Monday, October 14, 2013

Wordcraft -- Don’t let our stories grow into monsters

Last Monday, Tor editors Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden recommended some fast fixes for problems they see in story submissions. Today’s post focuses on how to keep your science fiction and fantasy stories from becoming monsters. And, what Team Nielsen Hayden really wants to see more of.

One thing they dislike is writing by trends, they told their writing workshop at the recent FenCon in Dallas. Including, but not limited to what they termed “appendix fantasy” -- books so monstrously large they beg for appendixes to keep readers oriented. Patrick pointed out that current books were actually written years earlier, meaning what look like current trends actually past trends.

Overwrought fantasy isn’t their only beef.

“In another week, we could have had a conference table covered with what the Brits would call vampire shaggers,” Patrick said.

“One day I actually had a psychotic break,” Teresa said, describing a pile of story submissions that drove the mild-looking editor to desperation. “I raised a knife and found myself saying ‘die, die, die’!” after reading the same things repeatedly during a perusal of story submissions.

Patrick in particular believes science fiction writers focus on making stories accessible to readers rather than repeating the genre’s clichés. Or as he called them, “tropes,” a more polite term for clichés, he and Teresa both agreed.

“You can either lose the trope or lose the reader,” Patrick said, urging “more science fiction rooted in things we know. There are a number of people in the world who will never understand science fiction or fantasy (but) what I believe is that there are a group of
people on the margins who can be reached. . . A lot of people under age thirty are not going to have any problem understanding science fiction (but) it needs to be rooted in very comprehensible human situations and conflicts.”

Doesn’t that mean dumbing down the hard science involved, an exasperated writer at the recent FenCon writing workshop in Dallas asked.

“What I’m talk about is not dumbing down, not in the least. Accessibility is not dumbing down. . . Entry level science fiction predicates that the reader may not have read five thousand works of science fiction.”

Aside from avoiding clichés, the Nielsen Haydens also recommend avoiding main characters who are depressed. Or passive. Or who spend more of the story’s space reacting to situations instead of being proactive.

(One of the “cheap writer’s tricks” Teresa suggested to improve a character’s likeability was to give him a dog, warning that the dog will then steal all the scenes. For a reader who hoped a character’s horse would provide the same reader sympathy, the answer was, sorry. No other animal has the cachet of a dog.)

As for what an editor wants, for Patrick that means more science fiction submissions. “Everybody intuits that fantasy outsells science fiction. What this means is I never get enough science fiction submissions.” In particular, he’d like to see science fiction with hard science and YA science fiction for boys. And yes, he said, “I’m a sucker for Westerns with science fiction elements.”

And although he admitted Tor’s short fiction list is filled through next summer, he was still willing to take another look at “that brilliant thing I’ve never imagined” -- a story from one of the workshop members.

For more information about Patrick and Teresa’s work, see last Monday’s “What editors know about fixing science fiction,” at this site and

For guidance on submitting work to Tor, see

(Next Monday -- After hitting lists with her novel about the Salem witch trials, Dallas writer Kathleen Kent has a new twist on historical fiction, this time set in Texas.)

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