Sunday 20 September 2009

Fantasy Master Class with Sara "Slasher" O'Connor

Is this scene essential? If it’s not actually essential, cut it.

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" -
  • 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
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.
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!
British SCBWI fantasy masterclassLooking for fabulous: my fellow attendees
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.


  1. Dulcinea Norton-Smith20 September 2009 at 20:47

    Thanks for a great blog post Candy. That was both really useful and absolutely terrifying. I had better start hacking away!

  2. hack away! i was rather mortified by the ineptitude of my text. but now i'm getting into the rhythm of chop-chop-chopping!

  3. Comments from Facebook:

    Tracy Ann Great stuff, thanks for posting, Candy. :) I'm still editing my novel and all help and advice is needed and welcomed.

    Nicky Sounds like an excellent masterclass! And thanks to Cornerstones feedback, what Sara suggests is what I've been putting myself through. Killing loads of little darlings - and I suspect even with 35k words chopped out, there is probably still more chopping that could have been done... Aaaaargh!

    Teri Thanks for this Candy, very interesting (though if I slashed 35,000 words, Nicky, I wouldn't have any left!!)

    Miriam Good stuff, makes me to start world building right now.

    Jeannette Fantastic write up, Candy. Saves me the job of doing it!

    Gillian This is great, Candy. And reassuring to know that standard conventions aren't a turn-off! I'll print this out to look at when I'm editing a certain ms in about 8 months' time.

    Candy: i just focused on the slash and burn stuff, sara talked about character development, publishing and plot as well. it was really full on

  4. Slash and burn is really good advice for all kinds of writing, not just fantasy. Great post Candy.

  5. Oh my goodness, Candy, I absolutely LOVE my new nickname "slasher" and will begin referring to myself as such from this day forth. And may I ask for your permission to re-use that Chainsaw Massacre picture (with full credit to you, I promise)? It's brilliant.

    I'm glad you got something out of the class and hope that it helps with Ugly City and whatever else you're working on.

  6. oh but thank YOU sara, and you're welcome to the chainsaw massacre pic. it's very low resolution i'm afraid or i would send you the original. someday i'll make a high res version but then you'd have to pose for another photo.

  7. Another great blog and am really happy you are going back to Ugly City! em's will be thrilled x

  8. It was a great class, wasn't it? I know what you mean about slashing, I actually did a bit on the first page of my wip, which included info. Very useful exercise and got me thinking about how to improve my wip.

  9. Filing your post for eternal reference - thanks Candy.

  10. thanks Candy for your contagious enthusiasm, powers of perception and generosity to share info ! Really enjoyed reading this post and others, Nikki B.xx


Comments are the heart and soul of the Slushpile community, thank you! We may periodically turn on comments approval when trolls appear.

Share buttons bottom