While I focus Epos on the production SFF fiction, I’m also a creator and believe living a creative life benefits everyone. Whether it’s a hobby or a professional pursuit, creativity should be an important part of everyone’s life, yet we rarely pursue it. We’re always pushing it aside for more worthy or better-paying activities.
When we generate story ideas, we see them in our minds as perfect gems of literature. When we translate that image into words in a manuscript, even the best fall short of our imagination. Here are three reasons stories can fall flat to readers.
Characters act and speak in a vacuum
Sometimes we’re so energized by a story we just start writing. This happens most often with short stories but a novel can start this way too. This often leads to characters speaking to each other in sections of dialogue where the reader has no sense of where the characters are, what their body-language is communicating, or even when the scene takes place. Be sure to infuse all the senses in a scene, even if that scene consists mostly of dialogue. Make sure the dialogue advances plot, character, or the world, or better, at least two if not all three. Remember: who, what, where, when, and why.
Simple actions can say a lot, and help reduce the number of he/she/they said tags. Something like: “Did you hone the edge of that blade for Rugar?” she asked, could be turned into: Salia tossed Edric her whetstone. “Did you hone the edge of that blade for Rugar?” That implies things about both characters. Does Salia not trust Edric to get things done? Does he fail to keep his promises? Is he always unprepared, and she the opposite? In the story’s context, these details reinforce character.
There’s an info-dump
To get the story on the page we feel the need to include all the information we, the authors, know. How else will the reader understand? Often less is more. Readers need to fill in blanks using their own imagination. It’s why they read. Use details to hint and reveal just enough to keep them reading. Provide the reader with just what they need to know right-at-that-moment in the story. Details are like spice. Sprinkle them in but don’t overdo it.
Characters Lack Unique Voices
When a character walks into a story, the reader wants to identify with them or at least see them as unique from all other characters. Any speaking character, even non-POV characters, need a unique voice or presence. This can be challenging, especially when there are many POV characters already and lots of extras as is common in epic fantasy and space opera. There’s often a temptation to provide introductory back-story, but that risks creating many small info-dumps and slows the story’s pacing.
Like details, small character tags can quickly establish a character. Something like: Avrex wore his long black hair in a flowing braid clasped at the end with his family’s signet. This can signal status, and a certain vanity just by tagging the braid and how he wears it. Other characters may have braids, but do they advertise their family with them?
There are many reasons stories feel flat. It could be the central idea just isn’t as compelling as we thought. But reviewing these three elements can help bring a story to life.
What techniques have you used to liven a story?
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
Recommended Fiction is a new feature on the Epos blog. The idea is to share great speculative and fantasy books that can teach a writer something and is a great read.
Arkady Martine’s space opera, A Memory Called Empire is an intimate look at empire seen from within by an outsider. That unique point of view is one of the driving forces in the book. There is plenty of technology and all the political intrigue a galactic empire can produce.
What makes this a great read is the focus on characters at a personal level rather than scenes focused on the plots and machinations. The reader cares about the characters caught up in all the infighting and intrigue rather than the intrigue itself.
It is the connections between characters and their setting that authors should note. We take for granted that characters will connect to other characters, but it is the connection to setting—their place in the world that deepens the story and builds the emotional resonance.
The worldbuilding is rich and complex and is worth studying as an author. Using language and ideas about how people communicate, and how an empire disseminates information is original and fitting a story dealing with colonization. Using poetry to record history and produce propaganda is also unique for Science Fiction.
A Memory Called Empire is rich in ideas and thought provoking challenges to tropes that should make fellow writers re-examine their own works in progress.
And 5 things to expect from your copyeditor
After completing the revisions your developmental editor suggested and maybe made tweaks from your critique partners suggestions, it’s time for a copy edit. Whether traditionally publishing or self-publishing, the process is similar.
If you aren’t sure of the differences between editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders, see my refresher.
When you selected or were assigned a development editor for your fantasy or science fiction novel, one requirement was their familiarity with the genre. How else would they know if your magic system was working, or if your wormhole science made story-sense? Or if you treated tropes uniquely? You should have the same level of genre knowledge from your copyeditor.
According to the Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn, the copyeditor’s job is to make a story clear, consistent, and correct. They look at the words the author used and how they used them to tell the story. They correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors. They follow a publisher’s specific style-guide to enforce consistency.
A copyeditor working in fantasy and science fiction has to do everything a non-genre copyeditor does. They must also check consistencies in invented languages, complex magic systems, and speculative science. The genre copyeditor must consider if the fictional city on the coast in chapter one suddenly became the land-locked city of the same name in chapter ten, or did the author just reference the wrong invented name? Google Maps can’t help. Cities in fantasy can also move.
A genre copyeditor has to maintain consistency for the correct possessives and plurals of invented names for people and things. It’s a layer of complexity an editor of literary fiction rarely deals with.
Any good copyeditor will work through these issues, but if you’re paying by the hour, this extra work can add up. A copyeditor who is deeply knowledgeable in the FSF genres should be able to work through these details smoothly. Even if you’re paying by the word, any followup conversations will be more concise with a genre-focused copyeditor.
5 Things to Expect From Your Copyeditor
All copyeditors should follow standard practices such as making suggestions; not changing anything beyond obvious grammar, spelling, and punctuation unless you’ve requested them to. Editors should communicate timelines, meet deadlines, and never harm or lose any part of your manuscript.
When it’s time for a final polish of your Fantasy or Science Fiction novel, here are 5 things to expect from your copyeditor:
- A clear, concise scope of what they will do for your project and offer customization – Are the doing a light, medium, or heavy copy edit?
- A one or two-page sample edit
- Experience in your genre
- A follow-up review by phone, Skype, or email. These aren’t always necessary but you want the option.
- A custom quote for your project. No two are the same
I hope this has prepared you in your search for the right copyeditor of your Fantasy or Science Fiction novel.
If you need a copy edit, you can find details of my service here.