Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror
A new look! Last week we launched our overall site redesign, which has been in the works for far too long. Besides creating a streamlined, more current appearance, we also did a total revamp of our site navigation and the workshop should now be much more clear and easy to get around. We've upgraded our submission form to allow in-window text styling, added a Community Overview section for members, and rethought the main page completely. Many squirrelly aspects of getting around the site, getting help about how things work, etc. have been straightened out nicely. We are doing more to promote members' published books and more to integrate the discussion group into the workshop. The newsletter looks better, too.
It has been a lot of work and we're happy with what we've done so far. There is certainly more to do, but this was the first big step that will enable any future improvements. We hope you enjoy the new design. (And if you haven't been a workshop member for a while, please do check it out!) Feel free to let us know what you think or report any problems by using our Contact Us form on the site.
If you were one of the many members who made suggestions for the future evolution of the workshop in a detailed discussion led by Jon, you probably won't see your ideas reflected here, but we want you to know they were not discarded--they are organized, categorized, chewed over, tweaked, and quite a few are part of our potential future improvements. Resources are few so we're not sure right now what we will get to next. And first, we have to bring more writers to the workshop and build the membership. So if this has been a good resource for you as a writer, introduce it to your friends and to other writers you know!
(No interview or article this month. We've been busy.)
As always, contact us if you have any questions, publication announcements, or ideas for improving the OWW Newsletter. And we're looking for suggestions of interviewees and article subjects as well. What do you want to know about? What would help you learn the publishing business or the field(s) in which you write?
Ellen Harris-Braun and Maria Zannini, newsletter editor
news (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com
Age. Write a story where the main character is past their prime. The world is no longer new to them, and maybe they're tired and achey. Maybe they're grumpy and jaded, or maybe they've found the peace that comes with the wisdom.
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. Put "Challenge" in the title so people can find it.
Challenges can be suggested by anyone and suggestions should be sent to Maria (news (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com). This month's challenge was contributed by Lindsay Kitson.
Prime Books is launching a new digital imprint, Masque Books, devoted to science fiction, fantasy, and SF & F romance. The new imprint will launch in July 2013 with 12 titles. Masque pays a small advance against royalties of 50% net of all digital receipts. See the guidelines here for more information.
The 18th Annual Parsec Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Story Contest: A contest is open to non-professional writers (those who have not met eligibility requirements for SFWA or equivalent: sale of a novel or sale of 3 stories to a large-circulation publication). Previous first-place winners and current contest coordinators are ineligible. The best story that uses the contest theme as a key element will be published in the Confluence 2013 program book, and the author awarded the first prize of $200. Second and third prize win $100 and $50 respectively. The theme for 2013: "Steel Cities: Steel girders, iron grit, fey regret, the sooty breath of an industry born or lost. Time to test your metal, and send us something solid about a city (or cities) and strength. The theme need not be used literally, but the story should incorporate it in a non-trivial way." There is no entry fee. Deadline: March 31 (more details here).
Do you write outside the SF/F/H genres, and do you like the way the workshop works? Take a look at a similar online workshop, Scribophile (run by an equally focused small company). Much bigger, no genre focus, but the way it works will feel familiar.
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, Leah Bobet, Elizabeth Bear, and C.C. Finlay. 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!
TRUTH IS A DRUG, Chapters 2 & 3 by Daryl Nash
These chapters of Nash's urban fantasy novel offer a lot of strengths, the most important of which is the engaging voice of a strong protagonist. First person narrators can be tricky, and one of the most effective ways to make them readable is to make them witty, sarcastic, and sharp. This technique is difficult to master, because too often the "wit" comes across as forced, brittle, or--worse--irritating, that guy who thinks he's clever and won't shut up.
Johnny Griffin does not have these problems: he is, in fact, funny. He's also horribly broken and self-destructive in interesting ways, and Nash has a good noir voice going here--a natural classic, when combined with the twin elements of hard-boiled private investigators and Las Vegas. It's a trope that works, and I think this novel will flourish by the development of that voice.
The noir narrative structure also lends itself to fast and furious plot development, a good brisk pace that Nash is using to his advantage here. Stuff happens, and the narrative doesn't need to spend a lot of time setting the scene or delving into the protagonist's emotional development to support the story. The noir reader expects a broad, impressionistic canvas. I think it's a good touch to take this traditionally rainy and dark genre and move it to sun-soaked but still gritty Las Vegas, as several previous writers have done to good effect with Los Angeles.
In addition, Nash has a good sense of humor and manages to make certain moments of this story genuinely funny without wandering over the line to slapstick. This is a rare talent, and one that the author should work to develop and refine.
The noir tropes, alas, come with a certain amount of baggage, and I'd caution the writer to be both aware and very cautious of updating some of those tropes to the modern era. It was one thing to write certain types of dames and femmes fatale uncritically and two-dimensionally eighty years ago; the modern writer, however, will need to engage knowingly with the misogyny and racism that saturate this subgenre's expectations, and cannot afford to let them pass unexamined. For this reason, I'd suggest that characters such as Rachel be painted with a little more nuance than they are here.
Even if one were to set aside all ethical reasons for such care, to do otherwise risks alienating a large chunk of the potential readership for a book such as this: the urban fantasy market skews very heavily female.
My biggest problem with this book so far is actually not with these chapters at all, but with Chapter 1, posted separately. I think that while it contains an awful lot of information that the author needs to know, it's acting as a burden on the rest of the narrative. It's backstory to a story that begins when Ananke shows up on Johnny's doorstep, and except for the angelic visitation (which can just as easily happen in chapter 4) there's no information here that we can't deduce from a more in media res introduction to the narrative.
By introducing readers immediately to the case, the author has the opportunity to establish momentum and buy-in without the distracting infodumps currently populating the first chapter. We can figure out that Johnny is a celebrity by having the taxi driver recognize him, for example. As that becomes a running gag throughout the book, it seems a shame to miss an opportunity to reinforce it here.
It's generally much more effective to explain things after readers have a chance to get curious about them, rather than providing unasked-for information up front. Readers will tend to skim exposition they're not already curious about--whereas if they have a few questions (not too many, because confusion can be frustrating too) the answers will come as satisfying--the more so if it confirms what they're already figured out for themselves. They will be most invested in those things that they have figured out from the clues the author provides. This goes for everything from plot points to details of characterization.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editors' Choice area of the OWW site!
Author of THE SEA THY MISTRESS
DOOMSEEDS, Chapter 2 by Tam Linsey
Chapter 1 of this novel was originally posted in November, but it's worth looking at just for the opening paragraph.
The undulating plain of poisonous amarantox stretched as far as the pilot could see, broken only by an occasional jutting rock or umbrella-like yuvee tree. Along the river, gray-green tamarisk sank deep roots to resist the deadly weeds which dominated the land. The Reaches. Beneath the canopy of weeds, cannibals stalked each other with ferocious tenacity.
That's vivid and evocative! I liked it.
The author describes DOOMSEEDS as her second novel "set in the Botanicaust world." Based on that description and the text, the premise seems to be a "botanical holocaust" where survivors are divided into those with and without access to technology. Although the initial disaster is different, the set-up is reminiscent of Mitchell Smith's excellently written SNOWFALL trilogy. The result is a kind of Dark Ages science fiction novel, where civilization has fallen from a previous high standard but is still evolving and changing in interesting ways.
The writing in DOOMSEEDS is clear, clean, and confident, with complex worldbuilding. No situation is as simple as it first appears. I want to take a quick look at the Chapter 1 submission, because it provides an example of the writing at its strongest and another example where it could be improved.
The prologue begins with the paragraph I quoted above. A duster pilot flying over the amarantox fields while crews with flamethrowers burn everything living, human or otherwise. The more primitives humans on the ground--"cannibals" we're told--have gotten guns somewhere and shoot the duster down. The pilot has just enough time to register disbelief before he hits the windshield.
This is a fairly typical opening gambit: an action-oriented prologue with a disposable character, who gives us some exposition and then sets the stakes for the novel by dying. Here, the writer knows the pilot is disposable, so the story focuses on the action and the exposition. Even though we see things from the pilot's POV, they never become a person--no name, no backstory, no regrets about never getting back home. This could be improved. The way it's written now, there's no emotional investment in the character so when his little story comes to its bloody end it has much less impact than it's capable of. If a robot was flying the duster the emotional impact would be the same. The character may be disposable but the emotions of your readers aren't--never take them for granted!
The real Chapter 1, following the prologue, introduces Jubal Jubal, a trader and a cannibal. Here the writer does several things brilliantly. First, we find out almost immediately that the cannibalism is more ritual than zombie-ish.
Pops limped straight to a ledge of stone and sat, one leg out stiff in front of him. The left side of his mouth drooped in a perpetual grimace, his left hand curled weak against his thigh. When the pain got too bad, he would take the Knife and feed his family, but Jubal was in no rush to honor his father's flesh-feast, especially on the trail.
There's a conflict of cultures here. This conflict grows with the second nice surprise, when we see one of the "flame runnas"--a survivor from the duster crash--through Jubal's eyes: "Away from the firelight, her skin was as green as freshly budded amarantox." So some of the people appear to be bio-engineered. Cool!
The story could be more powerful here if the survivor was also the pilot from the prologue, especially if we had a chance to develop some emotional attachment to the character. I hope the author will at least consider the possibilities created by this opportunity.
This complexity continues in Chapter 2, which introduces Eily Yoder, a former Cannibal who now lives under the rule of the Haldanian Protectorate behind an electric fence. Not all of the Cannibals who join the Protectorate are happy there, but once they've accepted the photosynthesizing green skin they can't go back to their former homes. Eily mediates between the former Cannibals and the Protectorate liaisons, which puts her at the heart of multiple conflicts. We find out that there are three groups--the Cannibals like Jubal, Eily and other members of the Order, and the Haldanians--and each group is divided by internal conflicts.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editors' Choice area of the OWW site!
"Yuri Gagarin Sees God" by Jesse Bangs
Writing fiction about real people is a tricky business. "Yuri Gagarin Sees God" works for me, mostly, because it isn't really about Yuri Gagarin. It's about, as it says in the first scene, how "All stories are lies, and none more so than official histories" -- and sets the very act of storytelling in conflict with the whole question of mystery.
That means while "Yuri Gagarin Sees God" is a story, it's also a sort of magical realist game: finding the gaps between what's real in the world we live in, what's real in the world of the story, and what's just an illusion in both. It's a game which only works when a writer tells the readers the rules right off -- as in the quoted line above, about stories and lies - and the rules are stuck to consistently. In last month's EC story, "Start With Stones," we were given early, blatant contradictions between what its protagonists think and feel and what they say, and that taught us how to read the story. In "Yuri Gagarin Sees God," every presentation of something official or institutional is false: marriages, transcripts, religious experiences, death investigations. That teaches us to read the story: It makes readers peel away the stories to find what's left -- the truth -- and by making us meet the story halfway, draws readers into its world.
Giving readers a game to play is a very solid storytelling technique: one which suits this piece well, because not only does it grab readers' attention, it lets a writer tell a story that has a very tangible point to it without feeling didactic or preachy. Admittedly, the point of "Yuri Gagarin Sees God" isn't a hard pill to swallow: the unknowability of truth, and the important difference between fiction and mystery (and that's just the point I got out of it; it's vague enough, truthfully, that people will likely project whatever they want onto it and come out happy). The story's game-playing lets the author deploy that point and create a feeling of the profound which wouldn't be easily generated otherwise: there's not quite enough in this piece to create profundity, if told straight, but by pulling readers in with the left hand and showing that point with the right, it's fabulously effective.
The other elements of the story support that technique -- mostly by getting out of its way! The straightforward, transparent prose style complements the constant subtext going on in readers' heads, where they look for the patterns and clues hidden beneath it, and the short scenarios and tidy characters keep the focus on the trail of breadcrumbs left out to follow. There's also a lesson in "Yuri Gagarin Sees God" about not trying to do too much in each paragraph of a story, even though we're told to make every scene pull its weight. Highlighting one technique or line of thought, and letting the others hang back and support it, can frequently be an effective way to do something experimental without burying it in other bells and whistles. It's notable that it's when the story ends, and the game of finding truth from fiction is over -- that's when the prose grows more poetic, more laced with metaphors, more noticeable. One technique takes the spotlight smoothly from another.
There are, of course, places where "Yuri Gagarin Sees God" could do its job more effectively: the most notable for me, was the inclusion of the angels' song. For a story that's thriving on letting the reader draw their own connections, on the singular importance of mystery, it might not be the best strategy to define, through use of Christian scripture, the nature of the angels. It's an odd thing to be pinned down in a story that's all about not pinning things down too hard, especially since angels would be the greatest mystery of all here: the speculative element in this piece.
It's also important to remember that the opposite of atheist is not Christian, and that large portions of the speculative fiction audience are not Christian and have no Christian background. Regardless of how those readers relate to religion and the world, having a story about truth assume that the truth would of course be Christian tells those readers that this story is not for them; this truth is not for them. You don't want to close your doors to readers -- and you don't want to close their doors to you -- so if there isn't a specific function being served by the Biblical quote, I'd strongly suggest considering something more neutral.
Otherwise, it's an interesting piece, doing small things very well and very effectively. Best of luck with it!
Author of ABOVE
"Shuffle" by Jennifer K. Oliver
Since a genre is defined as a group of stories that share certain common traits, a major danger of writing in a genre is creating a story that contains too many common traits, that doesn't offer anything original. This danger increases when a writer attempts to use a very popular genre trope. I can't think of any trope more popular in horror today than the zombie. Yet "Shuffle" does manage, with its climax, to bring something new to the zombie trope. "Shuffle" explores the human side of zombies, the remnants of memories and personality that persist inside the shambling, brain-eating creatures. While I have seen that idea explored a few times, I haven't seen it taken in the direction that "Shuffle" takes it. That left me feeling very satisfied and uplifted by the climax. That makes this a very promising story.
I think there are several ways in which the story could be strengthened. The premise of the story is that Sarah, a zombie, has moments of intelligence, clarity, and memory immediately after eating the flesh of living creatures. Because this clarity is transitory, and because the story is told in Sarah's first person viewpoint, the voice of the story alternates between a primitive zombie voice ("Umm eat. Eat.") and an intelligent, poetic voice ("Mei tasted of dawn and of endless days spread beneath an autumn maple, its leaves flaming apocalyptic gold and russet"). If you've read "Flowers for Algernon," you've seen an example of this type of transition in voice. It's a great technique to use for this story, because it shows us, in every word and every sentence, Sarah's struggle. I think the execution could be improved, though. The shifts didn't seem to occur solely with eating, and didn't seem to rise and fall in a consistent way. I found this distracting, so I went through the first few pages of the story and ranked each paragraph on a scale of 1-10 on the degree of sophistication of the voice.
I'll give you my rankings for the opening scene. Sarah seems to feed right before the story begins, so I'm expecting the sophistication to increase and then decline. Here's how I rated the paragraphs: 3, 2, 8, 1, 6, 7, 10, 9, 10, 8, 7, 6, 1, 1, 1. Obviously these are subjective to some degree, but I tried to be consistent in what I looked for. As you can see, the voice starts out primitive, even though I think she just ate, then jumps to very sophisticated (8), then back to primitive, then builds to a pretty consistent section of sophistication, and then jumps very suddenly to the primitive. These types of inconsistencies occurred periodically, throwing me out of the story and making me doubt the premise and story. Also, the speed of the improvement and decline seemed to change, and it was sometimes so abrupt it was hard to believe. There are also times when Sarah seems very coherent yet can't remember her past, yet in other places the coherence seems to come with the memories. These Web sites offer tools that assess the reading level of passages of writing you input:
They also provide other useful data, such as number of words per sentence, that reflect the sophistication of the voice. While I think your own good judgment should be the ultimate authority, these can provide some objectivity.
Another aspect of the voice that I would love to see strengthened is the unsophisticated zombie voice. The sophisticated voice is distinctive and well developed. Yet the zombie voice feels pretty much like every zombie voice I've read in stories. I'm fine with the zombie voice being extremely primitive--it must be, for the story to work--yet the thoughts and observations seem fairly standard. If it could be made a bit more distinctive and unique, that would be really nice.
The external conflict in the story could also be improved. Right now, the story is mainly internal. Externally, Sarah and Harry are shambling around looking for food, but it's a pretty repetitive and automatic action, not an escalating struggle. The struggle is mainly internal, as she tries to regain her old self.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editors' Choice area of the OWW site!
--Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey
Aliette de Bodard says: "My magical realism piece 'The Angel at the Heart of the Rain' will be published in a future issue of Interzone. Always happy to be published in this magazine."
Sarah Byrne announced: "'Christmas in Space' will appear in Silver Blade, February 2013."
Eliza Collins will appear in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (#58, February 2013) with her short story, "Voyager."
Daniel Connaughton says: "Double Dragon Publishing recently picked up my manuscript titled KEEPER OF THE BONES and it is on their schedule for release in 2014."
Christopher Cornell tells us: "'Bleeding Heartland' will appear in Penumbra eMag, Feb. 2013."
Tom Greene writes: "'Facetime' has been sold to Polluto, Issue #10."
Sarah Grey blogged "You know, generally speaking, if I'm running through the house at 5:30 am, partially clothed and fully freaking out, it's because something's on fire. This morning, it was because I sold 'The Ballad of Marisol Brook' to Lightspeed."
Crystal Lynn Hilbert says that her novel, DEAD ON ARRIVAL will be published by Eggplant Literary Productions.
Ada Hoffmann says: "'A Certain Kind of Spider' will appear in Star*Line, Volume 36, Issue 1 (January-March 2013)."
Sean Michael O'Brien writes: "'Vale of Stars' was sold to JournalStone, already released."
Henry Szabranski has sold "Three Kisses" to Daily Science Fiction.
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.
Reviewer: Paul Lorello
Submission: To Find a Dangerous Place by Michael Glyde
Submitted by: Michael Glyde
Reviewer: l.s. johnson
Submission: The Death Clown From Gendra by Steve Brady
Submitted by: Steve Brady
Reviewer: Allan Dyen-Shapiro
Submission: AllBook, Rania, and the Infallible Cloud by Ada Hoffmann
Submitted by: Ada Hoffmann
Reviewer: Kaia Vintr
Submission: "Flotsam and Jetsam" (Revised verion of 'Unfinished') by Phoebe Hunter
Submitted by: Phoebe Hunter
ASUNDER by Jodi Meadows (Katherine Tegen Books/Harper Collins, January 2013)
Ana has always been the only one. Asunder. Apart. But after Templedark, when many residents of Heart were lost forever, some hold Ana responsible for the darksouls-and the newsouls who may be born in their place.
Many are afraid of Ana's presence, a constant reminder of unstoppable changes. When sylph begin behaving differently toward her and people turn violent, Ana must learn to stand up not only for herself but for those who cannot stand up for themselves.
Ana was told that nosouls can't love. But newsouls? More than anything, she wants to live and love as an equal among the citizens of Heart, but even when Sam professes his deepest feelings, it seems impossible to overcome a lifetime of rejection.
Pretty Girl-13 by Liz Coley (Katherine Tegen Books, March 2013)
13 when she
to her family
to her friends
to the world
but still missing
In Liz Coley's alarming and fascinating psychological mystery, sixteen-year-old Angie Chapman must piece together the story of her kidnapping and abuse. Pretty Girl-13 is a disturbing-and ultimately empowering-page-turner about accepting our whole selves, and the healing power of courage, hope, and love.
Fees: $49/year, $30/6 months, or $6/month. First trial month free. (more)
How to pay: PayPal, Kagi, check in US dollars, money order in US dollars, barter (more)
Scholarship fund: We accept scholarship fund donations and award full or partial scholarships to active members in need. (more)
Gift memberships: You can give a gift membership for another member; just send us a payment by whatever method you like, noting who the membership is for and specifying whether the gift is anonymous or not. We will acknowledge receipt to you and the member.
Bonus payments: The workshop costs only 94 cents per week, but we know that many members feel that it's worth much more to them. 25% of any bonus payments we receive will go to our support staff; the rest will be tucked away to lengthen the shoestring that is our budget and keep us running! (more)
Things you should know about the improved OWW:
- We are using a new text-input tool for submissions and across the site, and besides allowing in-window text styling it also has a "paste from Microsoft Word" button that strips a lot of the style junk out of Word files. Give it a try when you next submit. Instructions are shown on the submission page but can be hidden (and will be hidden by default once members have time to see and use them).
- A lot of Member Directory listings have broken links to pictures. Check yours! If you never added a picture to your profile, we encourage you to do so. If you have a Gravatar, it will appear in your profile unless you replace it with something else.
- Some Member Directory listings that included HTML tags are not displayed correctly now that we are using the new text-input tool. We'll be contacting the affected members directly, but if you're concerned, just check your listing and edit your profile information via our new Dashboard.
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.