The seasons they are a-changing, and the end of another year is in view. November heralds the beginning of NaNo which is the official entity that promotes sit-butt-in-chair-and-write. Whether you use NaNo or wing it on your own, we hope November is especially productive for you. We welcome more of your submissions on the Workshop.
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
Parents. Parents are supposed to want the best for you and love you. Sometimes, however, they don't seem to care for you, shoo you away, or always seem disappointed in you. Write a story where the main characters have some trouble with their parents. The parents could be loving, cruel, or even no longer alive.
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). This month's challenge was suggested by Elizabeth Porco.
Penumbra is Musa's speculative fiction eMag. It is a pro-rate-paying, monthly short fiction market now actively seeking science fiction, fantasy and horror stories and poems. There's currently a special call for Steampunk submissions: "Create your best gizmos and gear up for the goggle-gouging fun that is steampunk. (We'll accept gaslight fantasy too.) All steampunk for this winter issue, which means anything goes. CALL ENDS NOV 15."
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, 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!
LOVESONG OF THE HARE IN THE MOON, Chapter 1, by Cinna Crowley
Cinna Crowley's first chapter of Lovesong of the Hare in the Moon is a strong start that promises an engaging read--so much so that my chief concern in reviewing it is to address some general issues that are weakening Ms. Crowley's prose. Consider this focus on line-level issues as a compliment to other aspects of the chapter.
This chapter begins in an omniscient point of view, and soon contracts to Clary's limited third omniscient. While this is not in itself a problem--the shift is handled well--the author may find on revision that it is beneficial to this narrative to retain the power and scope of omniscient throughout. Ms. Crowley begins with a strong image of a non-idealized protagonist who manages to appear both active and studious. Though she is not immediately established as wanting something--a good trick for bringing the reader into engagement with the protagonist--she is intriguing enough, and enough questions are raised about her and her world, to instill some momentum in the narrative.
There is some excellent detail as well--the attention to her skirts, for example, and the description of her book, which are unique, finely-observed objects rather than being standard-issue trappings.
Ms. Crowley will do well, however, to watch carefully for word repetition, as in: "[She] began to enjoy both with the appearance of someone enjoying a much grander meal."
Also, Ms. Crowley has the unfortunate habit of telling readers what to think rather than letting us come to our own decisions. She says of Clary, "She made a nice picture, fresh and sweet and unaffected..." It is more effective to demonstrate that the protagonist is these things rather than telling us: as readers, if we are told a thing, it is our natural inclination to argue with it. If it is shown to us, we feel that we have figured it out for ourselves, which increases our investment in it.
Ms. Crowley also suffers from some tics common to journeyman writers. One such is the tendency to use scaffolding and weasel words, such as "Truth be told" and "somehow." Semantically null, these are nothing but hesitation marks, bits of bloat that suck momentum from the rest of the paragraph that contains them. She also has a tendency to tell us something and then show it, and--in a linked issue--to repeat herself unnecessarily. For example, in the passage, "The world was too rich. It was a perfect September morning. The air itself was like cider," the middle sentence is performing no work at all.
Ms. Crowley also first tells us that Clary looks younger than she is, then in a later passage demonstrates it. The latter is stronger; the first is waste.
There are also some transition problems. For example, the lengthy passage of description that concludes with Clary calling to Ron does not mention Ron's existence. This is jarring to readers, who must go back and double-check that they have not missed something. That breaks the narrative flow, which gives readers an opportunity to put the book down.
Again, here, Ms. Crowley repeats herself: "Who was that?" Clary said carelessly. She didn't much care for history.
This would be stronger if simply rendered as: "Who was that?" Clary didn't much care for history.
Peppering dialogue tags with self-evident adverbs does readers no kindness.
Ms. Crowley does some very fine work in establishing character--for example Clary's scientific curiosity and her ruthlessness--in the context of her internal narrative. She is also very capable of crafting a beautiful sentence, though it seems to me she may still lack the narrative confidence to allow them to stand tall and shine bright. For example, the line "Its idle engine ticked mysteriously" is excellent unto itself--a strong auditory image with a nice run of assonance. It does not require the much less strong dependent clause, "a masterpiece of dainty jeweled clockwork."
Likewise, the sentence "Even at rest, the machine was clearly made to fly -- but it was beautiful as well" would be stronger without the portion after the dash. Ms. Crowley has shown us that the machine is beautiful. She must now trust us to make out own decisions.
Ms. Crowley is also quite capable with humor, and as she gains greater control of her prose, she'll be able to point this up more strongly. For example, she has written:
Clary hesitated, feeling suddenly unsure. She combed her fingers through her tangled, leaf-strewn hair. "I realize this is a stupid question, but how do I look?"
Rob simply looked at her. "Beautiful," he said.
"Oh, don't be ridiculous," she snapped. "A simple 'fine' would have sufficed." She briskly dusted the front of her apron and tried to smile. "No bloodstains, no gaping wounds? Any second heads?"
"Suddenly" is scaffolding here, and the first two sentences could be strengthened by being linked into one:
Clary combed her fingers through her tangled, leaf-strewn hair. "I realize this is a stupid question, but how do I look?"
Her hesitation is implied. As is Rob's speech, when it follows the action tag. The dialogue tag is superfluous.
And the "simply" here is an unnecessary adverb that indicates that the author should seek a stronger verb.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editor's Choice area of the OWW site!
Author of THE SEA THY MISTRESS
MINDLINK 6 & 7, by Rob Smythe
In this near-future SF story, seemingly runaway AI virtual interfaces (ie: virts) are driving their human users to suicide. Caught up in the tragedies are Zack and his ex-boss Freeman Drake, CEO of MindLink, the company responsible for the 'ware used by basically everybody. Zack had left MindLink under hostile circumstances, so when Zack's brother is killed, suspicions arise as to who is responsible and why. There is a fine balance of the corporate and death storylines and the personal storylines of the characters, with suggestion that they are tied together. All of this plays out at a brisk pace, with a cast of interesting people, all with various motives that may or may not be directly tied to the action.
With ease, the author transitions the action of Zack and his girlfriend heading down the street with some necessary information, not breaking the flow of the narrative in the process, but providing some color for this near-future world:
What he didn't need now from Jessica was another conspiracy theory. For the past year, Jessica had been a staunch GITE advocate: Government Is The Enemy. According to her, the government was going to save on health costs by legislating euthanasia for all senior citizens; the president was secretly dragging the country into political union with China; the authorities were about to confiscate all citizens' guns; the school system had a hidden agenda to make everyone illiterate. The list went on--cause of the month. COTM. Zack thought he had succeeded in bringing her to her senses with his gentle insinuations that the government was more incompetent than malevolent. In fact, the last thing she'd said on the subject was that the feds couldn't succeed at any of those nefarious schemes if they tried. A significant concession.
This also gives the reader a quick and dirty impression of both Zack and Jessica. As this is already Chapter 6, one assumes that these impressions have been building over the previous five chapters and this is just another piece to the overall puzzle -- not only of the characters (particularly Zack) but the state of the world. Maybe the conspiracy theorists have it right. This is the suspicion as the chapter progresses and the tension and plot unfold. It doesn't need more than a well-placed paragraph threaded through the dialogue and action to give the reader pertinent world information. There is also a great rhythm and cadence to the sentences: varied length, precise words, a solid point-of-view (Zack's), explanation of the acronyms without being intrusive. This makes explanatory paragraphs easier to digest.
The ensuing argument between Zack and Jessica reads relatively smooth but could be tightened up, and some of Jessica's reactions toward the end made a little less histrionic. Even if she is passionate (and perhaps a little extreme), unless she is supposed to come off entirely unpleasant, one wonders why Zack was with her in the first place when he seems rational and normal. Nitty-gritty wise, watch for unnecessary parts of the tags:
He broke into a jog, finally catching up to her at the intersection of Delaware and Stoppard. "It's about time," she said, her voice peeved.
It's simpler and cleaner to say: "It's about time." Her voice was peeved. And again: "What's this about MindLink trying to kill me?" he asked. The tag is redundant since it's obvious he asked it because of the question mark, and because the dialogue comes after one of his thoughts. These are just small ways the prose can be smoother.
Zack's interaction with Caine (his virt) was great, in that they had a dialogue that both showed the ease in which Zack (and everybody, presumably) utilizes this technology, but also illustrated the first hints of something being wrong; while any writer tackling an AI or proto-AI in fiction has to be careful not to mimic what's come before, giving the AIs their own unique quirks can help set them apart (think of the AI in the film Moon and his emoticon faces). Little things can go a long way to differentiate.
The chapters end on solid, suspenseful notes, essential to make the reader turn the page and also provide some ‘wrap up', however small, of what came before. Chapter 7, from Drake's point-of-view, throws out some tech speech and a group of characters, but not so much that it's confusing. Readers would probably be passingly familiar with the tech - even if it's future tech - and the focus isn't on the jargon anyway. Drake's employees are set apart through their names and roles, with the set up of the security's own agenda ending the chapter on another suspenseful note. The only caution would be to use these extra points-of-view sparingly; if Havercroft (I kept reading it ‘hovercraft' but maybe that's just me) is a consistent recurring point-of-view, then continue to use him, but if he only pops up in a few short paragraphs here and there, the author might want to rethink his usage.
Last word on the title: maybe once the novel is finished, think on one that isn't as generic. The title doesn't give an impactful impression about the book, and judging from the solid writing, characterization, and plotting, there is enough here to have a well-rounded novel.
Author of THE GASLIGHT DOGS, BURNDIVE and CAGEBIRD
"South to the Sticks" by Esme Ibbotson
In the world of this story there is a blighted, toxic territory known as the Sticks, whose population has been mutated. Norman's mutations were bizarre enough to make him an entertaining oddity, so he was taken from there to the "unspoilt lands" where, after being put through horrific experiments in a laboratory, he now works piloting an airship, as a freakshow curiosity for tourists. When his airship is hijacked by another mutant who wants to rescue her brother from the Sticks, Norman proves to be less than sympathetic to her cause.
It's a good, tight story and it's getting a lot of things right. The pacing moves along swiftly, enlivened by a terrific use of non-generic action verbs and flavorful details. But the real impact of this story lies in the tragedy of Norman's choice to betray his fellow mutant. That act rings true to his character, especially after he frames the reasoning with his final words; but it's also a shocking move that catches us by surprise, because in terms of typical heroic fantasy narratives, it is utterly the wrong thing to do. It's not merely a shocking "gotcha" ending--it's a thought-provoking one. If there is a hero of the piece, it's the hijacker, not Norman. And yet our point of view stays with Norman, and gradually unfolds his state of mind until we can make sense of his actions at the end. He can't see beyond the limited level of privilege that's been granted to him, and he's going to cling to that, turning his back on the people he left behind. The story neither justifies nor condemns his action; it observes the dynamics behind his choice.
Perspective is hugely important in this story. We see everything from a limited third-person perspective that follows Norman's thoughts closely enough to show some memories and emotional impressions, while remaining distant enough that we don't fully understand the conclusions he's drawn from those experiences until the end. The voice itself is written in a way that renders his character well. Norman's cold-fish demeanor comes through in the way he keeps his thoughts to himself, even withholding inner monologue from within the narrative voice. This is a person whose life lies in the hands of others, someone who's learned to suppress his opinions and keep his inner thoughts hidden.
A telling aspect of Norman's perspective lies hidden within this passage:
Still focused on her brother, she tugged the silk scarf free from around her neck, revealing mottled lichen skin creeping out of her collar. Norman stared. After living in the unspoilt lands for twenty years, he realised what it was like to be confronted with deformity. He'd forgotten what it was like to be in the Sticks, where everyone had their misfortune on display.
There's something in here that needs to be unpacked a little more. In Norman's desire to be a part of the exalted dominant culture, he's assimilated their idea of mutations as a shameful deformity to be covered up (whereas in the Sticks, mutations are apparently accepted as part of life). Norman has internalized a revulsion for Otherness, even his own. That is what I'm gleaning from this paragraph, and it's a vital aspect of the main character. But the wording is muddy: does "after... twenty years, he realized" mean that over all that time, he'd learned to realize what it was like, or that he was only just now realizing it for the first time? We don't know enough about those twenty years to know if he's come into contact with other mutants at all, and without that context, the fuzzy phrasing leaves us guessing at its meaning, which throws us out of the story. Why not rework that sentence to hold more of his visceral reaction? A brief flash of physical response can show us everything we need to know about the attitudes Norman has absorbed, and how he positions himself in relation to other mutants.
There are a few other places where the wording is imprecise. For example, "No, she wasn't one of his usual passengers. They giggled, horrified to see their pilot, clutching arms, waving fans, whispering." I read this a few times before figuring out that those passengers were not on the roof at this very moment, giggling and watching all this unfold. Tweaking the lines to something like, "No, she wasn't one of his regular passengers. They usually giggled..." is all that's needed to make it clear that other passengers aren't present in this scene.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editor's Choice area of the OWW site!
--Karen Meisner, Editor, Strange Horizons
Bringing Home the Good War, Part 1 by Dave Crosby
The opening of this novel does a good job of drawing us in and getting us involved in figuring out the intriguing situation. This excerpt contains three scenes that seem to introduce the major players of the novel: a killer who calls himself "God"; Dr. Jim Manning, whose wife and son were killed (and who may or may not be God); and Detective John Cartier, who investigates one of God's murders. Introducing the main players up front works well here. The three scenes create good plot momentum, since multiple streams of action are unfolding at once, and they also create anticipation (a particular type of suspense) as we try to foresee the conflicts that will form between the characters. The opening scene, in which God tortures one of his victims, is quite involving. The torture is intense, and the fact that the killer calls himself God adds a twist to the scene. In the second scene, Jim Manning is an interesting character, because he elicits both our sympathy and our suspicion. The third scene, with the police, has some good details, and it's exciting to see the dead body of the man who was tortured in the first scene and start to put the pieces together.
While the overall structure is solid, I think there are several ways that this opening section could be strengthened.
*Plot: In the second scene, Jim Manning has a dream, wakes up, and prepares to go out. This scene introduces elements but does not move the story ahead. Ideally, each scene should move the story forward. In more concrete terms, that means something of significance must change for the main character of that scene. This is a tough requirement to meet, but it pretty much guarantees you will have strong scenes. In this particular scene, nothing of significance changes for Jim. He has had similar dreams before, and he has reacted in a similar way before. Generally, scenes that include dreams or characters waking up tend to be weak and should usually be avoided. They usually indicate that the author didn't know where to start the story and has started it too early. It sounds like Jim has something interesting planned for that night; perhaps his scene should be set then.
The third scene does show a change of significance; Detective Cartier changes from ignorance of the killer to knowledge of the killer, as he studies the dead body and reads the note that is with it. The plot weakness in this scene is excessive exposition (background information). About a third of the scene is exposition, which is way too much, especially for the first scene with this character. We need to become interested in Cartier before we'll be willing to read a large chunk of background information about him and his partner. Interspersing the exposition with action of the characters driving to the dead body, as this scene does, does not help. This is a common writing problem usually referred to as "driving to the scene," though it can take many variations, such as "flying to the scene," "walking to the scene," "taking the elevator to the scene," and so on. The scene is about the Cartier and his partner studying the dead body. The drive is irrelevant. The scene should open with them pulling up at the crime scene, and they should be out of the car by the end of the first paragraph.
So how do you include that exposition about Cartier and his partner? Cut it down to the absolute minimum, break it into smaller bits, and scatter those through the following few scenes from Cartier's viewpoint.
*Point of View (POV): The point of view could be stronger throughout. All three scenes are written in third-person limited-omniscient viewpoint, which is a good choice. But I don't feel close to the viewpoint character in any of the scenes. In the first scene, we're in the POV of the victim, Ralph Childs. In a third-person limited-omniscient POV, one important decision the author must make is how the viewpoint character thinks of himself. Usually, a character will think of himself either as his first name or his last name. However the character thinks of himself, it should not change while we're in his POV. I may think of myself as "Jeanne" or as "Cavelos," but I'm not going to switch back and forth. Referring to a character by multiple terms is called "elegant" variation, with the "elegant" in quotes because it's not elegant. In this scene, Ralph Childs thinks of himself alternately as "Childs," "the prone man," "the man called Childs." These shifts feel like viewpoint shifts, since Childs would not think of himself in these different ways. It feels as if we have shifted into the killer's POV.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editor's Choice area of the OWW site!
--Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey
Characters Come First, by Chris Evans
Having chosen to talk about the importance of having strong, engaging characters, I (and I'm sure you can, too) immediately think of any number of books that were all plot with the characters little more than ciphers. The Da Vinci Code is probably the most successful of its kind. Dan Brown wove an immensely complex series of puzzles together to form a novel. It's not a criticism, far from it, but if you went on to read his subsequent novel, odds are you didn't do it because you were desperate to find out what happens to Robert Langdon.
There are a lot of elements a novel can survive and even thrive without, like an intricate plot, but without interesting characters its odds of capturing a reader's attention are greatly diminished. Think about it. What good is a great plot if you don't care about the characters making their way through it? But turn that on its head, and think about books you've read with great characters and a not so fascinating plot. The Lord of the Rings springs to mind. What's the plot but a straightforward march? There's a whole lot of walking, hiking, galloping, running, and trudging across Middle Earth to throw a ring in some lava. I've simplified it a bit, but as plots go, it's not very complex. But it works (the whole Tom Bombadil scene not-with-standing) because the characters are fascinating. Didn't you wish you were one of the Fellowship? As a young D&D player my imagination put me right between Aragorn and Gimli on that trek through the Mines of Moria.
Great characters trump great plot. That's not to say you can't have both, but as you focus on writing your novel, make sure your time and energy is devoted heavily in favor of your characters. Often, that means having fewer characters rather than more. When I write, I like to think of my novels as plays. Every time a new character appears I think of an actor stepping on stage in front of an audience. Does that character really need to be there to read that line, or could one of the existing characters be given that role, too, making him or her that much more complex and interesting?
There's a limit, of course. Having focused on characters and making them rich and vibrant, you want to guard against having nothing but multi-faceted characters emoting all over the place. Sometimes, a few two dimensional characters are just the ticket. Switching to the movies for a moment, there were no more two dimensional characters than the shark in Jaws and Darth Vader (the original, not the child/adolescent iteration) in Star Wars. And mercy, were they cool! And don't get me started on zombies! You're unlikely to get a Shakespearean soliloquy tumbling out of one's fractured, rotting mouth, but the one with the dangling eyeball will leave an impression.
An interesting character can be interesting for any number of reasons. Maybe it's the hilarious befuddlement of Terry Pratchett's personified death, Mort, trying to get in touch with his nonexistent humanity. Or J.K. Rowling's ferociously cruel yet misunderstood Professor Snape. Interesting characters, and this is a simple as it gets, are characters we want to read about. They carry the plot and not the other way around. Great characters, deep or shallow, saintly or evil, reflect, amplify, or subvert our hopes and our fears, and in so doing, hold out their hands and beckon us to join them on their next adventure. As a novelist, reach out and grab those hands and hold on tight. You can bet that if you do, your readers will do the same.
Chris Evans is the author of the Iron Elves series. His latest novel, Ashes of a Black Frost, has just released. Aside from being a long time member of OWW, Chris is also an editor and military historian. To learn more about him, please visit his web site.
Kevin Ikenberry's story "Shipminds and Ice Cream" is in the current issue of Mindflights.
Christine Lucas says: "I've recently sold three stories that were workshopped at OWW:'Rite of Taming' to Warrior Wisewoman #4,'Make None to Weep' to the Quiet Shelter There anthology from Hadley Rille Books, and'What the Carp Saw' to ASIM. The last two feature the same lead characters, an ancient Egyptian High Priest and his mischievous cat, and are very dear to my heart. The OWWers I owe thanks to are too many to mention here, but know that you have my sincere gratitude for all your help."
Paul Steven Marino's short story "The Fountain and the Shoe Store" is in a recent edition of Strange Horizons.
Rochita Loenen Ruiz announced recently: "The October issue of Realms of Fantasy includes my short story,'Return to Paraiso'. It was inspired by two real life stories. One was a story about Filipino fishermen who had to leave their ancestral fishing grounds to make place for a refinery, the second was about a woman who was falsely accused of being an insurgent simply because she worked among a tribal people."
Henry Szabranski published a short story entitled "Amy's First" as the October 19 offering of Daily Science Fiction.
October 2011 Honor Roll Nominees
Reviewer: Steve Brady
Submission: Half-Faerie: Chapter 24. Necessary Lies by Heidi Garrett
Submitted by: Heidi Garrett
Reviewer: Camille Picott
Submission: Half-Faerie: Chapter 25. Ohloh by Heidi Garrett
Submitted by: Heidi Garrett
Reviewer: Michael Bunning
Submission: Deadman's Legion - Flesh of Clay by Darriel Caston
Submitted by: Darriel Caston
Reviewer: Lauren Roy
Submission: Red Rayne by Noelle Campbell
Submitted by: Noelle Campbell
Reviewer: Kim Allison
Submission: Marc Holiday and the Sand Reckoner: Chapter Seven - The Terrible Truth by Mark Reeder
Submitted by: Mark Reeder
Reviewer: Oliver Buckram
Submission: A History (A Counterpoint) by A. Merc Rustad
Submitted by: A. Merc Rustad
Reviewer: cinna crowley
Submission: Earth Goods by Noelle Campbell
Submitted by: Noelle Campbell
Reviewer: B. Morris Allen
Submission: Surprise at the autopsy (new title) by Oliver Buckram
Submitted by: Oliver Buckram
Reviewer: Zvi Zaks
Submission: ALIENS FROM EARTH by Martha Manning
Submitted by: Martha Manning
Reviewer: Oliver Buckram
Submission: The Eyelet Dove - Chapter 1 - (pg13 for strong language) by Lindsay Kitson
Submitted by: Lindsay Kitson
Reviewer: Laurence Pittenger
Submission: Rock and A Hardplace - A Mars Story by Noelle Campbell
Submitted by: Noelle Campbell
Ashes of a Black Frost: Book Three of The Iron Elves by Chris Evans (Gallery Books, October 2011)
Amidst a scene of carnage on a desert battlefield blanketed in metallic snow, Major Konowa Swift Dragon sees his future, and it is one drenched in shadow and blood. Never mind that he has won a grand victory for the Calahrian Empire. He came here in search of his lost regiment of elves, while the Imperial Prince came looking for the treasures of a mystical library, and both ventures have failed. But Konowa knows, as do the Iron Elves-both living and dead-that another, far more important battle now looms before them. The campaign in the desert was only the latest obstacle on the twisted, darkening path leading inexorably to the Hyntaland, and the final confrontation with the dreaded Shadow Monarch.
In this third novel of musket and magic in Chris Evans's Iron Elves saga, Konowa's ultimate journey is fraught with escalating danger. A vast, black forest finds a new source of dark power, spawning creatures even more monstrous than the blood trees from which they evolve. The maniacally unstable former emissary of the Shadow Monarch hungers for revenge, leading an army of ravenous beasts bent on utterly destroying the Iron Elves. A reluctant hero, Private Alwyn Renwar, struggles to maintain his connection to this world and that of the loyalty of the shades of the dead. And in a maze of underground tunnels, Visyna Tekoy, whom Konowa counts among those he has loved and lost, fights for her life against the very elves he so desperately wants to find.
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Resident Editor Jeanne Cavelos has created a review of punctuation on the Odyssey Writing Workshop's website. It's a great tutorial in some basics that are very dear to fiction editors' hearts: http://www.odysseyworkshop.org/tips1.html
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