June 2011 Newsletter


Monthly Writing Challenge

Editors' Choices


Publication Announcements

Reviewer Honor Roll

Membership Info



As we approach the halfway point of 2011, and summer looms in the Northern Hemisphere, many of us are ready to ramp up our writing efforts.  To get you in critiquing shape, this month we have long-time OWW member Joshua Palmatier, aka Benjamin Tate, as our author guest. He has some great tips on gaining and keeping good critters.

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

Monthly Writing Challenge

Think back to the worst time of your life. Remember how you felt. This can be hard. Now write a scene in which your character is dealing with something that makes him or her feel like you did. It doesn't have to be the same situation, the point is to capture the emotions, and if they're real to you, they'll be more real on the page.

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). This month's Challenge was sent in by Lindsay Kitson.

Editors' Choices

The Editors' Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories--science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories -- receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author. 

This issue's reviews are written by Resident Editors Jeanne Cavelos, Karen Meisner, Elizabeth Bear, and Karin Lowachee. The last four months of Editors' Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop. Go to the "Read, Rate, Review" page and click on "Editors' Choices." 

Congratulations to the current Editors' Choice authors!

Editors' Choices, Fantasy

THE PRECURSOR by Brad Barrow

The opening of this contemporary fantasy offers rich scene setting and an immediate crisis, which is what attracted me to it overall. I was enamored of the crooked wooden fence surrounding the crooked old house, and the image of the young man in the window watching the mourners depart is vivid and engaging. However, I suspect from this work that the author has a strongly visual imagination, as he's having issues with line of direction--that is to say, the path by which readers are led through the scene in an orderly fashion--such that, rather than immersing readers in the narrative, he's knocking them about a bit.

This is somewhat related to the ordering of his sentences, which is a bit jumbled, and somewhat related to a lack of the transitions that could ease a reader from one fact to the next--as could a reconsidering of the paragraph breaks, which are currently often in awkward places.

An early example is in the first few paragraphs. Mr. Barrows writes:

Rain spattered against the thick glass windows which creaked intermittently as the terrible country weather persisted. Charlie stood at the large bay window in the upstairs library, staring out into the bleak morning.

A crooked wooden fence surrounded the equally crooked old house although Charlie wandered at its purpose for there wasn't another house in nearly 10 kilometers. Just beyond the fence an old maple stood stoically atop a small grassy mound.

I'd suggest re-ordering this so that the second sentence is first, immediately establishing point of view, character, and setting. Then the second sentence flows more naturally, as we the readers are grounded in a person (Charlie), a place (the library, before the bay window), and a time (the bleak morning). The glass then follows naturally from the window, instead of--as it were--materializing out of nowhere.

The second paragraph starts with a sentence that's structurally awkward, in part because the author is attempting to cram a good deal of information into it without benefit of commas. I'd recommend breaking it into two sentences, thus:

A crooked wooden fence surrounded the equally crooked old house. Charlie wondered at its purpose, for there wasn't another house in kilometers.

Dropping some overly specific information allows the paragraph to flow better, and since we're still talking about the fence, it makes the transition to the sentence about the tree cleaner, as readers have not been distracted by a measurement they don't really need.

The author states in his notes that this version of The Precursor is an early draft, so I won't be fussing overmuch at the odd wrong word and comma error, although I would suggest that the author review comma usage. It's common for apprentice writers to sprinkle commas in with mad abandon: this author has gone to the other extreme and as a result his sentences have a breathless air. Commas are necessary in direct address, between certain types of sentence clauses, and in lists--among other uses. Good and funny basic handbooks of grammar and punctuation are Karen Elizabeth Gordon's The Transitive Vampire and The Well-Tempered Sentence. I own both and recommend them highly.

Another common problem that this chapter exhibits is the relapse into backstory exposition too soon, long before the plot gets rolling--and unnecessary exposition at that. We've already found out a great deal of Charlie's situation from the conversation with his grandfather. We don't need, at this point of the narrative, a long discursion on Charlie's relationship with his mother: we know she's dead; we know he's bitter. And that's enough. Much better to move the story forward to the disconnect--when Charlie finds the book--and let us bond with him by watching him in action.

The dialogue here is somewhat stilted: I think it would behoove the writer to pay attention to the patterns of speech--and more importantly, how much is omitted from normal conversations. People don't usually spell things out to one another is great detail: instead they tend to hint, and bluster, and talk around what's emotionally important to them. There's a bit of this in Charlie's grandfather's speech. I'd like to see more.

I said above that I believed that this writer may be gifted with a strongly visual imagination. Often, confused paragraphs arise from an attempt by the writer to get everything he sees in his head on paper--as it arrives in chunks of imagination. Well-known fantasy and science fiction author Sherwood Smith talks about trying to transcribe the movie in her head, and getting tangled up in the words as a result. Since the visual images described here are so vivid and beautiful, I believe it's only a matter of Mr. Barrow getting control of his narrative before he can evoke them as strongly as they deserve.

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

--Elizabeth Bear

Editors' Choices, Science Fiction


This month's EC shows a strong beginning that launches right into the action, and immediately tells the reader that this is a fantastical story: the game, the Aztec calendar, the jumping around time. There are exotic locations, an interesting culture, and a lot of the Spanish language. The Aztec mysticism lends itself to fantasy and science fiction both. The author almost doesn't need the "storybook" convention that's displayed:

Since this is a book about time travel, let's step back two and a half hours to introduce Diego's sister, Isabel.

This comes across a bit intrusive, even if it's something that can be found in middle grade narratives. Overall it's a very smooth read, though, which is important for middle grade readers. The history aspect of it is fascinating, to weave in real life people with the fictional setting. But the whole explanation between Cristobal and Diego, in the beginning, of what it takes to fund a voyage might be over a kid's head or read too dry. This can easily be a YA, as opposed to a middle grade, and you would have more room to be a little more intellectual with the history, especially as it's dealing with a foreign history and language.

What happened, a thirteen-year-old blingual gamer named Diego Rivera playing a TIV - a Total Immersion Videogame - found himself in a jungle clearing being leered at by a large stone face.

There are sometimes some odd comma usages (or lack thereof) or sentence structures that makes the reader stumble. Especially dealing with young readers, you don't want any reason for stumbling. Since this is a nearly complete draft, take some extra time to go back and make sure that the punctuation and syntax are all correct. For example:

Fifteen minutes later, Isabel sat at her desk, staring at the screen of her Macintosh moody with frustration and focused on her Advanced Spanish teacher, Ms. Miro, standing in front of a blank SmartBoard, a few miles and a body of water away.

This run-on sentence and lack of proper punctuation makes the paragraph a bit of a mouthful.

The dynamic between parents and children is wonderful - Sofia and Isabel, Cristobal and Diego. You want authenticity and too often parents are absent from kidlit or are portrayed in a negative light. Here there is a realistic affection and the adults don't talk down to the children. Sofia's relationship with her kids reads very modern, but still sweet; Cristobal's with Diego feels affectionate but with a realistic divide of understanding that happens between an adult and a child. The children themselves have a great authenticity to them, from Grade 9 aged Isabel to 6th Grade Diego. This is important, because nothing will make a kid put down a book faster than reading about protagonists that they can't identify with. There isn't a strong sense of adult authorial intrusion on the kids' personalities, which sometimes happens in YA or middle grade literature.

The conversation between Sofia and Isabel, about Diego, goes a few beats too long. It gets repetitive: "Take your brother to the protest" and all the explanation about what is being protested and why. This scene can be shaved down, tightened up, so there isn't so long of a gap between the cliffhanger of Diego's narrative (dragging Cristobal and his son into 2019?) and the resuming of it (presumably in the next chapter/part following the ones already posted). Perhaps save the background information about the digital classes for a little later, or weave it in faster in Isabel's narrative.

Even though pacing is of utmost importance for young readers (you really don't want the narrative to drag), there can be some time spent on color details - a little more showing of the world around the characters. Starting off in the game and describing the odd sights of the ancient world works well; this can still be applied to the New York City setting, not to go overboard or to bog the story, but to give a few more sensory details in order to make the book come alive. The characters do this on their own by having vibrant, realistic personalities; treat the setting the same.

As a whole this is a delightfully different type of story that has the strong potential to thoroughly engage a young reader, while teaching them a bit about history and another culture in a fun way. Remember to keep the time travel dates and events simple, or it can be confusing, and not to scrimp on the smaller things that observant young readers can latch onto and remember.

--Karin Lowachee

Editors' Choices, Short Story

"An IronWood Tale" by L. Phoenix

"An IronWood Tale" is a very short story, less than fifteen hundred words long, and that is a good length for the tale it's telling. Long ago, a huntsman was ordered by his queen to cut out the heart of her stepdaughter. He substituted the heart of a deer: a doe, pregnant with twins. Now, aging and alone, he makes an unhappy marriage with a wild woman who, at the full moon, becomes a wolf. Nature takes its revenge as the huntsman is transformed into a stag and hunted down. That's the story, and this narrative does a good job of paring it down to the essentials, down to the clean, stark lines of fairy tale.

The writing is clear and unaffected, setting a vivid, dreamlike mood. One thing I'm noticing throughout is a tendency toward long, run-on sentences punctuated by semicolons. This is a stylistic choice and often an effective one, especially in the excellent final paragraph: "Then brambles caught his hooves and held him fast, and his antlers tangled in the branches above, and all the while he heard her, panting and howling behind him, even over his own desperate thrashing and crashing in the unforgiving underbrush; so at last he stilled his fruitless struggles, and waited trembling in the clotted shadows, for his bride." At moments like this, when events are flowing rapidly, the sentence structure helps to build a sense of breathless urgency.

In some places, though, those long sentences undermine the clarity of the language. When distinct events are happening one after another, piling them all into one sentence just makes the action feel rushed and crowded. For example: "And he, not daring to refuse, took the girl to a hidden place in the shadow of ancient trees; but before he could unsheath his knife, a Little Man of the Wood stepped forward, and silently offered to ransom the child for a bag of gold coins; he sensed others, watching, but none stepped into the dappled light spilling through the leaves." Several different things are going on here, and they need room to unfold before us, but the sentence structure makes them feel as though they're all happening in an instant, with barely a pause for breath. I'd suggest splitting this into at least two sentences. That would give us a moment in between to absorb what's happening.

It's not immediately obvious to me that his killing of the pregnant doe is such a terrible crime against nature within the world of this story. I'd like to see this point strengthened, since the rest of the story hinges on our understanding of that fact. Here is another place where I'd look at how the sentences are put together: "So when a doe, heavy with twins, stepped into the clearing, he loosed his arrow on her, and cut out her heart. For a moment it seemed the forest held it's [sic] breath, shocked beyond twitter and leaf-rustle at his crime, but no avenging Guardian appeared, a creature of granny-stories after all." The killing of the deer is a vital moment, but the rushed way it's written blunts the dramatic sequence of events. It seems like the shocked response to the huntsman's crime would come as soon as he shoots the deer; but before we can even register that's happened, we're immediately told he has cut out her heart. Only then do we see the forest's reaction. What if instead, the sequence went like this: He shoots the doe. The forest holds its breath. He cuts out the heart, which might take long enough to call for more description than a four word summary. There are ribs in the way, it's difficult and messy, and I imagine that all the while, the huntsman must be so aware of what he's done, listening to the forest, his own heart beating fast, until he believes he's gotten away with it. I recommend arranging the progression of events so as to let each stand on their own, which gives us the space to react emotionally, and to grasp the significance of what's happened before reading on.

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

--Karen Meisner, Editor, Strange Horizons

Editors' Choices, Horror

"The Peculiar Salesgirl" by Nicole Cushing

First-person narrator Julie warns us to stay away from the strange salesgirl at Skin-Mart, a store that moved into her town selling human skins. Customers have their own skin flayed off and the new skin grafted on, and as fashions change, they buy new skins to replace the old. All of Julie's friends love to buy new skins, though Julie is against it. Julie finally decides to try it, but is disturbed by the peculiar salesgirl. Finally she gets another salesperson.

The premise of having one's skin flayed off and replaced with someone else's skin is extremely creepy and cool. When Julie talks about where the skins come from, that raises some very disturbing ideas. Just visualizing the store with the skins hanging in it, which the story makes us do, is very powerful. It's very hard to come up with ideas that haven't already been used by others, but you manage that here, and that's a great strength. The idea is great. The story also has some interesting satire, with Skin-Mart functioning somewhat like Wal-Mart in this small, dying town. The narrative voice is strong and distinctive. The story has some strong details, evoking the town and the store well.

The main weakness that I see is that the story and plot have not been fully developed yet. Each piece needs to take the journey from idea to story to plot. The idea is the premise or novum. In "Cinderella," the idea is that people have fairy godmothers who grant their wishes. Any number of stories can be written based on that idea, since the story has not yet been defined. An author must discover what aspect of this idea most compels him and how that can be developed into a story.

The story specifies the characters and the conflict. I'm really not sure what the conflict is in "The Peculiar Salesgirl." The story can usually be stated in a single sentence. For "Cinderella," this sentence might be, "With the help of her fairy godmother, Cinderella overcomes her evil stepsisters and finds love." We have some characters and we have a conflict.

The plot then specifies how this conflict will develop--what the obstacles will be and whether the protagonist will overcome them. In "Cinderella," the basic plot elements are these:

*There is a great ball and Cinderella wants to go.
*Evil stepsisters won't let her go, and she has nothing to wear and no way to get there.
*Fairy godmother helps, but Cinderella must be home by midnight or carriage turns into pumpkin.
*She falls in love with the prince but has to leave, loses shoe.
*Prince must try shoe on every woman in kingdom until he finds her.

Often, authors start to write before they have made this journey, which leads to pieces that lack a compelling story and an effective plot. Currently, most of the piece is exposition (background information), with the narrator explaining the situation (idea) to the reader. The action starts 10 paragraphs from the end of the piece, when Julie has an encounter with the peculiar salesgirl. Julie has decided to get a skin, though I don't know why. Nothing seems to have happened in the story to cause her to change her opinion about skins. The encounter with the salesgirl really has no lasting effect on Julie; Julie tells her she wants something simple, and the salesgirl refers her to someone else. There is no significant conflict, no building to a climax, and no clear resolution.

So the challenge here is to figure out what you want to do with this idea. What story is it suited to tell? For some authors, it can be helpful to think about the subtext of their idea. What symbols or themes are suggested by the idea? Wearing other skins seems rich with subtext and suggests many possible thematic areas: trying on other identities, wanting to be someone else, hiding oneself, succumbing to peer pressure, wanting to be fashionable, taking advantage of those less fortunate, the nature of identity. If one of these is particularly attractive, then you can try to develop it further. For example, if you like the subject of succumbing to peer pressure, then you might want to try to state the theme in a complete sentence, since there are many possible themes one could state about this subject. One, for example, is this: If you succumb to peer pressure, you can lose yourself completely.

If that's your theme, then you can form a story to reveal that theme: Julie resists the pressure of her friends to get a new skin, but when they abandon her, she gives in. Yet when the new skin goes on, she finds herself compelled to act just like her friends. She has lost herself.

From there, you can figure out the specific events (the plot) you will need to show to convey this story.

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

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


Capturing Good Critters by Joshua Palmatier

Hey, all! My name is Joshua Palmatier and I've been a member of the workshop since . . . well, since practically the beginning, when it was being sponsored by Del Rey. I joined at the time in the hopes of improving my writing (and secretly, in hopes that someone at Del Rey would notice me) and since then I've managed to sell seven fantasy novels to DAW Books, three short stories, and two anthologies. Four of those novels are out on the shelf at the moment: THE SKEWED THRONE, THE CRACKED THRONE, and THE VACANT THRONE under the name Joshua Palmatier; and WELL OF SORROWS under the name Benjamin Tate. The first anthology is already out there as well: AFTER HOURS: TALES FROM THE UR-BAR.

And I'll start by saying that I learned a lot from the OWW. Not right away, because it took me a little while to figure out the best way to get the most out the workshop. It was set up the same way back then: you post your story, you critique other posts, people critique your posts. It's a basic system, but it works. Or at least, it CAN work. So I thought I'd take this opportunity to share a thought and/or strategy for how to get good critiques. Keep in mind that this is only a suggestion, but this is what I found worked best for me.

It's frustrating when you post your stuff, critique a bunch of other stuff . . . and then get little to no decent, in-depth critiques of your own work. But there are some things you can do to guarantee a few. It's not going to happen by chance; you'll have to do some work for it.

What I did was search for people who gave critiques like the critiques I wanted. If I got a good critique, I wrote down that person's name and made sure that I critiqued everything of theirs that they posted, in the hopes of getting another critique from them. Also, whenever I critiqued someone else's work, I always took a look at what other people had said, and noted when someone gave that person a particularly good critique. Again, I wrote that person's name down and began critiquing them regularly. In essence, you have to target and woo the people that you think will help you the most. The chances of them randomly finding you are slim.

They aren't guaranteed to return your crits. In fact, most of the good critiquers have a ton of crits to do, since most people do try to seek them out. But most good critiquers return a crit for a crit, so you might not get an immediate response, but you'll get one eventually. The reaction times on the workshop aren't instant. If you continue to do this "seeking out" process, it will begin to build and eventually you'll have a good solid list of people who will critique your work as soon as it's posted.

Keep in mind that this favor has to be returned. If you want good critiques, you've got to put the effort into doing good critiques yourself. And I'm not talking about picking out all of the grammar mistakes and typos. I'm talking about an in-depth look at structure and character and plot. Is it balanced? Are the characters reacting reasonably? Does the plot make sense? These are the issues that can make or break your story or novel sale, NOT whether you accidentally misspelled "their" in the second paragraph of page 5. A great story ALWAYS trumps typos, so that's what you need to seek out first.

So do random critiques, but do it with a purpose: look for those who critique well at the same time. Do random critiques even if you have a good group of people you can depend on to critique your stuff. You learn as much on the workshop by critiquing other people as you do by receiving critiques, so you need to critique to force yourself to think about the writing process.

And who knows, maybe that random critique will lead you to the best critiquer on the workshop.


Bio: Benjamin Tate (Joshua Palmatier) currently has one novel on the shelf: WELL OF SORROWS. The sequel, LEAVES OF FLAME, is planned for release in early 2012. His short story "An Alewife In Kish" appears in the anthology AFTER HOURS: TALES FROM THE UR-BAR, out now.  His recent "Throne of Amenkor" trilogy was written under the name Joshua Palmatier. Find out more about both authors at www.benjamintate.com or www.joshuapalmatier.com.

Publication Announcements

Karl Bunker says:"My short story 'Overtaken' workshopped in OWW, has been purchased by Fantasy and Science Fiction. This is the second story I've sold to F&SF."

Ack! We haven't yet announced that Sarah Frost's story "Falls the Firebrand" appeared in the March 2011 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. And Sarah's Editor's Choice story "Lord God Bird" will appear in the upcoming TRIANGULATION: LAST CONTACT anthology.

Janie Grey's short story "Princess for Hire" is out now from by MuseItUp Publishing.

Jannette Johnson tells us: "I've got two stories coming out; a scifi short story 'Fries With That' with Aphelion magazine, and a flash peice 'Bless You' coming out in June with 6Tales."

Keffy R. M. Kehrli's flash piece "Accompaniment" appeared in the latest 10Flash Quarterly.

Tony Peak is pleased to announce: "Just wanted to let you all know that my story ‘Meridian’ will appear in an upcoming issue of New Myths. Thanks to everyone here who has shown interest in my stories within that setting."

Michael Pignatella's story "I Remember Jenny" appears in the second issue of Fantastique Unfettered, a new print magazine.

Elizabeth Schechter announced: "About a year or so ago, I put a story called 'Prince of Air' up for crits. Got some good ones, but the money ran out and I had to let my membership lapse. I kept working on the story, which turned into a novel. Finished it up, polished it, sent it out.... And sold it. I got the news last night. PRINCES OF AIR will be coming out from Circlet Press."

Reviewer Honor Roll

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.

May 2011 Honor Roll Nominees

Alex Binkley
Submission: Butterfly Women Ch3 & Ch4 Revised 4/23/11 (Science Fiction for Adults Only) by L. K. Pinaire
Submitted by: L. K. Pinaire

Reviewer: Meredith Lopez
Submission: Blood Chase - Chapter 1 (updated) & Chapter 2 (updated) (Crit 4 Crit) by J Nelson Aviance
Submitted by: J Nelson Aviance

Reviewer: Cécile Cristofari
Submission: Virgin Sacrifice by Christine Lucas
Submitted by: Christine Lucas

Reviewer: David Rees-Thomas
Submission: Earth Change by Tracey Tolbert
Submitted by: Tracey Tolbert

Reviewer: Darryl Knickrehm
Submission: Precious Commodities (revised ending) by Nancy Chenier
Submitted by: Nancy Chenier

Reviewer: Darryl Knickrehm
Submission: Kitchen Kaboodle by Gregory Clifford
Submitted by: Gregory Clifford

Reviewer: Heidi Garrett
Submission: Dead Girls Don't Tell by Anita Stewart
Submitted by: Anita Stewart

Reviewer: Tony Peak
Submission: Now in Silence, Now in Speech (Revised 8/5) by Christine Lucas
Submitted by: Christine Lucas

Reviewer: Darryl Knickrehm
Submission: Dead Girls Don't Tell by Anita Stewart
Submitted by: Anita Stewart

Reviewer: Phillip Spencer
Submission: Chapter 12. Lord Goring by Heidi Garrett
Submitted by: Heidi Garrett

Reviewer: B. Morris Allen
Submission: Cassandra & A Philosophy of Thieves by F. Wilde
Submitted by: F. Wilde

Reviewer: Ellisa Hunt, Rhonda Garcia
Submission: Enchanter's Eyes Revised by elizabeth hull
Submitted by: elizabeth hull

Reviewer: David Kernot
Submission: The Everett Quartet SYNOPSIS *C4C* by Cat Torres V
Submitted by: Cat Torres V

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Got a helpful tip for your fellow members? A trick or hint for submitting or reviewing, for what to put in your author's comments, for getting good reviews, or for formatting or titling your submission? Share it with us and we'll publish it in the next newsletter. Just send it to support (at) sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com and we'll do the rest.

Until next month--just write!

The Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror
support (at) sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com