Jennifer K. Oliver

Speculative Fiction Writer

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About Literary Agents

There are a few misconceptions about agents–what they are, what they do, whether they cost or not, and how it all works. I thought it would be good to briefly clarify a few points in case anyone is unsure.

The number one factor you should be mindful of when searching for an agent is this:

You should not pay agents to represent you / look at your work. If an agent asks you to pay them up front to read your manuscript or represent you, run away. As fast as you can.

The agent gets paid when you sell your book to a publisher. An agent will take a cut out of your royalties that the publisher pays you. Usually this is around 15% – 20% (it can vary, depending where in the world you are and who you sign with). Again, be extremely wary of agents that ask for payment up front. They could be frauds. If you’re not sure, there are a number of excellent websites that list known fraud agencies. Writer Beware is probably the best.

So what are agents and what do they do? Jane Friedman says it clearly and concisely on her website:

In today’s market, probably 80 percent of books that the New York publishing houses acquire are sold to them by agents. Agents are experts in the publishing industry. They have inside contacts with specific editors and know better than writers what editor or publisher would be most likely to buy a particular work. 

Most importantly, agents negotiate the best deal for you and ensure you are paid accurately and fairly. They run interference when necessary between you and the publisher.

Ask an agent who else they represent. Or you can research this yourself online. Agents unwilling to mention any of their authors by name or any recent sales could be dodgy.

Be wary of agents who refer you to an editing service you have to pay for. As says:

There is, however, a common scam where the agent recommends an editorial service. There’s a good chance the service is paying the agent a kickback to make that recommendation.

Also be watchful for vanity presses who expect you to pay them to publish you.

You do not necessarily need an agent. It depends on what publishing route you prefer to take, as well as the type of work you’re trying to sell. Not everybody wants an agent or a traditional publisher, and there are other options available, such as self-publishing and e-publishing.

When I Met Terry Pratchett

My poor 2012 Macbook Pro is struggling with my heavy-duty graphic design, so I have sorted through all my photos before I move to a new iMac. There are so many wonderful memories from years ago, I’d quite like to share some of them here to break up the writing chatter.

The first one is the day I met Terry Pratchett and the brief conversation we had.

It’s no secret that Good Omens is in my Top Three Books of All Time. The day I went to Terry’s signing I had my dogeared copy clutched in my hands. Most people in front of me passed him his newer books, but when I got to his table and gave him Good Omens, this is what happened:

Jen: “I wasn’t sure which of your books to have signed. But since Aziraphale is my favourite angel ever, it had to be this one.”

Terry: “Oh really? Even though he’s probably gay.”

Jen: “He makes me laugh, no matter how many times I read the book.”

Terry: “We [him and Neil Gaiman] had a conversation about it, and decided that angels were sexless and therefore could be whatever they wanted.”

Jen: “I wouldn’t love them any other way.”

(Please note: I don’t know the other people in the photo. If this is you and you are uncomfortable with this post, let me know and I will remove the photo.)

Was Aziraphale’s sexuality ever disputed? I figured him and Crowley were pretty much asexual. Aziraphale could be considered camp in his mannerisms, so I can see why Pratchett and Gaiman originally had the idea that he was gay.

I love this day in my past and I loved revisiting it recently. A number of years later I went to see Neil Gaiman during his The Ocean at the End of the Lane book tour, so I have had the pleasure of seeing both of these incredible authors in person. Now if only I can meet Stephen King!

Creative Writing Retreat Advice

A few years ago I went on a writing retreat, where I frolicked, wrote, and generally had a blast. I also took notes and filed those notes away. I just re-discovered them and thought I’d post them, in case anyone finds them useful. Most of this is common sense or tips you would pick up early in a writing career, but I do think we often forget this stuff when we get caught up in the chaos of the Writing Process.

01. Getting Started

Authors discussed their favourite times to write. Many people agreed that harnessing the unconscious, open mind was probably the freest form—writing first thing in the morning before your brain has had chance to become distracted with the day’s schedule/what’s going on around you, or writing at night, when the brain is too tired to hold on to all the stressful, stuffy matter of the day (this is my favourite time to write).

A few of the writers also mentioned how difficult they found it to prioritise writing over other activities, when writing was all they really wanted to do. We get paralysed by fears, nerves and paranoia, but these are obstacles we need to overcome if we’re to make progress. Don’t overthink writing, just write.

Conversely, if writing always feels like a chore or you’re genuinely not enjoying it at all, it might be worth digging deep and asking yourself “Why am I writing in the first place?”

There are two types of re-reads you can do after you’ve finished your story. First, read it back as a reader, purely for pleasure, ignoring the mistakes and problems. This can help you see the bigger picture. Then, read through as a writer, looking for technical issues but also looking for things that work particularly well. This can help you get your head around the details. Observe all that you can. Be objective to begin with. Make side-notes, if it helps. And remember to take little breaks when you start to grow weary.

02. Writing Combat

This workshop didn’t apply to me so much as far as my current stories are concerned as none of my characters are engaging in physical battle (mental battle is a different story!), but it was incredibly interesting and exciting because we got to play with real swords, bows, shields, and armour (I had no idea chain mail was so damn heavy).

I learned that swords were often dug up from graves in Germanic wars. Chain mail was hand riveted and more of a rich man’s game—poorer folk would either have to dig up dead bodies and take it, or steal it from the living.

The best advice I took from this workshop: when writing battles pay attention to all five senses, not just sight, touch and sound. The smells and tastes would be vivid, too.

03. World-Building

In anything based in an alternative reality, it’s good to set up rules and laws and boundaries before you begin writing, or at least early in the story. That way you don’t write yourself into so many ruts, or have to keep backtracking to change details and fix inconsistencies.

Study other cultures and their laws in real life, and take inspiration from them. Remember, countries have different levels of technology; not all countries are the same. This also goes for your fictional universe.

Figure out how magic and technology work—or don’t work—together early on, too. ( this is the one I’ve had problems with when writing steampunk fantasy.)

04. Keep Writing

Don’t be afraid to ask your characters questions. Get to know them like you would a friend (or co-worker). Questionnaires and quizzes can be insightful, if that method of character workshopping works for you (it doesn’t for everyone).

Ask yourself what your characters want. This gives them purpose, and gives you reason to propel them and the plot forwards. Once your character(s) have a goal, you can share that goal, which should help you to keep writing.

Meme: Seven Things About Me

This is a re-post of an old blog entry from 2011. All of it is still relevant (the past hasn’t changed) and I thought I’d share a few things about me in case anyone who has read my stories or seen me on social media is curious. Originally I was tagged by Helen Ginger at Straight From Hel to do the Seven Things About Yourself meme. Here are mine.

1. I have two tattoos. The first I got during the summer of 2000, and is of the Indian symbol for OM. I chose this because I spent a blissful three months in India and while there got a henna tattoo. Once I returned home I decided to have the henna version immortalised with a real one, a memory of my time travelling. My second tattoo I got a year later and is a small black and red dragon on my stomach, but alas, I do not have photos.

2. When I was thirteen I wrote a short story about a murderous demon dentist. This says a great deal about my feelings toward going to the dentist at the time. Those feelings haven’t changed much over the years–I still hate it and get that nervous wibbly feeling beforehand.

3. I spent my 20th birthday riding an elephant through a jungle in southern India. Best, and bumpiest, birthday ever.

4. An ex-boyfriend had a star named after me when we were together. I have a chart and certificate and everything; it’s something I just can’t throw out. If you’re wondering where the star can be found it’s 47m13s +19°34’43, in the Pisces constellation (apparently).

5. My first job when I was 15 was as a kennel maid at a boarding kennel and cattery. I basically got paid to walk, feed, groom, and snuggle dogs all day during school holidays and at weekends. It remains one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.

6. When I was but a wee young thing, I would remove a small drain cover outside my house and dangle my feet down the well. My parents have photos of me doing this. It signalled a lifelong love affair with water. Sadly, I also lost a wind-up toy fish originally intended for bath times, which wasn’t so great.

7. Possibly my favourite book of all time is The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub. To me, it is unadulterated epic dark fantasy, unhindered by pasted-on romance and silly narrative devices. For this reason, I can forgive its sometimes long-winded descriptive passages. Jack Sawyer and Richard Sloat are two of my favourite coming-of-age characters, and their pure, bittersweet friendship moves me every time I read it. And lovely, loyal Wolf! Wolf! I was devastated by the sequel Black House (not even going to link to it). It was like reading a book from an entirely different fictionverse.

Feel free to take this meme and run with it on your own blog. Drop a link here too and I’ll check it out.

D Is For Disillusionment

Ever found an author, actor, musician, or artist’s website or blog and found that they are not as peachy-keen as you first thought and hoped?

This sense of disillusionment has happened a couple of times over the years. I remember hunting for a particular author whose books I loved as a teenager. I read their blog, and quickly noticed how regularly rude they were about their readers. The author isn’t writing as much nowadays, but it’s still bad form. Fans are still buying their books, which is the greatest praise. It shouldn’t matter whether or not a writer likes their old work. If the bacon is still coming in, the least an author can do is be quietly thankful and not insult the people who are spending money on their product.

I try not to let someone’s personal attitude get in the way of my enjoyment of their work. But sometimes it’s hard to look beyond their public conduct. This is why, when I discover someone new, I try not to dig too deep. The internet, social networking, and online marketing makes everyone incredibly accessible. But this can work against people, too.

We are entitled to our opinions, but how far do we take it? And how do we recognise when we’re not only damaging our reputations, but also unnecessarily hurting other people? It’s usually not until after the proverbial shit hits the fan, and by that time feelings are hurt, opinions are formed, and it’s hard to backtrack. It’s almost impossible to make people forget you’ve acted like an ass on the internet, because everything we say is copied and pasted, screen-captured, stored in caches, and caught on way-back machines and freeze-pages.

The lines between sharing our thoughts and airing dirty laundry are getting blurrier. I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about our feelings, but bear in mind that sometimes a little mystery goes a long way. We don’t have to leap head first onto every bandwagon that comes along just because we want to be heard.

There are certain topics I’d never discuss at a dinner party, and those same topics will never be discussed here.

What If Your First Drafts Fall Short of the Mark?

A topic that’s caught my eye recently is whether an author should over-write or under-write the first draft of their story. A number of people find it much easier hacking unnecessary words, paragraphs and scenes from their first drafts, rather than trying to pad out existing scenes or add new ones later. I think this is down to personal preference as well as practise. What works for one person won’t work for the next.

I have a first draft of a YA sci-fi novel which I estimated to turn out 70-80k words. I usually aim for around 80-100k for finished YA stories, so that additional 10-20k words is my leeway during edits. However, the first draft of this particular novel is currently 58k words. A number of my chapters are sparse and I hurried them just to get my ideas down. This has never happened before, and immediately upon completing the draft, I panicked. It just seemed way too short. I needed to remind myself that early drafts can work as skeletons, giving you networks and boundaries (the bones), but the story does not end there. It will continue to grow its internal organs and flesh as I rewrite. Panic over. I think, with this particular novel, I was crashing through the first draft so I didn’t become distracted by the important plot milestones. Hopefully that’s a good thing, and it means I was more focused on the bigger picture rather than too tangled in the finer details.

I have writer friends whose first drafts have come out hundreds of thousands of words too long. Key plot and character development has become lost beneath all the worldbuilding and scene-setting. This is fine. They work hard to chip away the bits that readers don’t need to have spelled out. Most smart readers can fill in the gaps themselves, if you leave enough hints.

What about you? Do you spill every idea or thought onto the page then cut away the excess afterwards? Or do you start with a skeletal foundation and build up from there? I’m also interested to hear who’s tried it both ways, and which way has worked best for you.

On the Pesky Nature of Giving Creative Writing Advice

I love the writing article There Are No Rules – Just Results, by Nicola Morgan of Help! I Need a Publisher! Why? Because this is exactly how I try to approach not only my own writing, but the writing of fellow authors. It’s about creative writing advice, and how much or how little to give. To quote from the post:

Please. Just write your book in whatever way works for you, even if that means hanging from a chandelier naked. It will be judged only on the result. Don’t get hung up on method, or at least on other people’s methods. You will find what works for you and that’s all that matters.

This is sterling advice. There’s nothing at all wrong with reading about an author’s methods and rituals (we all have them). There’s nothing at all wrong with trying out their hints and tips. It’s often helpful finding out different places writers find inspiration and motivation. But don’t hang all your hopes on someone else’s lifestyle working for you. We should always discuss writing, the how and why and where and when; it’s healthy to be open about these things because it could help somebody out there who is struggling. The key is not to expect it to make a massive impact on your craft or output. That’s still ultimately all down to you and how you apply yourself.

I tend to steer clear of articles where authors outright tell others The Best Way to write or What Not To Do when writing. Writing is such a deeply personal and sometimes very solitary activity (unless you’re actively collaborating with others, and even then there can be stretches of solitude). I would never want to be responsible for putting a fellow author into a stressful tail-chase, just because Method A works for me. I can, however, let that author know what works for me, and then they can try it if they think it might be beneficial.

The same goes for reading. While I star books on my Goodreads account to show which ones worked for me and which didn’t, I’d never say “Don’t bother reading this.” One person’s trash is another person’s masterpiece.

So, if anyone ever asks “How do I…?” my automatic response will be, “Well, I do it like this, but you should explore all options until you find one that works for you.” It seems like the best advice I can give.

On Countersinking: Showing and Telling

This article about showing and telling is inspired by Turkey City Lexicon – A Primer for SF Workshops. It’s worth checking out the full article because it highlights some of the common clichés and pitfalls that clog up a story. The article has sci-fi in mind, although a lot of their points relate to all fiction genres.

The one I’m focusing on is countersinking. This one makes me grin because I used to do it a lot in my early writing. A couple of years ago, me and a friend set about workshopping our earliest pieces to see what we could learn. We wanted to track our improvements, see where we made creative leaps and bounds. The workshops were a riot—seeing ourselves as young, bouncy authors full of excitement and dreadful clichés. We lacked finesse and attention to detail but we had so much fun writing and developing our styles. It’s a bit like travelling back in time to meet the kid version of yourself. It’s also extremely eye-opening.

I’m way more conscious of countersinking nowadays and rarely find it slipping into my prose, but I do stumble upon it when reading other people’s work—sometimes even popular published authors. It happens to everyone.

Here is an example of countersinking:

“You have to get out of here,” he said, urging her to leave.

This is what’s happening: 

A form of expositional redundancy in which the action clearly implied in dialogue is made explicit.

Or as I like to call it, “showing and telling”. A writer shows something with action or dialogue and then immediately explains what it is with description, which is completely unnecessary. It’s obvious from the dialogue that somebody urged someone else to leave, so the explanation urging her to leave is redundant.

Newer authors tend to do this due to a lack of confidence, but like I said, some pro authors do it too. I’m quite sensitive to countersinking; it slows down a story, it’s clunky, and it makes the writing feel loose and flabby. When doing a round of edits that focus on dialogue, I’m always on the lookout for sneaky show-and-tell. And if there are any? I kill them.

It’s strange how writing peeves can bring up so many nostalgic feelings.

Things I Liked in 2010 – Nano-Fiction

If you’re ever stuck for story prompts, inspiration, titles and summaries, or you’re simply looking for a bit of a giggle, head over to the Urban Dictionary and lose a few hours of your life. I’m surprised how many times I see something there and think “That’s so ridiculous, it could make a good story / title.” If nothing else, the ideas can make for fun and random flash pieces for practise, if you have a spare ten minutes on your lunch break or before bed.

Of course, there’s a downside to everything. A couple of times me and my co-workers have invented some weird word or meaning. “Mornoon” was the latest, for that indistinct period of time between 11:50am and 12:10pm. Sadly we found it already exists on Urban Dictionary. Alas.

I’ve updated my Fiction page with the nano-fiction / twitter-length stories I wrote years ago. A lot of the good Twitter-length fiction accounts like One Forty Fiction and  Trapeze Magazine are dead now, but a couple of them are still going, and most of them still archive the old stuff.

Nanoism – This has been around for a long time. The quality is high and the author voices are fresh and varied. I’m happy to see this is still active.

Very Short Stories – Also still active. Written by the same person and, as far as I know, he does not accept submissions (correct me if I’m wrong).

7×20 – This is on WordPress and Twitter. They only accept 140 characters, despite the recent increase in length. But that’s part of the challenge.

Vampires, Werewolves and Zombies

A few years ago I had a small zombie story published (more about that soon, including a cover I designed for the story) at a wonderful magazine called KaleidotropeAt the time I submitted the story I was extremely nervous. I knew damn well that selling anything containing vampires, werewolves and zombies was a hard sell. Back then a lot of the submission guidelines I encountered specifically stated that they would not entertain these creatures. It was pretty disheartening.

The story sold. It was a genuine surprise. It wasn’t that I had no faith in my idea or my characters – I was and still am happy with the piece. But getting a zombie story through slush readers and onto an editor’s desk seemed like a miracle to me.

I’m so grateful to Kaleidotrope for publishing it. That little story even earned a short review at Locus Online, which is ever so groovy.

Vampires, werewolves and zombies still seem to have a fairly bad literary reputation. A handful of authors and magazines I’ve checked out over the years have written – and published – well-written, strong monster fiction. You often hear the phrase “there’s no such thing as an original idea” banded around the writing community, and yet writers reinvent ideas and genres all the time. It’s what we’re born to do.

I’m interested in fresh (or maybe that should be decaying, in the case of zombies) spins. Damnit, bring me the undead in all their slinking, salivating, putrid glory. But give me something new as well, even if it’s only a detail here, or a nudge there to some unchartered territory.

All this said, I can imagine how tedious it is to wade through the same generic plots day in, day out. The general frustration is apparent in a lot of submission guidelines, and as I’ve never read slush or edited a publication, I can’t fully sympathise with slush readers and editors.

So here is a small handful of monster fiction that I’ve liked.

  • Feature Development for Social Networking, by Benjamin Rosenbaum. What spreads just as fast as a zombie outbreak? News on social media. (Zombies)
  • Up, by James Hargrave. A brutal night-in-the-life. (Vampires)
  • Teeth, an anthology edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, featuring stories by Neil Gaiman, Holly Black, Catherynne M. Valente, and many more. (Vampires)
  • Finisterre, by Maria Deira. (Werewolves)
  • The Days of Flaming Motorcycles, by Catherynne M. Valente. (Zombies)

I’ll add to this list as I find more stories. I’m not including all novels and anthologies, as they’re easy to search for on sites like Amazon or Goodreads.

Writing Cliches: The Underworld is Dim, But Comfortable

The room was dimly lit, with threadbare carpets and an overstuffed armchair in one corner.

There are far too many dimly lit rooms and overstuffed chairs. Surely people in fictional universes can figure out how to screw in a sensible wattage light bulb or get LEDs? Those with advanced technology or a bit of disposable cash really have no excuse. Surely furniture manufacturers can work out how much stuffing goes into an average-sized chair. If it’s bulging and looks ready to burst, it’s probably a good idea to stop stuffing.

I wonder if this is a collective subconscious thing, where us writers worry that we’re just a bunch of dim, overstuffed creatures. Which is not the case. We are (generally) awesome.

In the Fiction Cliche Dante’s Hell, a level is reserved especially for people doomed to cram wads of foam into straining cushion covers, their knuckles raw and bloody. All the while, emaciated chairs stalk around with whips, reprimanding any of those lazy chair-stuffers for slacking.

Yeah. It could happen.

Everyone is guilty of hitting the writing cliches button from time to time. Occasionally a writer will use a cliche on purpose, to make a point, to parody, or just because they have balls. These two cliches are big bugbears for me, but that isn’t to say they will stop me from finishing a story I’m otherwise enjoying.

I’d like to hear what your bugbears are when it comes to writing cliches or overused descriptions. Which ones are you happy to let slide?

Time Travelling, Awkwardly

Something that can always pull me out of a story is the unlikely passage of time. It’s something that probably shouldn’t bother me, and I try not to let it, but logic often taps on my skull and it snags my brain. This is what I’m talking about:

They paused and stared at each other for a few minutes. “Ok, you can drive,” she finally said.

A few seconds can sometimes feel like an age staring at somebody in silence in the middle of a conversation or action. Imagine how creepy and weird a few minutes must feel. Have you ever actually timed, say, three minutes, paying attention to how long you’re silent and counting? Yeah, it’s a long, long time. Time enough to go make a cup of tea. Or a sandwich. While Character A is gawping at you for “long minutes” in shock, you could have popped to the supermarket and resupplied your cupboards or started catching up on the latest Blacklist.

When I’m trying to show the passage of time in my stories, I generally time how long something could take. So a character staring at another in shock might only be three seconds before somebody speaks or takes action. Three. Seconds. Not three minutes. There is a big ol’ difference.

To be fair, it’s not always easy to keep track of these things, especially if you’re powerhousing through draft after draft of a story – it’s easy to go unnoticed. I bet I could find a few in my own stories; those pesky details that slip through all the nets because, until you stop and think about them, they aren’t obvious. But it might be worth logic-checking the passage of time, just for the unfortunate people like me who tend to stop reading to boggle at how incredibly awkward that three minute “shocked pause” must be.

New Blog, Much Tidier

I’m moving my Dreamwidth blog to WordPress for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Photobucket recently switched to a paid image hosting platform and almost all of my old images display as a ghastly Photobucket placeholder. Secondly, WordPress is just a cleaner, fresher place to be. The fact that so many of my posts are broken on Dreamwidth bothers me too much, so I’m bringing content that I think is still relevant or interesting here.

I have written a lot about writing and reading, shared a lot of graphic design and artwork, and talked a great deal about life in general over the years. It would be a shame for it all to get lost under placeholder pics. This is a laborious task, however, and it will take some time weeding out the good stuff and discarding the irrelevant. Please bear with.

Find me on Twitter, Instagram (predominantly graphic design), Goodreads and various other places. I will blog here from now on, though I still might mirror relevant posts to my Dreamwidth journal from time to time.

I still run my graphic design business at J. Oliver Designs, where I create promotional posters, book and story covers, business card designs, website banners and graphics, as well as corporate material. I love designing for fellow authors so if you’re a writer looking for a cover or promo graphic, drop me a line.

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