Words of Wisdom for Speculative Fiction Writers
by Carina Gonzalez
The following are various lists and articles that I've written in response to repeated issues I've seen in writing. If you read below, you may find more than one bit of advice that is exactly what you were looking for. If there is a topic that you would love me to write about, and add to the Writing Advice Page, just drop me an email.
Cliche Words and Phrases
Commons Mistakes Authors Make
How to Address Pace Problems
Making Your Reader Care About Your Characters
Recipe for a Good Title
What Makes a Story 100%
Is My Story Cliche?
The Pros and Cons of Pen Names
That Stupid Hook!
- Full force
- Lightning fast
- I'll teach you!
- I'll show you!
- Watch out, here I come
- Pitter patter of feet
- death grip
- hold on for dear life
- staggered to his feet
- commanded attention
- paid through the nose
- the ties that bind
- too close for comfort
- the topic at hand
- blood coursing through veins
- all of a sudden
- eyes were squeezed shut
- full blast
- threw open
- struggled free of grasp
- flash a smile
- heart of gold
- the matter at hand
- take matters into his own hands
- time is of the essence
- sharp contrast
- knuckles white
- the name “Pwyll”
- heartless and cruel
- white as snow
- turn the tables
- the tables have turned
- feel sorry for
- just then
- canopy of leaves
- emerald green
- grass like a lush carpet
- eerie feeling coming over me
- mind's eye
- describing everything at once
- substituting a # symbol for a good transition
- exposition reads like a text book
- unrealistic and overdramatic word choices
- having a title that synopsizes the story
- putting “the end” at the end of the story
- obvious, stereotypical characters
- cliché story idea
- cliché transitions
An article on how to fix the pace.
Have you ever submitted a story over and over again, only to be told by several readers that the pace is too fast, too slow, inconsistent, or just wrong? The story may make complete sense to you, but for some reason others just don’t get it. What is this pace thing anyway?
Pace is how quickly the plot is disseminated to the reader. It literally means how quickly you are giving them the information of your story. However, telling an author to “slow it down” doesn’t usually do them any good. Especially when they didn’t think the story was being told too fast in the first place. What exactly are they expected to slow down?
Some authors can just feel pace and never have to address this issue. Some of us aren’t that lucky and struggle with every sentence to organize our story in a way that doesn’t leave our readers breathlessly trying to keep up. I’ve seen two basic ways that people end up with a fast paced story. Some achieve a fast pace by constructing long, complicated sentences heavy with so much information they’re liable to snap under their own weight. Others, me included, think so quickly that we skip entire sentences in our frantic attempt to type as fast as we think. It’s almost as if we’re afraid of losing our ideas so we go faster and faster until the story just doesn’t make sense to anyone but the author. (Many times this latter problem is compounded by adding too much exposition.)
Which one are you? Do you skip sentences resulting in stories with gaps, or do you have sentences with too much information? Or perhaps there’s another reason that you’re having a pace problem (like exposition overload). Let’s look at these two and see if you can identify a similarity to your writing or in sections of your writing.
Sentences with too much information:
The rain fell hard mixing with the ashes that fell last night from the volcano, but Gen didn’t have time to think about that, or the other vilagers, because her brother, Sayan, the Shaman, was lying on the floor bleeding in front of her and he needed her help.
That was just one sentence, but it had too much information. We learned the weather, something about a volcano erupting, were introduced to two characters, learned that they are siblings, and that one of them was hurt. Way too much too fast. Here’s what all of that information would look like if it were slowed down:
Gen took a break from ministering to her brother’s wounds. He seemed to be breathing fine, and the salve she had placed on his burns was working. After placing a kiss on his forehead she got up off the floor and opened the door to see outside. Wind and rain threatened to pour in as soon as she cracked the door. She quickly shut it. It had been raining for hours now, and it didn’t seem to be stopping. Gen needed to see if there was anyone else out there though. After checking to make sure that opening the door had not awakened her brother, she pulled on her hood, took a deep breath, and then ran out into the cold rain.
Mud sucked at her ankles as she trudged to the edge of the road, and rivulets coursed around her feet so quickly it felt like she was moving much faster than she was. Gen looked up and down the main road, but there was nobody to be seen. Normally the villagers would be running frantically about gathering livestock, covering perishables, or fixing leaky roofs that they didn’t take the time to fix earlier. But there was nothing in Gen’s field of vision but an empty broken village through gray sheets of rain. She secured the gate, and went back inside the house.
Gen wrung her dripping hood into a nearby bucket, hung it on the door latch, and sat down to watch her brother’s progress. The rain made it much harder to look for survivors and to take care of Sayan, but she was glad for it all the same. The goddess Esha, was angered, and had covered the village with ash and burning rocks. Her brother had warned the village that the volcano was angry and would soon erupt, but not all of them had listened. A few foolish members of the council tried to stay instead of leaving, forcing Sayan to rescue them at the last minute. He saved them, but not without a price. He was badly burned trying to help them, and now Gen had to save him. She prayed the spirits would give her the strength she would need to do this alone.
As you can see that one sentence was easily stretched out into three paragraphs. The reader was first given a description so they could view the world they’re now learning about. Then the reader was told that a volcano did indeed erupt the night before, but they learned exactly what part Sayan played, and how he came to be hurt in the first place. It was no less exciting, kept the reader even more interested because they understood what was going on, and even gave us more character development. Now let’s look at another way authors end up with a faster pace than they intended.
The rain pounded the ground mixing with the ashes. Sayan was bleeding on her floor in need of help. Gen didn’t have time to think. Only she could save the village.
I honestly see this pace problem much more often than I see the first one. The reason why is because many authors believe the lack of information is going to excite the reader into wanting to know more. They think that leaving huge gaps will have the reader begging to fill them and will make them want to read more, faster. In truth what ends up happening is the reader becomes frustrated because they don’t know what’s going on, and by the end of the first paragraph they stop reading. Giving the reader information does not automatically mean that you are spoiling the story, and short sentences do not equal exciting passages. Let the story express the adrenalin rush, not how quickly the words are coming out.
Another reason why I see pace problems happen is because the author is trying to create a specific mood and they feel that too much exposition just isn’t appropriate for that mood, character, or scene. For example they may have a dark and brooding character that just doesn’t speak much, or a character that’s excessively chipper with random thoughts that jump from topic to topic. When the author is in the mindset of that character, they tend to forget to drop that tempo when its narration time. Remember that dialogue is not the only way to keep the reader informed of what’s going on. It’s perfectly acceptable to have a 3rd person narration here and there to fill in any information gaps.
Many unlucky authors switch back and forth between both pace inducing methods. They may start their story with method #2 thinking to excite their reader. Then they might slip into method #1 as they fight to weave exposition in while still keeping the reader interested. The pace toggles back and forth between style #1 and style #2 and by the third or fourth page there is so much going on, that the reader has given up. If it was an editor reading, the story wouldn’t have made it to the second paragraph. Pace is one of the hardest elements of writing to teach because you have to take it sentence by sentence completely dissecting your story.
It is possible to correct pace problems though. Be patient. Break your story into a detailed outline, even including when you want to use descriptions, exposition, dialogue, and character development. If you know you have a pace problem DO NOT write directly into your story when a new idea hits you. Jot it down on the side or open a new document. You can figure out exactly how you want to phrase it later. Knowing that your idea is safe on paper will allow you to calm down and unravel the new jewel of your story as delicately as you like. Try and only leave one point per sentence (within reason of course). And finally, after each paragraph revisit and jot down on a piece of scrap paper what the reader learned from that paragraph. If you have a list of ten new pieces of information, you know you have to break it up.
A common mistake I see all too often are stories whose authors understand the importance of compelling opening lines, yet forgot the importance of character development. Character development doesn't just exist for depth and realism. It exists so that the reader's heart rate will pick up pace when your character is in danger. How can I be expected to react to the welfare of one of your characters if I don't even know who they are?
As an example, think about the difference between watching the news and talking to someone on the phone. When you turn on the television and hear that a woman was brutally killed in a car accident it's sad. When you receive a phone call and find out that woman was your sister, the amount of emotional trauma you will experience is much greater. That is the difference between developing your characters at the beginning of your story, and just launching your reader into action. The more you know about someone, the more they affect you.
Here's another way I can explain. Let's say you've just written a fantastic story and everything seems polished. Your characters have enough dimensions to fill a universe. They are so well-rounded; they feel like people you know personally. What they have had to experience in your story is tremendous and you can't wait to bring your reader to that level of understanding. You want to make it clear to your reader, right away, how horrible the situation really was for your main character. And so your opening line is: The day she died, my life ended.
BAM! The reader is sucked right into the tragedy and emotional trauma that your character is experiencing. It seems like a great first line because it's exciting and intriguing and makes the reader beg to appeal to this poor narrator. Or does it?
Unfortunately, you're wrong. When tragedy strikes, the reader doesn't care. The reader doesn't know a thing about your characters. They have no idea what they've lived through, they have no idea who "she" is nor do they care. They can't care, because you haven't told them anything to care about yet.
If you want your reader to fall down with your characters, set up your reader for the fall. The pain will hurt so much more when you kill the character, but only if your reader is already in love with them. Heart stopping opening lines only work if they are about generic concepts that your audience will understand without further information. If the reader needs to know something specific about your character to make it work, there simply won't be enough information for your reader to care.
This tactic should not only be used for action-packed thrillers. Action, in a story, is anything that moves the story forward. This can be dialogue or the description of a new scene. Getting a bill that the character can't pay in the mail, or learning that the character missed their flight can be just as traumatic as death, but only if you develop the characters involved enough that your reader feels like you're talking about their sister.
One way to explore whether or not you have enough character development is to translate the scene you've just written into a video in your mind. Many movies open with action, but if you think about it, in just two minutes of screen time, the audience gets a lot of information. The music sets the tone. The audience can also clearly see the setting, what the characters look like, and what they are wearing. The audience can also hear every bit of dialogue. The expressions of the actors convey their emotions. When you write action, you have to do the same thing! You must remember that the reader is at your mercy. They can only understand and react to the information you provide them. They cannot view the movie in your brain.
So, next time you get really excited about opening a story with gun shots and fireworks, try to remember how clueless your reader is, and how much information they need to become emotionally vested in your tale.
- NOT synopsize the story
- Intrigue the reader to learn more
- Make greater sense only after reading the story, providing the reader with a sense of completion
If these three elements are present, you have the makings of a great title! If your title doesn't do all three, consider changing the title.
Stories that make it are 75% good writing, 15% good idea, and 10% at the right time and place.
Good writing worth 75%: intriguing opening, gradual unfolding of the plot, consistent even pace, good use of metaphor and imagery, avoidance of cliche, attune to original phrasing, ending with a sense of completion or at least closure
Good idea worth 15%: non-obvious inspiration, avoidance of clichés or a new spin on an old idea, attention to what the market currently wants
Right time and place worth 10%: submitted to a market with the right personality match for your story, attention to current events avoiding national and global faux pas (writing about a tower crash after 9/11), luck
A well written story about a leaf that falls to the pavement is going to sell better than an atrociously written story about the greatest epic of all time. Neither will sell well if they aren't at the right place and the right time.
Once upon a time you didn't know that elves have pointed ears. You didn't know that Prince Charming always arrives at the last second, and that the story would end happily ever after. Once upon a time everything was new. Those stories sparked something inside of you that you couldn't shake. It was the first time Rapunzel let down her hair and the first time Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger. You didn't know if they would ever be rescued! You were inspired and decided that you wanted to write speculative fiction as well. Maybe you were good at it, maybe you wanted to make others feel the same way, or maybe you just thought it was a great way to make a buck. Either way, you became a writer.
Whether you write for love, money, or both every writer writes to be read. It's a fact. You wouldn't be visiting this site if you were not the kind of writer who wanted to be read. Some of us, me included, write just to get it all on paper and then we throw the napkin away. We leave others with the difficult task of inspiring the masses. If you are one of those authors whose great desire is to have as many people as possible read and enjoy your stories, continue reading this article. This is information you need to know.
A common phrase that teachers toss at their writing students is "write what you know." Many writers take this to heart, and write what they know. They think back to the stories they know; the stories that first inspired them and nestled themselves to live in a special place in their hearts. Every time the author thinks of that story they are filled with fond memories and so that is what they write. They write what they know and what appealed to them and continues to appeal to them this day.
And so our hero, the author, writes the epic of the century, posts it on their website and waits for people to hopefully visit their site and "discover" their story. They daydream about Google offering them free space because their site is causing band width traffic problems and editors banging down their door to get first dibs on owning their story. This usually does not bode well for our hero as they soon find out that millions of other authors have done the same thing and nobody is visiting their sites either. Readers don't want to hunt for great stories. They want great stories handed to them on a glossy platter. So our heroes step into the horror story known as publication.
They learn how stiff the competition is, how many publications there are out there, and how much they learn to hate the term "response times." They submit great epic high fantasy after another and start to consider wallpapering their office with rejection slips as a way to insulate their homes since they can no longer afford to pay for the heating bill.
Why can't they get their fairy tale published? There are many reasons why stories do not get published. It would take years to touch on all of them. This article focuses on why it's hard to get "classics" published. I see this problem very often and the discussion of the topic with authors through the years has helped them tremendously. Every writer wants to be read. The problem is that what they want to write and what the audience wants to read are two different things.
How many people are scrambling to buy copies of Little Red Riding Hood or Cinderella? Sure, people are buying the DVD's but how many of the books are selling? Do you ever have a burning desire to run out and grab a copy of The Princess and the Pea? Of course you don't because not only do you know all of these stories by heart, but you probably have a few different versions of each already on your shelf. If you don't, you know exactly where you can go online to grab them because they're mostly public domain.
Yet every week publications around the world are swarmed with submissions of princesses captured by dragons, princesses locked in towers by witches, handsome prince charmings battling a series of trials to get to said princesses and free them, and the prophecy they are all woven into. There are no truly original stories, but you can certainly try harder than that!
I understand why you want to write about the stories that inspired you. You write them and they make you smile. You read them and they make you smile, and so you think why wouldn't other people smile too? The question is do you want them to nostalgically smile or put money in your hand? Do you want the editor of the publication to have your story strike a chord of warm memories as she crumbles your story and throws it in the garbage, or do you want her to write you a check? It's a harsh statement, but you have to remember that if you read it and it's on your shelf, so does your readership! The only difference between speculative fiction readers and speculative fiction writers is that writers actually have to stop reading long enough to write something. Readers don't stop reading and so that new story you just read that inspired you, about which you are currently writing? Well, they just finished reading the sequel.
I'm not trying to scare you away from the classics. They are there for a reason. They are our backbone, the foundation of why we love to read and write. Let them do their job. Let them inspire, but don't regurgitate them. Imitation may be the highest form of flattery but it isn't getting your story bought. Nobody is going to want to pay $ for the latest glossy if they already know the stories inside.
So please think before you write. Where did you get the idea for this story? How many other well known stories have you read which are similar? Would you pay for this story or is it already on your shelf? Don't rewrite the classics. Write a classic of your own.
Here are the positives:
- You just don't like you're name. You have to live with it on a daily basis, but you don't want to be known for it.
- Your name is really hard to spell, confusing, or really long. You want a name that is easy and memorable so you decide to change it. Allowicious Leonardo Victorianaovichski might be an interesting name, but if they can't spell it, they might not be able to find your book.
- Gender is important to you. Your name is androgynous and you want the world to know that a specific gender wrote this story. Chris M. Walker could be Christopher Michael Walker or Christina Maria Walker.
- Gender neutrality is important to you. You don't want people to be swayed in their reading by knowing what gender, if any, wrote the book. You prefer initials or androgynous names as your contribution towards the gender equality movement. Some people "hate" male authors because they are emotionless and write about nothing but war. Some people "hate" female authors because they're too flowery and write about nothing but romance. Why give people the chance to dismiss your story before they start?
- Pen names are just cool and fun! You like the challenge and idea of coming up with a name that means something to you, is a fun pun, or is comprised by jumbling the letters of your real name. Lord Voldemort had it right!
- You're painfully shy. You want your words read, but the idea of signing autographs, getting fan mail, or being interviewed on Oprah terrifies you.
- You have a few literary enemies. You may have made a few boo boos in your climb to the top and burned a few bridges a long the way. A pen name gives you a fresh start.
- You feel like you can say ANYTHING with a pen name. No matter how political or abrasive you want to get, it won’t matter because no one is going to know who you are!
There are of course some negatives to pen names:
- Nobody will know who you are! Your close friends and writing buddies will know your pen name, but other acquaintances and people from your past might pass the book because they had no idea that you wrote it!
- You might get lost in the shuffle. Editors, publishers, and companies do keep records. And if your legal name, nickname, pen name, and email are all different, it's easy enough to misfile your stuff. I tell you this from experience!
Writers know that editors rarely read more than the first paragraph or page of their story to make a final decision. Therefore I've found many authors obsessing over "the hook" they are using to "capture" their readers' attention.
I'm starting to hate that damned hook! It's simply the wrong metaphor to explain what you're really trying to accomplish. Let's extend and explore the metaphor for a moment. Imagine a giant hook slyly coming out of nowhere and grabbing you around the neck to yank you somewhere you had no intention of going. Hooks, in that traditional sense, are rude, abrasive, and automatically inspire the reader to fight right back; they resist. Wouldn't you?
It makes sense. Nobody, readers included, take kindly to being forced to do something against their will. So throw out that rusty hook and instead send out an invitation.
Would you be more obliged to follow someone if they roughly grabbed you by the arm and said “Follow me. Now!” Or would you be more inclined if the person gestured politely and said "Please, follow me." I'm not saying that you should simply be sweet as pie to your reader, and if they decline with equal grace that you should allow them to trot on their merry way. I'm merely asking you to look at it differently.
Now that you can see an invitation as opposed to a hook we can start manipulating the reader. An invitation may sound gentler, but it is the most devious of manipulations. What you need to do is lull your reader into a trust. You need to play on their emotions, just a tad, to get them involved. You need to make your reader think that following your story was THEIR idea, not yours. If an individual thinks they are acting in their own right, you have them right where you need them to be, and they'll follow you like a pathetic puppy, pathos and all.
There are a few tactics one can employ to proffer a wolf in sheep's clothing invitation, and it's all about the norm. You need to get the reader to relate to what's going on as quickly as possible which means you need to draw out that human element. This is a very difficult concept to explain without examples. Let's say your story is about a spaceship mechanic named Max that eventually gets tied up in an interstellar drug cartel situation. There's fighting, love, betrayal, and a saga that spans galaxies and generations. I can almost guarantee that if you start that story in a gun fight, or with the love interest slapping Max in the face, you're not going to keep your reader. Instead you need to figure out how to make the reader relate to Max. You need to make Max human. This is much more difficult for speculative fiction writers since their characters are often anything but human. So instead of starting with the hook of explosions and drama, show Max hammering his own thumb while working on a stubborn piece of equipment. Show Max getting his pink slip, having one too many at the Bar Spar Tavern, or getting a parking ticket. These are emotional instances that almost any reader can easily relate to. It will automatically put Max in their court; they'll want to root for him and follow him as he climbs out of his bad luck. That way, when all of the hookish explosions and drama do happen, the reader will have invested an emotional interest and won't be blown right out of the story.
Let's look at one more example, this time in the fantasy genre. We have Sava who is the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter destined to be the greatest sorceress Miakan has ever seen. The Chialesh ambassadors would do anything to get their hands on her; that is if they can find her. Nobody though, not even Sava, knows exactly where she is. It sounds like the premise to an exciting tale of political intrigue, stealthy great escapes, emerging magic, and coming of age. So many authors begin a story like this with a discourse on the history of Miakan, the rise of the Chialesh ambassadors, how magic works in their world, and whatever prophecies are tied to it. These may all be fascinating in their own right, but history is history and it's still going to read like a text book. Forget all of that! Weave that exposition into the story later if you must. Right now let's focus on Sava. Did you know that she's afraid of the dark? She has a goat named Gilp that follows her everywhere too, but not out of a sense of love or duty. Gilp just loves to nibble on her skirts because the dye is made from the tasa plants that grow by the river. Gilp loves tasa plants! This story might open with Sava trying to pick tasa while constantly swatting Gilp away. There could be two or three pages of watching Sava in the very normal relatable task of house chores and dealing with a family pet when she sees several horses carrying the Chialesh banner galloping around the corner. Having been with Sava thus far as she goes about her day, the reader will watch with concern as Sava's destiny unfolds to the ensuing adventure.
I hope these two examples helped. Just watch while writing to see if you're forcing or inviting. That awareness will take you far, and make your introductions far more inclusive.