Ten Years of Wonder: what wonder means to us.
Cast of Wonders is a pro-paying, SFWA qualifying market and part of the Escape Artists family of podcasts, but beyond that we are principally a Young Adult speculative fiction market. Generally speaking, we aim to produce stories that a 12-year-old reader would have no trouble following, but that a 17-year-old wouldn’t find childish. We hope adult readers would enjoy our stories, too.
Being a Young Adult, speculative fiction podcast means we want to receive stories that include the hallmarks of Young Adult fiction. One of the chief characteristics of the YA genre is that its stories generally contain a sense of “wonder”. It’s no coincidence that “Wonder” is in the title of our podcast.
What makes a story wonderful?
Most of the staff who work at Cast of Wonders are also fans of the YA genre and regularly read fiction from that category as well as Middle Grade, Children, and Adult genres. Most of us who are familiar with fiction targeted to younger audiences have no trouble identifying that feeling of wonder that is so often prevalent in those stories, but defining it is much harder. YA fiction is almost always about transitioning away from childhood into adulthood, and that time in one’s life is often a period of discovery. Discovery is a huge element of wonder.
Wonder is less about tangible story elements like space ships, mermaids, fairies, or magic. Rather, it’s more about perception. Characters or narrators in a YA story are often perceiving events with a sense of curiosity, awe, or revelation. Sometimes it includes a touch of naivete. As we mentioned above, it’s about discovery (sometimes external, sometimes internal, sometimes both) and having new experiences. Things that are routine or commonplace to an adult might inspire fascination or a sense of novelty in another, particularly in a young person who is starting to navigate the world on their own.
An author might work very hard on a spaceship story for three weeks and then submit it to us. In that same three weeks, a different author might have constructed a mage battle story. Yet another will work on a hilarious talking cat in that time span.
But in three hours, the average first reader on our team will have read seven spaceship stories, two mage battles, and five talking cats. During General Submissions, our slush pile can easily grow to 650 submissions. There is quite a bit of repetition of themes that comes with larger quantities of stories.
Often when we turn down a submission, it’s because the story didn’t evoke the sense of wonder we look for in our stories. That phrase “lacking a developed sense of wonder” is often included in our rejection responses. Over the years, though, we’ve heard that the expression, “lack of wonder,” has been a source of confusion and befuddlement for many authors who submit to us. And, sometimes, hurt. The following is not an actual quote, but a facsimile of posts we’ve seen on forums and other social media from the authors we’ve had to reject: “but… but I set my story on a spaceship! How can they say there’s no wonder?”Our aim with this post is to share what wonder means to us: that specific, unpredictable spark of Wow! that stops us in our tracks.
There is a difference between simply featuring a speculative element (e.g., spaceship, mage battle, talking cat) in one’s story… and WONDER, all-caps. Simply setting the story in a fantasy or alien world will not automatically summon WONDER. This is the main confusion authors have with our rejection letters.
So… what IS wonder?
Here’s the annoying thing: it’s “wonder”. There is no succinct definition. Our capabilities with English language aren’t enough to encapsulate it.
We can describe “wonder”; we can describe what happens when we read a story with great “wonder”:
- We know it when we see it.
- If a story is infused with WONDER, then for the twenty or so minutes we spent reading it, we were TRANSPORTED to ANOTHER WORLD.
- After we’re done, we sit, stunned, wide-eyed. We might whisper, “whoa.” We start to stand, then fall back in our chairs. “Whoa,” we say again. Or, “holy moly.” We shiver—the story gave us goosebumps.
- Sometimes we’re clenching our sides, laughing from the hilarity and mirth of a story that struck the just right note of humor.
- We’re stunned because the story kicked us in the feels. Or because the story hurled something into our eyes and now we can’t see straight. Are we crying? No, dang-it, we’re not crying… We’re not. Oh, shoot. We’re crying.
- We might clutch our chests because the story fractured our hearts. It broke us and pieced us together, and having done so, put us back wiser and kinder. Our hearts are a fraction of a size bigger. An extra piece—who knows where it came from—gosh we hope all our important bits are still functioning—has gotten slotted into our perspective. We see the world a bit differently.
- The fracturing continues. We will keep thinking about this story for the rest of the day. Weeks later. Years later. It haunts us.
- We recommend the story to others. We insist they have to read it, even though we ourselves are a little scared of re-reading the story. We know it might break us again.
At this point, we hope you’re starting to get a feel for why we call it a sense of wonder, and why we search so hard for it in our stories. The wonder we look for makes us feel. It connects us with the stories, and the characters who populate them. It brings the narrative to life within the reader’s mind. And, by feeling it, the story reaches us – it gains the power to change, to transform, to enrich.
In a basement, a boy plays with a girl… using toys that come alive according a fantastic universe they make up themselves—this is his first love, and as they grow older, he stops seeing the toys move—but she still sees them. And then she moves away.
In a futuristic home, the ghost of a young girl wanders unnoticed and ignored, until the day a teenaged soldier returns from serving aboard her battleship, bearing a gift for her younger sister… but that younger sister has already passed away. It was a fiction the parents told the soldier—a lie—and that kept the soldier alive. The story ends with the ghost that the younger sister was fading away, still unnoticed and ignored as the older sister weeps—because all she ever wanted was to be useful.
In another futuristic home, an alien composed of light visits her human comrade in arms—these two have spanned galaxies in an intergalactic war, chasing the Beast and its reaver ships.
At night, a group of BIPOC teens gather around a fire to defend their neighborhood against evil and seek justice for a murdered classmate. Nobody but them will take a stand.
In trying to figure out what we mean by WONDER, there really is no substitute for reading Cast of Wonder’s stories to grasp the “flavor” that we’re looking for. If we had to try to explain to non-Cast of Wonders readers what we mean by WONDER, then we’d say it’s more about what the successful Cast of Wonders story does with its speculative elements.
Sometimes it’s uniqueness of concept that hits our WONDER button. For example, there’s a high fantasy story out there about an artist who can draw the last image a person sees before dying—she works as a sort of traveling detective at crime scenes.
Sometimes it’s uniqueness of setting. There’s a story about a futuristic convenience store on our sister podcast, Escape Pod, complete with genetic bio-printers and fizzy drink fountains, that would’ve done smashingly well at Cast of Wonders.
Sometimes it’s uniqueness of character.
Sometimes it’s uniqueness of theme.
In short, the story takes a speculative idea and does something mind-bending with it. The story doesn’t just repeat the familiar. It’s hard to get gobsmacked by WONDER when reading about a vampire who… drinks blood. We’ve seen that already. Or about a vampire who… wants to stop drinking blood. Yes, we’ve seen that variation, too.
Sometimes, we’ll get a story that does something super-unique, but isn’t grounded as well as we’d like. We have too many questions and logic-holes that keep us from achieving that sublime sense of WONDER.
Other times, the story will break our guidelines or be inappropriately offensive. It’s hard to feel WONDER for a tale that’s ableist, racist, anti-LGBTQ+, and the like.
Another thing to consider is that CoW actively looks for stories that twelve to seventeen-year-olds would see with WONDER. A story about a genie who does income taxes with magic might seem wondrous to an American adult, but probably won’t excite a young reader.
If our explanation of what wonder means to us still leaves you scratching your head, then our final bit of advice is to never self-reject or second-guess. Even when in doubt, send us your best stories. You might find out you understood WONDER a little better than you thought you did.
About the Authors
As KB Sluss, Karissa’s short stories have appeared in Cast of Wonders, Daily Science Fiction, Luna Station Quarterly, and Stupefying Stories. She is also an assistant editor at Cast of Wonders and served as Co-Editor for Cast of Wonders-Artemis Rising 5. As Karissa Laurel, she is the author of several adult and YA novels. Her latest YA series, The Stormbourne Chronicles, is a YA fantasy about the daughter of the god of thunder. You can follow her online and on Twitter.
Andrew K. Hoe practices Choy Li Fut Kung Fu and Tai Chi in Southern California, where he also writes speculative YA fiction. He has been a high school English teacher, an Assistant Language Teacher in Japan, and is now a college professor. His stories appear or are forthcoming in Cast of Wonders, Diabolical Plots, Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide, Highlights for Children, and elsewhere. Follow him online or on Twitter.
Katherine Inskip is the editor for Cast of Wonders. She teaches astrophysics for a living and spends her spare time populating the universe with worlds of her own. You can find more of her stories and poems at Motherboard, the Dunesteef, Luna Station Quarterly, Abyss & Apex and Polu Texni.