July 2011 Newsletter


Monthly Writing Challenge


Editors' Choices


Publication Announcements

On Shelves Now

Reviewer Honor Roll

Membership Info



If it's August, it must be time for the annual OWW Crit Marathon!  Let's clear out the under-reviewed submissions on the workshop and hone our critiquing skills. Finishing the marathon will be its own reward, but there will also be modest prizes for the top reviewers. The Marathon starts August 1st--more details in the Grapevine below. Contact Lindsay Kitson (lindenfoxcub at gmail.com) to sign up or for more information.

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

Monthly Writing Challenge

This month, write a story about a disaster -- natural, magical, man-made, alien-made, or orc-made, what have you. Maybe your space station is being evacuated after early warning systems detect a nearby supernova, or your sorcerer has opened up a volcano, or your alchemist and his apprentice are scrambling to prevent the impending meltdown of their alchemical reactor. Whatever you decide, many lives stand to be lost, or saved.

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). 


The Great OWW Crit Marathon starts August 1st!

From August 1st through the 21st, all OWWers get a chance to participate in the event that hones our writing skills, gets our competitive juices flowing, and takes on the list of current under-reviewed submissions and smartly dispatches it.

Finishing of course is its own reward, an exhilarating euphoria mingled with a sense of peace which verges on the mystical, not to mention the legion of benefits to your own writing skills gained from reviewing others. However, we will also be offering modest prizes to the top reviewers.

If you wish to participate, please e-mail Lindsay Kitson at lindenfoxcub at gmail.com to be added to the list, with the subject line "Crit Marathon Participant" and your name as it appears on the OWW site.  You can start at any time during the 3-week "run."

Hope to see you on the starting line!

Editors' Choices

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 Gary A. Braunbeck, Karen Meisner, Elizabeth Bear, 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!

Editors' Choices, Fantasy

PRETTY PEG By Skye Allen

Chapter 2 of Skye Allen's Pretty Peg comprises a very fine start on a dark fantasy for young readers--immersive, edgy, and full of moments of good voice. The narrator is engaging, full of charm and wit, and the narrative itself is both edgy and clever enough, in my opinion, to hold the attention of a teenager or an adult.

As the second chapter begins, Allen's protagonist Josy is making sure she's presentable to go see the cute girl she's just met. I found her bathroom fussing to be a nice detail of the sort of thing a girl with a crush might do to build her confidence before an encounter with a potential romantic partner, and I though it was refreshing to see an adolescent same-sex attraction treated so very matter-of-factly. Josy's characterization is a real strength of this piece throughout, and it's for Josy that I would keep reading if I had picked this up in a bookstore.

Allen also does a good job of revealing Josy's nervousness in the physical detail of the narrative. Josy remarks that her voice "sounds rusty" when she tries to speak to the other girl--Nicky. While this is a nice detail and fine characterization, I might suggest seeking a less clichéd way to impart the information. A rusty voice is a very overused metaphor. There are a number of such clichés through the piece: a good rule of thumb is to try to avoid using turns of phrase that you are used to seeing in print or hearing repeated commonly in speech.

This chapter also has good kinesthetic and tactile detail; it remembers the existence of senses beyond sight and sound. Touch, taste, scent, balance all play a role here, and the effect of that is to help ground the reader in a sense-world and in the protagonist's perceptions, creating an effective narrative drag through the story.

One thing I would like to see more of is what John Gardner calls the "telling detail." That is the detail that is concrete, specific, realized, and a bit unusual--just startling enough that readers begins constructing a real-seeming fictional dream instead of a shadowy gallery of symbols. Generally, most people--writers and readers--will default to thinking in generalities: a child's tree is a brown stick with a fuzzy bundle at the top. But a real tree, seen with an artist's eye, is something else entirely: the bulk and buttress of an oak, the aspiring slenderness of a eucalyptus.

A good deal of effective writing is learning to observe with that artist's eye, and then evoke it in prose. Ms. Allen is doing some of that already--I think in particular about the passage in which the stage curtain sways like seaweed and the lectern is adorned with a sign reading PICTURE THEM NAKED--but this existing ability can be strengthened through the development of more vigorous prose. For example, in that same paragraph, the sentence "A rainbow of umbrellas hung from the high ceiling in the wings" is not working as hard as its companions. In part this is because it is somewhat passive in construction, without a strong and active verb--but also, it is not vividly visualized, so it creates a more vague and general impression. A stronger verb, and a better sense of how the umbrellas are hung--are they in rows? Ranks? Swagged on ropes? In bundles? In lines?--would create a more vivid reality.

Of course, this can be carried too far--too much detail bogs a story down. Allen is doing a good job focusing on a few sharply observed things and bringing them to the fore. It's better to define one thing precisely and let the readers fill in the surrounding countryside than paint a vague picture in broad strokes.

I'm very fond of the dialogue in this piece. It's sharp and funny, and it sounds very like two clever teenaged girls bantering their way through a sexual attraction. Josy's sarcasm and dry wit go a long way towards making her a vital and likable first-person narrator. First-person narrators often live or die by their snark, and Josy has a good line of it.

Also, the journey to the disconnect is uncomfortable and swift. I think the story may delay a bit much while Josy and Nicky are walking through the forest--tension abates overmuch in this scene, and the story loses some of its narrative energy as a result. I would like the scene with the peach to be much more tense and unsettling--I imagine, not being a naïve reader, that this is Nicky tricking Josy into taking food in Fairy with all the attendant risks... but I don't know that, and I want to be worried at this point. It will keep me reading, when now I feel a small urge to skim ahead.

Nicky really begins to come alive for me as a character in the paragraph where she admits that she is botching Josy's introduction to Fairy. And the fairy orgy is disturbing and unsettling and a little bit sexy, which is just as it should be. It does perhaps still remind me a bit much of the fairy orgy in Holly Black's Tithe, but it is good to see untrustworthy and scary Fey creatures behaving in a seductive and sociopathic manner, as is traditional for their kind.

All in all, this is an extremely strong second chapter, cleanly written and characterized. Mostly, I'd just like to see it tightened slightly, the pacing improved by adding tension, and the world a little most sharply realized through stronger use of language.

Excellent work!

--Elizabeth Bear

Editors' Choices, Science Fiction

EASTWARD by Treize Aramistedian

Writing style is something that can catapult an already competent piece into something extraordinary. It's not usually inserted into a novel so much as cultivated, and while it can be conscious in order to enhance a story, plot, and characters, being conscious of wanting your prose to be somehow stylistic is a good place to start -- and if a sense of style in the writing happens unconsciously, that is just as well. This month's Editor's Choice showcases a lot of easy style that adds to the narrative overall. It is used to complement the story, not impede it, and thus the reader is given a gateway into another world.

Style should never be blatantly forced, as that will just put off the reader, nor does it have to be flowery or elaborate. Isaac Asimov had a rather ‘plain' style, but that is the beauty of his writing and it became his voice as a writer. It's important for a writing style to feel natural to the writer, or else it won't feel natural to the reader.

This chapter begins a little too complicated in its style:

The veracity of the colors told Seth it was a dream. That there could be such cerulean blues and such verdant greens and such xanthous ambers and that they could weave themselves into the iridescent chain he held, the chain wrapped around the glowing chimera's neck, it all rippled with impossibility, as bolts of lightning rippled beneath the torn, scabrous skin of the beast leading him to the cliff's edge.

There are a lot of details here and a lot of pretty adjectives that tend to melt the picture a little too much. Clarity is always important, especially at the beginning of a novel. This tendency balances out later on though, in fact in the very next paragraph:

Seth heard the wind howl from the canyon's bottom, but felt none of its cool. Swirling whorls of ash corkscrewed around him. Beyond the canyon, there was only darkness, a vast black that spread, engulfing everything it touched and it brushed the tips of Seth's boots, climbing him until it gripped his ankles, then grappled its way over his legs and pelvis, worming around his torso until he could feel it oozing in and out of the ventricles of his heart.

The imagery here is solid, not overwhelming, not fragmented. There is no overuse, though the author does generally tend to employ some run-on sentences that, while creating an interesting voice, can also add to confusion or just be awkward to read. The above paragraph could be tightened up slightly (‘spread' and ‘engulfing' can be redundant; the latter works better if just used as ‘engulfed' and the rest of the sentence adjusted accordingly). The goal is to strongly establish the reader in the world in the first few pages, so you don't want to get too acrobatic with the prose and force the reader to pick through meaning instead of understanding action. This doesn't mean that the style needs to completely changed, but be conscious of its use and when to use it, and don't go overboard.

At the edge of that room with cindrous leaves blanketing the floor, he wondered what kind of violence the sky had visited upon this place to make it so dead. Or maybe it had come up from the earth. The viscous ichor issuing from the earth's broken heart, bubbling up between cracks in the ground and spreading like water or quicksilver killing everything it touched, turning it into salt and ash so that not even the air stirred with anything like life.

This paragraph is just beautiful. Not only does it give a perfect picture of the immediate world, but it's anchored in the character's interaction with it - his movements through it, and how it affects him. This makes the imagery even more visceral. Don't neglect the character in the midst of the environment descriptions, even if the environment is a character unto itself (as it is in this chapter). It's actually quite reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's The Road - and McCarthy is one of the best literary stylists around. His prose isn't for everyone but if a writer is going to go that route, go with gusto.

Because the prose is so detailed (or detailed enough), when gaps appear, they resound quite oddly. For example:

So he untied his horse, fetched a saddle from the barn and slung himself atop the beast before better thinking could stop him.

It's a small detail, but what happened with his actually saddling the horse before climbing aboard? That detail stood out because the rest of the prose is so precise.

Despite the sort of prologue in the beginning, the first mention of the "Angels" in the narrative came out of left-field and presented itself with confusion. There were no real hints before of that, no contextualizing. The contextualizing comes later, as hints, and as intriguing as they are later on, we need a bit more build up to it before just dropping the word/concept in the middle of other action. Also, the ‘prologue' (marked as ‘0') is much less effective than the actual beginning (at ‘1'). The part 0 is confusing, amorphous, and sort of begins like a lot of amateur science fiction. By contrast, the ‘1' is immediately intriguing, has a character we can attach to, and the beginnings of a world we can explore through this interesting character.

All of the characterization in this chapter is fantastic (as is the dialogue - very clever and witty exchanges, which retains the Western tradition), from Seth to his sister, his parents, and the old man he converses with in town. The stylistic prose extends to what the characters say and evokes the particular kind of speech one would expect in an alternate sort of West, even if this is an apocalyptic tale of some sort (the impression is Avery is some kind of cast out prophet?) The chapter ends on the introduction of a mysterious stranger and is a perfect way to make the reader turn the page. Though the idea of a post-apoc world isn't new, and neither is religious discussion in this context in some form (even if we're not talking strictly about ‘the' God or ‘the' Devil), it is a world and a discussion that is worth writing about, with a fresh spin through a particular writer's vision, especially one who treats it with such intrigue, competence, and style.

--Karin Lowachee

Editors' Choices, Short Story

"The Young Ladies' Society for the Resurrection of Fear and Wonder" by Lyndsay E Gilbert

What a wonderful title! Reading it, I am immediately eager to read onward in the hopes of experiencing some fear and wonder. And the opening of the story does a terrific job of catching my interest, by sketching out an intriguing dystopian world and putting plot in motion. Literally in motion: we begin on a midnight train through a dangerous city, which is a thrilling way to start. Already in these first few paragraphs, I find emotional resonance in the image of an abused woman layering on makeup to present a fake, flawless face to the world; but she is also called "the weapon of the revolution", which moves the character out of passive victimhood into larger purpose and action. All signs point to exciting adventure ahead.

The narrative voice mostly rolls along in a comfortable, natural style. Description throughout the story is used with a light but steady touch, brushing every scene with small touches of texture and imagery. Really nicely done.

I am seeing a number of awkward moments at the sentence level. Here's one example of a line that's hard to parse: "If a Sarah Doll model was old, this Recycler was one of the first of its kind." That's not a logical if/then statement, and I couldn't tell if it was meant to compare both models' oldness, or contrast their ages. It read to me like the Recycler was a new, first-of-its-kind experimental model; it was only later on that I gathered it was in fact an ancient original. This is an early draft, so that sort of thing is fine, but during revisions, I'd suggest going through carefully and sifting every sentence for clarity.

In a number of places, one character's dialogue or actions are running into another character's, and need to be separated. For example:

Florence folded her arms stubbornly. "What revolution, exactly? If you haven't noticed The Works have done a good job of crushing even the slightest scene of revolution that ever blows upon the wind." The woman's face crumpled like a pudding left too long on the kitchen table. "Perhaps I haven't been entirely honest here, and perhaps revolution isn't the correct word to use."

This should be two paragraphs, one for Florence's speech and actions, and one for the other woman's.

In terms of larger thematic issues, I'm bothered by the simplicity of how in this world, all men seem affiliated with science and all women with magic. The story portrays a supremely misogynistic, male-dominated culture that seems directly descended from witch-burners in its fear of women's dangerous powers (a fear which turns out to be justified, if not self-fulfilling). "They cut us open," says one woman, "and they pulled out dreams and magic and wonder until all that was left was science and reason." This is a wonderful line but I'm not sure how well the story bears it out; the men we've witnessed have not behaved reasonably. In any case, the male/female division feels awfully heavy-handed, and I wish the narrative were doing more to raise questions about how, why, or if it's really so. When building an imaginary world with its own societal norms, it's up to the author to distinguish between culturally-enforced divisions and biological essentialism. I believe this story is trying to portray an imbalanced culture, but it slips toward suggesting that hyper-controlling science is innate to men and wild magic is innate to women, which I find problematic. And I'm not sure what is intended by the author, but the story gets a lot more interesting for me if it's exploring how that world has warped its citizens into those roles, rather than simply portraying people whose nature is innately split along gendered stereotypes.

I do love the horror of the women's brutal revolution, and how it seems not to improve the power imbalance, but simply to flip it. The ending still feels a little unsatisfying for me, though. I've been waiting for the story to deliver fear and wonder, and when those finally arise, they're mostly happening offscreen. I would love to witness more of the revolution, to see more of that terrible magic on the page.

About the final two paragraphs, where Florence discovers her boy has been killed by her fellow revolutionaries: I'm bothered by the notion that Alex, who by default represents all children in this world (since he's the only one we see), is the innocent victim when the women take power. It's as though the story is telling us that when women rebel against an oppressed domestic role and take power, their children are sacrified to their ambitions. This is a troubling message, and not, I think, what the story is aiming for; I get the impression that Alex is supposed to show something about either the possibility or impossibility of subverting gender roles. But his character isn't developed enough to carry any of these ideas very clearly.

Be wary of dipping into purple language, especially at moments of heightened emotional impact. That's when the language most needs to avoid cliché, if it is to ring true. Here's a line I bounced off because it felt phony: "But something made her stop. It sucked the breath from her lips like a fatal kiss." What's stopping Florence in this moment is the sight of her dead adopted child, and comparing that to a "fatal kiss", whatever that means, is not doing the work of conveying her true experience.

Just structurally, ending on the pathetic image of his body comes across to me as emotionally manipulative. I feel like the story is shouting at me, "See? See how the innocents suffer?" Instead of simply ending on that tragic climax, consider adding a short paragraph or two following it, perhaps showing the narrator wandering the halls while revolution rages outside? This is a moment when deliberately pulling back from a tight third-person perspective can be an effective technique, invoking great emotion without getting schmaltzy. Think of it as pulling a camera back from a painful closeup, and out to a wide angle on the desolation around her, or drifting away from her viewpoint for an aerial view of the city. It's as if Florence's grief in this moment is so overwheming that she -- and the narrative -- cannot handle or describe it, and must dissociate from her own thoughts. There are many ways to handle ending on a gut-punching climax, of course, and this one is only a suggestion. But think about how to go for the real emotion, not the sentiment, by letting the reader absorb the moment without feeling pushed into it. I hope this is helpful; good luck!

--Karen Meisner, Editor, Strange Horizons

Editors' Choices, Horror

"Mrs. Plotsky's Bug Collection" by Brenda Stokes Barron

First of all I want to say that this a disturbing little gem, excellently realized, with effectively muted emotions and a real feel of insanity to it. That I knew where it was going from about the third paragraph didn't matter one whit (nor should it; this isn't a story with a twist ending, it's a surreal descent into grief, despair, as well as a troubling study of one human being's decomposing psyche). I felt more than a bit claustrophobic throughout the piece, not to mention a bit like I was myself putrefying as the tale unfolded. The content is rock-solid.

The execution, however, is not. I'm not one who dislikes present tense stories (many complain that present tense makes a story seem "...too literary." Is there such a thing?)  A present-tense story has an urgency, a intrinsic tension, and immediacy that, when done well, generates its own level of suspense. It can, again, when done well, be rather mesmerizing.

Until shortly after the first break (with a single exception), this story fires on all cylinders; it grabs the reader by the throat (okay, it grabbed this reader by the throat) and continues to apply pressure. The Pile(s) of What Is and What Was are a particularly fine touch, as are the cards Mrs. Plotsky is continuously filling out.

The exception in this section is the sentence:  "She wonders quietly if a giant had once crossed this land wearing houses for shoes and got this one stuck in a thick patch of mud and had to leave it behind."

The rest of the section is so smoothly executed that this line clops and stumbles along. The image that you're conveying can be a memorable one, if you simply give this sentence another go, make it less awkward.

Please take another look at that sentence because this is the first appearance of a problem that all but derails the middle of the story: switching tenses. There are 2 instances of "had" and one of "got." I know why you've done this (to illustrate that this is a thought she's had in the past), but this almost never works in a story like this (I know from experience); it not only draws attention to the change of tense, it also makes the reader aware that he or she is reading a story. That may initially sound simple-minded but consider: your job as a story-teller is to transport the reader, however briefly, into your tale, and once you've drawn them in, you cannot do anything to break the spell. Confusion of tenses breaks the spell, and in a story this short, that's deadly, because once the reader is pulled out, there is no getting him or her back.

Take a look here: "She wonders quietly if a giant wearing houses for shoes once crossed this land, getting this one stuck in a thick patch of mud and leaving it behind."

Yes, you're talking about something from the past, but you are describing it in the moment, and because of that you must strive to find a way to maintain the immediacy of everything, even events, dreams, and memories from the past. This is not a suggestion, it is absolutely vital to the story. Present tense is arguably the most delicate form of prose, and it must be approached and executed with great care in order for your story to remain undamaged and your spell to be cast.

I'm harping on this because it's the awkward (sometimes careless) use of past tense in the story's center section that damn near destroys it -- and it doesn't have to. Yes, there are occasions when the use of a past tense word is necessary, but in a story like this, a good 98% can be replaced with present-tense words. Again: everything is happening in the moment and must be conveyed with the same immediacy.

Shortly after the first break, the following appears (italics mine):

Her head jerks to the left, but the shadow moves too fast for her to discern what had cast it. She reaches for her key ring of cards again, but quickly drops it. "No, I better look," she says and walks to the front door. Her routine is knocked out of order, but she'll manage it just this once. The top drawer of the filing cabinet had been shut on cards that oozed out of its cracks. It couldn't handle much more.

"... had been" can easily be replaced with "was," and "oozed" drops the d and becomes "ooze." Tense is maintained and so is the integrity of the sentence and the entire paragraph.

Now, take a look at this:

Her face falls wet with tears, but she doesn't bother to wipe them away. The shadow moves away from the window and she hurries into the study. She sits at the desk and rearranges the dragonflies and says, "That's a good little Odonata," until she forgets the hulking beast and the darkness outside and how long it had been since she'd seen her cats or why her side ached and why her husband was only a voice in her head.

All in all there are five instances of tense confusion that can easily be fixed. This is the major problem with the story, especially in the two sections that comprise the middle of the story.

You have a disturbingly beautiful, even poetic, tone that can be mesmerizing throughout, if you'll go back and examine every line of this piece with a microscope to find areas where past can be revised into present tense. The emotional impact of the piece can be devastating; this is the kind of piece that can drill itself deep into a reader's subconscious and stay there forever. You have a good but flawed story (flawed only by execution, not content) that has the potential to be superb; you've only to go through and correct your tense usage and this will be a hands-down winner.

--Gary A. Braunbeck


Class is in session and your instructor for today is the ever-scintillating storyteller, Carlos J. Cortes. Today's topic is pacing, and Carlos provides us with step-by-step instructions on how to best pace your story.  Carlos Cortes is an OWW alumnus and the author of THE PRISONER and PERFECT CIRCLE. Learn more about him at http://www.carlosjcortes.com/.

Pacing by Carlos J. Cortes

I suppose there are talented scribes for whom tweaking tension as they go along is second nature. The rest of us muddle along until our reviewers or beta readers yawn or fall asleep after page fifteen.

The traditional-structure school proposes that a scene must have an opening, middle, and end. The opening poses a question or introduces a goal. The middle is where the tension grows as the writer works conflict in. The end should build to a conclusion. This is fine but limited. What if the scene ends on a cliffhanger? Do we start the next scene with another goal?

Fear not. There are three possible choices of scene models:

A. Resolved
B. Unresolved
C. Reactive

The resolved scene has a three-part pattern: goal, conflict, and achievement.
The unresolved scene has a three-part pattern: goal, conflict, and failure.
The reactive scene has a three-part pattern: reaction, impasse, and decision.

Before we analyze the diverse patterns, it's important to note that resolved scenes must be used with caution and often sparingly. Yes, manuscripts do sag if there are too many resolved scenes. The reason is psychological. When things keep turning out according to the POV's expectations, tension slacks. This is not bad--when planned.

Resolved Scene

Goal: These are the POV's expectations and the drive behind the scene.

The POV enters an elevator, intending to ride the car to the thirtieth floor, where Don Julio awaits to pay him for a successful killing.

This is the goal, which must be explicit and unambiguous. Unless the reader knows the goal, it's impossible to ratchet the tension.

Conflict: These are the obstacles thrown in the POV's way to derail his purpose. Without conflict, there's no scene and the reader's interest will flag.

The POV enters an elevator, pushes a button, and rides uneventfully up to the thirtieth floor.
These actions prompt the question: what's the use of this scene? Perhaps the writer has a fixation with elevators, but that's no reason for the scene and it should be nixed. No conflict, no scene. Let's rewrite:

Half way up, the elevator shudders before stopping. The lights go off.

This is conflict. Of course, we can push the conflict as high as we want by adding other passengers riding the elevator; say, a Buddhist monk, two guys built like linebackers, and a little old lady on crutches.

Achievement: The resolved pattern demands that the POV character achieves his aim. In this instance, the lights return, the car moves once again, and our hero makes it to the thirtieth floor.

I mentioned earlier that resolved scenes should be handled with care. If the hero succeeds at the end of a scene, the reader feels no compunction to turn the page and find out what happens next. Although readers are not writers, they have an uncanny subliminal sense for plot. After the scene in the elevator ends in victory for the hero, the reader will suspect something happened inside the car while the lights were off. Why? Because otherwise the scene doesn't make any sense and it shouldn't be there.

This is one of the most difficult issues for a new writer to understand: every word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, and scene must have a reason. If the reader (or agent or editor) can't find any, they will get upset (make that "mad"). Readers will not invest in books riddled with bits the writer liked or penned for the hell of it.

A resolved scene is an end in itself; the POV has won. Unless handled with finesse, these scenes can be boring and, after a while, predictable. The result? A flat or boring manuscript.

Unresolved Scene

Goal: The POV's expectations and the drive behind the scene don't change.
The POV enters an elevator, intending to ride the car to the thirtieth floor where Don Julio awaits, to pay him for a successful hit.

Conflict: To thwart his purpose we've stopped the elevator and added passengers.
The POV enters a crowded elevator. A Buddhist monk, two guys built like linebackers, and a little old lady on crutches shuffle to make room. He presses the button to the thirtieth floor. Halfway up, the elevator shudders before stopping. The lights go off.

The passengers are not "color" or "background." If the writer intended transparency, he would have written "other passengers shifted to make room." Any reader will zero on the description of the passengers and mull (however subliminally) that there must be a reason why the writer chose these characters and not transparent others. We can imagine the reader sliding toward the edge of his seat.

A feeble emergency light illuminates the car. The hulks reach for their pieces. The hero ducks and freezes when the little old lady beats them to the draw. When she's finished, both men are dead. Then her gun seeks him. With a deafening shriek and a flap of saffron robes, the Buddhist monk leaps high into the air and kicks the little old lady's head. A sickening crunch and she collapses in a flurry of crutches. The monk bows and cradles his hands into a stirrup for the hero to reach the service hatch.

Though this plot is a farce, it doesn't take much imagination to assume the reader won't leave the scene at this point. What, with the Buddhist monk peering at the hero's climbing figure from a car strewn with corpses and hardware? No way.

The unresolved pattern demands that the POV character fails to achieve his goal.

The hero climbs the elevator cables, his gaze on a service opening with a door ten feet over his head. When he draws level, he leaps, and his foot misses its mark. With lightning reflexes his fingers catch the lower edge of the opening. A whine, lights, and the elevator starts moving again in the wrong direction: up.

Our hero's plans are in disarray. Not only did he not make it to the thirtieth floor and Don Julio, but he's hanging on for his life while an elevator barrels in his direction.

An unresolved scene implies a sequel, a continuation, a reactive scene to have another shot at the goal.
The reactive scene doesn't need to be at the turn of the page. The writer may have cunningly structured his plot to keep the reader on edge and shift to another scene, perhaps in the monk's or Don Julio's POV. Of course, these unresolved scenes must also be handled with care. Distance is important lest the reader forgets our hero's predicament. If not immediately, the reactive scene must follow at a reasonable distance.

Reactive Scene
The purpose of a reactive scene is to follow and tidy up an unresolved one. If the hero sought a goal and encountered a setback, he shouldn't try anything new until the problem at hand has been solved, or replaced with a new problem.

What if the reactive scene doesn't resolve its goal? Can there be a reactive-positive and reactive-negative scenes? One could envisage a scene where the hero fails repeatedly to achieve his goal. No?
No. A reactive scene's goal is to react to a failure. A novel may consist of many scenes trying to reach the goal outlined on page one, but each will have its own goal (or mini-goal in the large scheme of things) or react to an unachieved goal.

The reactive scene has three parts: reaction, impasse, and resolution, and each is critical for its overall success.

Reaction: A reaction is the emotional follow-through to a failure. If disaster strikes--following the initial rush of adrenaline--the character struggles, off-balance, until he gathers his wits. POV characters must react viscerally to failure and adjust to change, submit to a new ball game. This is a boon for any writer, the opportunity to add deep characterization because character surfaces in extreme moments. Eventually, the POV needs to take stock and look for options and their alternatives.

The car races upward, threatening to crush him. The hero flexes his muscles and pulls himself up, squeezing into the narrow ledge as the elevator trundles past.

Of course, the best scenes are those where the POV has no escape, no options left. These tax the writer because there must be an option, however hidden, and it must be a clever or imaginative one the hero might have overlooked--or a reckless one born of despair.

Impasse: After a good old failure, there aren't any good choices. If there are, it wasn't much of a disaster. The POV must be in a bind with no good obvious alternatives. In our silly plot, the hero is as we would colloquially describe: shafted.

Fighting for balance on a ten-inch ledge, his fingers explore the door. It's unlocked. As the hero steps through the door, he halts. The opening is an access communicating two elevator shafts. As he compares the two voids, elevators dash past in both directions at breakneck speed. One must still carry the corpses.

Now what? The reader will wonder what can happen next because the hero's choices are one shaft or the next. Not good. The reader will turn the page.

Decision: To decide is to make a choice. Here, the POV must work through his choices, however illusory or wild these may be. As he sifts through the options, he will take the one that offers the greatest chance of success. Even if it means choosing a harrowing one, the choice must be reasoned. Otherwise, the reader will get the impression the POV has been lucky, and that's a sign of careless writing. Intelligent readers believe in probabilities, not luck. The reader must respect the POV's decision and perhaps nod in agreement. "Yup, I would have done the same." Or cringe in awe at the POV's choice, an avenue so crazy--despite a slim chance of success--that the reader had not considered it.

The elevator he escaped now stops. The corpses must have been discovered. (How the monk got away is another matter.)  When the elevator in the newly discovered shaft halts on the floor below, the hero makes a split-second decision and jumps. He crashes through its roof, and lands next to another little old lady. This time, the hero doesn't take any chances. He picks himself from the floor, socks the lady, presses all the buttons and, as soon as the car stops on the next floor, he bolts toward the fire escape.

In this scene, the character has not resolved any goal. Rather, he has simple reacted to his failed attempt in the previous scene.

What happens now? Who knows? The hero may reach the fire escape. There, the writer will concoct another scene with a new goal, perhaps to get away from the building in one piece. The reader will follow to find out the next goal of the POV.

The important mechanism to understand is the interrelation of scenes and their inner structure with reference to the story. A novel is a sequence with a few resolved and many unresolved scenes. These are followed by reactive scenes which, in turn, open the door to another scene.

The magic of sustaining tension is this action-reaction continuum; one unresolved scene leads to another until the cycle breaks at THE END.

--Carlos Cortes

Publication Announcements

Beth Cato wrote us to say: "My story ‘La Rosa Still in Bloom,' which was run through the workshop earlier this year, has been accepted for the August issue of Crossed Genres Magazine. I'd like to thank Jennifer Wray, Lydia Kurnia, Raymond Walshe, Larisa Walk, and Dy Loveday for their helpful critiques."

Gio Clairval says: "I'm writing to announce the sale of a workshopped story, 'Playground,' to the PS Publishing anthology POSTSCRIPTS, edited by Nick Gevers and Peter Crowther (scheduled for publication in winter 2011). Not to forget 'Toytfogl' (workshopped under the title ‘Astor de Mort'), sold to the anthology BRIDE OF THE GOLEM, edited by Gus Ginsburg. Two more stories, both workshopped and sold last year, will come out this month of July: 'The Hand' in Weird Tales, and 'The Pea' (workshopped as "Dust") in the HarperCollins anthology THACKERY LAMBSHEAD CABINET OF CURIOSITIES, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. The list of OWW reviewers is too long, but I would like to thank them all!"

Liz Coley tells us: "I am thrilled to report the sale of my novel PRETTY GIRL 13 to HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Books, scheduled to come out Fall 2012." Congratulations, Liz!

Ada Hoffmann says: "My flash piece 'Jenny's House' appeared in the first issue of One Buck Horror.

Mike Keyton announced, "My article ‘A Time To Die' is up on Strange Horizons. It's a short essay about Anthony Trollope and one of his lesser known works, ‘The Fixed Period.'"

Steve Westcott tells us: "Just to let you guys know I have a new novel, OF LIGHT AND SHADOW, coming out in November 2011. It is being published by Priory Press and is the first in a three-book series. I have been asked to commence work on book two by the publisher, which can't be a bad sign." (grin)

Reviewer Honor Roll

July 2011 Honor Roll Nominees

Reviewer: Dy Loveday
Submission: In the Not-Flesh of Dreams (Part I) by Jeanne Haskin
Submitted by: Jeanne Haskin

Reviewer: Beth Cato
Submission: Illusion Ch 1 & 2 by Dy Loveday
Submitted by: Dy Loveday

Reviewer: Lydia Kurnia
Submission: In the Not-Flesh of Dreams (Part I) by Jeanne Haskin
Submitted by: Jeanne Haskin

Reviewer: elizabeth hull
Submission: In the Not-Flesh of Dreams (Part I) by Jeanne Haskin
Submitted by: Jeanne Haskin

Reviewer: Deborah Moorhouse
Submission: Days Gone By by Michele Lee
Submitted by: Michele Lee

Reviewer: Stephanie Charette
Submission: "The Tower Part 2" by Heather Cale
Submitted by: Heather Cale

Reviewer: Arlene Ang
Submission: Survival Amongst the Stars Chapters 0-2 by Alexander Bradley
Submitted by: Alexander Bradley

Reviewer: Stelios Touchtidis
Submission: In the Not-Flesh of Dreams (Part I) by Jeanne Haskin
Submitted by: Jeanne Haskin

Reviewer: Crash Froelich
Submission: In the Not-Flesh of Dreams (Part IV) by Jeanne Haskin
Submitted by: Jeanne Haskin

Reviewer: F. Wilde
Submission: Notes on the Post Launch and Purpose Periods by Terry Mopper
Submitted by: Terry Mopper

Reviewer: F. Wilde
Submission: "Like the Weather" by Ada Hoffmann
Submitted by: Ada Hoffmann

Reviewer: Darryl Knickrehm
Submission: Robber Fly by Steve Duff
Submitted by: Steve Duff

Reviewer: Larry Pinaire
Submission: THE CIRCLE by Alex Binkley
Submitted by: Alex Binkley (PA)

Reviewer: Zvi Zaks
Submission: THE CIRCLE by Alex Binkley
Submitted by: Alex Binkley (PA)

Reviewer: Ann Winter
Submission: Illusion Chapter 4 by Dy Loveday
Submitted by: Dy Loveday

Reviewer: Ann Winter
Submission: Illusion: Ch 3 by Dy Loveday
Submitted by: Dy Loveday

On Shelves Now

MISERERE: AN AUTUMN TALE by Teresa Frohock (Night Shade Books, June 2011)cover

Exiled exorcist Lucian Negru deserted his lover in Hell in exchange for saving his sister Catarina's soul, but Catarina doesn't want salvation. She wants Lucian to help her fulfill her dark covenant with the Fallen Angels by using his power to open the Hell Gates. Catarina intends to lead the Fallen's hordes out of Hell and into the parallel dimension of Woerld, Heaven's frontline of defense between Earth and Hell. When Lucian refuses to help his sister, she imprisons and cripples him, but Lucian learns that Rachael, the lover he betrayed and abandoned in Hell, is dying from a demonic possession. Determined to rescue Rachael from the demon he unleashed on her soul, Lucian flees his sister, but Catarina's wrath isn't so easy to escape!

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Got a helpful tip for your fellow members? A trick or hint for submitting or reviewing, for what to put in your author's comments, for getting good reviews, or for formatting or titling your submission? Share it with us and we'll publish it in the next newsletter. Just send it to support (at) sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com and we'll do the rest.

Until next month--just write!

The Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror
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