Distinguished panelists Kevin J. Anderson, Rebecca Moesta, Larry Niven, Jody Lynn Nye, Tim Powers, Brandon Sanderson, and Robert J. Sawyer gave attendees tips on how to become one of the 12 yearly winners of the Writers of the Future Contest on Saturday in the Hyatt. Before the panel began, Sanderson chatted with some young writers sitting in the front row of the audience and gave them encouragement and tips. The most important thing, he told them, is to learn to write. It takes practice. Sanderson told them he spent 10 years practicing and wrote 13 books before he sold his first one. His helpfulness foreshadowed the attitude of all the panelists (who are or have been judges for the contest). They were eager to share their knowledge.
The first suggestion was to write consistently. One way to do that, if you don’t happen to have an idea for a story, is to use a story-prompt. Or read the Science News, Nye suggested, and ask yourself questions. What if? What could go wrong? Where will this science take us in the next 100 years? Anderson said he was surprised when he realized how many of his short stories had come from editor requests for specific anthologies, which are basically story prompts.
The panelists also covered other story-generating ideas such as taking a metaphor and treating it as if it were literal, or taking the pitch from an old classic and making it your own. What would it look like now or in the future? Sawyer gave the excellent example of Spider Robinson, who used to use ideas from episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man, and “write it better.” He also advised new authors to “write your pain,” which will give your fiction power.
Sanderson added that it’s important to train yourself to write every day. Powers suggested writing five sample sentences just to get you started on a story. Delete two of them and write three paragraphs from the rest. That way, you’ll be able to trick yourself into thinking you’re just playing and trying things out, not actually writing the dreaded beginning for real. Once you get going, Powers said, you can admit, “I was lying. This is real.”
Outlining or “pantsing”, which is best? It all depends on what works for you. Powers likes to have the end in mind, setting off a series of explosions throughout that culminate in a big blast at the end. Sawyer also wants to know the beginning and the end when he starts a story. He said that a short story is the shortest path between those two points, whereas “a novel is the scenic route.” Moesta, who said she’s too distractible to be a pantser, needs an outline, but she allows her characters to deviate when necessary. “Be open to inspiration,” Nye said, because “the wonders of discovery” will add to the story.
The panelists agreed that writing short stories is an art. In the past, short stories used to be a good way to break in as a new writer. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore, so if you love novels, write novels. That’s where the money is, although Sanderson noted that novella-length ebooks have the most lucrative price-point. If self-published and tied into traditionally published novels, they can yield a good value for your time.
As for length, the stories skew longer than they used to. The judges agreed that they initially like to see shorter stories simply because of the time involved to read them, but they often end up choosing the longer ones as winners. The contest allows works of up to 17,000 words.
Anderson’s philosophy as a judge is to do his best to find a writer who has the potential to become a great writer. He tends to choose a complex piece over a clever short piece. Focus on one arc of action, one story, one achievement, one problem, Nye said. A poetic ending is also important. Writing endings, Niven said, is a learned kill. Writers should read the year’s best anthologies, such as this year’s Writers of the Future Vol 35.
Some final tips for what these judges look for in a winning story:
- Anderson: Write a good story, one that’s lyrical.
- Sawyer: Write great characters and a snappy plot.
- Sanderson: Filter the story through the lens of the character.
- Nye: Hit the ground running and catch me right away.
- Niven: Give me an ending.
- Powers: Be careful of using present tense.
- Moesta: The story needs to make sense. Have reasons for everything, including the magic.
And above all, they agreed, keep practicing and never give up!