Tag Archives: fantasy

The Starting Pitcher:
How to Pitch an Agent in SF/F

By Sheryl Hayes

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 6.31.10 PMClick to enlarge

My friend and fellow writer Elanor Hughes and I were checking out the newly released Worldcon 73 schedule on our phones. She held out her phone so I could look at the screen. “Hey. Did you see that they are offering in-person pitch sessions?”

“No,” I said, and scrolled to the description. “You know,” I said as I read over the entry, “I’ll have my latest draft of Chaos Wolf done right before Worldcon. Maybe I should pitch it.”

“Yeah, you should.”

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Later that day, I read the full requirements for submitting.  Everything was something I had already done or was planning to do. I wrote up a two hundred fifty word synopsis, made sure the first page of the story was in manuscript format, and mailed my request. A few hours later, I received an email stating my pitch time as well as the agent and agency I would be pitching to. Immediately I turned to Google and started researching the person.

The first thing I did was I looked up the agency. It was a respectable size and has several authors listed that I recognized and followed on Twitter. Then I read the agent’s bio. It included the usual instructions about documents being in manuscript format and how to submit online. Then I read what types of fiction he wanted to represent.

He listed several subtypes of science fiction and fantasy, so he was clearly not adverse to genre fiction. What caught my eye, though, was a statement about urban fantasy. He stated it was a tough sell with him because he is not the target market so he only accepts the best of the best.

My story is squarely in the urban fantasy subgenre.

Uh oh…

At that point, I decided I would look at this as a chance to practice my pitch and get feedback. If he requested pages to read further, that would be a bonus.

I returned to my research. I double checked Absolute Write Water Cooler, running a search for both the agent and agency. I found nothing that raised any flags. All the comments stated that he was a professional working with a reputable agency.

The next two weeks I spent practicing my pitch, mentally and audibly going over it. I memorized my page count. When I arrived at Worldcon, I attended a panel that the agent was on so I could get a feel for his personality before officially meeting him. By the time my ten-minute slot came around, I felt I was as ready as I would ever be.

Because this was a convention, I was wearing a fandom related T-shirt earlier in the day. Half an hour before my pitch slot, I ducked into the bathroom and switched into a dress blouse I brought specifically for the pitch. I wasn’t as dressed up as I would be for a job interview, since I refused to ditch my jeans and comfortable shoes, but I presented a business-casual look.

I arrived ten minutes early and checked in. After my name was called, I was pointed towards the agent I was pitching to. I waited as he finished speaking with the person whose slot was before mine. Then I took a deep breath, pushed down my nervousness as I shook his hand, and sat down.

The words I had practiced tripped out with only one little stumble. He had several questions about the story itself:

  • Where does it fit into the market?
  • How many words is it?
  • What are my plans for it if he does not request to see pages?
  • Was I aware that it would be a tough sell given the number of similar stories already published?

I had an answer ready for each of those questions. I felt it was new adult but it could be altered to fit into the young-adult market. It’s currently 100,000 words but could be edited down to 95,000 words. I planned to shop it around for an agent or submit it to slush piles for the next two to three years before looking at self-publishing. And, yes, I was aware that I am writing vampires and werewolves in an oversaturated market where people are looking for the next big and different thing.

The ten minutes passed quickly. In the end, much as I expected, I did not get a request for pages. He said, and I silently agreed, that he would not be the proper agent to sell my book. He did give me some suggestions for my pitch, about drawing out what makes the universe unique. He also said that he was very impressed with my level of professionalism when I mentioned that this was my first pitch I had done. While a request for pages would have been the icing on the cake, I walked away from the experience content.

So what is the takeaway from this?

  • Research the agent you will be pitching to.  This can involve searching the web and attending panels they are on.  Be aware of what they are looking for and who they represent.
  • Memorize and practice your pitch. Have both a short summary of one or two sentences and a longer one that goes into more detail.
  • Know where your story fits into the market.  What genre is it?  Is it long or short compared to other stories in the same genre? Who is the target audience?  Can you adjust it to fit another audience?
  • Know what the current trends are in your market and where your story fits.
  • Dress professionally.  You may be at a con, but don’t pitch your story wearing your hallway costume.
  • Be polite.  Thank the agent for his or her time.

Even if you do all this, there is no guarantee you will land an agent.  But you will make a positive impression.  The agent may not request pages from you on your current novel.  But he or she may want your next one.

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 6.37.42 PMSheryl Hayes lives in Silicon Valley, Ca.  Her three cats graciously allow her and her mother to live in their house.  In addition to writing her first series and short stories, she works full time at a private utility.  When she is not writing, she is knitting the costume she’s wearing to the next convention she’s attending, playing World of Darkness, or reading.

You can read her blog or follow her on Twitter @sherylrhayes or on Facebook.

Female Warriors in Fantasy Fiction
Part 1: The Shield Maiden in History

By William Stacey

I met William Stacey through an online writer’s group. His manuscript for Black Monastery impressed me so I reached out to him and became one of his beta readers. That novel did well, becoming a Breakthrough Novel Award Quarter-Finalist on Amazon in 2014.   

He is a former army intelligence officer who served his country for more than thirty years with operational tours in Bosnia and Afghanistan; a husband, father, and avid reader with a love for the macabre; and last but not least a skilled and thoughtful writer.  I knew he would write a great blog, and he did not disappoint!  

Look for Part 2: The Female Knight in History coming later this month.


Twenty-year-old university dropout Cassie Rogan has returned to her small British Columbia home. Tortured by an accident that killed her parents, she drifts, failing life at every turn. When an uncanny lightning storm hits the forest, Cassie discovers that, after centuries of atrophy, the forces of magic are flowing back into our world, and Cassie can wield arcane powers. But everything comes with a price… Available on Amazon.

**Spoiler Alert!**

There’s a brutal swordfight in episode 10 of season 4 of Game of Thrones when Brienne of Tarth goes toe-to-toe with thuggish Sandor, “the Hound,” Clegane. To HBO’s credit, the fight is violent, exciting, bloody—and most importantly—completely believable. It was easily one of the best things I saw all last year on television. Gwendoline Cristie’s portrayal of tragically noble warrior Brienne is nothing short of amazing.

But…even in the make-believe world of Westeros, Brienne is an aberration.

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She is consistently underappreciated and often the subject of scorn, ridiculed by both men and women (I’m looking at you, Cercei Lannister). George is an amazing writer, and his portrayal of a female warrior in a fantasy setting was, in my opinion, perfect—because—as unpopular as this may be with some—there has been only a very, very small percentage of female warriors throughout history. Right or wrong, warfare has pretty much always been a boy’s club.

Now, I get it. Westeros is a fantasy setting, not reality. However, I think Westeros is also pretty obviously modeled on medieval Europe. In fact, so is most fantasy fiction produced in the West. I’m not going to imply that this is somehow wrong; certainly I’ve used medieval Europe as a mirror for much of my own fiction. I think it’s normal to create worlds similar to what we’re already familiar with (although some would also call it boring… but hey, people also say that the zombie craze is over, yet we’re getting a new Walking Dead series spin-off). European history is immediately relatable to most readers. Call a character a knight and a picture pops into our heads—even if that picture is often biased by the movies. Writers can introduce a little bit of world building—put in a castle, a few knights, a dragon—and readers are good to go.

Fiction isn’t reality, I do get that, but grounding a story in history can often make it much more believable. If you need an example, read anything by Bernard Cornwell. He writes the best medieval combat out there because he researches everything. So, if fantasy is more realistic when it’s modeled on real history, what’s the state of women warriors in fiction today? Is Brienne of Tarth a believable character? What about Lagertha, the famous Viking shield maiden who fought beside Ragnar Lothbrok? How are we writers doing with our heroic female warriors? Well… not bad, actually.

Let’s start with Lagertha and female Vikings. Did shield maidens exist? Sadly, probably not—at least there’s no firm historical evidence that they did, and certainly not as a significant portion of any Viking military force. Did (at least some) Norse women fight in battles? Absolutely, just as there are anecdotal examples of women who fought as warriors in medieval Europe. Historically, though, these examples are so few and far between as to be statistically irrelevant. There is little-to-no proof that female warriors ever accompanied Viking armies in large numbers, and likely 99.9% of Viking warriors were male. It’s possible that the enduring legends of Viking shield maidens are confused with that of the Valkyries, Odin’s female (but not human) messengers who carried fallen warriors to Valhalla.

Admittedly, history isn’t always black and white, and not all historians agree on the existence of shield maidens with some insisting that they did exist. The twelfth century historian Saxo Grammaticus wrote of the heroic Lagertha (Lathergertha in his writings) as well as other shield maidens who fought with the Viking armies. The problem with Saxo, however, is that his histories are considered by some to be largely fictional, including details from myth and legend. As a credible source, Saxo isn’t.

Still some people remain convinced that there were, indeed, female Viking warriors. The History Channel’s outstanding Vikings series—with the incredibly cool Lagertha portrayed by Katheryn Winnick—may be reinforcing these beliefs. In 2014, an article (bearing a picture of Katheryn Winnick as Lagertha) was published on Tor.com with the headline, “Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female.” The source for this new information was a paper published in 2011 in the journal Early Medieval Europe, written by Shane McLeod, where, following reexaminations of Viking burial sites in Britain, McLeod proposed that the ratio of female-to-male Viking settlers may have been much higher than was previously thought. Through osteological sexing (bone analysis) of fourteen burial sites in Britain, six were found to likely be female. McLeod concludes by suggesting that maybe a third to one half of Viking setters—not warriors, setters—may have been female. Fair enough. That’s an interesting finding and bears further investigation; after all, fourteen burial sites is hardly a significant sample. The problem, though, began when some took McLeod’s findings and twisted them to say something that he wasn’t at all saying—namely that half of all Viking warriors were female. They weren’t. And while some female Norse burial sites have been found to contain swords and other traditionally male-centric items, that’s hardly proof those women were warriors. It just means they were buried with weapons. Judith Jesch, the Professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham, stated, “It is likely that there were occasions when women had to defend themselves and their families as best they could, with whatever weapons were to hand. But there is absolutely no hard evidence that women trained or served as regular warriors in the Viking Age….Women warriors must be classed as Viking legend.”

I’ll repeat what I wrote earlier: fiction isn’t reality, and certainly fantasy fiction is even further removed from reality. Historically, shield maidens may only be legend, but so were dragons—and those glorious, fire-breathing creatures aren’t going anywhere. Authors need to decide for themselves. In my latest fantasy novel, The Sword of Heaven: Book 1 of the Vampire Queen, I have Viking-like female warriors fighting side by side with their male counterparts, but I also have a European-styled medieval kingdom where gender expectations forbid women from bearing arms. I accept that shield maidens didn’t exist, but I’m putting them in the book anyhow. My story-world, I can do as I want. However, if I were to write another historical Viking story, such as I did with Black Monastery—rather than a Viking-like story—I probably wouldn’t include the historically inaccurate shield maidens.

So, sorry, Lagertha, while I don’t believe you ever existed, I still think you rock!


Conning your way: Moderating a Writer’s Workshop

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Graphic from Bo’s Cafe Life

Moderating a writer’s workshop at a con is easy.  Someone has passed you the power to sit down and conduct.  All you have to do is show up, say go, and let the people talk. Right?

Yes…but no.

Moderating a writer’s workshop well at a con is not so easy.  The point of a workshop is not to see that a half dozen people get to talk on a manuscript; the point is to guide the workshop to help an author make a better manuscript.  Workshops can do that, but they can also do the reverse.

I know of one instance where the writer went home, took the advice of one of the pros, and totally chopped up the manuscript.  I was at the workshop so I heard the advice, and since I know the writer, I saw the result.  The advice was a reiteration of something I’d said: writing structure should reflect writing content (a blog for another time).  For instance, in the writer’s action scene, her sentences sometimes got away from her.  They were longer and occasionally more rambling than they should have been for the situation: a gun fight in the forest. While these sentences were perfectly good sentences for the right situation, right there, they needed to be shorter, punchier, and more directed to the immediate events (no time to dissemble on stray thoughts).  However, what and how the pro said it may have confused that writer  for she went home and applied the advice to the whole manuscript to its detriment.  Took her a few months to undo the damage.

You as moderator want to try to keep the workshop session focused on the goal of helping author-entrants to improve their works.  The value of those works should not be under discussion. At one time, I had a writer’s group member make the comment in group about my work, “Ho hum, another Conan the Barbarian novel, but I guess you know that” (No, I didn’t, he is the only person to have ever said that—I left that group as a result).  Another con workshop I heard about had an author-entrant writing about Norse mythos.  A workshop participant compared her to Marvel’s Norse-influenced work and said they liked Marvel better.  We writers need to follow our bliss, so don’t judge the author’s choice.  Instead, guide each author to make his or her take on the subject his or her own unique story.  So in your workshop, judge the intent of the stories and help the author-entrants meet their goals. If this type of judgment does happen, be prepared to gently redirect the attention to the intent and those goals.

Over the years, I’ve learned from my mistakes and successes to develop pretty simple guidelines.

Workshop Format

The science fiction and fantasy cons I’ve moderated for use the same format.  The workshop comprises three author-entrants, two pros, and a moderator.  Three manuscripts of up to thirty pages are delivered to all the workshop participants in advance to be critiqued in a three-hour session.

I will breakdown the process of a workshop using this format. If your workshop varies, you’ll have some math to do. This also assumes the room is yours for the full three hours. If it’s a dedicated room to the workshop, this is likely the case, but if a panel follows you, they will assume you were supposed to be out before the hour.  To be sure, ask your program coordinator or look to see who is in the room after you.

Introduce yourself and that this is a workshop session. If more people are in the room than you expect, let them know it’s a private session. Go around the table and have everyone introduce themselves. I like to ask the pros to share their latest project—a moment of shameless self-promotion if you will. Set the rules for the workshop.


I’ve adjusted these guidelines from my college creative writing workshops.  Each critiquer reviews the manuscript without interruption either from the other critiquers or the author-entrant. The critiquer whose turn it is to speak should not engage the others at the table (including the author-entrant) with questions unless the critiquer has a quick clarification he or she needs to make a point.  He or she may then ask a question to elicits a very short answer from the author-entrantYou as moderator should be prepared to say, “let’s make note of that and address it further at the end” if the answer goes on too long.

The author-entrant will have time to ask questions.  I like to stress that this workshop is for the author-entrant, not the critiquers.  Author-entrants should not defend their work. After all, a shrink-wrapped version of the author does not come with every copy of the book sold.  It’s not important that the critiquers understand what the author-entrant is trying to do, it’s important that the author-entrant understands what a reader may infer.  No rebuttals or justifications are necessary and no good ever comes of such.  If a critiquer is wrong, it’s just not that important that he or she knows. You as moderator may be called on to gently curtail an author-entrant who is trying too hard to defend the work.  The only exception to this is if an author-entrant would like clarification on why a critiquer came to a particular conclusion. In this case, the author can outline the back information necessary to frame the question, ask where he or she went wrong, and inquire about suggestions to fix it.


  1. Each manuscript gets (about) 1 hour.
  2. Each critiquer will get up to 8 minutes to speak with a one-minute warning at 7 minutes. (I use my phone to have an alarm go off at the seven minute point. This way, I don’t clock watch, can remain engaged in the workshop,  don’t lose track of time, and  don’t have to personally interrupt folks.)
  3. 10 to 15 minutes of open table time starting with asking the author-entrant if they have questions.  This will usually instigate an open table conversation. If it doesn’t, be prepared to ask questions to get conversation rolling.
  4. 5 minute break


I give the order the critique will go in.  This is really up to the moderator. I usually go clockwise, counter clockwise and clockwise again.  However, some people may have never been involved in a workshop or feel insecure about going first, especially in the presence of pros. If one of the author-entrants is sitting left or right of you, you might inquire if they would prefer to go later (but don’t forget them!  It’s quite embarrassing).  Or you may just choose to start with one pro and move in a circle from there. Or you could determine an order before you even arrive and announce it when you start that critique.  I tell people I will go last so that I can adjust for timing if it gets off.

I then announce the order of the manuscripts. Because of the workshop introduction, the first manuscript may go over the hour. You may wish to start with a manuscript that is shorter or you think might elicit fewer comments.

End of Workshop

Thank everyone for their time and participation.  Remind the author-entrants to take time to think about and feel out the advice they have been given. They are here to learn, but ultimately they are the shepherds of their own work. They are the ones that need to guide it.  Sometimes in experimenting with new ideas and ways of doing things, the writing can go wrong. So make a clearly marked back up of the story before massaging it.  It will be liberating, allowing the author-entrant to push harder, and it will ensure that writing paths that lead to dead ends don’t lead to a manuscript’s dead end.

The Writer’s Toolbox

I was adrift, alone.  After college, my life had somehow turned into a blur of wake, work, eat, and sleep.  Sometimes I wondered if I might be stuck in the movie Groundhog Day.  I hadn’t yet found the community that I have often written of as so important.  Even though I was working editorial for Addison Wesley/Benjamin Cummings, I had no connection to the fiction-writing community—not for fantasy and SF where my heart lay.  I didn’t even know a genre community existed.

My favorite place to break the parade of endless days was a little hole-in-the wall mom-and-pop SF/F bookstore on El Camino in Palo Alto.  I used to drop in and talk to the owner.  It gave me a tenuous but much treasured connection into the genre world.  One day, the subject of writers groups came up.  Turned out, she knew a customer…  I was so excited to have hope of getting involved in anything writing. It had been years since I’d had that at college.  In those pre-Internet days, I left her my phone number and prayed that her customer would use it.

She did.

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That call was one of those moments that your life changes, and you don’t even know it. She not only brought me into a writers group that boasted professional  genre writers (oh, the thrill of it!), she introduced me to my first SF/F con.  The seed of friendship sprouted fast and rooted deep.  We spent hours talking about writing, the mechanics of it, the people, the cons, the books.  She talked most about her Clarion West experience and one of the instructors that changed her life, Algis Budrys.  She was always on the look out to hone her skills or discover new ones to, as she put it, put in her writer’s toolbox.  Algis and Clarion evidently put some pretty nice tools in there.

Looking back, I now see that moment was the linchpin in my genre life. Without her I wouldn’t have met the friends who fill my life and make up my community almost entirely.  Had she not chosen to dial the phone number of a young woman loitering in bookstore and bugging the hapless proprietor, I would not be posting this here today.

Her name was Tina, and she opened her heart, her world, and her toolbox to me. I am sad to say, she only graced my life a few short years before she died, but I’ve never forgotten.  So today, I honor her by opening up my toolbox to you.  I have a lot I want to share after 35 years of editing and writing, so in Tina’s honor, I have put together this series, The Writer’s Toolbox. In each of these blogs, I will take out one tool and share it with you.  I will tell you why I like this tool and how I use it.  Maybe you will be able to find a use for it, too, and tuck it into your writer’s toolbox.

Here’s to you,Tina.

Next in The Writer’s Toolbox: There’s Got to Be a Better Way

Teresa Edgerton on World Building and the Magical World View

Teresa Edgerton began telling stories as soon as she learned to talk; she began scribbling them down as soon as a teacher put a pencil in her hand;  and luckily for us fantasy readers, sixty years later she is still inventing them.  Teresa has published many short stories and novels full of wit and charm and intriguing creatures and characters. Her latest releases are Goblin Moon (being rereleased by Tickety Boo Press), and The Queen’s Necklace (being released by Harper Voyager on Kindle for the first time and currently available for preorder on Amazon). Also look for her work under the pseudonym of Madeline Howard. 

Edgerton covers2

World Building and the Magical World View

One thing that fantasy writers often forget is the question of how a belief in magic should shape a character’s world view, and how their culture should shape their ideas on magic. In different places and different eras the answer may differ greatly, or sometimes hardly at all, but here I am going to talk about the Western European Medieval era that inspires so many fantasy settings.

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If real people who believed in magic did not see it as something apart but a natural component of a vastly complicated world, then how much the more would characters in whose world magic is a natural force try to fit it into their idea of the overall scheme of things?  Whether they practice magic themselves or have it practiced on or against them, if they want to buy a charm or a spell, they would want to know at least as much about how it works as the ordinary person knows about electricity or the internal combustion machine.

We can never know exactly how the people who lived in the Medieval period thought or exactly how they saw their world, but we can learn a lot from their writings, their superstitions, and their rituals.  We can pick up details that enrich what we write and lend it the kind of authenticity that makes what we write more convincing.  Although we have been trained to see the world differently than people in Medieval times, many of the same dreams and nightmares linger just below the surface of our minds.  You can call it the collective subconscious or whatever you will, but what it comes down to is that readers will recognize, on some level, that what you are writing is “true.”