Who says lightning can't strike twice in the same place?
Something unique has occurred with our Editor's Choice reviews. For the first time in OWW history (and that's almost 10 years now!) two editors have chosen and reviewed the same submission. We didn't set out for this to happen but the results are interesting. Read on for the different perspectives of Jeanne Cavelos and Karen Meisner on the story "Labrys" by Allison Starkweather.
Also this month, award-winning author Lois McMaster Bujold is in our interview spotlight, saying smart and funny things about writing, her novels, and how her career has evolved. Her description of her writing process is fascinating reading if you have ever written enough fiction to notice that there could be a process to it.
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
Pssss. Come closer. I've got a secret to share. Your character, you see, isn't all on the up and up. They're holding back, they're focused on something that isn't what your readers want them to be focused on, but is important to them. Silly characters.
This month's challenge is to write something where the character is hiding something that is critical to the plot, but perhaps not to the character -- yet. After all, they've got so much on their minds.
Remember: Challenges are supposed to be fun, but don't forget to stretch yourself. If you normally write fantasy, try SF. If you've never tried space opera, here's your chance. It doesn't have to be great. It's all about trying new things. There's no word limit, no time limit, no nothin'. Just have fun.
Challenges can be suggested by anyone and suggestions should be sent to Maria (newsletter (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com).
Coyote Con is a 31 day digital author conference held throughout the month of May. Our guests are authors, editors, publishers and other industry professionals who love to talk about, and be involved in, the making of books: cross-genre, historical, romance, horror, fantasy, and science fiction, and all the related media they generate.
Our topics are geared toward the author, but if you have an interest--whether you write or not--you are welcome to attend. There is no cost to attend, but registration is required as space is limited. Go here for more information and registration.
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, Karen Meisner, 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!
SEVEN ROSES IN ZALMANADOR: CHAPTER ONE by James Thomson
Do all the books you read start where you'd like them to? Or are there pages and pages of stuff before the story really gets going? You can see this a lot in manuscripts, but it often makes its way into finished books. Sometimes I read a book and I can't figure out why the first ten or fifteen pages are even there. But, once the story gets going, it's so good that I forget about the stuff at the start. That's kind of what happens with James Thomson's first chapter for Seven Roses in Zalmanador.
I'd recommend writing your entire novel from start to finish without revising. Then, when you've got the whole thing done you go back and revise to your heart's content, using a service like OWW or a similar writer's group. At that time, you can re-assess any introductory material you created in the first draft. In Thomson's case, he's drafted a prologue that could be cut from the manuscript. Its tone and tenor is strikingly different from the rest of the material and the little bit of plot material it introduces can be revealed later in the book.
Thomson suffers from some of the problems I've outlined a number of times before. He sometimes uses pronouns when he should be using names to help the reader. Remember, whenever you have multiple persons/things of the same gender, you have to be very careful when you use pronouns as you could be referring to the wrong person. While it might seem awkward to use names and names and names when pronouns would be easier, it actually isn't.
Similarly, Thomson occasionally mixes his verb tenses which makes for a difficult read. If a paragraph starts with present-tense verbs, it needs to use present-tense verbs the whole way through. In fact, you should really pick one verb tense and use it at a minimum throughout a chapter if not the entire book. While we may speak using multiple verb tenses, it doesn't work for writing.
In the first chapter, we meet the Gray Man, his wife, and their seven daughters. Their introductions are meant to be mysterious and creepy, but they come across as mystifying and confusing. There's some great description of where they live, but Thomson puts so many ideas into each paragraph that I feel thrown back and forth. He would be better off to break those paragraphs up and spend one talking about where the family lives, another for the Gray Man, one more for his wife, and yet a last one for the seven daughters. This would allow more space to describe everything and give the reader the chance to keep up with the story.
Thomson has built some great tension between the Gray Man and his wife, in fact there are big portions of this chapter that read like Jane Austen, particularly the beginning of Pride and Prejudice. And that's a good thing! All the same, Thomson needs to watch some awkward dialog. There are times where what the characters say to each other doesn't sound like anything people would actually say. This can feel weird, but the best way to test dialog is to read it out loud. That way you can see if you stumble over anything you've written. And it's even better if you can read the dialog with someone else, as they won't know the story and be expecting lines and scenes as you will as the author.
As the Gray Man pretends to his wife that he's not sure how to meet a young man new to the area--Argent Crow--he goes out on his own to invite the young man to dinner to meet his daughters. The Gray Man's wife wants to get her daughters married and she will not let her husband alone until it happens. See? Pride and Prejudice all over that. Thomson shines when he's writing scenes for the Gray Man and his seven daughters. Each time they appear, the dialog is crisp, the descriptions are succinct yet vivid, and the story just clips along.
Something I'd like to see Thomson build on is how the Gray Man's livelihood as a necromancer affects the family and their interactions with him. It certainly affects everyone outside the family, so I would curious if that also happened within the family. Of course, I know that my family treats me differently from how my work people treat me, so perhaps that's what Thomson is driving at here, but then I would like to have him acknowledge that.
The final section of this chapter just blew me away. I don't have enough good things to say about it. This section is the best part of the chapter. It feels almost self-contained and separate from the rest of the chapter. Heck, I'm half-tempted to suggest publishing this as a short story. It has a surreality to it that I find really quite exquisite. Thomson provides little details about the characters that help develop them as well as progressing the story. Another striking thing about this section is that there's a lot of dialog, which Thomson also uses effectively as character development.
After a rough start, Thomson closes with a bang. If he can take the strength of the final section and extend that through the entire book, he'll really have something here. There are some flaws at the beginning of the chapter, but Thomson should have no trouble cleaning them up.
--John Klima, Editor, Electric Velocipede
PUNTERS & BLATHERERS 2, By Rock Savage
Humor, deft writing, and a timely play on the popularization of reality TV characterize this month's SF Editor's Choice. Taking a bite out of modern culture and putting a spin on it can be a high risk for a novel, as the concept can become hokey, sermonizing, or just inadequately considered -- but PUNTERS & BLATHERERS (an in-story take on the "Hunters & Gatherers" TV show title) accepts this risk and succeeds. This is partly due to the fact that the humor works, the writer seems to know his way around Hollywood sensationalist TV culture, and the protagonist is likeable.
Overall the prose is beautiful while still being punchy. From the descriptions of the island:
La Naufragé was one of the countless uninhabited volcanic islets that dotted the Indian Ocean seven hundred miles northeast of Madagascar, loosely administered by Victoria, the Seychelles capital on Mahé. Half a world, and twelve hours to the minute ahead of Los Angeles.
Behind them, foreshadowed by stands of slender coconut palms, the beach gave way to luxuriantly tropical and unbelievably dense triple canopy rainforest. Jungle. It marched inexorably across the sloping terrain, crisscrossing ravines and lagoons, to turn steeply upward and climb the volcanic central peak almost to the summit. At the other end, on the leeward face, the rocky mountainsides dropped sharply down to the sea in jagged basalt cliffs.
It doesn't take multiple paragraphs to paint a picture; in a very concise way we understand the proximity of this place to the hub of Hollywood -- and the terrain the characters will be in for a good portion of the book. The language itself flows while not overpowering and contrasts well with the on-point dialogue throughout this chapter (which reads more smoothly than Chapter 1, by the way.) The writer also uses his skill to write characters into the environment:
The combination of cool ocean breeze ruffling his unnaturally brown hair and blazing hot sand under his bare feet instantly lifted Bentley's spirits. Things weren't all bad. The island was a paradise. He imagined himself the lord of his own private corner of the world, like Marlon Brando, savoring the tingling sensation of finely packed sand splaying his toes as he strolled across the wide white expanse, and suddenly felt fat.
The abrupt and accurate self-analysis in the middle of an idyllic environment rings true and hilarious. Keeping the comparisons entrenched in Hollywood, calling on the name of Marlon Brando, also adds the proper flavor to the narrative, emphasizing that yes, this is a book that looks under the skirts of show business. These are all small tricks a writer can use to add authenticity to a story, keeping the reader in the world, and adding to characterization on top of it. Sometimes the language does get a bit much, though, where the sentences string together too long, the punctuation is wonky, and the overall meaning becomes lost:
Having spent most of his professional career pretending to like people in the hope that they would pretend to like him in return; and that the masquerade, propped up by the network of mutual acquaintanceships and social interdependencies thus generated would blossom into a status quo obligation to support his undertakings; Bentley was mystified by the uncanny skill displayed by those who took the opposite approach.
As a quick aside, this problem was most in the first chapter, but watch for it as the chapters progress. Break up the sentences or revisit the use of the semi-colon, and keep thoughts concise. Tied naturally to the pacing of the language is the pacing of the action itself. Trask's hunting the wild pig is a fine example of this. The short scenes lend itself to the fast-paced edit cuts of this kind of TV, and the part titles ("Cleavage" being one) also emphasize the idea of the book -- whether unconscious or not, it works. This is thinking in layers: not just telling the story, but looking at the book overall and making the structure make sense with the content.
Humor is also one of the hardest things to write, much less maintain, and do it well, but it succeeds here because it's completely in the tone of the world of show business:
Trask's whole body ached. He got up, swatting rotten detritus from his clothes and trying hard without success to evade Hal's intrusive, in-your-face style camerawork. Exasperated, he snarled into the lens.
"Do you fucking mind?"
Hal didn't fucking mind, but he kept rolling.
Obnoxious, persistent, and pointed -- anyone who's seen Survivor or a paparazzo crowding a celebrity can understand this detail. Things like this are smattered throughout the chapter and work beautifully. The dynamics between the characters all work, and though it is difficult to maintain all those names of the contestants without losing the main people, it's managed in the narrative. The throwaway people ultimately don't matter, just the ones that will carry throughout the book and one assumes we'll get to know them as the pages progress. I would caution that they should get further delineated, and quickly, in the next immediate pages though, just to minimize confusion, and to not lose the potential for depth -- especially in Trask, the protagonist. He is the fulcrum of the whole thing, judging from Chapter 1 and the well-written blurbs of the submission. Because the action and narrative on a word-by-word basis work so well, the main aspect to develop concertedly is the characterization. Show, rather than explain, his state of mind, and be conscious of the use of too much summary in thoughts. Also watch that there isn't too much head jumping, even if separated by scenes, because then the book feels frenetic and unfocused. The short scenes to begin with encourage that pace.
This is an energetic and entertaining read, with an interesting concept that can well be explored to highlight and reveal aspects of modern popular culture as well as foreshadowing a possible -- and humorous -- near future. It's different, and that is part of what is most enjoyable about it.
Author of THE GASLIGHT DOGS, BURNDIVE and CAGEBIRD
"Labrys" by Allison Starkweather
Myths have lasting power. The stories live on across time and cultures because something in them speaks to human experience at a deep-down gut level. Myths don't stay static, though; they are always changing as they get told and retold. And what they say to us: that changes too. With every new version, storytellers find different ways to evoke meaning from those old, resonant archetypes.
I've read many takes on the Greek myth of Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur, but this one still managed to surprise me, to bring out something unexpected from the core of the story and take it to a new place. In "Labrys," Ariadne's loyalties are not what we expect, and when she sends Theseus into the labyrinth, it is the Minotaur who comes out. Messing with well-known plots is a tricky business, and too often comes across as a cheap gimmick. In "Labrys," it works well for a few reasons. First, because the writing is lovely: simple and elegant, evocative without ever getting overwrought. Second, because "Labrys" strips the story down to a few vital elements: the monstrous creature, hidden away in a maze by his parents, loathed and feared and attacked in the dark; and the princess who has grown up in the shadow of these events. And third, because this retelling gives the story a different ending which nonetheless rings true to the story's nature. The shame and secrecy around the Minotaur's birth and treatment can be read into any version of this myth, and here it is put to good use in a characterization of Ariadne as the daughter who, instead of becoming complicit in her parents' guilt, finds a way to reach through the maze of secrets and bring the truth to light.
This story is in fine shape and I don't have much criticism to offer, so much as a couple of suggestions for deepening its impact.
The first half of the story presents two characters: Ariadne and a warrior (presumably Theseus) who is sent in to fight the Minotaur. Midway through, the perspective shifts to someone finding his way out of the labyrinth -- we may assume at first that he's the warrior, but he is ultimately revealed to be the Minotaur. The moment when the "he" we're following switches from warrior to Minotaur is blurred and muddy, and this is no doubt on purpose to keep us from guessing until the end that the survivor of their fight is actually the Minotaur. But it results in a bit of confusion, because we do expect Theseus to emerge victorious, so when someone shows up with a snout, we don't necessarily let go of our expectations; instead, we may be inclined for a moment to wonder, Wait, what happened -- why does Theseus have a snout? Even if we immediately appreciate the switch that's been pulled off, there is a whiff of trickery about it.
I wonder if something needs to happen during the pivotal turning point down there in the labyrinth to help set up the ending without giving it away. One way to do this would be to sharpen our sense of time passing in the labyrinth, because right now it seems as though the warrior has barely entered before "he" is on his way out. It would help to feel more weight of something cataclysmic having occurred down there between the points when one man goes in and when one comes out.
Another way to pull the story together might be to bring a little more depth to Ariadne. The story leaves her perspective so carefully unrevealing that the few glimpses we see of her thoughts, as she waits for "the one she loves" and such, give no hint of her real state of mind, which plays a little unfair with the audience. You certainly don't want to tease or give anything away, but I think her interior monologue needs to support more than a "gotcha" at the end.
I will also suggest that this story might be well served by a touch of meta-awareness. Here's the thing. Any time you're dealing in mythic retellings, there's a certain reflective awareness built in. The reader is not merely caught up in the story; part of the reader is conscious of the story-AS-story. In other words, as I read this I am enjoying the language and the action and so forth, but I'm also thinking, "Aha! This is a take on the old Greek myth. I know how this one goes." That awareness can work against you if the reader's expectations clash with what you're doing or, conversely, if the story feels too familiar to be interesting. However, you can also make it work for you, by acknowledging the reader's awareness within the text. Mythic retellings, because we cannot help but be aware of the author playing with pre-existing narrative, are also stories about stories, and this can be a strength.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editor's Choice area of the OWW site!
--Karen Meisner, Editor, Strange Horizons
"Labrys" by Allison Starkweather
This retelling of the Greek myth of the minotaur offers a fresh perspective on the tale and a nice twist at the end. The minotaur's half-sister seemingly falls in love with one of the men brought as a sacrifice for the minotaur. As he is sent in to face the minotaur, she offers him a ball of thread to guide him out of the labyrinth. But rather than killing the minotaur as myth tells, the man is killed, and the minotaur follows the thread out of the labyrinth to his half-sister, who greets him with joy, revealing this was her plan all along.
Readers very familiar with Greek mythology may recognize this story's roots fairly early in the story, while others less familiar with the details of the myth may only realize what the story is about near the end. It's tricky to write this kind of story and satisfy the full range of readers, no matter how much knowledge they bring to the story. But I think that by conveying events vividly, the story satisfies those who don't know the myth, and by providing a twist at the end, the story satisfies those who do. So I think that's a strong achievement of the story.
The piece is well written, with a strong voice that puts me into the world of the story. While the characters are held at a distance from the reader, the story generates good anticipation and suspense, and the last line provides nice closure.
I have two main suggestions for improvement. First, the story has some believability problems, especially in the second half. It's hard to believe that the half-sister and the man fall in love instantly and, as soon as they are alone, kiss and profess their love. When I think about the fact that she's faking her attraction, her behavior is even harder to believe. Someone pretending to be in love would, I think, go slower and try to make her emotions more plausible. If you could just add a few sentences describing them under the tree talking or looking at each other before they start to kiss, that would help.
My other believability problems arise at the labyrinth. I find it hard to believe that the parents wouldn't react to their daughter kissing this man or giving him the ball of thread. We need them to react.
I find it impossible to believe that they all walk away and leave the door to the labyrinth open. This would allow any cowardly people to walk in a few steps, wait a minute, and then sneak back out. It would also create the danger of the minotaur escaping, which is exactly what happens. The parents need to close the door. After they leave, the daughter can open the door through some clever means. Opening the door shouldn't just be a matter of pressing a button or something--that's too easy and would allow anyone to let the minotaur out. It should only open for the king or queen, perhaps by a royal ring or whatever that they press against it. Having her open the secure door would increase the suspense.
The final thing I have a hard time believing is that the minotaur can stop crying and become nice so easily. Perhaps he doesn't; we don't really know how he's going to behave after the story ends. But his half-sister, at least, seems to believe that he will treat her well, and I'm not sure of the basis for those thoughts. In the past, it seems he has stopped crying for a while every time he is offered sacrifices. So I'm wondering if this is just another temporary lull in his behavior. The main way you sell his change in behavior to us is through this one sentence: "He cannot remember the last time someone stood before him and did not mean to kill him." I don't really believe this. I would imagine, of the 14 sacrifices sent in to him, some of them would cower and beg, and not really attempt to kill him. So I think something more deep and profound needs to shift inside him at this point. It still may be the matter of a single sentence, but it needs to be a sentence stronger than this one to convince me.
The second area that I think can be improved is the set up of the revelation that she has been working all along to free her half-brother. When I get to the end, it doesn't quite feel inevitable, and it feels a bit like a point-of-view cheat, since I've received her thoughts throughout the story and yet never been told that she loves her brother, mourns for him, probably hates her parents for locking him up, and doesn't care for the man at all. That's a lot to withhold. I understand that you're trying to keep us a bit distant from her through the omniscient voice, and that's a good technique. But I would feel treated more fairly, and the ending would be more satisfying, if you gave us a few more of her thoughts throughout the story--true, valid thoughts--but thoughts that we misread, thinking they are about something or someone else, so we don't guess the ending.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editor's Choice area of the OWW site!
--Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey
Mention the name Bujold and everyone in the SFF community sits up and takes notice. Lois McMaster Bujold is more than an award-winning novelist whose career is the stuff of dreams. I find her writing to be both smart and sublime, a thinking person's science fiction. In science fiction, Lois Bujold is probably best known for her Vorkosigan series, but she's seen equal success in her fantasy novels as well such as the Chalion or the Sharing Knife series. The Sharing Knife, Volume Four: Horizon is now out in paperback. And look for Cryoburn in November.
Ms. Bujold was generous enough to grant me an interview and let me tell you, I could have picked her brain for hours if she had let me. For more information about Lois McMaster Bujold, visit her web site. You can also find her on MySpace. I hope you enjoy this small insight on her writing experiences.
Do your characters ever write themselves?
Almost all of them do, I think, bar a few spear carriers or others who just pop in long enough to deliver their portion of plot. (And even they have the potential of growing into full-blooded people later on.) But all the viewpoint characters certainly wrap their stories around themselves. I have on occasion started a tale with a plot, setting, historical event, or even a piece of technology as a seed crystal, but no story gets up and runs till the characters arrive. Of course I still need a setting, a place for them to act, and a plot, actions for them to take (and thus develop and display yet more of their character), before words can start happening. It's the old "three-legged stool" problem; the most immediately important leg will always be the one that is missing.
My characters also have the ability to go on a sort of sit-down strike, when what I have proposed that they do next isn't right. It's rather the opposite of what people mean by "the characters ran away with the story." I've learned to recognize it (not always right away) as a creative sort of writer's block, one that keeps me from wasting time and energy writing the wrong things. For which I thank them. I think.
The Vorkosigan Saga seems your most popular series, in particular Miles Vorkosigan. Will you ever run out of material for him?
I don't know. His universe, certainly, being supposedly a descendant of our own, ought to contain as much material as the world we know. (Although I trust most readers realize that the gaudy space opera backdrop is bogus unobtanium, in terms of real world physics, not to mention economics -- the biology's pretty solid, though, that's the actual SF part.) But my head, alas, does not hold more than one head's worth of the world. Miles has, in my mind, a finite lifespan, and only so much life can fit into it; as a character, he has other limits as well that constrain the sorts and scopes of tales I can tell with him or about him.
So: yes, but I may well run out of time myself first. Plus there are all those other possible books to fit in somewhere.
Is there any one book or series you've written that's become a personal favorite--and why?
I am contrarianly fond of The Sharing Knife tetrology, if only because it's such a genre-convention-defying... anti-epic thing. Plus, it was a story set outdoors. Works fall in and out of favor in my mind, depending on the winds of the year. I suspect The Curse of Chalion is going to stand up over time. Miles is... Miles; close to a force of nature, climbing up out of his own pages and escaping subordination to any opinion of mine.
You favor the outsider and underdog in your stories, choosing the worst fate imaginable and then making him cope with the fallout. Is there a message or philosophy embedded in your stories?
Not, certainly, in the form of a conscious political agenda, a story type I loathe even when I agree with the politics. That's a mode of fiction that gets a great deal of applause from people who, I suspect, don't actually like fiction, or who are seized with a sort of neo-Calvinist uneasiness about things meant for pleasure. They seem to want fiction to justify its existence, or seek to assign it a place in their hierarchy of value, by some perceived social or political utility outside the actual private relationship of the reader with the text. Fiction as a tool to "fix" its readers, as it were, as if the readers were defective.
They are probably not picturing the same default reader as I do, when I think about the reader at all. I prefer to imagine Ms. Average Reader as a 40-year-old children's cancer hospice nurse just home from a bad day at work. She doesn't need me (or any other wittering writer) to teach her all about the human condition. She needs someone to hand her a drink.
(Whenever I've made the above remark at a convention panel, I always get two or three hands up at the back of the room, nurses and teachers and the like waving hello.)
Another problem with the question is that there are no books, only readings. Given the same words-in-a-row, each reader will construct a different experience in their head depending on what they bring to the text; and so, it follows, will take away different messages as well. It does make for livelier book discussions -- arguing over the elephant is actually more interesting than bland universal agreement would be.
That said, every writer writes their world-view, as inescapably as breathing. But that's not a choice or an agenda, that's just a constraint.
(Be it noted, I write a lot of privileged characters as well, but generally embedded on the hidden hooks of that state. Because a story isn't just a character, it's a character plus a problem. And ideally, the shape of the character and the shape of the problem should have an optimum interlock; "let the punishment fit the crime" and all that.)
What's your writing process like?
I use a sort of rolling-outline technique, largely as a memory aid, and work forward a small section at a time, because that's all my brain will hold. I will start to work up ideas for a story from all sorts of sources -- other reading, history, film, television, my own life experiences, debates with friends about ideas or other books. When my eyes or brain burn out on reading, I'm quite fond of all the non-fiction DVDs I can get from the local library, science and travel and history. At some point, all this will spark or clot into notions for a character or characters, their world, and the opening situation, and sometimes but not always a dim idea of the ending. This is the phase when pictures start boiling up (or shyly creeping up) in my head.
Or sometimes, I skip all that and just start with the brainburst. (Like a cloudburst. As in, "It's raining soup! Grab a bucket!") I will start jotting notes in pencil in a loose-leaf binder, my bucket of choice. By the time I have about 40 or 50 pages of these, I will start to see how the story should begin.
I then make a broad section outline, up to what I call "the event horizon," which is how far I can see to write till I have to stop and make up some more. This is usually a chapter or three. I'll get a mental picture of what scenes should go in the next chapter, and push them around till they slot into sequence. I then pull out the next scene and outline it closely, almost a messy sort of first draft. I choreograph dialogue especially carefully. Then I take these notes to my computer and type up the actual scene. Lather, rinse, repeat till I get to the end of the chapter and, my brain now purged and with room to hold more, I pop back up to the next level to outline again. Every scene I write has the potential of changing what comes next, either by a character doing something unexpected or by my clearer look at the material as it's finally pinned to the page, so I re-outline constantly.
Making up the story and writing down the story are, for me, two separate activities calling for two different states of mind. Creation needs relaxation; composition is intensely focused. I do the making-up part away from the computer, either while taking my walks or otherwise busying myself, or, when I get to the note-making or outlining stage, in another room. I do not compose at the computer, although I do edit on the fly, and the odd better ideas for a bit of dialogue or description do often pop out while I'm typing. Sometimes, they're sufficiently strong that they derail what I'd planned and I have to stop typing and go away and re-outline; sometimes they're just a bonus, an unexpected Good Bit, and slot right in.
I don't write a certain set number of pages or words a day. Either I'll have nothing outlined, or what I have outlined will be unsatisfactory and I'll be stalled -- or doing invisible work, sometimes even invisible to me -- or I'll have a fresh outline and be racing ahead to get it onto the page. I generally write a chapter in a few days, then go fallow for several days -- or, in a sticky bit or when interrupted by travel, several weeks -- then have another burst. I figure an average of two chapters a month for minimum professional production, more if I can get them, but even that is irregular.
I do most of my writing either in the late morning or the late evening. Late afternoon tends to be a physiological down-time for me.
When the pictures come right, the sluice-gates open and words flow to describe them. I understand there are writers who don't think visually, who have profoundly different processes that actually involve hearing the words (not just the characters' speech, but the whole text) in their heads, in place of pictures, something I have trouble imagining. And there are other writing kinesthesias stranger still.
Is there anything you would have done differently in order to get published earlier or more easily?
I would hesitate to change anything, in retrospect, for fear of altering the ultimate outcome. I'm not even sure if "starting writing and submitting years sooner" would answer, as I think I needed to get those few more years and experiences on me before I had anything original to write.
What was your first big writing break and how did it come about?
My first impulse was to answer this with a description of my first short story sale (to the old Twilight Zone Magazine back in late 1984). But really, I'd never have made it that far without first having fallen in with my writing-support-group-by-mail. When I wrote my first "practice" novelette at the end of 1982, I sent it off to old friend Lillian Stewart Carl, with whom I'd used to write back in high school. She in turn sent it off to Patricia C. Wrede, whom Lillian had met at a con, who wrote me back a wonderful letter of critique. The three of us, who were all working on novels, then started shipping chapters back and forth -- carbon copies for me, back then -- bootstrapping ourselves upward. (Well, Lillian and Pat bootstrapped. I hung onto their heels and was lifted.) It was they (and a few more local friends) who kept me sane and working from the end of '82, through the first short story sale at the end of '84, all the way to the three completed novels that sold to Baen Books in October of 1985.
"Chance favors the prepared mind," again. Plus a liberal helping of "I get by with a little [actually a lot of] help from my friends."
Has anyone given you any writing advice that you've happily ignored?
I've received a lot of writing advice that I've unhappily ignored. Possibly as a result of being the youngest in my family by several years, I've always had this dim inner conviction that everyone around me somehow magically knows more than I do. Even now, after wandering around the Internet for some time, it's always a little shock when I figure out that this isn't necessarily the case. (Being raised by w/o/l/v/e/s a terminally honest safety engineer didn't help me to develop working BS detectors, either. Surely they wouldn't say it if it wasn't true...?)
I can spot in retrospect a lot of advice that I'm now glad I ignored. For example, back when I was still unpublished, I ran the manuscript-in-progress of The Warrior's Apprentice past a workshop writing instructor, a published writer, who suggested I cut the whole front end, especially including the character, death, and funeral of Piotr, and start when Miles arrives at Beta Colony and acquires his first ship, because, in his mind, that was where the "real" story started, the standard guy space opera adventure that he evidently thought this was trying to be. I actually tried re-writing the beginning to cut about fifty pages according to his recommendations, looked at it for a while, and then put it all back. Another valued and trusted test reader didn't like the way I did the death of Bothari (or Bothari either, for that matter), and I tried a major re-write of that sequence as well. (This was prior to the invention, or at least my acquisition, of word processors, note, so revisions were a serious undertaking.) Stewed for a while, threw it away. It would have made a dog's breakfast of both the character and the book. After that I started to trust myself a little more.
It's a very hard balance to strike, especially when you're just starting out, to ignore the bad advice and take the good, because at that stage they are so hard for the newbie to tell apart. Especially if the bad advice comes from a perceived authority, or from a person who, confusingly, also hands out a lot of good advice. Nowadays it's easier for me. If a change lies right down flat in the manuscript and happily blends in, so that I even forget where the suggestion came from, it's OK. If it sticks up like a nail head and jabs me in the eye every time I reread it, it probably should be restored to the original, or changed to something else. If it makes me slightly sick to my stomach, it really should go, but I pretty much avoid getting that far, now.
What would you like to write that you haven't written yet?
Interesting question. In fact, I can write anything I want (within the limits of my abilities) -- I just can't write everything I want. Or, certainly, the vast spawn of fractal sequels that the fans, bless them for caring, seem to want from me.
In some years, there has seemed to be some personal theme that was important to me just then, and the book (seen in retrospect) was my way of coming to grips with it, a baroque way of discovering what I think. (Some years, I just needed to pay my bills, or there would have been no books at all.)
When my backbrain, what a poster on the old rec.arts.sf.composition used to call "the fabulator," decides what it wants to write, it will start sending up pictures, all in bits and pieces, on the mental dumbwaiter. Floods of pictures, when it's really insistent. (It's the front brain's job to put all these frothing materials into narrative order, in a structure that will actually stand up.) And the backbrain will mulishly decline to send up anything, regardless of any external blandishments, if it doesn't want to write whatever has been proposed. Blank screen. No bricks, no mortar, no sticks, no straw, not even a huff or a puff, nothing to work with. That's how I know when it's a book and when it's not. (That's also how I know if it's the next scene or not, come to think.)
There's a lyric from an old Tom Petty song that's always stuck in my head: "So I started out/ for I don't know where/ guess I'll know/ when I get there."
Or, I will find out what I want to write when I start writing it.
What advice can you give to new writers (specifically those who write SF/F)?
I am seriously out of touch with what it takes to break into the market nowadays -- my experiences were all in the mid-1980s, a world long gone. And I was never really plugged in to the short-fiction world, which has changed even more than the novel market.
I am wary of this current mania for making writers blog, post, and generally make noise all over the Internet in an effort to get buzz for their books, sold or unsold. Ditto exhausting convention travel. It's all very well, but... it isn't writing fiction. If a person is an extrovert or hyperactive, and can do it in such a way that it doesn't drain time, energy, and attention away from producing the real, original work, yay for them. Or if they find it an intrinsic and invigorating pleasure, like a hobby they'd be doing anyway. But the received old wisdom was that one was better off spending that time producing more and better work, faster, so that readers didn't think the writer had died between one book and the next. I'm not at all sure that's really changed.
(On one of my idle-ego-sweeps last month, I ran into my first instance, when my name came up in a book discussion, of a respondent to the OP asking, "Bujold? Is she still alive?" Still thinking about that one. But that's an old-writer problem, not a new-writer problem.)
Ed.: I don't think think I could end this interview with anything better than that.
Aliette de Bodard says: "'Silenced Songs' was sold to the anthology MUSIC FOR ANOTHER WORLD, forthcoming from Mutation Press. Also my story 'Desaparecidos' will be in the June 2010 issue of Realms of Fantasy."
Tim W. Burke wrote us to say: "I just sold another short story to Space and Time. This one is called
'Flim-Flamming The Haints.' It's an allegory about race and economic politics in the U.S., with slapstick.
Rae Carson is doing a happy dance. "My debut, THE PRINCESS AND THE GODSTONE, and two other books have found a home at Greenwillow, an imprint of HarperCollins."
Peter Cooper says: "I'm really happy to pass on the news that I have just sold my YA fantasy 'THE GHOST OF PING-LING' to Omnibus Books for publication in late 2011. I ran the entire book through OWW and the feedback I
received was invaluable. I'm certain that without it I would have had little chance of getting the book published.
Nicole Cushing announced: "I sort of obliquely referred to this a few months ago, but now I have the green light to make it official: my short story 'All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Piggy Class' has been purchased for the forthcoming mass market John Skipp anthology WEREWOLVES & SHAPESHIFTERS: ENCOUNTERS WITH THE BEAST WITHIN."
Elizabeth Hull has sold "The Seventh Child" to Emerald Tales for their Midsummer Eve-themed issue.
Rochita Loenen-Ruiz says: "Fred Coppersmith of Kaleidotrope magazine has bought 'Mouse and I,' appearing in the April issue."
Ilan Lerman has told us: "My flash piece 'Queuing Instinct' has sold to Alien Skin magazine, and will appear in the April/May issue. Huge thanks to everyone who looked at that on the workshop."
The Reviewer Honor Roll is a great way to pay back a reviewer for a really useful review. When you nominate a reviewer, we list the reviewer's name, the submission/author reviewed, and your explanation of what made the review so useful. The nomination appears in the Honor Roll area of OWW the month after you submit it, and is listed for a month. You can nominate reviewers of your own submissions or reviewers of other submissions, if you have learned from reading the review. Think of it as a structured, public "thank you" that gives credit where credit is due and helps direct other OWWers to useful reviewers and useful review skills.
Visit the Reviewer Honor Roll page for a complete list of nominees and explanatory nominations.
April 2010 Nominees
Reviewer: Amy Burzynski
Submission: Snowdeer Horned 1
Submitted by: Bo Balder
Reviewer: C. S. Inman
Submission: Snowdeer Horned 1
Submitted by: Bo Balder
Reviewer: Jodi Henry
Submission: GATES LEFT OPEN: Ch 1--3
Submitted by: Joe Cipriano
BITTER SEEDS by Ian Tregillis (TOR, April 2010)
It's 1939. The Nazis have supermen, the British have demons, and one perfectly normal man gets caught in between.
Raybould Marsh is a British secret agent in the early days of the Second World War, haunted by something strange he saw on a mission during the Spanish Civil War: a German woman with wires going into her head who looked at him as if she knew him.
When the Nazis start running missions with people who have unnatural abilities--a woman who can turn invisible, a man who can walk through walls, and the woman Marsh saw in Spain who can use her knowledge of the future to twist the present--Marsh is the man who has to face them. He rallies the secret warlocks of Britain to hold the impending invasion at bay. But magic always exacts a price. Eventually, the sacrifice necessary to defeat the enemy will be as terrible as outright loss would be.
THE GASLIGHT DOGS by Karin Lowachee (Orbit, April 2010)
At the edge of the known world, an ancient nomadic tribe faces a new enemy--an Empire fueled by technology and war.
A young spiritwalker of the Aniw and a captain in the Ciracusan army find themselves unexpectedly thrown together. The Aniw girl, taken prisoner from her people, must teach the reluctant soldier a forbidden talent--one that may turn the tide of the war and will surely forever brand him an outcast.
From the rippling curtains of light in an Arctic sky, to the gaslit cobbled streets of the city, war is coming to the frozen north. Two people have a choice that will decide the fates of nations--and may cast them into a darkness that threatens to bring destruction to both their peoples.
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