Welcome to July! We're still in search of a permanent Challenge Dictator. This month we have Guest Challenge Czar Hilary Nowack to thank for our challenge idea. Step up and send us some more ideas. Our door is always open.
Also, our world famous Crit Marathon is getting ready to be underway. Don't get left out!
As always, contact us if you have any questions, publication announcements, or ideas for improving the OWW Newsletter.
Maria Zannini, newsletter editor
newsletter (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com
The Other Side of the Myth
For most, the first introduction to stories come through fairytales, mythology and nursery rhymes. But we've only been told one side of the story. We know Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, but what's the spider's take on all this? Your challenge this month is to discover another side to your favorite fable. Take a classic tale and examine it from a different character's viewpoint. Don't be afraid to let loose and allow your imagination run a little wild.
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) onlinewritingworkshop.com).
Sharpen up those claws, er, pencils, and dig them stories out of your virtual trunk and post them on OWW, because another Annual Crit Marathon starts today! From July 1st through the 21st, all OWW'ers get a chance to participate in the event that hones our writing skills, clears the review backlog, gets our competitive juices flowing, and restores the global economy to its former glory.
Ahem. OK, maybe not the last one.
Crit Marathons are of course purely voluntary. For those who decide to participate, requirements are modest: Write at least one substantive crit and post it to the workshop every day of the Marathon. (We forgive you if you have to skip and double up--if you have 21 crits posted by the end, you can consider yourself to have crossed the finish line).
Finishing of course is its own reward, an exhilarating euphoria mingled with a sense of peace which verges on the mystical, not to mention the legion of benefits to your own writing skills gained from reviewing others. However, to raise interest to a fever pitch, we will be offering modest prizes to the top three finishers. We are still in the process of emptying out our pockets and begging influential donors, but we'll be announcing them before the start of the event.
Here are the guidelines for the contest:
• Only crits posted to the OWW count.
• All crits must be substantive, meaning they must follow the OWW's guidelines to count. You can find the guidelines here.
• Each substantive crit posted will earn ONE marathon point.
• The 'official' Marathon list will be updated using telltales from the workshop.
• Official starting time is midnight between June 30th and July 1st, EST. However we will allow crits through end of July 21st, PST, so you get 3 extra hours.
• We will try for daily updates, but, well, things happen. Final results will be posted July 22nd, and appeals about missed crits will expire at midnight PST of the same day.
• Participants are free to crit any posted submission; however, one of the traditional goals of the marathon has been to clear the under-reviewed list. It may also be a good opportunity for those who are set within their crit circle to venture a bit further afield and get to know other/newer members.
If you choose to participate, please e-mail email@example.com to be added to the list, with subject line "Crit Marathon Participant." If you send the e-mail message to the list it may be missed, although we'll try to count you in even if you start late.
That's it! Hope to see you on the starting line, and good luck (and thanks) to all those who choose to participate. Top critters will be announced in the August newsletter.
In Clothesline World the improbable becomes the real, and anything that can happen most likely will. Magic is woven into every fiber -- or maybe not! Wait, it's science, which is just magic in the making -- with a twist. Legendary heroes can rise from the midst of the lowliest of fringe dwellers, the most orthodox nomads, or the most bumbling of adventurers. In a world that strives to meet the lofty heights of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, there is ample opportunity for practically everything -- the hilarious, suspenseful, supernatural, romantic, horrific, historical, scientific, and even the ludicrous. In short, the storylines can be developed in a nearly unlimited manner, as long as they stay within the flexible framework of the concept. And the concept itself is open to the full range of the speculative and fantastic genres.
Editor Rochelle Uhlenkott says: "Make me laugh until the tears are flowing. Make me say 'Wow!' Evoke the 'Awe' response. Break my heart. Blow me away with imaginative wonder. Make me forget, just for a moment, the stressful reality of the world we all live in."
Submissions: accepted indefinitely, until the volume is filled, at firstname.lastname@example.org
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 Gary A. Braunbeck, Karen Meisner, 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!
THE DEVIL YOU KNOW by Shawna Kennedy
When you're writing fantasy (genre fiction in general, but particularly fantasy), setting can be paramount. You are often writing about a place that doesn't exist. How do you make that place come alive for your reader? And urban fantasists aren't necessarily let off the hook; they need to explain how the fantastic elements of their story work within our world.
It can be tricky to lay out the fantasy setting for the reader in a way that doesn't read like an encyclopedia entry. Now, in a novel you will have some time to get your setting in place; no sensible reader of a fantasy novel expects or wants to know everything about a world from page one. You can look at how people like China Mieville or Jeff VanderMeer set up their settings of Bas Lag and Ambergris over the course of several novels for good examples of how this is done. Patrick Rothfuss, in a less weird setting than that of Mieville or VanderMeer, also does an excellent job of setting the table, so to speak, for his readers.
It is Rothfuss's opening and setting that came to mind while reading Shawna Kennedy's THE DEVIL YOU KNOW. Both involve a tavern, both involve people coming into the tavern with news of a dangerous beast/people, and both involve a tavern owner who is more than he/she seems. The tavern owner connection is not as strong as the other ones. Rothfuss's tavern owner has a lot of secrets, while Kennedy's tavern owner, Selia, is less legendary, but no less impressive as a woman who isn't what people expect of women in the world she's created.
It is this familiar setting that Kennedy builds upon to get the reader into the novel. While it's unfortunate that women have traditionally taken a secondary role to men and a woman who does not do that becomes noteworthy, it is something that the writer can use as a touchstone for the reader. The locals know Selia and that she isn't someone to trifle with; this is something that the inlanders have to learn. Kennedy teases the reader about the Wastes, upon whose border Selia's tavern rests, and gives us something to look forward to in future chapters.
I'm a little confused when Kennedy says that the locals have a long ride home. To me, that says that they aren't exactly local. Unless this tavern is more remote than I see in my head. And if it's so remote, why wouldn't the locals build a tavern in town? Why build this tavern in such a strange spot? This is something that Kennedy will have to explain as the book develops. Regardless, she will either need to place the nearby town closer, or give the men a different group name.
The chapter starts off with Selia enjoying the night sky, only to have her reverie interrupted by an argument inside the tavern. She breaks up the argument by brandishing a knife. One of the inlanders make a comment I don't understand, and then Selia throws the knife into the wall above his head, declaring "where I came from, and where you are, they call that smart." Call what smart? Not arguing while the tavern keeper has a knife handy?
The scene feels like it has left something out of it, and I would like to see more description. Is the man far away from her? It's not clear to me how this intimidates the entire room. Later, Kennedy hints into Selia's past and that her mother made money as a prostitute and that many people assume Selia would be doing the same. Here, in only a few words, Kennedy tells us how Selia got her point across that things had changed since her mother was in charge: "It had taken some time a few broken noses." Now that sounds like a show of strength. In addition, this man Selia throws a knife at seems to disappear during the course of the chapter. If you're going to have conversation and scene building with a character, make it someone who is more important to the story.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editor's Choice area of the OWW site!
--John Klima, Editor, Electric Velocipede
SARANGONG, Chapters 1, 2 & 3 by Crash Froelich
A few years ago a chapter deep in this novel was chosen as an EC and it's interesting to read the beginning of the narrative now. The story and characters are just as engaging here at the start of it all as they are presented later in the novel and it's to the writer's credit that much of the situation is well remembered long after reading even just a couple chapters out of context.
Beginnings are important for grounding the reader in both characters and context, while introducing a situation that ideally intrigues and propels the reader to turn the page. Starting off with...
Charlie, you're nuts. This island is quarantined. If the comrades find you, they'll put you in front of a firing squad on live TV. Furthermore, I didn't agree to work as a pack animal. This is far enough, damn it.
...introduces two characters at once (the one speaking and Charlie) with some basic characteristics (Charlie being crazy, and the speaker being fed up), a place (the quarantined island), a potential threat (firing squad) and a name for the ‘enemy' that is somewhat familiar (comrades). Immediately we get an impression of the world, albeit scant, but it's a good promise that this scant world will be well fleshed out the further along we go. In the very next paragraph we're told the speaker's name (Li Ying) and some banter follows. However, it does get a little confusing as to who is speaking because of how the paragraphs are broken up. Generally speaking (and this is nitpicking), the action of the character precedes or follows their dialogue as ‘tags,' to make it easy to associate the action with the dialogue. Phrases like ‘Charlie laughed' could easily be tagged to his dialogue to make the association easy. Especially in the beginning of a novel, you want the least work for readers while they establish themselves in the narrative.
While the author mentioned that there is not a lot of internal dialogue, this first short chapter (aside: could they not simply be scene breaks because they're so short?) has a surprising lack of environmental details that could considerably add to atmosphere and overall world-building. You don't want to overload the narrative with top-heavy descriptions, especially if it's not in keeping with the overall style of the novel, but some more details about where Charlie and Li Ying are could add welcome color. We learn quickly that they are off-loading a boat, but from where and what type of environment? A lake, an open river, a crowded river? What does the flora look like? If it's a jungle, what about the sounds? The temperature? Are there bugs they have to swat away? A beach is mentioned, but beaches come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. What kind of beach is it? These aren't plot details, but they are interesting details to help immerse the reader in the world.
There are some nice details to be found, however:
He repeatedly ran his fingers through his salt-and-pepper hair as if trying to comb out his anxiety.
Instead of just saying he was anxious, it's displayed in a description. Be careful of repetition though, as when Li Ying repeats ‘the firing squad on TV' line...it jumps out too obviously since she said something nearly identical only a minute before.
These are all small fixes, but since the manuscript is not in a first-draft stage, attention could well be paid to very small details.
Chapter 1 ends on a note of threat, which works well to move the reader into the next scene/chapter. All the clues have been dropped, so to speak, the most important being the unsent letter to Charlie's son and the mention of Billie. Great foreshadowing.
The beginning of Chapter 2 gives a great sense of both character and place but the sentences are oddly truncated in pace, reading rather perfunctorily. While this could very well be a stylistic choice, it creates a kind of military delivery that doesn't really mirror the scene being depicted. Use sentence structure and length to add to what's being said in the narrative -- action scenes, for example, do well with shorter, punchy sentences.
By the time we get to Dave's chapter the narrative has bloomed (though the chapter does end abruptly):
Dave stepped out of the plane and into Sarangong's punishing summer sunshine. His senses were assaulted by the smells and colors of a botanical riot enthusiastically promoted by rich volcanic soil and a tropical climate. He shared a look with Debbie, took her hand, and led the way across the tarmac and inside the aging airport terminal. Rattling air conditioners wheezed some freshness into the atmosphere, which the surviving ceiling fans weakly stirred. Thankfully, dirt and vines sufficiently occluded the skylights in the vaulting roof to block most of the heat mercilessly beating down.
Fantastic description that continues on, beautifully revealing both world, plot, and character. Add this sort of approach to the first two chapters and the beginning will feel much more balanced and ready for submission. The brisk pace and inventive and realistic dialogue work well for the novel, keeping the reader's interest firmly locked in the story, and from recollection of later chapters, this is something carried throughout the book to its benefit.
Author of THE GASLIGHT DOGS, BURNDIVE and CAGEBIRD
"Stars" by Lisa Phoenix
This month's story is a take on the selkie myth that touches very lightly on the overt fantasy aspect, focusing more on the human dynamics. Selkie stories tend to revolve around the relationship between a seal-woman who gives up her wild sea life and the man for whom she gives it up, often reluctantly. While that dynamic hangs over the family in "Stars," it remains in the background of the story; the central relationship here is between the woman and her daughter, the narrator, who has grown up in the shadow of that marriage.
The language is clear and vivid, drawing me in from the very first sentences:
My mother loved the ocean. The house of my childhood was in a dune-wreathed neighborhood, all color muted in the mists. Around my mother's house, the clips and clops of the horses were muffled, the whispering hiss of waves and foghorn songs unrelenting; and she nurtured a salty little patch of a garden that grew only iceplant and orange nasturtiums.
Here we have a lovely example of how stirring the senses with simple and natural elements can create a delicate sense of enchantment. Tolkien, in his essay "On Fairy-Stories," wrote: "It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine." A story built with care and attention to such primal things can let the reader reconnect to a timeless natural world that feels mythical and magical, and "Stars" accomplishes that beautifully. The sense of ocean is palpable, in both the appeal of its vast, untamed sweep, and the narrator's experience of life on its shores with a muffling fog and perpetual dampness. The water is practically a character in this story. We can understand why our narrator would long to get away from it, and we can also feel its powerful draw.
Other aspects of the narrator are a little harder to understand; her character is sketched out but not filled in, and I can only guess at some of what makes her tick. Her urge to escape is just that: an urge, continually stifled. Without any real action, change, or even internal flights of imagination on her part, the story is missing a sense of forward motion. It gets bogged down in her passivity.
It's unclear to me whether "Stars" takes place in the modern world or an earlier time, but in any case, I wonder why the narrator seems so willing to give herself over to a life of discontented captivity. She describes the situation thus:
And soon enough, I found a young man, exactly like my father: kind, but watching me always, as if I might disappear like seawater into the sand. I told myself it was love, and he took me away, to a house in the mountains, half a continent away from any shore. I walked the riverbank every morning, and he never allowed me to go alone...
I'm bothered by that "allowed", the same phrasing she's used to describe her parents' unhappy marriage ("...My father never allowed her to go alone, as if he were afraid she might swim away..."). It makes me impatient: why do these women permit themselves to be controlled this way? Where is their agency? It's not uncommon in a marriage to feel one has lost some freedom or independent sense of self, and plenty of women do end up stuck with domineering men -- which is what makes the selkie mythos such a powerful template. I think there's an excellent idea in here about the daughter learning the pattern from the mother. But on the page, there are steps missing between the portrayals of her restless younger self and the desperate, helpless woman she becomes. If we're going to relate to this protagonist, I'd suggest she needs to at least attempt to protag a bit more.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editor's Choice area of the OWW site!
--Karen Meisner, Editor, Strange Horizons
"Blood Letter" by Shayne Winters
First off, I have to admit that I nearly laughed out loud when I read the reasons why this story has been rejected. To begin with, it's not a zombie story, no matter how you try to spin it -- it's an extended metaphor tale about the breakdown of society as seen through the eyes of a young boy; secondly, the criticism concerning its being so "small scale" borders on the ridiculous.
Stories of this type work best and most affectingly when they don't attempt to tackle the subject on a grand, global scale; the more intensely and intimately you keep the focus, the more powerful it will be. Methinks whomever rejected this story based on that you-should-pardon-the-expression criterion has read The Rising or (insert traditional zombie novel title here) one time too many.
However, the point about its length is one that you should take to heart. While I'm with you on the story needing to be short in order to maintain its power, as it stands now it's not so much a story as it is the spine of a story, a solid basis upon which to build a richer and more complex tale that what you have at the moment.
Let's talk about some broad-stroke changes that you need to make. The first, unfortunately, concerns the first the 3 paragraphs: they have to go. When you're dealing with an End of Days story, it's self-defeating to open with a passage that says, in essence, "We're all doomed and there's nothing that can be done about it. Here's how it happened." The reader will figure this out soon enough, and even though the story ultimately reaches a grim conclusion, it will work better, and be much more memorable, if you delay the narrator's finally admitting to himself that there's no hope, because as long as he thinks there might be, as long as he's able to find reasons to continue living under the most horrific of circumstances, then the reader will hold out hope, as well.
Another reason the current opening has to go is that, as it stands now, a full one-fifth of the story is nothing but grim portent: "By that time it was far too late to do anything about it." "No one realized what it was then, what it was going to become." "No one knows, exactly, why the world as we knew came to an end." All three of these came from the first two pages, and more instances of the same follow throughout the remainder of the story. The story would be so much better served were you to go through and cut every instance of this. If you feel that something like this has to be present, then use one and only one, and use it as late in the story as possible. A little of this goes a long way; too much becomes ponderous.
The next major problem -- even though it's presented as an almost throwaway bit -- is the specificity of time early on. Take a look at this paragraph:
No one knows, exactly, why the world as we knew it came to an end. Some said it was terrorists. After all, if anyone was going to bring down the wrath of the Jihad, it was bound to be us American infidels. Then the deaths spread, to Africa and Europe and the Middle East, and everywhere in between, and that put an end to that argument.
At the end of the previous paragraph, you made the following statement: "Things like that just didn't happen. Not back then, anyway." (Bold-face mine.)
It may not seem like much at a glance, but by referencing terrorists, Jihad, and the Middle East, you are -- intentionally or not -- setting this firmly sometime after 9/11. Coupled with the last two lines of the previous paragraph -- especially the final one -- it feels somehow false, as if you're trying to evoke a sense of lost innocence. And the reference to the narrator's little brother watching the murder with fascination because he didn't understand "...that this was real and not some video game" also adds another element of specificity that works against the story: the type of ultra-violent video game that is implied (and which the reader will infer) have only been part of mainstream popular culture for less than 20 years.
I'll stop hammering this particular point and offer the following suggestion: give serious consideration to removing any and all references that might give the reader any specific time frame. Setting this in an "anytime" will help the story to achieve and maintain the tone and feel of a fable, of a cautionary tale, and as a result will make the removal of all the portent-heavy passages that much easier.
In the sequence where the narrator and his brother witness the first murders, you have the killer take out seven people in less than four minutes using a broken bottle. As a reader, I could accept his killing one, even two, people, but -- even taking into account the time it takes for the police to arrive -- seven stretches it well past the point of believability. While the reaction of some of the crowd -- running away, screaming, panicking -- is acceptable, that no one on a crowded city street would try to step in and do something (be it an individual or two or three individuals) rings false and completely blunts any power the moment could have. You need to either have him kill fewer people, or turn it into a Kitty Genovese moment wherein the crowd simply stands there and watches as he slaughters person after person. (it seems to me that, considering the central conceit of the story, the latter would work much better in the story's favor.)
You also need to fix the scene wherein the narrator comes home to find his sister lying in her own blood. Her father has used a screwdriver and left several "puncture" wounds in her chest. Wouldn't it stand to reason that at least one of those strikes punctured one, if not both, of her lungs? If so, she wouldn't be able to speak at all. (It's little details like this that derail most horror stories; too many people think you need only show the blood and the dying body and readers will accept whatever follows. I am not one of them.)
For the rest of this review, visit the Editor's Choice area of the OWW site!
--Gary A. Braunbeck
Co-editor of Masques 5 and Five Strokes to Midnight, and author of Coffin County and The Collected Cedar Hill Stories
This month I'm thrilled to offer an inspiring interview with yet another OWW alum. Chris Evans is a longtime member of OWW and he very kindly agreed to be interviewed for this month's newsletter. I think you'll find his writing advice is on the money, as evidenced by his well-earned success.
Chris was born in Canada and now lives in New York City. As a military historian he has conducted battlefield tours of Europe and was the historical consultant on a television documentary on the First World War. He's earned Bachelors degrees in English/history and political science, as well as a Masters in history. Chris is also an editor of history and current affairs/conflicts books including the highly successful Stackpole Military History Series. His first novel, A Darkness Forged in Fire, is being translated into Japanese, Russian, German, and French, and was chosen as one of Library Journal's best Science Fiction and Fantasy books of 2008.
You can get more information about Chris and his books on his very excellent web site.
Tell us a little about your most recent book, The Light Of Burning Shadows.
It continues the story from A Darkness Forged in Fire in a world where magic and muskets coexist, so a time period roughly similar to the late 1700s/early 1800s. It's certainly in the vein of traditional fantasy -- something I'm not the least bit ashamed to say -- but there are a few twists. Much of my inspiration is derived from areas that aren't mined all that often in fantasy, coming from the works of authors and historians like Rudyard Kipling, Bernard Cornwell, Richard Holmes, Michael Shaara, George MacDonald Fraser, Terry Copp, Barbara Tuchman, and T.E. Lawrence, among others.
This book picks up with the Iron Elves regiment continuing their fight against the ever-bolder incursions of the elf witch, the Shadow Monarch. The regiment's task is complicated by the growing restlessness among the colonies and protectorates of the Calahrian Empire as the native peoples see the impending war and the return of stars thought to contain magical powers as a chance to be rid of the Empire once and for all. With all-out war looming and rebellion imminent, the regiment stumbles upon an ancient power that may hold the key to freeing the Iron Elves from the blood oath that binds them in service to the Empire and the Shadow Monarch in life and even death. In addition to propelling the story along, The Light of Burning Shadows has given me a chance to explore more of the effects of battle on characters like Major Swift Dragon, Private Alwyn Renwar, Visyna Tekoy, Rallie Synjyn, and Sergeant Yimt Arkhorn, and we see some very different responses. This was important to me as I work with many veterans and hear firsthand what it's like to be in battle, from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iron Elves series is allowing me to explore some of this within a fantasy context, and it's my hope that in addition to telling an entertaining story, The Light of Burning Shadows does justice to the plight of the regular soldier.
You are the history and current affairs/conflicts editor at Stackpole Books. Is it hard to turn off your internal editor when you read for pleasure?
The short answer is yes. As an editor and an author I live and breathe books, so whenever I read there's always a part of my brain analyzing the plot, the characters, the flow of the narrative, and all the other myriad choices the author (and his or her editor) made. I still enjoy a good book, but I keep a pen and note pad close at hand, or barring that, I'll tear strips of Kleenex into bookmarks and insert them whenever I find something I want to make note of. In a way, it's similar to those stories you hear of inventors who got their start by taking apart the inventions of others to figure out how they work. I tell all my authors to read widely and with an open and inquiring mind, and I follow my own advice.
How does working as a professional editor affect your writing?
It definitely slows me down. The tendency to want to edit as I write is always there, and I am in a pitched battle with myself to keep the editor in me at bay so the writer can stretch his wings and just create. I remind myself that there'll be time enough to edit, revise, and otherwise rewrite later. It'd be nice to say that being an editor makes me a better writer, but alas, that's not entirely the case. You know how they say a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client? well, it's not that different for editors who write. If you think you can edit yourself you're probably in for a world of hurt. You need that outside counsel; I know I do. I have a great editor in Ed Schlesinger at Pocket Books, and I have some core first-readers who provide me with insightful feedback. That, more than my experience as an editor, helps me as I write.
Can you tell us your call story? How did you find out your book was sold?
It was May 2007 and I was visiting my parents when Deputy Publisher Anthony Ziccardi called me to tell me that Pocket would like to offer me a two-book deal. At that point I'd been an editor for around seven years and had edited a hundred-plus books. I was used to book deals being made because I'm normally the one calling up an author or agent to make them, but this time was different. This time it was for my book. It was and remains a very cool moment for me especially because I was able to share it with my parents, both of whom have been and continue to be incredibly supportive of me.
On your web site you recommended OWW as a workshop for writers. How did the experience help you?
OWW opened my eyes. Before I joined (back around 1999/2000) I was as green as green gets when it comes to writing. I read voraciously, I wrote every chance I could, but I'd never really put my material to the test. The critiques I received on the workshop really helped hone my skills. Through the workshop I met a very good friend and one of my inner circle of first readers who look at every draft, Deb Christerson, and I met C.C. Finlay, author of the terrific new series Traitor to the Crown. From the OWW I was accepted into Clarion, and from there I was hired by a great editor who got his start in the world of comics, Senior Editor Steve Saffel at Del Rey (thanks to Gavin Grant of Small Beer Press who was in my Clarion class and told me that Del Rey were looking), and then I was ultimately published by Pocket, so it's not that hard to trace a direct line from the workshop to where I am now. A lot of hard work and definitely some luck helped, too.
Your agent is the awesome Donald Maass. How did that relationship come about?
A mutual friend in publishing, Executive Editor Shelly Shapiro of Del Rey Books (editor of some of the biggest series on the planet including Pern and Star Wars) made the introductions and the rest, as they say, is history. Don is a writer himself and also the former president of the Association of Authors' Representatives and knows his way around New York publishing as well as anyone. I count myself fortunate, indeed, to have an agent like Don, and a friend like Shelly.
You are an historian as well as an editor of history books. What makes history come alive for you?
Inspired research, attention to details, and narrative flair. History is, or should be, about telling a story. That might sound obvious, but too often you see history presented as a dry dissertation of facts. That's not wrong, but it's hardly inviting. Worse though, is that if a writer can't make history interesting then it prompts the question why write it in the first place? Writing is all about communicating. And at the risk of offending my former colleagues in academia, it's about entertaining, too. You need to engage readers and compel them to read more. History, good history, does that. It's a time machine, a portal to a whole other existence than the one we currently know, yet what happened there shaped the world we live in today. It shares a lot of the same characteristics as fantasy in that regard and for me, that's as cool as it gets.
What advice would you like to give the aspiring author?
The harder you work the luckier you get. I joined OWW and went to Clarion because I wanted to be a writer, but when Del Rey offered me a job I jumped at the opportunity to become an editor and learn the business from the inside. Basically, I spent a seven-year apprenticeship as an editor while using my free time -- when I could make some -- to improve my skills as a writer. So keep an open mind and plan for the long term.
Then there's the mantra -- read, read, read -- and try books out of your comfort zone from time to time. Take notes and understand why something you read made you angry, or excited. Just be aware of why and how something worked, or didn't, when you read, and make note of that when you sit down to work on your manuscript.
Finish what you start. No one is looking for a half-written manuscript. If you want to be treated as a professional, then be one. Editors can spot authors who aren't really ready from a mile away, and that's a sure-fire way to get a rejection letter. The temptation to rush something out there is hard to resist, but you need to if you're going to make the best first impression you can. There are so many great resources out there to help, like OWW, that there's no reason you can't be polished and prepared if you're willing to make the effort. And when you do finish your manuscript, celebrate your accomplishment by starting a new novel. One-book wonders are for people who land planes in the Hudson River. Don't constantly revise and rewrite the same novel year after year. My first completed novel remains unpublished, but what I learned while writing it proved to be the stepping stone to the Iron Elves series that launched my career.
Understand what you want. Sounds simple, but it requires asking yourself tough questions. In my case, I want to be a successful writer, and for me that means accepting the fact that I'm part of the entertainment industry. I freely admit that I am entirely okay with the concept that I write for my enjoyment, that of my fans, AND that I get paid to do it. It's that last part that gets some folks all wound up. It leads to the false and rather pointless dichotomy of the "artist" versus the "hack". The true auteur versus the commercial...hack. I saw the same bifurcation in academia, the scholar versus the "popular" historian, and it's all a bit beside the point. I enjoy the high and the low, the humorous and the serious, the urbane and the broad equally, and for entirely different reasons. I don't want to eat steak every day, or hamburger, nor do I just want to read only the most literate or only the most bawdy. I like variety, and I suspect most readers are the same. I suppose all this boils down to one simple axiom -- know yourself and what you want (and want to achieve), and then be ok with it.
Don't take criticism personally, unless you really want to, in which case go ahead and use it for fuel. Some of the greatest achievements in the history of civilization began with the words "I'll show them..."
And most importantly, enjoy what you're doing. If you don't love to write, then you're in for a long and painful road. The thing is, the road's equally long and painful even if you do love to write, but you won't really care because you want to do it and can't think of anything else you'd rather do.
What's been the most significant change for you since your first book came out?
I think that would have to be actually achieving the dream of being published, because it meant losing the dream I'd chased for so long -- that of wanting to be published. I hope that makes sense. When you hold a dream in your heart for years it becomes part of you, shaping you in ways you're not fully conscious of. Letting go of it, even when that means you've finally fulfilled that dream, can be a surprisingly unsettling process. But I'm not complaining! And once I got my head around the fact that my first novel was being published a new dream quickly supplanted the old one -- crafting a career.
The other big change has been sharing my story with people I've never met, in many cases in countries I've never been to and in languages I don't speak. Everyone has their own opinion and those opinions run the gamut from love to hate. That in itself surprised me more than it probably should have. You tell yourself that you'll have readers who totally get what you do and can't wait for more, some who are on the fence, and others who would rather watch paint dry than suffer one more word that flows from your imagination. Whatever the reaction, it's all in response to the exact same story, and as an author that's fascinating to observe. What was completely unsurprising, however, was just how passionate and fiercely honest readers of fantasy are. They express their opinions clearly, often forcefully, very often with significant knowledge of the genre, and sometimes with a flair for humor (which I particularly enjoy, even when it's my work they're making fun of!).
Can you tell us what you're working on now?
As it happens, Pocket Books in the US and S&S UK just bought the third book of the Iron Elves series which I'm working on as we speak, er, well, I will be once I finish this interview. I don't have a title yet, but the book will be published some time in the summer/fall of 2010.
Ilona Andrews has a new short story over at Samhain Publishing called Silent Blade.
Mike Keyton is on a whopper of a success spree by selling three short stories recently. "I've just signed the contract for the Anthology, The Blackness Within. My story is called 'Bad Meat.' I also have 'When I Breathed I Clinked' coming out in an Adams publication -- My First Year In The Classroom Anthology. Finally, Zahir has accepted 'Mr Nousel's Mirror.' Thank you to all those who've sharpened my work, but the biggest thing I've learnt is submit, and then submit again."
Sandra McDonald sold the short story "Watching" to Destination Future, Hadley Rilles Books. Sandra says: "I also sold a reprint of 'The Fireman's Fairy' to Podcastle, and the story 'A Day in the Park' to the anthology Cheer Up Universe."
Suzanne McLeod's second book, The Cold Kiss of Death from the Spellcrackers.com series, comes out on July 16, 2009.
Michael Merriam's story "Weaving Tales," will appear in Drops of Crimson's June YA edition. The story was workshopped on OWW back in late 2003, and while Michael has lost the file with the reviewer's names, he is still grateful for all of their hard work.
THE COLD KISS OF DEATH by Suzanne McLeod (Gollancz, July 2009)
All Genny wants is to live the quiet life and to do her job at Spellcrackers.com, but there's her tangled personal life to sort out first. She's being haunted by ghosts who want her help. Her witch neighbours want her evicted. Genny's sort-of-Ex -- and now her new boss -- can't decide whether he wants their relationship to be business or pleasure. And then there's the queue of vampires all wanting her to paint the town red -- how long will it be before they stop taking no for an answer? But when one of her human friends is murdered by sidhe magic, Genny is determined to find the killer. She needs help to find the real murderer, and that means calling on some of the most capricious and seductive fae -- but her search is hindered by the vampires, who have their own political agenda. All the evidence points to Genny -- she's the only sidhe fae in London -- and she's named the main suspect; it's not long before she's on the run, not just from the police, but from some of London's most powerful supernaturals.
THE DEMON REDCOAT by Charles Coleman Finlay (Del Rey Books, June 2009)
The War of Independence appears to have no end in sight. Discouraged by the bloodshed and suffering their magic can do nothing to prevent, Proctor and his wife, Deborah, dream of starting a family. But when Deborah gives birth, a powerful demon called Balfri, summoned by the secret society of European witches known as the Covenant, tries to possess the child. Though the attack in unsuccessful, it makes Proctor and Deborah realize that there can be no safety for them, or for anyone, until the Covenant is destroyed.
Proctor embarks on a desperate journey to take the fight to the heart of the Covenant's power: Europe. There he will uncover a dark, necromantic design of chillingly vast proportions. His only chance to defeat it will be to join forces with the very king the Revolution opposes, King George III. Meanwhile, back in America, Deborah will face Balfri again--only this time the demon will have the whole British army to command.
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