September 2008 Newsletter


Monthly Writing Challenge


Editors' Choices


Publication Announcements

On Shelves Now

Membership Info



And we're off! September always seems to be the shift in the yearly cycle. School, holidays, and tying up loose ends is on everyone's mind.  The weather's changing too and I think that plays on our internal clock. Depending on which hemisphere you're in, the brain starts preparing itself for the changes ahead.

I know the workshop gets a little busier as the year winds down, most likely because the kids are back in school and parents are afforded the luxury of writing in peace. We're down to the last quarter, so let's get down to business and get some good writing done.

Just to inspire you, one of our own, OWW alumna Elizabeth Bear, won a 2008 Hugo Award for her short story "Tideline," published in Asimov's in 2007.  Congratulations, Bear! Well done!

So, workshoppers, what's on your plates for the next few months?

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

Maria Zannini, newsletter editor
newsletter (at)

Monthly Writing Challenge

Experimental Prose? Did some one mention Experimental Prose?

This month's challenge is Experimental Prose Part One. Your experiment is to write one scene but from three different voices. Do any scene in first person, in second person and in third person. Post all three as part of the same OWW post. There will be follow up Experimental Prose Challenges in the near future, all designed to stretch those writing muscles, get folks building their authorial voices and get us all out of the comfort zone of our prose.

Remember: Challenges are supposed to be fun, but don't forget to stretch yourself. If you normally write fantasy, try SF. If you've never tried space opera, here's your chance. It doesn't have to be great. It's all about trying new things. There's no word limit, no time limit, no nothin'. Just have fun.

Challenges can be suggested by anyone and suggestions should be sent to Maria (newsletter (at) or Walter Williams via the discussion list. For more details on the challenges, check the OWW Writer Space.


CLOCKWORK PHOENIX 2: More Tales of Beauty and Strangeness is the next volume in the annual anthology series edited by Mike Allen, scheduled to be published by Norilana Books in July 2009. The anthology's literary focus is on the high end, and it is open to the full range of the speculative and fantastic genres. Reading period ends November 16, 2008.  (Guidelines)

"The stories should contain elements of the fantastic, be it science fiction, fantasy, horror or some combination thereof. A straight psychological horror story is unlikely to make the cut unless it's truly scary and truly bizarre. The same applies to a straight adventure fantasy or unremarkable space opera--bring something new and genuine to the equation, whether it's a touch of literary erudition, playful whimsy, extravagant style, or mind-blowing philosophical speculation and insight."

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, John Klima, and Karin Lowachee. The last four months of Editors' Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop. Go to the "Read, Rate, Review" page and click on "Editors' Choices." 

Congratulations to the current Editors' Choice authors!

Editors' Choices, Fantasy

GODFIRE, Chapter 33, by Elissa Hunt

One thing you cannot forget, even in the most ep ic of novels, is that if readers don't connect with your characters, they won't keep reading. Occasionally you'll find a book that has enough twists and turns that you keep reading for the plot; but that can get tired after a while and readers will look somewhere else. In GODFIRE, Elissa Hunt does a good job of introducing plot lines that deal with relationships and character building while maintaining the flow of a long fantasy novel.

True enough, you can't throw plot out the window in favor of creating character pieces.  Readers will mostly be following the machinations of good versus evil. Readers will be following the main character through their harrowing quest.  Readers will get lost in the complexity of your political double-crosses. But, if there isn't something readers like about your characters, something readers can identify with, why should they keep reading?

In Hunt's case, the reader is 33 chapters in the book, and she is still creating plot lines about the characters. Hunt takes a few characters, all non-humans, and puts them through the wringer of a very human emotion: love. Through the course of the chapter, the reader learns more about Kay and Noriban--both male--and their relationship, as well as Noriban and Marina--male and female--who both happen to be elven.

Hunt does a good job of weaving the back story of elven traditions into the chapter without just writing large chunks of expository information. She has Kay and Noriban argue about why Noriban does not pursue a relationship with Marina despite the fact that there is obvious attraction between the two. Kay and Noriban have different histories--being of different races, Kay being honad and Noriban being elven--and through their arguments and discussions, the reader is able to comprehend Noriban's motivations.

There are apparently very strong traditions, almost instinctual actions that elves must follow when courting. Without reading the previous 32 chapters, I do not know how in-depth Hunt goes into the elven world in this book, but this brief chapter hints at a huge world of discovery for the reader. There is obviously a lot to learn about the elven culture, both for the reader and the other people in this world.

The problem that Noriban faces is that Marina was not raised by elves and is as ignorant of elven custom as Kay. So Kay takes it upon himself to talk to Marina and instruct in what she must do if she wants this relationship to occur. There is so much happening with these characters in only a few thousand words that is just impressive. There are hints at the depth and complexity of the elven culture, there is the complex relationship between Kay and Noriban, and there are the relationships among everyone else in this chapter. I certainly wanted to keep reading this chapter that appears at face value to have little to do with the main plot of the novel.

What Hunt needs to be careful with is that this chapter, and ones similar to it, don't become filler that distracts from the main plot. The relationship between male and female elves must factor into the main story at a greater depth than just a love story between two characters. The relationship between the two men, Kay and Noriban, must be something important later on in the story for Hunt to spend time building it.

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

John Klima, Editor, Electric Velocipede 


Editors' Choices, Science Fiction

THE EBB-TIDE: 2. KIRA-FRIEND by Rita de Heer

Though this story takes place 200 years in the future, the tone and style created an effect of enchantment more common to fantasy than SF. The beautiful use of language and likable characters drew me in so completely I forgot to read it with a critiquing mind. Despite that, however, multiple readings did allow for many points of interest to be noted.

The workshop is a good way to hone your summary skills, so this critique, like ones in the past, includes a consideration of the author's notes and plot blurb offered before the chapter. Something like this is akin to what one would write for a query letter, or could be the jumping-off point to a longer synopsis that's often required when submitting the first three chapters to an agent or publisher. As such, I found this blurb to be inadequate to a) hook the reader, and b) give a simple explanation of the story that follows. Though the author might not have thought to focus on the blurb, it doesn't hurt to work on summarizing skills along with novel-writing ones. The very first sentence in the blurb is vague and confusing. While it's understandable that the author might not want to give away too many details and "spoil" the reader's surprise, remember that books have synopses when published (and people tend to read them before they read further anyway), and editors and agents often require them before they read the rest of your book. Basic details don't necessarily need to be hidden. The "unspecified society fracturing event" the author mentions is a mouthful, and indistinct, but there are intriguing points that the author notes, like the country the book is set in: Australia. Focus on the where and who and when right off the bat, and make definitive statements that will "sell" the story to any who might read. For example, a possible tag line to launch a full synopsis: "In a future Australia, former scientists have adapted to become 'Skinpeople', separated from the rest of the population and facing their own unique destiny"...etc, etc. Play with it and see what happens.

The beginning of the chapter also proved confusing, jumping around in time and not establishing a concrete place. Even if one begins in Ahni-too's thoughts or recollections, it's still important to ground the reader and carry those internal thoughts through in a linear fashion so as to not confuse a reader who is still probably trying to get a firm grasp on the story (as it's only Chapter Two). With Ahni-too thinking first of Kira, then her mother, and then thinking of her mother-loss, the narrative then backtracks to "yesterday" before leaping forward again, and there isn't any indication of how much time has really passed. It mentions a year passing, sort of tossed off, but there is no true sense of that. Once the muddle of the first page or so is behind us, the story begins to really move forward and the reader is able to sink completely into this charming and interesting world.

The language in places is just absolutely gorgeous, and truly evokes a unique time and place. Style is something that can really enhance a narrative (and not everyone manages to be stylistically unique, which is unfortunate) and for a story like this, that utilizes a different sort of speech and an alien culture (for all intents and purposes), the language serves the story well, as more than just a vessel to tell it. Here the scenery is painted colorfully:

Night times, Ahni-too lay staring into the dark or watching the moon's light measuring out slow hours over the wall and the floor. To her own self she would whisper all the songs she knew: the baby-to-sleeps everyone hummed; the learning songs with which the children learned the ways of the seatower world and, finally, all the ones she had no business knowing.

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

--Karin Lowachee

Editors' Choices, Short Story

Sorry--no Short Story EC this month.

Editors' Choices, Horror

"China Doll Recall" by Andrew Alford

In this disturbing piece of flash fiction, George buys a doll for his daughter that has been recalled by the toy-maker's sister. Damage to the doll's thumb seems to cause damage to his daughter's thumb. He decides to sell the doll on eBay, but discovers its leg is now missing, leaving the reader with the horrible feeling that something awful is about to happen to his daughter's leg.

The end of the story is truly chilling, and I like very much how the story creates that effect in its very last line, and with the last word of the last line, which is "leg." This reminds me of one of my favorite science-fiction stories, "The Star" by Arthur C. Clarke, which packs a giant punch in its last sentence, and particularly with the last word of the last sentence. The beginning and the end of a story are its greatest places of power, the places where an author's words can have the most impact, because the reader is paying the most attention. Using these places to their utmost can give a story added punch.

While I'm on the subject, the beginning and end of a paragraph and the beginning and end of a sentence are other places of power.

The physical connection between the doll and George's daughter is another strength of the story. Andrew, you establish this clearly with the thumb, so when the leg is missing, we understand what that implies. While I've read many evil/haunted doll stories, I haven't read one quite like this. I also think the short length is appropriate for the story you are telling.

The main weakness in the story is that it generates a lot of confusion, mainly on p. 2. Remember that at the beginning of the story, the reader is struggling to figure out when and where he is. The story sends many confusing signals about the setting. I know that I'm in some sort of toy store, but that's all. The dealer says that the "Toy-maker's wife endured a forced abortion, suicided."

This confuses me on several counts. Manufacturers of dolls, even limited-edition collector's editions, aren't generally referred to as "toy-makers." So this makes me start to think the story is set in the past or in some alternate universe.

Then I struggle to understand what the dealer means by a "forced abortion." We don't have forced abortions in the U.S., so I'm wondering if the toy-maker lives in another country, or whether the story is set in the future. I start leaning toward the idea that the story is set in some repressive future world, since the dealer assumes that George knows what he's talking about (which he wouldn't do if the toy-maker lived in China or some other distant place). This future-world interpretation is further encouraged when the dealer talks about "family-planning officials" and says they put the toy-maker to death, using the "death of a thousand cuts." That certainly doesn't seem like anything that would happen in our present world. The fact that George hasn't heard about the toy-maker's death makes me think the media is controlled by the oppressive government.

So by the middle of p. 2, I have created an entire setting for your story that I believe is not at all what you intended, but is what your words indicated to me. Then I hit the mention of "Mel Gibson's next movie," and my whole image of the setting falls apart. At that point, I don't understand what this contemporary reference is doing in this future world.

After the first scene, the rest of the story seems set in the present, with many references to the contemporary world. So I'm forced to throw out the elaborate world I created during the first scene, and I'm never able to form a clear explanation of why the dealer said what he did, and what actually happened to the toy-maker. (If he's supposed to live in China, then that needs to be established and his death should have caused a huge uproar among human rights organizations and should have been on the news.)

Ultimately, I realize that the talk of forced abortions and slow execution is meant to explain why the doll is cursed and why the curse works the way it does. But this makes no sense within our current-day world, at least not as far as I can figure out.

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

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


An interesting thing happened on the blogosphere recently. I was reading agent Jenny Rappaport's blog, and she mentioned that she was running a trial with an intern who was going to respond with personalized rejections. I recognized that name! It was none other than long time OWW member Jodi Meadows. I followed Jodi's blog posts, titled Temporary Madness, where she talked about her experience, and realized right away she had some excellent insights that might prove helpful to fellow OWW members.

Needless to say, I blackmailed Jodi into stepping into the interview spotlight this month, and she graciously agreed.

photoJodi has been with OWW since 2003 and has been writing full-time. She writes mostly second-world fantasy about girls with hidden strengths, MHGs (mysterious, hot guys) and true love where the heroes must overcome epic magic and/or political disaster. No small-screen stories for Jodi.

I am delighted and proud to bring you the inside scoop as gleaned by one of our peers. Please welcome Jodi Meadows.

Give me a short background on how this experiment came about. How did you get such an interesting gig?

Jenny and I have been friends for a couple of years now. I'd expressed to her long before that I'd love to read slush, but nothing ever happened with it. I don't think she realized I was serious! Surely no one actually wants to drown in queries.

Then I caught her late one night and told her what I wanted to do, and that I'd even personalize every rejection to make it worth it all around. That way, authors might get an idea about why their queries were being rejected. Form letters don't really tell you why. I also said I'd blog about it for people who just wanted to watch my descent into madness, and keep stats about anything anyone could come up with. People like stats. (So do I.)

I originally said I'd do it for one or two weeks. She said, "Okay, one week..." "Two weeks!" I said, and she asked if I was really sure. Really, really sure. Little did I know...

Did Jenny Rappaport give you any guidelines for what she wanted to see? Did she offer you any advice on how to handle a rejection?

She'd recently written on her blog about a few ideas she was hungry for, so I had that to go by. Her submission guidelines also give a nice idea of what she likes and doesn't like. Jenny and I have pretty similar taste, so I was able to look at what I'd like, too.

Before we started, she sent me the form rejection to use as a template, but for the most part, she left it up to me.

What one thing did you learn about writing a good query that you didn't know before you started?

Heaping plot into a short query isn't the answer. It's making someone care about the characters and their goals.

Do you think people appreciated the personal rejections? Was there anything that surprised you about their reactions?

There were several nice comments on my LiveJournal saying thank you, and a few e-mails back to the intern address and my personal e-mail from people who appreciated my responses, which is really all anyone can ask for. A few people left notes saying they knew how to fix their book because of my comments. Wow! That was a surprise. I didn't realize a few lines could be that helpful to anyone, but I'm really happy for them.

There were also some negative responses hidden around the Internet on forums; that was pretty upsetting. It wasn't surprising, since I know how people are, and I know how it hurts to be told No, someone doesn't want to read your baby -- I mean book. The one I was most surprised at was when some anonymous poster said maybe they were too old to be a writer and you must be this young to play the publishing game. I'm twenty-five, and Jenny is a couple years older, but we don't know (or care) how old any of the queriers are unless they tell us. (Hint: writing good books don't have that much to do with age, just maturity.)

Dealing with so many queries, you must have to read them very fast. What made for an instant rejection?

I'm afraid I didn't read as fast as I'd have liked! I spent eight hours reading queries and synopses some days.

By the second day, I could pretty much tell whether I was going to pass something to Jenny within the first few paragraphs of the query. (And then I read the rest of the query and synopsis, because that was the deal. I was generally right about the beginning, though.) Which sounds like depressing odds (and it is), but someone who goes on for paragraphs about their qualifications to write the novel won't be a good personal match for Jenny. A query bogged down in minor plot details -- rather than talking about what the story is about -- doesn't foretell good things about the book itself.

I admit, I got kind of irritated when someone addressed the query to Lori Perkins (the agency's founder) rather than Jenny, but that wasn't an instant rejection.

What kind of query made you sit up and take notice?

One that was in an easy-to-read format, no weird fonts (the italicized Comic Sans was really special!), and short. Something quick, clear, and to-the-point shows that a writer can get a lot of ideas through in a small space. It says a lot about the potential for their book being written in a similar way.

Do you have any tips for OWW members to help them polish a query?

Yes! Tons! But to save time for all of us, I think the biggest thing is this: once you think you've got the query polished, give it to someone who hasn't read the book. Get their reactions: where they lost interest, where they were confused, and whether they'd give up a day of their life to read a book based on that query. This requires someone to be very honest and some honesty is tougher than other kinds, but the query blurb is only 200 words (only 200 words!), so if it doesn't work, rewrite it. Trash whatever loses people. Write it again until your never-read-the-book-reader isn't confused. Don't explain or defend your query in between. (You won't have that opportunity with an agent.) Just rewrite and try again.

A few others:

Did you notice any particular bad habits among submissions?

Yep. Mostly this involved people not proofreading their queries -- horrible typos and wrong names! -- and slapping down a first draft of a synopsis and calling that good enough. At least, that's what it looked like to me. I'd prefer to see no synopsis than a long, rambling synopsis that's more confusing than helpful.

After spending two weeks in Temporary Madness, do you think it helped you write a better query and synopsis?

I hope so. I like to think I was pretty okay at queries before this (I don't think Jenny would have agreed to have me if she didn't like my queries), but now that I've had to put down in words (over and over again) why something doesn't work, I can look more critically at my own queries. Would I risk a day of my life reading this book? If the answer is only "Eh, maybe," then the query isn't strong enough.

I read on Jenny Rappaport's blog that you are now with her as an electronic intern. What possessed you to continue this madness?

Yeah, honestly, I'm not really sure how that happened. She offered to let me stay on for pay (not much, but it would keep me in yarn and printer paper for a while), and I said I wasn't sure, I'd have to think about it. Then we started talking about a spinning wheel (something I've been coveting for a while) and she said, "Seven months of work and you can buy your dream wheel!" I asked her about changing up a few things in the getting-queries-to-me system, and she said sure. I made an e-mail address to test the new system, and suddenly I had an inbox full of queries, and a handful of form letters. And I was compelled to answer the queries.

Any last piece of advice for hopefuls?

Make sure your query has clear conflict, choices, and stakes. As they say: things get worse. It's the same in a query, just shorter. Many queries lost me in the last few lines because I had no idea what was at stake. Why should I care about Billy and his dog and their dream of jumping through hoops? What happens if they don't succeed?

Give agents a reason to care about your characters and their plights. They want to care, but you have to make them.

Thank you, Jodi!

If you'd like to read more about Temporary Madness, the trials of an agent's intern, go to Jodi's blog where she talks about writing, ferrets, and yarn.

No ferrets were harmed in the making of this interview.

Publication Announcements

Andrew Alford reports that "All Hallows has accepted my short story 'China Doll Recall,' for publication in an upcoming issue. This marks my first acceptance. Of course, I'm grateful to all four members who took the time to critique my story, but special thanks go to James Skaggs and Nancy Kreml whose careful readings exposed two important weaknesses (failure to introduce all characters and establish time/place more firmly)."

William Argyle wrote: "A piece that I workshopped some time back, 'Rhindor's Remission,' was picked up today for a forthcoming issue of Aberrant Dreams Speculative Fiction. Many thanks to Gregory Clifford, Chrissycat Daring, David Weisman, and David Holbrook."

OWW alumna Elizabeth Bear won a 2008 Hugo Award for her short story "Tideline," published in Asimov's in 2007.

Brandon Bell tells us that his short story "The Fourth Horseman" will appear in the August issue of "I can't remember who all reviewed it, but thanks to everyone. OWW has been the best thing I've done as a writer." Brandon's short story "Best Gift" is also one of the winners of the National Space Society story contest.

Rae Carson and Charles Coleman Finlay have co-authored and sold "The Crystal Stair" to Beneath Ceaseless Skies. How's that for a dynamic duo?

Michael Keyton has sold his short story "Martin Brownlow's Cat" to Wrong World, published by Qwand.

Better late (announcement) than never!  Member Jim Poulos published two stories earlier this year under the author name Cheyenne Warlock:  "Witches Hammer Voyages" in Antipodean SF #120 and "Singing Wintergreen" in Flash Me Magazine's Fantasy Edition 2008.

Toni Stauffer has two short stories coming out in September. "Family Reunion," BLOOD MOON RISING #36, Blood Moon Rising Publications, and "Paying the Darkman," NECROTIC TISSUE.

On Shelves Now

The Sweet Scent of Blood by Suzanne McLeod (Gollancz, September 2008) cover

When Mr October, a sexy calendar pin-up vamp, is accused of murdering his girlfriend, an old debt is called in and Genny is forced to help prove his innocence, risking her job and the protection it offers - and threatening to expose her own dark secrets. Searching for the killer plunges Genny deep into the hidden heart of vampire society and it's not long before she realises that she and Mr October are both unwitting pawns in a centuries-old power struggle between London's non-human communities . .  . and it's not just her own neck that's at stake, but the lives of all London's supernaturals.

Membership Info

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Getting commas right

A helpful tip for query letters or other times you are writing about your writing: don't sell yourself short with a misplaced comma.  Here is what I mean:

Version #1: "I sold my short story, "The Grammarian's Revenge," to Nitpickers' Magazine.


Version #2: "I sold my short story "The Grammarian's Revenge" to Nitpickers' Magazine.

Believe it or not, these have different implications for your production of short stories.  In the first version of the sentence, the commas around the story title denote is as your only short story.  "My short story" is equated with "The Grammarian's Revenge."

In the second version, the lack of commas implies to the reader that "The Grammarian's Revenge" is one of your short stories.  It might also be your only story, but if so, you don't have to admit it!

Similarly: "George's brother, Jeb" means that George just has one brother.  "George's brother Jeb" doesn't specify (and is correct if he has more than one brother).

Next time...possessive apostrophes!

--Ellen Harris-Braun, OWW founder and roving copy-editor in spirit

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) and we'll do the rest.

Until next month--just write!

The Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror
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