Got a science fiction/fantasy novel that’s more or less ready to pitch? Hodderscape, the SFF branch of the publisher Hodder & Stoughton, is accepting unagented submissions between August 3 and 16:

Open Submissions: The Guidelines! | Hodderscape

They even mention in the comments that it doesn’t have to be finished. (Although goodness gracious, that sounds like a terrifying and intimidating idea.) They don’t even require a query, just some basic information, a 2-page synopsis and the first 3 chapters (or 15,000 words, whichever you prefer).

And, better yet, it appears to pass the Absolute Write test of “Hey, is this a good opportunity?”

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I read this ages ago, but hey. Let’s talk about YA tropes, through the lens of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

Screenshot of the cover of the novel.

Hotlinked from Goodreads.

My complete review is on Goodreads. Like always, I’m not going to duplicate the review here. Instead, I’m going to wax philosophical. Bear with me.

So, I read Miss Peregrine’s a while ago, and I really liked it. This was honestly a surprise, because I’ve really been struggling to find YA novels I like. But if you check out its reviews on Goodreads, you’ll see that they’re very… divisive. So what drew me in?

Well, that gets to the core of what I’ve been struggling with. I like action. I like adventures. I also like well-developed characters and character drama. I like romance, but I like it as a subplot. Basically, I like “Fantasy with romance subplots,” not “Romance with fantasy elements.”

But romance is super duper in right now. Daughter of Smoke and Bone? Shadow and Bone? Graceling? These are all strong fantasies, but their main plotlines are about romance. Everything else is secondary.

And that’s fine, it’s just not my favorite thing in the world. Unfortunately, this seems to be an extremely popular trend, and I’m having a hard time finding more straight-up adventure fiction.

And that’s why I loved Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The characterization is not as deep as I’d like, either for the heroes or the villains, but it’s a strongly-paced, high-tension adventure. It was mildly creepy, consistently tense, and mysterious. I didn’t like the romance in Miss Peregrine’s either (I actually found it uncomfortable), but it didn’t make up the majority of the novel. It was a subplot.

Would I have liked it as much if I hadn’t read so many YA fantasy-romances lately? Who knows? But it had something I desperately wanted in YA fantasies right now: A lower smoochy-smooch-to-adventure ratio.

Woo! I sold my third short story to Triptych Tales last month. (They’re also super-duper fast, so it’s already available online! It’s been up since Sunday, actually. I’ve just been too sick to celebrate.)

I generally write YA fantasy and/or Victoriana, so, it’s slightly unusual that this is a contemporary urban fantasy set in Oregon. (I miss Oregon desperately. It’s a wonderful place.) It’s about a government contractor who gets a contract at the Esoteric Wildlife Division, which is doing some very non-traditional research.

You can check out Esoteric Wildlife on the Triptych Tales website.

The pantsing vs. outlining discussion is as old as time. Every writer has, at some point, watched a bunch of people debate about the benefits of “winging it” versus the benefits of planning.

And I may be sensitive here–I probably am–but whenever people talk about pantsing vs. outlining, outlining gets panned. I’ve heard it all! It’s not creative and spontaneous. The process of outlining seeps all the fun out of writing. Outlining gives you the feeling of “being productive” without you having written anything, therefore it makes you not want to write at all. Heck, even Stephen King’s On Writing suggests you should just make a character and then just write and watch their lives unfold, because anything else wasn’t actually being creative or something. (I’m paraphrasing. That chapter irritated me and I don’t want to dig it out.)

I outline. I outline deeply. And it is literally the only way I can have an enjoyable, productive, creative writing experience. Obviously, that’s all I need–that’s how I write, and I write successfully, hurray!–but here’s what my process is and why it works for me.

Here’s how it goes.

Step #1: The Super-Loose Calculations and Plot Structuring

This is the only step (I hope) where I’ll sound stark-raving mad.

I am obsessed with word counts. The first two novels I ever wrote were horribly, stupidly, ridiculously off-target–the first was obscenely long, and the second was novella-length. It took me until my third novel to go, “Hey, you know what? Maybe I should actually stay in a sensible range.”

I write YA fantasy, so I try to stay in the 70-80K range, with an absolute upper limit of 100K. And I don’t do this by sitting down, writing, and hoping I get there. I do loose calculations. I know, for example, that I write about 3,000 word chapters, so my novel target is about 24-27 chapters.

And then I toss some kind of story structuring on it. At the very least, a 24 chapter story will have its midpoint somewhere around 12ish, and major, transitional events somewhere around 6 and 18, with smaller events interspersed between.

I am not laying a formulaic blueprint down. I’m just storyboarding. “I have these major events, and maybe they should go hereish and thereish.” I’m not saying, “Hey, event #1 has to happen in chapter 6, 18,000 words in.” I’m saying “Maybe this comes early in the story, and this stuff comes later.” It helps me figure out, in a very big-picture way, where stuff might happen and where it might go.

It’s not pushing myself into a formula, because I’m not going to actually limit myself to certain word counts. I’m not even going to outline around this. I’m just brainstorming in an organized way.

Step #2: The Outline

My outlines read like screenplays. I write down broad, summary sentences that explain everything that happens, all the scenes that occur, and where the dialogue happens. (Unlike a screenplay, I usually do NOT write down the actual dialogue.)

It doesn’t look like a screenplay, though. I make bulleted lists, broken up by where the chapters might start and end. Each bullet explains something that will happen in that chapter.

Now, this would be an excellent time to include a screenshot of one of my outlines, but I can’t find one that isn’t completely ridiculous. My outlines are silly, in shorthand, and full of profanity. So let’s just stick to a much less useful example instead:

  • Character A goes and talks to Character B.
  • They talk about what just happened. Character A is upset and troubled, B tells her not to worry, but it doesn’t help…
  • Character A goes out to the shipyard and thinks about…

So on, so forth. It’s just a basic list of this happens, that happens, this happens. I’m figuring out the logistics. Why are people where they are? What did they do? Why?

And why? Because then, when I sit down to wrote a chapter, I don’t have to worry about what will actually happen. I know, kinda-sorta. I just have to sit down, flesh it out, and put it into prose.

But it also lets me identify plot holes before I ever write the story. It also lets me ensure that everything is foreshadowed sufficiently and gives me a high-level perspective on character growth, plotting, and pacing. I can usually address the most grievous plot holes before I even write the story.

Step #3: Write the actual story, and only loosely follow the outline.

Now that I have thoroughly plotted out every important detail, I write. I only loosely use the outline.

And this is why I say that outlining doesn’t make writing any less spontaneous or creative. I have the logic figured out. I have the gist of pacing, characterization, and plot development. But when I sit down and write the thing, I usually change my mind.

I stumble on unforeseen issues. I think of things I’d like more. Once I actually write the dialogue, the interactions, the scenes, I realize that the characters are going in a different direction–their feelings or reactions are different or strong enough that I have to have them do something else.

So things change. I generally stay pretty close to the big picture, but the details all change. I almost always add chapters, remove them, or end them at different places. In my last major novel, I dropped an entire subplot, and chapters 4-7 did not resemble my original outline at all. And that was fine. I still knew what I was doing.

And that’s it! It works for me. I’ve tried pantsing stuff, and it just doesn’t work–everything I write has to be drastically, immediately rewritten, because the first thing I think of is almost never as good as the second. Outlining helps me figure that out without investing 3,000 words into it.

Cover of the novel 'The Luck Uglies.'

Hotlinked from Goodreads.

My full review is on Goodreads!

This is the sort of thing that makes me want to read more Middle Grade.

I love YA, I write YA, I read YA, but goodness! How often have I written book reviews that said, “Well, it was fun, but I wish they would keep the romance from overpowering the story so we can just have an adventure?”

And oh, this was an adventure. The Luck Uglies is a charming and atmospheric MG fantasy. And that’s where it shines–despite being based on some common fantasy premises (like capricious, ignorant medieval lords and rouges with hearts of gold), the world is delightful, the atmosphere is great, and the characters are universally charming.

And, yes, it was a welcome break from all the YA I’ve been reading, as–in true MG fashion–there’s no romance at all. It’s all about the heroine discovering the truth about her family. Otherwise, it’s all childhood friends and wild adventure.

There were a few rough bits, sure. Those are in my Goodreads review. But it was still one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year.

I only learned this last night!

I sold my second short story “A Long-Forgotten Memory,” a little while ago. I just learned that it was published last week in Parsec Ink’s Triangulation: Parch anthology. The anthology’s available on Amazon.

It gets better! Parsec Ink runs both a contest and a magazine, and authors were allowed to submit their stories to both. I did, and I placed! “A Long-Forgotten Memory” got second place in their Parsec Science Fiction & Fantasy Short Story Contest. (That page hasn’t been updated yet, but it will soon.)

I’m super happy about all this. I only started submitting short stories in March, and selling two stories and placing in one contest is… well, quite a lot more than I expected, considering how new I am to this. Here’s hoping for more success in the future!

Cover of the novel, 'Daughter of Smoke and Bone.'

Hotlinked from Goodreads.

The more I think about this novel the more conflicted I become. My full review is on Goodreads.

YA readers have been raving about Daughter of Shadow and Bone and its sequels, so I wanted to see what the fuss was about. And I’m conflicted. Still.

Here’s the problem: I don’t really like romance. I do like adventure stories! I like friends and conflict and angst and love as much as anyone, but I don’t like romance as a genre. This is an extremely fine line, and probably not one I can accurately describe, but I like action where people fall in love on the way. I do not like stories where the story is people in love.

So, I was not fated to adore Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which is a fantasy/romance. Roughly one third of the novel is backstory, and it’s all cuddly-wuddly I’ll give up the world for you, I’ll do anything for you, you are the perfect one for meeeeeeee romance. Of the two-thirds that are left, roughly half of that is a slightly different flavor of the same romance. The rest is really good, really beautiful fantasy.

And so I’m conflicted. When I first read the novel I was so struck by the beauty of the writing that I was willing to forgive it anything. But I was undecided on the romance after I read it, and time has only made it worse. Do I want to read more? It’s certainly pretty. There was an amazing cliffhanger. But if I’m on the fence about the romance, I’m probably not going to change my mind later.

But ohhhh goodness the author writes beautifully.