Advice from pro sci fi/fantasy authors
|Tips from Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors
The following is an analysis of panels on many topics concerning both writing craft and the business of being an author. I hope you find this helpful. Feel free to ask questions or suggest improvements.
General note: www.critters.org can provide critique for authors in horror, fantasy and sci fi. It is free but it is required that critique on the work of others is given before a critique can be received.
The Panel on Viewpoint:
1) The character with “the most to lose” or the one most affected by the book’s central drama should usually be the viewpoint character.
2) Of the three generalized points of view, third person is usually considered the easiest for a new writer. However, omniscient narration can lead to “info dumps” which are currently considered a no-no. An info dump is an over-large amount of “expository material” that is given to the reader in a way that feels unnatural or interrupts the pacing.
3) First person is probably best for bringing the reader close to the main character, but can be limiting because in a lot of situations the point of view character has to witness everything.
4) According to Barbara Hambly, first person epistolary or journal form novels are considered to be too tough for a new writer. (Personally, I hope this is not true.)
5) Second person (“You put drops in your eyes before you walk into the office so it looks like you’re crying. No one asks you why you’re late”) is considered very hard to pull off and is currently deemed very out of style.
The Panel on “Writing in a Multi-Book Series” (Note: Aaron Allston objected to the title of this panel as “multi-book series” is redundant.)
1) There is a difference between a trilogy and a series that has three books. A trilogy has one story arc that is truly only completed with the third book while the series more likely has three stories (i.e. three different mysteries to solve) featuring the same characters.
2) According to Barbara Hambly, trilogies are currently out of style and too risky for publishers to try with new authors. The market is too volatile these days.
3) It is important not to kill off characters out of boredom. If you run out of stories for the main characters, it’s time to either explore minor characters or develop new ones. Failing that, it’s time to start a new series. An exception to this may be when “you’re getting paid lots of money for your books, you have to put your kids through college, and you’re in a genre like “cozy mysteries” where the readers are perfectly happy reading the same story over and over.”
4) Create style sheets which remind you how you spelled all the alien names and places you created. To keep track of which planet is where or the locations of landmarks in a city are in respect to each other, it can be very important to draw yourself maps. However, Louise Marley says it’s “important not to create immense houses in which nobody lives” meaning don’t spend too much time detailing your locations to the point that you don’t have developed characters or plot.
5) There is a type of writing called “As You Know, Bob” which is considered bad form. An example is “As you know, Bob, we killed the menacing King of Zabulon but his evil queen managed to escape.” That doesn’t work. If you need the reader to have information from a previous book you need to find another device. One method is to generate a new character that needs to know the information herself.
6) If the details of your series are starting to get confusing for you, it’s a good idea to have eager fans read through your books before publication to check for consistency errors.
The Panel on What Makes a Good Villain:
1) Villains don’t see themselves as villains. Even though someone like Hannibal Lecter is aware that he eats people, in his own logic that is acceptable behavior.
2) Villains need to have a characteristic that people can relate to. Perhaps they are angry at society for mistreating them or jealous of what they don’t have. They don’t need to have a good quality, but a human one such as loneliness or fear.
3) Wish fulfillment can be a very good device. If there is something that readers often wish, but could never do, that’s what is needed. For example, according to Aaron de Orive, “if someone cuts you off in traffic, you brake, imagine shooting the idiot driver in front of you and then go have a Frostee. However, the villain would actually follow the idiot driver home and kill him.” Any angry person might try to achieve a payback for injustice, but taking the payback way too far and taking out the anger on the wrong people is what makes the action villainous.
4) Effective villains often have good intentions that go awry. For example, the Batman nemesis Poison Ivy wanted to save the environment but her aims quickly became destructive. Spiderman’s enemy Dr. Octopus wanted to give the world unlimited energy, but he ended up killing people to do it.
5) Avoid the "James Bond Escape Clause." Antagonists that say "I would have killed you already, but..." are ineffective as it reads as "if I were a smarter villain, you'd be dead" and it can weaken the story if the villain gives the hero a break.
6) Female villains are very effective for children’s writing because women who don’t display motherly nurturing qualities are scary. The best archetype is the witch in Hansel and Gretel.
7) In fantasy writing, there are too many villains like the Emperor from Star Wars, Valdemort or Sauron who “must have power for no reason other than they like to collect power.” The best fantasy villains have to have stronger motivation. In the Emperor's case, there is at least the seed of fear that if he doesn't crush the rebellion, he could lose power. Fear of losing what one has is great motivation.
The Panel on Believable Religious Societies:
1) Religion is important to fantasy because fantasy often has the “feel” of bygone eras that were dominated more by religion than the modern day. However, science fiction has always “dealt with the discovery of ultimate meaning” so religion can also be central in that genre.
2) Fate is often the ultimate concern of a culture so religion can be great character motivation
3) When exploring the details of your religious society it’s important to study the effect of real religions on every day life. For example, religion affects what food people eat and what clothes they wear.
4) Though studying religion is necessary, be careful not to sink your plot by weighing it down with too much research. This term for this process is “I’ve suffered for my art… And now it’s your turn!”
5) All religions have rituals. Differing rituals between religions or cultures can create compelling conflict. For example, when one society is outraged by what its neighboring society deems an absolute necessity (for example, human sacrifice) tremendous tension may result.
6) To make a religion realistic, there needs to be a reason why the religion took hold in the first place. Therefore the religion needs to offer something such as order or emotional security.
7) It’s important to know if the religion is hierarchal or egalitarian. Is the religion’s priority learning or control?
8) Within one society with one religion, there can be conflict between the “old guard” that wants control and “changelessness in doctrine” and the elements of “subversion” or “reformation.” You can develop a character’s rebellious and intellectual qualities by having her “ask the dangerous questions.”
9) Using established English words for your religious centers such as “church”, “temple” or “synagogue” can influence or taint a reader’s perception of the religion. It’s often better to make up a term.
10) A source of conflict could be the “questions that the religion doesn’t answer.” i.e. What happens after death? Why do bad things happen to good people?
11) A cult, as opposed to a religion, typically “makes up rituals on the run”, does not answer philosophical questions effectively and burns out quickly.
12) It’s hard to develop more than a few religions effectively in a 100,000 word novel and still have room for the central plot.
13) Religion always changes and adapts. It is unrealistic to depict a real religion in futuristic settings with the same exact customs and beliefs that it has today.
14) What the author tells the reader of the religion should be “the tip of the iceberg.” He must know much more for the sake of consistency and believability.
The Panel on Using Myth in Storytelling
1) There are mythic archetypes that frequently recur such as The Hero, The Guide, The Trickster, The Mentor, The Shapeshifter, The “Dragon at the Gate”
2) If you plan in advance to use a “Cast Design” where you already know a pantheon of characters before you begin your story, using these established archetypes is helpful.
3) Mythology is more frequently found in fantasy than science fiction as fantasy often takes place “in the past” and relies on lore while science fiction is inherently futuristic.
4) The deliberate absence of myth or religion is often used in science fiction to show that technology not informed by emotion and humanity can be dangerous.
5) Mythic stories appear in different mediums and different cultures. For example, the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Little Mermaid” also appears as the opera, Rusalka. Most Mediterranean cultures have a “Great Flood myth”. This probably indicates there was an actual apocalyptic flood as history often informs myth.
6) The most important and enduring myths answer deep questions for a culture. The stories that do endure say a lot about the culture’s psychology. Myth and psychology are deeply affected by how harsh or hospitable the culture’s climate and environment are.
7) It can be dangerous to use established myths as templates because the reader will already know the ending. (However, for some readers that may not be a bad thing.)
8) Reluctant heroes are effective in myths because of their relatable human nature. For example, the reader may be able to empathize because he knows of times he may have shirked responsibility or perhaps the reader is aware that the protagonist’s heroism may have dire consequences.
9) In cultures where “god is dead”, modern myth needs to help guide society. Modern myth is hard to define. Some feel that alien abduction stories and Elvis sightings count as modern myth while others argue that these stories do not explain actual events that have definitely happened and therefore are not legitimate mythology.
BUSINESS OF WRITING AND PUBLISHING
The Panel on How to Get Published:
1) While sending presents or cookies to editors or agents is a very bad idea, it is, ironically, a good idea to meet agents and editors and “buy them drinks.” What this basically means is that meeting agents/editors at conferences or workshops is the fastest and most effective way to make connections.
2) According to Mitchell Graham, houses that do not accept unsolicited manuscripts may actually still look at unsolicited queries. Be sure to follow proper submission guidelines and format. Some of the general rules he mentioned include the use of 20 lb. paper, double spacing the text and using a courier or times new roman font. The cover letter should say a little about you and about the book and should be accompanied by a two-page synopsis and the first three chapters of the book.
3) According to Mitchell Graham, a first novel should come in at about 90,000 to a 100,000 words. Longer books are more expensive and riskier for the publisher.
4) Sending multiple queries is okay. It’s not the same as sending simultaneous submissions of the complete manuscript which is usually not okay.
5) Important info about submitting novels to science fiction/fantasy/horror publishers (along with some details of terrible experiences) can be found by googling “Submitting to the Black Hole”
6) For those looking to publish short fiction on the web, respected e-sites include Scifi.com and Chiaroscuro at gothic.net/chiaroscuro. SpeculativeVision.Com is also a good resource for sci fi and fantasy webzines.
Side note: Even if you don’t publish anything during a calendar year, save all writing-related receipts as they may be tax deductible if you do have a sale in the next two years. (The panel was a bit conflicted about this information, but they seemed to generally recommend saving receipts for three years. My understanding of what the panel said is that if you earn $600 or more in a calendar year from writing, it must be declared on your tax forms.)
The Panel on “Five Things I Wish a Pro Had Told Me” (Information that the panelists wish they had known earlier that might have made their publishing lives a lot less painful. It turned out to be eight things.)
1) Author Martha Wells says that her experience has taught her that one should not be so desperate to be published that one accepts an obviously bad contract. Hold out for something fair.
2) Writing is not for the easily discouraged as many very talented authors wait many years and wrote many books before finding publishers.
3) “Read up instead of reading down.” Don’t waste time with books that make you say “How did this get published? I could write a better book than this.” as this often will lead you to not write as well as you need to in order to break into publishing. Try to only read authors that you feel write better than you do.
4) Don’t be discouraged by more famous authors. There will always be someone more successful (unless you’re Stephen King).
5) According to Caroline Spector, it is not entirely true that you have to write every day. If your work schedule means you can only write on the weekends, you are still a writer. On the other hand, she says “writer’s block is a euphemism for avoidance of work.”
6) It is vital to ensure your contract stipulates how and when you get your copyrights back.
7) According to Kay Kenyon, a career often hinges more on the second book than the first as publishers sometimes expect not to make very much (or any) money on the first book and the second proves you can write a book in a year (or so) making them realize that you’re probably a steady performer. This means you need to start the second book as soon as you start submitting your first one to publishers.
8) Writing can be very lonely and emotionally taxing, so be sure not to let it consume you constantly for long periods.
The Panel on Writing for Awards & Contests
1) The panel mostly dealt with the Writers of The Future Contest for science fiction and fantasy. (Note: even though L. Ron Hubbard founded the contest, there is zero connection with scientology.)
a) The contest offers 4 prizes per year. Each award consists of a monetary prize (I think they said about $250-$1000 depending on 1st place, 2nd place, etc), an offer of publication in their award anthology (which will pay 10¢ a word), and a trip to Los Angeles.
b) The contest is open to writers who have no more than three stories sold at the pro level. A pro market is considered one that pays at least 3¢ a word or has a circulation of 3,000 or higher. Specifically for this contest, they have decided not to consider stories under 5,000 words to be professional to allow more contestants to enter.
c) The story should be 17,000 words or less, but shorter is preferable. Send something complete, not a portion of a larger work. They receive 800-1600 submissions per quarter.
2) For short story contests, it is (according to Bill Crider) important to “shoot the sheriff on the first page.” Judges and editors don’t have enough time to read the submissions thoroughly so the first line must be very strong and action must occur before page two. According to K.D. Wentworth, “the character must be in context in action on the first page.”
3) Proper format is (again) essential. Author Vonda McIntyre has a website article entitled “Manuscript Preparation” that is very helpful The link is http://www.sfwa.org/writing/vonda/vonda.htm
4) Avoid contests where the entry fees are high and the prize money is low. There are many scams. See www.sfwa.org ‘s section entitled “Preditors and Editors” as well as “Writer Beware.”
5) A subscription to Speculations.Com may be helpful to authors trying to break into print in science fiction, fantasy or horror. They are a non-fiction site only. The site includes a market list.
The Panel on What’s Hot in the Market: (in regards to sci fi and fantasy)
1) Paranormal romance. (According to Editor John Morgan, Berkley sets aside one slot per month for a paranormal romance mass market).
a) Romance sells better than science fiction or fantasy, so writing a book that has elements of an alternate reality but can be legitimately sold in the romance section is a good idea.
b) When writing a paranormal romance, know that science fiction or fantasy mechanisms are usually glossed over to a greater extent.
c) Luna books (www.luna-books.com) is a new imprint that combines fantasy and romance aimed at women readers.
d) Dorchester has bought out the “confessions magazines” and is turning them to romance periodicals, so there may soon be markets for short-form paranormal romance.
2) “Kitchen Sink” novels which have multiple paranormal entities such as vampires, shapeshifters and telepaths are big. Examples include Laurel K. Hamilton and Charlaine Harris
3) Young Adult Novels are very hot. Editors are not necessarily looking for Harry Potter rip-offs any more. An author to study would be Patricia McKillip. New YA imprints such as Firebird are being started.
4) Vampire novels are still very hot. The panel predicted there may eventually be an “implosion” of the genre, but it’s not foreseen as of yet. When writing vampire novels though, it is important to use fairly standard rules as editors are beginning to get confused. (i.e. “Is it in this series that vampires are killed by silver or is this the author that says they can’t walk through rainwater?”) According to Lawrence Persons, there is a core audience of about 10,000 people that will buy every vampire novel and in the current market, an author only needs to sell 25,000 copies to “earn out” in mass market paperback format. Not long ago the book needed to sell 250,000. (One important thing for avid readers to realize is that if you don’t buy the book you want early and it’s out of stock, it’s more likely than it used to be that there will not be a second print run.)
5) As far as traditional sci fi it’s still important to have a “sense of wonder” and some sort of “formal novelty.” For fantasy, what’s needed is “ritual re-enactments of Ur-myths.” Still, the best selling sci fi/fantasy authors are not kept in the sci fi/fantasy section. (i.e. Michael Crichton)
The Panel on “The Business of Being a Writer”
1) Be careful what rights you are selling in a contract and/or what rights your agent is selling. Sell “as few rights as you can” because subsidiary rights can be sold separately, bringing in more money.
2) It is standard for a publisher to ask for “First North American Rights” for books or “First North American Serial Rights” for short fiction. When looking at a contract for first serial rights, make sure there’s nothing that says that the magazine acquiring secondary rights has to print “this story first appeared in Very Rude Science Fiction Magazine” (or something like that) as that will limit the story’s resale chances.
3) For short stories in anthologies, know whether or not your contract is with the editor of the anthology or the publisher itself.
4) Currently 6-8% is a standard royalty for traditional publishers. Agents will, most likely, only handle novels – not short stories or novellas.
5) Remember that contracts are negotiable. You can cross off clauses you don’t like. However, be careful to note any clauses that have been scratched off and initialed by someone else. Somewhere between the editorial department and the legal department, someone might have decided not to honor what the editor wanted to give the author.
6) The concept of “joint accounting” for multi-book contracts is a very bad idea. Joint accounting often means, for example, that if you have a six book contract, you don’t get paid for book one (or any of the others) until book six is completed. Avoid like the plague.
"The panel on Writing for More Than One Genre:
1) Again, books that can be marketed in more than one section of the bookstore are great.
2) It’s a good way to combine interests one’s interests in more than one genre (i.e. romance and mystery).
3) It can be a good way to jump-start a stalled career if one genre isn’t working out and another “calls to you.”
4) There may be good reasons for writing under different names. For example, if you write horror novels under your real name, it’s probably best to write your children’s books under a pseudonym.
Panel on E- Publishing and Print on Demand Publishing:
1) Print on Demand and E-publishing are not yet clear of the reputation that they are exclusively self-published or vanity presses. There are houses that may be good for new authors such as Double Dragon, Mundania and Zumaya.
2) Editing is often just as strict at houses such as Zumaya. Content is often equally compelling as books published by major print houses, but e-publishers are willing to take risks on books that aren’t as marketable.
3) Because the titles may be inherently less commercial, many e-publishers want authors that are assertive in their self-promotion and request that authors submit marketing strategies. The author should be willing to start a website and make public appearances. (Note that publishers will more likely spend what little money they have for publicity on authors who are “friendly, neat, and personable.”) Posting novel excerpts of up to 4000 words is also a good idea.
4) One way to start an author website is through Authorsden.Com which offers services between $4.99 and $24.99 per quarter.
5) It’s a good idea to send free copies of e-books to reviewers and then request rights to reprint positive reviews on your website. (Always thank reviewers even if their opinion is negative. They may be reviewing your next book.)
6) Erotica is the leading e-publishing market. Ellora’s Cave is the leading publisher.
Other markets include Phaze.Com and eXtasy Books.
7) Fictionwise.Com is probably the leading online store for e-books.
8) Be very careful about what your contract says regarding reversion of publication rights. Technically, e-books never go out of print so there must be a period of time specified for which the publisher has the rights to exclusively sell and distribute your work. Two years is standard.
The nationally published pros in the science fiction, fantasy and horror fields that attended included Aaron Allston (Bantam, Del Rey), Rachel Caine (Roc), Lillian Stewart Carl (Berkley), Bill Crider (Minotaur/St. Martin’s), Bradley Denton (St. Martin’s), P.N. Elrod (Ace), Andrew Fox (Ballantine), Mitchell Graham (Eos/Warner), Kay Kenyon (Spectra), Katharine Eliska Kimbriel (Warner, Harper Collins), Louise Marley (Ace, Viking), Elizabeth Moon (Ballantine), John Moore (Ace), Cary Osborne (Ace), Mary Rosenblum (Ace), Patrice Sarath (Eos), Caroline Spector (Roc), Sage Walker (St. Martins’), Martha Wells (Eos), K.D. Wentworth (Baen), and Dave Wolverton (Spectra).
The guests of honor were Sharon Shinn (Ace), Barbara Hambly (Bantam), and Charlaine Harris (Ace).
Information on the next ArmadilloCon can be found at www.ArmadilloCon.Org