February may be the shortest month of the year and in some areas the gloomiest, but for writers you couldn't ask for a more jam-packed season full of contests, workshops, and market opportunities. This month kicks off the Commendable Crit Contest sponsored by author/member Joshua Palmatier and OWW. Here's your chance to win great prizes just for doing what you do best--reviewing. Upcoming in March is a Synopsis Focus Group that will help you polish your synopsis to its absolute shiniest. Stay tuned for more news and a schedule. And after that (usually in April) looms the annual crit marathon to benefit OWW's under-reviewed submissions.
Have you noticed how OWW members and alums are always sprinkled through the Clarion student lists, the Writers of the Future contests, and the pages of various genre fiction publications? Now there's a new arena in which OWWers are showing their skills: the new Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. We are proud to announce that this community includes three semi-finalists! Details below.
As always, contact us if you have any questions, publication announcements, or ideas for improving the OWW Newsletter.
Maria Zannini, newsletter editor
newsletter (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com
Thanks to a suggestion from member Agnes Dee, February's challenge will be Lovecraftiana! The work of H.P. Lovecraft is often florid, sometimes lurid, and was the first writer's "universe" opened to the public. It's spawned role-playing games, movies, novels, poetry, and short fiction, and changed the way people think about horror and the supernatural. And of course there's lots of room for one more kind of monster. Or a horror from the deep. Or something very silly... Challenges are meant to stretch your writing skills, so have fun!
Challenges can be suggested by anyone and suggestions should be sent to Maria (newsletter (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com). For more details on the challenges, check the OWW Writer Space.
Commendable Crit Contest: The Commendable Crit Contest starts this month! Headed up by Joshua Palmatier in conjunction with OWW, the contest officially begins February 1, 2008. This is a contest in which your critiques will be evaluated by a published author. Winners receive free OWW memberships and autographed copies of Joshua's books. For complete rules, go to Joshua's website. If you're not already a member of OWW, join us, at least for the contest. You get a free month's trial membership and get to meet a lot of nice people who think the need to write is a pleasant affliction.
March Focus Group on Synopsis-Writing: So you've finished the novel. Looked up the agents. Written that spiffy query letter and polished it up. And then there's the synopsis. Writing novel synopses is one of the most elusive skills in the writer's toolkit--how to compress that hundred-thousand word epic into a few pages that'll sell your book? During the first two weeks of March we'll be running another in our series of OWW Synopsis-Writing Focus Groups: discussing standard wisdom and articles on synopsis-writing, working up synopses for our works-in-progress, and helping each other improve them. The group will be led by OWW member Pen Hardy, who worked on the last Synopsis Focus Group and has graciously volunteered her time. Join the oww-sff-focus mailing list if you want to participate and are not already a member of the list: groups.yahoo.com/group/oww-sff-focus. Sharpen your synopsis-poking sticks!
2nd Annual Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest:
This one's for short stories (8,000 words or less) showing the near future (no more than about 50-60 years out) of manned exploration. No entry fee; deadline April 1, 2008; one submission per person; e-mail submissions only, as .rtf attachments to email@example.com (more details here).
Grand prize winner will be published in a future issue of Jim Baen's Universe and paid at the normal paying rates for professional story submittals. The author will also receive a specially designed award, free entry into the 2008 International Space Development Conference, a year's membership in the National Space Society ($45 level) and a prize package containing various Baen Books, Jim Baen's Universe and National Space Society merchandise.
2008 Odyssey Writing Workshop: Odyssey is a great opportunity to improve your writing and meet editors and authors. Jeanne Cavelos, Odyssey's director, founder, and primary instructor, is a best-selling author and a former senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing, where she won a World Fantasy Award for her work. This year's workshop runs from June 9 to July 18, 2008. Class meets for four hours in the morning, five days a week, and students spend about eight hours more a day writing and critiquing each other's work. Early admission application deadline is January 31; regular admission deadline is April 10. Tuition is $1800, and housing is $700 for a double room and $1400 for a single. The workshop is held at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. For more info: phone/fax (603) 673-6234, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the Odyssey web site.
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, Susan Marie Groppi, 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!
LOS LOBOS NINOS AND THE CITY OF DOORS (CHAPTER 6) by Brandon Bell
Atmosphere. It can be extraordinarily difficult to write believable atmosphere. But creating an atmosphere that pervades your story can be that final nail that drives everything home. Part of making this atmosphere is creating things readers have never seen before. This is particularly effective if you want to create an atmosphere of unease. If readers consistently encounters unexpected things in your writing, they won't be able to determine what's coming next. When I read Brandon Bell's chapter from LOS LOBOS AND THE CITY OF DOORS, it made me think of Garth Nix's The Keys to the Kingdom series. In both cases, the author has created an atmosphere that is truly unique to the story being told. In both cases, the atmosphere is just as much a character in the book as anyone.
In Bell's chapter, the whole setting is so unusual and unsettling that everything that happens has a sense of unease about it. The main character Jack (a young girl) wakes up in a hospital bed. But every time you think you know where the scene is going, it goes somewhere else. This is very effective as the reader then empathizes with Jack in feeling lost and disoriented. Jack thinks she's lying on hard pillows; turns out she has some strange lump attached to her back. Jack opens the window, and is greeted with not a view of the outside world but of a dirt wall.
In accordance with this, one would assume that Jack would not cope well with how different everything is. Not to say that Jack is happy with the differences, but at times she seems to quickly accept them. But, much like Arthur in Nix's series, Jack is a teenager and the lack of life experience plays into the accepting of the unusual. Even though I want to recommend having Jack react more strongly to her surroundings, everything is so surreal I think it would become stifling for a reader and that it actually works well for Jack to accept her surroundings at some level.
Bell needs to be careful sometimes with his descriptions. There are occasions when it feels that he was reaching for a metaphor instead of moving the action along. Metaphors can be very powerful, but not if they're over-used. There's a series of paragraphs--and twice in one sentence in one case--that uses at least one metaphor in each paragraph. The bad thing is that Bell's metaphors are well-written, and it can seem anathema to remove good writing. Better yet to break up sequences of metaphors.
Metaphors do help give sensations a definite description--if you describe cold as nose-hair freezing, that's a different image from cold seeped into his pores like ink spilled across a page. However, if the breeze feels like one thing and the rain like another and so on, readers will get confused by the proliferation of images and won't know which one they should keep in mind. I typically like authors to keep more in the readers' mind than on the page, but occasionally readers should be directed if there's a reason for a specific image.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editor's Choice area of the OWW site!
Editor's Choice, Science Fiction
NIKOLAI'S WAR by Jon Davies
With a great hook in the Prologue and characters that immediately come alive on the page through the way that they speak (or don't speak), this selection--which the author stated to be for teen readers--could readily be targeted toward an adult audience with a little enhancement. There is nothing too much in here that specifically points to a younger readership and in fact the adult market might very well be better suited for it, as YA science fiction is a harder sell. Though this might not have been the author's intention, just as a general statement, less description doesn't equal YA, just as more description wouldn't necessarily disqualify it. It's about telling the best story possible in the best way.
While we get a strong sense of the characters' personalities, the environment or set descriptions are a little sparse, as well as the visual character descriptions. One or two lines that would tell us in passing what Nikolai and Anton look like and what the studio is like as to looks, temperature, texture would go over well. It doesn't have to be detailed to come across effectively, but rather large brushstrokes to give a visual impact before finer details are discussed. Also, the third paragraph of the prologue begins with Nikolai and it seems as if the point-of-view shifted to him and away from the tight third person (Anton's); it's a moment of recalibration to realize we are still in Anton's head, so I would suggest somehow invoking that in that first sentence of the third paragraph so there isn't even the tiniest speedbump so early in the novel.
Leaving behind the wider brushstrokes, some details: there are wonderful signifiers to the reader that make them ask questions, for example:
"I suppose that's why we employ you," he said. "Nothing matters to you except these paintings. Which would be fine, of course, if we knew how to look after them. A piece like this shouldn't be hanging up in a damp old refectory in the middle of nowhere. That'd never happen where I come from."Where does Anton come from? Dropping brief hints like this to be built upon creates a manageable suspense to the narrative, a natural interest to want to know more and thus turn the page. Anton is easily likable in his kind manner toward Nikolai and the calm way in which he handles the blundering Father Grigori later on, and these traits and mannerisms flow easily in the narrative through Anton's actions and dialogue.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editor's Choice area of the OWW site!
Author of BURNDIVE and CAGEBIRD
Editor's Choice, Horror
"Kusatenda Uroyi" by Gill Ainsworth
In this story, Martin Smith travels to Zimbabwe to try to recover his past and his lost love. He is killed by a gang of thugs, but is revived and healed through old magic he carries inside him. As more memories return, he goes to the cave where his love was killed almost 200 years before. He jumps into the lake there and finds his love's soul, and they are finally reunited.
The setting of the story, in Zimbabwe, is fresh and interesting. I really enjoy being taken to this unfamiliar place and being allowed to experience its people, its history, and its magic. I also find the tension Martin faces, as a rich, educated black man in a country dominated by whites, quite intriguing and involving. The writing is generally good; I like the description of the sun at the beginning of the second scene.
I am not as involved in the main character's struggle as I would like to be, which leaves me reading the story in a detached way, not feeling a lot of emotion or tension. There are several reasons for this.
The most important is that Martin doesn't struggle enough in the story. The main character needs to have a strong desire--which yours does--but he also needs to struggle in the attempt to achieve that desire. Martin's main struggle occurs in the opening scene, as he tries to convince the tour guide to take him to the caves. This scene is not told from Martin's point of view, though, so the depth of his desire and the extent of his struggle is hidden. Martin comes across as cool and eccentric, more focused on conveying an upper-class detachment than on achieving his ostensible goal. He talks about his university education, which is sure to create resentment in the tour guide.
I don't think this scene, as written, belongs in the story. It feels like an artifact from previous drafts, in which you didn't really know what the story was about. As I see it, this story is about Martin feeling an inexplicable, frightening, and all-encompassing desire to go to these caves.
But his desire never comes across as being so strong or having such powerful emotions attached to it. I never really feel the draw of the caves. We need to become involved in Martin's struggle right away. If he needs to go to the caves, and this is the only tour guide in town to take him to the caves (and he can't get there without a guide), then he needs to try harder to convince the guide, and we need to be in his point of view, feeling his desperation.
As an aside, his actions in this scene don't seem consistent with his character. Later, we learn that he chose a shabby hotel so he'd fit in better, as a black man in a country of poor blacks. Yet he wears a fancy safari suit characteristic of whites, smokes fancy cigarettes, and flaunts his university education. If he thought about fitting in when choosing his hotel, why didn't he think about it with these other elements?
After the opening scene, Martin doesn't really struggle; he simply takes the course open to him, and magic heals him when he's killed and provides the history that he's lost. I think the external conflict needs to be more developed. For example, the thugs might at first refuse to take him to the caves, so he has to work to convince them. Later, when he realizes they are going to kill him, he could run away and struggle more before they kill him.
Then, when he gets to the caves, perhaps they don't allow blacks inside (either by policy or because the admissions guy is obnoxious), or they charge a fee and he's run out of money.
Also, magic shouldn't provide, with no effort on his part, all the answers he's seeking. The story generally seems more concerned with revealing his back-story than with telling a compelling story in the present. Immortals of various types are fairly common in fantasy, so as a reader, I don't need a lot of explanation to accept his situation. You should have only one flashback in the second scene (the first one), at most. The fact that he has forgotten the words seems unnecessary to the story right now; their main problem is that her hand was cut off, not that he forgot the words. Setting up two problems is overcomplicated and reduces the impact of each. I'll discuss these more below. All the flashbacks in the cave are also unnecessary and serve to diffuse the tension of the whites beating him and potentially preventing him from reaching his goal.
The story would actually be more powerful if it contained less exposition and more mystery.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editor's Choice area of the OWW site!Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey
OWW alumnus Ian Tregillis is the author of BITTER SEEDS, debuting in 2009 from TOR. BITTER SEEDS is a science-fantasy novel on the secret history of World War II and the Cold War. Ian's web site and blog are still under construction but should be up in the next few weeks at www.iantregillis.com.
Ian has had such a long and fruitful relationship with OWW that we couldn't be happier to see one of our own make it with an outstanding 3-book deal. Ian says: I've wanted to be a writer for most of my life. I remember one early attempt at writing a book, when I was around ten years old. It didn't get very far--probably a combination of writer's block and bedtime. I love stories, and the sheer joy of creation in putting them together. But I foolishly put writing on the back burner for many years. I had this strange misconception that writing couldn't be part of my life while I was in school, and that I'd have to wait for the day when I suddenly had time for it. Whether or not I'd be further along in my writing career today if I hadn't developed that belief, I can't say, but I'd certainly be better practiced with more years under my belt.
Eventually I realized that if I wanted to write, I had to commit to it, and make the time for it. So, after I moved across the country to start a new job, I decided it was time to start. (Little did I realize that New Mexico is the science-fiction capital of the universe.)
I had run across the OWW back in the Del Rey days, while I was a student, but didn't join because of that strange misconception I mentioned. Once I decided it was time to start learning the craft of writing, I immediately sought out the OWW and joined up. It was probably the smartest thing I could have done! The OWW has had a huge influence on my development as a writer. Not only in terms of developing my craft, but also in terms of the friends I've made and the network of connections I've developed.
How did the idea of BITTER SEEDS come about?
Bitter Seeds is the first book of a trilogy called the Milkweed Triptych. It all started out as a handful of loosely-connected short stories that I workshopped on the OWW over a period of 2 or 3 years. It began when I read a magazine article about an obscure World War II research project called Project Habakkuk. It's one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction things: the Allies had devised plans to start building aircraft carriers out of ice, and even got as far as building a scaled-down prototype of an ice ship up in Canada. I thought that was really interesting, so it stuck in my head. I got to wondering, what if Project Habakkuk had succeeded, and they really had started to build ships out of ice? And what if the Germans retaliated by sending a pyrokinetic spy to sabotage the shipyards? The entire story came to me in a flash, including the tone and imagery and scene structure. It's the only time it's ever happened to me (so far).
I wrote a few other stories exploring the characters and their world. It felt like I was dancing around the edges of a larger story. I brought the idea for a novel to the other members of my local face-to-face writing group. They loved the idea, and helped me to develop it. And in the first 5 minutes of that conversation they convinced me that instead of one book, I had a trilogy on my hands!
Did any of it get reviewed on OWW? How did you know which opinions to embrace and which to discard?
I haven't worked BITTER SEEDS through the OWW; instead, I ran it through my local writing group. But much of the groundwork for the Milkweed Triptych did get reviewed on the OWW, thanks to those short stories I mentioned. They were crucial in terms of learning the rules of the world and getting to know the characters.
Knowing which opinions to embrace and which to discard is always tricky. I approach it like this. First, and I think this is important, I listen to every comment with a humble attitude: my writing will always have room for improvement, but it won't improve if I'm not willing to see my weaknesses. Besides, if people are kind enough to give me their time by reviewing my work, the least I can do is return the courtesy by listening to what they have to say. Second, if two or three (or more!) people say the same thing, I always take that as a sign that they're on to something. Even if they're pointing to something that I thought was okay. Third, I find it helps to get some distance from the piece before evaluating the reviewers' opinions. More than once I've found that reviewers' comments make far more sense when I'm not holding the story close to my chest.
My favorite question! Do you outline or do you like to live on the wild side?
Oh, I'm definitely an outliner! Almost pathologically so. I had the entire plot of all three books of my trilogy worked out in some detail before I started to write BITTER SEEDS. A few members of my writing group and I got together one Saturday and spent all day plotting out the trilogy on a very large whiteboard. That was a blast. In general, I find I work best when I have concrete start and end points. And that's true at every level: scene, chapter and novel.
What's your favorite part of writing--the idea stage, editing, or sealing the envelope and dropping it in the mail?
I love to brainstorm, to kick around ideas. But I think the most gratifying part of the process for me is the editing. I really enjoy seeing the raw text turn into a readable first draft. That magical red pen can fix a lot of ills...
Did you know that BITTER SEEDS was the one? Did it seem more ready to you in terms of publication than your previous work?
The Milkweed project has been very special to me. I knew it was worth spending time on when the other members of my writing group jumped on the idea with great enthusiasm! And thanks to the effort I put into plotting it, it was definitely the most mature of my projects to date.
How did you find your agent?
I found my agent by being at the right place at the right time--I met her socially. She represents a number of New Mexico writers, so she comes through the area from time to time. It turns out that she grew up not far from where I grew up, too, so we'd chat about the old hometown. She knew about me and my work from the other writers, and offered to represent me before I pitched anything to her. After that, I sent her a short summary of the Milkweed project, and she liked it.
How did you pitch to your agent?
I told her that I was planning to write a "science-fantasy secret history of World War II and the Cold War, chronicling the destruction of an honorable man." That's the one-sentence summary of the Milkweed Triptych. And even shorter summary which I've given to her is that the Milkweed Triptych is the story of "Cincinnatus damned," referring to the legend of the Roman political figure Cincinnatus.
What's the scariest thing about being published? Does that thing also make it the most exciting--or are you just trying to keep down your oatmeal?
In the past few months since selling this trilogy to Tor, I've gone from the absolute delight of seeing a dream come true to the terror of realizing that there's still so much I don't know about writing! There's a nagging worry--what if I'm not ready for this yet? What if I'm not up to the task? But then I return to the lessons I learned on the OWW. Just tackle it one scene at a time...
Is there anything you would have done differently on your road to publication?
I do wish I had started writing years earlier. But, on the other hand, I've been incredibly fortunate overall. So if had started earlier, I might have missed out on the OWW and all the wonderful and life-changing connections I made because of it. The lesson, I think, is that every writer's career develops differently.
What's next on your agenda?
World domination! Er, writing the next two books in the series. The first book, BITTER SEEDS, is finished, but I'm a perfectionist so I'm going to take two or three months to do a pretty extensive rewrite/2nd draft before sending it to my editor in May. Then the next two books, THE COLDEST WAR and NECESSARY EVIL, are due at 14-month intervals.
Thanks, Ian! We'll be looking for BITTER SEEDS in 2009!
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.
Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Semi-Finalists include these three OWW members: Michael Keyton for his YA fantasy DREAMSPIDER; Dylan Otto Kriderfor his mystery suspense thriller TAKING OVER; and Jan Whitaker for THE TRUCK: a baby-boomer nostalgia murder mystery. Big congratulations to all three!Marlissa Campbellreports: "I just found out that Neo-Opsis is buying my (workshopped) story "The Knife in the Mirror." Also, I have a story (also workshopped), "The Resurrection Men," in the anthology POTTER'S FIELD 2, which has just become available from Sams Dot Publishing. Nice way to start 2008! Many thanks to the reviewers for these stories (you know who you are!)."
Dana Davis has published THE MASK OF TAMIRELLA."I would like to thank OWW critiquers Steve Olson, Yolanda Scott, and Jeanne Foquth for their comments on select chapters of The Mask of Tamirella way back in 2001 when I was writing under the psuedonym Jodi Fox. Their comments, along with those from other workshops, allowed me to tighten and improve the novel for publication."
Michael Keyton has sold "Bony Park" to the Read By Dawn Anthology, Volume 3.
Joseph Rhea's novel CYBERDROME has been published and is now for sale at Amazon.com, with an acknowledgment to OWW!
THE VACANT THRONE by Joshua Palmatier (Daw, January 2008)
The city of Amenkor has managed to stave off the Chorl's deadly sea invasion, at an unthinkable price. But the Chorl have not been defeated. In order to survive, Varis-the reluctant Mistress of the city-and the citizens themselves must seek aid from their only ally: their sister city of Venitte. But Venitte holds a secret, one that could save the entire coast from the Chorl incursion...or be the key to the coast's ultimate destruction.
DUST by Elizabeth Bear (Spectra, December 2007)
Science so advanced it's like magic and people, the spaceship's royalty, who are somehow altered by the nanotech colonies that make them Exalt but remain neurotic and struggling like ordinary humans. The ship hasn't moved in centuries, and Engine and Rule (parts of the ship) are nearly at war. Desperately trying avert war, Rien helps Sir Perceval escape Rule and dangerously trek to Engine, near-constantly watched by Jacob Dust, the Angel of Memory, while the other angels and devils make alliances in the continuing battle for survival. As the smaller angels are devoured, battle to control the hulk of the ship Jacob's Ladder nears an end. Bear's approach to the story results in exactly the kind of brilliantly detailed, tightly plotted, roller-coaster book she has led her readers to expect, replete with a fantastic cast of characters ( Booklist).
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