First Cup of Coffee – May 10, 2024

I’m having a rant today, talking about the fantasy genre and how I define it – with supporting details! – and what differentiates Fantasy from a fantasy. Also reviews and thoughts on The Idea of You and Challengers.



First Cup of Coffee – April 12, 2024

A special podcast today with fabulous author of fantasy, science fiction, and horror: Kelly Robson! We talk about the definition of fantasy vs. other SFF genres, tone, theme, choosing subgenre, and the difference between writing novels and shorter works.


First Cup of Coffee – December 18, 2023

The new portmanteau term “Romantasy” being used for Fantasy Romance and Romantic Fantasy, my own personal history with writing cross-genre and being a crack ho, and how I got namechecked in a most validating way!



Jeffe’s 3 Principles for Crafting a Beginning

This week at the SFF Seven, we’re talking about beginnings and our principles for crafting them.

But first, I want to tell you all a little story.

A few years back, I was involved in a local writers group where, as a fundraiser for the group, I volunteered – along with several other experienced authors – to read and critique works from others in the group. On one submission, another author (much more successful and famous than I) and I agreed that the book started in the wrong place, and we offered thoughtful feedback on what beginning might work more effectively. There was pushback from that author and the group, a feeling that we had been much too critical, and several people were upset that we had suggested the book had started in the wrong place. One person said to us that the author in question had already been published, implying how dare we suggest they didn’t know how to begin the book.

We were both taken aback by this protest because, and I retell this tale because I think this is so important:

FIGURING OUT WHERE AND HOW TO BEGIN NEVER GETS EASIER.

Both my fellow critiquer and I revisit the openings of every book we write many, many times. Getting that opening right is key. It’s also not easy.

So, what are my principles for crafting a beginning? I think a beginning should do three things.

  1. Establish genre
  2. Pose a question
  3. Create sympathy for the protagonist

 

Establish genre

This one might sound like a no-brainer, but I only learned to do this deliberately, after writing many books. The opening lines of the book or story should ground the reader in what kind of story this will be. This grounding is more important than many authors might think. Sometimes we, especially as newer writers, have this impulse to play coy, as if keeping the reader guessing in this way will intrigue them. Trust me: it doesn’t. Think of your favorite books and their opening lines; I bet you they all tell you what kind of story you’re about to read.

Example: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen.

Look at how much you learn about the story to come from this one sentence.

 

Pose a question

THIS is where you intrigue the reader! Some writing teachers refer to this aspect as the “hook,” but I think a lot of us have trouble understanding what a hook is supposed to be. Instead I think of this as posing a question. It doesn’t have to be THE central question(s) of the entire story, but it should connect in some way. Suggest that there’s a secret. Pose a conundrum. Put something in there to make the reader wonder – and to keep reading to find out the answer.

Example: “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. We hadn’t intended to hide the body where it couldn’t be found. In fact, we hadn’t hidden it at all but simply left it where it fell in the hopes that some luckless passer-by would stumble over it before anyone noticed he was missing.” The Secret History, Donna Tartt.

I skipped a bit there for efficiency’s sake – but the whole opening prologue is worth studying! – but see how she introduces the core mystery and poses a number of questions?

Create sympathy for the protagonist

I’m not saying your characters have to be likable, or even that the protagonist has to appear in the first few pages, or that there even has to be a single, identifiable protagonist. What I am saying is, whatever characters do appear at the beginning, the reader needs a reason to want to be in their heads, to take this journey with them. If there’s nothing interesting or appealing about the characters in the story’s opening, why should the reader keep going?

Example: “It was a dumb thing to do but it wasn’t that dumb. There hadn’t been any trouble out at the lake in years. And it was so exquisitely far from the rest of my life.” Sunshine, Robin McKinley

Feel that instant interest in the character, the clarity of the voice, and how there’s a sense of feeling for the person, whoever it may be?

 

Really, all of these examples serve in all three principles. There’s lots that goes into a good beginning, but these three are key. Beginnings are a challenge and take time and effort to get right. And totally worth it.

Analyzing Genre Expectations

I just returned from WisCon, which was a delightful, warm, sort-of summer-camp version of a con. I had a great time. I also got to visit the farmer’s market and get a wonderful jump start on spring.

Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is: How to analyze genre expectations for your genre.

You know, I have one answer to this question, which is pretty much the same as what KAK said yesterday: READ.

I feel like people are often looking for the shortcuts in this business. And certainly there are the shovel-salesmen eager to sell the gold-miners the newest-fangled device that will make their job SO MUCH EASIER. So, sure – there are tools and surveys out there that purport to analyze trends and bullet-point the expectations of the hot genres.

But nothing substitutes for reading. And reading what’s current, as well as the canon the new stuff builds upon. Genre and the expectations readers bring to their reading are fluid and ever changing. I once advised an aspiring author – a woman who’d been very well published 20 years before, had a life-lull, and was looking to get back into it – who hadn’t read anything published in her genre in the last couple of decades. She couldn’t understand the feedback she was getting from agents and editors because her reading lens was calibrated to what amounted to ancient history genre-wise.

Also, reading refills the creative well. All writers begin as readers first. (At least, I hope so. A writer who doesn’t love reading seems to me like a fish who swims but doesn’t like water.) If you don’t have time to read, make the time. Replace watching shows or scrolling on your phone with READING. You don’t have to finish everything you read (I certainly don’t), but you should read at least some of what’s popular and what your readers are reading.

Did I mention read? Yeah: do that.

First Cup of Coffee – May 19, 2023

A roundup of my travels and socializing: Nebula Conference, the Santa Fe International Literary Festival, New Mexico Writers, literary snobbery, tail-sniffing, and repping genre writers who keep the industry going!



Most Unlikely to Write

I found this great ceramic Dia de los Muertos doll a couple of weeks ago. It’s difficult to tell from the pic, but she’s made entirely of ravens. I would have bought her in a heartbeat if she weren’t so expensive. For those of you who’ve read THE SHIFT OF THE TIDE, there’s an aspect to this doll that reminds me of Moranu with her many faces. Even the cover of that book is reminiscent of the same images for me. Do you all see that? 

There’s a key difference, however, between the two – and that links into this week’s theme at the SFF Seven , which is the genre we are mostly unlikely to write. Come on over to find out what I mean.