The following information does not form part of the rules of the James White Award, it is simply intended as friendly advice for writers thinking of submitting a story to the competition.
Choosing your subject
- Your story should be science fiction. We will define science fiction broadly and stories with fantasy and/or horror elements will be considered. But stories that lack the element of the extraordinary are unlikely to win the competition.
- Stories must be strong – experimental fiction is fine but this is a short story competition, so writing with a strong plot, a beginning, middle and end, is likely to stand a better chance of winning.
- It will help if you know the answers to the following questions (although you might not want to include all this information in the actual manuscript) before you start writing your story.
- Who is your main character (the protagonist)?
- What does they want?
- What happens to them?
- How does they respond to what happens?
- What does their world look like and how does it differ from our own?
- What background information does the reader need to know for this story to make sense?
- Can I tell this story in 6000 words?
- If you’ve written something that has a protagonist who simply experiences events but takes no action and experiences no change then it probably isn’t really a story.
- No matter how strange or exotic the background, characters are important and stories that feature realistic people behaving believably stand a better chance of winning.
- If you are going to include one of the following clichés in your story, think very carefully before submitting it:
- robots (or computers or monsters) that turn on their creators
- time-travelling assassins
- virtual reality
- abductions by UFOs
- alien invasions
- quests for magical items
- god/s as alien/s or alien/s as god/s
- ultimate weapons
- stories about Elvis Presley, Adolf Hitler, Albert Einstein or Jesus
- retelling Adam and Eve in space…
It’s not that these ideas can never be the basis for good stories or even that they are bad ideas, it’s just that they are ideas that have been used a lot. If you think the way you’ve used them brings something really new to the field, or that your story is really exceptional, then by all means submit that story. But, if you’re using these ideas lazily or without thinking about what they mean or how they’ve been used before, your story is unlikely to win. Be aware that the judges are likely to have read most existing variations of these ideas.
You can find more examples of other over-used story ideas at Strange Horizons (www.strangehorizons.com/guidelines/fiction-common.shtml).
Writing your story
- Don’t just start at page one and make it up as you go along. It’s important to work out the plot of your story. You don’t have to go into incredible depth, just enough to ensure that you’ll never write yourself into a corner and that the details you include are relevant to your story. Remember: it’s much easier to rewrite an outline than it is to rewrite a whole story.
- Always know how your story is going to end before you begin (yes, this does sound like the same thing, but it’s such an important point that it’s worth mentioning twice).
- Your characters are as important as the plot. Some writers design their characters first and then build the plot around them, others do it the other way around, but whichever way you do it, don’t neglect either.
- Include a good balance of dialogue and prose: stories that are all dialogue never seem to go anywhere, and stories that are all prose can seem lifeless (no matter how action-packed they are).
- Keep the story moving: your readers really don’t need to know the intricate details of the design and manufacture of your protagonist’s lampshades, unless it’s actually relevant to the plot.
- Don’t let your characters get too complacent: there should be something driving them at all times.
- Experiment… Try different types of characters with different attributes. A good trick is to pick characters who are exactly the opposite of what the story seems to require.
- Change is important – stories that end without significant change to the circumstances of the protagonists and those close to him are more likely to feel inconsequential. If the story didn’t matter to them, why should it matter to the reader.
- Your protagonist should not, normally, be a passive observer.
- Choose words carefully. You can often have more impact with one or two well chosen word than a page of waffle.
- When writing each scene ask yourself:
- Why is this moment important for these characters?
- How do these events take me closer to the end of the story?
- What is different in my story after this scene?
If you can’t answer these three questions clearly, think about whether that scene really needs to be in the story – no matter how much you may like the writing.
- Once you’ve completed your story, set it aside for a few days. Then come back to it and try to read it as though it was written by your worst enemy: make a list of all the things wrong with it, and work out what you need to do to correct them.
- Ask an impartial observer to read your story, and encourage them to criticise it. For this, you really will need someone who won’t be afraid to tell you if the story is utter rubbish. That said, your critic must also be able to tell you exactly what IS wrong with it. Don’t take such criticism personally.
- Writers’ groups can be very useful for aspiring writers – especially if you haven’t shared your work with strangers before and if you are willing to take seriously the advice/suggestions of others in your group. The BSFA Orbiter groups are free for all BSFA members and are run by email or post and have helped many writers get their work published – you can find out more at www.bsfa.co.uk. Other local and online groups can be found using Google.
- Don’t be afraid to rewrite… If you’re not happy with a scene, write it again. Still not happy? Write it from the point of view of another character. STILL not happy? Then you need to decide whether you need that scene at all.
- If, when you get to the end of your story, you find that it’s far too long, there are a few tricks you can use to reduce the size… First, remove everything that doesn’t directly relate to the plot (detailed character descriptions, exposition, conversations about the weather, that kind of thing). Still too long? Then delete the first third of the story and see if it still works… You might find that it works even better than before.
Make a good impression
- Read the competition’s rules and pay attention to them. We’ve put them there for a reason. They are rules, not suggestions.
- We prefer submissions via our online form – see the How to Enter page – but if you have to send us a paper copy of your manuscript, use white paper. Not grey. Not yellow. Not pink. Definitely not pink. If you’re relying on coloured paper to get attention for your story, your story probably isn’t good enough.
- The judges will have a lot of stories to read, so the cleaner your manuscript is, the better. So: your story must be typed, double-spaced, on one side of the page only, with proper margins, a simple, clear font such as Courier or Times (most professional writers will use Courier at 12 point), left-aligned (which means that the text on the right of your page should be ragged NOT justified), page numbers and the title of story at the top of each page. The rule here is that you don’t want the judges referring to your story as “the unreadable one”.
- There’s some clear advice about standard manuscript format on the internet, such as this article by Vonda N. McIntyre. The James White Award doesn’t demand that you stick exactly to this format but some publishers do. It might be good practice to get into the habit of using it.
- Check the spelling and punctuation at regular intervals. Poor spelling reflects badly on the story and the author. Your word-processor’s spell-checker usually won’t be good enough – a good dictionary is a writer’s best friend.
- Some punctuation and typesetting tips…
- Ellipses have three dots, no more, no fewer.
- There is no space before a comma.
- If you don’t know how to use semi-colons either look it up or don’t use them.
- If you’re not sure how to use apostrophes it’s long past time you learned.
- In the old days some writers put two spaces after a comma, three after a full-stop (or period) – those days are gone. Seriously. Stop it.
- Capital letters are for proper nouns only and do not make Ordinary Things More Important.
- Indent your paragraphs, don’t use a tab and don’t use spaces. If you don’t know how to do this on your wordprocessor then you need to learn. It’s your most important tool.
- If your story is divided into sections, split them up with a simple hash sign (#) – don’t complicate things with fancy lines and twirly bits.
- If you’re not sure about paragraph breaks or punctuation, pick up the nearest good-quality novel and see how that author does it: the novel will have gone through several drafts, and been worked on by any number of editors and typesetters.