The Fantasy Writer’s Guide to Horses

The Fantasy Writer's guide to horses

If you write fantasy, you probably have a horse or two in your story. Especially if you’re writing medieval fantasy. Or, maybe you’re writing historical fiction. Whatever you’re writing, if there’s a horse in it and you don’t have a clue about horses, you’ve come to the right place.

I’ve been in love with horses ever since I was a kid. I took riding lessons for years and read way too many books about them, both fictional and non-fictional. When I started writing my first fantasy novel, you had better bet I had horses in it!

But not every writer is a horse person. They always say write what you know, and I knew horses so that was what I wrote. But if you feel confused or lack confidence when writing scenes involving horses, don’t worry! With a little bit of research you can write about horses so well that your readers will think you’ve been living in the saddle your whole life.

Ready to arm yourself with some horse knowledge? Let’s do this.

Physical Description

  • Here is a chart of the parts of a horse (the ones you will likely reference most in your writing will be the flank, hoof, hock, withers, and crest).
  • Here is a guide to horse colorings, and another to markings.
  • Horse genders: mare (female), stallion (male), gelding (neutered male), colt (baby male), filly (baby female).

Care and Needs

  • Keeping a horse was expensive, so most peasants didn’t own one. Sometimes peasants would chip in together to buy a horse and share it.
  • Horses were usually kept in barns, and sometimes peasants just kept them out in the fields with the sheep, cows, etc.
  • Horses were fed hay, oats, and sometimes bran. The amount of food they were given depended on the amount of work they did. They also grazed in pastures in the summer.
  • Horses will forage in the woods for food, eating shrubs, foliage, moss, and even bark.
  • Most horses wore shoes during medieval times, which were made of iron.
  • Horses were groomed with a handful of straw bound together, or a coarse cloth. Metal curry combs were also used. (Modern metal curry comb for comparison).
  • Horses drink 5-10 gallons of water a day. They can only survive 3-6 days without water.
  • Horses cannot puke. So if they eat something toxic, they can’t puke it back up.
  • Horses live to be 25-30 years old.
  • Horses can swim, but some are afraid of water.
  • Horses only sleep for 2 hours a day, and only a few minutes at a time. They usually sleep standing up, but sometimes they will lie down. This is because they are prey animals, so they must be ready to take flight at the first hint of danger.

Behavior

  • Horses are sort of like big dogs. They all have their own personalities and quirks. However, they’re less loyal/protective than dogs–if your character is thrown on the battle field, his horse will likely bolt. It’s their fight or flight survival instincts. However, there are stories of horses protecting their owners, though it’s rare. It might depend on the rider’s bond with the horse and whether the horse sees the rider as part of its “herd.”
  • Horses are herd animals, which means they’re social and prefer to live in a group. If they are being kept on their own without other horses for company, they will often befriend other animals like donkeys, sheep, goats, cows, etc.
  • Horses communicate using snorts, nickers, whinnies, squeals, and neighs. (From softest to loudest). A whinny is similar to a neigh, but a neigh is a little deeper. For more information on why and when horses make certain sounds, click here.
  • Horses communicate mostly through body language, and are pretty quiet animals. (Again, prey animal instincts). For more details about horse body language go here (scroll to the bottom).
  • Every horse is frightened by different things, whether it’s a predator, an unfamiliar object, a loud noise, an unexpected movement, or water. When a horse is frightened or “spooked”, he might shy away, buck, balk, or bolt.

Riding & Traveling

  • Medieval saddles are pretty similar to modern saddles. “War” saddles were a bit “deeper” to offer the rider more security, with the front and back parts rising higher. “Riding” saddles were more slender. However, sometimes war saddles would be used for riding and vice-versa.Click here to learn the parts of the saddle (the ones you would use most in your writing would be the cantle, pommel, seat, and stirrup). Also, this video shows you how to saddle a horse.
  • Medieval bridles are also similar to their modern counterparts. To learn the parts of the bridle, click here.
  • It was common for women to ride astride in medieval times (one leg on either side of the saddle). Side saddles were rarely used, and only by noble ladies.
  • It was common for women to ride horses during travel, and noble women also rode horses during hunts.
  • Horses have four different gaits (the term used to refer to a horse’s speed). From slowest to fastest: walk, trot, canter, and gallop.
  • At a gallop, a horse can reach a speed of 25-30mph. A horse can gallop for a couple of hours before losing steam. So unless your character is riding Shadowfax, avoid epic days-long gallops.
  • The distance a horse can travel in a day depends on the weight and skill of the rider, the age/health of the horse, the weather and terrain, and how much equipment the horse is carrying. A horse could cover 20-40 miles a day and can be pushed beyond this if need be, but will need a day or more to recover afterwards depending on how hard it was pushed. Remember horses aren’t furry motorcycles, they get tired!
  • If your character is riding a horse for the first time or for a longer period of time than they’re used to, they will be sore after. This is often called “saddle sore.” Riding a horse looks easy, but you’re not just sitting there! You’re actually using a lot of muscles in your body. Saddle soreness is something better experienced than described. Which brings me to my final point…

I would highly recommend riding a horse at least once for research, whether it’s a trail ride or lesson. There are things you experience in real life that you can’t learn from a book or article.

Pay attention to your senses. What does the horse and stable smell like? What sounds do you hear? How do the horse’s coat and mane feel? How does the horse move beneath you? If you can’t get on a horse, here’s a video of a rider’s eye view from the saddle.

Even if you’ve never been on a horse you can write scenes involving horses well as long as you do a little research 😉

Have more horse questions? Post them below!

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Why Your Story World Needs Flaws

story world flawsCreating a fantasy world can be really challenging. It takes a lot of work and creativity. But setting is extremely important in the fantasy genre–it can make or break your story.

When done well, fantasy worlds linger with the reader after they’ve finished the story. Hogwarts. Narnia. Middle Earth. Westeros. Each world is different and memorable.

But there’s one aspect of world building that a lot of writers (especially new writers) tend to overlook: flaws.

Think of your fantasy world as one of your characters. When you create your characters you don’t want them to be perfect, so you give them flaws. Why? Because perfect is boring. Flaws create interest.

When I wrote my first fantasy story, I created a perfect world. There was no poverty, no slavery, no hungry children, women were equal to men, the streets were clean of filth, and for all I knew there weren’t any prisons. All of the kingdoms got along and no one had enemies. All of the kings and lords were fair and just except for the “evil” king and my “evil” villain who wanted to take over.

It was a very black and white world in terms of good and evil, as fantasy can tend to be. And pretty boring. This is not the kind of world you want to create. You want to make your world as grey as possible.

What do I mean by this? Well, think about it. In real life, no country is perfect. Every place has its pros and cons, its prides and issues. America is the land of the free, but we had slavery. China now has the world’s largest economy, but they have severe pollution. Australia is beautiful, but everything there tries to kill you.

So, what are the issues of your world? It’s flaws? It dirty secrets? It’s atrocities?

When you create your story world, you need to go beyond the obvious flaws of a tyrant king, evil villain, and a war to save the kingdom. I get it, it can be hard to create flaws. No one wants to create a dark, terrible world–heck, we get enough of that on the evening news every night. It’s tempting to create the fantasy land of your dreams where you would want to live.

Don’t.

“But why not?” you ask. “I want readers to like my story world!”

Trust me, giving your world flaws won’t turn readers off. It will actually make them like it more! Strange, I know. But let’s look at the wonderful things adding flaws to your world can do for your story.

Conflict

Giving your world flaws creates conflict. Yes, you’ll already have conflict from your plot, but having inherent conflict already worked into your story world creates even more options for conflict. And readers love conflict.

Tension

You know what else conflict does? It creates tension. And you want tension, because that’s what keeps readers turning pages.

Realism

Flaws make your world feel real to the reader. No place in real-life is perfect, so why should your story world be? Just like you give characters flaws so readers can relate to them, give your world flaws so the reader can relate to it.

To get you started on brainstorming flaws for your story world, here’s a list of examples.

Types of Flaws

  • slavery
  • racism
  • banning interracial marriage
  • greed
  • poverty/starvation
  • gender bias
  • disease/sanitation
  • savage, poisonous, etc. beasts
  • corruption of justice system
  • class divisions
  • contempt for certain field of work
  • persecution for religion, race, etc.
  • spies
  • civil war
  • drugs
  • alcoholism
  • severe weather/harsh climates/natural disasters
  • mistreatment of animals
  • mistreatment of mentally ill
  • mistreatment of handicapped
  • child/arranged marriage
  • adultery
  • polygamy
  • prostitution
  • rape
  • sex trafficking
  • kidnapping
  • orphans and widows
  • torture
  • murder/hired killers
  • restricted education
  • banning books, teachings, practices, etc.
  • mobs, riots, protests, rebellions
  • violent/extremist orders, religions, governments, etc.
  • unjust laws/limited rights
  • thieving, looting, raiding
  • debt, taxes
  • violence as entertainment
  • Child and spouse abuse
  • genocide, infanticide, suicide, etc.
  • refugees
  • bribes and betrayals

Does your story world have flaws? Do you find it challenging to create a flawed world?

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Take Advantage of the Power of Beats in Your Writing

the power of beatsBeats are one of the most awesome tools a writer can possess, and they often get overlooked. But just what the heck is a beat anyway?

The term ‘beat’ comes from acting, and is used in screenplays to indicate where the actor should pause in the dialogue. “But what does a screenplay technique have to do with novels?” you ask.

Well, because beats are also used in story writing. You have them in your novel right now without even realizing it.

Beats are short snippets in a novel that reveal a character’s actions, reactions, thoughts, or emotions within a scene. These little “pauses” from the dialogue of the story help to control the pacing, ground us in the setting, increase tension or emotion, reveal something about the character, and help us to connect with what the character is feeling.

Beats have a lot of power.

In screenplays, beats are usually used in emotional scenes when the writer wants to actor to pause in reaction or consideration to something that has just happened. In your novel, beats work much the same way. Adding in a beat with your dialogue lets your character pause and react to an event, and allows your readers to react along with them.

Of course, I can keep telling you how awesome and powerful beats are in your writing, but it would be better for me to just show you. Let’s look at a couple examples using Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel. I’ll show the same passage, the first without beats and the second with.

Without beats:

“You know, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a warlock eat before. I suppose you needn’t ever bant, do you? You can just use magic to make yourself look slender.”

“We don’t know for certain that she’s a warlock, Jessie.”

“Is it dreadful, being so evil? Are you worried you’ll go to Hell? What do you think the Devil’s like?”

“Would you like to meet him? I could summon him up in a trice if you like. Being a warlock and all.”

“There’s no call to be rude.”

Original passage with beats:

Tessa bit into a roll, only to check herself when she saw Jessamine staring.

“You know,” Jessamine said airily, “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a warlock eat before. I suppose you needn’t ever bant, do you? You can just use magic to make yourself look slender.”

“We don’t know for certain that she’s a warlock, Jessie,” said Will.

Jessamine ignored him. “Is it dreadful, being so evil? Are you worried you’ll go to Hell?” She leaned closer to Tessa. “What do you think the Devil’s like?”

Tessa set her fork down. “Would you like to meet him? I could summon him up in a trice if you like. Being a warlock, and all.”

Will let out a whoop of laughter. Jessamine’s eyes narrowed. “There’s no call to be rude.”

The first example goes by quickly, and it leaves the reader blind and on the outside. We might imagine what’s happening, but we can’t really see it because the writer hasn’t shown it to us. We must also assume what the characters are feeling solely from their dialogue (which can be misleading since people often don’t say what they truly think or feel).

In the second example, the beats serve many different functions for the reader. They help identify which character is speaking, reveal their reactions to what is being said, and clue the reader in to the setting. Beats show what the characters are doing which gives us a better picture of the scene and helps us keep track of where they are and who’s doing what.

Additionally, beats help control the pacing and tension. They break up the dialogue, slowing down the reader. If you want a long pause, use a long beat. If you want a short pause, use a short beat. If you want things to move quickly, cut out your beats. And by revealing what the characters are feeling by showing their reactions (and thoughts in the case of your POV character) you will charge the scene with emotional tension that will keep the reader on edge.

Now that you know what beats are and how they can affect your story, harness their power and use them to your advantage!

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How to Format Your Novel Properly Before Querying Agents

How to format a novel 2So you’ve finally finished writing your novel and have edited the heck out of it. You’re exhausted, and probably over caffeinated and sleep deprived, but the pains of your efforts have been well worth it.

You cradle your newborn manuscript you’ve brought into this world. You’ve now reached the moment of truth–you’re ready to submit to agents.

It’s a scary thing sending your defenseless little manuscript out into the world. Agents and editors can be vicious, and the last thing you want is for your baby to get rejected. So before you start querying, it’s important you take the time to properly format your manuscript to give it it’s best chance of getting adopted by a publisher.

This is not a step you do not want to skip over! I know you’re itching to submit to agents, but wouldn’t it be a shame for all of your hard work to be for nothing because you were too lazy to do a little formatting?

“But do agents even really care about formatting? Aren’t they just interested in my story?” you ask.

Oh yes. Trust me, agents care. And they take notice of sloppy formatting. It will earn your manuscript a one-way ticket to the slush pile. Why?

First, poor formatting can make your story difficult to read. If an agent has a whole stack of manuscripts on their desk to sort through, they’re not going to take the time to struggle through yours. You don’t want to annoy the person who could get your story published!

Second, your formatting reveals who you are as a writer. If your manuscript is properly formatted, the agent will think “Oh, this writer knows what they’re doing. They’ve done their research and have taken the time to present themselves as a professional.”

But if your manuscript is a hot mess, it sends up a red flag and signals to agents that you’re an amateur and/or lazy. “Man,” they’ll think, “If the formatting is this big of a mess I don’t even want to know what the writing looks like. It’s probably a train wreck.”

Plus, it’s just rude to send an agent a sloppy manuscript! Don’t waste their time.

If the idea of formatting freaks you out, relax. It’s not as complicated as it sounds–and I’m here to help you out! I got your back. 😉 I’m going to show you how to format your manuscript professionally according to industry standards so you’ll get on the good side of agents. Ready? Let’s do this!

Proper Manuscript Formatting

Step 1: Always, always check the agent’s publishing guidelines first! Mostly they all tend to be pretty much the same, but sometimes they vary. So do your research and adjust your manuscript accordingly.

Step 2: Set your font to black, size 12 Times New Roman font. (Do NOT try to be artistic and make your manuscript stand out by using weird fonts).

Step 3: Set your margins to 1 inch on all sides.

Step 4: Create a title page. Type your name, address, phone number, and email in the upper left-hand corner of the first page, single spaced. Then, place the word count of your story under your email or at the top of the page on the right (round off the word count to the nearest thousand or five hundred). Optional: include your genre or sub-genre above or below the word count.

Next, about halfway down the page, type your story’s title and center it. The title can be capitalized normally or in all caps. Skip a line, type ‘by,’ skip another line, and type your name.

Step 5: On a new page, begin your story. You will start each chapter on a new page 1/3 of the way down (about 6 double-spaced lines), and center the chapter’s title (the title can be capitalized normally or in all caps). Then, skip two lines before starting the body of the chapter. The first paragraph of your chapters or new scenes can either be indented or left flush.

Step 6: Create a header on each page excluding the title page. It should include your last name, the title of your story (or keywords if it’s too long), and the page number. Separate your name, title, and page number with a / and align the header to the right. (Also, make sure your chapter lengths are reasonable. 12-17 double-spaced pages is a good range).

Step 7: Double space your entire manuscript.

Step 8: Make sure all of your paragraphs have a 1/2 inch indent. This is equal to 5 spaces, or make things easy on yourself and use the tab key 😉

Step 9: To indicate a scene break, insert a # between paragraphs and center it. Asterisks *** are also acceptable.

Step 10: To emphasize words, use italics. Don’t underline or bold your words.

Step 11: At the end of your manuscript, insert a # sign or type “The End” and center it. This lets the agent know there aren’t any missing pages.

Step 12: If sending your manuscript through snail mail, don’t staple or bind your pages in any way.

“Um, okay, great but what the heck does this all look like?” you wonder.

Well, allow me to show you.

The title page:

Title Page Example

The manuscript pages:

Chapter Example

See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?

Now, if you look around online and see variations of the format above, don’t panic or get confused!

There can be slight variations, though nothing real drastic. (For example, some recommend Courier font, but others say it’s outdated. Really, either Courier or Times New Roman is acceptable). This format isn’t the one and only way to do it. I think that’s why writers get confused and stress out over formatting.

Just remember to always check the agent’s guidelines first. And as long as you are presenting your manuscript in a professional format like the one I’ve shown you above, you’ll be fine. Don’t sweat small variations you might see online.

You’re now ready to send out your beautiful baby manuscript! Check out my list of 100 YA agents to get you started.

Still confused? Have questions? Need help? Leave me your comments below!

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“What Can I do With an English Degree?”: 20 Jobs for Writers

What can I do with an English degreeIf you’re an English or Creative Writing major, you probably dread revealing that information to friends and relatives.

You know what I’m talking about. They inevitably give you that “look”–a mix a skepticism and disapproval. And then they ask the question.

“So what are you going to do with that?”

There’s nothing like those words to make an English major bristle in defense. Maybe you’re not sure what you want to do with an English degree, you just know you like to write. You grit your teeth as family members tsk and try to talk some sense into you.

“You can’t do anything with an English major. It’s a worthless degree.”

This is just not true, so if an English or Creative Writing degree is something you really, really want, don’t let people talk you out of it. An English degree is definitely not worthless! So what can you do with an English degree?

Writing is a creative field, and because of this, you may have to be more creative with your career choice. This could involve starting your own editing business or becoming a novelist. And this is where family and society tend to freak out–because most people are accustomed to the norm of a 9-5 office job and expect you to do the same to be successful and secure.

But it’s okay to break the mold! You’re a creative–you were born for this. And if you do want the security of working for a company, you can definitely find jobs like that with an English degree. Basically, an English degree gives you flexibility and options. You just have to research what’s out there and know yourself and what you want.

So check out these 20 awesome jobs you can do with an English degree!

1. Novelist

This is the dream, right? I know this is what I’m ultimately striving towards. Thankfully, it is possible to make a living writing books. But on the down side, it takes time and volume (read: work). This article from Books and Such explains how to make a living as a novelist.

2. English/Creative Writing Teacher

Most people with English degrees teach. If you love to help others and have a knack for teaching, this is a good option. If you’re not crazy about kids and want to teach at the university level, keep in mind you’ll need a master’s degree. Also, if you really want to teach just creative writing, you’re more likely to find that at the university level.

3. ESL Teacher

If you’re adventurous and love to travel, you might want to look into teaching English as a second language abroad. If this sounds appealing but you’re not up for living overseas (assuming you’re from the U.S. like me, that is!), it’s also possible to become an ESL teach here in the U.S.–we have a lot immigrants from other countries who are seeking to learn English (If you don’t live in the U.S. research if there is a need for ESL teachers in your country, you may be surprised).

4. Writing/English Tutor

If you’re interested in teaching but prefer working one-on-one with people instead of juggling an entire class, tutoring may be a good option. You can work for a tutoring center like Sylvan, or start your own private tutoring business. As a tutor you can help younger kids learn writing and grammar skills, or help high school and college students learn how to write better essays. Tutoring is a great way to make money on the side, and you can also make a good income doing it full-time.

5. Librarian

If your dream is to be surrounded by books and Belle is your spirit animal, you should look into becoming a librarian. You’ll need an undergraduate degree to start, and then earn a Masters of Library Science. Click here for additional info. Also, there are other job opportunities you can explore within the library besides a librarian! Consider becoming a curator, cataloger, or archivist.

6. Newspaper or Magazine Journalist

I never thought I would like writing non-fiction until I started blogging. Now I find it really fun to write about things I’m interested in! Keep your options open and consider working for a newspaper or magazine. Most positions are freelance though, and it’s tough to get on full-time. For a staff-writer position you’ll also probably need to move to a large city like NYC, especially for magazine journalism. Internships are a must, as you’ll need experience to get your foot in the door.

7. Publishing

If you love to write books, why not work with the people who publish them? There’s a variety of roles in the publishing industry like editing, proofreading, and marketing. However, consider that you’ll likely need to move to a large city where there’s lots of publishers like New York or San Diego. Click here to read about how to get into the industry, and you can find publishing internships and jobs on bookjobs.com.

8. Literary Agent

I think this is a book-related job that many overlook, and admittedly it’s not easy to break into (but then again, what is?). But just what is it that a literary agent does anyway? Here’s an interview with a literary agent to help you understand what they do. To become a literary agent, you’ll need to gain experience by working in the publishing industry first so you can become knowledgeable about the market. If the idea of discovering new authors excites you and you have a confident, go-getter attitude, this may be a job that would fit you.

9. Editor/Proofreader

If you have an eye for detail and are obsessed with grammar, you might enjoy editing or proofreading. Although somewhat similar, you can read about the differences between the two here. You can find editing and proofreading jobs not just with book publishers, but with anyone who deals with printed material–newspapers, magazines, small businesses, corporations, etc. You can also become a freelance editor or proofreader, or start your own business. Browse bookjobs.com for editorial jobs and internships at publishing houses.

10. Copywriter

No, you’re not copying what other people write 😉 A copy writer works for advertising agencies to create slogans and other advertising material to promote a business, product, or idea. You can find both freelance and full-time opportunities. If this sounds like it might be up your alley, here’s another article on how to get started with links to more resources.

11. Content Writer

A content writer writes for a company’s website (pretty self-explanatory, right?). This can be anything from a small business to a large corporation. It can also be a full-time or freelance position. If you’re tech savvy, this might be worth looking into! Here’s a couple sources to get you started here and here. A lot of times this also involves handling social media, so having an online presence and a blog will give you an edge.

12. Technical Writer

A technical writer describes complex processes to create things like instructions manuals or guides. For more information on what a technical writer does, click here. Technical writers can work for IT companies, or help schools develop curriculum. They usually have specialized knowledge in a certain topic such as medicine, science, technology, etc. If this piques your interest, you can learn more about becoming a technical writer here and here.

13. Resume Writer

Did you know there’s a demand for writers who can craft a killer resume? And you can make good money doing so too! Because let’s face it, writing a resume is hard, and most people would rather pay a professional to do it for them. To become a professional resume writer, obtain a resume writing certification to boost your credibility. Learn more about starting a resume writing business here.

14. Event Planner

If you have excellent organizational skills and are a people person, you might make a great event planner. An event planner organizes events such as weddings, meetings, educational conferences, and business conventions. You can work for a company, or start your own business.

15. Blogger

Did you know it’s possible to make a living as a blogger? There’s tons of information on the web on how to start a blog and make a profit off it. If you have a topic you’re passionate about and want to share with others, you might enjoy being a blogger. Keep in mind, however, that building a blog takes time, and it could be 1-2 years or longer before you begin to make a good income. Also, don’t start a blog for the sole purpose of making money–if your heart’s not in it you will likely fail.

16. Corporate Blogger

These days, a lot of businesses are trying to keep up with social media and now have blogs. This means they need creative, smart people to help run those blogs. Like you. 😉

17. Website Developer

If you’re super tech savvy and creative, you may want to consider looking into website development. It’s a valuable skill to have in our 21st century world where a website is a must for businesses. Here’s a couple sources with more information here and here.

18. Social Media Manager

Like website developers, there’s also a huge demand for creative individuals who know their way around social media. Businesses want to connect with their audience and promote their products through social media, and often don’t know how. If you’re awesome with social media, this may be a good job for you.

19. Screenwriter

If you love story, you probably love movies and t.v. shows as well as books. And what writer wouldn’t love to see their work come to life on screen? I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about how to sell a script or how similar/different it is to publishing a book, so you’ll have to do your research. I have taken screenwriting classes, however, and can say that it’s a completely different medium from writing a novel. So you’ll also have to learn the techniques of the craft to be successful. Here’s a couple links to jump-start your research here and here. Also, check out this article on the difference between writing for film and television.

20. Broadcasting

T.V. and radio stations need writers and editors to work on scripts and news reports. You can find more information on the types of jobs and responsibilities here, and browse jobs in T.V. and radio here.

You want to know a secret? Even if you can’t get a job doing any of the things on this list, you can still use your English degree to do almost anything you want! Most people end up doing something different than what they went to school for anyway.

If you really want an English or Creative Writing degree, don’t let naysayers scare you off. Always, always, always follow your passion. I learned this the hard way (but that’s a story for another time). You have to live the life you want, and if you don’t try to make a go of it you’ll regret it down the road.

So gather your courage and go for it! You’ll never regret chasing your passion.

Why do you want to get an English degree? What career options sound appealing to you?

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Your Heroine Doesn’t Have to “Kick Ass” to be Strong

Your Heroine doesnt have to kick assEveryone wants a strong heroine.

We love characters who can kick ass like Katniss, Tris, Karou, Celaena, and Eowyn.

But what is it exactly that makes a heroine “strong”?

Lately, I’m having a problem with what the definition of “strong” has become in YA. Everyone seems to want a heroine who can kick ass, wield a sword, shoot a gun (or bow), throw a punch, and barely flinch when she’s hit by a bullet. She has to be able to keep up with the boys, and usually is better than them at fighting and can kick their butts too.

But why are we limiting “strong” heroines to girls who are physically strong and can fight as well as the guys?

I think there’s a problem with this, because strength comes in many different forms. What if a heroine can’t drop kick a villain or wield a sword? Does that mean she isn’t strong? No way!!

What about Rosa Parks? Esther? Sacajawea? Helen Keller? Harriett Tubman? Queen Elizabeth I? Eleanor Roosevelt?

Heroines who can kick ass are awesome, but we need more diversity in what makes a girl strong. Not all female readers are the kung-fu type, and they want to see themselves in stories. They need heroines they can relate to, and who show them you can be strong in different ways.

I like how Ava Jae over at Writability puts it:

There are limitless varieties of girls, and every single one of us deserve to see ourselves as a heroine. We are complicated, and layered, and contradictory, and we are raw, and real, and here.

I have a problem with seeing female characters who are feminine portrayed as weak, fearful, or prissy. I’ve noticed a trend that if a character in a book loves dresses, fixing her hair, and wearing makeup, she’s probably not the heroine. The “girly girl” characters are usually antagonists or obnoxious secondary characters.

Why do we tend to view girls who enjoy being typical girls as somehow weaker? And why is it that when we want to make our heroine strong we give her traditionally masculine traits and have them kick-ass, bottle up their emotions, and hate dresses, makeup, etc.?

I would love to see some heroines who love being girls! Why can’t a heroine love a pretty dress and be strong?

As a writer, I struggle with creating female characters. Why? Because I worry if I make them too feminine readers will see them as weak and annoying. Which is ridiculous! Being feminine does not make a girl weak!

I like kick-ass heroines, but I also like writing characters who are more “traditional” girls but still strong. My heroine in my current novel is a mix between these two. She has been trained as a fighter, but she loves dresses and being a girl. There’s a part in the story where she has to cut off her hair to disguise herself as a boy, and it kills her. She loves her hair, and she loves looking like a girl.

Does this make her weak? I don’t think so. But I’ve been struggling over her because I’m afraid other readers will think so.

Our perception of female strength needs to change. We need to stop labeling “feminine” traits as weak and “masculine” traits as strong and let our heroines be strong people no matter which traits they have.

We need all types of strong girls in YA. We need girls who can wield a sword like Katsa, and girls whose cleverness saves the day like Hermione Granger. How will you make your heroine strong?

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How Your Hero’s Goal Shapes Your Plot

How Your Hero's GoalWhat is your hero’s goal? What is he trying to achieve in your story?

If you’re not sure or you’re sitting there scratching your head, you have some work to do!

It’s crucial for your hero to have a goal. If he doesn’t, you have no story. “Well why not?” you ask?

Because your hero’s goal is what drives the story. It’s the story’s purpose. Like a ripple effect, it influences your entire plot.

What is Your Hero’s Goal?

A novel is essentially a story about a character who wants something and sets out to get it, faces challenges along the way, and either fails or succeeds to attain his desire.

So, what does your character want?

  • Frodo wants to destroy the ring.
  • Katniss wants to win the Hunger Games.
  • The Pevensie siblings want to end the rule of the White Witch in Narnia.

If your character doesn’t want anything, there’s no point in telling his story. Actually, without a goal you don’t have a story–just a string of random events. Your hero’s goal is what unifies events into a plot.

Be sure to make it clear as soon as possible what your character’s goal is. Of course you’ll spend time in the beginning setting up your characters and plot, but don’t wait until halfway through your story to clue readers in to your hero’s goal.

If readers don’t know the goal, the story will feel pointless and random, with no clear direction. They might even begin to wonder if you know where you’re going with this thing. And you do know, don’t you? 😉

What are the Stakes?

What happens if your hero doesn’t achieve his goal? These consequences are called stakes.

  • If Frodo doesn’t destroy the ring, Sauron will take over Middle Earth, destroy his home, and enslave or kill his friends.
  • If Katniss doesn’t win the Hunger Games, she will die and there won’t be anyone to provide for her mother and sister.
  • If the Pevensie siblings don’t defeat the White Witch, Narnia will be trapped in eternal winter and they will either be killed or stuck and unable to return home.

Stakes give your character a reason to fight. When creating your stakes, make it personal to the hero in some way so the fight is his. With your goal and stakes clearly presented in your story, the reader will be able to pull for your character and it will give them a reason to keep reading.

What Obstacles are in the Way?

Every scene should move your character closer to or further from his goal in some way. What is keeping your character from getting what he wants? What does he have to overcome?

  • To destroy the ring, Frodo has to evade wraiths and orcs and travel all the way to Mordor.
  • To win the Hunger Games, Katniss is faced with killing other opponents, which goes against what she believes in.
  • To defeat the White Witch, the Pevensie siblings must battle her army.

There are tons of obstacles in a story, some large and some small. Some may be physical and others may be internal. But always your character should be facing some sort of opposition. That’s what keeps your reader reading–to find out if the hero will overcome the challenges and win!

If your story feels off-track or meandering, consider your character’s goal. You may have lost sight of it, or you may not be letting it drive your story.

Use Goal When Plotting

Now that you understand how your character’s goal shapes your plot, take advantage of it. Whenever I have ideas for a new story and I’m trying to come up with a plot, I start by asking myself what this character wants.

I used to create plots by stringing together scenes I thought were cool or exciting, with just the vague idea that in the end my hero would defeat the villain. This worked okay, but I ended up with a lot of unnecessary scenes, the story would wander, and the hero didn’t have a personal reason for saving the world (Really, he could have just saved himself all the trouble and stayed at home and let someone else do it!).

Starting off plotting with my character’s goal has helped me tremendously. It has made my plots clearer and tighter and has helped me to develop a plot much faster. This strategy may not work for everyone, but whether or not you start planning your story with your character’s goal you will definitely need to give it attention.

Do you know what your character’s goal is in your current story?

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