Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror

June 2013 Newsletter


Monthly Writing Challenge


Editors' Choices


Publication Announcements

Reviewer Honor Roll

On Shelves Now

Membership Info





Happy June! We received some wonderful news about two of our alumni. Aliette de Bodard's short story "Immersion" has won the Nebula Award! And Sandra McDonald has tied for the Asimov's Science Fiction Readers Award for her short story "Sexy Robot Mom." Huge congratulations to both -- you make us proud!

Congratulations are also in order for the winners of our recent Crit Marathon: 

No one quite qualified for the Steady Turtle prize offered for the marathoner who contributed at least one review every day of the marathon, so the generous anonymous donor of this prize has allowed us to convert it to an unexpected 4th Place prize.

We are so grateful for the efforts of all the marathon participants, winners or not-quite-winners!  Thank you!  The energy was phenomenal!

As always, contact us if you have any questions, publication announcements, or ideas for improving the OWW Newsletter.

Maria Zannini, newsletter editor
news (at)

Monthly Writing Challenge

Write a scene with at least two characters in it, and no dialogue. Have them communicate non-verbally, whether it's a wife giving her husband the cold shoulder, or a ground crewman guiding a taxiing aeroplane with semaphore flags. Try not to cheat and have them using sign language!

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) This month's challenge was submitted by Lindsay Kitson.


The workshop got a nice mention during an interview with OWW member, Rae Carson. Check it out on YouTube.

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, 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!

Editor's Choice, Fantasy

TINKER'S DAMN by Trish Cramer

This has the beginnings of a mischievous and clever urban fantasy. One of the most important elements of a first-person narrative is the voice, and the protagonist here has a good tone, breezy and charismatic. It reminds me a bit of the voice Donna Andrews, a successful series mystery writer, uses for her protagonist Meg. Because we spend so much time with a first-person narrator, it's vitally important that she have some charisma. We don't have to like her, necessarily; but we do have to be willing to be stuck in an elevator -- or the pages of a book -- with her for somewhere between two and fourteen hours, depending on our reading speed and the length of the book.

Heck, we have to enjoy being stuck in an elevator with her for that long. And, theoretically, willingly come back to it book after book.

It's a challenge! Voice is one of the most important tools in a writer's toolbox. So in creating an engaging voice for her protagonist Sophia, Ms. Cramer is halfway home.

What this piece does need, however, is some careful attention to structure, transitions, and organization. I may be particularly attuned to this problem, as it's one that I've suffered from a lot over the years. This chapter in particular is having organizational problems -- on both the micro level (within paragraphs) and the macro level (the larger structure of the book) -- and I'm not sure it starts off in the right place.

The opening with the dogs is really cute, and the dogs are lovely characters, but what we're being shown while Sophia is walking them is not the stuff that's immediately interesting or relevant. She's walking dogs and the dogs are being dogs, and we're getting an immediate sense of her character, but because of the way the opening paragraph is organized (and the fact that she calls them "her" dogs and not "her clients") it is likely at first to confuse readers.

The first fantasy element -- the disconnect -- is introduced strangely: offhandedly, in narration, Sophia tells us that she sees ghosts. This would be much more effective if it were shown, and would give us an even better idea of her character -- if, as she's walking dogs, she encounters a ghost, we can watch her reaction. This would also provide an opportunity for the exposition about her mugging. For example, if encountering the ghost in the neighborhood where she was mugged triggered her PTSD, it would feel more natural than the current exposition, which is injected somewhat heavy-handedly into the narrative.

In general, I'd like to see a little more subtlety and naturalness in her reactions. There's a lot of telling; I want to be shown some of these things. Also, it's better if the reader had a few questions unanswered. Not all of them -- one thing that keeps readers engaged is a steady stream of questions and answers, overlapping and meshing to drive the plot forward -- but a few, on a sort of rotating basis. Ask a question, ask another question, provide an answer, ask another question.

Sophia could also use a bit more agency. Readers connect with characters who want something, and Sophia does not at first seem to want much. She's got two crappy jobs and she's living in NYC, but we have no idea what her goal is -- or even if she has one. Then another random bit of happenstance that seems largely unconnected from the first scene sends her off to Minnesota, and it seems we're leaving all these things we just devoted energy getting to know -- the dogs, her neighborhood -- behind. We then meet a very important character only in flashback and narration, which makes it hard for the reader to connect with him. Ideally, we should be feeling some fragment of Sophia's grief as she learns of Sid's death, but it's lost in the slapsticky bit of business with the gun and the alarm clock.

There's a problem of focus here. The elements that are backgrounded -- Sid, the ghosts, and so on -- are the narratively important ones, while the ones that are foregrounded -- the dogs, the alarm clock -- are throwaway amusing bits, or seem to be. While I encourage keeping the lightheartedness, the threads need to be better integrated to work properly.

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

-- Elizabeth Bear

Editor's Choice, Science Fiction


The author of DIGITAL GRIT asks for very specific feedback in his author's comments:

"On the listserve from this group, there was an exercise where we post the first 13 lines of our novels. The theory was that in some standard format, that's what fit on the first page, and there the agent, editor, or reader would decide whether to turn the page and keep reading. For this book, a majority said this is great, 10% said I don't care about this drunk driver, and the rest liked it but wanted to speed up the hook. Sure enough, as you see, by about line 15 it's revealed that the drunk woman is the protagonist's mother. However, I can't seem to delete anything; what do you suggest?"

There are a couple of things to unpack in the author's note before we get to the chapter.

First of all, I think the First 13 Lines is a good exercise. If you can't make readers care, or at least feel intrigued by, your character and her situation in 13 lines, then there's good reason for them to doubt whether you can do it in 13 pages or 13 chapters. The very best writing is fractal: the strengths at the paragraph level will be reflected in the strengths of the scene level or the chapter level. If a writer can't make a paragraph hold together, then it's very unlikely that the structure of the scene or chapter is going to be any stronger. So if we don't care about what happens to the main character at the end of a paragraph or two, then it's unlikely that we'll care at the end of the scene.

However, I want to challenge the assumption that deleting something will make the opening scene hook us faster.

The author seems to believe that the hook in this opening scene is the reveal: "by about line 15 it's revealed that the drunk woman is the protagonist's mother." This may hook the author, but it's not a hook for the reader. Why? Because we just picked up the book. As far as we know, the character in the first 15 lines IS the protagonist. In the opening scene, she HAS to be the protagonist. And if she's not -- if she doesn't have an arc that we care about -- then we won't be hooked.

Let's look closely at these opening three paragraphs, about 17-18 lines in standard manuscript format:

Mary Ann bumbled out of the Chickenroost at closing time. Where did that man go? She looked up and down the street, walked to the intersection, and scanned the avenue left and right for him. They had chatted for an hour, and Mary Ann figured they'd leave together, but she couldn't remember his name. If she saw him again in this same bar, would she recognize him in different clothes? She glared at the clouds blocking the stars. She muttered to the heavens -- grotesquely unfair that she should lose him. She'd had no luck in weeks.

Tripping but regaining her balance on the broken asphalt of the bar's parking lot, she managed to identify her car amidst similar models. What would happen if she got in the wrong one? She reached for her keys only to discover she had no pockets, but happily, as she sometimes lost things, she still had her purse. So she dug out her keys and began implementing the algorithm of going home: door, ignition, parking brake.

"Algorithm." She smiled as she thought of the word which brought back her college years. Christ, life had changed since then: aspiration to desperation. This programming term fondly evoked her daughter Sara, so focused on her little machine. In an automated world run by the computers, her child's absorption in the Internet whenever she wasn't at school had to be a sure sign of future success. Even though Sara spent so much of that on-line time playing games... in fact, so much time on one particular Game.

All successful writing is built on an author's strengths. So let's look at what's good in this three paragraph scene.

Mary Ann is an active character: she has a purpose -- she comes out of the bar, looking for a man who she was just talking to. Mary Ann faces an obstacle in her goal: the man is nowhere to be found. And there's one really distinctive detail: Mary Ann's use of algorithm. An active character with a purpose is the greatest strength a writer can have. Distinctive details make a character come alive and help us care about what happens.

So how do we take these strengths and make them stronger, make them shine?

Right now, all the key elements of the scene are revealed internally, through Mary Ann's thoughts. Her search for the man, her search for her car, and her connection to her daughter all happen in her head.

One way to make these elements more effective is to externalize them with vivid details. Instead of telling us that she's looking around, show her shouting. "Hey... man, where'd you go?" Maybe she slurs her words, showing she's drunk. Instead of telling us she's had no luck in weeks, show her fishing in her purse for condoms. Maybe they're old, or even past the expiration date. All of these are vivid details that tell the same story you already have on the page, but they amp it up. You don't need more length. You replace the distant, impersonal details that are here -- she "glared at the clouds" -- with details that are personal and specific to Mary Ann.

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

-- C.C. Finlay

Editor's Choice, Short Story

"The Tenacious Wriggler" by Robert M. Graves

"The Tenacious Wriggler" is a piece with two standout strengths; its choice of characters -- a fourteen-year-old kid grown up fast enough to be running drugs and pimping women and knowing he's not got much way out -- is the first. And the second is its excellent handling of voice.

"The Tenacious Wriggler" makes its slang-filled, storyteller's voice work because it remembers that it is a voice. For anyone who's had trouble with a story that involved a narrator directly addressing a reader: Read the first few paragraphs of this story out loud. That's when you'll notice the use of rhythm; how half-sentences which don't read grammatically to the eye sound perfectly natural to the ear. One of the great techniques for voice is to hear it, with its musical beats, its alliteration, its interruptions and all, and this piece is an excellent example of voice written to the ear.

Another of the tools deployed here is that the protagonist's shorthands, jargon, and slang are internally consistent. Words or shorthands don't appear entirely out of nowhere, and disappear again. We get the phrases we need for the information we need, and the explanations for the less intuitive ones are built into the work. There could be a stronger internal consistency here: Where does he use "the", and where "da"? When is it "eatin" and when "eating", and why? Overall, these are things that a careful copyedit before submission can fix.

There's a way that voice might be deployed to a slightly better effect: Coming on a little lighter in the opening paragraphs. Another tendency stories with a strong voice element can have is to bring it out hard in the opening of a story, and then fade back as the plot moves on. For a voice that's going to be important through the piece, instead of pulling back, consider ramping up to it -- like a video game tutorial! This gives readers an introduction to the way that voice works, much in the same way we introduce other narrative elements, and lets them get comfortable before it comes on full force.

There's also, I think, room for one more beat at the end: A reaction, perhaps, from Bella to what would be a pretty startling offer. There's a view of stories, and conflict, as being a narrative that charts a change. I think it'd be worthwhile to emphasize that change in the closing lines -- and to bring Bella back into the scene, as she's been fading out throughout it and the reminder of her presence just reminds us of her absence.

Something I wouldn't, personally, tinker with is the speculative element. It's slight in one sense, yes, but it works strongly to tie the story together on the thematic level. The idea of the power inherent in small things -- a Martian microbe; a newborn, crack-addicted child; a fourteen-year-old kid who "just gives the goodfolk what they want"; a choice -- resonates through each idea in this piece and makes them cohere. It's made explicit in the piece itself, and in the title -- "I got to admire him, though. My bredren used this word to describe me when I was a Wriggler. Tenacious. I love that word, it's fierce." -- but it's the thematic work that makes the title, and that moment, resonate.

Which takes us back to the first thing that caught my eye about "The Tenacious Wriggler": Its characters.

Science fiction can trend -- a little thoughtlessly -- toward characters who are strictly middle-class. Even when they break the law it's in glamorous, casino-heist, systems-hacking sorts of ways. "The Tenacious Wriggler" is a product of a monthly challenge to get into the head of a character who contradicts your own feelings, and it highlights something important to keep in mind: That people who aren't ourselves, who disagree with us or move through different systems and identities, also have stories worth telling.

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

-- Leah Bobet
Author of ABOVE

Editor's Choice, Horror

FERAL SEASONS Chapter 1: Wide Town by Marianne Kirby

A first chapter needs to engage us in a different way than the opening of a short story, showing us something that we find intriguing enough to want to make a major commitment of time and energy to this book. The chapter may establish an involving conflict or threat, an intriguing world, a hypnotic atmosphere, a compelling character. If one of these elements is strong enough, it may motivate us to continue. If an opening chapter can provide several of these things, then we are even more likely to continue.

In this case, the strong voice of "Hank," the fifteen-year-old, female first-person narrator, helps to draw me into this opening chapter and make me care about the characters. Hank has a very close yet combative relationship with her older brother, Ben, which brings emotion and conflict into the story and feels quite realistic. These two characters and their relationship are the main elements that get me involved and make me want to continue. But the plot is not as strong as the characters, and that serves as a deterrent, making me think that perhaps I don't want to make this commitment of time and keep reading. If the plot can be strengthened, then I think readers will be much more eager to turn the page and continue with Chapter 2.

This opening chapter hints at strange happenings and the threat of creatures called the Reborn that come out at dusk. Hank and Ben find themselves out later than usual and have to drive home at dusk. All of this serves to create suspense as we worry whether Hank and Ben will get home safely. Yet once Hank and Ben get in the truck and start driving home, the suspense starts to decline, and it declines more and more until I feel very little danger, concern, or interest at the end.

Why does the suspense decline? Because the protagonist isn't worried. If Hank isn't worried, why should I be worried? This is something I've encountered many times over my years as an editor and teacher. The author establishes a danger or problem and successfully makes me concerned about it, but then has the protagonist think about all sorts of other things, showing no concern about the danger. This undermines all the set-up work the author has done. I think there are different reasons that the author turns the protagonist's attention elsewhere. In this case, once the drive begins, Hank's thoughts and dialogue provide a lot of exposition (background information) about herself, her town, the weather, a previous incident with their cucumbers, a girl who recently disappeared, and the importance of owning land. The second half of the chapter is mainly exposition. Some of it feels rambling, jumping from one topic to the next, such as the paragraph about planting corn and learning math. I understand that the author is trying to provide some relevant information, but this is not the place to do it or the way to do it.

Dealing with exposition is one of the greatest challenges a writer has, and there are many principles, techniques, and tricks one should consider when wrestling with this beast. I'll discuss a few of the most important ones here. Exposition should generally be kept to a minimum in the first chapter, so the author makes sure to provide involving action and get us firmly involved with the present moment of the story and what is happening in that moment. Going too much into the past weakens our connection to the present. So much of this should be moved into the next few chapters.

In addition, exposition should be reduced to the bare minimum, then broken into small bits rather than given in a big lump. Some of this exposition could be eliminated; it isn't really necessary. For example, the paragraph that begins "It wasn't that I wasn't social," basically explains things about Hank's character that we've already figured out for ourselves. We've already seen Hank interact with Laura. You could show how Laura makes her feel stupid and ugly in that earlier reaction. We don't need exposition about her character. Once you've reduced the exposition you want to include in the story to the bare minimum necessary, break that remaining material into bits to sprinkle through the first third of the novel. A couple of bits could be included here, but they should be worked into involving, immediate actions in the present of the story.

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

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


World Change

by Joshua Palmatier

Everyone knows that in a good piece of fantasy or science fiction, the main characters are supposed to change by the end of the story. They have some kind of revelation about themselves, and this alters the way they behave or react. In most cases, the character grows and becomes a better person for that change (although this isn't always true and isn't a requirement).

But what I think is sometimes lacking in good fantasy and science fiction, and should be treated just as importantly as character change, is world change. The world is, after all, simply another character. In most stories, there are cataclysmic events -- wars, famines, battles -- not to mention spectacular magics or new scientific advances. Often these events don't seem to change the culture of the people involved or the world around them. The society carries on as if nothing has happened.

I much prefer a novel where the world changes just as significantly as any of the characters. War, battle, death -- all of these will force mundane changes on any society. Cities will have been attacked and destroyed, and afterwards may have to be abandoned. Trade routes may have shifted during the course of the war, altering the economics of the area. Alliances and treaties may have been affected, rearranging the political arena. A population that loses over half of its male population in battle -- or a region who has lost all of its children younger than ten due to a bio-engineered virus -- will have to shift to take that into account in future generations. People will not simply be able to pick up where they left off, as if nothing has happened.

Similarly, any new magic or science will also alter a society. A magical wall of fire passing over everyone in a city or region, leaving them untouched, should profoundly affect those people on several levels -- mostly spiritual and religious. If enough people in a culture are being affected, then the culture itself is going to have to shift. Those people are going to bring their troubles and questions to their leaders, both mundane and religious, and those leaders are going to have to react. There may be panic, especially if no one knows where the fire came from. Spiritual leaders are going to have to incorporate that wall of fire into their teachings, either by finding a way to explain it with some tenet they already preach, or altering the religion to include the fire in some way. The same is true for a new scientific advance. A device that can destroy a planet is going to subtly alter the societies of everyone who must deal with this potential threat. Those who witness such destruction are going to have to incorporate that terror into their psyche and learn to cope with it.

In essence, the events are so momentous that they must affect the society as a whole, and the authors should incorporate those changes into their stories in order for the stories to have the impact they deserve and to make their world more realistic. In my books, my worlds undergo significant changes at all levels. Societies, cultures, sometimes even entire landscapes are altered by the events in the story. When I read other works in the field, I find I enjoy those books with mutable societies the best. So the next time you sit down to write, ask yourself how the events in your story might change the society of your world, and then incorporate those changes into the book. It will bring added layers to your worldbuilding, and may just provide material for even more stories to come.

You can learn more about Joshua Palmatier at either of his web sites ( and, on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.

Publication Announcements

Aliette de Bodard wrote: "'Two Sisters In Exile' will be reprinted in David G. Hartwell's THE YEAR'S BEST SCIENCE FICTION, out from Tor sometime this year. Also quite pleased to announce I sold my novelette 'Memorials' to Asimov's."

And as mentioned above, Aliett's short story "Immersion" has won the Nebula Award!

Daniel Connaughton says: "I am pleased to announce that my manuscript for IMORA has been picked up by Double Dragon Publishing for their 2014 release schedule. Thanks to everyone who contributed reviews, especially those who stuck with IMORA the Ice Dragon from the start and were able to forgive her (or at least pretend they didn't see anything) for eating a few humanoids along the way!"

Sarah Grey wrote to say, "Just signed the contract! 'Of Ash and Old Dreams' will appear in Daily Science Fiction. Also, this is my third SFWA-qualifying professional sale, so I'm now eligible for full membership. This is, from my humble perspective, awesome beyond words."

L.S. Johnson announced: "'The Pursuit of the Whole Is Called Love,' workshopped here, will appear in Interzone. Many thanks to Leah Bobet, Steve Brady, Samia Hayes, Michael Hutley, Jon Paradise, D. Scott Thayer, and Kaia Vintr for their helpful feedback."

Sandra McDonald has tied for the Asimov's Science Fiction Readers Award for her short story "Sexy Robot Mom."

Josh Vogt told us, "My flash fiction piece, 'The Girl with the Dagon Tattoo,' (which was critiqued on OWW) has been bought by the UFO 2 anthology."

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 2013 Honor Roll Nominees

Reviewer: Mary Garber
Submission: The Hunters by Ethan Rodgers
Submitted by: Ethan Rodgers

Reviewer: Jane Forni
Submission: A Five Pointed Star - chapter 1 by peter yusuf
Submitted by: peter yusuf

Reviewer: Stelios Touchtidis
Submission: "Shelba's Brood" by Mary Garber
Submitted by: Mary Garber

Reviewer: K. E. Cooper
Submission: C4C TSK - The Beginning Chap 3 by Dawn Chapman
Submitted by: Dawn Chapman

Reviewer: Dragon Paradise
Submission: "The Trials" (Part 1 of 2) by Senner Dan
Submitted by: Senner Dan

Reviewer: Jane Forni
Submission: The Trials (Part 1 of 2) by Senner Dan
Submitted by: Senner Dan

Reviewer: Dragon Paradise
Submission: Chapter 1: Bloodlines by Debra Crichlow
Submitted by: Debra Crichlow

Reviewer: Jane Forni
Submission: Chapter 1: Bloodlines by Debra Crichlow
Submitted by: Debra Crichlow

Reviewer: Senner Dan
Submission: The ET Phones Home Detective Agency by Bo Balder
Submitted by: Bo Balder

Reviewer: Jane Forni
Submission: Crying Wolf Ch 29 by Bill Danner
Submitted by: Bill Danner

Reviewer: Jane Forni
Submission: The Secret Stains of Witches, Chapter One by Liz Acevedo
Submitted by: Liz Acevedo

Reviewer: Jane Forni
Submission: The Calico Project - Chapter 1 - Earth by Christine Berman
Submitted by: Christine Berman

Reviewer: Brent Smith
Submission: Bottom Up Rot by Jody Sollazzo
Submitted by: Jody Sollazzo

On Shelves Now

DEEP DOWN by Deborah Coates (Tor Books, March 2013)

Now that she's solved her sister's murder, Hallie Michaels has left the army and isn't sure what to do next. Her relationship with deputy Boyd Davies is tentative, there's still distance between her and her father, and she needs a job. The good news is, she hasn't seen a ghost in weeks.

All that changes when she gets a call asking her to help an elderly neighbor who is being stalked by black dogs, creatures from the underworld that are harbingers of death. When a black dog appears, Hallie learns, a reaper is sure to follow. And if the dark visions she's suddenly receiving are any indication, it looks like the reaper is now following her.

Stalked by a reaper and plagued by dark visions, Hallie finds she must face her fears and travel into Death's own realm to save those she most loves.

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This month's featured article from our Tips and Advice section:

Laura Kent, workshop member, on how to improve your non-visual descriptions

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) and we'll do the rest.

Until next month -- just write!

The Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror
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