On a fog-smudged morning last weekend, I headed to Writing NSW’s Speculative Fiction Festival to lose myself in the literary world of science fiction, fantasy and horror. While my writing is more contemporary in nature, with just a smattering of fantasy elements thrown at its characters, I was interested in what those writing more “hard core” fantasy and scifi had to say.
I thought I’d share snippets of the festival conversations, first on the subjects of world building, story structure and characterisation:
- Always ask: “What if?” Ask yourself basic questions about place, characters. World building starts with a sense of people and place.
- Clearly define the rules (those obvious and not) of any magic systems you invent. Make those rules plausible, then come up with ways to break them without losing plausibility. Implausibility jars readers out of a story.
- Small details loom large. When world building details are done well, such as those that drop hints of what will happen next, mood is created. For instance, a character notices a half-eaten sandwich on a bench in a deserted farmhouse…
- The complexity of human nature is what makes a book timeless. Character always comes first (authors like Stephen King understand this well). For example, it is not the monster in the closet, but the family with the monster in the closet that creates the greatest interest. How far you immerse readers into your characters before speculative elements take over is important.
- What is your character’s main driver? Use it! For instance, a wanderer would hate to be locked up, so lock him up!
- Don’t be cliche. For example, don’t create a religion that is a caricature of an existing religion. Don’t be overly critical of existing religions but, by the same token, don’t let them dictate the premise of your book.
- The past is a foreign country; treat it as such and do your research. For historical stories, newspapers are a great way to discover voice.
- Nothing kills tension like answers. Gaps in the narrative leave questions to be answered later in the story or right at the end (questions a reader may not have realised were there until they are answered).
Ideas for great sentence structure include:
- A punch line for imagery
- Beats (__, __, __, punch)
- Incomplete sentences
- Changing tense mid-sentence – hard to pull off but if you can, wow!
- And remember, themes are universal to all genres.
Next came a few reminders on editing and publishing, thanks to a lovely chat with Abigail Nathan, freelance editor at Bothersome Words:
- Any genre fiction is currently hard to get published in Australia, but especially speculative fiction (sorry, but it’s the truth). 😦
- Editors should be viewed as a conscience, not a school teacher. They are not there to write your book for you, but to offer advice on what they think works/does not work, and why. As well as this, your proofreader should not be your editor. Fresh eyes are needed.
The best ways to find an editor in Australia are through word of mouth reviews, reading book acknowledgements, searching online, or by contacting your state’s IPED (Institute of Professional Editors) and/or the Freelance Editors Network.
All books in a series (and let’s face it, many specfic books are part of a series) must have their own story.
- One of the most common mistakes Abigail sees? Prologues. They must do something unique, not be an excuse for backstory.
- And a self-editing tip? Do a storyboard e.g. a sentence to describe each chapter. If several sentences sound the same, there’s work to be done!
From self-editing to self-publishing, these were the main points for me:
- You can’t choose to traditionally publish; you can choose to self-publish. Don’t let people tell you, you cannot have your dream.
- You must have grit to go down this path. It’s hard and marketing is the hardest part, but you really need more than one book for the most effective marketing. Don’t spend too much time and money marketing your first book. Wait until you have a few, then hit it hard!
Social media is a great resource, especially Facebook groups (as we know, writers are such a caring sharing bunch). Group chats discuss everything from the best file conversion companies and cover artists, to how to get a Bookbub deal (Bookbub is one of the most effective promotional tools out there if you are successful in getting your book listed in a deal with them).
- Book covers must reflect your genre (check out the covers of bestsellers).
Don’t even think about doing audio unless you have a great narrator, which costs $$$.
- Successful self-publishers who offer helpful resources include Mark Dawson and David Gaughran.
Festival day ended with an ideas generator session (which left my brain hankering for the wine, and networking, that followed on the verandah). 🙂
So many ideas were thrown into the air during the last session but three points, in particular, resonated with me:
- Like this quote: Humans are so busy asking if we can, we don’t ask if we should. Scientific ideas have both promise and peril. The scifi that lasts is not anchored by science but by human behaviour, the choices characters make (as mentioned earlier in this post).
The information stored on our planet is set to double “in a heartbeat” (well, by 2060 anyway). The information stored in the cloud will be as much as the information stored in our DNA.
- Humans are hard-wired to survive in conditions very different to those we now find ourselves in (we are engineered as hunter-gatherers). How does this place us for the future survival of us, as a species, and our planet?
Many words for thought. And yes, many friendships were rekindled or formed at this festival with members of said species (you can read how I fared at two Writing NSW Kids and YA festivals, here and here). It’s always great to meet others spellbound by this sometimes-crazy world of writing.
On that note, hope your writing is crazy, but only in a good way 😉