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Get your spec up front

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Dustin Adams
(@axeminister)
Gold Star Member
Topic starter
 

Here's how I define spec vs literary:

A literary story is something that didn't happen, but could have.

A speculative story is something that couldn't have happened.

I'm thinking about some of the Rs coming out of Q1 and thought I'd post this in case even one person finds it helpful.

Get that spec up front!

Seriously, the earlier the better. Signal the first reader (Kary, in this case) that this is a speculative story and she should keep reading, then pass it along to Jody.

Do you need reminding? Maybe not. But even as recently as my SF a few quarters back, I received the crit feedback, "Is this spec?" in the first two pages.

Here's the edited/final version as submitted:

As a tow truck driver, I've seen all manner of roadside accidents, but this one is downright eerie. There's an actual cop on site instead of an AI drone, and the paramedics, a tall, older guy and a younger girl, are staring at me like I’ve just arrived for a funeral. We're on a dark, straight strip of highway with nothing but pines on both sides and there's only one wreck, upside down, smashed. The air carries a crisp pre-snow scent, but not one flake has yet fallen, so why'd this guy crash?

Now imagine that without the AI drone bit. Which is pretty much how I'd had it before the critique. Do we see said AI drone in this story? Nope. There's a human cop who provides all kinds of conflict. I literally stuck that line in there to wave the spec flag, then moved on with the story.

Is that a cheat? Well, I don't think so because this story takes place in the future, when AI drones exist. They weren't in the story because this is a human story. It's ultimately about memory transfer which doesn't come up until the bottom of page two - signifying spec like 300 words in. Which may still be OK.

Now, WotF is pretty forgiving in their leeway to getting a story to start. But I don't want to take that chance. This is totally a literary story until the bottom of page two, but I signaled spec early to remove all doubt.

So that's that. Maybe it'll help!

 

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Finalist #2 Read it here!

 
Posted : May 16, 2022 4:33 pm
Yelena, Martin L. Shoemaker, JVAshley and 6 people reacted
angelslayah
(@angelslayah)
Bronze Star Member
 
Posted by: @axeminister

I literally stuck that line in there to wave the spec flag, then moved on with the story.

Is that a cheat?

Let's take it out of the realm of "cheating" —as if there are rules you're trying to circumvent and might do so illicitly— and ask, instead: is this good writing? 

I can't see that it is if the story unfolds as you describe. Saying what's not there, I think, doesn't constitute world building but looks a lot more like some kinda "don't show, don't tell." 

I'm not a big fan of the formulaic approach, but realistically, the contest, as a market, has stated again and again the  formula it prefers, so I get that you need to get that spec in early.

If I may: You could set this scene a little more thoroughly in any case.
In today's world there might be "a cop throwing down flares, directing traffic around the scene" whereas in the future there might be "a cop, tossing signal drones into the air. They deploy around the wreck, flashing drive-around arrows at incoming drivers. Anything gets too close, they Wooo, an angry signal, establishing the perimeter" 

Just 2¢!

1865 Two Cent Reverse

Appears in the current issue
Volume 4 of The Antihumanist (Page 9)
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Posted : May 17, 2022 2:42 pm
storysinger reacted
DoctorJest
(@doctorjest)
Gold Star Member
 

For me, personally, I actually like the fact that there's a human police officer instead of an AI drone. That does a lot of heavy lifting for a little detail--firstly, you are told that the world features a class of AI capable of independently and, presumably, effectively responding to an accident. And secondly, it's implied that there is something out of the ordinary here, since the drone is replaced by an actual human officer. That gives me a question hook for the story, which the standard utility drones don't. And even if it wasn't a part of the story flesh originally, you get a lot more to work with there, if you want to play with it.

Both approaches work, though, in terms of setting the spec up front, and I think the distinction between which is better likely comes down to taste, and also down to how you execute what comes later. (I'm a little biased, as I've read the story Dustin is referring to, and I think his approach worked for it. And as it earned a SF, it's safe to say I'm in good company there.)

But regardless of specific style preferences, having that spec detail there at all is the more important detail, if you're looking specifically at what might help a story get it from the R bracket. The contest unfortunately receives a lot of junk that doesn't meet the guidelines, and they have thousands of entries to come through. So just making sure that your story clearly meets the contest guidelines is a sensible approach to take.

DQ: 0 / R: 0 / RWC: 0 / HM: 10 / SHM: 6 / SF: 0 / F: 1
In for Q3.V39 and Q4.V39
Last four: HM • HM • SHM • SHM
Revised SHM ('Ashwright') at PodCastle

 
Posted : May 17, 2022 6:35 pm
Yelena and JVAshley reacted
Morgan
(@morgan-broadhead)
Silver Star Member
 
Posted by: @axeminister

Get that spec up front!

Seriously, the earlier the better. Signal the first reader (Kary, in this case) that this is a speculative story and she should keep reading, then pass it along to Jody.

Very important point here. I haven't received an abundance of personal rejections, but one did mention they felt the spec element came too late in the story. So getting the spec element right up front is really crucial.

"Writers WRITE. And they finish what they start."
— Chuck Wendig
Drop me a line at https://morganbroadhead.com
SFx1
HMx1
Rx4

 
Posted : May 17, 2022 6:59 pm
N.V. Haskell reacted
JVAshley
(@jvashley)
Silver Member
 

Same here. I got a "spec up front" comment. I had a hard time thinking of a way to do it. But I love the easy way you slid it in, Dustin.
<mind spins on possibilities>

~ J V Ashley

 
Posted : May 18, 2022 11:51 pm
Martin L. Shoemaker
(@martin-l-shoemaker)
Platinum Plus Moderator
 

I cheated. Blatantly. I needed pages to establish the setting—a 19th century clipper ship in the Indian Ocean, late at night after a storm—before the speculative element appeared. It had to be there.

So I added a paragraph right up front…

————

If the storm had lasted another hour, perhaps even half that, I might never have seen the new star. And then
what happened to me and the Prospero might have happened to another man
on another vessel – or perhaps to no one at all.

http://nineandsixtyways.com/
Tools, Not Rules.
Martin L. Shoemaker
3rd Place Q1 V31
"Today I Am Paul", WSFA Small Press Award 2015, Nebula nomination 2015
Today I Am Carey from Baen
The Last Dance (#1 science fiction eBook on Amazon, October 2019) and The Last Campaign from 47North

 
Posted : May 19, 2022 6:29 pm
Morgan, JVAshley, Dustin Adams and 5 people reacted
Morgan
(@morgan-broadhead)
Silver Star Member
 
Posted by: @martin-l-shoemaker

I cheated. Blatantly. I needed pages to establish the setting—a 19th century clipper ship in the Indian Ocean, late at night after a storm—before the speculative element appeared. It had to be there.

So I added a paragraph right up front…

Is it even possible to "cheat" on a story? Maybe you just used a tool in a way it wasn't intended for. I'm guilty of using butter knives when a screwdriver would work better. I say if it gets the job done, who cares how you got there!

"Writers WRITE. And they finish what they start."
— Chuck Wendig
Drop me a line at https://morganbroadhead.com
SFx1
HMx1
Rx4

 
Posted : May 22, 2022 3:23 pm
Physa/ Guthington/ Amy
(@physa)
Silver Star Member
 

Thanks for this thought provoking thread. It is interesting that one of the RWC categories has to do with speculative element being introduced too late. Apparently it needs to be within the first 2 pages (and can be a reason why it's SF and not F). Looking through the comments, it's worth working in to your opening paragraph as you set the stage so to speak. I think this is the reason why my Q1 story received a RWC. I wanted it to be a portal fantasy which makes getting to the speculative element quick enough tricky. Definitely food for thought.

WOTF results:
Before Moon's Vol 39 challenge, 6 R's: Vol 31 Q3, Vol 33 Q3, Vol 35, Q4, Vol 37 Q3 and Q4, and Vol 38 Q3.
For Moon's Vol 39 challenge:
Q1 RWC, Q2 HM, Q3 HM, Q4 in progress...
IOTF results:
Vol 39: Q1 HM, Q2 R, Q3 P, Q4 P
According to Winston Churchill, "success is going from failure to failure with enthusiasm"
Somehow I lost my Guthington profile, but it's me. Amy Wethington = Guthington = Physa

 
Posted : June 8, 2022 2:30 pm
czing
(@czing)
Silver Member
 

One of my only Rs here was a magical realism story where the magical realism is quite late in the story - not a fit for this market - but it actually got held for consideration at another spec market. Maybe someday I'll revisit it and see if I can sneak some of the magical aspect a little earlier and try sending it to some different places.

v36 Q1, Q3 - HM; Q4 - R
v37 Q1 - R; Q2 - SHM; Q4 - HM
v38 Q1 - HM; Q2 - SHM; Q3 - HM; Q4 - HM
v39 Q1 - SHM; Q3 - Pending

 
Posted : June 13, 2022 4:42 am
Joe Benet
(@joe-benet)
Bronze Star Member
 

Besides the fact that it is stated as a requirement, why can't the spec come late in the story, as long as it is there? If the reader is reading a Sci-Fi and Fantasy anthology, are they not smart enough to assume the story is one of those two without being told so in the first two pages?

Hypothesis 1: This is just a process requirement that makes first reading more efficient and enables the wonderful people here to sift thru thousands of entries a quarter to find the gems.

Hypothesis 2: This is good industry practice because some spec publications will stretch their spec criteria simply because they don't receive enough quality entries. Getting spec up front is good practice so those readers are not disappointed by slogging thru an entire story that never quite delivers.

Hypothesis 3: This is good industry practice because indie published stories by unknown authors need to let the reader know early they are not wasting there time on non-spec when that's what they want.

HMx6
SHMx1 (Q2'22)

 
Posted : June 18, 2022 4:44 pm
storysinger
(@storysinger)
Platinum Member
 

I agree with your thoughts Joe Benet. If every story has to follow the exact same formula, where does spontaneity fit in.

But if we want to win, we have to go with the flow, pun intended. laughing  

Today's science fiction is tomorrow's reality-D.R.Sweeney
HM-V32/Q3
HM-V36/Q4
HM-V38/Q1
HM-V38/Q4
HM-V39/Q2
Published Poetry
2012 Stars in Our Hearts Notions
Silver Ships

 
Posted : June 18, 2022 5:36 pm
DoctorJest
(@doctorjest)
Gold Star Member
 

Well, for one thing, we do know that the Contest receives entries that aren't spec at all--and even entries that aren't even stories. It's been mentioned as a rationale for this before. Expecting our fair reader to slog through those in the hopes that they might eventually be spec is probably optimistic. So Hypothesis 1 does carry weight, and I think certainly 2 and 3 have weight, though may not be key to this particular contest. 

But I think there's a Hypothesis 4 missing here, which is--the Market knows what its readers like to read, and what its judges or editors like to see, and the rules simply reflect that. There's a reason that David Farland previously spoke about the concept of speculative fiction being "wonder fiction" -- and if your spec is coming late in your story, rather than early, then chances are pretty good that you're not delivering on that.

(It's not guaranteed, by any stretch. But by the same token, there are always stories that win despite seeming to break rules--and this isn't about that, but more about the general case.)  

By and large, market rules really aren't just arbitrary things bolted onto a market by an editor trying to make your life difficult. More often than not, it comes from them knowing their publication--what they like to publish, and what their readers enjoy seeing, what stories their readers most often tell them stuck with them, or which stories were the ones that people remembered the most fondly, and so on and so forth. As a rule, I'd argue that the professional take on almost any rule put forward by just about any market is to accept that they have a reason why they want it to be there, and that if your story doesn't fit the rules they've presented, then just accept that it's probably not a story for their market.

Some may invite you to try anyway, but sometimes, these can help you know quickly that the story might do better somewhere else instead--and you may rather try them than waste your time on one that isn't really looking for your current masterwork.

For every horror market that wants gory nightmare monsters, there's one that wants existential cosmic dread, one that wants psychological horror rooted in realism, and one that wants dream-like horror narrative rooted in a more poetic style. And where some markets may want sword-and-sorcery tales with their barbarians swinging in from the first stanza, others would prefer their fantasy to creep in at the edges, subtly invading a realistic present-day setting to subvert expectations. They all know what they're looking for, and sometimes, what they're looking for just isn't the story you've written. That doesn't mean it isn't a good story--but it almost certainly means it's not a good fit for their particular market. And as a rule, it's a good idea to trust the market to know that.

DQ: 0 / R: 0 / RWC: 0 / HM: 10 / SHM: 6 / SF: 0 / F: 1
In for Q3.V39 and Q4.V39
Last four: HM • HM • SHM • SHM
Revised SHM ('Ashwright') at PodCastle

 
Posted : June 21, 2022 2:24 am
Dustin Adams, dommichaels, Writhmic and 4 people reacted
Saint Rupert
(@bzelger)
Active Member
 
Posted by: @joebenet

Besides the fact that it is stated as a requirement, why can't the spec come late in the story, as long as it is there? If the reader is reading a Sci-Fi and Fantasy anthology, are they not smart enough to assume the story is one of those two without being told so in the first two pages?

Hypothesis 1: This is just a process requirement that makes first reading more efficient and enables the wonderful people here to sift thru thousands of entries a quarter to find the gems.

Hypothesis 2: This is good industry practice because some spec publications will stretch their spec criteria simply because they don't receive enough quality entries. Getting spec up front is good practice so those readers are not disappointed by slogging thru an entire story that never quite delivers.

Hypothesis 3: This is good industry practice because indie published stories by unknown authors need to let the reader know early they are not wasting there time on non-spec when that's what they want.

I would agree with your first hypothesis, more or less.

One of the things that tripped me up when I first started submitting was modeling the structure of my writing on the works of authors that I enjoyed reading. A natural, almost inevitable approach, I’m sure. In my view, a typical story established scene and setting, defines the rules of normalcy, and then shatters or erodes that.

This is a sharp contrast with the advice here to throw the reader into the middle of the action and let them sort things out later. I propose there are three primary drivers of this disconnect.

  1. Markets and reader expectations have evolved. Most works read by most people will trail the cutting edge. If you focus your literary development exclusively on the classics, you’re going to struggle in many modern markets. For all the high-minded ideals about art, it doesn’t matter how deep your thoughts are if nobody reads them.
  2. The story the author writes and the story that the reader comes away with are different. I have reread things where I would have sworn that some point or other is belabored repeatedly, to find only spare reference which nonetheless managed to color the whole character/event/story.

    I don’t much enjoy reading flowery or detailed descriptions of things, and I would have pointed to one of my favorite authors as an example of how to write a lean story where the plot is all that matters. Rereading some of his work recently, I discovered that his prose is as purple as they come, it just doesn’t seep into my brain because it doesn’t interest me.

    Similarly, the author may well throw you into the action and fill in the pieces later. By the end, you have a good idea of how things were before the crisis, and the story rearranges itself in the proper order in your mind. That’s nice and satisfying as a reader, but a pernicious thing when you casually try your own hand at mimicking it without properly grokking how it was done.

  1. Now, those who have read this far will be proud of me. In a post about getting the important thing up front, I have buried what passes for my point here towards the end. An established author’s most important hook is the name on the cover page. They can start the story anywhere they want and you trust that they will entertain or intrigue you.

    A new author doesn’t have that luxury. I think the WOTF guideline is not so much a requirement for a good story, but rather a prescription for an amateur writer. You have to throw your best stuff out as fast and hard as you can to keep the reader’s interest from sentence to sentence, because they lack the trust that there is something worthwhile buried deeper in. It’s not inherently better writing or storytelling, it’s proving to a skeptic that there’s a story worth reading.

It’s not just the first reader either, it’s also the end audience that the contest is selecting for. They have an effectively unlimited selection of things to read, and they don’t know you. Prove your writing is interesting by writing something interesting.

Surely there are ways to seize and hold the reader’s interest aside from the speculative component? Yes, and I expect that you could win if you do it well enough, but the speculative element should be central, in addition to appearing early, and should therefore be one of the most interesting parts of your story. Saving it for later makes your job harder. It’s already a tough hill, no point in handicapping yourself.

 
Posted : June 22, 2022 5:02 am
Martin L. Shoemaker
(@martin-l-shoemaker)
Platinum Plus Moderator
 

Young, idealistic editors quickly learn a sad truth: people don't read guidelines. They just scatter-shot submit.

The editors would love to give every story more time; but after 40 or 50 stories with no speculative element at all, you get cynical. If it's not up front, there's not enough time to spend looking for it.

Remember: thousands of stories per quarter. Thousands, plural, means at least 2,000. There's not time to read every one.

http://nineandsixtyways.com/
Tools, Not Rules.
Martin L. Shoemaker
3rd Place Q1 V31
"Today I Am Paul", WSFA Small Press Award 2015, Nebula nomination 2015
Today I Am Carey from Baen
The Last Dance (#1 science fiction eBook on Amazon, October 2019) and The Last Campaign from 47North

 
Posted : June 23, 2022 6:59 pm
David Hankins, storysinger, Morgan and 1 people reacted
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