February 2012 Newsletter


Monthly Writing Challenge

Editors' Choices


Publication Announcements

On Shelves Now

Membership Info



February might be a short month, but we have no shortage of OWW alums with new books. Workshop veterans Jodi Meadows, author of INCARNATE, and Deborah Coates, author of WIDE OPEN, are starting the year in the right direction. Let's hope this is just the beginning of good news for more OWW members.

We are seeking a new Resident Editor for Short Stories, the insightful Karen Meisner having recently moved on from OWW. This month, we welcome Charles Coleman Finlay back as our guest editor for short stories. Don't miss his review! (For those who don't thrill to his name, Charlie was OWW's longtime member-support staffer and Third Brain, as well as being a published author of many short stories, collections, and the Traitor to the Crown trilogy from Del Rey.)

Send us your news of publications, sales, and awards! We can't celebrate them (and you) if we don't know about them.

As always, contact us if you have any questions, publication announcements, or ideas for improving the OWW Newsletter.

Maria Zannini, newsletter editor
news (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com

Monthly Writing Challenge

New Beginnings: Your character has decided to turn over a new leaf. What was your character before and what is it he or she (or it) has decided to change? Is it for the better, or for worse? What prompted the decision?

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 (news (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com). This month's challenge was submitted by Lindsay Kitson.


Lyrical Press: How Lyrical is Your Romance Contest opens January 16th, ends February 5th. This contest is open to both published and unpublished authors. Entries must be complete works, ranging in word count between 15,000-100,000 words, any heat level, and fit into one of the following subgenre categories: Contemporary romance, historical romance, paranormal or urban fantasy romance, romantic steampunk, or romantic suspense. Prizes range from a $200 advance and e-pub contract to an editor's critique.

Tyche Books in Canada is an e-publisher looking for our kind of fiction: "Tyche Books is a Canadian small-press specializing in science-fiction and fantasy anthologies, novels, and non-fiction, all available as ebooks and trade paperbacks. We crave innovative stories that push the boundaries of our imaginations. We want to discover new voices and propel established authors further along their journey."

OWW is seeking a new Resident Editor for short stories. If there is an author or editor out there that you'd love to see as part of the workshop team, let us know about him or her: support@sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com.

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 Jeanne Cavelos, Elizabeth Bear, Karin Lowachee, and February guest editor Charles Coleman Finlay. 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

IKARA'S ATELIER, Chapter 1, by R.A. Watanabe

The first thing that strikes me about the first chapter of R.A. Watanabe's IKARA'S ATELIER is the level of detail. This is a richly imagined city, full of texture and sound. It has the evidence of an economy--people going about business, creating and consuming. It's always pleasant to see bits of people's livelihoods in fantasy: too many secondary worlds exist in a historical and economic vacuum.

I particularly like the non-visual grounding detail, such as the sand gritting between boot and cobblestones. It puts us firmly in the physical reality of the protagonist, which is an effective means of developing a reader connection and investment with the narrative.

Unfortunately, there may be too much of that detail, bogging the narrative down as the sentences become mired in a rich swampland of adjectives and prepositional phrases--many of which become repetitive, giving similar information multiple times. I notice this in particular because it's a malady I also fall prey to as a writer--the over-specificity of description becomes a trap. For example, one early sentence reads, "Rain pelted the raggedy fabric of her cloak as she tugged the hood further over her head." Is anything really lost if this is recast to say, "Rain pelted the raggedy hood of her cloak as she tugged it up."?

A hood by definition goes over the head, a cloak is usually fabric. The story is more engaging if the sentences are slightly more direct. I'm not suggesting removing this layered worldbuilding--but merely applying it selectively, choosing the salient details rather than applying a more scattershot technique.

Another example of this unnecessary repetition is constructions like "swayed side to side" (that one appears more than once in the present text). The author uses vivid, muscular verbs throughout this piece--"swayed," in this case, suffices without the need for the prepositions.

Also, "a cacophony of angry bickering"--bickering is angry, and usually loud and unharmonious. Usually when one sees a writer reinforcing verbs this way, it's because the verb is weak. But in this case, the verb is strong enough to stand on its own, and the scaffolding of lesser words surrounding it merely serves to make the reader suspect that the writer is not confident, and the prose is being shored up just in case.

Likewise, repeated use of synonyms slows the narrative. For example, "an old and ancient thing," where the repetition does not serve sufficient rhetorical purpose.

One other place where the prose needs some attention is in the author's occasional tendency to fall back on second-order clichés--common turns of phrase so overused they have lost all meaning: "sugary smile," for example, or "awash with relief."

One thing I did like very much was Auri's familiarity with her city and her acquaintances. Not only did I get a sense of character from Maddy, and even from people we meet in passing, like the Aezian food-stall operator, but I got a sense that this is a place Auri lives and moves through comfortably. It felt like being out with somebody in her own neighborhood, and that was a very great pleasure.

Other than the issues with the prose, my most serious problem with this promising first chapter is the protagonist's lack of drive. The investment the reader should be feeling suffers because Auri--while in an uncomfortable situation--is not moving toward a goal, and because the author is withholding too much information, so we're not aware what her problem and her danger are. The stakes are being occluded, in other words--while we're given hints that Auri has some special connection to the thunder, and that she's in hiding from someone, the author is intentionally withholding from readers the information necessary for us to care about that.

For the rest of this review, visit the Editor's Choice area of the OWW site!

--Elizabeth Bear

Editors' Choices, Science Fiction

ROSE IN WINTER, Chapter 5 by Phillip Spencer

In this post-apocalyptic London, the population has divided into communes, which are essentially safe havens, and animalistic gangs that seek to prey upon what is left of civlization. In the midst of this is a strange woman and her pack of dogs, and some of the survivors of Clapham commune find themselves at risk when their foray party gets attacked by one of the gangs. Chapter 5 deals with the fallout of that attack.

The chapter summaries in the beginning are all well-written and show a clear plot and differentiated characters and their storylines. This is also displayed throughout the chapter, even jumping into it in the middle of the book. With the foray party separated, Jack (the adult) and Jimbo (the youth) have to try to track their friends. The voices of the characters come through clearly, reflected in their behavior. Jack is capable, strong, but kind when it comes to Jimbo's fears and inexperience. We believe that they are in threat but also that they have a chance to come out of it -- not by the author's intervention but the organic development of the story. The prose is equally capable and smooth to read and the pacing is spot on.

Nothing would be lost if some time was taken to heighten the suspense, particularly in this chapter with the creep factor of the maurauding gang and the silent wintry landscape of a dead city. This setting and environment is ripe to take advantage of. Through Jack's observant point-of-view, look to see how the eeriness or the possibility of imminent attack could be exploited through the language and descriptions. Give the reader more flavor of the city in this perpetual winter; pay attention to textures, scents, and sounds to enhance the experience.

He made his way over the uneven ground, past smashed store-fronts. Fresh snow crunched under Jack's feet. It had drifted to this side of the street, blurring the boundary between inside and out. Checking each store opening as he went, Jack felt that it had taken an age to get close to the pile in the middle of the street. It drew his eyes but he dared not focus on it until he felt sure the gang had left the area.

This is clean, competent storytelling, but more could be made of it. Apocalyptic stories are all about survival, so we should feel like the characters' survival is at stake and threatened at nearly every turn.

The dialogue falls into an odd sort of formality in parts, for example:

"If we leave it too long. However, we need to keep his hands still and protected as well as his face while we are on the move. I can check him each rest break to make sure it's OK."

Aim for more consistency in the way these people might speak in their situations (desperate) and their ages (younger and less likely to leave out contractions.) Especially as the setting is London, don't be afraid to use slang and idioms that make sense to people who live there. And on that same note, using landmarks and familiar London details will set this city apart from Any City in a post-apoc world.

The chapter ends on a strong, suspenseful note -- the threat level ratchets up with Jack's near-fatal injury. This is perfect to guide the reader to want to turn the page. The novel has an interesting setup, location, and cast of characters that can very well carry through to a climactic end.

--Karin Lowachee

Editors' Choices, Short Story

"Hijacked" by Elizabeth Shack

"Hijacked" packs a lot of story into approximately 6,000 words. In 25 pages, we are given living bioships in outer space, interesting biological functions (the "Molt and Mate" sequence), family problems, a hijacking, a hull breach, the death of the sun, a government conspiracy, an anti-conspiracy conspiracy, and a resolution that -- as good resolutions should -- (almost) brings all these plot points together!

Although it sounds complex, the structure for this kind of story is straightforward. I first heard it described this way by Lois McMaster Bujold: you put your characters up in a tree where they don't have a lot of options, you throw things at them to try to knock them down, and you make sure there's an angry hungry bear sitting underneath them. Sooner or later your characters come down or fall out of the tree and defeat or escape the bear. That's what Elizabeth does here: she puts her characters Kent and Desiree in an interesting and problematic situation, and she piles complication after complication on them until they find a solution.

Finding and fixing the bumps in this story -- places where the complications aren't truly that complicated, or where they raise questions more than raising the stakes -- will go a long way toward making it better.

This story begins with a strong opening hook, a classic SFnal eyeball kick: "The prawn glided through the asteroid belt, two pairs of plated antennae flicking to and fro in its watch for danger and ore samples." Opening sentences often try to do too much by introducing characters, setting, and conflict in one long coalescence of clauses and phrases. This sentence is far more effective for its simplicty and focus. What is a prawnship? How does it work? What kind of danger? The next two paragraphs expand and flesh out this concept.

And here is the first place the story goes astray, and it's a bad place to do it. Having deftly created the visual of the ship, the story begins to downplay the interest of the ship's coming "molt and mate" or MM. It's a "routine operation," the captain decides it's not worth it to give the crew "the details," and we're informed that the process is "not dangerous." That's when the conversation diverts to a discussion about what is, for all practical purposes, a YouTube video of a squirrel flying a toy ship.

It would appear that this scene is trying to develop character depth through conversation and accomplish deeper world-building by showing more bio-technical interfaces. But consider how much more effectively these same goals can be achieved by having Kent and Desiree discuss common problems that can happen during a "molt and mate" and by having them going through a checklist of procedures to prepare the ship for MM. Maybe some of the potential problems are worse when the male ship is inexperienced. And if they have all this nifty biotech, why can't they use some kind of artificial insemination?

This would also be a good time to geek out a little more on the cool parts of the idea and ground the reader better. Describe what it looks like to them inside the prawn. Explain why the mating has to happen during the molt (I assume it's because it's the only time the airtight shell can be penetrated for impregnation). When a bioship is "on automatic" what exactly does that mean? As a reader, I don't have to know what the prawnship eats and how exactly it converts energy to speed and how fast it can go, but I do have to believe that the writer knows the answers to those questions even if they don't come into play in the story. Let the ship become the fully realized character it wants to be.

When you have a big idea like this, thinking through some of those second-level world-building questions can give you more interesting raw materials to work with. And the story could use some of this in one or two places. For example, the escape scene through the asteroid belt is straight out of "Star Wars" and while that flies in the movies, it'll miss with your science-fiction audience who knows that even the closest asteroids in the asteroid belt are thousands of kilometers apart. A different escape, something creative that relies on extending the capabilities of the prawnship, would be more memorable and engaging. Right now, they disconnect from Rex's dead ship and leave it behind. What if there is some plot use for it, something unexpected that happens when the ships cease thrashing in agony and finally die?

I would ask the same of Dr. Aster's conspiracy. Why would the scientists risk stealing the ships when they could simply spread the news about the solar flares and mobilize captains who would volunteer? Kent and Desiree are ready to go pretty much the moment that they hear and believe the news. In fact, that happens almost too easily given the deaths, the injuries to their ship, and the struggle that have just taken place. More complex motivations here would create more convincing decisions. If they're going to hijack the ship, they need to be a lot more desperate and probably more pressed for time.

For the rest of this review, visit the Editor's Choice area of the OWW site!

--C.C. Finlay, novelist and short story writer, www.ccfinlay.com

Editors' Choices, Horror

"The Hound of Henry Hortinger" by Michelle Goldsmith

A key to writing any story is capturing the voice of that time and place. This task is perhaps most difficult when a story is set in a past time with which readers are fairly familiar. In that case, readers can spot any failures of the voice to accurately reflect that setting. This story does a very good job of capturing the period voice, of putting us in Charles Dickens's London. Beyond the word choice and the style, the story further evokes the period through its plot structure, which covers most of its protagonist's life, and through its patient, deliberate pacing.

In the story, Henry, a ruthless businessman, finds himself haunted by a spectral hound. After Henry's daughter dies, he waits for the hound's appearance and prepares to kill himself. This is a basic comeuppance plot, in which a contemptible character meets the fate he deserves. Henry is a compelling, well-drawn character. He is, indeed, someone who deserves his comeuppance. The hound provides good mystery and suspense, making me want to keep reading to find out what has brought him and what he will demand of Henry.

I do think the story could be improved in a number of ways. Several of the weaknesses relate to this comeuppance structure. The success of most comeuppance stories depends on a few key elements being strongly established. For an ending in which the main character gets what he deserves to work well, the author must first establish the most horrible act of the main character, so we understand what punishment would be fitting. For example, in "Sandkings" by George R. R. Martin, Simon Kress horribly abuses his pets, the sandkings, by forcing them to fight for his entertainment. The story ends with the sandkings using the very traits they learned from their abuse to kill Simon. It's a lovely comeuppance. Similarly, in "Croatoan" by Harlan Ellison, Gabe has helped his many girlfriends to receive illegal abortions, in which the fetuses are flushed down the toilet. At the end, he is forced to confront these living fetuses in the sewer and to become their father. Again, it's the perfect comeuppance.

In this type of story, the reader really wants to feel the satisfaction of the character receiving exactly what he deserved--not just any bad fate, but the right bad fate. In the case of Henry, there is not one person or one specific group of people that he most wrongs. He allows puppies to be killed; he allows employees to work in unsafe conditions; he neglects his children. One of these things doesn't particularly stand out from the others, since none is described in detail. They all happen pretty quickly. So I strongly get the sense that Henry is not a nice man, but there isn't one particular sin and one particular punishment that stand out. Henry clearly thinks that the death of his daughter is much worse than anything else that has happened, because he seems to prepare for suicide after receiving that news. Yet the reader never even meets the daughter, so we can't really care about her or be upset about her death. It's also unclear that Henry could have done anything to prevent her death. The fact that this brings about Henry's downfall seems random, as if the author is now ready to end the story, rather than inevitable. Similarly, the fact that a hound is haunting him seems random rather than inevitable and right. He wronged the puppies, but he's wronged many over the course of his life.

So the plot would be stronger if reconfigured to focus on a particular wrong or type of wrong he does, which would set up the particular punishment that he should face. Right now, the energy and focus of the story is spread over several wrongs, as discussed above, and several characters and incidents that don't seem the strongest possibilities. I'm not sure why William, the junior partner, is in the story; he seems unimportant to the comeuppance. And the hunting trip seems to exist only to get Henry out of town while his daughter dies. I think you could replace that with some stronger action. For example, perhaps the story starts Henry thinking the puppies should be killed because they are no use to him, just as you now have it (except I would make this only one puppy, to make that loss more specific). Then the story could show Henry being handed his sickly newborn daughter, and thinking she will be no use to him, but unfortunately he's stuck with her. Perhaps she's blind; a disability like that could allow her to wander into business meetings, knock things over, and otherwise cause trouble, rather than just lying sick in bed, which would be less interesting. Then the story could show a building situation with the daughter needing or asking for things, and Henry dismissing her as he focuses on building his business and teaching his son. The story needs to show Henry being mean to her in specific ways. The puppy haunting him could then serve as a symbol of the daughter, since he considered both of no use to him. Finally, he decides to send her away, to a horrible place, and as they are taking her out, Henry sees the dog and has a stroke. His son then sends him away, since he's of no use. This "being of no use" coming back to bite him would provide more of a sense of fitting justice.

A few other areas that could be strengthened are missing commas, telling important things that should be shown (such as Henry's fear of the dog), and use of "elegant variation" (referring to the same character as "the servant," "his manservant," "the man," and "Charles," which makes it hard to follow the import of the sentence).

I hope this is helpful. I really like your main character, and the setting and voice are developed well. If you can make the plot more unified and focused, this comeuppance story will lead us to a very satisfying ending.

--Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey


Sorry, no interview this month!

Publication Announcements

Oliver Buckram writes: "My 314-word story workshopped here, 'A slice of 3.141592653589793238462643' is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction. I am grateful for feedback from workshop members Nicole Cushing , Tony Peak, Elizabeth Cole, and especially B. Morris Allen (who read multiple versions including a disastrous first draft)."

Matthew Herreshoff's story "Peace" was recently published in The Pedestal Magazine.

Hayley Lavik's story "Fools Fire" appeared in Flash Fiction Online.

A. Merc Rustad's story "With the Sun and the Moon in His Eyes" appears in an anthology called RIDE THE MOON from Canada's Tyche Books.

Reviewer Honor Roll

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.

January 2011 Honor Roll Nominees

Reviewer: K. E. Cooper
Submission: The Hunter by Lisa Damiani
Submitted by: Lisa Damiani

Reviewer: R. S. Craigson
Submission: Translations--REVISED by Elizabeth Coleman
Submitted by: Elizabeth Coleman

Reviewer: Jon Paradise
Submission: Ice palace by Oliver Buckram
Submitted by: Oliver Buckram

Reviewer: Daniel Connaughton
Submission: "The End Through Dirty Windows" by Marc Knight
Submitted by: Marc Knight

Reviewer: Sally Slater
Submission: "Memories of Night" by Catrina Popelier
Submitted by: Catrina Popelier

Reviewer: Daniel McMinn
Submission: "Cohesion Lost" by Justin Tyme
Submitted by: Justin Tyme

Reviewer: Arun Jiwa
Submission: "Where the Fire Is Not Quenched" by Jesse Bangs
Submitted by: Jesse Bangs

Reviewer: Meagan Blanchard
Submission: The Otherworld War by David Marshall
Submitted by: David Marshall

Reviewer: James Thomson
Submission: The Baker of Benviue--ch. 2 by Kim Allison
Submitted by: Kim Allison

On Shelves Now

WIDE OPEN by Deborah Coates (TOR, March 2012)

coverHallie Michaels has had a near-death experience in Afghanistan and since then she's been able to see ghosts. She's still adjusting to this new reality when she's called home to South Dakota to her sister, Dell's, funeral. Her friends and the sheriff tell her that Dell committed suicide, but Hallie can't believe that. It doesn't make any sense. Trailed by her sister's ghost, she starts asking questions-of her sister's friends, of the people Dell worked with, of a young deputy sheriff who keeps turning up where he's most not wanted.

Hallie soon discovers there's a lot more going on than just her sister's death. Things someone will do anything to protect. Hallie's threatened. Her father's barn is burned. Another young woman disappears. New ghosts follow her. Now, she's going to need all the help she can muster in order to stop a villain with ancient powerful magic at his fingertips.


INCARNATE by Jodi Meadows (Katherine Tegen Books, January 2012)

Ana is new. For thousands of years in Range, a million souls have been reincarnated over and over, keeping their memories and experiences from previous lifetimes. When Ana was born, another soul vanished, and no one knows why.

Even Ana's own mother thinks she's a nosoul, an omen of worse things to come, and has kept her away from society. To escape her seclusion and learn whether she'll be reincarnated, Ana travels to the city of Heart, but its citizens are suspicious and afraid of what her presence means. When dragons and sylph attack the city, is Ana to blame?

Sam believes Ana's new soul is good and worthwhile. When he stands up for her, their relationship blooms. But can he love someone who may live only once, and will Ana's enemies--human and creature alike--let them be together? Ana needs to uncover the mistake that gave her someone else's life, but will her quest threaten the peace of Heart and destroy the promise of reincarnation for all?

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In the Horror Editor's Choice above, editor Jeanne Cavelos refers to the weakness of "elegant variation": using too many synonyms for the same thing, in an effort to avoid repetition, and instead causing confusion in the reader. When this term was coined, "elegant" had a negative connotation that it no longer has. Watch for this in your own writing, so your creative works will not demonstrate this weakness seen in many submissions. :) How does this relate to a "popular orange vegetable"?  Find out more on the Wikipedia!

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
support (at) sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com