For SF&F Writers: Building a Sense of Wonder

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So the new submission period for Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores is about to begin, and a substantial slush pile no doubt awaits. In my temporary role as Editorial Assistant, I no longer just read through stories and offer basic feedback to senior Editors on every aspect that pops into my head. Mainly, I send rejection notices. In trying to be as helpful and constructive as possible with these, I’ve noticed a trend I’d like to harp on, and that’s the tendency to treat the fantastic as mundane in the many worlds of speculative fiction.

Maybe it’s a sign of the age of the genres. As a writer and editor, I’ll be the first to admit that coming up with something truly breathtaking and original is getting harder. There is just such a massive volume of work out there for consideration and consumption that ideas and plots which might once have caught our eyes as worthy of publication have become tired and easily passed over, despite the presence of high quality writing.

So what’s the answer? Originality, obviously, but beyond that, lets focus more on what made speculative fiction so captivating in the first place, and what drew so many of us to our favorite authors and stories in our formative years. A sense of wonder. Frankly, I think too many stories are jaded. Having a tough, hardboiled protagonist is fine, and it can help or hurt the story depending on the author’s approach, but maybe isn’t the best for reeling the reader into the scope, scale, and strangeness of the new world you’ve set them in. Too much short speculative fiction tries to be gritty and just comes of as bleak and uninteresting.

Here’s a little bullet list of things I’ve noticed help bring those all-important feelings of awe, majesty, and joy to a story.

  • Writing from the perspective of a child. Presenting a strange universe from the point of view of a wide-eyed and curious youngster is a good way to evoke wonder. Take care though, it can easily backfire. Inconsistencies in the character’s language and comprehension of the world around them are the easiest way for a writer to trip themselves up.
  • Present something the reader has seen before in a new way. I recently plowed through Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. Dragons have been a staple of the fantasy genre since its inception, but no one had made them sentient airborne battleships of the Napoleonic Wars before.
  • To follow up on that last one, making the human seem inhuman, or vice versa. Give the reader a character or setting they think they recognize only to have it turn out to be something different. Try not to telegraph it from a mile away though.
  • Go for the slow burn on storytelling. A lot of writers try to jump right into a big action sequence or something from the beginning, hoping it will hook the reader. What follows tends to be a let down if the rest of the story can’t keep pace. If what you have to say is interesting, you probably don’t have to go in guns blazing.
  • Back to basics, choose the language wisely. Well chosen words are essential to the flow of a story, and nothing kills the flow of a story for me quite like long chains of adjectives and adverbs. We all want to show how verbose we are, but overkill will yank the reader right out of the headspace they have to be in to enjoy your work.
  • Dealing with a level of development and action appropriate to your setting. This is something I’ve talked about before in previous posts. A sci-fi story set on a space station against the backdrop of an interstellar war should probably include some space battles, not just a few characters talking about space battles. Raising your readers’ expectations in this way and failing to meet them is a serious buzzkill that I encounter all too often in the slush pile.

I’m not saying these are the only ways to make a story captivating. Far from it. They’re just methods I’ve seen used to good effect. In the end, the thing that will really make a story is the writer’s dedication, a love of the craft itself and a fascination with the genre. Don’t rush to finish a story, go through multiple drafts. You’ll know when it’s done, because you’ll have been intellectually excited by the possibilities you’ve followed through on the page, and your readers will be able to tell.

 

 

 

 

For SF&F Writers: Writing Non-Human Characters

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I’d like to open this post by apologizing to loyal readers (if any) for my long absence. I’ve had a death in the family, and it robbed me of my motivation to do much of anything these past few months. But I’ve bounced back, and I’m happy to say that I’ll be posting more regularly now, and adding some new content to the rest of the blog as well. So let’s get to it.

One of the things I love about speculative fiction is the freedom it gives the writer to play around. We can create new worlds, and populate them with new species of intelligent beings. We can give these beings their own language, society, customs, and history. We can give them fantastic abilities, and have them embody traits and values alien to us.The only limits are the writers imagination, and how much they want to say.

Which is the reason I felt compelled to write this particular entry. These past reading periods, the ┬ásci-fi slush pile at Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores has been a veritable parade of robots, aliens, and robotic aliens. Not so much pushing the envelope as nudging it forward a smidge at a time. I know, being original is hard, but it’s worth the effort. A robot with a heart of gold who befriends and protects the people around it can be compelling, but not when I encounter a half-dozen of them in rapid succession.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that any character, human or otherwise, has to be relatable. They need some traits and quirks of personality that the reader can identify with. Let’s just try to move a little beyond the obvious. Or, barring that, approach the obvious in a new way.

One story that stuck in my mind from my very first Fantasy reading period was set from the point of view of a Goblin protagonist. Without breaking confidentiality, I’ll just say that this Goblin went about doing Goblin things for Goblin reasons. Namely, his desire for treasure. Greed is a motivation most of us can relate to in some way. We may not be ruled by it, but I certainly feel like I could use a bit more treasure in my life. How about you? I rejected the story for other reasons, but the protagonist was unique enough to have stuck in mind a year later. With the volume of stories I read, trust me, that’s saying something.

So what’s the speculative fiction writer to do? Bring depth, and, dare I say it, warmth to your non-human. But for crying out loud, keep it weird and keep it unique. If there’s no point to making your character something other than human, then there’s probably not much point to having a speculative fiction story in the first place.

For SF&F Writers: Being Selective with Speculative Elements

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So submissions for Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores reopened recently, and I’ve already spotted a trend in the Slush Pile irritating enough to make me jump back into the blog, despite still being on holiday. Unconvincing and poorly written characters and settings can ruin any story. I covered various ways to avoid this in my recent Building Believable Worlds posts. As a First Reader and lover of all things speculative, a deciding factor for me in rejecting a story is when the science fiction or fantasy elements of are poorly developed and unnecessary to the actual plot.

Writers looking to avoid this should ask themselves what the point of their given element is. For example, why is a story being set on a space station if it just has the characters walking around and talking to one another? They could still do that very easily if they weren’t in space. They may be talking about stuff that has to do with space, but that isn’t the same as actually having an adventure in space of some kind. Oh look, there’s a robot passing by, or perhaps an alien. Turns out they have nothing to do with the plot at the moment, they’re just on board to lend a futuristic air to things and remind us we’re reading what the author is trying to pass off as science fiction. Maybe later they’ll be revealed as the conspirator behind some intricate plot that will start a war to destabilize the Galactic Empire, but we probably won’t hear from them again until then. This does not a good sci-fi yarn make. Consider whether or not the setting and elements you are introducing contribute anything of substance. If not you should probably re-think them, or you’re likely to disappoint your readers.

The average fantasy story has a different problem. So much fantasy is set in another world governed as much by magical systems as much as fantasy realm’s King or Emperor or Council of Learned Wizard Elders or whatever. The problem is that many authors still begin their stories in some simple and probably impoverished feudal village, old growth forest, monastery, or something else that says “Hero’s Humble Origins” with equal subtlety. All too often, they never leave. What can I say, I work with short fiction, which lacks the luxury of travel time that the epic ten-book sagas enjoy. This is all too frequently compensated for by having magical creatures emerge from around every bush and tree, and by having artifacts likewise endowed stashed around every corner. As I’ve previously mentioned, this tends to rob the story of it’s impact.

So what’s the answer? Call it speculative minimalism. Plow through your first draft without worrying, but then, go back and ask yourself which speculative elements you really need to say what you want to stay. If you’re looking to create a wider universe, don’t just fill it to the brim with the same cliches we’ve all read in Tolkien or watched on Star Trek, put a bit of time and effort into making it your own. The genres have matured beyond that. Even in a universe populated by wildly different beings, magic, and advanced technology, human (or for that matter, non-human) interest should be the real driving force of any story.