Another year is drawing to a close and we've had an amazing number of successes this year, for writers new and old. But 2010 isn't over yet. You still have time to push for one more hurrah.
To get you into shape, check out Odyssey's Winter Online Workshops. Full details are in the Grapevine.
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
From an off-comment on the workshop, this challenge should rock! Write a story about a rock. Yes, your character is a rock. Feel free to write this as science fiction or fantasy, but find a way to give this rock a story--make people care about the rock and its challenges. You can do it! This challenge is going to rock!
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).
ODYSSEY WRITING WORKSHOP ANNOUNCES WINTER 2011 ONLINE CLASSES
The Odyssey Writing Workshop, one of the most respected programs for writers of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, is offering three online writing classes this winter. Each class is focused on a particular element of fiction writing and is designed for writers at a particular skill level, from beginners to professional writers.
For sixteen years, Odyssey has pursued its mission to help developing writers of fantasy, science fiction, and horror improve their work by holding its annual six-week, in-person workshop in Manchester, New Hampshire. But last year, using the latest technology, Odyssey expanded its mission, taking the teaching techniques that are so effective at the workshop and adapting them to create online classes. Odyssey Director Jeanne Cavelos explains, "We have worked very hard to ensure that our online classes are of the same quality and caliber as our in-person workshop and that they deserve to carry the name of Odyssey." Courses provide a supportive yet challenging, energizing atmosphere, with a class size limited to fourteen students. While courses are designed for adult writers of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, interested writers of other genres are welcome to apply.
Last winter Odyssey offered its first online course, Showing versus Telling in Fantastic Fiction. "The class was a huge success," Jeanne Cavelos says. "Using Web conferencing software, we held live class sessions with fourteen students from the US, Japan, and Australia. We had some great discussions, and the students proved that they could commit significant amounts of time and energy to a rigorous, demanding course despite the long distances. They worked intensely on recognizing and manipulating showing and telling in their fiction and made exciting improvements."
This year, in response to demand, Odyssey is offering three different online courses covering some of the most critical issues for developing writers:
Three-Act Structure in Fantastic Fiction
Course Meets: January 5 - February 2, 2011
Instructor: Jeanne Cavelos
Application Deadline: December 9, 2010
One of the greatest weaknesses of developing writers is plot. One of the best tools for strengthening plot is the act. Plotting in acts creates a more suspenseful, unpredictable, and emotionally satisfying experience for the reader. The strongest plots often have three acts. In this course, students will study plots of a variety of works, and they'll learn how to create their own strong three-act plots.
Worldbuilding in Fantastic Fiction
Course Meets: January 12 - January 26, 2011
Instructor: Melissa Scott
Application Deadline: December 16, 2010
The most prominent element that separates science fiction, fantasy, and much horror from other genres is the setting. A unique, fully realized, believable world provides much of the appeal of fantastic fiction. Creating a vivid, consistent world is not a simple task. Incorporating that world gracefully into a story is another challenge. Award-winning author Melissa Scott is the absolute expert on the subject, and in this mini-course, she will guide students through the process step by step.
Writing in Scenes
Course Meets: February 9 - 23, 2011
Instructor: Nancy Kress
Application Deadline: January 10, 2011
For award-winning author Nancy Kress, one principle made all the difference in her writing, transforming it from promising but unsalable to compelling and published. That one principle was writing in scenes. In this unique mini-course, Nancy will explain how to determine the purpose and shape of a scene. She'll discuss the five modes of expression used in a scene, how to find the optimal balance between these five modes for a particular scene, and the importance of dialogue as the heart of almost all scenes. Nancy, an acclaimed writing teacher, provides great insights into the process of creating a scene.
More information about Odyssey's Online Classes is available at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org/online.html or by emailing email@example.com.
Odyssey's Online Classes pack valuable content into each session and provide assignments that challenge students to take their writing to the next level. The classes provide the tools and techniques students need to improve their writing, along with feedback on their work that reveals whether they are successfully using those tools and techniques.
Cavelos says, "If you're ready to hear about the weaknesses in your writing and ready to work to overcome them, you'd be welcome to apply to one of our online classes."
In addition, the Odyssey Web site, www.odysseyworkshop.org, offers many resources for writers, including free podcasts, writing and publishing tips, a weekly writing blog, and a critique service.
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, 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 MEMORY OF SHADOWS, Chapter 19 by Lisa Smeaton
Having an original idea with compelling characters is a must. You will be hard-pressed to interest people in reading your work if you're just re-treading an overused idea and filling it with cardboard characters. In contrast, Lisa Smeaton's basic premise comes straight out of Sleeping Beauty, but she gives it her own design and populates it with interesting people and things.
Just reading the recap of what's happened in the book before this chapter, or perhaps it's background for the story or even a mix of both, you can tell that Smeaton has put a lot of thought into the story and given it some depth. I hear often from people who like to start writing without a lot of idea of what the story is. This is fine as a way to start but once you get going, you do yourself and your reader a disservice if you don't stop and take that time to do some planning.
Now, I'm not asking for a perfect hierarchical outline with bullet points and all that mess. If that works for you, great, do it. But you don't have to restrict yourself to that and only that style of planning. Even a few notes or some paragraphs are good enough. I keep notebooks and notebooks of ideas and plans myself. They aren't very structured, but they become a worthy reference tool.
When you build a wealth of material like that, you've got an instant source of story when you get stuck. Smeaton may not have a drawer full of notepads of ideas and thoughts about the world in which her book resides, but it certainly looks like she does. I hope at least some of the ideas put forth in her introductory notes for this chapter aren't told explicitly in this book and are merely referenced so that they can be used for future books. I also like the clever twist of the main character and her guardian being reborn again and again so that Smeaton can bring in little revelations from past lives to help progress the existing story, and to reveal more about the characters and their motivations.
One thing that bugs me about this chapter is the spelling and grammar errors. I've written about this before, but in a chapter that holds such promise I want to highlight how these simple errors affect my reading experience. Spelling and grammar errors are easy to fix. They are the only part of your writing that can be fixed without any undue influence on the meaning of your words. But if you have a lot of spelling or grammatical errors in your manuscript, they make you look lazy or apathetic. And if you don't care about your story, why should anyone else?
Yes, I'm being harsh. But when I see "There was only the two" instead of "There were only the two"* or "than" instead of "then"** or "sink" instead of "stink"*** well, I'm tempted to stop reading. Unfair? Perhaps, but when I have several hundred submission waiting for my attention (in addition to all the books/stories that I have accepted that need editing, revising, etc.) and about 95% of those are grammatical-error free (and if I'm honest, only about 40% of those have actually followed the submission guidelines) why should I read yours if there are on average two to three mistakes on each page?
And I don't want to hear about proofreaders and copyeditors. They aren't hired to correct subject-verb agreement or homonym issues. They get hired to find the difficult mistakes, like the one time in a 600 page manuscript when you called a secondary character Pippen instead of Pippin, or to question whether or not there was a skee ball game on the Coney Island pier in 1938, or to ask if you really meant cour de lis insead of fleur de lis.
* Yes, it can be correct to say "There was" but only when you have a singular subject. "There was only me" would be correct. But when the subject is plural, as it is in this case, you need to use the plural verb "were."
** Than/then can be confusing, but it's not as confusing as lie/lay. "Than" is a comparison between two things: "We had more eggs than oranges." "Then" refers to something that happens next: "we went to the store then to the gas station."
*** I have to assume this is a typo. The danger here is that your software won't catch this. It isn't sophiscated enough to realize this is the wrong word. It's correctly spelled, it's in the correct tense, and it's not part of a fragment. You'll have to read to find these.
Now having said all that, it's ok if there are a few grammatical errors or spelling mistakes; one or two are easy enough to ignore. But, if there are a lot of them in quick succession, trust me that an editor or agent will start to actively look for them. And that's not good.
Smeaton has a lot of things going right in this chapter. She has a strong sense of style and a unique voice. Her idea is interesting, her characters are compelling, and the background information she's created for this world is worth developing. If she can get her spelling and grammar in check, she has a very strong book here.
--John Klima, Editor, Electric Velocipede
A Child Alone by William Henry Powell
This novel is a cross of ideas, from A.I. (robot children) to Terminator (robots dominating humankind's future) to Children of Men (humans unable to reproduce) -- all told from the point-of-view of 11-year-old Tania Deeley, through the conceit of a diary format (like Anne Frank). The voice for the most part is rather charming and in keeping with a young girl, which is the best thing you can hope for when you take on a diary format as your narrative conceit.
But this style has its pitfalls, and this excerpt doesn't escape them. A diary format is slightly different from a simple first-person narrative. When you take on the conceit or structure of a diary, there is little room (even less) for authorial intervention in tone or specifics like exposition. Everything is so directly in the character's voice (quite literally, as the character is "writing it down" for the reader to read) and there is no opportunity for suspension of disbelief, as you can have in a first-person narrative. What you're reading is somehow a combination of the protagonist's inner thoughts, personal actions, and the outside structure of a novel put together by a writer. This might seem like splitting hairs or immaterial to some, but it is easy to be pulled out of the character in a diary format if anything in the words, structure, or tone suddenly seem too much like a "novel" and less like a "diary." And the last thing a writer wants to do is pull the reader out of the book.
The first break from the diary format is using chapter headings instead of dates. This is jarring, and it pulls the reader right out.
The insertion (or interlude) of Mr. Zog, which up until this point could've just been a figment of Tania's imagination (her "Kitty" that she addresses her diary entries to) is also jarring and somewhat hokey. He doesn't say anything new, only confuses the format more, as now we're wondering if we're to understand that it's Zog's compilation of Tania's entries that we are reading, after the fact of the narrative, and if so, why the intrusion where he is basically talking to himself about Tania? It just doesn't make any sense in the context of the format.
There is also a lot of time spent in the theme park, which is an interesting concept for this future, where the only way to really access humanity's past is through a roleplay Disneyland-like concept -- but this takes up quite a bit of time in the narrative thus far, to the point that if it isn't somehow really significant to the rest of the novel, it reads like filler. We assume the boy she meets there will be important later on, but he could've been introduced a lot more quickly, especially if she hates it in the 1970s theme. This speaks to the diary format. A girl won't spend a ton of time explaining or illustrating an event that she hates, nor would it necessarily read so coherently. A diary, especially from a young girl's point of view, shouldn't really read like an adult is behind the structure in order to make it the most understandable to the reader. This is where it gets difficult because it has to be understandable, and just seem authentic -- which would include dropped details, perhaps a jumping around in time, a glossing of certain people and events, and sometimes even a total incomplete illustration of the surroundings.
I question why the diary format was chosen over a regular first-person narrative, or even a memoir, which would allow for more freedom of contemplation in retrospect, and a contrast between "then" and "now" in Tania's world, which could add weight to the story. With the format plus the age of the protagonist, this also reads more like a YA novel. It can perhaps be pushed into the adult forum if some of the realities of this new world are grimmer, deeper, and shown as such (as in The Diary of Anne Frank -- the sense of foreboding in the things she describes, coupled with our knowledge of what happened in her world historically, adds a very dark tint to even the light-hearted parts of her writing).
The voice is charming and well-written in many parts. For example:
She -- Mrs Golightly -- spoke briefly about the great traditions of the School, about our Oxbridge achievements and the daughters of the School who had achieved High Office or other Greatness. She spoke like that, too. I mean, you could hear the capital letters. Once or twice I swear I could almost see them.
Characters are expertly drawn with idiosyncrasies and much of the perspective/vocabulary is reflective of a young girl. Also, the concept of the story is intriguing and raises many issues about society, race, prejudice, humanity ... meaty (and well-worn because they're good) concepts in science fiction. The revelation at the end is a great hook and definitely makes the reader want to find out what happens next. The author has a vibrant character here who has much potential, but the format sometimes undermines her and her story quite a bit.
Author of THE GASLIGHT DOGS, BURNDIVE and CAGEBIRD
"The Time of Their Visitation" by Lisa Morton
In "The Time of Their Visitation" aliens have appeared on Earth. They seem to be mostly silent observers, but the awareness of their existence has stirred up all sorts of human restlessness and curiosity. Our narrator, Deb, is a woman whose girlfriend walks out on her, claiming aliens are the reason for her dissatisfaction. Deb ends up getting together with another old girlfriend, and together they move forward happily with their lives, more or less ignoring the alien presence as irrelevant.
There's a really neat, understated story in here. It's an engaging read, written in a clear style that flows well. But the story isn't entirely fulfilling its potential; it just doesn't feel quite all there yet. When that's the case, it can be a tough challenge for an author to pinpoint what's missing. Sometimes a good way to approach such a revision is to look for the heart of the story, examine the elements that give it power, and think about how to strengthen them.
Let's begin by looking at a few things that are working. Right off the bat, I like the matter-of-fact way Deb describes the aliens' presence:
Over her shoulder, a shimmer in the air coalesces into one of the aliens. It's done itself up as a scientist, complete with lab coat. Only the three bony-looking, writhing horns on its forehead give it away as not human. [...] I don't bother bringing Sharon's attention to the alien. Only about one person in ten can see the projections they use to observe us. Sharon isn't one of them. It upsets her to be reminded that I am, so I keep my mouth shut. The alien sees me watching and lays a finger across its lips, smiling as if we were sharing a secret. Observing. It's all they seem to do. It's intrusive as hell.
This is a wonderful introduction. It gives us a visual image of the aliens, sketched in clean lines without dwelling on the details, which is all we need. Beyond that, it establishes the relationship of aliens to humans: they are observers, they can't be seen by most people, they project themselves into intimate situations in ways that are intrusive and divisive. The alien appears and disappears in the middle of this conversation and Sharon is unaware that it's happened, even while she claims that aliens are the reason she's leaving Deb. Already, the reader has to wonder: to what extent are aliens merely an excuse or catalyst for human choices?
Deb's reunion with her ex, Eve, begins in commiseration over how both of their girlfriends have left them for the same reason: the existence of aliens opens up a sense of new possibilities in the world and they needed to go seek "more." It's interesting that in both cases, the partner who's affected this way is the one who's unable to see the aliens. This seems suggestive of the power of mystery, the desire to know the unknowable, holding more allure than the here-and-now of ordinary life. The women discuss how many of their friends' relationships have broken up in the same way, and muse over whether the aliens have some kind of "lesbian mind-control ray." I'm not sure what to make of this: are we supposed to take it seriously? The title of the story (referring, I presume, to a Biblical verse about punishing unrepentant transgressors) casts a disturbingly literal light on this interpretation, though perhaps it's meant ironically; as a reader I find the story most rich and interesting when it remains open to multiple readings. Certainly Deb treats the suggestion like a joke, but we don't have enough information to gauge its accuracy. For example, have other non-lesbian couples broken up? Are there also gay couples who have stayed together, and if so is it a factor that they are both, or, neither, able to see aliens? We're only seeing part of the picture here, and it feels like being blinkered. Deb would surely know more about what's going on, so I want to share her knowledge.
(Playing off the Biblical echoes, there's something intriguing about the unlikely notion that these observers actually might have an agenda directed against, for example, same-sex relationships -- because of course, all that happens in the end is that the less committed partners are shed while better, stronger same-sex relationships are formed by those who don't care about the aliens. Insofar as the story raises this possible interpretation, I like where it takes it from there.)
One place where there's plenty of room to expand is the middle portion of the story, between the early scene where Deb and Eve reunite and the ending when Sharon shows up on her doorstep. That second act flits by so quickly that we barely notice time passing; the only indication is the line, "The aliens stay for a couple of years." This is where the story could be enriched with further details to let us see Deb going on with her life, and could provide a fuller picture of how others are affected too.
Here is one of the few brief mentions we see of the wider world: "The experts predict it'll take a decade for the suicide rate to come back down. People are that shaken up about the idea that we're not alone in the universe." It's fascinating to me that suicide would follow from that idea, and I feel like these two lines give it a too-superficial treatment. I want more of these little perceptive observations dropped into the mix.
I think this story is most interesting when it focuses on the ways that people seize upon the tantalizing hope of something more -- whether that's a type of faith, the mirage of a perfect partner, the belief that they are destined for greater things, the fear of forces beyond their control, or the hope that some external power will fix everything and make them special. These speak to the great appeal of much heroic fantasy fiction, and the power of the mythic to influence our choices. With all that as a backdrop, I'm really charmed by the idea that here we have a story about a couple of characters who see the miraculous element and remain unimpressed; who in fact do their best to ignore it. The great mystery, to them, is more intrusive and destructive than awe-inspiring: it gets in the way of living their lives.
I'd like to see more highlighting of the contrast between those people for whom an alien presence is world-shattering, and those whose fundamental beliefs about the world aren't much affected. For that matter, why don't Deb and Eve care more? They seem awfully nonchalant about the presence of aliens in their lives. It almost makes the characters less interesting when they display so little curiosity about strange phenomena, and I want to see that absence as more of a presence: what is it about their attitude that makes them immune to the alien influence?
All of this is what I'm finding in the story, and it's really good stuff. At the moment, I'd just say that not quite enough of it is on the page. I enjoy how the story plays out the impact of an alien presence in this very personal, narrowly focused narrative of one woman's life, but that narrative will have greater meaning if we can understand it within more context of what's happening around her. I hope this is useful to you; good luck with it.
--Karen Meisner, Editor, Strange Horizons
"Orange" by Heidi Kneale
Many horror stories build upon pre-existing tropes--vampires, zombies, werewolves, ghosts, evil children, haunted houses, and many more. While it is still possible to bring a fresh perspective to these tropes or put a new twist on them, it's especially exciting when horror writers try to avoid familiar horror elements. "Orange" certainly does this. It is the story of fourteen-year-old Tim, who believes that food and plates physically attack him. When Amanda comes over to study with Tim and takes an orange out of her backpack, Tim freaks out. Amanda puts the orange away, but it escapes and rolls toward him. Tim attempts to flee, but the doorknob bites him. Finally, Amanda sees the vicious little teeth on the orange.
I enjoy the offbeat, unexpected nature of the story. The opening engages me intellectually as I try to figure out why Tim is afraid of an orange. Once that becomes clear, it's fun to think about food trying to eat a person while the person tries to eat the food. The story, even though it's short, does a good job of developing two conflicts: the conflict between Tim and the orange, and the conflict between Tim and Amanda. Many successful short stories have two conflicts, one in the foreground and one in the background. In horror, often the background conflict jumps into the foreground at the climax, creating an unexpected twist. Those ingredients are set up well here, though I don't think they quite work yet.
I think there are several ways the story could be strengthened.
First, the tone seems uneven. The story starts out feeling rather absurd and bizarre, and a bit over the top, with Tim terrified of the orange. A line like "That did not bode well" seems designed to be humorous and add to the absurdity. I enjoy that, but it doesn't fit with the end of the story, which asks us to take the story seriously and to feel horror at the revelation that the orange is truly evil. One option would be to tone down the opening. Let us in on Tim's experience with food up front, rather than having him react with terror and explaining it later. That would allow the whole story to have a more serious tone. The other option would be to make the end more absurd. The orange could launch itself at Amanda and eat her eyeball out. Either way, the story would have a more consistent tone. Tone is a critical element in horror, because it influences the emotions we feel, and horror is all about emotions.
Second, the story doesn't do enough to sell its novum. The downside of avoiding standard horror tropes is that you have to make me believe your novum (the novelty or innovation around which the story revolves), which in this case is that food eats people. You don't have to convince me that vampires exist, but you do have to convince me that oranges can bite people. It's something I've never seen; I don't know the rules by which the food operates (when their teeth appear or disappear, whether they can only bite Tim or can bite others, why some food is safe and other food isn't, how much the food can move, and so on). Since there don't seem to be any rules, it feels as if the author is controlling what happens. You generally don't want the reader to feel that the author is controlling things. While the author, obviously, controls everything, readers need the illusion that events are unfolding on their own, without interference from the author. I'm not suggesting you insert a rulebook into your story; that would be disruptive. But we need to sense consistency in the novum and we need to understand any powers or limitations that are important within the story. Right now, the novum doesn't seem consistent, because Tim's mother brings cookies and sodas, but Tim is not afraid of those foods. Then the doorknob, which is neither a food nor a tool for serving food, attacks Tim out of the blue. This seems inconsistent. Also, I get the sense that Tim is the only one who sees the teeth or is bitten by them, yet Amanda suddenly develops the ability to see the teeth at the end. That's really confusing. With a new novum, it's critical that the author present it in a consistent way that makes the reader believe.
Third, the viewpoint shifts in the story, which is generally not a good idea in such a short piece. The story begins in the third-person limited-omniscient viewpoint of Tim. But on the last page, the viewpoint shifts between Tim and Amanda, ending with Amanda as she sees the orange's teeth. A shifting viewpoint weakens the unity of a short story. With a single viewpoint, it's easier to tell who the story is about and how the character has changed. Here, something new happens to Tim (a non-food item attacks him), but something new also happens to Amanda, and we really don't know why either thing happens. Limiting the story to one new thing and to one viewpoint character would make it more focused and unified. I'd suggest that the story remain in Tim's viewpoint and focus on him.
Finally, I think the interaction of the two conflicts could be strengthened. As I mentioned, often stories have a foreground conflict and a background conflict, which then shift at the climax. Right now, the conflict between Tim and the orange is pretty much dominant throughout, and then the doorknob pops up at the end. But the doorknob hasn't been a factor at all in the story, so it seems wrong and random, rather than surprising yet inevitable, as a conflict should feel. I suggest that you drop the doorknob and instead develop the conflict between Tim and Amanda more. That can be your background conflict (it basically is that now, but it's not serious enough and doesn't successfully shift to the foreground at the climax). Then at the climax, as Tim is attempting to flee from the orange, Tim and Amanda's argument reaches critical. Amanda blocks his way, shoves him into the corner, and calls him a wimp. This brings her conflict into the foreground. As the orange flies at Tim, Amanda snatches it out of the air, waves it in Tim's face, and takes a big bite out of it, destroying it. That's just one possibility, but I hope it shows how two conflicts can interact to create an exciting climax that also feels inevitable, since the background conflict has been brewing all along. Another possibility would be to have Amanda declare her love for Tim at the climax and throw herself at him while the orange is attacking. That could be fun.
I hope this is helpful. The story has a lot going for it, and I think it has the potential to be very strong and memorable.
--Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey
This month, I'm very proud to interview Leah Bobet. Those of you who are regulars know that Leah is the moderator of our Yahoo group and our skilled member-support go-to woman, but she's also a long-time member of OWW, part of the old guard. I was thrilled to learn of her recent sale of ABOVE to Arthur A. Levine Books. The book doesn't release until 2012, but I wanted the inside scoop now. Obviously, I had to interview Leah right away.
Please welcome Leah Bobet!
What advice can you give writers on pitching to an agent?
I signed with my agent, Caitlin Blasdell, through the most textbook, standard way possible: sent a query letter into her slushpile, progressed through a partial and full manuscript, had the phone call, informed the other agents with the manuscript that there was an offer, and then accepted it. There weren't any particular tips or revelations involved, unfortunately!
The one thing I did find important was not sending out queries until I was fully confident in my materials -- the query, synopsis, and manuscript -- and making sure I was comfortable with and understood the process. This meant sending things around to a number of friends who were agented or read slush for agents, refining, and maybe doing one more draft than I strictly had to of everything involved. It also meant getting a good sense of what the agents I was querying represented, and making sure I understood everything going on in the book itself: the flaws, the thematics, what it was and wasn't doing.
I probably could have had ABOVE looking for agents three months before I did, but without that extra three months of refining, the process wouldn't have gone so quickly, or so well.
So. Make sure you're ready. Beyond a reasonable doubt.
Is there anything you would have done differently in order to get published earlier or more easily?
Actually, if anything? I would have stopped worrying so much about publishing novels earlier or more easily. It wasted time I could have spent doing the actual work, and at one point it made the whole process of writing a lot less fun than it could have been.
Writing's very much a set of skills -- both craft skills and attitude, emotional skills -- that you build through exposure to new ideas, hearing other people's thoughts, and trying things out. Like any kind of personal growth, it's not something you can force: I mean, you can strap yourself into a rack to try to get taller faster, but you'll pretty much just break your ankles if you do. And that's a hard thing to accept when you want something very badly, but looking back on the times I thought I was ready, that I Had It™, well. I didn't and I wasn't. There was a lot more to learn, and I just didn't know enough at the time to see that yet.
Every writer's going to have a learning process that'll take however long it takes, and that never actually finishes throughout your life and career. The only thing one can really do is embrace that, and make sure you're enjoying yourself, that you're active and engaged with it while it happens.
Tell us your call story.
By pure chance, I was home for it! It was midafternoon in the beginning of April, I was home with a cold, and, well, the phone rings...
I did pretty much know it was coming. I'd spoken with my soon-to-be-editor, Cheryl Klein, over the phone the week before -- it's common to do a sort of interview with an editor when they're seriously considering making an offer -- and the conversation had gone exceptionally well. I really wanted to work with her and was excited about her ideas for the book, and I was pretty sure I'd made a decent impression. So on a certain level I knew. It wasn't a surprise when Caitlin called me and said they'd made an offer.
Assimilating that information, though? That was a different story.
I spent the phone call focused on business details: the type of contract, how much of an advance, the rights grant, long-term implications, timelines; you know, the nuts and bolts. Sounds cold, yes, but there's something about getting a thing you've been working towards for the better part of nine years that's a bit of a shock. I couldn't actually wrap my head around the idea that yes, I had actually sold a book and would have a book published for a couple weeks.
When it did hit, though, I was in a bookstore with my mother, looking for a non-fiction book she wanted to get for a friend, and we went past the YA section. And I tapped a shelf, and said, "This is where it'll be," as we went by. For about three seconds, it was like a door opened in my head to the place where yes, this was real, and everything got very warm and fuzzy and weak around the knees.
I don't think I stopped smiling for the rest of the week.
Can you tell us a little about your upcoming novel?
ABOVE is about seventeen-year-old Matthew, whose father had lion's feet and whose mother had gills; both of them fled the modern-day city to live in underground Safe, a community of freaks, ghost-whisperers, and disabled outcasts hiding beyond the subways and sewers. Raised underground, Matthew is responsible for the keeping of Safe's histories and Ariel, the beautiful, traumatized girl he took in and fell in love with -- and can't stop from running away.
Matthew only knows the world Above through Safe's histories, and knows it as a place of rejection, violence, electroshock, and imprisonment. But it's exactly where he has to go when Safe's founder is murdered by the one person Safe ever exiled, and only he, Ariel, and a few others escape the coup that follows. Despite Ariel's increasingly erratic behaviour and with the odds against them, Matthew must find a way to rescue Safe from its occupying army. But as his quest leads him through abandoned asylums and the dregs of urban poverty, Matthew discovers that the histories he's devoted his life to aren't true: the invasion of Safe -- and Ariel's terrors -- are rooted in a history much darker and bloodier than Matthew ever imagined.
And even if he manages to save both home and Ariel, he may well lose himself.
As it currently stands, ABOVE will be published in Spring 2012 by Arthur A. Levine Books, which is an imprint of Scholastic.
How did this story come about?
There were a couple distinct components to it. The first was an image from an essay in Eli Clare's Exile and Pride, which I was reading for a philosophy course: the author being made, as a child, to stand in his underwear in an examination room under bright lights, because the doctors were using the diagnosis of his disability to teach student doctors. Something about that passage hit me between the eyes: the shame and display and dehumanization of it. That image appeared in the book later, in another form.
The second thing was a longstanding beef with how the Secret Society of Mutants trope is commonly done. They're clannish and suspicious, but nobody ever talks about why that came about or the long-term emotional consequences. They live underground, but it's often a very well-appointed, all-the-amenities sort of underground, not what you'd get if a half-dozen people with various mental and physical issues went down into the urban infrastructure and tried to rough out something to live in. After all, it gets cold. You'd need water and power. You'll probably spend most of your time trying to get enough canned food together and avoiding pneumonia and a general lack of Vitamin D.
The third thing was the right kind of music. There was the emotional seed of something rattling around my head for a while, but it took the right few songs to pull it out and help me figure out why this thing kept wanting to make me burst into tears in public.
The thing that really made it come together, though, was Matthew's voice. He has a very distinct way of speaking -- kind of half-childish, half-lyrical - and he's a storyteller by trade. This is very much his story, and when I had that voice, that's when I sat down to write.
Did you run it through OWW?
I workshopped the first four chapters as I wrote them, to figure out what direction this was going (and whether the direction I wanted to go was in fact the direction I was telegraphing!). The feedback I got on those chapters was pretty invaluable: it let me know just how much stylistic oddity and in media res readers were likely to put up with, how well the voice was working out, and where readers thought the whole thing was headed. Most everything I did in ABOVE was a leap -- something new, something difficult -- so being able to check how it was working did wonders for my confidence in terms of, well, keeping on writing the thing.
How long did it take you to whip this novel into a submission-ready state?
About nine and a half months after the completion of the first draft. That includes the time needed for me to do a second draft, which I sent out to readers; the time for them to read it; a third draft done after they got back to me; and the time it took to do a synopsis and query letter, also involving several versions.
After I accepted representation, though, it went through two more drafts: my agent's editorial letter, and then a second go at it to cut extra wordcount. If you add those two passes before it went out to editors, the whole revision process was a little over 13 months.
What are you doing to prepare for your debut?
The publication date for ABOVE is so far off at this point -- Spring 2012 -- that most of my focus isn't on it. What I'm thinking about these days is more in the nature of career planning: arranging all the bits of my life so I have dedicated, solid time to write the next books, now that novel-writing can't be something I do whenever I have the time between the day job and my other commitments anymore. I'm also thinking about timing in terms of adult novels; ABOVE will be published as a YA, so that leaves me room to publish adult novels as a separate stream. And of course, there's another YA to write, and my commitments to projects like Shadow Unit (http://www.shadowunit.org), and a whole other novella project I'd like to do...
So as mundane as it sounds? What I'm doing to prepare for Book Release Day is trying like hell to get ahead of the inevitable deadlines!
Any regrets (or worries) about your journey so far?
Regrets it's somewhat too early for. Worries? Plenty! They'd take away my writer badge if I wasn't worrying about at least fifteen things at any given time. But either those things will happen or they won't, and I'll pretty much just have to take them as they come.
What are you most looking forward to in the publishing process?
The part where people read the book, and I get to see their reviews, or reactions, or the looks on their faces as they tell me about what they liked or hated or what broke their hearts. I've kind of always felt like a piece of fiction isn't really real, isn't really finished until readers have read it and interacted with it; that the act of being read completes the book in a way the writer themself isn't able to.
I really look forward to seeing that book get finished, and getting to watch what it does, or doesn't do, like the ripples in a pond.
Keby Boyer says: "My sci-fi thriller Bee House Rising which I workshopped a few years back was published by Watermoon Press in September. A big thank you to the workshop and all the great feedback I received from members and editors. The workshop was huge in helping me become a better writer, one of the reasons I'm published today!"
Beth Cato announced two woo-hoos this month: "My story 'A Recipe for Rain and Rainbows' is in the anthology Mountain Magic: Spellbinding Tales of Appalachia from Woodland Press. My short flash fiction story 'Bless This House' was published on Daily Science Fiction in October. Neither story was posted on OWW, but both were edited with a 'What Would OWW Say?' mantra in mind. Thank you!"
Tom Crosshill announced: "Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show is picking up my flash story 'Express to Paris by Dragon First Class.' Thanks to everyone who looked at it!"
Patty Jansen wrote: "I haven't been a member of OWW for over two years, but I would like to thank past and present members of OWW for four years of fun and writing experience. I joined the workshop as newbie writer in December 2004, at which point I had never shown my writing to anyone. Today, I won the second quarter of the Writers of the Future Contest."
Christine Lucas is smokin' this month! "It has been a good couple of months, since I had four stories accepted for publication, all of them workshopped in OWW: 'Deadly Sins' to the Wretched Moments anthology, 'Bertha's Place' to Death Rattle and 'Asphodel Meadows' to Expanded Horizons. Last but not least, the first story I posted on OWW, a story very dear to my heart: 'On Marble Threshing Floors' to Cabinet des Fées. Many thanks again to everyone who critted."
Tony Peak wrote us with two announcements: "My story 'Seven Centuries for Seven Billion' will appear in an upcoming issue of Aurora Wolf. Also, my story 'Atlantean Treasure' will be appearing in an upcoming issue of Flagship."
Maria Zannini, who actually forgot to mention her own book last month, is pleased to announce that her novel True Believers has been released by Carina Press. "The workshop was so instrumental in getting this book published that I wrote the dedication in honor of OWW. Thank you! In other news, I am also a finalist in the Kensington Brava contest for best novel. Wish me luck!"
The Reviewer Honor Roll is a great way to pay back a reviewer for a really useful review. When you nominate a reviewer, we list the reviewer's name, the submission/author reviewed, and your explanation of what made the review so useful. The nomination appears in the Honor Roll area of OWW the month after you submit it, and is listed for a month. You can nominate reviewers of your own submissions or reviewers of other submissions, if you have learned from reading the review. Think of it as a structured, public "thank you" that gives credit where credit is due and helps direct other OWWers to useful reviewers and useful review skills.
Visit the Reviewer Honor Roll page for a complete list of nominees and explanatory nominations.
October 2010 Honor Roll Nominees
Reviewer: Tom Crosshill
Submission: Janie Lane and the Toy Mill - Chapter 16
Submitted by: Raymond Walshe
Reviewer: Jeanne Haskin
Submission: Tails of the Overly Familiar, Chapter Four
Submitted by: Elizabeth McGlothlin
Reviewer: Marlissa Campbell
Submission: The Grey Cairns
Submitted by: Colin Leslie
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