We are really excited to introduce Ace and Roc editor Danielle Stockley. Danielle has been a trusted counselor to us over the years and is our go-to science fiction and fantasy fiction expert. (She also edits Book Country member Kerry Schafer‘s the Books of the Between!) It is our pleasure to have her answer questions about her work at Penguin Random House on Book Country today. Read on for great tips about the craft of writing—and editing—in those genres.
NG: What are some of the clichés in science fiction and fantasy submissions that make a manuscript an automatic “pass” for you?
DS: I hate to declare anything an automatic pass, because inevitably it will show up in something that I’ve published. There are definitely things that make me wary, though. Plots involving mind control; protagonists who are constantly developing new powers just when they are needed most; character “development” by way of sexual assault; and evil, monolithic corporations with seemingly limitless resources don’t feel especially fresh to me.
DS: A prologue is appropriate when there is a piece of background information that is vital for a reader’s understanding of what is to follow. A great example that lots of people are familiar with is the prologue to George R. R. Martin’s A GAME OF THRONES, in which [mild spoiler ahead] a group of rangers are attacked by supernatural beings known as Others. The reader’s perspective of what is and is not possible within the world of Westeros is indelibly set from that point, even though very little magic occurs in the subsequent chapters. Despite what characters may say, the reader knows that the Others are real, and that they are dangerous.
NG: I know that as a sci-fi & fantasy editor you are a big fan of logic and like worlds that make sense. What’s your advice for writers who want to build better worlds?
DS: Here are some things it can be helpful to think about when starting off:
- How plentiful is technology/magic? Who has access to it, who doesn’t, and, if there is a difference in distribution, why is that?
- What can’t technology/magic solve in your world and why can’t it? This is especially important in fantasy where the only limits are those that you, as the author, put in place.
- What is the cost to characters who use technology/magic? Why is it worth it?
One final piece of advice regarding worldbuilding that I can offer is that sometimes less is more. You wouldn’t assume that a society that has invented the wheel is also familiar with heart transplants, steam locomotives, and programmable coffee machines. Just because your world contains characters with psychic abilities doesn’t necessarily mean it also contains wizards, enchanted objects, demons, and a parallel universe. And if it does, there needs to be a good reason why you are spending time talking about all those things in the same novel.
NG: Finally, what was your favorite SF/F read in 2013, and what was so impressive about it?
DS: That is a tough call to make, but I have to go with THE NECROMANCER’S HOUSE by Christopher Buehlman. It is a great example of how seemingly well-trod territory can be made fresh and exciting. THE NECROMANCER’S HOUSE is a contemporary fantasy about a wizard in upstate New York who ends up getting on the bad side of a very powerful figure from Russian folklore. The two things I like most about it are its:
- Morally complex cast of characters. The main character is a recovering alcoholic, a vain man who has hurt people in the past. The conflict of the book directly reflects his struggle to become a better person, which means the stakes are personal.
- Unique magic system with fun details. Andrew can use film to talk to people, living and dead. His best friend is a talented sculptor who is learning bit by bit to control earth and stone. Another accomplice hacks the internet with spells as insidious as any virus. I also liked that there were physical components to the spells and casting them was laborious, not just a matter of manipulating invisible energies. Details like those made the story richer.
I also need to give a shout out to Ann Leckie’s ANCILLARY JUSTICE. Leckie’s narrative approach is ambitious and anyone wanting to read something completely fresh in science fiction would do well to check it out. I won’t say anything else because discussing the premise would ruin the surprise!
About Danielle Stockley:
Danielle Stockley (@D_Stockley) is an Associate Editor at Penguin Random House who primarily edits science fiction and fantasy for Ace and Roc Books (@AceRocBooks). Some of the wonderful authors she works with are Caitlin R. Kiernan, Luke Scull, Christina Henry, and J. Kathleen Cheney. When not reading she loves to play point and click adventure games and eat smelly cheese.