Our new Fantasy Writing Competition is in full swing! To help set the magic in motion, we enlisted the advice of our guest judge, Fantasy Author Jen Estes. In our Q&A, Jen gives us the inside scoop on her debut YA novel, Fifteen, advice on how to balance staying true to the Fantasy genre while avoiding clichés, and clues on setting the scene of a mythical land without overwhelming your readers.
Read on for Jen’s tips for writing a story that’s out of this world!
What do you enjoy about writing for a young adult audience?
YA readers are so open-minded. Coming from the mystery genre that's very refreshing as mysteries are very formulaic with lots of rules, such as: "the murder must occur within the first twenty pages," "the protagonist must be noble and just," and "no monsters." But with YA, the only rules are the ones the story defines: girl can meet boy on the first page and girl can kill boy on the last page because girl is really a bloodthirsty chupacabra. YA readers are too smart for formulas—they want to be surprised.
“Fifteen” is the first book of your main character Ashling's journey. Have you begun the process of planning the next installments of the series?
I have! I’ve actually just finished the first draft for “Sixteen” and it’s currently simmering on the back burner. But not because I’m procrastinating! I like to set all first drafts aside and then take a look at them with a clear mind. I’m always taken aback—read: horrified—at how many typos and plot holes are in my first drafts and how easily I spot them after these breaks. (But better I find them than an editor or a reader!)
What are you looking for in a strong competition entry?
Send me on an all-expense-paid vacation to the world you’ve created! Make it so captivating that I forget about the laundry, don’t even hear the phone ring, and choose to read instead of eating lunch. But don’t skimp on the voice! A fascinating world is only the setting—it’s your characters I want to fall in love with.
Are there specific elements of the Fantasy genre that you think writers should include? Or clichés to avoid?
Fantasy must have a “good versus evil” element – but it doesn’t have to be black and white. (Actually, grey is so much more interesting!) Another essential element is heroism, or the journey to it. (Your story doesn’t have to begin with a hero, but it does need to end with one.) I don’t mind a little romance, but I also don’t think it’s mandatory. As far as avoiding clichés, I’ll just say that if your damsel is going to be in distress… she better be cracking jokes while she’s waiting to be rescued from that tower/dragon/railroad tracks.
Some the most popular works of Fantasy are written as long novels and over the course of many books. Do you have any tips on writing a short Fantasy piece?
Don’t bog your readers down with too much background detail. Every word needs to count and your readers don’t need an inventory list. Plant the seeds for your scene and let the reader’s imagination grow.
If you could have any author be your personal mentor, who would it be and why?
I have to say J.K. Rowling—but before everyone groans at my overly-obvious choice, I’m not just applying to be her protégé because she’s the queen—she’s also a mother. I just gave birth to my first child two months ago and I’m having a heck of a time figuring out how to balance writing with mothering. J.K. Rowling not only wrote Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but she did it as a single parent. I’ve known this fact for years, but I never realized what a truly amazing feat it was until now.
Born and raised in the Midwest, Jen had to choose between staring at corn or reading books. Corn husks just didn't have the appeal of the Baby-Sitters Club, and so a bookworm was born. Reading later turned into writing and in 2011, Jen published her first novel with Camel Press. After releasing four books in the mystery genre, Jen finally gave in to the literary demands of her inner teenager with her YA debut, FIFTEEN (The Dreamwalker Diaries).
Jen is an active member of the National Writers Union. As an author, she has been featured in Penthouse Magazine, the State Journal-Register, Mystery Scene Magazine, and more. When she isn't writing, Jen enjoys sci-fi in all its mediums, attempting yoga, using her passport, watching baseball, and reading a good book. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband Nathan and infant daughter Gabrielle under the tyranny of their three cats: Wrigley, Ivy and Captain Moo. You can find Jen on the web at www.jenestes.com, on Tumblr as AuthorJenEstes, and tweeting under @jenestesdotcom.