Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror
July might be the season for holidays and getaways, but in June OWW members were really burning the midnight oil. We've got a long list of great announcements, including the great news that longtime member Jodi Meadows just signed a two-book deal with Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.
This month and next, we welcome horror author Gemma Files to pinch-hit as our Resident Editor for horror while Jeanne Cavelos directs the Odyssey summer workshop. A former film critic and teacher turned award-winning horror author, Gemma is probably best known for her Weird Western Hexslinger series (A Book of Tongues, A Rope of Thorns, and A Tree of Bones, all from ChiZine Publications). She is currently hard at work on a fourth novel. I think you'll enjoy and appreciate Gemma's contributions to our Editors' Choices.
Maria Zannini, newsletter editor
news (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com
Hibernation. A suspended animation process is discovered, like cryonics except people can readily be brought back. Does this give us the stars? Do people choose suspension if they don't like the world? Are criminals forced into it? What happens when you finally wake up?
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 challenge was submitted by Elizabeth Porco.
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 Gemma Files, 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!
THE SECRET STAINS OF WITCHES, Chapter 1 by Liz Acevedo
Ms. Acevedo's promising young adult fantasy chapter starts fast, presents an engaging and relatable character sympathetically, and immediately begins to escalate the stakes. These are rare traits to find exhibited in the work of a beginning author (Ms. Acevedo says in her introductory note that she is new to fiction) and they form a seriously strong foundation from which to build the rest of the necessary skills.
That said, this work is not ready for publication yet. The protagonist, while relatable, is a little unformed, and the narrative lacks grounding. It is still very much told--in a distanced fashion -- rather than dramatized and shown. By "grounding," I mean the sort of sensory texture that really puts readers into the scene -- scents, sounds, real and clearly observed details.
The first paragraph actually does this quite well, but then the story bogs down in too much exposition. Ideally, exposition should be delivered only after readers begin to wonder about something. And most everybody in Western society has been to high school and dealt with bullies; that's not something that needs to be explained in detail. The time would much more effectively be spent illuminating our protagonist Soledad's inner turmoil -- her desire to see Jessica get her comeuppance versus her personal with to remain unnoticed by the bully. This is where the interest in this scene lies, and it needs to be exploited.
Remember that readers will respond to conflict, and try not to miss opportunities to bring that conflict to the fore. It's here already -- it's just being overshadowed by the exposition.
Speaking of grounding and intensity of the narrative, I'm very pleased by some of the language and turns of phrase in the chapter. "A cold violence coated her body" is a beautiful and effective sentence: it stands out as an early indicator of this author's eventual mature voice. When every sentence is like that -- that visceral, that concise -- then this will be a novel to be reckoned with.
Another important point is that for Soledad to really pop, for this story to engage the reader, she must want something. This is the easiest and most effective way to make readers care about a story and a character. She has something to want -- Jessica's downfall -- but right now as written the story is going out of its way to minimize that desire. We're told that she's never thought of intervening before, and she doesn't seem to care much about Marisol. I think this is a mistake. Whether she cares about Marisol as a friend or as a casual acquaintance (each creates a different view of her character: in the first place, she's loyal; in the second, she's compassionate) readers care about characters who care about things or people. Additionally, if Soledad has been wishing for months to intervene but has not had the courage, this increases the conflict in the scene. When she finally steps forward, it could serve as a release of old tension -- a reward -- and the increase in new tension, thereby setting the hook deeper and drawing readers on.
The more I read -- and write -- the more convinced I become that the two most essential aspects of storytelling are voice and engagement. The writer must develop a strong and pleasing narrative voice, and the writer must develop the ability to make readers care about characters and story. They don't have to like the character -- that's a common error -- but they do have to give a damn.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editors' Choice area of the OWW site!
Author of THE SEA THY MISTRESS
HELIUM FLASH (RETURN FROM ETERNITY, Chapter 2) by Stelios Touchtidis
Helium Flash is the second chapter of a hard science fiction novel about space travel. So far, struggling colonists on the planet Woodside get their first message from Earth in thirty-eight years -- and find out why the supply ships stopped coming. The story promises big-idea adventure science fiction, with Earth destroyed and the fragile colony forced to stand on its own. The ship has sunk and the survivors in the lifeboat are under attack. This chapter is polished and the action flows smoothly from paragraph to paragraph.
The author's note provides context for reading this chapter. "The message is one of unparalleled destruction -- and contains a recorded video tale of what happened, one woman's (Margie Harris's) story, which is about to unfold."
The tight third person POV in this chapter puts us deep into Maggie's thoughts: "Under different circumstances Margie might have thought him commanding. Today, he could have looked like a llama for all she cared" or "she could smell her own fear." The internal commentary and non-audio/visual sensory details combined with the strong voice prevent this from feeling like a video.
I bring this up to make a point which may apply more to other stories: if you write a scene that is supposed to represent some kind of recorded media, then it works more effectively if we experience the way that someone in the story would experience the media. Video would be more distant, with emotions implied. Some kind of deep brain media would feel more stream-of-consciousness, with intense, perhaps confusing emotions. Many classic works of science fiction (DUNE, STAND ON ZANZIBAR) achieve powerful effects by conveying material in the form of other media -- history texts, children's rhymes, newscasts. Using those tools effectively, when appropriate, can add layers of narrative and theme to a novel. Of course, over-using or mis-using them can create distance from the emotional heart of the story, too.
That's intended just as a general comment on writing. This chapter does neither the distant video nor the deep brain media. If we assume that we are going to get more chapters from Maggie's POV or timeline later on in the book (which is implied to me by the last paragraph), then I think the author has made the correct decision to immerse us in her story instead of the video as seen by the Woodside colonists.
Which leads me to my one suggestion for improvement.
Although the story is deep in Maggie's POV, the author fails to take full advantage of it to let us feel the emotional impact of the destruction. The chapter presents us with significant detail about the helium flash and its expected effect on Earth -- over 1,100 words from the moment Maggie is alerted to the problem until they determine exactly what is happening. But the human impact is kept more abstract and at a distance:
"Oh my God, it's hitting Omaha!" Tom's cry had the pure anguish of a child's. The three of them huddled together in the control room, watching the sun-clock display of Earth on the big screen, trying to make out signals among the massive static. The merciless line of day was rolling over the middle of the US.
A few paragraphs later, we get a general description of what will happen to the people on Earth:
"Those who lived would earn the reward of burning alive, or if trapped deep inside, cook like a steak in the oven."
Specific details are better than general details. Omaha is a city, but it's not specific people. Why can't the doomed people on Earth send out radio or video images? Putting a face on the suffering or desperation would let us feel it. Imagine a character, trapped on Earth, begging for help or bravely saying goodbye. Either one of those has the potential to be more emotionally effecting than the description of "pure anguish." Don't tell the readers the emotion: give them an opportunity to feel it themselves.
Just as specific details are more effective than general details, the personal is more effective than the specific. While the author goes out of the way to make it clear that Maggie has no strong personal or family connections, that's not true for the secondary characters. In fact, when the moonbase is attacked at the end of the chapter Jim reacts strongly because he "had close friends on the US Tranquility base." Having a close friend or even a family member reach out with a message, authorized or not, to Jim or one of the other crew members under Maggie's command would allow the author to make the destruction of the Earth more concrete and emotional. We can understand billions dying in the abstract, but put a face on the death and let us see one person face it directly, and it becomes much more powerful.
The strength of third-person close POV is that it allows you to share those moments with the characters. This chapter, and the whole book, will be stronger if it finds a way to let us experience the death of Earth in an emotionally genuine way without slipping into melodrama. I hope that the writer can find a way to do that.
Good luck with revisions and submission.
"The Trials" by Senner D.
Certain kinds of fiction are trickier to write well than others, and stories heavy in sexual content are just about the most difficult. The author runs into a lot of reader and cultural idiosyncrasy in a sexually explicit piece: every single reader's ideas of what good sex is; what appropriate reading is; what's hot, what's not; and so on. "The Trials" is a very well-written story that's drowning in explicit sex -- and it's a very strong example of how sexual content can be both a strength and, in craft terms, a pitfall.
There's a lot of good craft going on in "The Trials": prose that is well-crafted but accessible, not calling attention to itself; characters drawn well, and drawn quickly; a structure that builds suspense steadily. It's, specifically, that distinct characterization and narrative voice that makes the heavy sexual content work as well as it does.
Mitisia/Kara's opinions and blunt, practical asides immediately tell readers how to frame the sex she has in the arena: "But I was set on getting out of this hell one way or the other, and if breathing easy or fucking hard was the ticket, I had to be game," she says. This immediately gives readers a strong hint: The central issue here isn't whether the sex scenes are hot or not. The central issue is the two people involved in them.
That framing makes the sex that follows a very nuanced, complicated act: something both parties are forced into, and still something they're both in a different way choosing -- so long as it means their freedom. It's a humiliation but also an empowerment. It's complicated. And that treatment of the Trials is what makes this story fascinating: We watch their attitudes toward each other, toward the Trials, toward the spectators and consent and manipulation and vulnerability, evolve and shift as the story goes on.
Mitisia and Vehement -- Kara and Erik -- are struggling to communicate, and struggling for their freedom throughout every scene. It fills their silent byplay with urgency: every tremble of the hand, narrowing of the eyes becomes an important key to collaboration or competition. All those orgasms, aside from being very nice orgasms, mean something to the furthering of the plot: I found myself fascinated by the delicate power games going on underneath all the licking and countdown clocks.
However, that byplay can also become a major drawback. To paraphrase fellow OWW Resident Editor Elizabeth Bear, if you put the vital plot information in the middle of the vinyl catsuits and zero-gee makeout sessions, prepare to have readers who keep paging back to figure out what just happened. The final quarter of "The Trials," where the action shifts from the arena to Vermilion, feels somewhat disconnected and deflated -- and there's a specific reason.
In a sense, the characterization's strength defeats "The Trials" on the thematic level: Erik and Kara are so much themselves, so very focused on the moment, that it's hard to feel that click when the end of the story turns out to be about gender prejudice, emotional role reversals, and what Kara does with the things that let her down. The problem is that the conclusion works entirely on the thematic level. Everything that would lead up to that point and make it a payoff of something "The Trials" built is drowning in those sex scenes. The final scene ends up feeling tacked on: an excuse for everything that came before it rather than a conclusion of those things.
There's a solution to this, I think, built right into the story's structure: Giving more weight and more content to Kara's weeks between each Trial. There's room in those scenes, which are largely contentless at the moment, to explore and build up the aspects of the story that are going to be the ones which inform the ending. If thematic work in those in-betweener scenes can inform the sex scenes as they go, and then the two combine to produce an emotionally and narratively satisfying ending, "The Trials" should overcome its main obstacle.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editors' Choice area of the OWW site!
Author of ABOVE
UNTITLED HORROR STORY by Roy Sigerson
The overall plot of this story is a variation on H.P. Lovecraft's classic mythos, involving as it does the accidental discovery of a race of underwater-dwelling humanoids living in a massive, alien city at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, which may also be inhabited by a "living galaxy" that acts as a wormhole between Earth's ocean and outer space. The section of the story that tells this tale is played out in real-time, blow by blow, as a document found after the fact -- a recording retrieved from the ship monitoring a nameless deep sea diver/treasure hunter (or "Scapher")'s descent into the Trench -- and though somewhat clumsily executed, this part definitely succeeds in creating both excitement and suspense, as well as putting its main character through a complete character development arc. Unfortunately, I can't quite say the same for the framing-device sections which bracket it.
Execution-related problems in general begin with the author's initial choice to use "God POV", i.e., third-person omniscient narrative structure, in which the reader can "hear" the thoughts of every character who gets introduced, switching back and forth between their perspectives seemingly at random:
Doctor Jonah Conner hated the ocean. Looking down from the helicopter, into the gray waves below, he believed he saw dark shapes beneath every swell...
"How's it going back there, doc?" asked the pilot. The pilot recognized the symptoms of a panic attack. He was surprised the doctor held it together this long.
The fact that we suddenly get to see things from the pilot's perspective in the second paragraph -- he even gets a truncated flashback a bit later on -- implies that he may be, or become, an important character, one whose actions drive the narrative forward in ways outside of simple exposition. However, this turns out not to be the case, as we might have been able to tell from the fact that he's never given a name beyond "the pilot."
Sidebar: once you've introduced a character by name, consistently referring to him or her by that name from then on makes things easier for the reader. To continue to refer to the character only by the identifying title is both confusing and emotionally distancing.
(I'll also point out that Dr Conner's name becomes Dr "Collins" in paragraph three, and slides back and forth a few times after that. The author also begins in the past tense, then moves to the present tense for the section dealing with the recording, and apparently forgets to change back afterwards. These are things that distract and distance readers!)
In terms of the constant redaction of the dead "Scapher"'s name, it implies the Navy doesn't know it, which seems unlikely. They've already identified her and her partner as the same people who stole their (experimental, highly classified) Deep Diving Vessel and Atmospheric Diving Suits, and given how difficult that must have been to pull off, they're probably fairly well-known professional thieves/pirates. Not to mention how they would have had to identify themselves during that first distress call to the Navy, or the Navy wouldn't even have acted upon it.
Dr Collins is an astrocartographer -- he claims it's a relatively new science, one he himself invented, but also that he's engaged in "assist[ing] in navigating the FBV drones that map the galaxy," which certainly sounds like a highly costly project the government might already be involved in, thus sparking potential jurisdictional problems when the Navy suddenly descends on his lab, packs up all his gear and kidnaps him, hustling him off to the middle of the ocean somewhere. But why does Admiral Davis need Dr Collins to be physically present while they play the entire recording through for him in the first place, especially since he seems to have already listened to it once, and analyzed enough of it to know that the thing it would be useful to get Dr Collins's confirmation on is just one particular detail?
Essentially, the only reason Dr Collins is involved is so that the author can set up a classic pulp plot twist which posits impending threat from some looming cosmic horror. Earlier, Dr Collins says he's been tracking a signal that seems to be moving closer to Earth, although we might well wonder a) why he began tracking it in the first place, and b) what this has to do with a recording found by the Navy. By the end, we have our answer -- sort of. I'm still not entirely sure that the two ends of the narrative hook together, however, at least in a conventional "this happened and then that happened, so this happened" sort of way.
In summation, I question the use of a framing device at all, but if the author is determined to have his stomach-punch ending, I suggest that said frame could easily be reduced to a couple of paragraphs on either end. The first set of paragraphs would summarize how Dr Collins came to listen to the recording, plus the recording's provenance; the second set would contain Dr Collins's analysis of the recording and his conclusions on the conection between the recording and that signal he's been tracking. These changes would thus showcase the part of the story that's both actually creepy and genuinely engaging, and also cut down the story as a whole, rendering it sleeker, faster and easier to market.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editors' Choice area of the OWW site!
Author of the Weird Western Hexslingerseries
by Jaime Lee Moyer
When I was a wee baby writer first starting out on OWW I heard a lot about "the rules" of writing. I was very serious about learning my craft, and about getting published, so I paid attention. And I did learn a lot about grammar, story structure, pacing, and the difference between an "idea" and a fully realized plot. But I also learned that what many set down as hard and fast unbreakable "rules" about what POV to use and how many POVs were "allowed" in a story or novel, and the rule that you should never, ever, use present tense, aren't really rules and are far from unbreakable.
That might be the most important thing I learned from those mailing-list discussions and story crits -- that each one of these is a deliberate choice made in service to the story. Story is Queen, after all, and trumps all.
This is not to say that there aren't guidelines every writer should follow or universal truths they should know. There are a few.
I learned them all the hard way.
Someone, somewhere, is going to hate what you write or disagree with your choices.
Not every reader will read the story you thought you wrote. Some may scream you got romance in their scifi, or that your fantasy heroine should be a tad more docile to be believable. Each reader brings her own life experience and viewpoints to what they read. Don't let them throw you off your game. Others will see the story you see.
Write what you love.
And then pour your heart and soul into it. Your passion and commitment will show in your writing, and your story will be better for it. Also, try to have fun.
Don't chase the market; it won't be there in two years, or three.
'Nuff said. This goes with writing what you love.
Work hard. Learn to revise. Then work harder.
The only way to learn to write is to write as much as you can, and then write more. There is no magic formula, no cantrips to recite under the full moon or faerie roads to follow to being a professional writer. Writing is hard. It's work.
One of the hard lessons I learned is that not every word I write is golden. This is why the universe teaches us to revise. Don't be afraid to rip something apart, or toss it out completely, if it doesn't work. They are only words and you can always write more.
Tell a good story. Skip the boring parts.
Sounds simple enough, but this might be the hardest of all. Telling a good story involves so many things, from a kickass concept, to engaging characters, to a fresh view on tired old tropes, to that intangible "something" that none of us can name, but we all know when we see it.
Work hard to tell the best story you can.
Then tell another.
Jaime Lee Moyer lives in San Antonio with writer Marshall Payne, two cats, three guitars, and a growing collection of books and music. Her first novel, Delia's Shadow, will be published by Tor Books on September 17, 2013. Two other books in the series, A Barricade in Hell and Against a Brightening Sky, will be published in 2014 and 2015. Her novels are represented by Tamar Rydzinski of the Laura Dail Literary Agency.
Jaime has sold short fiction to Lone Star Stories, Daily Science Fiction, and to the Triangulations: End of the Rainbow and Triangulations: Last Contact anthologies. She was poetry editor for Ideomancer Speculative Fiction for five years and edited the 2010 Rhysling Award Anthology for the Science Fiction Poetry Association. A poet in her own right, she's sold more than her share of poetry.
She writes a lot. She reads as much as she can.
Oliver Buckram wrote: "I've recently sold three pieces to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF). All three pieces were critiqued on OWW, in some cases multiple times. I'm grateful to the many workshop participants who helped. 'Half a Conversation, Overheard While Inside an Enormous Sentient Slug,' July/Aug 2013; 'Un Opera nello Spazio' (A Space Opera), forthcoming; and 'The Museum of Error,' forthcoming."
Sarah Byrne wrote, "'The Vending Machine' is in Stupefying Stories Showcase, June 2013."
Liz Coley announced: "My short story 'Synthetic Integrated Rational Intelligence' is in the anthology Flights of Fiction."
Eliza Collins announced: "'Voyager' will be published by Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (#58, due out July '13)."
Michelle Goldsmith says: "Just wanted to report that although I've been away from the workshop for a while due to health issues and a hectic final semester of my degree, I recently rewrote my story 'Of Gold and Dust,' an early (and rather rough) draft of which was critiqued in the workshop, and it has just been picked up for the upcoming Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine Issue 60!"
Karen L. Kobylarz told us: "My short story ‘Serpent Song' -- which was posted several times at the workshop -- has been accepted for publication in the June issue of Lissette's Tales of the Imagination. Thanks to all workshop members who reviewed it."
Jodi Meadows announced, "The Orphan Queen has been sold as part of a two-book deal to Katherine Tegen Books with a release in 2015."
Rebecca Schwarz writes: "Bourbon Penn has accepted my story 'Beata Beatrix,' though I don't have a publication date yet. But my big news is that Interzone will be publishing my story 'Futile the Winds' in July. This is my first pro sale."
Jody Sollazo announces: "'Outlier' will appear in a David Lynch anthology edited by Cameron Pierce -- from Eraserhead Press, due out July 2013."
Josh Vogt says, "I've sold a short story titled 'The Weeping Blade' to Paizo's Pathfinder Tales web fiction series. I just sold my science fiction short story 'The Queen of Thermodynamic Equilibrium' to Grey Matter Press for their new anthology Equilibrium Overturned (to be published late 2013)."
Wade Albert White tells us: "My short story 'The Wiggy Turpin Affair' (workshopped on OWW) sold to the UFO2 Anthology. My thanks to reviewers Oliver Buckram, Tim W. Burke, Michael Keyton, Joshua Michaels, and Sidney Nesti."
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.
June 2013 Honor Roll Nominees
Reviewer: John Cimock
Submission: The Last Memory by Benjamin DeHaan
Submitted by: Benjamin DeHaan
Reviewer: Jennifer K. Oliver
Submission: Collision Course by Bo Balder
Submitted by: Bo Balder
Reviewer: Josh Vogt
Submission: A Remembering Game (Chapter 1) by Michael Glyde
Submitted by: Michael Glyde
Reviewer: Wade Albert White
Submission: E for Escape, Chapter Three by Rita de Heer
Submitted by: Rita de Heer
Reviewer: Angela Ambroz
Submission: Revision: The Peachies by Tim W. Burke
Submitted by: Tim W. Burke
Reviewer: Zvi Zaks
Submission: THE OFFICE by Martha Villone
Submitted by: Martha Villone
Reviewer: Gene Spears
Submission: The Windows of My Soul I Throw Wide Open_Chapter 8 by Jeff Stanley
Submitted by: Jeff Stanley
Reviewer: Daniel Connaughton
Submission: Crying Wolf Ch 30 by Bill Danner
Submitted by: Bill Danner
Reviewer: Dragon Paradise
Submission: The Story of Khirm by Paroma Chakravarty
Submitted by: Paroma Chakravarty
Reviewer: Angela Ambroz
Submission: Revision: The Peachies by Tim W. Burke
Submitted by: Dragon Paradise
MAGIC RISES by Ilona Andrews (Ace, July 2013)
Atlanta is a city plagued by magical problems. Kate Daniels will fight to solve them -- no matter the cost.
Mercenary Kate Daniels and her mate, Curran, the Beast Lord, are struggling to solve a heartbreaking crisis. Unable to control their beasts, many of the Pack's shapeshifting children fail to survive to adulthood. While there is a medicine that can help, the secret to its making is closely guarded by the European packs, and there's little available in Atlanta.
Kate can't bear to watch innocents suffer, but the solution she and Curran have found threatens to be even more painful. The European shapeshifters who once outmaneuvered the Beast Lord have asked him to arbitrate a dispute -- and they'll pay him in medicine. With the young people's survival and the Pack's future at stake, Kate and Curran know they must accept the offer -- but they have little doubt that they're heading straight into a trap...
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This month's featured article from our Tips and Advice section:
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