Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror
It's back! The OWW Crit Marathon offers you a fun, month-long chance to hone your critiquing skills. The Crit Marathon is more than just a contest. It's a great way to meet new authors and potential long-term critique partners. It's a win-win situation, so take advantage of it! It's also one of OWW's most successful member-organized events thanks to the efforts of many devoted workshoppers over the years. Interested? Check out the Grapevine below for more information.
And now for a want ad: OWW is looking for a freelance programmer with lots of Perl experience to help improve the workshop's software. (Yes, Perl! vintage indeed.) If you have the experience, and tracking down workshop bugs on various platforms and fixing them sounds like great fun to you as well as a way to earn some money, send a resume and letter to email@example.com by May 21.
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
I used to see infinity in grain of sand, but now all I see is quartz. A character had a capacity for some experience that he or she has lost and wants to regain. How far will he or she go? How will it affect this character and others?
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. Put "Challenge" in the title so people can find it.
Challenges can be suggested by anyone and suggestions should be sent to Maria (news (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com). This month's writing challenge was submitted by Elizabeth Porco.
The OWW Crit Marathon is back, starting May 5. During the marathon, which lasts three weeks, members undertake to contribute at least one review per day. If you complete 21 reviews by the end of the marathon (whether one per day or not), you have "finished." Prizes are awarded to the members who contribute the most. Crit Marathons get members to know each other better and also give needed attention to the workshop's under-reviewed submissions. All finishers as well as prize-winners are announced in the June OWW newsletter.
This year, Tracey Tolbert will be the Mistress of Ceremonies, so sign up with her right away: firstname.lastname@example.org
Prizes include a two-year membership as First Prize; one-year membership for second prize; and six-month membership for third prize. There will also be at least one other special prize. The marathon will run from May 5th at 12:01 a.m. EST to May 25th at 11:59 p.m. EST.
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, Leah Bobet, Elizabeth Bear, and C.C. 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!
PRISONER OF WAR, Chapters 1-5 (Part I & Part II) by Aimee Kuzensky
This modern-day fantasy novel is a nice take on an urban fantasy world that we don't see every single day. It is competently written and shows a strong sense of character, but so far the story is fragmentary and lacking in narrative drive. I'm going to use this submission to dig into the issues of reader motivation and the mechanics of scenes.
The most immediate problem with the novel is where it starts. We have very little time, as writers, to convince readers that they want to spend their money and their time on us: no more than half a page, and often as little as a paragraph or two. PRISONER OF WAR starts off with a very static opening: an unlikable first-person narrator walks into an office, is confronted twice, and murders someone.
The problems here are manifold. I'm pretty sure our narrator at this point is meant to be the antagonist, given how brittle and unpleasant he is--but readers are like ducklings: they will try to imprint on the first moving object they see. Mr. Sekhmet--the personification of War--is very offputting, and this scene does little to engage the reader in the narrative. Ideally, as writers, we want to be providing readers with a combination of questions and cookies--rewards--from the very first sentence, in order to get them to build up some momentum and dig into the story.
Right now, this scene doesn't provide a lot in the way of either. We don't know why Mr. Sekhmet is visiting the man he kills other than that it's a standing appointment. The victim's attempt to confront him is not exactly brilliantly planned and executed: it's not at all clear what his objective is. Plainly, he thinks Mr. Sekhmet is a vampire--but what does he hope to obtain by confronting him? What is his objective? Secondary characters need goals and motivations, too--motivations beyond "provoke a crisis in order to engage the plot."
So we don't know what Sekhmet wants, and our first encounter with him is a confrontation with a random stranger and the random stranger's dog. This doesn't do much narratively for the page space it consumes other than demonstrating that Mr. Sekhmet is supernatural and thinks highly of himself. We're obviously meant to assume, as the older Mr. Dorsey does, that Mr. Sekhmet is a vampire, and some tension is supposed to come from the reveal that he's a different supernatural creature entirely. But it's not working: this winds up being wasted space.
It's a clichéd scene, which does not justify its inclusion in the narrative--and in fact serves mostly to give away the answers to a lot of questions that could work to help pull the reader through the story, if they were withheld.
The second immediate problem is related. None of these scenes are doing enough work. We have several fragmentary, very short "Chapters" that are actually scenes, but which mostly serve to introduce characters without doing a lot of other narrative work. A good scene--heck, even a good paragraph--does several jobs at once, and one of the most important of those jobs is building or resolving tension. (Sometimes both!)
While these scenes are identified as chapters, they're really not. They're brief--often just a page or two--and often repeat things previously demonstrated. We see Mr. Sekhmet's escape from the scene of his murder, for example, from both his perspective and Ian's. Repetition encourages skimming, which in turn encourages the reader to disengage.
Also, by far our longest POV's are Sekhmet's, and he's a very alienating character. Readers are not given time to engage with any of the apparent protagonists and start to care about them, because we get a very brief look at where they are and what they are doing and then we're off to a different location and character entirely.
Readers form bonds with characters they spend time with, and also with characters who want something and move toward it. That thing could be as simple as getting their jobs done, or it could be a much more complicated tangle of perhaps contradictory desires and drives.
In any case, right now, this story is suffering from being scattered and from a lack of arc and multitasking--as well as a lack of strong character motivation. The more we understand why characters do things--or at least can come up with a valid reasoning behind their behavior--the more we care about them. The more we care about them, the more we engage with their narrative.
It would also help to make readers ask a few questions, to get them personally invested in the story at hand. If we were seeing this story from the point of view of the cops arriving at the scene, for example, we'd have a lot of built-in questions. Answers to those questions can serve as rewards to keep readers moving forward, but they must be carefully meted out--knowing too much about the story removes the reader's motivating curiosity.
That said, I think this piece has promise. The police, better developed, could be very intriguing characters. They already have a fun relationship, even briefly glimpsed. And the younger Mr. Dorsey certainly has a powerful motivator, which can serve as a good driving engine for the narrative.
Author of THE SEA THY MISTRESS
THE APOTHECARY'S CURE, Chapter 1 by Barbara Barnett
It is always a pleasure to open a submission and discover such strong, confident writing, imbued with humanity and passion, alive with evocative detail, as I found here in the first three chapters of THE APOTHECARY'S CURE.
The setting is Britain before WWII. Dr. Simon Bell's wife has cancer, and it is beyond his expertise to cure, beyond the expertise of the best physicians he knows. The story tells us that he loves his wife--"They'd had a special marriage--a partnership, really, of equals; something rare and beautiful"--but it does a better job of showing it: "He had paced for hours in stocking feet so not to disturb her slumber, trying to think, to concentrate until lack of sleep and sustenance made him nearly keel over." The novel starts at the perfect moment, when he has exhausted all his hope in science and reached a point of despair where he decides to seek the help of an apothecary.
I was hooked from the beginning, although I'm not sure about the stylistic choices of the opening scene: one paragraph of epigraph; one paragraph of tight third-person POV; one paragraph of something like a journal entry, clinical and slightly detached; and one paragraph of emotional, poetic, first-person POV. But I'm willing to go with them. The epigraph is essential and works well, but it seems like everything accomplished by the last two paragraphs could also be achieved in the tight third person used so effectively in the rest of the chapters. When you break style, it should be to accomplish something extra that can't be accomplished any other way. If the author decides to keep this opening, it would be smart to look for opportunities later in the book to use these techniques of detached journal entry and intense internal voice again.
The scene with the apothecary works well, conveying the emotions of both men. I did see a missed opportunity that could strengthen both plot and character development. Simon goes to Henshall for help, but he's not bringing enough to the table. Simon comes from a long line of physicians, and has access to antique and ancient medical texts. If he brings part of a formula to Henshall, it does two things for the story. First, it gives Henshall a greater motivation for helping. Perhaps Simon promises to give him the tome when they're finished. More importantly, it would make Simon more responsible for the effect of the medicine on his wife. He didn't just give it to her, he helped create it. That would increase the weight of what he has to live with afterward in interesting ways.
The meeting with James, immediately following the scene with Henshall, gives Simon one last chance to come back to the "real world." This is important, narratively, but the conversation feels circular, coming back to the same points without increasing tension. Simon begins the scene, desperate but still uncertain: "I can't simply wait and do nothing, James. I can't just wait her and watch her die." At the end of the scene, when James leaves, he is still mulling the same options: "He climbed the stairs, considering Henshall's compound and his cousin James as he reviewed any and all remaining options at his disposal."
There are a couple ways the author could fix this if she agrees that it is a problem. One is by tightening the text, making the conversation with James shorter and more direct. Alternately, the way it cycles back to the same points has a lot of verisimilitude. If, every time it cycles back, it ratchets up a notch, pushing Simon past his lingering doubts and toward a firmer decision, despite James's threats, then it could serve a good narrative purpose. If we could see him reassure James that he is giving up on his notion of the apothecary, but internally realize that he is making other plans, then the scene would have more tension and would move the plot forward at the same time. The scene seems to be doing this, for example with the exchange about Simon eating the sandwich, but doesn't quite get there. I think it could be stronger.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editors' Choice area of the OWW site!
"Insubordination" by Kyle Loechner
One of the things that caught my eye about "Insubordination" is that it does The Gender ThingTM right--and by The Gender Thing, I mean that endless conversation about how to write men or women thoughtfully, without stereotypes and shallow characterization. It's a story that's much more than the sum of its parts, and there are a few tools deployed here to make this simple thing work on multiple levels. This month I'm hoping to look at them, and discuss why and how they work.
As we've covered in the last couple months, a great deal of the work that your first paragraphs do is in telling your readers, in several ways, what to expect from your story--and nothing does that like a deliberate contradiction. The author's notes on the piece point out that he wanted to write a "hyper-masculine" voice, and this is one: It's blunt and level and sounds like your gruff, burly uncle. There are a few strategies "Insubordination" uses to get that effect: using sharp Anglo-Saxon word choices (gut, not stomach or belly; shove, not thrust or push) and the rhythms of the sentences themselves, a half-lectures, half-pub night style of storytelling that communicates both a traditional male space and an older character who's used to authority. The protagonist of "Insubordiation" is only lightly described physically, and nameless. He's created by the sound of his words alone, and created effectively.
But there's another aspect to the way "Insubordination" characterizes--the aspect that portrays gender so well. While the voice and sentence-level work set up a hyper-masculine, grizzled, blunt, sword-and-sorcery character, the content of those opening paragraphs quite deliberately deconstructs what the stereotype of The Veteran Swordsman looks like. The first thing our protagonist says is: "When time comes to shove three feet of steel in a man's gut, every soldier freezes his first time...some men never overcome it." The (almost!) second thing he says is, upon finding out his son has enlisted right before this army's bloodiest engagement: "He probably thought I'd be proud." His contempt is exactly in character if you're playing by the archetype. It's what his contempt's aimed at that makes "Insubordination" interesting.
Readers, unfortunately at times, come to fiction with a set of expectations built in: The hero gets the girl; farm boys will kill bad gods; old people, or brown people, men, women, people in wheelchairs can only act certain ways in stories. Working in a genre--which is just a set of those expectations--can mean working with those ideas to engage a reader in your world, but a trickier and potentially more rewarding path is to acknowledge and then work beyond them. Whether you're undermining or building beyond those genre expectations, it tells readers: Look at me. I am doing something new and different, and I have thought this world through. That's one of the most powerful hooks a writer can deploy, both in telling stories that capture readers' imaginations and building authorial trust.
Doing the different thing is where "Insubordination" just soars: In writing hypermasculine characters who solve their traditionally masculine problems in believably masculine ways but not writing stereotypes or archetypes. "Insubordination" is functionally a story about an emotional moment in a father-and-son relationship, one solved by listening better, being smarter, and accepting people as they are. It utterly puts the lie to the idea that stories about loving your children are somehow women's stories. This should not be a thing to praise so highly in the short fiction market, but that's because "Insubordination" isn't about stereotype sock puppets of men. It's about men who are human, and its care in drawing a complex, three-dimensional character makes this short piece feel like a deep and complete story.
The contradiction of the first paragraphs evokes that immediately, because it's using one layer of craft to say one thing (sentence work), and another layer (content) to say another. When the author sends readers one "package" with two competing messages inside, both about who this person is, the character comes off as someone inherently complicated, human, and multifaceted. It's a more effective tool than presenting one aspect and then following it with another, because it feels less to readers like the author going back on a fact. It's just who this person is.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editors' Choice area of the OWW site!
Author of ABOVE
"My Ex" by Connie Gulick
This story of a battered woman haunted by her ex-husband takes good advantage of the opportunities the horror genre provides. In horror, one can present truths about our world in an extreme way, using fantastic elements to create more drama and impact, and to distance us from reality, so we can explore our fears in a safe environment. "My Ex" presents the truth that, once battered, a person may be forever afraid and unable to trust, and may see a potential batterer in everyone. The first-person narrator leaves her battering husband, but wherever she goes, she is approached by men who carry the same "soul magma" she saw in her husband's eyes. She breaks off relationships, moves, and changes her identity, but still she is confronted by them. She finally kills one and is arrested by a policeman with that same soul magma.
This is a strong base on which to build a horror story, but I think the current plot is not pushing the idea far enough. For people who read a lot of horror, the plot is fairly familiar and predictable. This is a common problem when a writer moves into a genre where she hasn't read or written a lot. This story shows good instincts, and I really like the physical descriptions of characters. But when one moves into a new genre, one needs to read in that genre for a while to get a sense of what's been done already. To take this a step farther, I think more needs to be at stake in the story, and her craziness (or the husband's supernatural powers over people around her) needs to go through more stages and become more severe. Perhaps she has a child that she has escaped the abusive situation with. Or perhaps she moves in with an elderly father after drifting for a while, because she runs out of money. Now the potential boyfriends aren't limited to threatening her. They can threaten her loved one. And in her deterioration, she can see her loved one as a threat and become a danger to that person. This creates more intense conflict, because she can't just pick up and flee, and there is more at stake than just her life. Perhaps she goes from seeing the soul magma, to feeling verbally threatened, to feeling physically threatened, to believing her loved one has been injured, to fighting back and incapacitating the boyfriend, to believing the loved one is now threatening her, to . . . killing the loved one? Fleeing the loved one and leaving him alone to die? Hiding from the loved one while he dies due to neglect? There are many possibilities.
Another way to push the idea farther would be to expand upon the fantastic element. Perhaps she wakes up with bruises on her body, not knowing where they came from. Perhaps these escalate to broken bones. Perhaps a boyfriend merely needs to mention a previous attack her husband made and those injuries recur.
You could also take elements already in the story and develop those more:
*Her friend Mary appears in the opening scene and then disappears. I'm not sure why she's in the story. In a short story, every element needs to be important. So she could either be cut or brought back later in the story. Perhaps she seeks the narrator out and the narrator, believing she is her ex-husband, kills her.
*The first boyfriend in the story seems threatening, but the narrator urges him to leave and he does. She escapes this problem too easily. If the boyfriend is, indeed, possessed by the ex-husband, then he won't leave so easily. If he wants to toy with her, as she guesses, then instead of leaving, perhaps he would stop acting threatening and switch back to his old behavior, making her doubt herself by pretending he cares. This could make the situation more frightening. You do a good job of making me like this first boyfriend, so it would be nice to keep him in the story longer and then have something horrible happen to him. On the other hand, I don't feel much for the cowboy she kills at the end, so that death doesn't have as much impact as it should.
I hope this is helpful. I think it's important for authors to push themselves out of their comfort zones and write different types of stories. I hope you'll write more horror.
--Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey
Building Your World
by Teresa Frohock
Teresa Frohock is the author of Miserere: An Autumn Tale. She lives in North Carolina where she has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying. You can find her at www.teresafrohock.com and at BookSworn, www.booksworn.com
World building is not something that comes easily to me, so I'm always on the lookout for new tricks that will help bring more depth to my worlds and my stories. Most of you know the basics: maps are invaluable, even sloppy hand-drawn maps like the ones that I make; character biographies; sketches of creatures/vampires/monsters; a brief history; timelines...the list goes on.
All of these things are necessary, especially if an editor requests a series sheet with names, timelines, and major events. However, the process of creating this world-bible often makes for dreary writing.
I've learned two nifty tricks, one from Mark Lawrence and the other from Elspeth Cooper, that make world building much more fun. I thought I would share.
Mark suggested taking an object from the story's world and writing a short description of it. The item can be anything, but the exercise is really beneficial if the chosen object is something meaningful to the characters and their environment or culture--the remnants of a battle-flag, correspondence, a fragment of a historical text, a news article or proclamation about an individual who is famous in your world, a law or code.
Elspeth Cooper created another version of this exercise. She wrote a very brief travel memoir of a city in her novel. Imagine seeing the city or countryside of your world through a stranger's eyes. What details would they pick out as significant? What would amaze them? Confound them? What would be familiar?
Minor details enrich a story and bring a world to life. By turning world-building into stories and records, work is disguised as fun.
Compile these exercises into a folder for interesting articles to share with readers. Gather enough of these short stories and compositions together, and the collection becomes a work unto itself. As a fixed point of reference, the resource is helpful to both the author and the reader. The author can use the notes to devise a fluent series sheet for any editor, and the reader gets a clear view into the author's writing process.
Author notes and world building don't have to be a ponderous job, and it's much easier to build as you go. Try to make the process as entertaining as possible, not just for yourself, but for your readers as well.
Good luck and write on...
Leah Bobet, OWW alum and Resident Editor, let slip the news that her second young-adult novel, ON ROADSTEAD FARM, will be published by Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Congrats, Leah!
Sarah Byrne announced: "'Over The Sea' will appear in the May issue of Sorcerous Signals/Mystic Signals."
Gio Clairval tells us: "I received an Honorable Mention in Datlow's BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR; reprinted as "Bird-Headed Lover": Innsmouth Free Press. Also, "Sparkler" will appear in the May issue of Galaxy's Edge Magazine."
Mary Garber says: "'The Right Place' is currently appearing in Aurora Wolf."
Elizabeth Hull writes, "I have just heard that SHADOW OVER AVALON will be published by Kristell Ink in November. Here is a list of past and current members of OWW who were kind enough to critique this book on site. Most people on this list will recognise the book by its old title, PROJECT ARTHUR. It then became ENCHANTED EYES before I settled on SHADOW OVER AVALON. Thanks. Rhonda S. Garcia, Susan Elizabeth Curnow, Ilona Gordon, Gavin Turnbull, Sharon Partington, Bret Davenport, May Iversen, dena landon, David N. Bowden, Jennifer Henderson, Andreas Fonseca, Xina Uhl, Raymond Lui, Diana Hawkins, Margo Berendsen, David Williams, Victoria Kerrigan, Jim Giacomo, Russ Cunningham, Sheny bessette, Glenn Harsha, Laura Comerford, John Lowe, Teri Wardell, Steve Komic, Anika Leithner, Jill Neslon, Miq Faurve, Allen Newton, Crash Froelich, Elissa Hunt, Lisa Smeaton, Phillip Spencer, Sandra Ulbrich Almazan, Christine Hall, Treize Aramistedian, and Linda Dicmanis."
Daryl Nash tells us: "My short story 'Spider Without a Web' was workshopped quite a while ago on the OWW and is now live at Abyss & Apex!
Martin Shoemaker writes: "'Murder on the Aldrin Express' will be included in the September issue of Analog."
Rebecca Schwarz says, "I've got another sale announcement. I just sold my short story 'Cattle Futures' to Stupefying Stories."
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.
Reviewer: Michael Bunning
Submission: Kidnapped by Lance Erlick
Submitted by: Lance Erlick
Reviewer: Chris Seldner
Submission: After the Sun by Ethan Rodgers
Submitted by: Ethan Rodgers
Reviewer: Joshua Michaels
Submission: Suzanna by Linda Robbins
Submitted by: Linda Robbins
Reviewer: Sue Wachtman
Submission: Magick 7.0 - Prologue and Chapter 1 by Wade Albert White
Submitted by: Wade Albert White
Reviewer: Laurence Pittenger
Submission: I am Gramelian (Part 2 of 2) by Wade Albert White
Submitted by: Wade Albert White
Reviewer: Zed Paul
Submission: The Nonbelievers (Revised) (C4C) by Ethan Rodgers
Submitted by: Ethan Rodgers
Reviewer: Daryl Nash
Submission: THE DAYTRIPPER_CHAPTERS 3 and 4 by Ian Eller
Submitted by: Ian Eller
Reviewer: Rhonda S. Garcia
Submission: C4C--To Hear Even Your Cry--Chapters 7-9 by Allan Dyen-Shapiro
Submitted by: Allan Dyen-Shapiro
Reviewer: Karen Lee-Thorp
Submission: Conundrum - Ch1 by BR Hollis
Submitted by: Peter Yusuf
NECESSARY EVIL by Ian Tregillis (Tor Books, April 2013)
12 May 1940. Westminster, London, England: the early days of World War II.
Again.Raybould Marsh, one of "our" Britain's best spies, has travelled to another Earth in a desperate attempt to save at least one timeline from the Cthulhu-like monsters who have been observing our species from space and have already destroyed Marsh's timeline. In order to accomplish this, he must remove all traces of the supermen that were created by the Nazi war machine and caused the specters from outer space to notice our planet in the first place.
His biggest challenge is the mad seer Greta, one of the most powerful of the Nazi creations, who has sent a version of herself to this timeline to thwart Marsh. Why would she stand in his way? Because she has seen that in all the timelines she dies and she is determined to stop that from happening, even if it means destroying most of humanity in the process. And Marsh is the only man who can stop her.
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This month's featured article from our Tips and Advice section:
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.