You've got only today to enter a short story in our Pulp Idol competition ! Yep, close of play Tuesday 3 June is the deadline. If you need any final insights to help you on your way, we spoke to a number of people from the SF publishing world to get their insight into the business. What are their tips and tricks for writing fantastic stories? Even if you're not entering the competition, some of the guidance here will be of use to you if you ever plan to write fiction.
You can read all the best snippets of advice summarised in the pages of SFX magazine (latest issue on sale on Wednesday) but here online we're uploading a full interview each week. Today it's James Wyatt , former Methodist minister and now novelist and games designer. Working for the Dungeons & Dragons masters Wizards of the Coast (who are sponsoring Pulp Idol this year) he has designed several gaming supplements, and multiple fantasy novels. At these links you can read his personal blog and his D&D blog .
SFX: What advice do you have for our competition entrants on how to grab the reader's attention at the start of a story? How do you do this in your stories?
James Wyatt: "You don’t have to start at the beginning, and there’s no reason to be afraid of leaving your reader a little lost at the outset. The beginning of a story should whet the reader’s appetite, leaving more questions in the reader’s mind than it answers. There’s a fine line to walk, there: wondering what’s going on is a strong incentive to read more - but feeling utterly bewildered is a strong incentive to find something more comprehensible to read."
"Of my published work, I’m probably happiest with the opening to the short story 'Call of the Silver Flame', in the Tales of the Last War anthology. It starts with a vignette featuring the villains of the story, a fun little bit about reviving a vampire who’s been 'dead' for a hundred years. Ideally, that beginning gets the reader excited about the nasty villains and what they’re up to, without spending a lot of time explaining the backstory that unfolds over the rest of the story."
SFX: What experience do you think readers get out of good fantasy fiction?
James Wyatt: "A sense of wonder - and I don’t dismiss that as escapist. At its heart, I think wonder is an experience of broader possibility, an openness to what could be. Our dreams are good for us: they let us aspire to be more than we are. They let us imagine a world that could be different than the reality we perceive around us, and at their best they empower us to work to make this world better. When we truly engage with a story of heroic fantasy, I think we begin to see the possibility for heroism in ourselves, the capacity to improve ourselves and our world."
SFX: Do you have a tip for overcoming writer's block?
James Wyatt: "Try to write on a schedule - don’t wait for inspiration to strike. The time between 7:00am and 8:30am or so is my writing time, before work and while my family is still sleeping. I can spend that time staring at the wall and sipping my coffee, but more often than not, being there in the chair, in front of the computer means that something’s going to show up on the page, no matter how blocked I might feel about what I’m working on."
"I also write from an outline, which helps to keep me on track. Usually, by the time I start writing chapter one I know in general terms what’s going to happen in every chapter through to the end. That keeps me in the flow of the story, and helps stave off any real writer’s block. When things get bad, I might be banging my head on the table trying to figure out how to say something specific or how to get from point A to point B - but at least I know what needs to get said, and what my destination is, because it’s in my outline. I stray from the outline at times, and I’ll make notes and alterations in the outline as I go. But the road map is always there."
"Now, in perfect honesty, it doesn’t always work like this. I’m working on the third book in the Draconic Prophecies series right now, and it’s killing me. My deadline is a month away. My outline is only half-finished, and I’m not quite a quarter of the way through the book. So I’m alternating my writing time - the time I spend actually putting words on the virtual page - with time spent working ahead on the outline, writing through issues in my notebook, and talking things through with my wife (who is a great sounding board). I’d say that the best 'trick' for keeping on track is to have another person you can bounce ideas off of - someone with a good sense of story and human nature who can point out the flaws in your plotting and your character development, someone who will listen to your ideas and give honest, constructive feedback. It really helps to be married to such a person, because it’s relatively easy to schedule long conversations when the writing gets tough."
SFX: How do you keep yourself motivated to keep writing when it seems to get difficult?
James Wyatt: "A contractual deadline is a powerful motivating force! I know when this draft is supposed to be done, and I know how many words I have to have done by that date. So I can calculate how many words I have to write each day - which, in practice, means that I can beat myself up every day for not writing enough."
"I got through my first novel by rewarding myself for hitting my daily targets: if I hit my thousand words (or whatever it was), I could play World of Warcraft. Sometimes that meant that I would write until midnight, eyes drooping, until I hit that target - and then play WoW until 2:00am because I’d earned it. And then get up early and try to crank out another thousand words at 7:00am the next morning..."
"I haven’t implemented that system again, but it’s starting to look like I might need to."
SFX: Does having a deadline help you write, or is it better to have all the time in the world?
James Wyatt: "Without a deadline, I doubt I would ever finish anything. If I had all the time in the world, I’d take it. Even if I reached the end of a novel, I’d go back and keep polishing and refining and revising until I died of old age. Deadlines are a good thing."
SFX: It seems to be a common complaint of authors that characters take on a life of their own, and often deviate wildly from the original plan. Is that true for you, and how do you deal with it?
James Wyatt: "It is true, but I’m not at all sure it’s a complaint. When characters lead me in directions I didn’t plan, that usually means that I had planned things for them that were either out of character or simply implausible. I’m grateful for the times my characters have led me out of stupid mistakes."
"I deal with it by treating my outline as a guideline that’s constantly in flux. When a chapter goes differently than I had planned, I write a new summary of how it actually went and put that in the outline. If that has repercussions for later chapters, I’ll at least stick a note in the outline for those later chapters, so I don’t forget that things have taken a different turn."
SFX: What advice do you have for somebody starting out as a writer who's had nothing published yet, perhaps is getting discouraged by rejections? What should they do?
James Wyatt: "I have been extremely lucky in that I wrote my first novel (and each one since) with a publication contract in hand. However, I got to that position by doing a lot of other writing - specifically, articles and sourcebooks for the Dungeons & Dragons game. I worked my way from a part-time freelance writer to a full-time job, so I’m quite familiar with the woes of apparently endless rejection. All I can say is to keep trying. I believe that every successful writer has more rejections than contracts, at least until they reach bestseller levels. Keep trying - but also keep learning. It’s not enough to just submit the same story over and over to a hundred different magazines until one accepts it. Make an effort to understand why each editor rejected your work. Ask for feedback - you won’t always get it from busy editors, but there are some who will appreciate your willingness to get advice. They’ll appreciate it even more if they see a new submission from you that demonstrates you’ve learned from that advice."
SFX: How hard is it to write within an established universe (that of Dungeons & Dragons)? What challenges do you find working within a publisher's guidelines?
James Wyatt: "Given that my day job involves working on that established universe, and I played a key role in developing the world of Eberron where my novels are set, I don’t find it particularly confining. The truth is that writing for Eberron means that a lot of the hard work of writing a fantasy novel - creating the world, deciding how magic works, that sort of thing - is already done for me. Within that framework, though, I still have a lot of latitude to tell the stories that I want to tell. It’s far more blessing than challenge."
SFX: Who are your personal inspirations - who did you read in your formative years?
James Wyatt: "I hope I’m not out of my formative years yet. I read The Lord of the Rings when I was about 10, though, so that’s definitely the key to understanding my interest in fantasy. Moorcock’s Elric books and Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser books are also up there on the list. Recently, I’ve been influenced by the likes of Dan Brown, Nick Hornby, Neil Gaiman, Audrey Niffenegger, and Susannah Clarke. And a great little book by Francine Prose, called Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and Those Who Want to Write Them, gave me permission to unleash my inner poet a little more as I write."
SFX: If you could pass on one single tip about writing fantasy to a new writer, what would it be?
James Wyatt: "Tell me a story about a person, not about a fantasy world. Your world can provide a great hook for your character, explain why she is the way she is or why he’s in the situation he’s in, but ultimately the world is the backdrop, the stage on which the story takes place. Tolkien was a great world-builder, whose expertise in linguistics shaped his stories in profound ways, but the success of his works has far more to do with the story he tells of Frodo and Sam, and their relationship with each other, than with any detail of the world he put them in."
SFX: Thanks James!
Even after the close of Pulp Idol at midnight tonight, we'll still continue to publish author, agent and publisher interviews here on the SFX website, because we know that many of our readers aspire to a writing life and these Q&As will come in useful. We've spoken to loads of big names from the world of SF writing and we'll keep sharing them here online. Good luck!