Look at your first two paragraphs. If it is designed to give information, cut it.
This was the first task Sara O'Connor (pictured right), senior commissioning editor at Working Partners, handed attendees at SCBWI's Fantasy Fiction Master Class last Saturday.
I looked at the chapter I'd taken along.
Sure enough. My very first sentence was a total info download.
And that was pretty much the recurring theme of Sara's master class.
Cut 20 words from your first page.
Now cut 20 more.
Now look at your chapter outline. Cut a chapter. Cut another.
Slash, burn, chop, chop, chop. Kill those darlings. To say it was a little bit bloody is an understatement.
"Be tough on yourself," says Sara. "Where most fantasies fall down is in loading up the back story at the beginning."
Tough is a good way to describe it.
Fantasy covers a gamut of story - from Tokienesque wizards to Westerfeldian dystopias ... anything with an alternate world. And building a world is all about back story: setting, past action, orientation, context.
How do you do that without long tracts of explanation? How does one write fantasy without putting the reader to sleep?
The secret, says Sara, is to "show, show, show" -
Here's a useful rule of thumb - Sara's 1 to 20 ratio: Only state a fact or have non-active description ever 20 lines.
- This world has always been there and is not new to those who live in it.
- They wouldn’t sit there and describe it to themselves.
- Or they don’t know it and they learn about it piece by piece. In neither case are long paragraphs acceptable
- There is absolutely no room for explanation in dialogue whatsoever ... that kind of download is a big turn-off for agents and publishers
I had a look at my text. AAAAARGH! Suddenly all my clever weaving in of information within the first few paragraphs screams AMATEUR at me!
It's all about what's essential, Sara says.
Think Backpack. Any information you impart to the reader is something they will have to carry for the entire course of the book.
So before you load the reader up, ask yourself, is it essential?
Is this paragraph essential? Is this scene essential? If it’s not actually essential, cut it.
Apart from the Slash and Burn, you have to ask yourself: is this exceptional enough?
"A lot of what's out there is derivative," says Sara, "the world must be aspirational and inspirational. Build a world I would want to live in. Build a world that draws me in."
She quotes Sarah Davis, agent extraordinaire of the Greenhouse Literary Agency:
Approximately 50% of the 150-200 submissions that we receive every week involve some kind of fantasy element – from slightly magical to dark paranormal to full blown high fantasy. We get shape-shifters, yet more vampires, girls coming into powers at a certain age, fallen angels, dark fairies, hot dead guys, prophecies, etc.
It’s very hard to show me something I haven’t seen before. Authors often think they have hit on something original but I’ve seen it three times already.
Ultimately it isn’t about the genre. I am looking for something that’s wonderful. There are no rules, just make it exceptional. Weave magic with your language. It’s the glorious writing that is the x factor and that is the hardest thing to achieve, and the hardest thing to find!
Inevitably you will find yourself writing within fantasy conventions "prologues, prophecies, dragons, a sword, wizards, vampires, werewolves, wizened old ,men, new races of people, all-powerful objects, not knowing about your powers" ... Says Sara:
"It's not that you have to avoid (conventions) but you have to be extra skilled to stand out."
General tips on how to be fabulous:
- Set up expectations that you must deliver eg. Hints of the magical-ness in the story
- Start in the most exciting part of your story
- Embrace revision: big to little – don’t do little (line editing) the first time you revise. See that things are working big picture before you do little picture
- Don't let the world take over your plot.
- Sympathy only gets you part way there (with characters). You need action to really make a character engaging.