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Answer to Random PW Questions

I put out a call for Pitch Wars questions tonight. In this post, I’ll answer some of them. These are off the top of my head answers, not at all researched, and not at all definitive. In almost all cases, you’ll find a better answer somewhere else. But these are mine.

I wouldn’t mind hearing your take on when it’s time 2 shelve an MS. Optimism is great but at some point one must face reality. As it turns out, I answered this one already in a post I did at Claribel Ortega’s Blog.

The average air speed velocity of an unladen swallow? Kidding… maybe elements of a killer opening? Bad trends? The elements of a killer opening. Let’s call that the elements of a killer first chapter. First, and always, voice. Something that makes me want to listen. But after that, and more important, tension. If I could point my finger at one thing that was an auto request, it was a first chapter that delivered tension. You can create it a lot of ways — mystery, goal/obstacle/stakes, personal character issues — but tension. Something that makes me want to know more.

Red flags in the 1st chapter? Specific style, character, or plot devices that inspire you to stop reading. There were very few styles or characters, or even plot devices that made me stop reading. The only ones I can think of were a couple cases of bad representation, in one case of a handicapped person, in another of a specific race. I’m just not going to read that. But 98% of the entries were good from that aspect. I kept reading no matter the character or situation, because a lot of books start in the wrong place, and that’s a pretty easy fix. There was really only one thing that made me stop reading before I finished the first chapter, and that’s when I realized that the writing needed too much work to do in a couple of months. All of the red flags were craft related.

Maybe some concrete examples of some of the mistakes/red flags in various submissions? Bad dialogue, whether it be stilted and unnatural, bad use of dialogue tags, misuse of beats. Overuse of to be verbs. Extreme telling.

Generalities about what makes you pass, what makes you request more. The thing I wanted more of and didn’t have — tension. Again. We requested almost all the entries that generated outstanding tension in our first batch. It wasn’t enough of them to fill the number of requests we wanted, so we kept going. We may still keep going.

Whether market viability plays a factor in selection? A little? I think this answer goes mentor by mentor. For us, our wishlist was based off of what we like to read. What we like to read happens to mostly follow the market. We have been requesting some very marketable things. We have also been requesting some that aren’t. In the end, the writing has to be there. If it’s less marketable, the writing has to be there more.

Trends you saw in the Subs. I really wish we got more space opera. We had 140 subs. Maybe 4 or 5 were space opera? We got zero military SF that I can recall–maybe one, depending on how you classify it. An overall lack of hard sci-fi in general. Which I guess that means the trend was softer SF. Dan will likely do a post in the future with statistics. I’m just remembering off the top of my head.

How to self revise like an agent/editor! If I could do that, I’d be an agent/editor. Please trust me in this, whatever skills I have in revision pale in comparison to my agent’s. But my best advice on how to self revise like an author? Practice. Read for other people, and critique their work. When you do, you’ll start to see where there are problems. You won’t know why it’s a problem but you’ll see it. Then, as you keep doing it, you’ll start to see why. Then, you’ll start to see it naturally, and it will make you hate books that you used to love. (Seriously, this will make you sad.) But when that happens, then you’ll know how to apply it to your own work.

How about ways to do killer openings for character driven novels? Voice. Voice is everything. Make the character jump off the page. Make me want to listen to his or her story. Another mentor said to me tonight ‘voice covers a lot of problems.’

Tips on balancing world building and backstory in the first few chapters of SFF? It’s my biggest struggle! Welcome to writing SFF! It’s everybody’s biggest struggle! General rule of thumb on backstory — kill it unless you can’t possibly understand the story without it. If you can get rid of it, get rid of it. All of it. As little backstory as you can and still have a plot. If it’s not absolutely essential, then it has to go. We need tension. For tension, we need a character we’re connected to doing things we care about. That is all. Tell me the history later. World building is trickier. And you’ll get 100 different answers from 100 different writers. Some people love world. For me? Again, give me the bare minimum to serve the plot. Flash it. Keep it connected to the action. Again, tension rules. And slowing pace kills tension. We have to have setting, so incorporate your world into that. But the best world and setting are those done in short, unobtrusive strokes.

 

9 Comments

  • “Read for other people, and critique their work. When you do, you’ll start to see where there are problems. You won’t know why it’s a problem but you’ll see it. Then, as you keep doing it, you’ll start to see why. Then, you’ll start to see it naturally, and it will make you hate books that you used to love. (Seriously, this will make you sad.) But when that happens, then you’ll know how to apply it to your own work.”

    This is so true and important. I don’t critique other people to make them a better writer. I do it to make me a better one. The more I trade chapters with people, the easier it is for me to spot myself making dumb mistakes as I’m typing them instead of months later while editing.

  • All the mentors keep going on about voice, and how important it is.

    But what if someone’s voice sucks? (I fear mine does.) How on earth does one fix something like that?!

    • I think it’s two things. First, read. Read stuff that’s got a lot of voice. Pick up something like Gone Girl, or Plum Island, something that’s full of voice. Read something like George R.R. Martin and notice how you can tell the difference between a Tyrion chapter and an Arya chapter. Read Lev Grossman, and figure out why this character that you really don’t like is so damned compelling.

      Second, get to know your main character. What makes her special? How does he see the world? How does that character sound?

      Some people immediately take voice to mean snarky. And I get that, sometimes that’s where voice is most obvious (even to mentors.) But it doesn’t have to be that. What trait most defines your main character? Is it quiet confidence? Well then how does that characteristic come across in everything your character does?

  • Jenny Dewes says:

    Great info, thanks for taking the time to answer our questions! I’m realizing how infrequently voice is coming through in my current MS, and that’s going on the top of my list for revisions! Are there any differences or advice you can give as far as showcasing voice in third person versus first person?

  • Karen Mahara says:

    I completely agree with your comments on world building. I tend to stop reading SFF when there’s slow pacing or lacking in tension. When I reread HP, I really appreciate how Hogwarts is created with “short, unobstructed strokes.”

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I am a Soldier and a Science Fiction writer. Usually I write about Soldiers. Go figure. I'm represented by Lisa Rodgers of JABberwocky Literary Agency. If you love my blog and want to turn it into a blockbuster movie featuring Chris Hemsworth as me, you should definitely contact her.

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