Hooking your reader – feedback from our judges

Hi Alphas, Betas and Greek letters in-waiting! Today I’m going to be talking a little bit about some of the feedback we’ve been given from our judges on a few of the reasons stories don’t get accepted to the workshop. I’ll be mixing in some of the experience I’ve had from submitting to magazines and contests, whose editors and judges have often said similar things.

Diane Turnshek, one of Alpha’s judges of application stories, told me that three of the most common problems she sees in stories are:

1.) The protagonist is not active in making his or her own choices.

2.) There are little or no genre elements in the story.

3.) The story takes place in a common, generic reality.

Diane’s first point could cover many blog posts all on its own, so for now I’m going to focus in on the second and third points on this list and talk a little bit about how important getting the genre aspects of the story in early are. Diane here says something that is actually very similar to advice I’ve seen Writers of the Future contest judge K.D. Wentworth give out on what catches her attention on contest entries. WotF is the biggest competition out there for new writers of science fiction and fantasy both in terms of prestige and prize money, and well worth submitting to as you begin your careers in the field. K.D. Wentworth has thousands of stories to judge every quarter and so, like every good editor out there has to, she focuses only on the very beginning of stories to see which ones she should continue reading.

One of her main complaints that tallies with 2) and 3) in Diane’s list above, is that the speculative aspect of the story is not evident on the first page. In judging the Alphan application stories, the entirety of the piece is read, but busy editors and slush readers elsewhere often don’t have the time to read all the way through the story. If they find nothing to hook them early on, or find something they don’t like, the story will be passed and the next picked up instead.

That’s why getting your fantasy, science fiction or horror element out there on the front page early is so important. You only have a short window to impress, and getting the unique part of your story into the mind of the reader in the first few paragraphs does so much to capture them for the rest of the story. Starting slow can work in novels, but in short stories you only have a small amount of words and it’s important to get into the meat of the story as soon as you can, which in a speculative fiction story means showing your genre elements early, and making them unique and interesting. You don’t need to put too much information in too early, but just a hint of the strange nature of your story early on can work wonders.

The third point of Diane’s list is just as important to a successful story though. If you’re submitting a story to a science fiction, fantasy or horror market, they want to know that it’s a genre story early so that it’ll fit their audience. But if you want to sell the story, you also have to make that setting unique. A generic fantasy world with dwarfs in chain mail living under the mountains, elves with long bows that live in the treetops and evil orcs and goblins has been done so many times that unless you have something to distinguish your world from every other Tolkien clone out there, you’ll struggle to keep the reader’s attention.  The same is true of a science fiction story with starships that shoot lasers and have improbable space battles, and is increasingly becoming true of romantic stories involving vampires and werewolves.

It’s not that you can’t include these elements, many successful novels do include starships, vampires or orcs. The trick, however, is in choosing elements of that setting that is distinctly different from what you’ve read in the past. If your world has magic, could you think of some interesting rules as to what the characters need to do to use it? If your story is set in space, could you imagine a different kind of space travel to the traditional old hyperspace? A little bit of thought to push your story in a new direction can make a massive difference. Having said that, some of the best, award winning stories go even further than that. They take a completely new path, perhaps by writing about a new science discovery the author read about in the news, or by creating a totally new fantasy world with new creatures and culture.

Using your imagination is one of the hardest, and most fun parts of writing speculative fiction. It can be incredibly invigorating and rewarding to create a new world and write a story in it. Embrace that feeling, and push it that little bit further. By forcing yourself not to take the same old beaten path when it comes to the genre elements of your story, you will end up with a bright, more vibrant story as a result, and that will resonate with editors, judges and readers alike.