The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Speculative Fiction

Speculative Fiction is a marketing category that includes the genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror, alternative history, dystopian, apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and superhero fiction. Speculative fiction asks what if reality were different? This is the common story question that runs through the genres, though the focus of each genre is different.

Note there is some debate about magical realism and whether or not it should be under the umbrella of speculative fiction. I choose not to include it here, and may discuss in a later post if time permits.

Speculative fiction accounts for approximately 8% of adult fiction book sales, and has been trending downward since about the mid-2000s. It’s not a huge selling genre, especially when compared to romance or YA, but SFF readers tend to be voracious followers of authors they love.

Speculative fiction genres have many subgenres. For example, urban fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy, while steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction, and we will get into the subgenres at a later time.

What is the central concept of the speculative fiction genres?

  • Fantasy often includes creatures/beings/people from mythology, and magic, and uses these or other supernatural elements as a main plot element, theme, or setting. Fantasy often is set in imaginary worlds where magic is common.
  • Science fiction is based on some future scientific or technological advances (real or from the author’s imagination), major social or environmental changes, and often portrays space, time travel, and/or life on other worlds.
  • Horror focuses on some negative aspect of the world, real or imagined, and transmits these ideas to the reader. Works are intended to frighten, disgust, or startle.
  • Alternate history (sometimes called alternative history) focuses on some historical time period or event and presents them as happening a different way.
  • Dystopian novels tend to focus on some failed society or political structure, and often presents the resulting life as difficult or negative. Themes often include poverty and oppression.
  • Apocalyptic stories take place during a disaster and involve global catastrophic risk.
  • Post-apocalyptic stories tend to focus on the survivors after some global disaster.
  • Superhero stories center on a hero with extraordinary powers who fights evil forces.

Next week we will dig deeper into speculative fiction.


The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

When is it YA?

I was scrolling through a Twitter pitch fest a while back where I favorited pitches I liked. If I favorited the tweeted pitches, then the authors knew to send me their pages. There are several of these pitch parties on Twitter, including #PitMad* and #Pit2Pub*.

My point, though, is if you scroll through the pitches, you might notice that the largest percentage of pitches seem to contain #YA in the pitch. #YA means that the writer believes their completed manuscript is a Young Adult (YA) novel. We discussed last week that YA is big business, and this may or may not have anything to do with the inordinate amount of YA pitches. It’s just an observation.

After so many questions from last week’ post on YA, I thought we could all use a little more clarity.

First of all, YA is not a genre. It’s a marketing category. YA includes all the books that are written for, and marketed to young adults. Genres for YA include romance, scifi, mystery, dystopian, fantasy, and everything else. There is no specific YA trope. The trope of a YA mystery should be a mystery trope.

The main thing for YA is that your protagonist should be a teenager who suffers from teenager issues.

Another clarification. YA is not easier to write than adult novels. Writing YA requires the same amount of skill and craft as writing adult fiction. I am not suggesting that people are writing YA because they mistakenly feel it is easier, but if they are, let me reiterate. Just because the readership is geared for young adults, does not mean the writing craft is easier to master. YA novels are complex, often written about touchy subjects, and tend to be written with a very close point of view, all of which can be very difficult skills to master.

When you write YA, you have to think about your audience. YA readers are moody teenagers, most likely. Or readers who identify with moody teenagers.

Consequently, point of view (POV) is of utmost importance in YA.

YA novels are immersed in the teenage protagonist’s point of view. The protagonist usually doesn’t have much awareness of an adult perspective, but they have a very clear POV of their own. YA typically is written in first person, present-tense, and is heavy on dialogue. Narrative is intimate yet casual.

Plot and pacing should be strong, and language should be tightly written. Long paragraphs of exposition tend to be boring, and that is not a good thing.

Writing YA novels is about writing stories that speak to teenagers, so the topic, the voice, the feel of the novel is important. The protagonist should be intelligent and have wit, because teenagers are intelligent and witty. Your characters are still teenagers, however and should act like teenagers, but it’s important that they are not so snarky that they are not likable. Readers need to like the protagonist.

Young adults have raging hormones, and sex, drugs, and alcohol are part of their reality. This is true whether you like it or not. Teenagers don’t want to be preached to. Did you at that age? Handle the touchy subjects with aplomb.

Endings are not always happy-ever-after. Endings are not even always happy for now. Sometimes they are not even hopeful, but the ending should be powerful.

All of these things are important when writing YA. But here is the most important thing of all. A good story is a good story regardless of marketing category or genre. Writers of good stories learn the craft elements of how to write good stories. They read in the genre they write in. They read other genres. They read everything. They write, and re-write, and they edit, and they revise, and they write some more.

Writers write the story they write because that is the story they have to tell, not because the the genre sells well. If  you are going to write a story, write one that you love because you most likely will be working on it for a while.

*#PitMad and #Pit2Pub are scheduled opportunities for authors to pitch their completed manuscripts to acquiring agents, editors, and publishers. See and for more details.


The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

When is it YA?

We’ve been talking about genre-specific tropes for the last several weeks. Tropes, or story patterns, are an important concept to learn if you write genre fiction.


  • Because writers need to know how to market their books.
  • Because booksellers need to know where to put books on the shelf
  • Because readers have expectations that what they purchase a specific genre of book, that is exactly what they are getting

This week I want to shift to young adult (YA) novels, which are stories written for, and marketed to young adults.

Student, Confusion, Exam.
When is it YA?

YA Stats (includes sub-categories)

  • Current paperback book revenue for YA is $4.84 billion
  • Revenue grew 20.9% in 2014
  • 55% of YA books are purchased by adults over eighteen
  • 28% of YA sales are from readers aged 30 to 44 years of age
  • 40% of readers of YA use an e-reader, an increase of 3.8%
  • Over 510 million YA e-books were sold in 2014
  • 71% of readers will buy the book in print if it is not available as an e-book

What are all the acronyms? Aren’t they all children’s books? Isn’t it all YA?

Absolutely not.

  • Board books (BB) are books for children aged 0 to 3
  • Picture books (PB) are books for children aged 4 to 7
  • Early readers (ER) are books for children aged 5 to 7
  • Chapter books (CB) are books for children aged 6+
  • Middle grade books (MG) are books for children aged 12+ and are 25,000 to 45,000 words
  • Young Adult books (YA) are books for young adults aged 14+ and are 40,000 to 60,000 words
  • New Adult books (NA) are books for college aged (18 to 30) people and are 60,000 to 85,000 words

Some people confuse YA and MG, but it breaks down something like this:

  • Is the main character a child at the end of the book? If yes, then the book is MG. If no, then the book is YA.
  • The inclusion of sex or the topic of sex makes the book YA.
  • The age of our protagonist also determines the category of your book. The protagonist should be approximately two years older than your readers.

Next week we dig deeper into YA tropes.

The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Tropes DAMMIT!

So What the Hell? Who cares about all this shit?

I was asked this the other day in reference to why I have been focusing on genre tropes for the last several weeks.

Here’s an example of why genre and trope matters.

I was recently approached by a person who wrote a book.

This person’s friends told him that his book was great, that he should publish it. Keep in mind that none of these people had ever written a book before, had ever studied craft before, and had no idea about marketing, or any of that other publishing business stuff. This writer then paid A LOT of money to a “publishing company” to publish a print run of his book, and make an ebook. A LOT of money.

The writer came to me because no one was buying the book, no one. It wasn’t selling on Amazon, indie bookstores declined to sell it even after the writer stopped by to coax them to carry it, B&N wouldn’t carry it. There were zero purchases on Smashwords. And this writer didn’t understand what the problem was. He believed that this thing should be flying out of bookstores and funding his retirement based on his friends’ opinions and the work that the “publishing company” did.

I took a deep breath, and looked at the book. I asked the writer some questions. I looked at the book. I took another deep breath and got a cup of coffee and did my best to explain.

Here’s the deal.

This writer is passionate about history and wrote his book based on a historical reference. He believed the book to be historical fiction. Fiction is the key word for this writer, and it was the only thing he considered when categorizing his book. In this writer’s mind, books are either fiction or non-fiction, and since there is an historical reference in the story, it must be historical fiction. He spent money marketing this thing as historical fiction. He spent time. He worked hard at selling his book, which he believed to be historical fiction.

Except it isn’t.

Historical fiction is a genre where the setting is the most important literary element, so the time period must be accurate and authentic. The plot revolves around some factual historic event, or the plot is fictitious but revolves around an historical time. Readers expect something like the oversimplified explanation above when they buy historical fiction.

This book is speculative fiction.

What’s the problem with speculative fiction?


The problem is that the author is peddling his book as historical fiction, and any historical fiction reader browsing the back cover would know immediately that the book is not historical fiction. Historical fiction doesn’t have time travel, dream sequences, and is not alternate history. Speculative fiction is all well and good in and of itself, but this particular reader is looking for historical fiction. The reader puts the book down. No sale.

Booksellers won’t carry the book because they know that genre matters. Trope matters. The reader expects what they expect. If the bookseller were to put the book in the historical fiction section, it won’t sell because the reader is expecting historical fiction, but the book is not historical fiction. If the bookseller were to put the book in the speculative fiction section it wouldn’t sell, because it is packaged as historical fiction and the reader will pass it by because the reader is looking for speculative fiction and this book is disguised as historical fiction. No sale.

Because readers buy books based on expected tropes, the book must be inclusive of the trope. The bookseller has to know where to put it on the shelf. The marketing person has to know which readers to entice. If the book doesn’t fit the category the reader is interested in, then the reader won’t buy. No sale. It is that simple.

Granted, there are crossover books and there are also books the defy trope. This book is not that, and so the author is left with several boxes of books which are both unmarketable and unsaleable. All because he didn’t understand trope.

So that is why trope matters, dammit! The book has to go someplace on a shelf to be found by a reader looking for that kind of book.

That is what the business of publishing is all about.

So learn your tropes, people. Learn your tropes.

The Writer’s Bag of Tricks


We’ve been discussing genre fiction for the last several weeks with a focus on crime fiction. This week we focus on a subgenre of crime fiction called the Whodunnit.

A Whodunnit is closely related to the private eye novel, which we discussed last week. Also called a murder mystery, the Whodunnit is primarily focused on the puzzle of the murder rather than the characters involved with the murder. Whodunnits tend to be plot driven stories rather than character driven stories.


The basic Whodunnit plot usually goes like this:

  • There is a murder
  • There is a short list of suspects, each with motive and opportunity to commit the murder.
  • The detective (either amateur or professional) comes in to investigate the murder and with the help of clues and a strong power of deduction, discovers the real perpetrator.

General Story Structure

The soon-to-be-dead character is introduced while in conflict with other characters. At some point, written so that the reader can’t see who committed the murder, but can see the murder and some of the clues, someone knocks the old bugger on the head and kills him (or her, or shoots them, stabs them, poisons them…you get the picture). The newly-dead character is discovered and sets the investigation in motion.

The murder investigation unfolds according to the logic of the detective who generally follows crime procedures. The characters who appeared earlier in conflict with the corpse (previously, the soon-to-be-dead character), are seen in a new light, with motive and opportunity to commit the murder, and these characters are reintroduced as suspects. The detective identifies the story problems, but doesn’t solve any problems. Suspects hold back information, which the reader knows but the detective doesn’t.

There is a second murder (usually the same perpetrator committs both crimes). The second corpse is usually the prime suspect identified by the detective earlier in the story. This second corpse represents a setback for the detective because they failed to solve the earlier crime and now have two bodies to deal with. The detective then begins to use insight into the crimes rather than procedures. More clues are discovered. The detective begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together, which sets events in motion and raises the stakes for all the characters. The detective forms and discards multiple theories of who committed the murders, and why. Then the detective forms the correct theory and identities the killer, but the detective can’t prove it yet.

The detective and the killer clash in some sort of final battle (wits or physical), and the detective has a close brush with death. At the last second, the detective succeeds in thwarting the killer, reveals the murderer, and proves both motive and opportunity.

The Whodunnit ends with the characters moving on with their lives.

Next week: More on crime fiction.


The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

We’ve been discussing genre fiction for the last several weeks. This week we focus on crime fiction, and one of crime fiction’s subgenre called the private eye novel.

Private Eye Novels


The protagonist or main character of the private eye is usually someone with a strong moral center who wants justice for justice’s sake. Money is an aside. They are usually loners and work alone, though there is often a junior partner or sidekick that assists them and does the busy work. PIs are outsiders with attitude.


The settings for PI mysteries are generally city-centric with all the alley-way options and infinite crime possibilities that cities provide.


The basic PI plot usually goes like this:

  • The PI is hired
  • The PI antagonizes the crime theories floating around and is often thwarted by characters not willing to share information, or by characters wanting to protect themselves.
  • The PI puts all the pieces together (usually after spotting some guilty behavior that other characters miss) and solves the crime.

General Story Structure

The genesis of the crime is the initial event which causes the perpetrator to plan the crime, or cause the perpetrator to fly into a jealous rage, for example. Starting with the genesis of the crime allows the reader to have some sympathy for the criminal, without necessarily knowing who the criminal is. Be careful if this is your opening scene because it can sometimes feel completely separate from the rest of the novel. If this happens, cut the opening scene, and add the important information later in the story to show the criminal’s motivation.

The crime is the center of every mystery novel. Sometimes the crime occurs off stage, especially if it violent, but there is always a crime. Most mysteries open during  the crime scene investigation. Be sure to include your hook early on.

Create escalating conflict by having the PI make several attempts to solve the crime and have those attempts fail. The failed attempts usually make the situation worse for everyone. Generally, there are three attempts to solve the crime and it is not until the third attempt that there is success. Most importantly, keep the character busy (as opposed to doing busy work. Most importantly you want readers to turn the page and not be bogged down with excessive boring details. Busy work is what the sidekick does off stage, and then brings back to the main character).

Twists,  turns, and red herrings are plot devices that are used to keep the reader guessing. Turn the expected resolution to your scenes upside down. Be careful to not use the same twist repeatedly. The purpose is to surprise the reader.

Consider writing subplots that echo or contradict the main plot, but be sure the subplot does not overshadow the main plot.

Plant clues in strategic places and be sure to resolve all of them them at the climax of the story. If the murder weapon was poison, for example, then the poison should be a subtle clue placed earlier in the story. The clue is something seen in passing at the time and is not the focus of the investigation.

The climax brings all the clues together, and shows the reader who the perpetrator of the crime is. The conclusion should be a surprise to the reader, but obvious enough that the reader can put the pieces together.

The resolution answers all the story questions and returns the world back to normal.

There are an infinite number of ways to write the PI novel, but above is the basic information necessary to all of them. Because of the complexity of the story structure, and the need for red herrings, and clues, I do recommend that you outline your story in detail to make sure you have all the necessary twists and turns, and to makes sure you resolve all the story questions.

Next week: more crime fiction

Big 5 vs Small Press

I have an author friend who signed with one of the big 5 publishers* a few years ago. She has done well by many standards. She has received great reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. She has received various accolades denoting her writing talent. She has a huge social media following. She works hard and works consistently to market herself and her work, and as a result has sold more than ten thousand copies of her last published book. This surge in sales also triggered purchases of her earlier releases.

Recently she sent her latest book in the series to her Big 5 publisher. She waited to hear the release date. She kept writing to complete the next book in that series. Then she got word. Her Big 5 publisher dropped her mid-series. Why? Because she didn’t sell enough. Her Big 5 publisher wanted twenty-five thousand copies sold. Keep in mind that less than 2% of books published sell more than five thousand copies. This means that 98% sell less than five thousand copies. Moderately successful books sell around two to three thousand copies. My author friend did considerably better than average which put her in that 2% range.

My author friend made a profit for her Big 5 publisher, but not enough profit. The focus of New York publishing is best-sellers and celebrities. They want virtually guaranteed profits. They don’t want to bother with less successful authors and so are dropping authors in droves. It is devastating for the authors. It is troubling for readers. The Big 5 are corporations now. They no longer care about the quality of books and they almost never sign new authors.

I understand that publishing is a business and business decisions have to be made. But I suspect all the focus on celebrity and best-sellers by the Big 5 leaves book buyers wanting for new authors, new series, and new stand-alone books to enthrall them.

Readers love discovering new authors, and new books, hence the success of Goodreads, Library Thing, Shelfari, weRead, The Reading Room, Libb, Booklamp, Reader2, Anobii, Riffle Books, BookLikes, Thirdscribe…and the list goes on.

I think the publishing hub of New York has forgotten about the majority of readers. This is why I formed Literary Wanderlust. We care about quality and diversity and craft and all those magical things that go into creating the best possible books.

Quality matters to us in Denver.

*The Big 5 publishers consist of Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin Random House, and Simon and Shuster. All of them are located in New York.

**Adapted from DenverLit. First published August 2015.