For Sci-Fi and Fantasy Writers: Take Us on a Nice Trip. Balance out Plot Advancement with your Speculative World’s Background

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A big part of writing a good speculative fiction story is striking the right balances. Having a cool idea for a fantasy scenario or a piece of futuristic technology is a good start, but its not enough. In my time as a First Reader, I’ve rejected more than my share of stories that started strong, but failed to capitalize on the momentum of an intriguing core concept. To be honest, I’ve been guilty of this more than once in my own writing.

One problem I encounter frequently while reading for Cosmic Roots, particularly among fantasy stories, is too much attention being paid to world-building at the expense of advancing the story. I’ve seen pieces by authors that offered incredible, researched, and well thought out worlds, but whose characters were basically static. Bad tropes of heroes absent dialogue or any purpose or motivation other than being the hero.

Any speculative fiction story will have elements unfamiliar to new readers that need to be explained. The further removed from actual reality these are, the more time and effort will be required by the writer to get the intricacies of these fantasy realms and future technologies across. A little exposition is to be expected, but keeping the plot and character arcs moving is just as important.

As a counterpoint to my last example, I’d just like to say that I’ve come across the opposite problem fairly often as well. Some stories are chock full of interesting new technology, cultures, and linguistic idiosyncrasies, all expressed by three dimensional characters, but which introduce them all so rapidly in the middle of some ongoing action scene that I can barely follow it all. In these cases, I tend to come out with a bit of a headache. All action all the time is almost as tedious as none at all. A good writer paces things out, lets characters interact with each other and their environments, and shifts gears in the plot accordingly.

The easiest way to do this is to have your characters actually experience a wide variety of things. Have your protagonist go through their adventure with one or two complex secondary characters who can impart wisdom and help out as things move along. After all, a protagonist who knows it all, or alternatively, figures it all out themselves, is usually pretty boring and difficult to develop with any sort of impact.

To me, good speculative fiction is about creating believable characters in interesting worlds, unique and sometimes wildly different from our own, but whose goals and motivations are relatable or at least understandable to the reader. The character drives the plot, the fantastic world is the scenery surrounding that vehicle, and the character’s goal is the destination. If the way to that destination is full of aliens, wizards, robots, and dragons, then so much the better as far as I’m concerned. The writer’s goal should be to bring us along on a beautiful trip, take the scenic route, but don’t stop pull the car over to start lecturing us on the history of every town or fork in the road we pass along the way. After all, we want to be satisfied when we reach our destination, and maybe just a little sad that the trip’s over.

 

 

 

For Fantasy Authors: Writing Coherent and Interesting Magical Systems

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Magic is an essential component of any fantasy story. Witches and wizards, elves, dragons, curses, enchanted objects, they all have their place in the genre. The amount and types of magic in a story, and how it’s introduced to the reader, can make the difference between an enthralling tale of wonder and a collection of unreadable pages filled with mangled Latin and tired tropes.

So what’s the best way to write magic? Simple. Start small. Keep it subtle and mysterious at first. Build your reader’s expectations so that when your powerful wizard appears, they know something important must be right around the corner. Too many stories are drowning in magic from the first paragraph, with all-powerful beings and mystical creatures bumping into the protagonist at every turn. Perhaps the protagonist is one of these beings. A good fantasy writer layers their magical system with diverse elements that unfold accordingly as the plot and characters develop.

This brings up another point. Why have magic in the first place? What does your character need to accomplish that only magic can do? Does it really make the story more interesting to have a dragon swoop down on your adventurer mid-quest, or are you just trying to spice up an otherwise uninteresting scene devoid of meaningful events? Do the dark powers your villain possesses actually contribute anything to their character, or to the plot? Too often, magic is a shortcut, a way to resolve scenarios without decisions that would require any actual character development on the part of the writer.

Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, make sure your magic has consequences. Magic is power, in one form or another, and power affects those around it. Characters who use or experience magic shouldn’t do so without it having an impact on them. They should feel the results of their actions. Casually slinging spells about to have a character solve day-to-day problems might seem appealing to anyone who grew up reading Harry Potter and wishing for their own letter from Hogwarts, but it’s hard to do well, and even harder to bring across in an original enough way to hold a reader’s interest without any underlying sense of purpose or impact.

As a First Reader, I’ve rejected many fantasy submissions with strong premises because the author portrayed magic badly. It was too easy, too prevalent, and in many cases completely unnecessary. As a writer, do everything you can to keep its use relevant, and to hone your magical system down to its simplest and most effective form before you send off that latest submission. Your fantasy writing will suffer if you don’t.

 

The Incomplete and Unedited

Alright. First real post. So let’s cover some basics. You’ve written a story. You want to send it in to your favourite magazine. Is it done? Are you sure?

Incomplete and unedited stories are one of the most frustrating things for a first reader to come across. Spelling, grammar, and other structural errors can earn even the most otherwise compelling story with an intriguing premise and excellent pacing a one way trip to the discard pile. Why? It shows that the author didn’t bother to take the time to fix simple mistakes, format properly, and iron out obvious kinks that anyone with the most basic command of the English language can spot. I’ve done it myself, but not lately.

Over-excitement at finishing one’s prospective masterpiece is one cause. Another is what I like to call story-blindness, a form of self-delusion common among authors. After staring at a screen for so many hours, the words in front of you are replaced by the perfect story you envision in your mind, leaving you oblivious to simple errors. Take a deep breath, give your head a shake, and pay attention to your own words. Have a friend read it, find an editor, and factor the time rewrites will take into your planned writing schedule.

That covers editing. But just what do I mean by an incomplete story? In this case, something that tells us all about a character’s early experiences and finishes abruptly with an ending like:

“He realized his journey was just beginning….”

Or

“The true battle had just begun.”

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Cliffhangers are one thing, if you plan on continuing at another time. There are plenty of markets that publish serial fiction, where this sort of thing is perfectly acceptable. Maybe I should clarify further. No one in the biz expects a story to contain a character’s entire life, but it should contain a complete series of events. There’s a difference between having an ambiguous ending to an actual story, and just having a mildly interesting sequence of events that finishes prematurely with the plot and characters still halfway through their development.

It’s frequently obvious that the author of such work had intended or originally written a much longer piece, but decided to crop it down based on word count requirements, laziness, or some other reason. It’s incredibly frustrating as a reader to sit down, start reading, and be left flat with a story that didn’t really go anywhere. By doing so, writers very effectively piss off the people that they need to love and appreciate their work in order to get it published. Save yourselves some effort, and some prospective heartache-based rejection, finish your work before submitting.

That’s all for now.

Jamie

 

 

What is a First Reader? An introduction to our role in the publishing process

So you’ve been writing? Decided to start submitting your works of short fiction to various magazines? I feel your pain. Rejection is imminent. Accept it, live with it, and you will get stronger. Above all else, keep writing. This blog is about writing. Samples of my work, previously published and upcoming, are featured here, but more than that it’s about the submission process. A First Reader, or Slush Reader, like myself will be handed the unenviable task of sorting through the submissions of a thousand aspiring literary geniuses such as yourself and helping the editors decide just which stories are worthy of their consideration. We read, we evaluate, and we either reject or pass on the work to the higher-ups.

My current area of expertise is in sci-fi and fantasy, two of the most heavily proliferated genres in short fiction, so let me get something out of the way. I read a lot of crap. Seriously. Tons. You can’t imagine the watery, poorly formed turds people try to pass off as finished work. But I’ll get into that later. The important thing to take away from this is that the first person to see your potential masterpiece probably won’t be the magazine’s editor. It’ll be someone like me, someone they’ve met, talked with, and come to trust with helping them process their submissions and finalize their published content. It’ll be someone a lot like you, aspiring writers. Someone with editorial experience? Maybe. someone who has a few published works of their own under their belts? In my case, yes. If you are very lucky, it’ll be someone who cares enough to give you sincere, honest, detailed feedback on your submission, whether or not it’s accepted.

That’s why I love Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores. They’ve never published me. In fact, they rejected three of my stories. Two of which I rewrote based on their detailed feedback and have since sold to other markets. That’s why I’m here. I want to share a few of my hard won insights from my work with CRaES, to help you avoid making the mistakes that will keep your stories from being published.

Don’t worry. This is going to be fun.

-Jamie