is to support LGBTQ authors of all stripes. Bill Konigsberg was a delight on his panel and fun to talk to at the signing table.
- One of my friends listed off many of the famous YA authors with whom she has peed in public restrooms.
- Lauren Myracle tenderly touched the battered cover of my copy of Kissing Kate and marveled that I had the version with the original cover. Kissing Kate was her first published book. She signed it, “To Audrey, who was there from the very beginning.”
- On the Tales of Tomorrow panel, Malinda Lo put hoverboards and other material things aside and said that equality was her dream for the future—equality for people of color and LGBTQ people. EQUALITY. Can we get a slow-clap?
- Rae Carson gave me a look of skepticism when I requested profanity in my book personalization. It quickly morphed into delight when she realized I was serious.
- I made a total mouth-breathing assclam of myself in front of a well-known agent. He has now insisted I query him, and I look forward to his rejection.
For those of you out there who are avid readers of YA, I encourage you to find local book events to attend. Hearing what authors have to say about their books and about the publication process is always interesting, and the panels usually end up being hilarious. YA authors have a great sense of humor and are a wonderfully supportive and fun community.
Big news: I finally polished the last flakes of crust off the turd better known as my manuscript! Although it’s going through one more quick beta round, this version feels ready to query.
So here’s what I’m up to while I gnaw my nails down to the quicks waiting on my beta readers:
- Compiling my agent list! It’s important to submit to agents who represent the correct genre. I’ve been following the #MSWL (manuscript wish list) hashtag on Twitter and researching agents all over the web. It’s a perfect opportunity to use my internet stalking expertise.
- Finalizing my query letter and synopsis! A strong query letter is what makes a submission stand out in the slush pile, and many agents also require a synopsis. Now that my final revisions on the manuscript are done, it is a good time to make sure my synopsis is consistent with any recent changes to the manuscript and that my query is as strong as it can be.
- Reading! I promised myself a reward after finishing my revisions, so I’m finally digging into the enormous pile of books on my nightstand. Reading always helps inspire me and give me something to aspire to.
- Tackling book 2! I’m reluctant to completely give up momentum with writing, so I’ve started the revision process for book 2, which I drafted back in 2011. It needs a lot of work, but the outlining process is going much more smoothly than it did with the first book. Book 2 darker, bloodier, and creepier, so it is a fun change of pace.
Descriptions are not my favorite aspect of writing novels. Given the choice, I’d rather write dialogue. However, while my characters can talk about rocket powered raccoon carcasses all day, what fun would that be without a detailed description of said raccoons?
I blame my fondness for dialogue on my former life as a music nerd, which developed my auditory ability with little regard for the rest of the senses. Dialogue I can hear in my head. Good descriptions go far beyond that. There are two main things I use to help make my descriptions more interesting.
1. Use active verbs (avoid is, was).
There are times when “is” or “was” makes sense to use, but active verbs can help make descriptions livelier. Objects that are doing something are always more interesting than those that are not. For example:
A1: The spaceship was silver. It had long silver tentacles that were reaching for him. The aliens were small, round, and blue.
A2: The silver spaceship thrummed overhead, its long silver tentacles reaching down to close around his wrists. Aliens rolled from the gaping mouth of the ship, their blue fur tickling him as they tumbled around his ankles like sentient basketballs.
It’s also often good to avoid the construction “was/is/were/are with a verb ending in -ing” when you can just use the verb. It’s more economical and makes for stronger sentences.
- He was reaching for me.
He reached for me.
- Her fingers are tapping on the table.
Her fingers tap on the table.
- The raccoon carcass rocket is awaiting deployment.
The raccoon carcass rocket awaits deployment.
2. Incorporate smell, taste, touch, and sound.
Descriptions are not all about how something looks. Taste, smell, sound, and touch are as or more important than a visual image and add extra depth to the world you build. This is particularly important when writing fantasy or science fiction. Your secondary world will come to life more fully if all senses are incorporated. It’s not enough to tell us that the bushes are bubblegum pink. Do they also smell like bubblegum? Or do they reek of desiccated fish? Either one adds a completely new dimension to the scene. For example:
B1: The pine trees were dark green ahead and the sun was out in the blue sky. There was no sign of the mutant vulture that had been chasing her. A bird was singing in the forest. The pine needles underfoot were sharp as she walked into the woods.
B2: The cool scent of pine washed over her as she strode toward the forest. The lonely song of a bird called out as she neared the shelter of the trees, almost making her feel safe. She squinted into the blue sky, nervously searching for any sign of the mutant vulture. Dry pine needles stabbed into her feet as she hurried into the woods.
There’s only one important piece of advice I can give anyone how to write the first draft of a novel (or anything, for that matter):
If you have nothing written, you have nothing to revise. There isn’t any magic trick to finishing a book other than dedication. It’s okay to make mistakes and messes, and it’s okay to know you’ll have to come back later and do a better description of the flying rainbow whirligig in chapter 8. The most important thing is to finish.
Revising isn’t so simple. Since returning from Los Angeles, I’ve been deep in the bowels of revision hell putting to use some of the excellent feedback I got at the retreat. It’s both thrilling and agonizing—thrilling because I can see my book getting closer to something I’ll be proud to query, and agonizing because there are still days when I feel like I will never get there.
I’ve learned more about writing from revising this book than I did by drafting my other four novels combined. I don’t think there is any one right way to revise (or to draft for that matter) as every writer’s process is different. However, I do suggest the following:
- Set aside a first draft for a while before attempting any revision at all.
- Always make major changes to plot/structure before trying to line edit.
- Find a critique partner or beta reader who gives honest, detailed feedback.
- Be kind to your beta/critique partner—wait to send out your draft until you truly feel it is the best you can make it on your own. The same applies to querying agents.
- Revise ruthlessly, but also be kind to yourself during the process. After all, both you and your book are works in progress.
Day 7 contained a great discussion about querying/the business of publishing, a mild sunburn, and a perilous walk along a freeway access road.
Since our critiques were complete for the week, Malinda devoted Saturday’s workshop time to a discussion of querying and other aspects of publishing. She turned over the reins to the two among us who already have agents. Her rationale for that was that they had queried more recently, and things have changed a lot since she initially queried her debut, Ash, in 2007.
M-E Girard gave us a detailed process that she used for querying, and also taught us how to be stealthy online stalkers. Fortunately, my online dating life before marriage allowed me to hone those skills to a frightfully advanced level. It’s kind of fun to have a reason to put them to use again. Here are my notes on M-E’s steps for query success:
- Finish your manuscript.
- Revise until it is the best you can make it on your own (beta readers and critique partners highly recommended).
- Write your query and have it reviewed/critiqued by your writer friends.
- Compile a list of agents that represent the genre you are querying and sort them into tiers by preference (5-10 agents per tier).
- STALK THEM ALL. But only on the internet. And stealthily.
- Develop a unique personalization based on the information you learned while stalking. But don’t be creepy (I struggle with this in all aspects of life).
- Create a query tracking system or use something like QueryTracker.
- Send your query to Tier 1 and sit back to gnaw your nails to the quicks while you wait for responses.
- If you don’t get any responses or only get rejections, your query is probably not working. Revise your query and get more feedback, then submit to Tier 2, Tier 3, etc.
It was strange and sad to leave our workshop room for the last time, though I won’t miss the smell of dirty socks that always seemed to permeate it. However, I had an adventure to head off to. A friend of mine from Austin picked me up to take me down to Santa Monica. We decided to grab something to eat and then walked down to the pier. I took a few pictures on our walk:
After our walk on the pier, my friend dropped me off to visit with my mentor from my day job. Hopefully my mentor has forgiven me for being completely feral by the time I saw her; work was but a distant dream after being out of the office for two weeks. We spent a couple of hours chatting in her beautiful back yard, which reminded me how much I love to be outside in places that aren’t Texas.
When it was finally time to head home, I caught the bus a few blocks from her house. The ride itself went relatively smoothly, but the stop at the end of my journey turned out to be on the opposite side of the highway from the campus. I walked across the overpass, but then the sidewalk disappeared, so I had to hoof it through the dirt or walk on the freeway access road for half a mile, which resulted in some dude shouting out his car to see if I needed a ride. I suppose it’s possible that he was trying to be polite, but signs on the bus had just warned me about the dangers of human trafficking in LA. Ending up in the trunk of a car bound up with duct tape alongside a bunch of weaponry didn’t seem like a good way to end the day.
I got back up to campus just in time for the farewell party, which was an epic affair involving plenty of cake, scotch, an open mic, and eventually karaoke. Everyone went completely batshit when Hold On by Wilson Phillips queued up, and the most majestic singalong of all time took place. I won’t post any pictures or video here to save your retinas and eardrums, but you can have your own little singalong to the original video:
I still can’t believe the retreat is over. A piece of me got left behind in Los Angeles. Still, I’m excited to see what the future holds, and am so grateful for the connections I made that I know are going to be amazing friendships.
Some sort of magic happened on Day 5, and by Day 6 of the retreat our cohort turned into a family. The final morning of critiques went well. There was another guest lecture in the afternoon, but in the spirit of the teenage audience we write for, most of the YA/Genre Fellows played hooky.
We sat outside in the gloriously pleasant afternoon, all pretending to work at first, but quickly getting distracted and talking instead.
It was strange to just kick back and relax. Most of the week was intensely busy between the workshops and having to read and prepare the critiques. Friday was really the first day we had an afternoon to decompress from it all. The only people who were still stressed out were the ones who hadn’t read yet.
Friday evening readings were just as good as Thursday’s. Lots of wine was consumed afterward, and we had a fun time goofing around and staying up much too late.