An Interview with the Dream Foundry's Writing Contest Coordinator Julia Rios

Julia Rios (they/them) is a queer, Latinx writer, editor, podcaster, and narrator whose fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in Latin American Literature Today, Lightspeed, and Goblin Fruit, among other places. Their editing work has won multiple awards including the Hugo Award. Julia is a co-host of This is Why We’re Like This, a podcast about the movies we watch in childhood that shape our lives, for better or for worse. They’ve narrated stories for Escape Pod, Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders. They’re @omgjulia on Twitter.
Can you tell us a bit about the process of reading and evaluating submissions? How does it differ – if at all – from reading slush for a magazine?
Reading and evaluating submissions for this contest is a bit different from reading magazine submissions. When I read for a magazine, I am looking specifically for pieces that fit the tone of the publication. For example, I had an open reading period for my Worlds of Possibility project earlier in the year, and for that I was specifically looking for pieces that felt hopeful or uplifting in some way. For the contest, there's no theme or tone, so it's okay if a story is very grim, even if that would be an automatic no for Worlds of Possibility. I also might know fairly quickly if a piece feels like a good fit for a specific publication, and so I might stop reading once I am sure of that. With the contest entries, I always read all the way to the end to see what the story is like as a whole.
Professional development spaces for emerging writers are not necessarily easily accessible to those who need it most. How do you see open submission opportunities fitting into the professional development of new and upcoming writers?
I think one of the best ways to develop as a writer is by practice. The more experience you get sending your work out, the more practice you have with writing, following guidelines, and getting experience with weathering the inevitable barrage of rejections that almost every writer will receive over the course of a writing career. Sometimes you may receive some feedback in a response, and that may be helpful, but it's also important to remember that the majority of responses won't include personal feedback, and that's okay, too. All of it adds to the experience and the practice of writing and submitting work.
I think it's also great if you can find peers to do critique swaps, or even take classes where critique is part of the class, but submitting is valuable in a different way.
Do you have any advice on how emerging writers can get the most out of participating in the writing contest?
Don't self-reject! Understand that the vast majority of entries will not become finalists, but a few will, and you never know if yours might be one! Also, remember that participating in itself is a kind of victory. You've put your work out there! That's a win!
What kind of experience do you believe transfers from the writing contest to publishing at large? What can emerging writers learn from this process?
Participating in this contest is good practice for other kinds of submissions. Writers who enter will have written a story! That's arguably the most important part of developing as a writer. They also have gone through the process of reading guidelines and making sure their story submission fits those guidelines. That's really important for submissions in general. Finally, if you enter the contest, you can also submit your contest story to other venues because this contest does not include publication. Since you've already sent it to us, why not send it to others, too?
It's been increasingly difficult for creatives to feel motivated given the state of the world. How have you been finding joy in your craft these past few years? How are you finding yourself navigating the state of publishing?
This is a hard one! I personally have been dealing with things by letting myself rest a lot and also searching for things that bring me joy. I mentioned before that my Worlds of Possibility project is focused on hopeful or uplifting stories, and that's because I have personally felt like that's what I want and need to read right now. I've also tried to be very conscious of how much I allow myself to dwell on social media and the news cycle. It can be really easy to get sucked into those things and feel sad or angry and use too much energy on that rather than self care and my own work. If I start to feel overwhelmed, I try to take a step back and ask why. What have I been focusing on and what can I change? Sometimes a quick fix like taking a walk or a nap will help. Other times, I need to give myself more time and care. I think it's important to remember that creativity takes energy. Much like athletes need to take care of their bodies for competition, writers need to take care of their minds. And bodies, too! Don't forget to move around and eat and sleep and all that! As for how to navigate the state of publishing, one thing I have learned over time is that publishing is always in a state of crisis in one way or another. The only way to deal with that is to focus on the things I can control, which is to say, doing my own work.

Writing Prose in Game Worlds

Whenever I tell people I’ve written a novel set in a videogame universe, one of the most common responses is, “that sounds like fun!” They’re not wrong! But what I found was that making sure it’s fun, for both the writer and the reader, required developing a slightly new way of thinking about storytelling, even though I’d written both novels and games before.

If we think about what makes games fun, we tend to come up with two basic categories: the gameplay or ludic elements, and the narrative elements. Games can fall anywhere on a broad spectrum of how much of the experience is playing and how much is experiencing a story, and the distinction can be quite fuzzy: for example, if your player character solves the puzzle that tells him why his father disappeared years ago, that is a moment for character growth and plot movement as well as player interactivity.

It's tempting to think of tie-in fiction as simply representing the narrative half of the game world, with the ludic elements cut away. At its most basic, related fiction will tell a story set in the same universe as the game, and possibly with some of the same characters or plot elements. And hey, game settings do tend to be pretty cool.

But I found it helpful to think of tie-in fiction as another way to partake in the experience that makes the game great, not just part of the lore. If what makes a particular game fun for players is, say, dungeon building, then how cool is it to get the chance to linger a little over a cleverly designed lair in prose? If the game focuses on the acquisition of skills, maybe the fiction gives the reader a chance to experience a training sequence with more time to think about the subtle and complex emotions involved. Maybe the fiction can explore and expand on some of the same vicarious experiences that make the game cool, using a tool the game doesn’t have: linear prose. The reader doesn’t have a player character, but they do have a way in to the story through point-of-view.

Playing to your format’s strengths

Of course, I should caution against taking the idea above too far, or too literally, and having the characters in your story or novel levelling up their stats or cataloguing their weapons. What is fun in a game can easily become boring or seem artificial in prose. Each should take full advantage of its own format. 

Prose can do things that games can’t, and games can do things that novels can’t. But prose can be immersive and satisfying. And in a certain sense, it can be interactive. The reader can be engaged in trying to figure out a twist or a mystery – isn’t that just solving puzzles, in a way? The reader will be rooting for or against a character, and watching characters grow and change. As I was writing, I often reminded myself that reading a novel isn’t any more passive than playing a game.  

Another thing that prose can do is fill out parts of the world or backstory in detail that games may not have room to include. This can be a bit of a challenge for the writer, in fact: with more narrative space to work with, there may be parts of the world or your characters’ lives that you need to imagine without having seen them in the game.

The business side

In my experience, a writer can have a surprising amount of latitude and creativity, telling their own story inside an expansive world. But of course, that will vary by project and universe. So will the terms of your contract, but in general, there are a few business-related things to consider. 

Any prose you write in a game universe will almost certainly be work for hire, which means it’s not your intellectual property. You may have to keep some things confidential, and you may need to consider canon and the larger universe. You may need approval for your outlines and for the final manuscript. And as with all tie-in work, deadlines can be tighter than in other kinds of publishing.

But as long as you go into it with your expectations clear, it can indeed be a lot of fun. It’s a chance to extend a hand to a reader and say: come on, let’s play together.

Publishing Checklist: Making Books

When I started Queen of Swords Press in 2017, one of the things that I knew I wanted was a checklist of the steps to publishing a book in multiple formats and getting it out the door. None of the ones I ran across met all my needs for running through a series of steps to publication in both ebook and print format. I figured it out as I went, but never got around to putting it in a document until now. This is my current process, which should hopefully make for a good jumping off point.

Things to prep before release:


  • Cover art planning – what do other books in your genre look like? You don’t want to reuse stock photos or art that everyone else is using, but you do want the book to have a look that is recognizable to your potential readers.
  • Get your manuscript edited and sort out your cover art and print book design.
  • Get an ebook formatting program if you’re doing your own.


  • Decide what platforms you want your books to be on and what formats you want to publish in.
  • Buy ISBNs: you can get these from Bowker or in some cases, from your distributors - you need them if you want your print book to show up for libraries and bookstores.
  • Pricing research - what do books in your book’s genre/subgenre cost, on average? What’s your cost for producing your book?
  • Account setup for distribution platforms, whichever ones you’re using – Amazon, Ingram, Smashwords/Draft2Digital, etc.
  • Build a website and set up social media accounts, if you don’t have them already.
  • Announcements - how are people going to find out about your book? Where do you plan to send these and when do you need to send them? Many venues, forthcoming book lists, etc., require lead time. Getting your book listed in the Library of Congress’s catalogue, big review sites like Publishers Weekly, etc., require more lead time. You need cover art, book description, ISBN, etc. ready to go 3-4 (sometimes more) months in order to get considered by these venues. Plan ahead.
  • Compile a list of review sites to send the book to when you have ARCs.
  • Request any blurbs or early reviews that you are hoping to get.

Things to do shortly before your book comes out:

  • Create a press kit, which includes:
    • A small image of the cover art in 300 dpi
    • Relevant ISBNs and cover prices for each format
    • Number of pages
    • Release Date
    • The name and contact for the publisher 
    • Buy Links
    • Review clips (2-3 lines and the name of the reviewer)
    • A short description of the book (less than 400 words).
    • A tagline – this can be a short description of the book or the mood of the book. For instance, our forthcoming title has this one: “One week to save the child, bargain with Death and get the girl…” Another is: “Dapper. Lesbian. Capybara. Pirate.” This attracts attention and will often get people to pick up the book for a closer look.
    • A longer description of the book, generally 2-3 paragraphs. This can also double  as your book blurb; you’ll need it for both the back cover (print) and distribution websites.
    • An excerpt clearly flagged as an excerpt – generally about 500 words. I try to pick a point that isn’t very far into the book to avoid spoilers but is reasonably fast-paced and compelling.
  • Create a press release, which is used for media outlets and other locations that require them. This is shorter and punchier than a press kit and also can be added as a downloadable document on your website for press contacts.
  • Set up some release events. This can be anything from a reading to a book signing to a blog tour or an online reading. Preferably a mix of online and in person events spread out over a couple of months, if you can manage it.
  • Load up your files and your cover art and get those preorders out there.
  • Tell people about it on your website and social media and convention panels and other appropriate venues (but not in places to which you have not been invited to promote your books).

And you’re set! I don’t have a process for audiobooks yet, but imagine it will be similar, apart from the production portion of it. Now get out there and sell some books!

A Bookseller's Guide to Comp Titles: Hand-Selling Yourself

Welcome to another installment of Lauren Talks About People Talking About Books! Let’s get into hand-selling.

In bookselling, hand-selling is when you tell a customer what book to buy, and then they buy it. Bookstore customers are easily startled by even the gentlest offer of help, so usually hand-selling occurs when the customer has explicitly asked for advice.

Now, customers are notoriously bad at asking for the book they want, which makes sense, because brains are meat labyrinths powered by lightning. It used to be in the window and the cover was blue! It was a history book that was on NPR last week! I can’t think of a single book I’ve ever liked, but I want you to recommend me a book!

But usually it goes like this: they tell me a couple of books or TV shows they really like, I read between the lines to figure out what the common element is, and then I pull about twelve books from the shelf, with a little impromptu pitch for each one. It’s a fun puzzle, and I get huge satisfaction from nudging readers toward books by women, queer and trans authors, authors of color, and books in translation.

Then one day I met my match: a customer who wanted a book just like Ender’s Game and Ready Player One.

Orson Scott Card is notoriously homophobic and Ready Player One has some starkly  transphobic moments. As a queer bookseller, my first reaction was “hell no!” But here’s the thing-- maybe that customer really did like those books because he’s deeply invested in the straight, cis, white male perspective. Or maybe he just likes to read popular space operas! From those two books alone, I don’t actually know.

(Tip: When you query, you want agents to know what you mean by your comps.)

I don’t remember what books I actually gave this customer. But here’s what I’d do now: I’d pretend to assume he just likes splashy space operas, and I’d direct him toward the wealth of queer space operas being published right now. Becky Chambers, Ann Leckie, Alex White, Valerie Valdes. If he seemed immediately resistant to those, I’d fall back to the Expanse series-- it’s still dudely, but not so toxic.

Now let’s run that exercise backwards. Orson Scott Card, Ernest Cline, Becky Chambers, Ann Leckie, Alex White, Valerie Valdes, James S.A. Corey. What do different combinations of those six authors communicate?

  • Orson Scott Card + Ernest Cline: Socially conservative adventure SF, for people who like the 1980s. Pew pew.
  • Ernest Cline + Becky Chambers: This is a fun romp, but the author is probably not queer and not good at parsing subtext. Pew pew.
  • Orson Scott Card + James S.A. Corey: Readable and dudely and probably in space. The author is very interested in fictional politics and can afford to be bored by real-life politics.
  • Ann Leckie + Alex White: This will seem like an ordinary space opera until it turns your brain inside out.
  • Becky Chambers + Valerie Valdes: Zany multi-species adventure-romances in space, will make you speculate about the uses of various alien appendages. Pew pew.

Any of these authors are plausible comps for a space opera! But different combinations of authors send VERY different messages. (And some of them, frankly, are confusing combinations! Beloveds, it will never serve you to pitch a book as Orson Scott Card meets Becky Chambers.) So when you choose your comps, don’t just think about whether they capture what your book does-- think about whether they suggest a type of book that you didn’t write. 

Let’s go back to last week’s fantasy novel with the cane-using heroine. If you pitch it as Tasha Suri meets C.L. Clark, and then I learn that the heroine is white, the setting is Fantasy England, and the romance is straight? That’s a problem. Even if there are real reasons for comping to each of those authors, when you put them next to each other, the people expect revenge lesbians of color!

So once you’ve got your comps mostly settled, ask yourself: if a stranger said these were their two favorite books, are you really sure they’d love your book, too? Or is there a different book that that person is hoping to find?

And ditch the bigots.


Lastly: you can’t hand-sell someone on a book they don’t want. It doesn’t work. My Ender’s Game/Ready Player One customer was never going to walk out of the store with a Sofia Samatar. 

So don’t worry about your comps being the splashiest or trendiest. Worry about them being recognizable, coherent, and true to your novel. Honesty sells books.

A Bookseller's Guide to Comp Titles: Browsing for Your Book

As a former bookseller and current agent assistant, I am an expert in only one thing: the ways people think about books, and the ways people don’t realize they think about books. I am, weirdly enough, an expert in comp titles.

The reason there are so many “rules” about comp titles is that there are no real rules about comp titles. More than any other part of a query package, comps are where snap judgment comes into play. And snap judgment is still pretty unhackable.

So let’s talk about some of the big stressful “rules,” and what snap judgments are behind them.

You’re not allowed to comp to anything popular: Of course you should comp to popular books! If you comp to an obscure book, then nobody will know what you mean. You should comp to books that lots of people loved, and that almost any genre reader would recognize. 

But imagine this. You’re chatting with a friend of a friend, you mention that you’re into science fiction, and they say, “Oh, I loved The Hunger Games!” What’s your reaction? Probably that they’re not very well-read in genre fiction, right? Not the impression you want to be making in a query letter. In other words-- if the book was turned into a blockbuster, career-launching movie franchise, maybe find another comp. Otherwise, you’re fine. 

Your comps must be between two and five years old: This rule is impossible and ridiculous. If you have really great, really recent comps, by all means use them! If not, let go of this rule and be free. 

However, an agent’s job is to sell your book into the market that exists right now, so your comps need to feel fresh and relevant. It should feel like your comps could be published next year. If you tell someone your book is like Frankenstein, well, we’ve already got a Frankenstein, and the genre is wildly different now. But if you say it’s like Frankenstein meets Annihilation, you have my attention.

Your comps must be books: Nope! But again, an agent’s job is to sell books. So comp to movies and shows and video games all you want, as long as you’re confident that someone will say, “The Americans meets Terminator? Yes, I see how that’s a novel, and I want to read it.” 


Enough about rules. 

Instead, think about the way you browse for books at the bookstore. Think about the snap judgments you make. Probably you wander around the fiction and SFF sections, scanning for a title that catches your eye. Probably you have a pretty good idea whether you want a doorstopper or a novella or something in between. 

And if a book is stocked with the cover faced out, maybe the cover will grab you.

You might pick it up because it reminds you of eight other books you’ve already loved. (I personally will pick up any book with a cut-paper style cover.) Or maybe because you’ve never seen a cover like that before, and you’re dying to know how the robot and the neon iguana fit together. 

In a query, your comp titles do the job of a book cover. They’re the overture, the mood lighting, the spice mix. Do you want to prepare the agent for a comfort read in a beloved subgenre, or do you want them to be intrigued by a combination of comps they’ve never seen before? Or maybe a little of both? 

And remember, we’re mostly talking about the vibe of the book, not the content. So if your fantasy heroine has muscular dystrophy, her mobility aids will probably be on the cover. But they wouldn’t define the style of the cover. So don’t worry about finding another fantasy heroine with mobility aids-- instead, try and match the feeling of your book: sweeping, immersive, and inclusive.

If you wrote an epic that deserves a gorgeous, moody painted cover featuring a badass brown lesbian and her canes, maybe you pitch it as “for fans of Tasha Suri and C.L. Clark, featuring a disabled protagonist.” Or if it’s a litfic crossover that needs one of those graphic folk art-inspired covers, maybe it’s “Uprooted as written by Madeleine Miller, with the anti-ableist rage of Nicola Griffith.” 

I’d read both of those books! And more importantly, I can immediately feel the difference between them.

(As for the robot/iguana book-- it’s Frankenstein meets Annihilation, of course!)

Next week, I’ll get deeper into bookselling, the arcane art of the hand-sell, and how to use the principles of hand-selling to stress-test your comps. Until then, sweet dreams of a foil-stamped cover with your name on it.

Crafting an Anthology

There’s a lot that goes into building an anthology, but let’s start with the basics. An anthology is a collection of works (stories, articles, poems, etc.) by multiple authors while a collection includes work by a single author. Anthologies may have an overarching theme tying the stories together or no theme and can have one editor or multiple editors. 

What’s an anthology theme? This is the topic that links all the stories, to one degree or another. It can run from something very specific, like Clarion Graduates of 2250, to the more general Horses in Fantasy or Cats in Space. Why do anthologies have themes? The usual reasons include ease of marketing, a draw for certain authors and tapping into one or more specific audiences. Do they have to have themes? Nope. It can be helpful, but it can also limit your audience to some extent if a reader likes a given author but isn’t excited about the theme.

Where do anthologies come from? There are two main paths and many side routes:

  1. An editor (or a team) has an idea and pitches that idea to a publisher. The publisher accepts the idea, agrees to figure out some or all of the funding and the editor/team finds the authors and stories.
  2. An editor/team has an idea, assembles authors and stories and either puts the book out themselves or pitches the complete proposal or even the completed book to a publisher.

If you are reading this because you are considering editing an anthology yourself, bear in mind that while it can be very fulfilling, it is also very time and energy consuming. It can also be expensive, depending on how you are handling cover art, copy edits, paying authors, shipping and other factors. Being excited about the project for a lengthy period of time will definitely help so choose wisely.

How are anthologies funded? Generally speaking, one of two ways:

  1. Directly by a publisher, editor(s) or even by the authors themselves as a collaborative project.
  2. Crowd-funded. There are many reasons for this approach, ranging from the painful fact that many anthologies do not earn out or even cover their costs to achieving the kind of lift that a successful crowd-funding campaign can give to a project. 

Whether you are writing for an anthology or planning on editing/publishing one, it is helpful to know how it’s getting paid for. If the authors get paid a percentage of the sales, for example, the book needs to be selling in quantity in order for them to get paid. If it’s dependent on a crowd-funding campaign to pay for everything, then that needs to be successful or nobody gets paid for their time. Anthology costs can include everything from cover art to author royalties, copyediting, book design, ISBNs, mailing books to contributors and more. There may also be additional rewards for a crowd-funding campaign. Factor all this into your budget if you are the one planning the anthology.

How do authors find out about anthologies? They usually fall into the following categories:

  1. Invitation-only. The editor and/or publisher determine which authors will receive an invitation to write for the book. Getting an invite is often a matter of a combination of networking and publication track record. 
  2. Open call. This means that anyone can submit before the deadline if they think their story is a fit.
  3. Mixing things up. The editor might request stories from specific authors and do an open call for the rest, or vice versa if they’re not seeing the kind of stories that they want.

Where do editors find writers for an open call? They generally use a “call for stories/submissions (CFS).” These are the guidelines that an editor puts out on a website, newsletter, online group or writer’s forum that includes the theme (if any), word count, deadlines, what kind of stories they do or don’t want to see, payment information and more. You can find them by joining a Facebook group that posts CFS, following publishers and editors on Twitter or other media, subscribing to newsletters, checking out websites like, etc.

What does the anthology editor do with those submissions? They send out acceptances and rejections, decide on story order and word count, send out author contracts and all the other pieces that go into creating a good anthology. Note for those of you who are authors: anthologies generally sell better when the authors actively promote the book and that usually benefits everyone in the long run. At the end of the day, each anthology is unique and everyone involved has a part to play in that.

Using Comic Scripts to Outline Your Fiction

I- An Introduction To Outlining With Your Comic Script

Sometimes, outlining is a never-ending struggle. Too much? Too little? You can never really tell until you finally start writing that first draft. That may seem like a stretch, but keep in mind that to a good deal of writers, the outlining process stretches way past the planning stages and well into the actual writing. 

I can already hear the pantsers reading this groaning. 

Yes, outlining can be a pain, but it is an effective one. Recently, by dabbling in both comic book and short story writing,  I’ve stumbled upon a method to outlining that not only cuts down on the number of drafts I need but streamlines my entire writing process.


II - How It’s Done

These days, before I begin writing my first draft, I take my rough bullet points of the events and use them to write the entire story out in comic book script form. Only when it is complete, do I adapt that script into prose. All you need to know going in is how to write a comic book script. 

The script could look like this:

The sample above exhibits the core elements of a script—namely the panel by panel breakdown, the description that follows each, and the characters’ dialogue in that story beat. Although the dialogue will be identical to what you’ll have in your book, the sparse descriptions will probably look nothing like the final prose. The descriptions there only give you an idea of what you want to talk about during each story beat. Keep in mind, though, that there’s no need for it to be this sparse. It can be as polished and detailed as you’d like (which would save you even more time when you write the draft). 

One underutilized aspect of comic scripts to note is the dialogue descriptor. After each speaker’s name, you can insert a word or two that describes the way in which something is said. While you can include it in the panel description, this dialogue descriptor will free it from clutter and make the script easier to read when the same character says multiple things in one panel. 

Naturally, not everything will come into play when adapting your script into prose. I add panel descriptors because I also want the script to stand on its own in case I want to have it illustrated, but they’re pretty much negligible when it comes to writing your book. 


III: Why A Comic Script?

This method isn’t always necessary when it comes to short fiction, and it could be tedious when it comes to novels, but it has yet to fail me when I’ve hit a roadblock. Think of it as the writer’s equivalent of a storyboard. It’s easier to envision the rest of the story when you only need to focus on the dialogue and action. 

But why not turn it into a play or a film script?

Because comic book scripts break down the narrative into panels. Each panel maps out every needed story beat with both dialogue and description in a way that other script formats tend to gloss over in favor of a dialogue-centric approach. That’s why this outlining method works best with action-heavy narratives. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t be used for stories that focus on character. But when used with character-heavy narratives, understand that the focus of the narrative shifts from internal cues to external ones as a means of communicating a character’s arc. 

This brings us to the underlying benefit of outlining with comic scripts: its emphasis on the action and descriptive cues in your story as opposed to excessive info-dumps. To me, the well-worn adage “show, don’t tell” holds true in prose as it does in any visual medium. For example, a small verbal quip or physical reaction after an intimate, dialogue-heavy encounter can make a situation feel even more real in its understatement. 

So instead of telling readers that one of the characters is angry, you can focus on the “showing” by writing a panel that has him grit his teeth or curl his hand into a fist. These story beats can easily be adapted into prose and make sure you provide exposition through your prose only when necessary. That’ll get you out of the habit of over-writing and cut down on the tedious editing that comes with it.

This approach’s primary advantage is letting you gauge early on whether or not you have a solid story on your hands. Some authors write the loveliest prose, but it may mask a weak story with bland characters. Comic scripts let you judge a story based on its own merits and make the necessary adjustments before you write your first draft. If you make these adjustments after, you usually have to go back and touch up whatever doesn’t fit anymore by rewriting entire passages from scratch.


IV Conclusion

In the end, what it comes down to is practicality. It’s just faster and simpler to plot and edit your story with a comic script than to hurriedly jot down a relatively scanty traditional outline and try to figure things out from there in your drafts. Some godly writers can pump out prose in reams, but to us average joes with day jobs, writing takes a lot of time and effort, and anything that can make the process easier on us is absolutely worth it. 

Even better, when you’re finally done, you’ll also have a comic book script on hand and ready to sell. 

Words that Sell: Writing Marketing Copy for Your Novel

Let’s begin with the notion that brevity and clarity are the soul of wit. Or, at least, are the basis for what you can use to make your books stand out in a good way and attract a reader’s attention. Do readers automagically buy a book on the first reading of your best and most fabulous copy? Sometimes! In any case, writing good marketing copy helps your work find its people, and that is the name of the game.

What does marketing copy include? 

  • Your book description. This includes the two to three paragraphs that appear on the back of print copies of your book (we’re assuming you’re writing your own here) as well as on the websites that will sell your book. You will need short (a couple of lines) and long descriptions to upload your books onto the various sales platforms. 
  • Blurb – Sometimes used interchangeably with the description, but generally this refers to nice things another author says about your book. You don’t write this kind of review blurb, but you can decide which phrases to quote for the most impact.
  • Taglines. These are short phrases that capture the tone of the book. “Airships. Piracy. Murder. The Occasional Cup of Tea…” is the tagline for one of our steampunk titles, for example. “Winning What You Want May Cost You Everything” is another very popular example. Taglines are used on the back of your book and can be added to the description on sales platforms. 

Common mistakes:

  • The description is too long, detailed and/or dull.
  • The description tells the reader nothing about the book.
  • Blurbs rely on overused words and clichés.
  • Taglines are trite and/or tell the reader nothing about the book.
  • There are typos or grammatical errors.

Think of your description as something akin to an elevator pitch for your book. You’re aiming for something that a potential book buyer can skim quickly. Limit yourself to 3-4 sentences per paragraph and stick to 2. The description should include:

  • A lead in to your central conflict.
  • The name of your main character or characters (assuming a smallish cast).
  • Enough information to tell someone what kind of story they’re looking at.
  • Emotional payoff: what will they get from buying your book?  This can be stated (“Fall in love all over again”) or implied (“X must happen to do Y. But at what cost? The empire is about to find out.”)

There is really only one kind of reader that you’re looking for and that’s the one who that description will speak to, thereby inspiring them to buy and read your book. Not everyone who’s ever read a book or even all fans of your particular genre.  Think about that reader when you write your copy.

Are you writing your copy for the first time?

  • Do some research. Look at what other writers in your genre are writing about their books. Look at the word choices and descriptions and see what works for you, as well as what doesn’t.  
  • Make a list of things that resonate. Does a phrase intrigue you enough to want to learn more about that book? Can you come up with an original description of your own book that works the same way for you?
  • Make a list of other things you’re seeing as well – are some words and phrases overused? Just not working for you?

Look at taglines and ads too: 

  • Do they sound intriguing?
  • Do they sound enthusiastic?
  • Would you considered buying this book based on how they present it?

Some day, when we can have book tables at conventions again, it’s very helpful to watch people when they pick up your books and read the back. That reaction can be magical or disappointing, but either way, it tells you when your copy grabs someone’s attention. In the meantime, look at your reviews, particularly the ones from readers. If they are consistently “expecting something else,” that may be a sign to review your marketing copy and ask writer friends to help you vet it. Look at your click throughs too, if you are running ads, and experiment with those. And finally, bear in mind that mistakes are generally fixable. Marketing copy doesn’t need to be static and can grow with your work.

The Craft of Critiques

Giving critiques is something of an art, and it's a skill that most writers should learn to cultivate early on. After all, one of the first community experiences you'll get when you start writing is being asked to provide feedback to other writers. You might start a critique group, you might just trade critiques for critiques, you might even make friends who end up being your primary critique partners. It's not only useful for other writers, but it's useful for you as you grow in your craft and to foster a healthy community of writers. And it stands to reason that, well, we don't actually learn how to critique each other. Instead, a lot of us learned how to provide feedback by keeping various "rules" of writing in our heads like a checklist. Unfortunately, the checklist method is both unfair to different perspectives and unwieldy to "non-standard" writing. And as speculative fiction writers, isn't "non-standard" something we should strive for?

This article is a bit of a cross between a guide and a collection of resources to help you wire your brain for critiquing. Above all, remember that you're looking at work from your peers, who have also poured in the effort and heart as you have into their work. Good etiquette will help you find your footing in the writing community.

Mary Robinette Kowal outlines good etiquette in her guide here:


Another, more detailed resource is Valerie Valdes' "How to Critique."

As much as we want to provide the How to fix when writing critiques, the most useful thing we can do is to give our gut reactions. The reason for this is that as outsiders, we might not know exactly what the writer is trying to achieve. Instead, we can provide hints to the writer at how their work is going to be received. As writers, we might be too close to know where our execution has failed but gut reaction feedback can then tell us how to tweak the work to ensure that our execution is more precise. Frame your gut instincts as exactly that: use "I" statements to make it clear where these sentiments are coming from and avoid anything too prescriptive (i.e. saying "you must do x" or "y doesn't work" or "you should never include z" vs "I didn't feel like y worked for me" or "I was confused by z")

Last year, I wrote a blog post over on my personal site. It's meant to be a way to supplement your critiquing method, to help you learn to look at stories as a whole and to curate your feedback based off what it seems like the writer is trying to achieve. Rather than superimposing your own likes and dislikes onto a story, you should identify your own biases and attempt to critique a work outside of that.

But don't let it all be negative - finding what worked for you is just as important as finding what didn't. Include the bits you liked, the bits that you intrigued you or you felt like was well-executed the story's favour. Did you like the concept? The characters? The decisions that the author made with the plot? Maybe the worldbuilding intrigued you, or maybe the themes resonated. Those are all things to articulate in your critique as well. The positives don't have to feel cloying or fake: they show that you, the critiquer, paid attention to the story and was able to appreciate the work that was put into it.

Remember to be constructive! Your goal isn't to put down your peers, it's to help them make the best out of their work. In being constructive, you're looking to provide ways for the writer to make changes to their story in order to make the best version of it. While it's nice to say, "I like x!" that doesn't really help the writer learn what worked in the story. Instead, saying something like "I found x really reinforced the themes, but I thought it would be stronger earlier" combines the positive sentiment with something actionable and specific. Sometimes it helps to also ask questions when providing critiques, like asking what the writer was trying to achieve, so that you can try to provide more directed feedback. After all, the person getting critiqued is looking for something useful out of it.

Critiquing is such a valuable skill, both for you to help others but also for you to learn what works and what doesn't work for you so that you can implement those elements into your own writing. Being critical of others and learning the language of criticism will help you grow as a writer yourself, as you'll be able to strengthen your own analytical skills and translate that into better revisions and better drafts.

Recommending Books the Old-Fashioned Way

Recommending Books the Old-Fashioned Way without Keywords or Algorithms

As a bookseller, I am often asked for book recommendations both in the bookstore and online. Connecting someone with the right book can be a great pleasure, but giving an unfit recommendation can leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth that they’re not likely to forget. It is important to realize that reading a book is a commitment, both in time spent reading, and in emotional investment. Not every book is for everyone, and it is important to keep this in mind for booksellers and authors alike.

When asked to provide a book recommendation having read the book you are recommending is the best preparation. For this reason it is always useful when an author has provided me with an ARC (advance reading copy). I prefer to read hard copies, but many booksellers are also fine with an ebook – a cheaper solution for the author or publisher. Not every bookseller will have the time to read your book, but the gesture, and the sign of professionalism can go a long way.

To connect a reader with the right book can be tricky, especially if they are a new customer and I am unfamiliar with their tastes. Because of this I always ask what was a book they loved, and what was a book that they hated. This information is extremely helpful for narrowing down the selection, both thematically and in the density of the material that they enjoy reading. For instance if someone has enjoyed Vonnegut and Adams, I know they are looking for something light-hearted and humorous. 

Biographical information can also be super useful when connecting a reader with a book. I have found that often just sharing information about the author can be helpful in piquing the interest of the reader. For this reason, I always read the bio in the back of books to prepare me for the customer’s questions. If you are an author releasing a book do not forget to put a bio in the back, as many readers will go to this section first to see if they are interested in pursuing the book. Mention awards, interests, location etc., all of this information may interest the potential reader. Many authors use humorous or caddy bios to try and attract attention. In my experience this is generally a turn off for the reader, after-all you want the reader to take the book seriously (unless perhaps it is a book of humor). 

Genre can sometimes be a factor in purchasing a book, and it is certainly a helpful tool for marketing and where to shelve a book, however in my experience most readers read more broadly than one particular genre. Often a reader can be turned off to a book they may otherwise enjoy because of stereotypes surrounding genre. Because of this, I find it helpful to try and ascertain the more general taste of a reader, and this is why it can be helpful to include interests outside of genre when writing your bio or marketing your book. 

Other factors that may help connect a reader with your book are shelf talkers and signed bookplates. The latter is useful because many readers also collect books and many of us collect signed first editions. Signed bookplates are a great way to open up a conversation with a bookseller and often offer the extra incentive needed for the customer to take a chance on the book. 

Display space is also extremely useful for catching the customer’s eye when browsing. By putting a book on display in the bookshop it is an automatic endorsement of the book and it is more likely to sell. Often authors and publishers request that their books be on display, but I would caution against this, as display space is valuable real estate and highly coveted (some booksellers even charge for the space). If you are lucky enough to get your book featured in the display space, it is important to make sure that you have compelling cover art, and this is not an area of your book you want to skimp on. For self-published authors it is also extremely important that your book has a printed spine because otherwise it will disappear into the shelves and will likely never sell.

Ultimately, when a reader reads your book you are opening up a one way relationship and it is important to treat it like any other relationship. If your book is packaged to look like it delivers a certain type of experience than it had better live up to that expectation. The more points of entry you give the reader the more likely they are to love the book, and the more likely a bookseller is to include your book in their list of recommendations.