And welcome to that wonderful time of year when most of us are shopping for friends and family. This year, get good karma points by supporting your writing peers and buying their books to give as gifts. Not only will you be promoting literacy, you'll be sponsoring the efforts of your peers and giving interesting gifts to those you love.
As the end of the year looms, we have many publication announcements to cheer. What a way to end 2007! May this be the promise of a successful 2008 for all of us.
And finally we want to note that longtime OWW member Gary Elliott Peterson, sometimes known as Gary Seven on the mailing list, passed away on November 18, 2007. Our heartfelt condolences to Gary's family.
--Ellen and Maria
To celebrate the news of our new member-support person, how about this for a December challenge? (forget holidays and all that): Taking Over a Job
Use your imagination--this could be in a variety of contexts, from families to kingdoms to damaged spaceships to anthills to...well, you guys are the writers. Find something interesting about the context of the taking over, the challenges, the restrictions, the results, or the reaction, and post your challenge piece to the workshop in the month of December with "Taking Over Challenge" in the title so all your friends can find it.
Challenges are meant to stretch your writing skills, so have fun!
Challenges can be suggested by anyone and suggestions should be sent to support (support (at) sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com). For more details on the challenges, check the OWW Writer Space.
The Robert A. Heinlein Centennial Short Story Contest
Three prizes will be given for the best original short stories reflecting the spirit, ideas, and philosophies of Robert Anson Heinlein.
$5,000 first prize, $2,000 second prize, $1,000 third prize
All entries must be received before 12:01 AM Pacific Daylight Time on June 1, 2008. There is no entry fee.
Entries must be submitted as an attachment and sent to HeinleinContest@heinleinsociety.org
Go to http://www.heinleinsociety.org/contest.html for more details.
The Editors' Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories -- science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories -- receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.
This issue's reviews are written by Resident Editors Jeanne Cavelos, Kelly Link, John Klima, and Karin Lowachee. The last four months of Editors' Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop. Go to the "Read, Rate, Review" page and click on "Editors' Choices."
Congratulations to the current Editors' Choice authors!
AN INHERITANCE OF STARS, PART II: Ch. 7-8 by Jesse Bangs
High fantasy chapter
There is often only a hair's breadth distance between good writing and bad. Something can sound old and tired in one person's hands while feeling fresh and new in another's. Often the best writing tweaks the familiar with its own special touch. The reader is comforted in that the narrative doesn't jump into something completely unusual, but can be pleasantly surprised when the storyline goes somewhere unexpected.
Sometimes, as in the case of Jesse Bangs' AN INHERITANCE OF STARS, it only takes well-crafted characters that jump off the page to make a familiar plot line refreshing. The old, steady, wise master versus the young, impetuous young man is nothing new. However, Bangs does a great job of creating realistic characters that the reader will want to keep reading about. One of the big things he does is that the characters have flaws, i.e., they are like real people. This is vital, and often overlooked. At least where your main characters are concerned, they should trend towards the middle road between too virtuous and too flawed. Most readers would place themselves along this line rather than towards one side or the other. And readers want to read a story about someone who is like them, i.e., someone they can identify with.
Making the characters real also leads to realistic sounding dialog. I've talked about this before, but bad dialog can kill a story. I always admonish people to read their dialog out loud and see if it's something they can pull off. If you as the author aren't able to read the dialog out loud in a convincing fashion, your poor readers will fail with their internal voice. While there is not a lot of dialog in these chapters, with one exception it flows naturally. In fact, it's so well done it almost seems like it isn't there.
The one exception is when an old woman the characters encounter on their travels talks for an entire paragraph in the form of an info dump. An info dump, if you're unfamiliar with that phrase, is whenever you give a paragraph of information with context. Any time you begin to sound like an encyclopedia article, it's time to step back and assess how to bring this information into the story. In this case, the travelers don't speak much to the old woman. Instead of having her just blurt out her life's history (which does provide some important information for the story line) it could be a conversation. This actually allows you to provide more information on a subject if you want since there are two or more people speaking. The conversation could even be tied into artifacts around the room that prompt questions.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editor's Choice area of the OWW site!
Editor's Choice, Science Fiction Chapter
ABSORPTION 3.0 CHAPTER 13 (SHORT) AND 14A by David Weisman
I'm not sure why these chapters were divided as such, as they are all pretty short. The entirety of Chapter 14 (parts A and B) at least could be grouped together in the submission so the flow of the scene isn't broken up, and Chapter 13 could even incorporate 14 with just a section break so there is more flow in the narrative without a reason to pause (you don't want to give a reader a reason to put down the book). There was also a mention of a Chapter 15A after the first scene in Chapter 13 which, all in all, made the submission unnecessarily confusing. Both submissions could've been grouped into one under a single chapter heading and it would have flowed better narratively. Certainly this wouldn't be how it would be submitted to a publisher but for readability purposes even online in a workshop setting, making a submission as easy as possible to be critiqued is all in all the same tactic one would employ when submitting to an editor. You want the editor/critiquer to focus on the narrative, not the superficial aspects of a submission like chapter breaks, typeface, page numbering and the like. Those things should be standardized and simple. This may seem a little nitpicky, but presentation is important when submitting anything professionally and the workshop is a great place to practice said presentation.
That all said, the story itself has many great qualities, foremost of which is a smooth dynamic. The characters interact in a natural, interesting way that even coming into it half-way I was intrigued, particularly in the bulk of the scene with Brett, Ames, Williams and West. Handling a multiperson scene is no small feat, yet the dialogue flowed and the parallel conversation about the seemingly innocuous drinking bird fit the intimation of the greater plot details. The author didn't even necessarily have to draw the direct parallel between Brett and the bird for the dots to be connected, and being more subtle might even benefit the story by allowing the reader the pleasure of puzzling out the imagery as they go.
Brett could see why it was called a Drinking Bird. The black patch around the eye and the black triangular shape on the head gave it a rakish appearance, almost as if it wore a piratical eye patch and hat.
Imagery such as this add interest to the prose. It doesn't have to be long or drawn out to get the point across but rather provides a punchy description that goes well with further elaboration in the scene about the bird itself. All of this may seem tertiary to the plot but the author connects things very well and seamlessly in the dialogue:
Brett had to strangle a feeling that West, or life in general, was being unfair. The Oceanians could hardly be blamed for his own misconstrual of their advice. Apparently West was able to read the sincerity of his dismay, because his voice was softer when he continued.
"My fault then for assuming you understood--though I don't know quite why you let the bird in anyway. It's too fast to catch, even flying unsteadily, so there's nothing we can do now. They breed fast anyhow, and thousands die every year."
Discussion about the bird manages to tell the reader something of the characters themselves in how they react and their thoughts between the actions, while also delivering telling information about the 'alien' culture.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editor's Choice area of the OWW site!
Author of BURNDIVE and CAGEBIRD
Secret Stash" by David Emanuel
In "Secret Stash," a hole grows in the apartment of pothead Drew. Letters come through the hole from a girl named Hannah, who writes that she is prisoner in a basement and pleads for help. Drew sticks his arm into the hole and feels Hannah's fingers, but the hole is too narrow for either of them to pass through. He sends a knife through the hole and sees on the news that she has gained her freedom. Then a new hole opens.
The premise of the story is cool and unusual. The main character, Drew, is well drawn, entertaining, and sympathetic. The description of the hole as some kind of living and sentient conduit is disturbing and striking. The areas that I think could be improved are plot and style.
The story contains the plot for a short short or flash fiction piece in a story that is about twice the length of a short short. As is, we join the action when it has nearly reached the climax. Drew pulls out his arm, writes a note that the hole rejects, puts in the knife, and the problem is solved. There are a couple of problems here. First, when Drew writes the note to Hannah saying he'll call the police and the hole rejects it, this isn't convincing as a true attempt to save Hannah. He has no information to give the police that can help in any way, and he ought to know this. He ought to have thought about that much already. If he knew where Hannah was, he could go to the house and save her himself. But he has no idea where she is, and he's well aware of this. So the police are useless, and he knows that.
Because I never believe that action as a real attempt to help, the plot basically shows one attempt to help--sending the knife--which succeeds. This can work well in a short short, but in a longer piece, the plot generally needs more build up for the climax to be satisfying. I would suggest that you develop the plot more fully, using the "plot skeleton." The plot skeleton is a simple outline that works in a wide range of stories: the main character tries and fails, tries and fails, tries and succeeds. As simple as this is, it can be very effective. It provides a three-act structure. In this case, Drew could try to pull Hannah through the hole and fail, then try to push himself into the hole and fail, and then send the knife through. That way, sending the knife will be the climax of a difficult struggle, and we'll feel more satisfied when it succeeds.
This would also solve another plot problem. Right now, Drew concludes that the hole isn't big enough for either of them to pass through, but he never tries to push through it, so his reasoning seems flawed and he doesn't seem to be trying as hard as he might.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editor's Choice area of the OWW site!
In this month's selection, three out-of-the-ordinary things happen to the protagonist, Alba. The first is the loss of a finger at her job at a steel plant, something that happened in the unspecified past. The second extraordinary event, which begins the story, is a winning lottery ticket worth fifty million dollars. The third event, which happens as she stands up from the sofa where she has been sitting, contemplating her lottery ticket, and shakes out her blanket, is a kind of unspooling of temporal currents. Alba falls out of time and into the future. She sees, or lives, in quick succession, a series of moments in the various futures that the lottery ticket will offer her. All of these momentary futures, at the place where she accesses them, are the places where, despite the wealth and opportunities that the lottery ticket has given her, worst possible things have begun to happen. In one future, she is a drug addict, in others she is married to men who are taking advantage of her. In all of them, her son Simon dies suddenly and violently. These futures collapse into each other, and then the reader, along with Alba, is back in her living room, in the project where she lives, and she quickly thrusts the lottery ticket into the flame of the candle which we have been told was made by Simon, at school, "the only real lovely thing in the room." As the ticket catches fire, Simon throws the door to the apartment open. The message of the story is clear: Alba is sacrificing a fortune for the thing that matters most to her, her son. The way this story works is a bit the way the reader of "The Monkey's Paw" might wish that story had turned out. If only the family in Jacob's story, instead of making a reckless wish for money on the paw, despite the warning of the previous owner, had instead thrown it onto the fire.
I'm of two minds about the ending of "Nine Bodies of Water", though. It's an effective story, but it suggests that not only does money not necessarily make you a happier person, but that that, for someone as poor as Alba, sudden money can only lead to unhappiness and misery. And conversely, that refusing to accept good fortune is the only way to insure the happiness of one's children. Really?
What is the future of Alba and her son like after she destroys the ticket? Again, here I'm thinking of another lottery ticket story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Alba's present circumstances seem precarious, at best. And while it's true that lottery winners often end up in trouble, it's harder to imagine that someone in Alba's circumstances would so quickly be able to destroy a chance at a new life for herself and her son. In some of the futures, she has clearly made good choices about how to use her windfall money, and yet misfortune still destroys her happiness. The curse doesn't seem to be on the money itself so much as on Alba--it's as if she's caught in a Choose-Your-Own-Way Adventure Novel, in which all of the endings are rigged to be unhappy ones. It's clear that we're meant to see all of these futures as augurs, portents of what's to come, and yet why does Alba get a glimpse of these futures? It's a bit like being at a dessert buffet in which all of the cakes and puddings and pastries are delicious, tempting, and then the caterer inform you that you probably ought to skip dessert altogether, because he's used arsenic instead of sugar.
I'm not arguing that the story and its ending, don't work. It's just that thematically the ending feels very simple--perhaps too simple. Perhaps if I had more of a sense of Alba's character--of her impulsivity, or of her intuition, or of her satisfaction/lack of satisfaction with her present life--I'd see her decision as a complicated, character-driven choice. But perhaps a more open ending, or else another ending entirely, would make this story hit a bit harder. What if the story were to end with Alba picking the ticket up, intending to set fire to it, and then hesitating? What if the thing that makes her hesitate is Simon coming in the door?
Most parents want to be financially secure, or to be wealthy, for their children as much as for themselves: in order to pay for better educations, health insurance, to provide for the future, to enable themselves to spend more time with their children instead of at work. It seems hard to weigh a series of vivid nightmares/ visions against the very real opportunities that fifty million dollars would present for the real child, four years old, who is suddenly standing in front of you. Even if Alba is persuaded that the futures she's just seen are true, she might think to herself: I've been warned. I've seen that these futures are all possibilities. But I will make a new future for myself and my child.
That's the nature of being human--to feel hope about one's own future and the future of one's children, as well as to trust in the power of money to solve all problems, despite all evidence to the contrary. To end with Alba, hesitating, might say more about human nature than any decision we see her make on the page. Then again, there are probably as many possible endings to this story as Alba can see futures.For the rest of this review, visit the Editor's Choice area of the OWW site!
Editor of TRAMPOLINE and co-editor of YEAR'S BEST FANTASY & HORROR
How did a manly man and former bond trader get into YA fantasy?
I don't know if I'd call myself a manly man (my daughters have milk spurting out of their noses at the suggestion), but I was a bond trader. And being a trader had little to do with my decision to write YA fantasy--it was more the other way around. I tried to be a writer when I graduated from college, but ended up moving into finance only after failing to make a living as a writer. The reason? I wasn't very good. Having figured that out, I became a banker, then a bond trader. But giving up the writing wasn't as easy as I thought. (Truth be told, I didn't try that hard.) I always believed, if I made some good money on Wall St., I could retire and go back to being a writer. I never did make quite enough money to retire, but I made enough to take a few years off and write. The result was Reiffen's Choice which, after I sold the book to Tor, gave me the encouragement to keep writing.
What do you think is the coolest aspect of your series and what makes it stand out from other books?
I think the coolest aspect of my series is the Dwarves. They're not the main characters, but they are an important part of the world, a counterbalance to the Wizards. When the story starts, the Dwarves have only recently reached the surface (a few years before Reiffen is born), having lived in upside down cities on the bottom of the world for centuries before. Each Dwarf is different: some are simple stone masons, others are skilled enough to be able to turn gems into lamps. Some are inventors, some explorers, and one, who is considered very odd by his fellows, is a hunter. I've also chosen to answer the perennial question of Dwarf women by having none. The Dwarves cannot reproduce. They just are. And, though they are very difficult to kill (they can only be broken, like statues), they can't necessarily live forever. Which raises the interesting question of whether or not there will some day come a time when there are no more of them.
Where did the idea for this series come from? Was it easy to segue into each succeeding book?
The idea for the series comes from the fact that I wanted to tell a story about the double-edged nature of magic. It may make you powerful, but there's a cost as well. As I often say when describing the three books: the first book is about how Reiffen comes to choose magic, the second is about what he does with that magic, and the third is about what the magic does to him. As for segueing from book to book, that has not been a problem at all, mainly because I perceived the trilogy as one long book.
You've used the OWW for critiques of your work. How do you judge differing reviewer reactions to the same post? In other words, how do you know which critter is right?
OWW was very helpful to me in my development as a writer--I'm always encouraging writers to join, especially if they're not already involved in writing groups. Critting is an important part of the process of becoming a better writer, as much for the crits you give as the ones you receive. Without OWW, I'm not sure I would have been published. Though the OWW reviews can often vary wildly in quality, I've always believed you can usually get something of value from every crit you receive. Even the reviewer who hasn't understood what you're trying to do at all is important. After all, maybe it's your fault they haven't gotten it. Of course sometimes critters disagree on what needs fixing in a particular sub, and in those cases you have to use your own judgment in choosing between them. It's your work, after all. And sometimes two or three critters hate something that you love, a scene or a simile or a character, and that's generally a good time to think twice about what you've done. If more than a few reviewers think something isn't working, they're probably right.
What steps did you take to find your agent?
My hunt for an agent was pretty unusual. I had had agents before, so I started with them. None did genre fiction, however, so I had no luck there. They did refer me to other agents, who also turned me down, and then I approached an agent friend whom I didn't think did fantasy. He didn't, but he knew folks at a few of the houses, predicted we would sell the book to a specific editor at Tor, and that's exactly what he did. As a result, I have no idea how to write a query letter at all.
Do you have any suggestions for our readers on how to pitch to an agent?
When it comes to pitching an agent, I suggest pitching the characters rather than the story. There are only about a dozen stories out there, but there are millions of characters. Characters are what make books unique. So, rather, than highlighting the quest or the love affair that's central to your book, talk up the protagonists instead. I know quite a few writers who found agents, and subsequent sales, that way.
What was the best advice you ever received that helped you reach that next level of success?
The best advice I've ever received as a writer was to be willing to accept criticism and change things. It's always a lot easier to see what's wrong with someone else's book than it is to see what's wrong with your own, which is why I think it's very important to find reviewers you can trust. They'll spot the flaws in your story a lot more easily than you will.
What's been the best part of your career so far?
The best part of my career so far? Walking into Barnes and Noble the day my first book came out and buying a copy right off the shelf. I get goosebumps just remembering that.
Any last words of wisdom?
Last words of wisdom requires having said something wise before this, so I'm not sure I qualify. But, just in case, I'd have to say that writers need to learn patience above anything else, especially novelists. It takes a year or so to write a good book, and then it takes a year or two to find an agent, and then it takes another year or two for the agent to sell the book, and then it takes another year or two for the publisher to put the book out. By which point you've probably written three or four more books. And even if you don't publish the first, or the second, or the third one, you have to keep trying. Reiffen's Choice came out 29 years after I wrote my first novel, and was the sixth novel I'd written (and the 9th I'd started). So be patient. And persevere.
We can't announce them if you don't let us know! So send your information to Maria at newsletter (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com whenever you have good news to share.
Brenta Blevins writes: Raven Electrick Ink is publishing my story "Running for Life" in its Sporty Spec: Games of the Fantastic anthology. The anthology is being launched at the end of November 2007. My story "Submission Letters" is being published in Bound in Skin, an anthology of gothic romances being released by CatScratch Books in December 2007.
Aliette Bodard has a story in Interzone, issue 213: "The Lost Xuyan Bride." She has also sold three workshopped pieces: "The Dancer's Gift" to Fictitious Force, "The Dragon's Tears" to Electric Velocipede, and "Dragon Feasts" to Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. She says, "I'd like to thank Elizabeth Porco, Heather deLisle, Toms Kreicbergs, and Camile Picott for 'The Dancer's Gift'; Linda Steele, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Keir Alekseii Roopnarine, Aimee Poynter, Nancy Kreml for critiquing 'The Dragon's Tears'; Linda Steele, Karen Kobylarz and Marc Ward for 'Dragon Feasts'; and Marshall Payne also took a look at all three off-OWW, which helped tremendously.
Al Bogdan took second place in the Writers Of The Future competition with a story titled "The Girl Who Whispered Beauty." He says, "Huge thanks go out to Bob Haynes who was my first-reader on this story. Thanks also to Christine Ciarrochi Rothrock and Margret Treiber for additional comments that helped me polish it up. Plus, while I'm at it, a shout-out to ALL my old OWW buddies!"
Chris Clarke will have his short story "The Snow Queen's Risk Assessment" reprinted in the small literary journal Wings of Icarus. He also won Jim Van Pelt's Story In Seven Sentences Competition with the short story "A Tale of Seven Seas."
Carlos Cortes writes: "Once upon a time I had the inestimable help of staff and members to transform dribbles into something almost readable. My agent sold Perfect Circle, a few months ago, on a two-book deal with an option on a third to Bantam, an imprint of Random House. According to their crystal ball it will be released in September 2008. Passing through OWW has been one of the highlights of my life. I met my wife there and made scores of friends. My heartfelt thanks to those who helped shape my dream: Shawna Kennedy; Susan Curnow; Treize Armistedian; Michael Goodwin; Andre Oosterman; Brian Otridge; Donna Johnson; Jim Giammatteo; Leonid Korogodski; Deb Cawley; Nemecio Chavez; Ian Morrison; Jeff Kuczynski-Brown; and scores of other wonderful writers."
Vylar Kaftan's short story, "Kill Me" is now available at Helix. He says, "I've got work forthcoming in COSMOS, and my work just appeared in the Bandersnatch and Paper Cities anthologies which debuted at World Fantasy."
Sarah Kelly writes: "A note to let you know my story 'Kukulkan' is published in the December 2007 issue of Analog. I workshopped it at OWW under the title 'Dark Matter Sings Sacrifice.' Many thanks to those who looked at it, I got some great feedback here. I'm listed at OWW under my pseudonym Sarah K. Castle."
Darja Malcolm-Clark writes that "The Beacon" was published in Clarkesworld in August. She adds, "I have also sold 'Pearl in Shadow' to Ideomancer (forthcoming issue), and 'His One True Bride' (which was workshopped on OWW!) to Fantasy Magazine (coming out in March or April)."
Sandra McDonald's short story "The Fireman's Fairy" is in the December issue of Realms of Fantasy, which should be available on shelves now. She says "I'm a big fan of Realms of Fantasy and I'm glad they liked that story."
Ruth Nestvold sold world rights for her novel Yseult (final title TBD) to a German publisher (Random House, imprint Blanvalet), and they will be trying to market it to other Random House imprints in other countries. The German translation will probably come out in the winter of 2008/2009. The contract includes hardcover, trade paperback, and paperback.
Ian Tregillis writes: "Three days ago, my agent and I formally accepted an offer from Patrick Nielsen Hayden at Tor to purchase my science-fantasy trilogy The Milkweed Triptych. Holy cow! My first novel sale, and a three-book deal to boot! Even though I haven't workshopped the Milkweed novels through the OWW, this is very much an OWW-related victory. The Milkweed universe started out as a single short story that I wrote four years ago. Kelly Link reviewed that story, "Heart of Oak", as an Editors' Choice way back in December 2003! It was Kelly's review, and the feedback from my crit partners here on OWW, that gave me the confidence that the Milkweed world and the characters in it were worth exploring further. I wouldn't be here today if not for the 'orkshop. Thanks, OWW. I'm a lifer."
Steve Westcott signed a two-book deal with Frontlist Books, an imprint of Softeditions, a number of months ago, The second edition of Reluctant Heroes was released on 1st October this year with the sequel, Cronan the Librarian, scheduled for release on 8th March 2008. He notes, "Both books were heavily workshopped in their early stages and I owe thanks to the likes of Pen Hardy, Shawn Cormier, Nancy Proctor, Roger Anderson, Miquela Faure to name but a few. Without OWW and their help my scribblings would have struggled to achieve publication standard. Cheers, guys."
We have four authors who made the quarterfinals in the Amazon Breakout Novel Contest: Rhonda S. Garcia for her novel "Lex Talionis"; Jon Paradise for his novel "Changing Fates"; Mary E. Tyler for her skating novel "On the Edge"; and Jan Whitaker for her novel "The Truck: A Baby-Boomer Nostalgia Murder Mystery". Congratulations to all! And good luck in the finals.
Maria Zannini has signed with Samhain Publishing for her futuristic fantasy Touch of Fire, to be released Summer 2008. "From the time I decided to take up fiction to when I was offered the contract turned out to be three years almost to the day. I couldn't have done it without my OWW critique partners, Dorothy Winsor, Mike Keyton and Margaret Fisk. Thank you, my friends for your astute observations and the sharp, bloodied instruments you used to keep me focused."
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