Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror
We have a real treat this month: Amy Raby, OWW alum and author of Spy's Honor, has contributed a timely piece on how to write a useful and comprehensive critique. There are lots of great tips that will not only improve your critique but will turn you into a much sought-after reviewer.
Critiques are the foundation of OWW. We've "graduated" many an author through the workshop, and our secret superpower is that a good critique is not only useful to the recipient but to the reviewer as well. Reviewing strengthens our understanding of what makes good storytelling, and what our own weaknesses might be. Check out Amy's article below.
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
Regaining what I never had. A character is created through some kind of magic or technology only to find themselves driven to go beyond what his or her creator intended. The character could be created as a worker or a soldier only to find out that they feel a for need a life beyond work or war. What are the consequences of this?
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. This month's writing challenge was submitted by Elizabeth Porco.
Challenges can be suggested by anyone and suggestions should be sent to Maria (news (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com).
Have you seen our Member Book Gallery lately? The collection of books published in the past few years by OWW members is pretty impressive! Check it out and you might recognize something you helped critique, or find a new book to read. We're expanding it nearly every month.
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!
BEYOND SEVEN MOUNTAINS, Chapters 1-3 by Marion Engelke
Because the three posted chapters of Engelke's novel are so short, I have chosen to review all of them as a unit. Each is comprised, more or less, of one scene; I might actually suggest condensing the information contained in these into one chapter, as they are tightly unified in time and place.
These chapters are exceptionally well-written for workshop-level work, and one of the nicest things about them is the level of readability and how engaging they--and the point-of-view character--are. The voice is very good, quick and sprightly, and Savia is somebody I can feel a great deal of engagement with and sympathy for. Her characterization, and how she focuses on proofs of the status and love that are denied her (such as a new dress), work very well for me. I have a small problem with her level of self-awareness and self-control: in various places she describes her internal state and her emotional reactions and decides what they are going to be and how they are going to progress with a degree of precision that I wouldn't expect from a forty-year-old, let alone an emotionally neglected teenager.
It's okay to let her be a little more confused and angry. In her place, I would be!
I would prefer in general for her emotional states to be more often shown and less often described. She's in a terrible situation, and she's miserable. As a reader, I'd like to experience that misery with her rather than having it narrated to me at a remove. Dramatize more of the narrated sections, in other words. Don't have Savia tell me that she is jealous (although the scene where she tells Finnis that she was jealous is great--it's one thing to tell another character something, and another to tell the reader) but just show me her jealousy through all the details of the dress and hair and her actions, just as you already are. You can also add some physical grounding--what does she feel in her body when she experiences the emotion of jealousy?
The character interactions here are generally very strong. Although this is unmistakably a Snow White retelling, I don't feel that I know without question what will happen next or how it's going to end. I very much like the developing relationship between Savia and her new stepmother Finnis, and while I suspect that Finnis is using sorcery to enchant Savia into liking her, I'm not sure that Finnis is necessarily an antagonist. It would be the more traditional route by which to develop the plot, but I like that Engelke is leaving herself the option of establishing the two young women as friends or allies is she chooses. Surprises are nice!
I also very much like the scene where Savia listens in on the bedding of the newlyweds, and her reactions there--so practical, and so unexpected. I also think her conversation with Finnis afterward is very well handled--and Finnis, too, comes across as a practical and pragmatic young woman.
I even forgive this book the mirror scene, because it's used for so much more than telling me that the protagonist is a stereotypical beauty. Well done.
I do feel that there are some organizational problems here. I think that it's a mistake to organize this story as a flashback, which is the current structure--the prologue set in the future and the opening paragraphs revealing a part of Savia's fate talk about some very cool stuff, but I feel that rather than increasing the tension and interest of the story, they make it feel as if we're just marking time until those events happen. I also don't think that the two scenes of Savia's childhood add to the narrative; they provide useful backstory, but it's backstory that is already handled in exposition in the present time narrative.
The plot development, characterization, and writing in the present-time narrative is strong enough to carry this book on its own merit. I'd like to see the author trust her own skill more. Jumping about in time just makes the story feel more tentative than it needs to. This novel begins with the line, "In the spring of the year I turned fifteen, my father's new bride arrived at our castle." Stories start at the point where something changes that will alter the protagonist's life forever. Everything before that moment when Finnis arrives in Savia's life is backstory. This is the moment when the novel begins.
And it's a good beginning: tense, and full of questions. The shifting of the foundations of Savia's life and the fact that she very much wants something--her father's regard--means that this is immediately interesting. That's the point where I as a reader hook into her. And that's the point that writers should focus on, because we only have a few paragraphs in which to engage the reader--or the editor. Sales are lost on the first or second page.
Author of THE SEA THY MISTRESS
I KNOW HOW YOU FEEL, Chapter 5, by Nicole Minsk
This book has a sexy premise and supple, muscular writing that reminds me of Hannah Martine's paranormal romance series Elementals. Eighteen-year-old Hani Kalua is a Sensate, a person with supernatural powers that make him stunningly attractive and able to feel--and modify--the physical sensations of others and even acquire their abilities. Only he doesn't know it until a new town and a new lover awaken his abilities. Now he finds himself physically addicted to Allie after a single one-night stand. But Allie's in the middle of a divorce and unsure she wants to continue her fling. Even worse, there's something wrong with her--and it may be a side effect of Hani's powers.
This chapter picks up with Hani going to a diner hoping to meet Allie. Instead, he uses his powers to get two things he needs even more, a sympathetic ear and a job. Hani's conversations with Roberta, the waitress, and Johnny, the short order cook, feel natural and are full of careful observation, both physical and emotional. Even though this is a chapter with very low tension and no action, I was engaged by the characters and their interests and problems. This scene, where Hani, who is also a musician, "auditions" for the kitchen position is typical:
As Hani played, Johnny stood over the grill cooking scrambled eggs, hashbrowns, and bacon--tapping his foot to the beat and singing "I sure wish someone would tell me what Diddy Wah Diddy means" at the chorus. It was good that the place was close to empty; Johnny lost track and had to remake the eggs because they overcooked.
"Sweet Jesus. With a talent like that, you need a record label, not a spatula," Johnny said.
"You gimme a label, I'll take that. Otherwise, the spatula will hafta do."
There are two major things the author will need to address to make these books (because I hope there is a series planned) successful. First, the overuse of dialect representation is distracting. If the rhythm and flavor of the dialogue is right, only a little seasoning of dialect is needed. For example:
"How'd ya' like some pancakes with blueberries in ‘em, on the house? They're extra good that way, my favorite."
This has two uses of dialect representation in 19 words. That's okay, although readers would probably hear it the same way if you replaced "ya" with "you."
On the other hand, this example has seven uses of dialect representation in 38 words:
"Handsome boy like you gonna find ‘nother girl. Don't you fret. I know it seems like th' biggest thing in the world, but that's jus' ‘cuz ya haven't lived much yet. Ya can't be more than, what, seventeen?"
Paradoxically, the physical representation of dialect often gets in the way of readers "hearing" it properly because the text draws so much attention to itself. Unless a writer is using dialect for comic effect, in which case the whole point is to draw attention to it, the better solution is to use it lightly and trust to phrases like "Don't you fret" to carry the regional weight:
"Handsome boy like you gonna find another girl. Don't you fret. I know it seems like the biggest thing in the world, but that's just ‘cuz you haven't lived much yet. You can't be more than, what, seventeen?"
Perceptive readers will still hear the dialect just fine and the rest won't be distracted. Unless you're going the Full Huckleberry Finn, my rule of thumb for commercial fiction is one bit of representational dialect for every 10 words.
But some of that is a matter of taste, and probably not make-or-break for the book. (An editor or agent who liked everything else would work with the author to get the dialect right.) The bigger issue is stakes.
It's not clear from either the author's summary or the chapter what this book is about, either in terms of theme or plot. Hani has an amazing power, but he doesn't need that power to become a musician in Austin and fall in love with Allie. I am reliably informed that all sorts of ordinary people become musicians and fall in love all the time.
This book needs scale. Hani's abilities have to mean something more than a stack of perfect pancakes. The Sensates are a big idea. What kind of conflict could only be solved by a Sensate? The writing in this chapter gives me confidence that the writer has the talent to tell that story. Even in a low-tension scene like this one, we should see hints of the bigger plot arc to come. And we should definitely see them in the author's notes. A good summary doesn't just tell us what happened, it points at what it means. I strongly feel like there needs to be more of that here.
That said, this is a very promising premise with excellent writing. I wish you luck with it.
"Dogville" by D.L. Young
"Dogville" is already a very well-written story, with a great sense of worldbuilding--the kind of unequally distributed dystopia that reminds me of Paolo Bacigalupi's work--and prose that's transparent but deeply readable. Its central thematic question--about aging, and how we battle it so bitterly--is approached from a different enough angle to make the piece genuinely thought-provoking, and its final paragraphs truly, complicatedly bittersweet.
This very much is, as the author notes, an all-but-final draft, and so my comments this month are going to focus on a certain kind of careful polish work, and how aspects of a story's theme and central concerns can come entirely to life if we're careful with the small details.
There are two major issues where attention to those details and how they all line up could really improve "Dogville" and its impact, and the first one is about its major concern, bodies: Katie's, McAllen's, and everyone else's.
The Vivid Life offices are plausible as an environment where women and their careers basically live and die on their bodies--as viewed by the decades-younger men who are quite tellingly promoted above them--but there's a false note in how the female characters treat other women's bodies. To be blunt: Women's bodies do not begin at their necks and end below the ribcage. Realistically, I'm not sure I've compared my bra size to another woman's since I was twelve and the whole having-boobs thing was still a weird novelty. There's a noted creepiness to the focus, specifically on breasts, and more generally on women's bodies as nothing but yes-or-no places for sex appeal. It's doubly creepy when applied to the nameless pack leader. When a fourteen-year-old girl is described by a sixty-year-old woman--to an adult man--as having "raw, animal sexuality," that sets off some serious alarms.
Since "Dogville" is so thematically wrapped up in bodies, everything the story says about one counts: It's a grain of sand giving weight to a bigger argument. So with that in mind, I'd suggest it's important to make Katie's relationship with bodies feel more consistent and authentic.
Katie is visibly and repeatedly resentful at how she's professionally overlooked because of nothing but her body; it's a fact about her set up in the first scene of the piece. So when she thoughtlessly objectifies a child, and when all she or Angela see about their own--or each other's--bodies is tits, tits, tits, that's deeply contradictory given what "Dogville" already said Katie believes and feels. She wishes her body was not the only fact her bosses saw about her, but somehow it's just a given that other women are nothing but their bodies. This doesn't feel like the same brain, and so deep within the story, something breaks.
If this mental disconnect is something that's broken in her own worldview--if her issue isn't the system she lives in, but that she's no longer profiting from it, full stop--then that's something I'd encourage the author to bring into sharper relief. As written, it's a noticeable disjunct, and detracts from the otherwise smooth realism of the character. Further, if the thematic difference that makes Katie conclude the nameless teenager will go farther than she ever could is that she sees other women and helps them instead of undercutting them, and that she values things that aren't "born evil" and lifts others up, physically and metaphorically, then that's something that would profit strongly from being brought into sharper relief as well. It's in the story, and potentially deeply powerful; but it's quite subtle and easily missed.
Bear in mind I'm discussing small touches here: The right sentence added in the right place, a little more of a narrative beat around something that should be important in order to bring attention its way. These are small consistencies, getting things in the right row to bring the larger theme into place more effectively.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editors' Choice area of the OWW site!
Author of ABOVE
"Daughter of Fortitude" by Phillip McCollum
"Daughter of Fortitude" has a very interesting premise behind it. With the power of a god held in the pieces of a statue in his image, a rival god seeks to replace all the pieces with forgeries, thus depriving the god's followers of his power. This is fun and inventive, and it provides a lot of suspense to the story. The characters of Celeste and Boone are unusual and make me want to keep reading to find out more about them. Some good description helps to make me feel like I'm there with the characters. So the story has some significant strengths, the strongest one being the premise.
A strong premise, novum, or idea is a great asset to a story. But then the author must take that premise and figure out what the particular story will be, and then what the particular plot will be. Many writers start writing with only a premise, which leads to a weak story. It's important to mentally take the journey from premise to story to plot before you begin, or at least to have a general sense of what your story and plot will be.
The current story shows Celeste drugging one of the god Baphomet's followers and replacing the chunk of statue he guards with a forgery. Thus the premise is revealed to the reader. Celeste then tries to do the same thing with Boone, who has more powers than Baphomet's other followers. Boone easily overcomes her and kills her. This does not create a satisfying story. Boone seems more powerful than Celeste, so it seems a foregone conclusion that he will defeat her. The scene has minimal conflict. Celeste doesn't put up a fight. The rival god, who guides Celeste's activity, doesn't offer any warning or aid, and we don't know why. So the story might be described this way: Person B is stronger than Person A, so Person B defeats Person A.
Several important ingredients are missing from this story, but the most important is the role of the individual characters in the story. What does Celeste really want out of life? What is her internal conflict? Celeste's internal problems need to be the key to the story, not something just mentioned or layered on top of the story. Right now, she has a little conflict in that she is attracted to Boone, and that distracts her from her mission. But this internal conflict never reaches a crisis point and forces her to make a difficult decision and change. That's what the events of the story should do.
For example, perhaps Celeste wants to serve the rival god to bring about the future the god promises, but she doesn't want to hurt or kill anyone. If the rival god then orders Celeste to kill Boone or tie him up forever, this would bring Celeste's internal conflict to a crisis point. Or perhaps the god orders Celeste to torture or kill someone she cares about in order to draw Boone to her. Then Celeste has a horrible decision to make. Perhaps she does kill someone she cares about, and Boone comes, but despite her best efforts, she fails to trap him and he traps her instead.
This brings us to a weakness of the existing plot. Because the story hasn't been well developed, the plot is also weak. The plot has just two acts: Celeste tries to steal the first piece and succeeds; she tries to steal the second piece and fails. Two-act plots rarely work well because they feel too simple, too back and forth. I think you can sense that in my description of this plot. A three-act structure usually allows the plot to be much more exciting, emotional, and unpredictable. Going back to my suggested plot, once Boone traps Celeste, he could have the goal to enter her dreams, where the rival god communicates with her, and attack the god. This would raise the stakes and force Celeste into another difficult decision. Celeste may fight mentally to defend the god, or she may decide to betray the god and let Boone kill the god. The god has driven Celeste to kill someone she cares about; will she still defend the god against this attack?
For the rest of this review, visit the Editors' Choice area of the OWW site!
--Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey
How to Write a Good Critique
by Amy Raby
I attribute a lot of my success in writing to successful critique groups. I've participated heavily in three of them, including the OWW. Over the years, I've received bad critiques that were worse than useless, and great ones that helped me find my way when my novel was broken and I couldn't figure out why.
So how do you write a good critique?
Writers, like all people, have a stronger emotional reaction to negative feedback than to positive feedback. So even if your feedback to the writer is balanced, say with four things you liked about the chapter and four things you didn't like, the author is likely to come away thinking you hated it.
It helps to use the sandwich technique: begin and end your critique with what you liked best about the chapter. No matter how awful you think the chapter is, there is always something good to say about it. Maybe the writing is bad but the concept is great. Maybe the worldbuilding has problems but there is one detail that intrigues you. Maybe you didn't like the heroine, but you loved the heroine's best friend.
Your first task as a critiquer is to find the good stuff. Believe me, it's there! Begin your critique with what you liked best about the chapter. Then you can go into some of the problems. Remember that you're the writer's peer, not their instructor. Your reaction to a chapter is subjective. If you fail to connect emotionally, that doesn't necessarily mean that the chapter is broken -- it may just be that you're not the target reader. Be honest about how you reacted to the piece, but keep in mind that another reader may react differently.
Restrict most of your comments to big-picture issues. Execution is important too, but marking up a chapter with dozens of line edits and nitpicky corrections can demoralize an author. And it won't help them much if the novel has structural problems and they're going to have to rewrite that chapter anyway. When I read a chapter with a lot of execution errors, I point out a few of them near the beginning and then move on to the big-picture stuff.
What's big-picture? Well, start with how well the opening does or doesn't draw you in. Do you like the main character? Or do you at least find him intriguing? If he's bland and generic, that's something the writer will need to work on. Which parts of the chapter held your attention, and which parts made you want to skim ahead? Is there enough conflict? Were you emotionally engaged? How's the voice?
For an SFF chapter, comment on worldbuilding. If there's a magic system, does it feel consistent? Does the chapter feel grounded in time and place, or are there references to '80s songs in a story set in 2200 AD? Does the story suffer from "white room syndrome" -- not enough description, so it feels like everything is taking place in a white room -- or is it perhaps laden with too much description, slowing the pace?
Do not attempt to rewrite the author's work. It's insulting, and it erases the author's voice. You cannot write in somebody else's voice. You can help them improve their voice over time, but it will always be uniquely theirs. Save your voice for your own stories.
So you began your feedback with the things you liked best about the story. Then you discussed the big-picture stuff: characters, tension, emotional engagement, worldbuilding. Now it's time to draw to a close by ending with something positive. Either mention a few more things you liked about the submission, or reemphasize the positives you mentioned at the beginning. Starting and ending your critique with positive feedback will help you accomplish your goal of encouraging the writer while also helping them to improve their writing.
Bio: Amy Raby is literally a product of the U.S. space program, since her parents met working for NASA on the Apollo missions. After earning her Bachelor's in Computer Science from the University of Washington, Amy settled in the Pacific Northwest with her family, where she's always looking for life's next adventure, whether it's capsizing tiny sailboats in Lake Washington, training hunting dogs, or riding horseback. Amy is a Golden Heart® finalist and a Daphne du Maurier winner.
Leah Bobet says: "'On Living Authors,' my first poetry publication in a long time, is out in the Fall 2013 issue of Goblin Fruit today -- as part of a table of contents that's frankly stunning."
Steve Brady announced: "'Going Hyperdown' has been published by Misque Press for the anthology Space Jockey."
Tim W. Burke says: "Noble Fusion Press has released Death Is Only Skin Deep, a collection of three stories about a desperate Civil War widow, a winsome zombie hungry for love, and a guru's horrid resurrection."
Bruce Davis tells us, "My short story 'Initial Profit' has been published by AKW Books."
Aliette de Bodard tells us, "I've sold 'Days of the War, as Red as Oxblood, as Dark as Bile' to Subterranean Online for a future issue. (Extra thanks to Rochita Loenen-Ruiz for putting up with my total absence of a brain)."
Sarah Grey announced: "I'm a little late in posting this, but "Southside Gods" is up at Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show. (You'll need a subscription to read the whole story, but trust me, it's worth it!)"
Vylar Kaftan tells us: "Woot! My story 'Ordinary Things' will appear in Kaleidoscope, a new YA anthology dedicated to YA fantasy from diverse perspectives. It'll have stories showing diverse races, classes, gender identities, and many more. Also, my short story 'Spellsketching' will appear in Daily Science Fiction. Hooray!"
Joshua Palmatier (writing as Benjamin Tate) says: "Looks like I can finally announce my latest short-story sale: 'Seeds' to Juliet E. McKenna! It will be included in an anthology called Unexpected Journeys, edited by Juliet E. McKenna, which is being released by the British Fantasy Society for its members and as a membership-drive perk."
Rebecca Schwarz tells us, "'Beata Beatrix' will be forthcoming in Bourbon Penn."
Cory Skerry says: "'Midnight at the Feet of the Caryatides' sold to Where Thy Dark Eye Glances: Queering Edgar Allan Poe (Lethe Press)."
Henry Szabranski says, "I'm pleased to announce that my flash story 'The Key To El-Carim's Heart' has been accepted by Daily Science Fiction. This will be my seventh story to appear there in total."
Fran Wilde is loaded with good news. She tells us: "I have a three book deal with Tor: Bone Arrow, to be published in April 2015, and Bone Arrow Two (2016) and Three (2017). OWW members past and present B. Morris Allen, Jay Reynolds, and Kelly Lagor were all huge helps here. And Elizabeth Bear has been a powerful force for good in my life. Also, 'A Moment of Gravity, Circumscribed' appeared in the Impossible Futures Anthology in fall 2013. 'Like a Wasp to the Tongue' will appear in Asimov's in April/May 2014. And 'The Topaz Marquise' just sold to Beneath Ceaseless Skies."
Erzebet Yellowboy announced: "'The Mirror Tells All' in Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales (anthology) from Prime Books."
David Young (writing as D.L. Young) says: "Just wanted to let you know that my story 'Dumpside' (which received lots of helpful critiques from the OWW) has been acquired by Kzine for publication in mid-2014. Thanks for all the valuable input on my story!"
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.
October 2013 Honor Roll NomineesReviewer: Richard Dillio
Submission: F.O.A.D. by Jody Sollazzo
Submitted by: Jody Sollazzo
Reviewer: Xander McMillan
Submission: The Aviatrix -- Chapter 1.0 by Sharon Voytac
Submitted by: Sharon Voytac
Reviewer: Sean FromEdwards
Submission: Zombies at the mall by angela rose
Submitted by: Dragon Paradise
Reviewer: Rob Smythe
Submission: ERINDALE by Elise Jones
Submitted by: Elise Jones
Reviewer: Linda Robbins
Submission: November- Oven Berm by Farha Khalidi
Submitted by: Farha Khalidi
SPY'S HONOR by Amy Raby (Signet, October 2013)
Rhianne, mind mage and Imperial Princess of Kjall, cannot openly challenge the emperor. Instead she acts in secret to aid the victims of his worst excesses. But now the emperor plans to wed her to the cruel Augustan, the man leading Kjall's attack against the nation of Mosar. Soon she will be torn from her supporters and shipped overseas, where she can help no one.
Mosari crown prince Janto is desperate to save his country from invasion. When one of his most trusted spies disappears while gathering intelligence at the Kjallan palace, Janto takes his place and continues searching for information that could save his people. But falling for the Imperial Princess was not part of his plan. Nor was having his true identity revealed....
Now Rhianne must make a choice -- follow the path of tradition or the one of the heart, even if it means betraying her own race.
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This month's featured article from our Tips and Advice section:
Workshop member Roger Eichorn on what to ask when evaluating a review of your writing
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.