More Thoughts on #SPFBO

The Seventh Annual Self-published Fantasy Blog Off opens for entries tomorrow, May 14, at 6 pm GDT. As I wrote in my last blog, this is a free-to-enter competition for self-published fantasy novels conceived by author Mark Lawrence. You can find the full set of rules and the entry link here on Mark’s blog. In brief, the first 300 entries are divided between 10 bloggers who review fantasy books, and each blog chooses a favorite from their batch to put forward as a finalist. All the blogs read and review the 10 finalists, and a champion is picked.

I’m entering my third year as a member of the Fantasy Faction SPFBO judging team, and I thought I’d offer some advice to authors who are considering submitting their book babies to SPFBO. These suggestions are mine alone and do not represent the opinions of other FF teammates or SPFBO judges, so your mileage will vary. Nevertheless, quality is quality, and a polished book will serve you better in any contest.

Tip 1. Don’t rush it.

As the entry date approaches each year, there is always a lot of chatter from prospective SPFBO entrants about how they’re pulling all-nighters to get their mobi files ready for submission.

Don’t do this. Just don’t. If your book isn’t ready for prime time, enter it next year.

There is nothing that irritates me (and in this case, all my fellow judges more) than a shoddily prepared mobi file, where, for instance, the text doesn’t flow, headers/footers interrupt the text, scene or chapter breaks aren’t clearly delineated, or any number of formatting problems that make the book layout wonky on the Kindle. These problems usually result from artifacts from the word processor (misplaced hard returns or line breaks, omitted page breaks, etc) that weren’t fixed during the conversion to mobi, but however they got there, it makes the book hard to read, which makes it impossible to judge. (Maybe one day I’ll do blog post on using Word styles to prepare your book for mobi file conversion, but this is not that day.)

It also goes without saying that the book should be well edited. My personal bias is that even the best writers who write the crispest, cleanest prose should invest in an editor (who should be paid appropriately; cheap editors are generally not good editors). However, I know many self-published authors have limited funds and have to rely on their own eyes and ears. Whether you hire an editor or not, run a spell and grammar check using your word processing software, and do yourself a favor and read the text aloud to yourself (yep, the whole book)—this will help you catch homonymal spelling errors (their for there) that the spellcheck (and your editor—even the best ones don’t catch everything) might miss.

Tip 2. Make every word pull its weight.

Of all the SPFBO entries I’ve read, the ones I disliked the most contained a lot of inconsequential details or unnecessary filler. Fully fleshed out world building is important when you’re writing fantasy, and well-crafted description and exposition immerse the reader more completely in the narrative. But the best fantasy novels use the world building, description, and exposition to advance the story or illuminate character motivations and actions. If mundane facts such as monetary denominations or how to wash a shirt (I’m looking at you, Robert Jordan) have little bearing on your plot or characters, we don’t need to know about them. The same goes for the ancient history of your world—don’t give us your version of the Silmarillion in a prologue unless your version of Melchior and Ungoliant absconding with the Silmarils directly applies to your Luthien’s quest to help her boyfriend get them back a few thousand years later.

Verbosity and overwriting are temptations I struggle with myself, so it’s something I am hyperaware of, and strongly dislike, in other people’s writing. Here’s an example (crafted by me) containing a multitude of sins:

Jeffrey leaned casually against the back of his chair as Charlotte entered through the door. He blinked his eyes at the way she moved as she gracefully glided toward him. He remembered how she used to move around like a cow. As she came to within five feet of him, she pulled her longsword from its scabbard and pointed it at his throat. The tip nearly brushed his windpipe. He stood up from his chair and asked, “Can I get you a drink?”

Smirking out a chortle, she withdrew her longsword and quickly shoved it back into the sheath at her side. “A drink would be nice,” she said.

Jeffrey walked across the room to the table where the decanter of wine stood. He took a pair of glasses out of the cupboard and filled them, then returned to Charlotte’s side. “To your health,” he said and raised the glass to his lips and drank. He swallowed until the glass was drained.

As a reader, when I see excess prepositional phrases and inconsequential stage business, I always mentally pause to edit the lines, which disrupts my enjoyment of the story. The books I like best are those with prose that lets me glide along. Here’s a version of Charlotte and Jeffrey’s meeting that I, personally, like better:

Jeffrey relaxed as Charlotte crossed the threshold. He blinked at her gliding gait; she once had all the grace of a cow. As she neared him, her longsword slid free with a hiss. The tip hung a hairsbreadth from his windpipe. He rose and asked, “Can I get you a drink?”

Smirking, she sheathed her sword. “A drink would be nice.”

Jeffrey filled a pair of glasses and handed one to Charlotte. “To your health.” He drained the wine.

If you’re reading this, see wisdom here, and are suddenly panicking that you need to edit your book again, see Tip #1, above. And remember, this is my opinion only.

Tip 3. Make your POVs meaningful.

This one is definitely “Amanda’s personal preference territory” but I think it’s important. In general, I don’t like books with a lot of one-off POVs, where we witness a single event from one character’s point of view, and that’s the only time we ever see things from that character’s eyes. I will always prefer POV characters to have their own story arc, with a satisfying beginning, middle, and end, so their narrative presence means something. Of course, there can be exceptions. For example, a single scene or chapter POV character may reveal a secret that the reader needs to know to understand the story, but which the protagonist cannot yet know, but any such one-time appearances should be used sparingly and only when absolutely necessary to advance the plot or for reader understanding. If the one-off POV is there simply to show off some cool aspect of the world building that has no bearing on the plot, its presence will most likely only irritate me.

Tip 4. Maintain consistency and logical cohesiveness.

Look, your story has to make sense, OK? If you have characters traveling between cities on foot, and those cities are 50 miles apart, your characters aren’t going to reach their destination in a day unless they’re long distance runners (and even then it will take them all day). If you have characters that are doing different things apart from each other but who occasionally meet, make sure their activities synch up. Don’t have them tryst the night before one heads off to fight at the front for 3 weeks while the other studies ancient tomes for 2 days, and then they meet for another snog in the garden. Charlotte’s longsword shouldn’t turn into a halberd without explanation. If Jeffrey needs to send Charlotte a message over a long distance, he should have a means of doing so (the fact Jeffrey has a flock of trained, message-bearing ravens would be a necessary world building detail).

The Bottom Line

I enjoy all sorts of fantasy. Epic, urban, historical, YA, grimdark—the subgenre isn’t that important to me (although science fantasy will earn at least a half-point boost); what matters is the excellence of the craft. The SPFBO5 winner Sword of Kaigen ticked every quality box (beautifully written, flawlessly structured), and I consider it one of my favorite novels of all time.

The SPFBO may be a contest for self-published fantasy, but the books that do best are the ones that exhibit the same (or better) quality of storytelling and writing as traditionally published books. That, at least, is what I’ll be looking for as we head into the seventh year of the contest.

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