Openings

I’m a sucker for writing openings. I enjoy them so much, I have one written for almost all of my planned titles in SoMES.

You can imagine my surprise on hearing some writers dread writing openings. I have come across quite a few.

I’d like to credit Hayao Miyazaki, of Studio Ghibli, for instilling in me the wondrous joy of a good opening. I grew up on his films and each one, large and small, fantastic or seemingly mundane, had an opening that pulled me in.

**As an aside, I didn’t understand why people my age later complained about the lack of strong female characters in films of their upbringing. Perhaps they only watched Disney. From the age of 10, I was (and remain) a lover of all things Japanese. I sought out so much anime and stumbled upon Studio Ghibli before it became a little more mainstream in the USA. If you have children and want to show them some amazing role models of both sexes, and healthy friendships and relationships, I strongly recommend.**

Those openings varied from a man battling a deity-turned-demon, a girl leaving home for an adventure, a family moving into a new house in the countryside, and a young woman plummeting from an airship– tumbling, unconscious, through the clouds until a mysterious pendant around her neck came to life and slowed her speed.

There was action and there was calm. No formula, only whimsy.

Miyazaki had a huge influence on my imagination and how it developed, so I suppose, on reflection, there’s a reason why my openings are as varied as his. Yet each attempts to bring with it a sense of wonder.

  • A young woman flees her home in the middle of the night, racing through the burning city before taking refuge in a fortress atop a jagged mountain ridge.
  • Two small boys crawl across a field, having snuck from their chambers to watch new recruits train for combat. The older is sociable and confident, while the younger more anxious and ill-at-ease.
  • A girl of 7 chokes on ash and smoke, pounding her fists against the door of her home as flames lick higher. With the help of a friend outside, she breaks a window and scrambles to safety– only to find most of her village also alight.
  • Traveling alone through the mountains, a man leaves his old life behind to seek new purpose and belonging in the place of his birth. But when someone picks a fight over his identity, he’s all too happy to oblige.

That’s just a sample… As you can see, I love writing openings. Some are calm and simple while others fling you into the action.

Perhaps the answer, if you loathe and struggle with them, is to look at your work with that same sense of wonder. Think back to something that grabbed you and didn’t let go (can be a book, film, tv show, comic– anything). What contributed to the wider mood of the scene? How can you transfer that excitement and whimsy to a reader?

It may be easier than you think, especially if we disconnect, momentarily, from all the well-meaning advice about hooks and ticking boxes in x opening pages or paragraphs (or words!). All the ‘do this, don’t do that.’

Clear your mind of all that built-up craft research and advice battling in your brain and strip it back to basics: the pleasure and joy of being wrapped in a new story. Sink yourself into your ideal opening scene and put it into words. Apply the craft knowledge afterwards to make it stronger.

Archaeology Adventures: The beginning

‘After this, life will never be the same.’

Have you ever set off on a trip where, as you lounge at the airport and wait for your flight, a very particular thought occurs to you: something exciting and different is about to unfold, and I may never perceive things the same way again.

I’ve had a few instances of this in my life, but one stands out because of the absolute terror that accompanied it as I got on a plane to a small, beautiful Balkan country.

But first, some background on what led to this moment of adrenaline, fear and excitement.

Years ago, while exploring new life as a college student in a foreign country, I decided to pursue my interests in archaeology. I didn’t really study it, so it had nothing to do with my degree, but I’d studied enough ancient history to place it high on my list of things to do. This evolved into something of a hobby.

But that summer evening, the night before my flight for my first dig, I was scouring the internet to find out if I’d made a terrible mistake.

You see, like John Snow, I knew nothing.

I thought ‘I want to go on an excavation,’ which resulted in 19-yo me researching how I could go about doing this with no experience. I came across a website that listed lots of projects so one could get in touch with a team and make their own arrangements. I was poor, so cheap/sponsored ones were all I could afford.

Great, this would do nicely.

I applied to help a small foundation with an excavation in Macedonia. It would last a full month, doing long days of excavation followed by washing and sorting finds. The site appeared large and impressive, and from the heyday of a fascinating period. As a bonus, weekends were for adventures.

I was overjoyed when their acceptance came.

That was it. I booked my flights and continued the chaos of studying and working, not giving it much of a thought apart from buying my kit: a WHS trowel, which is now my best friend (accept no substitute– many others break over time), and some decent clothes and hat for the sun.

A few days before my flight, I finally had some time to do a little research on the foundation, the site, and Macedonia. So, I scoured the internet.

I didn’t find much, only some alarming guides on how to haggle and wrangle taxis at Skopje airport. I needed to drive hours from the capital out to a tiny village.

Bizarre scenarios flashed in my mind, which was usually far more vigilant.

Was this legit? Would I be walking into some white slave trade trap? How could I have been so foolish to book an entire trip to Macedonia without actually preparing for it? Did this foundation even exist? Did I know where the consulate was if I’d need it? Would my mobile phone work?

It was the night before my flight. I had to make the call. Go or stay.

Fears brushed aside, I grabbed my suitcase and headed for the airport. On the flight over, I wondered how this trip would impact my life. What new insight or experience would I gain? This was a true adventure, and I loved adventure. I was strong. I had good street smarts (usually). I could handle myself.

Once I’d stepped off the plane, I found an ATM and withdrew some cash in local currency, saving some sterling I’d brought with me just in case I needed some power currency for a tricky situation (which I did- though it’s not as fascinating a story as it sounds).

I found a middle-aged taxi driver whose face was sharp and angular. Despite worn features, he looked like the type who accepted no nonsense. While he understandably didn’t speak English, and I’d only memorized a few words of Macedonian, I politely–but confidently–attempted an explanation of where I needed to go. It was a very, very small town.

I started what became a bit of a routine- speaking any English with a foreign accent. Masking my identity, much like how my grandmother would speak in different languages when people bothered her on the street during her many travels, pretending not to understand them– ‘Lo siento, no hablo Francés’ or ‘Sorry, I don’t speak Spanish’ despite the fact she interpreted between five languages for the likes of diplomats and heads of state at international conferences. She is the ultimate master traveller.

I wrangled and haggled, just like I’d read, and was soon bundled into a nice-looking silver car. I hid my new trowel in the shoulder bag beside me, in case things ended up different from how they appeared. We set off.

Hopefully he understood where I needed to go and I wouldn’t be plonked in a tiny village with no excavating team waiting for me and no way to get out.

I reached for the seatbelt, only to discover it had been removed from the back seats. Not very comforting as we left the city and careened down the narrow mountain roads and highways. My stomach flipped every time we neared an edge, other cars racing in the opposite direction as we teetered over long drops with no railings to secure the one-lane highways.

If I made it through alive, my partner back home would kill me for being so reckless. Thankfully, that was the first of many chaotic, reckless car trips in other countries– some of which included my partner, all of which included nervous laughter as I wondered whether I’d reach my destination in one piece.

We pulled up to a small hotel outside the village, where another car had also arrived. I heard English and saw large suitcases.

You cannot imagine my relief.

We’d driven through the blip of a town to get to the ‘hotel’ and these people definitely stuck out.

I gave the driver a generous tip for not getting me killed (and for understanding my poor Macedonian), then went to introduce myself to the others. Amusingly, some of them had boarded their flights with similar trepidation. One person nearly didn’t go!

This is long enough, so I won’t go into detail about the dig itself (it was HARD work- but amazing). That can be for other posts. When I tell people I do volunteer archaeology, the most common question I’m asked is ‘how,’ so I wanted to lay out how I stumbled into it. I kept things vague, but if you’d like more specific details or would like to get involved, please do contact me.

How to: Interpret Rejection

Oh ho, I know what you’re thinking.

‘There is no universal way to interpret rejections’ or ‘Agents use different methods of rejection all the time so it would be ill-advised to read into them’ or even ‘Oh no, another writer sharing their personal opinions on rejection…’

Before everyone grabs their pitchforks or smelling salts, yes. All of the above are TRUE.

This post is part pisstake (or ‘satire’ for those not accustomed to UK lingo) and part observation from my own experience. I maintain you CAN see wider patterns– IF you have enough rejections to constitute a decent sample size.

In other words, you need as many rejections as I have. And, while I’m not going to put a number here, that’s a lot. It’s enough for me to give a nod of respect to writers that hit 100. I shrug with indifference when someone bemoans at receiving 80. I scoff when a project is chucked after 50, and this evolves into maniacal laughter when the anxious writer feverishly despairs over 20 or 30.

Once, someone was ready to set aside their MS after ONE rejection. ONE. Oh, sweet, summer child. The writing world is cruel and one rejection might not mean a thing about your work (unless, maybe, the sender says something along the lines of ‘don’t contact me again,’ in which case you probably screwed up– big time).

So my experience with rejection? It started the way a lot of new writers do: querying too early.

**As an aside, DON’T DO THIS. Querying is hard work, agents have limited time, and even if you think your MS is ready, odds are it isn’t if this is your first one. Unless you’ve had numerous quality betas that gave detailed feedback (and are not people you know personally), you cannot possibly know if your MS is at the level it needs to be. Maybe get an editor to look over a few chapters to check there are no major craft issues.

I know how eager you might feel as your finger hovers over the ‘send’ button on a series of queries, but DON’T. Not unless you’ve had it thoroughly tested by other readers and writers. Save yourself the struggle and save the agents their time.**

Anyways, back to my experience.

Before I go into detail, I want to reveal my criteria for what counts as a ‘form’ rejection vs a ‘personalized’ one. There are no universal rules (reread paragraph 1 above), but generally, agents use set emails to reply to the vast numbers of the queries they receive. Some have tiered responses, with more positive or encouraging things the more they liked your query or sample. Some just have one basic rejection. I, PERSONALLY, define them as follows:

  • Form rejection: no details about the MS, concept, anything.
    • Examples: “This isn’t right for our list at this time.” or “I didn’t connect/love it enough.” or “It didn’t grab me as I hoped it would.”
  • Personalized rejection: specific detail about the MS, concept, characters, plot.
    • Examples: “Story started too quickly…” or “I love your writing and particularly love your characters.”
    • Not to be confused with “While there was much to admire…” or “You have an interesting concept,” both of which I count among the form responses (you might not, but I do– reread paragraph 1).

So, I did the naive and foolish ‘queried too early’ nonsense. I was the buffoon who thought my book might get picked because someone would see enough potential in it to help me make it better. BOO, PAST ME. YOU WERE A FOOL.

I got lots of form rejections. The rare one or two could have potentially had a snippet of personalization, but most were brief 1-2 liners.

Fast-forward one year and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve begun accumulating beta feedback (from ACTUAL STRANGERS– no, your mom and best friend don’t count, soz). I’ve combed my MS for things like tense inconsistencies, POV issues, passive voice, adding more rhythm and movement in my writing, NOT USING BEATS AS DIALOGUE TAGS. I could go on.

I do more queries (cause I’m a glutton for punishment).

The rejections come in, but they’re different. They’re longer, more detailed, and a lot more positive even if still forms (more lines of ‘we hope you consider us if you write anything new’ or ‘please do send us any other work you may have’). I get substantially more personalized feedback, some even with praise for aspects of the query or sample.

Fast-forward another six months.

By now, I’ve revamped the prose. I’ve switched up the opening a bit. I’ve MASTERED my blurb– not necessarily so that it’s the most ‘catchy’ or ‘exciting’ but in a way that accurately captures the essence of my plot and characters. I’m attracting more betas than I can track because everywhere I post this blurb asking for readers, I get them. I’m getting really positive feedback.

I do a very small number of queries, and I get more requests for partials and fulls than I do straight-up rejections. Most of the rejections are longer and tend to mention at least one thing the agent enjoyed. I still get a few form ones, but when I compare with my 2017 queries, the TONE feels different.

So, in short, if you’re getting lots of 1-2 line rejections, you may be where I was two years ago. Maybe stop firing out queries and seek more feedback. While there’s no universal or safe way to interpret things in this industry, you can usually find a balance. Good luck!

How to: Make achievable goals and beat overwhelm

I’ll start off by saying I had some help with this post (more on that below).

I wrapped up December with a jumbled, barely-coherent list of goals and objectives for my writing. It became so scrambled, it looked like one of those mind maps but with everything spewed onto the page instead of neatly organized and connected. FYI, that’s standard for my brain.

To give you an idea, I have SoMES, which I’m currently midway through a final line edit, one sequel (WoS) at 40k words, one early prequel (CoM) which has around 20k, and another prequel that has 40k. I’m in a different place with each and had different ideas of what I wanted to do with them in 2019. 

One of my 2019 goals was to create a better writing routine to balance with other commitments in my life. I knew to center it around goals, but it overwhelmed me just to think about how I could approach them. 

I didn’t know where to start, so I didn’t start at all. Week 1 of 2019 is nearly over and I’ve spent my little free time allowing it all to sink in.

By coincidence, someone I met in an online writer’s groups posted a link to a free, 7-day online course (it’s a daily email for 7 days with different info and objectives and tasks) with a blog called Well-Storied.

Still firmly bogged down in overwhelm limbo, I decided it couldn’t hurt to give it a go. After all, what was one more writing-related aspiration/task to add to the burning trash heap that was my mind? With family visiting for the holidays, a small, bite-size email each day might just work between the usual drama.

Well, it helped. A lot. So much so that I’m going to explain what I did to turn my jumbled mind map into a set of specific, achievable objectives along a realistic timeline. This isn’t all directly from the course, but the course got me thinking along the lines I needed to in order to sort myself out.

Now, I assume those who are not novices like me will know all this already. But if you’re struggling to get to grips with writer’s overwhelm, read on. And if you’d like to try the course for yourself, the link is here (I’m not, like, affiliated or friends with the blogger- it doesn’t cost anything, I just did it and liked it).

The key is to start with big, specific goals for the year. I know it sounds simple, but I didn’t really know how many goals I had, which ones were big vs small, which were part of larger goals or duplicates, and which were *achievable* and not ‘dreams.’ The difference between goals and dreams is an important one to acknowledge. 

Still with only a vague idea of what my ‘big’ goals were, I learned the importance of breaking these goals down into a series of smaller objectives that could be spread across the year and ticked off as I reached them. Like a check point in a video game, you get to the part in a level where it saves and you can pick up from that starting line if things go south.

So, with this in mind, I made a short list of ‘big’ 2019 goals for each of my manuscripts. When I finished the MS-specific ones, I scanned my jumbled brain to see if anything else remained that might be a category of its own (ie posting on here once a week, or researching marketing). As an example, these were some of my goals:

  • SoMES: finish line edits and hire editor by March 2019
  • SoMES, WoS: have MS ready for editor by end of 2019
  • SoMES, CoM: have MS ready for betas by end of 2019

Three are listed above but I had five in total. They’re short, clear, and entirely within my control, unlike goals like ‘find an agent’ or ‘sell to a publisher.’ It’s not that I have anything against such goals, but I’m going for things that can be realistically achieved by me on my own. Therefore they can’t rely on outside approval or intervention to be met. 

After making these ‘big’ goals, I looked at each one individually and charted their ideal progress throughout the year, monthly or quarterly depending on how clear the original goal was. Therefore each one developed into a timeline, allowing me to set specific objectives for each month to stay on track. Again, as an example, I took my goal for WoS above and broke it down to see what I’d need to do monthly in order to achieve that goal:

  • SoMES, WoS: add 15k words monthly from January to May, in May give draft 1 to alpha readers for feedback, revise over June-August, send widely to betas at end of August, then work on edits from September to December.

You can break that down into weekly goals but I find some weeks are busier for me than others so it’s better to stick with monthly objectives that I work towards when I have time.

In short, after sitting down to sort out my big goals and then breaking them down into a timeline, I felt more organized and less concerned about what I wanted to achieve. I’ve still got a lot to do, but now I know what I’m doing and aware of the benchmarks I’ve set myself. If this helps another new writer, I’m glad!

2018 Recap

Somehow, this year has been simultaneously the best and worst for my writing.

On reflection over the past week, I felt my writing had been stunted for much of 2018. I hadn’t made enough progress. I wrote less than in 2016, when I wrote my entire 130k-word first draft in 3 months, and in 2017, when I completed numerous revisions and rewrote large chunks of that MS. I moved house and spent six months renovating what evolved into an HGTV-level disaster, leaving no time for writing as I slept on inflatable mattresses and worked long hours at the main job.

In short, it felt a bit like failure. I started writing in October 2016, and at the end of 2018 I still had only one completed MS.

But, as those thoughts swarmed my mind, I remembered all the great things that happened. In April I discovered Twitter pitch events and created an account specifically to participate in DVPit. I’ve done a few pitch events since, and each one got traction with agents. But, more importantly, that was the catalyst for my entrance to the writing community.

For reasons numerous enough to fill a separate post, I’d stayed away from other writers. I wrote in isolation, with no feedback. I knew no writers in my private life. I’d never heard of beta readers and the thought of sending my work to a total stranger filled me with horror. Yet, I queried. Widely.

Obviously, my queries were met with mixed responses, but pre-April 2018 saw many form rejections. Once April came and I threw myself into writing groups on Facebook and Twitter, things started to change.

With the help of those amazing people, I revolutionized my query. I perfected the blurb. I attracted a steady stream of beta readers that continues today. I began accumulating feedback. A lot of this was surprisingly positive. As a newbie, I never expected my writing to be complemented. However, there were also amazing suggestions on how to take things to the next level.

With this feedback, I did two sets of revisions and edits between June and August. I sent a small, carefully-selected batch of fresh queries. Some to agents I had queried in 2017, some to agents I hadn’t queried before.

I saw an immediate change in how my work was received. I started getting requests for partials and fulls, some of which are still outstanding. I started getting personalized rejections, some with lovely feedback and praise. The rejections didn’t bother me anymore, because some were so pleasant.

While the progress on my other titles went at a glacial pace, the quality of the writing was vastly higher than earlier drafts of my first MS. While I hadn’t clocked up a lot of words, I was satisfied with the ones I’d written.

Therefore, 2018 was a mixed bag kind of year. If you feel you’re in a similar position, reflect on the writing progress you made that can’t necessarily be measured in words.

Happy New Year for 2019!

Introducing Elias Larrson

Sometimes a name means nothing, until you have to commit to one. Like that placeholder, I’d-never-use-in-my-final-draft name for your main character or capital city. Or that first initial you’ve used for the last 145 pages since a character’s introduction. Or naming your antagonist after that annoying-AF asshat from high school with every intention of changing it later (then it grows on you enough that no other name feels quite right).

Whatever the scenario, a point comes when you have to commit. The asshat needs a fitting name. The single initial really ought to have a few more letters after it. The placeholder must step down in favor of the One, True MC identity.

But, as the saying goes, what’s in a name? At the end of the day, does it really matter? When page 145 rolls around and you’re still calling someone ‘G,’ you pick a proper name purely for the sake of moving forward.

That’s how I felt for the last year about setting up a writer website and blog, and the time came to take the plunge.

I spent 3 days agonizing over what I would include in this first post. If that’s not an apt representation of me, I don’t know what is. So, I’ll start with the simple bits:

  • I was born and raised just outside Washington, DC
  • At 18, I moved to the UK for college (or ‘uni,’ as they call it over here)
  • The day job is in finance, specializing in tax
  • My vacations are spent doing volunteer archaeology, going to San Diego Comic Con, or otherwise exploring what the world has to offer
  • I’m a gamer, but mainly system games (the Legend of Zelda titles have a special place in my heart). I’ve played plenty of computer games but my childhood favorites have always come from Nintendo or Playstation
  • At 10, I discovered anime. I came to love Japan so much, I spent the next 7 years teaching myself Japanese on the internet and through books
  • And, the most important bit, I’m writing a fantasy series that has been in my mind for the last fifteen years. It follows a small group of characters as they navigate adulthood while their wider world experiences a period of rapid change and instability

In light of the above, one of my resolutions for 2019 was to create and maintain a professional website to chronicle my writing journey and eventually promote my series. In the coming weeks, I’ll introduce my work alongside 2019 goals and resolutions (and ill-conceived writing advice). The occasional post on history, archaeology, and wider UK vs US lifestyle ticks may slip in. 

In short, my name is Elias, and I write adult fantasy.