G R Matthews
Things to remember for next time
I’ve been blessed by some god, mythical being or a mystic cauliflower recently. And no, I have no idea what a god is, but trust me on the mystic cauliflower. (Here is a picture of it!)
The reason I am so blessed? I got to read a hell of a lot of books for the SPFBO as part of the inestimable team over on Fantasy-Faction. And there is, believe me, a lot of talent out there in the world of indie and self-publishing.
The point of the #SPFBO, check it out on Twitter and Mark Lawrence’s blog to get the full picture, is to find and promote the best of Self-published fantasy (though I think you’ll also find some of those by clicking the “Books” tab at the top… just saying). It does do that and, for me, has the added bonus of getting to see what people are doing in the realm of fantasy writing.
Most of the ones I read this time would fit into the Traditional Fantasy bracket. Nothing wrong with that, it is popular and sells well. I like traditional fantasy; get the group together, head out to right a wrong, or fight off a big bad threat. Add in some magic, a demon or a mad god or two and you’re away. Works for me (in reading).
The thing is, there is a lot of it around and when you’re reading a lot of books quickly they can sometimes merge into one. The ones that have stuck in my mind this time, and where the title comes in (Things to remember for next time), are those that have done something a little bit different. The books that play with the setting or character. Books where the main character isn’t human or it is set in future or the recent past. Books which use a different (but consistent) PoV or tense (consistent) made me sit up and take note.
I like different, something that stands out and is well written. Having said that, I like Lee Childs’s Jack Reacher books too and there are few who could claim they are original. Though you’d also have to agree that Lee Childs writes well and produces a good book. (If you don’t agree, Jack will be round to make you change your mind.)
At the start of this year’s SPFBO I wrote a blog-post about last year’s, giving some advice to entrants, things I had learned. On reflection, and because I didn’t know there was going be a second one, that advice was probably too late. I’m going to correct that now, just in case there is another, and also to make sure I’ve got a note of the things I’ve learned this time round and need to remember for next time.
So, let’s take my earlier advice and add to it a little:
Please make sure your first chapter is not an info-dump (in fact, avoid them altogether if possible, or use sparingly).
Still holds true. Stunningly true, in fact. Move on, this one’s done.
Give it some action or intrigue.
Yes, right, this is still true. However, I’d like to add to it with this; once a pacey / action-filled start has been set, don’t let it go too soon. Hold on to it, and slow it down carefully if needed. Going straight into a new chapter, after all that tension, where the main character is working on a farm, or weaving textiles while telling their children a story, or in flashback, is a bit of a shock. Similarly if it is EPIC, multi-character fantasy, which I am not likely to write, make sure, at the start, the chapter arc is concluded and not ending on a cliff-hanger. I don’t want to wait three chapters to find out what happened, or write is happening. And also, if I am submitting to an agent, or the SPFBO, they might not get back to the character and I’ve lost my chance.
Build a character by their interactions.
This one goes back to info-dumping, my pet peeve – but you knew that. Sometimes it is the little interactions that lead the character somewhere, and sometimes it is the large. However, make the character as strong as you can from the get go. Use first person, few (yes, I know some do) seem to write first person fantasy. It is more apparent in Urban-Fantasy, I think (which FF had one book in that sub-genre, maybe. I think.)
Make something happen, even if that something is small and will be important later on.
But not in a prologue. Never have a prologue. I’m never having a prologue again. OK, I did in the first book, but since then, not one! Finding a prologue that works is harder than it should be. Get the story going and going and going. Thinking back, I liked the ones in the Belgariad. I was (much) younger then.
Give the blogger/reviewer, the person reading your submission, something to get their teeth into straight away.
This is really about making the start the best of the book (and then making the rest just as good). Whether it is traditionally or self-published, we’ve all run into books that get bogged down at the start, get lost in a swamp in the middle, and find the high ground only at the last. And with a well-known author, who is guaranteed to get the sales that might be fine. But to get past an agent, that route isn’t going to be as successful.
The thing is, what I need to do now, is make sure I remember all those little things I’ve learned and write another best-selling* book. The current WIP might be that, or Corin #2 when it comes out, or the book after that, or the one after that…
*In my house. I guarantee I am the best-selling author living in my house at the moment.