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Good things, and lessons from the slush pile

published6 months ago
6 min read

Well, hello! Another month has zoomed by, disturbingly quickly! It’s been a busy time for me, what with my new job, and my daughter learning from home at the moment while Omicron surges.


Writing updates

I’ve stalled out a bit on my “trash planet” story, and so decided to give myself a bit of leeway to get back to basics. I’ve done a few interesting online courses (Cat Rambo’s are particularly good), and I’ve found an excellent (and hilarious) writing podcast called Couch to 80k, by Tim Clare. In the most recent episode I listened to, he wheeled his phone in an otherwise-empty pram, through a cemetery, so you could “go for a walk” and write at the same time. Brilliant.

I’ve also been sporadically adding notes to my very-ongoing Felathia novel inbox, which is pretty par for the course. It’s becoming an endless “watch this space,” which makes me think perhaps this is the year to knuckle down, once-and-for-all, as much as this thing is really starting to intimidate me.


Nice things

I was reading a great blog post at the very-lovely-looking (but unobtainable, due to their shipping policies) wonderpens.ca website, just about some basic writing prompts for journaling during the pandemic. One suggestion was to come up with a list of 100 “nice things” you can do at home, or locally. As a bit of a resource if you really get stir-crazy, but also a good exercise to remind yourself that there’s really quite a lot of interesting things you can do, even if you’re isolating.

Anyway, here are mine. You may find they inspire you to write a list of your own! It’s surprisingly easy (once you’re on a roll) to get to 100!

nice things part 2


Lessons from the Slush Pile

I think I’ll eventually write this up as a blog post (so apologies in advance) but I’ve been thinking a lot about everything I’ve learned so far as an Assistant Fiction Editor with Utopia Science Fiction Magazine.

Before I signed up as a volunteer with them I’d read a lot of interviews with various authors talking about how much it can help to read a lot of stories, and also give feedback (or at least formulate your thoughts about the piece in a coherent way).

Currently I’m reading eight stories a week, and either recommending the stories to the Editors for their perusal, or rejecting them with a nice email that includes some feedback comments. I’ve been doing it since August now, and this is some of what I have learned so far:

A good title can be surprisingly effective

It can be a witty encapsulation of the story itself, or a general sum-up of the goings-on therin. Ones that have a bit of a twist or a pun to them are particularly good (in my mind); mostly, I think, because I struggle so much with coming up with my own titles.

But there are enough terrible ones that come over the transom that you really do notice those too. Sometimes you look back and wonder, what did that title have to do with any of it, at all? A boring title is, indeed, better than a bad one.

Many people seem to enjoy employing latin, I suspect in an attempt to “elevate” the story. I’m not 100% sure this has the intended effect, especially if the rest of the story can’t hold up its end of the bargain.

Names should be pronounceable

I’ve seen this mentioned in many other places, but it’s worth repeating: you should be able to pronounce names in your head. Too many strange consonant juxtopositions, or apostrophes, just makes the reader pause, and think, there’s that unpronouncable name again. Really, you want to be able to skim over the name without really stopping. Usually this happens with aliens, though sometimes people do like to give unusual spellings for “normal” names. I know a lot of people like these, so maybe I should just shut up on that front.

Adam and Eve in space

Adam and Even in space is commoner than you’d think. So no, it’s not a plot twist that’s going to make me gasp and shake my head with admiration. Ditto with people (usually scientists) having religious epiphanies where they realise God is real, despite years thinking otherwise.

I’m cool with these sorts of stories, though usually the ones I see aren’t very well told. I suspect it’s very difficult to say something new in this space, which also makes me wonder if it's people who are new to writing (or science fiction as a genre) who are drawn to these.

Get your choreography right

Choreography is super-important. Not that you need to include dance numbers in your sci-fi. (Though I would like this, possibly more than I will admit.) But the positioning of people, where they are in relation to each other. What their hands are doing. What they are holding in their hands. And which hand. Are they standing or sitting? Are they repeating movements accidentally? If this is distracting and I can’t visualise it, I’m immediately taken out of the story.

Story starters

Don’t start your story with someone waking up, and then walking around. Even if they look at themselves in the mirror so you can describe what they look like.

MPDG syndrome

Manic pixie dream girls in space are still manic pixie dream girls.

Dialogue

Stories that are all-dialogue are hard to pull off. Sometimes these take the form of “talking heads in a white room” (surprisingly common) or a presentation format, where someone is giving a lecture to a room. It’s incredibly hard to get some interesting pacing going, or to effectively give exposition to the reader in this way. The subject matter can be fascinating, but the story itself has to work too–as a story.

Voice

“Voice” can really make or break a story. If the narrator’s voice is unlikeable, or bland, it just colours everything else. Not only in a first-person perspective, where this is most noticeable, but a third person tone can also really swing the vibe. I’ll often recommend a piece if the voice sounds, well, authorative. Not as in go to your room, young lady, but like the author knows what they’re doing. I feel more confident that the story will also go somewhere interesting. And if it doesn't, well, at least I enjoyed the ride.

A good voice can earn the reader’s trust. A voice where the narrator mis-steps, uses obviously wrong syntax or incongruous tone, doesn’t earn the reader’s trust as easily. Just sayin’.

SCIENCE

Science is great. All hail Science! Some people love science so much they don’t care if there’s a story in their story. They want hard, proveable, science. (The fantasy equivalent is worldbuilding, or magic systems.) But unfortunately, at least for the stories I’m reading, if they don’t have a story first and foremost, they won’t be recommended.

Then again, if someone submits a story–to a sci-fi mag, I might add–that seems to have very little sci- then unless it’s something magnificent, it probably won’t be picked up either.

Guidelines exist for a reason

That reminds me: seriously, check the submission guidelines. I love lots of dystopian fiction. So great. Also stories that end in a big downer. Still ok for me. As a reader. But Utopia Science Fiction has a big giveaway in the title. They want positive-futures. Inspiring stuff that we can aim for as a civilization.

People still send in stories where the main character kills a whole lot of innocents with bombs, or exact revenge on people who did them wrong, in many violent and generally horrible ways. Or, for that matter (see above), stories with like, no sci-fi at all in them.

Typos

Lastly, typos don’t matter as much as you might think. To a certain extent. One or two is not a deal breaker. I’m not your eighth-grade English teacher. But if there are lots you do tend to wonder if the author has the greatest hold on the English language in which they are assuming to write. So a few: OK. Lots: not so much.


Blog round-up

I actually did write a few blog posts this month!

(Some high-quality post titles there. I think I need to work on these. Search-Engine Optimised, these are not!)


Wow, ok, that went on a bit longer than expected. In any case, thanks for reading (assuming you made it this far), and thanks again for subscribing!

Stay safe, and stay well!

Jess