The rumor mill has been wild with book deals and agent offers lately. That must be why it's been so quiet from the author front. Everyone's busy either writing new books or editing current ones. If that's the case, by all means, keep up the good work!
Jeanne Cavelos will be back with us in September as our in-house Editor's Choice reviewer for Horror. Many thanks to Gary Braunbeck for filling in for her while she was tending the Odyssey Writing Workshop.
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
Guest Challenge Dictator Lindsay Kitson sent in this month's challenge.
Write a character who's completely different from your ideal self and see what you can do with that character that you couldn't do with a more likable one. If you're ideal self is attractive, make this character someone who doesn't care about his or her appearance. If your ideal self is clever, make this someone rash who doesn't think things through. Explore the diversity of personalities, and at the same time, you might be surprised how freeing it can be to write characters you wouldn't like if you met them.
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).
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/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!
IN THE FAELISH SUN, Chapter 6 by Erica Lovell
If you've been reading these reviews for a while, you should know by now that dialog can make or break a novel for me. Honestly, there are a lot of things that can throw me out of a novel, but bad dialog is the worst. I don't understand how people can write bad dialog. Does it sound like anything people say? Is it reminiscent of any conversation you've been a part of or overheard? Read it out loud. How does it sound to your ears? Thankfully, Erica Lovell does not suffer from this problem in chapter six from IN THE FAELISH SUN.
Lovell's dialog is quite good. It feels like things people would actually say to each other. And she does a decent job of the Faery creatures speaking stilted English. Lovell needs to be careful with the Faery characters that they avoid speaking in modern colloquialisms. They're easy to use -- that's how we speak -- but they are parts of speech that non-native speakers should not know. And how much more non-native can you get than creatures from the Faelish Realm?
There is only one piece of dialog I didn't like, and that was when a character used the phrase "Beer o'clock," which felt forced. It could be that this mannerism might be well established for this character, but for me it didn't work. The thing is, you can even make bad dialog work for you. Say you leave "Beer o'clock" in, Lovell could have the other characters question it, make is a conversation point.
Another thing I really liked in Lovell's chapter is how well-developed the characters and their world are. The interactions between the characters feel very plausible and there is a good amount of existing tension that makes the story compelling. They also feel very much a part of the world of the story. There are some stories I read where the characters feel like cardboard cutouts being pushed from one location to another. That is not the case here. Lovell has created living, breathing people in a real world.
That's not to say things don't need some tightening. This chapter is pretty polished, in my opinion, so many of my comments are more esoteric things. Which typically means they are more problematic to fix. Lovell states in her opening notes that she's thinking of changing the title. I think that could be a good idea. Using a word like "Faelish" in your title could turn off potential readers, and that includes agents and editors. And since many people will read it as "failish" that's not a good thing. Introducing new words in the title can be off putting. Titles should be evocative, not confusing.
At one point in the chapter, Pamela, a Faery, talks about a Harry that people worship. Pamela explains that Harry saved the world. At first, I was certain Pamela meant Harry Truman and was trying to puzzle that out, but it became clear that she was speaking of Harry Potter. While I like the idea here (Pamela is confusing a character out of popular media with a real person) I have a real difficulty when that person is cemented firmly. What I mean is: will everyone agree that Harry Potter fits the role Pamela places on him? If this book takes five years to find a publisher, will Harry Potter still be relevant in that way? My notes ask "Not Edward? Or Jacob?" but those two have the same problem. In five years, ten years, what will those names mean to people?
Back in the Dark Ages a guy in a writer's group I belonged to insisted in putting in references to songs in his book. For him, these songs meant a very specific thing, and they were the perfect setting for the atmosphere he wanted to create. Unfortunately, I hated the songs and it created a revulsion for those scenes beyond the words on the page. So, be careful when pulling in real-world references into your novel. What they mean to you might not be what they mean to your reader and can adversely affect how a scene is read.
There are a few occasions where I wish Lovell took some more time setting up her scenes. To give a generic example, someone will look at an apple and then a character is practically shouting, "Hey! We should eat apples!" without giving any context to why the apples should be eaten. Paragraphs without transistion between them will occur immediately after each other for your reader. If you don't intend for someone to step out of the shower and then be racing down the road in their car -- in your reader's mind the soap foam blowing out of the hair and the seat growing damp from the hasty towel wrap -- write a transition to move from one to the next.
Now, this is something that I'm reluctant to bring up. The chapter is slated as being for young adults, but there are no young adult characters in it. In reality, that's not necessary, in practice, it's a tough, tough sell to the young adult market if you don't have young adult characters. Why should the young adults read about people they can't relate to? Yes, I agree, young adults read all sorts of things. But, from a publishing perspective, if you're going to write for young adults, give very serious consideration to having a character be a young adult.
One last little thing. Much of this chapter takes place in a library. When two of the characters walk out of a study room the floor is described as linoleum. In a library? Really? Not carpet? Which is, well, quiet? In my reader's mind, the characters have not left the library, and there is no library in the world that has non-carpeted floors in places where patrons are intended to study. Trust me. (I don't want exceptions, this is my field of expertise.) This is light-hearted jabbing, and if this is based on an actual building, I want their e-mail address so that I can admonish them personally.
Lovell has a strong chapter here. Good characters, intriguing story, all the elements you need to keep the reader turning pages. Now it's time to look at the manuscript beyond the grammatical and proofreading concerns and view the big picture. Transitions, references, etc.: all the things that take a good manuscript and make it great, make it memorable.
--John Klima, Editor, Electric Velocipede
ATTRITION, Chapters 5 & 6 by Dev Agarwal
Solid narrative skills, great pacing, and well-drawn characters embody this month's EC (though the title could be a little more impactful or illustrative). One especially solid point of these two chapters is the secondary characters. While many young writers understandably spend a lot of time fleshing out their protagonists, one shouldn't forget about the opportunity to be colorful and specific when establishing characters that may even just walk into a couple of scenes and never be seen again. As far as those secondary characters that crop up throughout the novel and provide needed interaction and information for the protagonists (or antogonists), they too should have some kind of arc or story, even if we don't see it on screen, so to speak. The writer should know their backgrounds and personalities as well as those of the heroes/villains so that it comes through on the page by implicit suggestion, if not outright illustration.
In a post-apocalyptic, alien-invaded world, the characters -- whether mercenary or investigative reporter -- work through the narrative as seamlessly as the new tech.
A man and a youth stepped up to Ali, with the presence of a shakedown.
Ali spoke in Hindi to the man, then he turned to Aidan. "You go now," he said in English. "You go."
Aidan watched them carefully. Both were skinny and hungry-looking. The boy looked Chinese and stood barefoot. The man beside him had sleepy brown eyes in wrinkled folds. They stayed on Aidan. A sin dip would have told him instantly anything he cared to know about Aidan. But the Hanuman blocked sin down here.
The brief sentences and no-nonsense tone suit the threat and tension of the action in this underground warren. All descriptions are delivered with sniper accuracy, without a lot of extraneous or unnecessary details -- just enough to give a good picture of both people and environment. At this point the important part is to keep the narrative moving through Aidan's eyes, while maintaining suspense by not explaining beyond what he would instinctively know and observe. Who are these people? Where is he going? What danger is he in? The scene builds with details dropped strategically and perfectly along the way on both people and history, until more characters are introduced:
They were all Indian, two women and a man.
The platform canted to the left and groaned when he climbed onto it. The man and one of the women wore heavy sandals. The younger woman of the two wore boots, English Doc Martens. All of them had on trouser suits that were stained with use. The two women were dark and could be sisters. Their faces were dull with fatigue. The man was small and balding, and he wore a utility vest over his potbelly.
"Nomasti," the younger woman said.
Aidan had automatically looked at the man as their leader. The small man smiled.
"I am known as Aditi," the woman said in an English accent. Most Indians spoke English infected by American New Asian accents.
"That a code name?" he asked.
She nodded. Aditi looked harder edged and more intent that the others.
"Who leads?" Aidan asked, looking at each of them in turn.
This entire scene works on a number of levels.
Perfunctory and effective, we get the visuals of the new strangers, Aidan's immediate impressions, sound effects to help establish the flavor of the scene, and a sense of the culture clash between East and West. The delivery compliments Aidan's personality as a capable man, dangerous in his own right. He is there on a mission and though he's rendered unarmed, he isn't weaponless in his intentions or his abilities. The pace of the dialogue also enhances character -- these are people who won't waste time on pleasantries or frivolity. This also adds tension to the exchange. Physical descriptions of the characters are smattered throughout the scene through Aidan's point of view, as if he is gathering impressions as the interaction deepens, and this doesn't clog the action; rather it allows the reader to accumulate a complete image of the people over a brief period of time, in a manner that makes contextual sense. The chapter ends on a great point of suspense, as Aidan takes charge, having already competently assessed these strangers -- and thus so have the readers.
In Chapter 6 we're introduced to another protagonist and a secondary character, both of whom move through similar intrigue and needled dialogue interplay. By switching locations and characters at this point, this helps build suspense while putting into play more needed plot cogs in the wheel of the story. Though the location (San Francisco) might be more readily familiar to the reader than underground India, the author doesn't scrimp on telling details as the character goes from point A to point B on the streets.
He greeted Rebecca at his door. He had seen depressions, wars and the pace of life race with the Information Age. It never broke his stride. A risk-taker at ninety, Sol seized Salusan breakthroughs in rejuvenating DNA and mitochondrial membrane repairs. More than just lengthening his life, they gave him back his youth. He smiled and welcomed her in with a flourish. He wore a vintage blue silk shirt and trousers with a grey cavalry twill. "Right on time, my Rebecca."
Not all details about a character when they first come on the page need to be lines upon lines of physical description. Here we learn more about the kind of person Sol is and his importance and interest to Rebecca, the investigative reporter, than things she'd be less interested in knowing (or showing the reader through her eyes) like his eye color, height, etc. As in the previous chapter, the interesting characteristics of the man and his history are doled out throughout the interaction so it's not all infodumped in one place to break up the flow or the suspense. Again, this chapter ends on a note of intrigue, propelling the reader to want to turn the page.
This book is nearly publisher-ready just from the first six chapters so far offered. If the pacing, plot, fantastic story and worldbuilding, and character development are maintained throughout, its unique voice through even an established science fiction trope (alien invasion) could be well received by editors and readers alike.
Author of THE GASLIGHT DOGS, BURNDIVE and CAGEBIRD
"Join" by Elizabeth Coleman
It's a pleasure to see a story take on the challenge of portraying relationships between humans and aliens, when those relationships feel genuinely new, complex, and creatively imagined. "Join" follows Derek, a human who's been living among aliens, as he returns to Earth for his father's funeral. Unbeknownst to his family, he's carrying the child of his two alien lovers. This story has a lot going for it: strong writing, a character we can relate to, and aliens who seem intriguingly alien.
The central concern in "Join" is to do with social tension around Derek's relationship with the aliens. I think this is an area where the story isn't fully working yet, because it's still not clear to me quite where the taboo rests. How much of the problem is the family's prejudiced unease around Derek's unconventional relationships, how much is about their concern for his physical well-being, and how much is to do with the power dynamics between humans and the Phoeng? We're given a few lines summing it up:
"But though Mom could be friends with an alien, and might even accept that I'd married one, she couldn't accept that I'd married two, and was running around with their surplus child soaking nutrients from my bloodstream. She definitely couldn't accept that I'd had my body altered to breathe the Phoeng's methane-heavy atmosphere, and my throat to better speak their language."
This on-the-nose approach may not be the most effective way to let us understand the social pressure. Outlining the parameters of Mom's disapproval this way actually blunts their reality, because her disapproval is shown as a clinical summary of what's considered unacceptable, without any emotional weight behind it. In real life, taboos involve vast social atmospheres of norms, assumptions, and gut responses. They come through in the casual things people say, or the things they refrain from saying. So to make the world of this story feel more real, telling us what people think will be less effective than showing the social environment in which Derek moves. I would like to see more of his mother's attitude in action, through offhand remarks or physical responses. All of this needs to feel more pervasive, in order for us to understand what Derek is up against; otherwise the ending feels too easy and rushed. Through the whole story, he worries about his family's reaction to his choices, but when they finally discover the truth, they seem to take it pretty well. It's a bit of a letdown, unless the rest of the story provides a stronger background of real resistance to what he's doing. I think the ending gains depth if we understand the prevailing attitudes, and if the family can be seen as trying to take first steps toward acceptance, rather than adjusting too neatly right away.
The story makes a couple of references to the aliens colonizing our solar system, but it's unclear what impact the aliens have had on Earth, and to what extent that feeds into the family's feelings about the Phoeng. Surely being colonized must have a huge effect on their attitudes! I am really interested in this angle, and would like to see a little more of that picture filled in. Again, this is an area where we'll learn more through witnessing the evidence than by having a block of exposition handed to us. I don't need to know all the facts of the socio-political backdrop, but I do want to absorb a feel for how it affects daily life and how humans view the aliens, because that will help me understand what Derek is up against when he comes out to them. Without some wider understanding of human/Phoeng relations, the story relies too much on the reader's assumptions; we are left to impose our own sets of taboos onto this situation, where they map inexactly.
The story begins with a few clear, well-crafted phrases of description that set a scene and engage the senses. I particularly like "A midnight sky, an empty bowl of clouds," and "She was a pupating larvae, soft and pearly." The description falls off as the story goes on; don't forget to throw in a few sensory images here and there! You have a gift for it, and they will pull the reader in to feel more present in the world.
The glimpses of the Phoeng are wonderfully strange, and I love their quest for the Fountains of God across the cosmos, but I wonder if they don't suffer just a bit from Wise Alien Syndrome -- in which an alien race is presented as supremely benevolent, wise, and spiritual. The physical/psychic symbiotic relationship between baby and Derek could be a clue as to how they evolved an empathetic, curious approach to other species, but I'd like to see more of that influence in action. If a story falls back too much on "they're simply kind and good," those characters don't feel real. If Derek really is in a relationship with Dina, let Dina display some personality beyond just throwing parties and loving Derek. Let us see that there is a give and take in their relationship. Otherwise we're left to wonder how much his brother might be right, and the aliens really are treating him as their slave, colonizing his body. What is Derek getting out of this, besides sex and an escape from a human world where he's not comfortable? Or if the sex is an important part of what he's getting, no need to be dainty about what makes it good; a little hinting will go a long way. Derek doesn't relate well to humans: he tells us this but we don't witness what bothers him about people, especially since he seems to have a pretty nice family. Let us see moments, incidents, reactions, that show how humans affect him. Let us see him longing for the contrasting alien culture, in ways that are consistent with what he's not getting from the human one. The more the story shows us what all of this means to Derek, the more it will mean to us.
--Karen Meisner, Editor, Strange Horizons
We don't have a Horror EC this month.
Amanda Downum lives near Austin, Texas, in a house with a spooky attic. When not writing she can be found working in a used bookstore, or falling off perfectly good rocks. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Realms of Fantasy, and Weird Tales. THE DROWNING CITY, first of the Necromancer Chronicles, is available from Orbit Books; the second volume, THE BONE PALACE, is forthcoming in December 2010.
For more information on Amanda or her writing, visit www.amandadownum.com.
Tell us about The Bone Palace.
Bone Palace is the second in the Necromancer Chronicles, the not-a-trilogy of books about the continuing adventures of Isyllt Iskaldur, necromancer and spy. I don't have a sexy elevator pitch for it yet, but it starts with a murder mystery, with political intrigue, revenge tragedy, and vampires thrown in for good measure.
How did the novel come about?
Though it's the second in the series, I actually started The Bone Palace first. I eventually got stuck and put it aside in favor of The Drowning City, which I finished and sold. It started with the image of a dead body in an alley, and from there I had to figure out who was killed and why and why it was important to Isyllt.
What comes first, the character or the plot for you?
In this case, Isyllt predates the plot by several years. Sometimes I'll have images of scenes or lines of dialogue in my head and have to "cast" them.
Do you still use critique partners? Why?
Absolutely. They're my most invaluable resource. (Even better than Wikipedia!) After I've worked on a scene twenty times and read it forty, it's hard to be clear-headed about its effectiveness.
What writing advice have you happily ignored?
I've seen advice not to use crit partners. I've ignored just about everything at least once, if it wasn't helpful for the project I was working on. I'm a firm believer in guidelines over rules when it comes to writing.
What advice can you give writers on pitching to an agent?
Finish the book before you query or pitch. Then revise it and revise it again. After that, follow their submission guidelines!
Is there anything you would have done differently in order to get published earlier or more easily?
It took me a long time to learn to stick with a book through the rough parts. Finishing a novel is an important step in selling it. Beyond that, the best way to write and sell good books (or stories, or poetry, or whatever) is to write some bad ones first, get rejected, and learn to write better.
Can you tell us your call story? How did you find out your book was sold?
I was driving when my agent called. I pulled over, to properly squeal without endangering myself and others. It didn't sink in until she sent me a follow-up e-mail that night and I read it twenty times.
What's next on the publishing horizon?
I'm working on the third Necromancer Chronicles, KINGDOMS OF DUST, right now. After that I'm going to pitch some contemporary fantasy for my option novel and hope for the best.
Our very own Leah Bobet told us: "I'm really, really happy to be able to announce that my young adult novel ABOVE will be published by Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc. The first few chapters of the novel were run through the workshop -- and several workshoppers and ‘shop alumni critiqued the whole manuscript in various stages. I want to thank not only them, but everyone involved at OWW. I've been here since I wrote my first short story at nineteen years old (and had no idea what to do with it!) and the community here has been the foundation of everything about me as a writer, period, and a whole lot about me as a person, too. You guys rock. I couldn't ask for a better crew. Thank you."
Cécile Cristofari says: "Still nothing to report in the fiction department, but I seem to be luckier with my critical pieces, since I've just sold another article (on maps in fantasy novels) to Strange Horizons. And since the workshop is as good for developing critical abilities as writing abilities, thank you for existing!"
Michael Goodwin told us that his latest novel, CASCA: THE OUTLAW is now available through Americana Books, Barrysadler.com, michaelbgoodwin.com, or Amazon.com or E-Bay.
Terra LeMay announced: "My first accepted short story, 'Schrodinger's Pussy,' was published last week by Apex Magazine, and right on the heels of that, I have made my second sale, for my story 'Standing Next to Heaven,' to Daily Science Fiction. Thanks to everyone who critiqued this story a couple months ago!"
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.
July 2010 Honor Roll Nominees
Reviewer: Erin Stocks
Submission: Reckless Moon, Wanton Stars
Submitted by: Boz Flamagin
Reviewer: Sylvia Volk
Submission: Led by a Virgin Queen
Submitted by: Gio Clairval
Reviewer: vashti v
Submission: Dead Girls Can't Tell Part 1
Submitted by: Anita Stewart
Reviewer: Boz Flamagin
Submission: Child of Fortune, Child of Labor
Submitted by: Erin Stocks
Reviewer: Paul Pappas
Submission: Dead Girls Can't Tell Part 1
Submitted by: Anita Stewart
Reviewer: Peter Cooper
Submission: Dead Girls Can't Tell Part 1
Submitted by: Anita Stewart
Reviewer: Ladonna Watkins
Submission: Links: Chapter One
Submitted by: vashti v
Reviewer: vashti v
Submission: Blue Ghost Chapter One
Submitted by: Ladonna Watkins
Reviewer: Beth Cato
Submission: Night Music
Submitted by: Pete Aldin
Reviewer: Raymond Walshe
Submission: All the King's Gold
Submitted by: Gregory Clifford
Reviewer: Gregory Clifford
Submission: Janie Lane and the Toy Mill - Chapter 13 by Raymond Walshe
Submitted by: Raymond Walshe
Reviewer: Jodi Henry
Submission: In the Faelish Sun - Chapter Four (WAS Three) by Erica Lovell
Submitted by: Erica Lovell
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