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.