As a judge for one of the world’s largest writing contests, I’m often asked, “What are you looking for?” The truth is, I’m looking for three things. I want a story based upon an interesting idea, one with a well-formed plot, and one that is beautifully written. Let’s talk a bit about ideas, and I’ll cover form and the writing quality later.
So, I want to see a great idea. But what is a great idea?
First, it’s not going to be one that I see on a regular basis. In science fiction and fantasy, novelty is king.
There are some tales that I see over and over again. For example, if you have a story about a group of unlikely fantasy heroes meeting up in a bar, I probably won’t get far before I suggest that you use it for landfill.
What do I see a lot? Here are a few ideas:
- Mind transfer—where a human transfers his memories into a robot, or vice versa, or an alien transports its consciousness into a human.
- First-contact stories, where people meet aliens for the first time.
- Robots becoming sentient.
- Space races, where folks are traveling from one planet to another in a race.
- Human-alien love stories.
- Ghost stories.
- Mad scientist stories.
- Post-apocalypse stories.
- Killers discovering their humanity.
- Time travel where someone must kill his parent.
- Horror stories whose first scene serves primarily to gross out the reader.
- Retold fairy tales where the protagonists are gay. (Note: these are so cliché, I am tempted to just say, “I don’t care how beautifully you write it, the idea itself is dead.”)
- Old West mashups.
- Stories about mythical creatures come to life—such as pixies, werewolves, and so on hiding out in the woods.
I’ll stop there. It’s not that these ideas can’t be used—it’s just that they’re a bit worn. If you are going to win this contest, you will have to twist an idea in a way that I haven’t seen before, make it your own, and then plot it and write it beautifully.
I can’t go through a list of all the worn ideas, because that list is always changing. The year that Dolly the sheep got cloned, I was hit with many stories about cloning. Another year, when sex crimes were in the news, I got many stories about child molesters who get killed--and what happens to them in the afterlife. On another occasion, when a big television special on reproduction aired in Australia, I saw dozens of stories about the heroic journeys of sperm cells. So some ideas get popular for a few months and then slip away.
Now, I’m not saying that “mind transfer” can’t be a part of your story. I often publish stories where that is a component of the tale. It’s just that a worn idea can’t be the “feature” of the tale. By that I mean, let’s say your story has two kids walking past an old house and wondering if it is haunted. I can tell you right away—it is! So there’s no surprise in the tale for me, and no payoff.
So if you do want to use one of these old tropes, you have to take a general idea and figure out how to twist it in a new and exciting way. You have to find your own angle.
At the same time, you have to ask yourself: Is this even science fiction or fantasy? I get a lot of stories that are set in the far future, for example, that aren’t science fiction. You might have a story where a young woman has to deal with the grief of losing her mother. Mom dies in a spaceship crash. At the end of the story, I have to ask, “How is this story any different from one where the mom dies in a car crash?” If there is no science fiction conceit, then it won’t suit my purposes as an editor. For example, a recently got a nice story about a young woman who goes into a prison in a science fiction world. I thought, “Great, she is going to explore some SF way to escape prison.” But instead the story was about a girl adapting to life in prison, and it could have been written just fine in a contemporary setting.
In the same way, I sometimes get “ghost stories” that are meant to be scary, but ultimately we learn that there is no ghost. Or I get medieval fantasies with lots of swordplay, but ultimately it could have been set in 12th Century Norway.
Another test that I have to ask myself about your idea is, “How powerful is this for my average reader?” Some ideas resonate with readers. They feel relevant to their lives. A story in which humans have to struggle to survive will resonate nearly every time, but if your story deals with “How to make cheese in space,” that might not be as engaging.
So before you send any story to any market, look at the basic concept of your tale, and then ask yourself, does this suit the editor’s needs?
The very best stories, of course, are those rare ones where I as an editor see the idea and go, “Wow, that’s so cool. I’ve never seen a story about this before.”
Last chance to sign up for my Sydney workshop! I have a few spots left. It starts on Monday.