Death of Dulgath, I promised to include the short story of an aspiring (or new) writer at the back of the book. While the writer will be compensated at twice the standard rate, ($0.15 a word (up to 5,000 words) as opposed to the standard SFWA rate of $0.06), the real purpose was to provide exposure for the writer in a crowded literary landscape, and hopefully jumpstart their career.
I've received hundreds of entries. If you’re wondering if I staffed this out…no, I read each one personally. It should be understood I didn’t read any of them completely.
In the same way that it is possible to tell if a person is a skilled pianist or a novice from only a few bars of music, most people can tell the difference between a skilled writer and a novice from a few sentences. I most often read until I hit enough problems to determine the entry wasn’t going to make it. This usually required me to read no more than the first page, often only the first paragraph. In a few cases only the first sentence was needed. And in two cases only four words. If I read beyond the first page, the piece was dropped into the “promising” folder to be read in full later. If not it went into the “reject” folder.
This is similar to how publishers and agents deal with large piles of submissions and is something of which all professional writers should be aware. You don’t have long to make a good impression. The good news—if you want to call it that—is that unlike most agents and publishers, I skipped the query letter and read the story. I didn’t care who you were or what your credential were until I determined if you could write. Only after your story landed in the “promising” folder, did I read the query, or even your name.
For those who are wondering why they bothered to work on the query if I ignored it in the majority of the cases, don't worry...it should be worth your time. You see, everyone who submitted will walk away with at least a critique of their query, but that process will occur once I'm past the deadline for delivering the novel.
- Poor writing (repeated words, unnecessary words, poor word choices).
- Story doesn't start at the start of the piece.
- Too much exposition.
- Difficult to understand.
- Lack of interest.
- An original or interesting premise.
- Excellent writing.
For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.
Works that skip this part usually display only the skill, or acquired craft, of a writer, but there is more to fiction than craft. As a result, excellent writing got my attention, however, it didn’t win me over. A great story with wonderful characters and mediocre writing consistently beat out great writing with only the hint of a story.
Of the hundreds of entries I went through, fifteen are waiting for me in the “promising” folder. Those of you who entered this contest and don’t see your name on the list, might wonder what exactly you did wrong, or—should you find your name listed—what is it you did right? Here are the most common problems I found:
- You started your story with boatloads of exposition. As in: In the land of Hezgoroth a hot wind blew across the land where ancient kings of the Jeilian Horde warred against the*…I’d usually hit reject at this point. I don’t want you to tell me a story. I want to live it. (* This is not from a submission. I made this up. I won’t post anyone’s work and criticize it. That’s just mean.) Fact is, I hate the rampant habit of the fantasy genre to indulge in excessive, and usually unnecessary, exposition. If your story started this way, have hope,
not everyonealmost no one feels the way I do.
- Nothing happens at the start of the story, as in: Leroy sat on the log pondering his life as he waited to find out the verdict the king would hand down. Ever since he left his home of… Again this is exposition, but at least it started with a character doing something, too bad they were only sitting. Better to have started the story with the verdict, or better yet with the consequences of the verdict. (Again, this isn’t from a submitted story.)
- Purposeful avoidance of details that keep the reader from understanding anything, as in: The person was there thinking. They weren’t certain when it would happen, but they knew it would happen soon, or soon enough. It was hard to tell. Or it’s slightly lesser annoying sibling, dithering, as in: He wasn’t certain but he seemed to be almost falling. He thought he might be, and maybe he was but…
- You may have spent your precious first words of your story setting the stage as opposed to starting the story, as in: The forest was dark and gloomy. A thick eerie mist rose. A full moon was only a hazy faint light. Everything was cold and damp and filled with fear full forbidding. It was an evil night. Even the…Reject.
- Confusion. If I couldn’t understand what was going on, I passed.
- Boredom. Maybe I could understand it, and something was going on, but if I wasn’t intrigued, I passed.
That said, if the first sentence was a bait-and-switch where you invented a compelling opening line just for the sake of a great opening line, that too was passed on, as in: Bob was plummeting to certain death. Bob woke from his dream drenched in sweat. Bob was born thirty-five years about, and now I will tell you about his childhood. It started…
The opening also can’t just be action—as many of them were. Action scenes didn’t work for me. Combat isn’t interesting. It’s actually very boring unless you care about those involved, and you can’t if you don’t know who they are.
In the first paragraph of your story I was looking to discover who the story was about (not just their name), what they were trying to do, and why they were having troubles doing it. The entries that managed this had a much better chance of me getting to the end of the first page. Therefore a sentence like: Officer Jane Williams didn’t know whether to cut the blue or the red wire, but she knew she had ten seconds to decide.
- Who: Most likely a police woman.
- Situation: Most likely defusing a bomb.
- Problems: A bad decision will bring death.
Out of hundreds there were fifteen. They are (in no particular order):
- Jillian Lokere
- H. L. Fullerton
- Kate Smoot
- Hannah Dancy
- Tyler Powell
- Desmond Warzel
- Thorn Stratton
- N. E. White
- Heather Jean Matheson
- Steve Williamson
- Marina Lobstetter
- Terence Kuch
- Anthony Lowe
- Setsu Uzume
- Zachary Brennan