There is something bittersweet about the end of the year. We celebrate the holidays, gatherings and friends, but we're also saying goodbye to another year. Was it a good one for you and your writing?
Many OWW members have had a phenomenal writing year, which only speaks to a brighter future. Let's end 2010 in style and welcome lots of contracts and success in 2011.
This month we say goodbye to Walter Williams as our Challenge Dictator and welcome Lindsay Kitson and Elizabeth Porco as our co-dictators. Each will take alternate months and dictate challenges to keep you on your game.
And this is also our last newsletter with John Klima as Resident Editor for Fantasy. He's been contributing monthly reviews for four years now and has decided to move on. Visit his Electric Velocipede site to see what he and his spec-fic magazine will be up to. In next month's newsletter we'll be announcing the newest Resident Editor to join OWW.
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
Genre bending. Take a story or scene you've already written and rewrite it, from scratch, in a different genre. Take your magic sword and make it a laser gun, or turn your characters' spaceship into a steampunk airship. Or meld fairy tales with genre: put Red Riding Hood in an urban fantasy; Sleeping Beauty goes into cryostasis for a hundred years. The point is to think about how genre affects a story, and whether or not it's integral to the story.
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).
io9 is looking for stories that deal with environmental disaster, whether caused by random asteroid impacts or oil drilling accidents. We believe that the first step to solving planet-scale problems is to assess, honestly and critically, what it would mean to experience such a disaster. We need mental models that can help policy-makers, researchers, and individuals prepare for the kinds of cataclysmic events that have occurred regularly throughout Earth's history.
Your story should be between 3,000-5,000 words. It must be an original story that has not been published elsewhere. The contest has two categories: Non-Fiction and Science Fiction. We will pick a winner from each. Deadline for all stories is midnight PST, December 11. (See link above for more details.)
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!
CARMINA, Chapter 1 by PJ Thompson
You set the tone. You bring the reader in. You keep the pages turning. Because really, if you can't do that with the first chapter, no one will find your brilliant scene five chapters in. Your opening chapter is paramount to the success of your novel. This isn't new ground, and it shouldn't surprise anyone to hear it. You don't always have to take the epic route and start in media res (in the middle of things) with blood and gore spewing. You can do it through beautiful language and interesting characters.
By the end of PJ Thompson's introductory chapter to the novel CARMINA I'm not quite sure exactly what the book is going to be about (and honestly would you want to know a whole book just from one chapter?) but I do know that I want to keep reading. Thompson has some absolutely stunning imagery in this opening chapter: "The wind snapped it again, hard, a noise like the jaws of war dogs going for a throat and missing, the noise they made when Carmina's enemies sent them against her and her sisters." I love this sentence since it doesn't fit with Carmina's current situation, working in a circus, but it definitely sets a tone for her past life and uses some very distinct, powerful imagery to give us that tone. Thompson's writing has a lyrical quality to it. When I finished the chapter the first time, I was amazed by how vividly she had painted images in my head.
There were also a lot of descriptions of music that worked really well, which was odd for me. Typically I strongly dislike how music performance is written about, but that's because most writers focus on trying to give the reader the sense of what it's like to be performing the music and they spend a lot of time talking about finger placements, notes played, how the instrument is held. Thompson instead focuses on the emotional impact of the music, both for the performer and for the listener. Carmina's singing creates real, physical reactions in people. Mostly it makes people's inner demons rise to the surface, which tends to send people out of her tent and sometimes out of the circus. It's so powerful that the other performers, and the marks, have learned to plug their ears so that the singing won't affect them.
This prompted the question for me: if her voice is such that it drives people away, why does the circus owner keep her on? Why not get rid of her and not lose money? This could be handled in several ways. One, Carmina could be the owner and therefore there's no issue. Two, Carmina could know something about the owner, or some other secret, that means keeping her on is safer than letting her go free. Three, and this is what I recommend, have Carmina occasionally sing a happy song which makes people want to come to the circus in droves, but have it be rare enough that it's not always happening. When it does happen, the circus becomes flush with cash. Perhaps Thompson addresses this is some other way in later chapters, but in the first chapter I can't fathom a reason for the circus to keep her on, as she is driving away business.
I won't spend a lot of time harping on it, but there is some confusion due to pronoun use. Thompson has Carmina and Susan speaking to each other and sometimes use "she" when referring to a different character from the last one that was mentioned, which is the person to whom the pronoun should be referring. I do really like the interaction between the two women, and I think there's a lot more to be explored between the two; Susan hints at having secrets, Carmina is clearly something more than human, and their interaction would be a perfect place to reveal both things.
Thompson spends some time describing some of the different acts that are in this particular circus, and it took me a while each time to realize that it was not Carmina's act that was being described. Part of me likes how Thompson reveals who Carmina is, the singing fat lady, but I also wonder if there's a better way to get the reader to that point. Perhaps the describing of the acts could be set up as moving further and further into the circus to eventually get to Carmina's tent. It would make sense to have her far into the circus as she makes people leave when she sings. And then Thompson could have each act mentioned be one tent closer to Carmina each time. This also works with Thompson's descriptions of how Carmina's singing affects people: those further away would be less affected, and those closer would be more affected.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editor's Choice area of the OWW site!
--John Klima, Editor, Electric Velocipede
THE BOOMERANG THIEF (Chapter 1)
By Annouska Lawday
The Boomerang Thief (fantastic title) introduces a future Europe threatened by terrorist groups and unknown science ... but that is as far as the understanding goes. In a curious contrast, this chapter reads with interest and a certain freshness, especially in the opening scene, and yet is entirely confusing as to the overall picture or the general state of the world and the ramifications of politics. The main characters are interesting women (though perhaps a little too similar) but remain enigmas. The parts are all there but they're not working in concert ... this is a somewhat easily solved issue though. This isn't to say that everything needs to be explained in the first chapter of a novel, but here the reader gets the feeling that the information needed to understand exactly what is going on and who these people are is being withheld in order to create suspense. But suspense isn't created by withholding information--it's created by strategically doling out pertinent information to readers so they are grounded enough to understand the framework of the story--which is consequently and consciously fleshed out over the course of the novel.
The first scene begins, literally, in the middle of the action. There is immediate intrigue as the protagonist, Annouska, awakens after an explosion/collision in a Munich traffic tunnel. She has what appears to be short-term amnesia:
At least she hasn't forgotten who she is: Annouska Jane Lawday, 1048576, Field Psychologist First-Class. Not that such information is of any use in her present circumstances, but it's a start.
The first part of the chapter is in present tense, which is a very immediate style, and yet this is contradicted by a more formal and distant type of language. The character is in the midst of major physical trauma (she's bleeding and her leg is crushed) but the prose is systematic and explanatory. While it is a third-person point of view, it's a limited third, which can basically work like first person if written tightly; combined with this, the present tense sounds put-upon and doesn't enhance the narrative, but rather gets in the way of it because it's roughly handled. A third-person, past-tense point of view, like what the chapter transitions into, would work much more smoothly, despite what authorial intentions there are for picking the present tense in the first place. Add to that a more visceral experience of what it's like to wake up in heavy pain, show less systematic thinking, and perhaps even shorten the scene (all the allusion to Princess Diana seems unnecessary) and I think you'll have a bigger impact for the beginning of a novel. It's a great place to begin, but needs to be better handled.
Watch scene transitions as well. There are only so many ways to say "pass out," but sinking "quickly into darkness" is somewhat cliché. You want to make every line count. As elsewhere in the chapter, there are some effective descriptions: "Inside, the corpse of the driver hangs upside-down from a bloodied safety harness like a grotesque puppet, his face bloated by gravity." But also some heavyhanded declarations: "Now though, she comprehends the transient nature of human existence clearly."
The world set-up, what can be gleaned, is fascinating. Terrorist groups, governments in upheaval, a different and "foreign" setting for North American readers. But nothing is ever made clear even in the most basic details. By the end of the chapter we know that there is threat in Europe and the standard of living is awry--there's no mention of whether this is a worldwide issue--and some clandestine science is going on, but we don't know what that is either or its basic significance to the novel. This completely dilutes the story, so that things that are supposed to have an impact (who is Charlie? And why should we care how he affects Annouska?) just aren't, and the natural suspense and action created by the interesting plot all fall flat because we aren't sure of the context. By the time the obnoxious Commissar is killed by debris flattening him like the witch in the Wizard of Oz, the narrative has become almost comedic. Also watch that the female protagonists don't slide into unpalatable territory, when what you want is strong or tough as nails. Making them bitchy will just turn off the reader.
Don't be afraid to spend quick paragraphs saying outright what is going on, or somehow showing it through the characters explicitly (or a combination of both). In a first chapter, you need to quickly and thoroughly ground the reader in the fundamentals of this future world so you can then spend time unfolding the details that will drive what is clearly an interesting plot and idea.
Author of THE GASLIGHT DOGS, BURNDIVE and CAGEBIRD
"Allies in the Tree War" by Marlissa Campbell
The California wilderness is turning against humans and all the invasive species they've introduced into the state. The native flora and fauna are fighting back now, rejecting the invaders. Our protagonist, Ellen, is living a peaceful life on the coast when her world slowly begins to fall apart. During the course of this story, nature creeps in and takes over, destroying civilization.
There's a strong, confident style to the prose here, and a nice lean simplicity in the way the situation is laid out for us. I like how the story gradually unfolds from early warning signs into full-out disaster, the characters like frogs in a pot of heating water, only becoming aware of how serious the situation is once it's too late. Given the premise, it's believable that nature would encroach in just this way, rather than through a rapid forceful attack. The downside to the subtlety of this storytelling is that I never get a really clear sense of the central conflict. The danger may be creeping up on the characters, but the reader needs to experience how it affects their lives in an immediate way, right along with them. Because so many of those changes take place offstage, the reader doesn't see enough of what's happened to put together a full picture. Major events, like the loss of electricity and contact with the outside world, are skated over in brief bits of exposition. Considering that Ellen is witnessing the breakdown of civilization here, I'd like to see more of how the threat and crisis permeates her life.
For example, once Ellen becomes aware of wildlife as a threat, it seems to me that all ordinary interactions with the local greenery -- chopping wood, feeding grass to horses, and so forth -- would become emotionally heightened. Wouldn't these activities be affected by the tree war, or at the very least, spark some extra anxiety in Ellen when she thinks about them? Eating herbs, will she be more concerned about whether they are indigenous to the area or imported? Leaving all these interactions unchanged by the changing world makes the story flatter than it needs to be. Consider each of those moments as an opportunity to deepen the reality of what's happening to these people and their world.
I wonder about what's happened to the wider world as well. It's unclear how much has been destroyed, but meanwhile the local characters carry on with blithe unconcern and don't seem very interested in what might be going on elsewhere. Granted, they are a self-selected group of loners, but don't they have any friends or family outside of town? "I figure that if civilization is still out there somewhere, they'll eventually find us," says one, and the others seem to go along with her attitude. Why are they so passive in accepting all the changes and dangers? Something is missing from this picture.
The movement from section to section takes us through a gradual unfolding of disaster, but the transitions between sections don't always indicate a clear timeline. Especially since the first two sections seem to take place on the same day, which sets up an expectation that the whole story will happen in a very short period of time. It took me a couple of reads to realize that these events actually took place over several months. The experience of witnessing Ellen's life unravel in stages from normalcy into apocalyptic ruin is key to the pleasure of reading this story, so I'd look at how each new section is introduced, and think about ways to show the passage of time.
Be careful of received language like "his head lolled off his neck at an impossible angle," especially when describing a moment that's meant to have a gut impact: the choice of words here should startle us into seeing what's described, whereas the reliance on cliché lulls us into complacently skimming the surface. Try to come up with fresh imagery to show us this moment in a new way.
There's a nice maturity and restraint in how this story tells a horrific tale without sinking into melodrama. At times, though, I do want to see more emotion from our main character. Here's an example of a vivid scene:
Continuing to wield her light like a weapon, she started to survey the damage. As if glimpsed in a strobe, she caught flashes of her trampled garden and ruined chicken coop. Thankfully, the flashlight washed all color out of what remained of the hens' bodies. A bloody scaly foot. Part of a head. A clump of stained feathers. She assumed they were all dead, but she wanted to account for each one. Picking her way across the yard, she tried to avoid stepping on smashed eggs and unidentifiable bloody gobbets. Vomit rose into her mouth and she spat it out.
This is a pretty horrific landscape! But at precisely the moment when we're looking for an emotional reaction from Ellen, the narrative pulls back to a more detached point of view, showing an intellectualized reaction instead (she assumes, she wants to account). The only indication we get that she's feeling anything is the line about the vomit. Not that vomit is an image I particularly want to luxuriate in, but it seems an oddly brief, off-handed aside to describe the kind of physical response that would usually give a person pause. Mentioned in passing this way, it doesn't ring true. It reads as though it didn't really happen, as though it's just words on a page, which lessens the intensity of the rest of the paragraph. If the story were to take a moment here to let Ellen have a real, visceral reaction, it could bring the reader in close to feel this moment with her. Not only has she discovered her birds massacred, but she's now standing in the midst of the carnage, in the dark, exposed to the elements -- and those elements are more actively frightening than usual. It seems to me that this is a story where it's important to keep in touch with Ellen's awareness of her physical self within her environment.
I'll be interested in seeing where this goes -- good luck with it!
--Karen Meisner, Editor, Strange Horizons
"The Grey Cairns" by Colin Leslie
In this epistolary story set in 1846, the first-person narrator, Collins, accompanies his friend Johnson on a treasure-hunting expedition to the Scottish highlands. With the help of a guide, they discover ancient cairns. They see a strange old woman in their camp but can't catch her. Their guide disappears, and when they open a cairn, they find his head inside, along with some gold. Then Johnson disappears. The narrator, too afraid to search for him, flees to a ship. But he sees the old woman in a mirror on the ship. He throws the gold overboard, but then he, too, goes missing. His wife inherits the gold, which somehow got back onto the ship.
I enjoy epistolary stories, and this one does a good job of evoking 1846 through the voice of Collins, particularly through the word choices and sentence structures he uses. The story has an interesting setting and provides some nice description, such as of the black peat houses. The description of the old woman is also quite vivid and creepy.
This is basically a journey-from-which-one-cannot-return-unchanged story, one of my favorite horror plots. A couple of famous and successful examples are "At the Mountains of Madness" by Lovecraft and "Heart of Darkness" by Conrad--or if you like movies, The Blair Witch Project (with the video commentary similar to this narrator's journal entries).
While this story has many good ingredients, it is missing some key elements that prevent it from having the power that it might.
In all three of the examples listed above, the characters discover a horrifying truth that either haunts them for life, drives them insane, or kills them. In "The Grey Cairns," Collins and Johnson apparently die, but we don't have a good sense of what killed them. We don't feel the power, the evil, the force, the--whatever it is--that they are battling against. I assume it's spirits upset at having their graves robbed, but that's only because I've read other stories about spirits upset at having their graves robbed. That's me inserting a standard trope into the story, not the story providing me with a horrifying truth. Collins actually never quite encounters this horrifying truth. He flees before he sees it. So we need a confrontation with something horrifying and different and haunting, something that will change us--and the narrator--forever.
This lack of a horrifying truth is related to another issue, which is the failure of the plot to escalate. The old woman is good as an initial scare, but she's not enough to make the story scary. The tension in the story actually declines after the discovery of the guide's head rather than building. I feel the story pulls away when it needs to delve deeper. The guide disappearing is good, and his head showing up in the unopened cairn is good. But then something worse needs to happen to Johnson. He can't simply disappear; that's less scary than what happened to the guide. Johnson could go into the cairn first, and Collins could go in after him, and Collins could see Johnson doing something really disturbing. Johnson falls into a hole, and Collins tries to get him out, experiences the "horrifying truth" and then flees. Or, better yet, tries to flee, but the cairn collapses and he has to dig himself out of total darkness while sensing horrible things around him the whole time. Then he flees. That would provide stronger escalation. It would also require Collins to struggle more, which brings me to my next point.
Collins is fairly passive and unemotional, which weakens the plot and the emotion of the story. Generally, a strong story has a main character with a burning goal and a lot of obstacles standing between him and his goal. Collins doesn't seem to have a strong goal for most of the story. He claims he wanted to come on the journey for the money, but he doesn't seem to have a fire in the belly for finding this treasure. Instead, he seems to be tagging along with Johnson, doing what Johnson wants until Johnson disappears. When scary things start to happen, he urges Johnson to give up the search and leave, but his desire to leave doesn't seem strong until Johnson disappears. Then he gets a strong urge to flee, but he faces no obstacles, so his goal is easily accomplished. That doesn't create a lot of drama. His desire to see his wife isn't established until near the end.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editor's Choice area of the OWW site!
--Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey
Also, a strong main character undergoes a change of some kind. I can see that Collins becomes afraid and decides the treasure is not worth the danger, but his original attitude toward danger and treasure is unclear, so his change is not as well defined as I would like. Giving him a stronger desire at the beginning so we can better see how the "horrifying truth" changes him would make his story more striking and involving.
Part of the reason that Collins does not come across strongly is that the story provides very little dramatization--it doesn't show events moment-by-moment, as they happen. Instead, most events are recapitulated (summarized). While that is believable, considering that the narrator is writing all of this in his journal, the story needs dramatization of important events, so we readers can feel as if we are there. Johnson never comes to life because we never see him in action or hear his words. Thus, his disappearance, and the narrator's reaction, feel distant and blunted.
The last point I want to raise is style. Grammatical issues such as run-on sentences, fragments, and missing commas distract the reader from the story. It's important to know these grammatical rules backward and forward, since they are the basic tools by which words are put together into sentences and meaning is created. A college-level grammar handbook, such as The Harbrace College Handbook, is invaluable. I strongly suggest that any writer have at least five grammar and style handbooks within reach when writing.
I really enjoyed the atmosphere and setting here, and I'd love to see the plot and characters further developed to make the story more involving and horrifying.
Instead of an interview this month, OWW's newsletter editor brings you a fresh roundup of agent and editor blogs with updates on who is still working or blogging. Agent and editor blogs are an especially good source of information and it pays to monitor them on a regular basis.
This list is by no means comprehensive, but it will give you a pretty fair spread of who's out there. If you don't see your favorite agent or editing blog listed below, send it in to us and we'll share it with readers: newsletter (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com
Chip MacGregor No longer blogging
Colleen Lindsay Still blogging, but no longer an agent.
Denise Little *New
DHS Literary Updated
Diana Fox Has a blog, but has not updated since March 2010
FinePrint Literary Management Has not updated since April 2010
Jenny Rappaport No longer an agent
Laurie McLean Updated. New blog location
Kathleen Ortiz *New
Natalie Fischer *New
Nathan Bransford No longer an agent.
Suzie Townsend *New
Upstart Crow Agency *New
Miss Snark (no longer active, but still has plenty of good information)
Editing and other good reference blogs
Cheryl Klein *New
Editorial Anonymous No update since July
Pete Aldin says: "My heavily OWW-critted fantasy tale 'Deathsmith' is live in this month's Intergalactic Medicine Show. I'm immensely grateful to all who had a hand in polishing it to the point of being publishable!"
Jesse Bangs writes, "Hey, everybody: Just wanted to mention that 'The Taint,' a horror novella workshopped here at the OWW, was released today from Lyrical Press. This is my biggest sale to date, and it would never have happened without the input and help I got from my critters here at the OWW. Thanks to everyone!" You can see the book here.
AA Bell told us: "After 10 years revising my speculative thriller DIAMOND EYES, I'm very pleased to announce a 3-book deal with Harper Collins (Voyager) for it and two sequels (HINDSIGHT and LEOPARD DREAMING), which all combine elements from supernatural, science fiction and fantasy with crime, poetry and romance -- a challenging blend that required advanced editing strategies like those you're discussing right now from the Heroes Journey -- before I could finally hook a publisher, even though I still don't have an agent! And DIAMOND EYES launches TODAY, YAYY!!! To peek at the first 100 pages for free online go here. Sincerest thanks for all the support and resource help over the years!!!"
Richard Berrigan Jr. wrote, "Just wanted to let you know my story 'Fire Eye Gem' was accepted by Rogue Blades Entertainment for the Discovery! Challenge anthology to be published around Christmastime."
Deb Cawley writes in with a trio of story sales: she sold "All Hallows Eve" to a Halloween anthology last year; then recently she sold "Gifts from the Past" to the PEACE ON EARTH anthology and "Tears of the Moon" to Aurora Wolf Ezine and their AURORA WOLF THREE anthology. She says, "All were workshopped. I can't thank everyone enough!"
Hilary Goldstein shared the fabulous news that "My story 'The Dream Eater' was nominated for a Pushcart Prize."
Carole Moleti announced: "My workshopped novella 'The Journey' will be published by Eternal Press on December 7, 2010 under the pseudonym Gianna Bruno. It's a paranormal romance with historic elements. 'The Journey' received very helpful crits during the 2009 summer crit marathon, and I'm deeply indebted to a lot of OWW members: Gio Clarival, Walter Williams, Arianna Cordelle Sofer, Dave Holbrook, Michael Keyton, Rayne Hall, Nobu B, Steve Brady, JW Parente, Alex Binkley, Lisa Poh, Kendra Highley and Ellie Heller. I'd like to invite all OWW members to my live chat/release party December 7. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org for an invitation or check my blog closer to December 7 for the exact time and other details."
Dinesh Pulandram says: "Just to let you know some good news. I sold 'Damaged Goods' to Short.Story.Me. I workshopped it on OWW x3 times, and wrote 8 drafts. Woohoo, I'm not a complete noob anymore!"
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.
November 2010 Honor Roll Nominees
Reviewer: Corie Conwell
Submission: Wild Things Chapter 10
Submitted by: elizabeth hull
Reviewer: Matthew Herreshoff
Submission: To Senji
Submitted by: Jennifer Thorne
Reviewer: Keith A Headley
Submission: Slowing the Earth
Submitted by: Kyle Aisteach
Reviewer: Steve Brady
Submission: THE NIGHTINGALE, Chapter 1: Port Nanao
Submitted by: Margaret Alexander
Reviewer: Aliette de Bodard
Submission: The Lore of the Sea by Christine Lucas
Submitted by: Christine Lucas
Reviewer: Camille Picott
Submission: POTENTIAL: YA Near Future Novel, beginning by Alan Klima
Submitted by: Alan Klima
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