Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror
Happy September, everyone! People in the Northern Hemisphere are winding down summer and heading into fall, and a new school year has kicked off. In the Southern Hemisphere spring is just getting started with the promise of warmer days ahead. Whether you live north or south of the equator, September is a month full of changes and transitions.
More changes are in store for OWW as well--just little ones this month. We've extended the length of time you can be signed in to the Workshop, but idle. Until now the "timeout" was a few hours. Now it is days. This will avoid the problem of starting a review and working on it for so long (with or without hours away from the computer) that OWW decides your session is over. When you submit the review, OWW asks you to log in again, and in some cases your review is lost. The new days-long session length will prevent this from happening. But if you use OWW on a public computer, don't forget to sign out when you are done!
We're also about to change how we handle passwords to increase the security of our system. You should not experience any difference when signing in. Once we make the change, if you forget or lose your password and request password help, you will receive a link via e-mail with which to reset your password (rather than receiving your password itself).
Our Publication Announcements section is mighty sparse this month, and we don't think it's because members didn't make any sales or pubs. We want to brag on your behalf--so please notify us when you have a writing-related accomplishment you're proud of!
And as always, also contact us if you have any questions or ideas for improving the OWW newsletter.
Jaime Lee Moyer, newsletter editor
news (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com
Our ever-inventive challenge dictator Leah Quire wants us to do something a little different this month.
"People always tell writers to think outside the box, but I propose that for September we do just the opposite. Think inside the box. Create a creature and build a world that only exists inside a box you found in the attic."
Remember: Challenges are supposed to be fun, but don't forget to stretch yourself and take risks. If you normally write fantasy, try science fiction. If you've never tried writing in first or second person, here's your chance. The story doesn't have to be a masterpiece, this is all about trying new things and gaining new skills, and most of all, having fun. Challenge stories can go up at anytime.Put "Challenge" in the title so people can find it.
Challenges can be suggested by anyone and suggestions should be sent to Jaime (news (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com).
Fantastic Stories of the Imagination is looking for stories that cover the entire science fiction and fantasy spectrum. No maximum word count, but the longer the story the better it has to be. Fifteen cents a word for original stories and a flat $25.00 for reprints. Full guidelines here.
Penumbra is looking for unpublished speculative fiction stories of 3,500 words or less, and wants stories that surprise and do the unexpected. Payment is 5 cents a word. Penumbra publishes themed issues, and usually has multiple issue calls open at the same time. Full guidelines here.
Shock Totem opens to submissions on September 1st. It welcomes dark fantasy and horror stories up to 12,000 words, as well as flash and poetry. Payment is 5 cents a word for unpublished fiction and 2 cents a word for reprints. Full guidelines here.
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, Liz Bourke, 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!
Demon Touched, Chapter 1, by Valerie Jones
Jones has a pretty vivid turn of phrase. It's that turn of phrase in the first paragraph, "Her stomach twisted like a shirt wrung in a washer woman’s knobby hands," that drew my attention to this chapter. There are other promising elements as well: the main character, Mara, has a personality that comes across quite strongly, and the chapter intimates dark secrets about Mara's history while putting the reader face-to-face with present peril and challenges. But it doesn't quite come together into the smooth narrative experience you want -- especially from a first chapter.
Let's summarise what's happening before we get into what could be done better.
Mara, a sorceress, hears hoofbeats that announce the arrival of soldiers at her doorstep. She thinks in passing that "If they had finally come for her, so be it." It transpires that the soldiers have not come for her, but rather have turned up at her door because one of their number is badly injured. Mara recognises him as a prince, who is also a sorcerer, whom she had last seen when she was eight years old. He has been mauled by a were-creature. There follows magical healing on Mara's part. After this we have a scene break: Mara wakes from sleep to find one of the soldiers -- an officer -- informing her that they have been pursued by mercenaries who had attacked them earlier, and asking Mara to help them fight them off their pursuers with spells the prince prepared earlier and stored in his sword. Mara cannot quite figure out how to use these spells, but after the fighting begins, she decides to contribute in her own way, and starts to kill enemy mercenaries with her own magic. The chapter closes with her killing her second mercenary.
Now let's talk about what's not going quite right.
- telling/grounding detail
- line of direction, paragraph flow, and stage business
- characterisation of non-POV characters
All these things are necessarily connected. Let's look at the first few paragraphs as an example.
Mara looked up at the sound of riders pounding recklessly fast up the path to her cabin door.Beneath the staccato rumble of hoofbeats, metal jangled.Mara knew that sound:soldiers.Her stomach twisted like a shirt wrung in a washer woman’s knobby hands.
Quickly, she took her cloak from the peg by the door and swung it around her shoulders, pulling the hood up to shroud her scarred face. If they had finally come for her, so be it.
The riders pulled up out front.Horses stamped and blew, and strident voices filled the night.Someone pounded on the door with a mailed fist.
Bracing herself, Mara pulled the door open.
“Woman, are you the sorceress of Tollan Wood?” the soldier on the other side demanded.
These paragraphs combine a significant amount of stage business (she looked up, she did things with her cloak, someone pounded on the door, she pulled the door open) without much context for the actual stage. The first few paragraphs in a story are the equivalent of a cold open in television: they set the scene as well as introduce the action, and both are vital for the viewer's (in this case reader's) immersion in what follows. Here, we do not know anything about Mara's surroundings. What is she doing when the noise draws her attention? Why is it important that she look up from what she's doing? What surrounds her? Do people often come to her door? If she hears something, does that mean they are coming to her door or will they pass by?
The writer has an opportunity to show what Mara is doing when she hears the noise, and so convey information about her, her surroundings, and her world. Is she sleeping? Working? Relaxing? Mending?
The gaze of the narrative is what directs the reader's attention. It is why line of direction is a term of art that comes up again and again. Here we are distracted from the progression of a smooth line by unanswered questions. Why the cloak? Why the cloak before the knock? Who are the they who might be coming for Mara?
For the rest of this review, visit the Editors' Choice area of the OWW site!
"Sleeps With Monsters" columnist at Tor.com
Book reviewer for Tor.com, Strange Horizons, and Ideomancer
Bloodlines, Chapter 1, by Debra Crichlow
When a writer is telling a large, complex and epic story, one of the most difficult decisions is knowing where to start. Dream sequences and large blocks of italics -- like the ones at the beginning of this novel -- present a challenge: they usually signal to the reader that we’re not yet in the present moment of the story. That’s the case here. In the first scene, Paolo Borza has a nightmare about something that happened to him fifteen years in the past. The second scene is a flashback to the original incident. It’s difficult to make that feel urgent enough to hook readers.
So where else could this book begin? Let’s look at all the scenes in the first two chapters for our options.
Scene 1: Paolo Borza has a nightmare about his dead Aunt Delfina rotting
Scene 2: Flashback 15 years in the past -- Paolo is thrown into the casket at his Aunt Delfina’s funeral
Scene 3: Paolo talks to Allesandro about his nightmares
Scene 1: Exposition about Paolo’s villa, the secret chamber beneath it, and the creation of the Cabal.
Scene 2: Bruno Medici runs for his life from possibly supernatural creatures until he’s knocked unconscious.
Scene 3: Paolo and other members of the Cabal ritually murder Bruno and drink his blood in the secret chamber under Paolo’s villa.
Scene 4: Paolo orders the Cabal to dispose of Bruno’s dead body.
Scene 5: Paolo and Allessandro fight about the purpose of the Cabal and Paolo kicks Allessandro out.
Scene 6: Paolo turns away from Allessandro and thinks about how his Aunt Delfina will be waiting for him in his dreams/nightmares that night.
Chapter 1 is essentially exposition: foreshadowing, the long plot, introduction of other characters and problems. It’s all important to the book. Chapter 2 is mostly action: a man flees, is murdered, and his murderers fight with each other afterward.
While this is one way to do it -- exposition, then action -- most genre books do the opposite. They start with the action, establish character and root the reader in the now of the story with Chapter 1. Then Chapter 2 is used for exposition that provides context for the action and for the rest of the book.
And that would be my suggestion for Bloodlines. Chapter 1 should start with Bruno Medici. I would develop his character more -- where is he going in the dark, what’s his goal, what’s going on in his head? This gives us a chance to care about him, maybe even think he’s going to be the protagonist of the book. Then the chase, capture, and ritual murder. I would also slow down a bit and establish more about Paolo and the other characters through here. The exposition in the current Chapter 2, Scene 1 can just be incorporated into the other scenes.
The current ending of the Bruno sequence, scene 6, loops right back around to Aunt Delfina. That means that all of that information --the nightmare, the flashback, the context for the bigger plot -- can flow smoothly from that into the new Chapter 2. If there’s important action taking place after Bruno’s murder, then I would try to find a way to integrate the important details into that action and keep the story moving.
The writer’s entry into the story doesn’t have to be reader’s entry. As writers, we start by imagining the backstory and context and seeing the big picture. But readers usually want to connect with the story and the characters in a more immediate way. Action -- or something else taking place in the present moment of the story -- is almost always a stronger hook, as long as we readers care about or are interested in the character. Then the exposition is a great way for us to catch our breath after the action and learn why the action matters. Pick five or ten of your favorite genre novels and you’ll see this pattern in most of them. I’m not saying it’s the only way to start a novel, but I am saying that it works. And I think it will be effective here.
Although this suggestion to restructure may seem like a lot of work, I think the novel’s worth it, at least based on these two chapters. There’s a lot of good stuff here, and the promise of even more to come. I love historical fiction -- whether it’s alternate history, historical fantasy, or history-based science fiction -- and I’d love to see this novel start off with a really strong hook.
So I hope these comments help. As always, please feel free to take what’s useful and ignore anything else.
Guest Editor, Fantasy & Science Fiction
Author of the Traitor to the Crown series
"Dame Joy" by Pamela Davis
"Dame Joy" caught my eye this month because it was interesting -- which can feel like a very vague statement when it comes to evaluating what does or doesn't make a story work!So to cut to the chase, this month, I'd like to dig into some of the craft decisions and tools we can deploy to make a story interesting, and what interesting means when applied to our own work.
So: What makes this story interesting?
The first paragraphs of "Dame Joy" immediately establish both an unconventional world -- the juxtaposition of cowboys, digital tagging, and hat barter making me immediately curious about the story and its world -- but also show a strong sense of the rhythm and sound of prose.The very first sentence -- "And what will you give me for a hat like that?" -- rolls off the tongue well, establishes the sense of a world and conversation picked up in media res (the "and", as well as the use of "was asking" rather than "asked"), and coheres nicely, due to the three near-rhymes spaced through it (what, hat , that).It's also a question, rather than a statement, which can be a very effective tactic for interesting readers in a story's world.Statements just exist, but questions imply answers, and answers that could be coming can build curiosity in our readers.
That strength is followed up on by the quality of the ideas in "Dame Joy." While every story is in many ways, fundamentally the same -- a person is in a situation with a problem -- the problems in this piece are quite unconventional for short-form speculative fiction, and the solutions are just as unconventional.There is a great draw to an interesting problem, one that the conversation we participate in as readers and writers hasn't already talked to death.When we use tropes, our readers already know to a certain degree how we're going to treat them -- or not treat them, reacting directly against the dominant conversation.But when a story is about a record player, a yellow stapler, an upload afterlife, and an old ladies' garage band?There is no knowing where it's going -- only anticipation, and anticipation can be a writer's greatest ally.
What pairs well, craft-wise, with those unconventional ideas is the story's gently absurdist but accessible narrative tone.It's a great temptation sometimes, when working with offbeat ideas, to use a narrative style that's just as fractured, or loud, or otherwise demanding the reader's attention.The clean style of "Dame Joy" lets readers get to -- and appreciate -- the idea of a marble craze among the possibly-recently-dead without having to process a prose style in parallel; keeps the story fun, rather than overbearing.The gentle tone also suits both Kathy's personality and the easygoing feel of her world: draws it as comfortable, optimistic, safe as her marriage with Terrence.
But the style choice does a third, more subtle thing: It communicates the confidence of the author in this world and this story.With a less-showy, more defined style, the story isn't shouting for our attention, so to speak: It just is.And just being is sometimes a very powerful tool, especially with content that is a little absurdist: the ability to have readers feel that the words you're giving them are true, just because you are conveying them so convincingly and confidently, can carry a story strongly.
Where "Dame Joy" can perhaps improve is in its pacing, particularly through the middle and toward the end of the piece.While this isn't a story that I feel necessarily needs a razor-sharp focus -- is a story where part of the humour and delight of the ending lines is it's wandering, and how that wasn't wandering after all -- the thread readers follow to know what's important in a piece and what's a side detail is not always strong in this story.It's important to preserve a sense of narrative motion: The feeling that no matter if they're also going slightly to the side, the story's main character, in her situation, with her problem, is progressing forward.Creating interest is excellent, but maintaining it is an art as well, and one that's perhaps trickier.An interesting story is the one that stays interesting; that sustains readers' interest as well as creates and satisfies it.
So my suggestion for "Dame Joy" would be to focus on that sense of narrative motion: Ensure that in every scene, something happens to advance the plot as well as the characters' development, the themes, and the worldbuilding, and that the advancement of the plot is made more prominent on the page.This is a story where so much is unknown by the characters -- where the readers are being given a lot of "no" -- and I suspect tightening up the digressions slightly, and focusing more on the actions that get Kathy to the next phase of her challenge, would provide a necessary and counterbalancing "yes" to reassure readers that the story is moving and will come to a satisfying conclusion.
(And it does: The last line is startlingly delightful, and made me smile.)
Best of luck!
Author of ABOVE
"The Vampire of Somerset" (Part 1 of 2) by Seth Skorkowsky
Years ago, in the mid-1990s, I remember thinking that vampires were finally over.Everything that could possibly be done with them had been done; their number would decrease to a trickle in the new releases put out by publishers; they would fade from readers' minds.Of course, I've been proven wrong many times over since then.Vampires have a great staying power (not surprisingly, since they are immortal) and the archetype has shown great flexibility and adaptability.They can be presented in countless ways and can elicit strong emotional reactions from readers.
"The Vampire of Somerset" provides some new twists on the vampire mythos, and these are some of the strongest elements of the piece.I really enjoy learning about the different types of vampires, the powers of vampires, the techniques for vampire hunting and killing, and the details of the order. These not only show vampires in a new light, but they also put the vampires in a new context, with the order and their fascinating swords.So I think the story does a very strong job of worldbuilding, providing a fresh and compelling situation.
Helen, the protagonist, is another strength of the piece.Her cool, confident, and commanding personality comes across strongly.She feels unique and interesting.As a reader, I want to follow her and see what she does.
It's always hard to give feedback on an excerpt from a longer piece; I'm responding here just to what I see in this section.But based on that, I see three main areas that could be improved.The most important one is the plot.The plot feels as if it's moving very slowly thus far.In this first section, most of the material is exposition (background information), establishing what has happened and what the situation is.I don't yet see any significant conflict occurring in the present of the story, so it feels as if the plot hasn't gotten going yet.This type of story usually works best with a three-act structure, yet at the end of this section, we haven't yet reached the end of Act 1, which usually occurs about 25% of the way through a piece.So I'm concerned about that.
The opening scene works pretty well in establishing Helen's goal, to destroy the vampire who killed Sir Myrberg.But I question whether you really need it.I think you could begin with Helen entering her hotel room, knocking on the adjoining door, and meeting Richard.This would be a much more intriguing opening, since we would wonder why Richard is so afraid and why he thinks Helen can protect him, and we'd be further intrigued when she makes him strip and examines him for bites.Their conversation pretty much explains everything that happened, so we don't need the phone call or the plane flight.The flight is an example of a common problem in the work of developing writers, called "driving to the story" (with the variations of "walking to the story," "flying to the story" or choose your method of transportation).If the plane is important later in the story, you could drop a sentence into the scene between Helen and Richard that establishes where the plane is. But the flight itself and the encounter with Leed seem unnecessary.
The scene between Helen and Richard then needs more conflict.Right now, it seems to be only a vehicle to give exposition to the reader -- information about Helen, about what happened, about how Sir Myrberg works, and so on.The giving of this information could potentially involve conflict, if one character was determined to get the information and the other was determined to withhold it, but that's not the case now.So there is minimal conflict and nothing is at stake in the scene.
Each character needs to have a goal in the conversation and must struggle to achieve the goal; that's how strong dialogue is created.The goal can be small or large; the struggle can be overt or in the subtext, but there should be a conflict.Richard doesn't seem to have any goal except to find out more about Helen, and this goal seems manipulated by the author, who wants to put information about Helen (exposition) into the scene.Since Helen seems to have no problem giving information about herself, this leads to no struggle or conflict.My suggestion would be that Richard has the goal to quit and go home, and he wants nothing to do with the vampire hunt.He could keep insisting on protection and safe passage back to his home, and he might refuse to give any but the most superficial, brief details, since he wants to get out of the hotel.Helen would then have to struggle to achieve her goal of getting the information.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editors' Choice area of the OWW site!
--Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey
Workshop alum Beth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a number-obsessed son, and a cat the size of a canned ham.
Beth's short fiction can be found in Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and many other magazines. The Clockwork Dagger (Harper Voyager, September 2014) is her first novel. The sequel, The Clockwork Crown, will be released in 2015.
How OWW Inspired Me to Write Steampunk
The Online Writing Workshop had a big impact on my career as a writer. It taught me how to give (and not give) critiques. It exposed me to a wider variety of fantasy, science fiction, and horror than I otherwise would have read. Most of all, though, it motivated me to embrace steampunk -- which resulted in my two-book deal, with The Clockwork Dagger out September 16th.
To be hipster about it, I loved steampunk before it was called steampunk. I grew up watching the corny 1980 version of Flash Gordon. I passionately loved Final Fantasy VI and it's blend of magic and steampunk technology. I was interested in historical fiction from an early age, and it seemed natural to me to overlap magic and new inventions with a factual base. When the smash hits of steampunk lit came out -- Soulless by Gail Carriger and Boneshaker by Cherie Priest -- I bought them immediately and loved them both. Even so, I was hesitant to write a novel in the genre.
The reason: the notion intimidated the heck out of me. I can be, um, a tad obsessive about historical accuracy, and it can create an endless cycle of research.
On OWW, I discovered an author named Lindsay Buroker. She had just started posting a new steampunk book, Encrypted. We started to exchange reviews. Her novel was so good I had to remind myself to critique, not simply read.
Some months later, I was at a point where I wanted to start writing a new book of my own. I had an urban fantasy novel (which was fully critiqued on OWW) that connected me with my agent, and I wanted to do something that was fun and different. Lindsay's book was still on my mind. She had done such a great job of blending magic and technology, and she used a secondary world setting. That freed her from the constraints of using Earth's geography and history. She also worked in a fun and flirty romance with lots of laugh-out-loud-inducing banter.
I brainstormed and thought of an unsold steampunk short story I'd written. I fleshed out that setting. I talked to my agent and pitched the concept: "It's like Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, but on an airship, with a healer as the lead character." My agent told me to go for it.
The world-building was the biggest issue as I progressed through my drafts. I still read plenty of non-fiction for research -- books on World War I warfare, on pioneer life, on Civil War and World War I medicine -- but I didn't let it bog me down. I made my own world, so I had the freedom to fudge things.
The result is a steampunk setting inspired by post-World War I Europe, with a scarred landscape and starving populace, and a fast-paced whodunit plot and light romance for good measure. Would I have been able to write this book without OWW? Eventually, maybe. But I like to think the stars aligned as they should, and that OWW provided me the motivation and inspiration I needed when I needed it most. For that, I'm grateful.
More about Beth can be found on her blog.
Workshop alum Beth Cato's first novel, The Clockwork Dagger, comes out September 16.
Margaret Fisk wants us all to know that her story "To Catch A Glimpse" is out in the new These Vampires Don't Sparkle anthology. Congrats, Margaret!
Tim Majors is happy to announce that Infinite Acacia's anthology, Infinite Science Fiction One, will be released in print and epub on September 1st, and features his story "By the Numbers." That's awesome, Tim!
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.
August 2014 Honor Roll Nominees
Reviewer: Jak Jamin
Submission: C4C -- She Tasted Salt by Allan Dyen-Shapiro
Submitted by: Jon Paradise
Reviewer: Jon Paradise
Submission: C4C -- She Tasted Salt by Allan Dyen-Shapiro
Submitted by: Allan Dyen-Shapiro
One-Eyed Jack by Elizabeth Bear (Prime Books, July 2014)
The One-Eyed Jack and the Suicide King: personifications of the city of Las Vegas --its history, mystery, mystical power, and heart! When the Suicide King vanishes -- possibly killed -- in the middle of a magic-rights turf war started by the avatars of Los Angeles, a notorious fictional assassin, and the mutilated ghost of Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel -- his partner, the One-Eyed Jack, must seek the aid of a bizarre band of legendary and undead allies: the ghosts of Doc Holliday and John Henry the steel-driving man; the echoes of several imaginary super spies, decades displaced in time; and a vampire named Tribute, who bears a striking resemblance to a certain long-lost icon of popular music.
The Clockwork Dagger by Beth Cato (Harper Voyager, September 2014)
Orphaned as a child, Octavia Leander was doomed to grow up on the streets until Miss Percival saved her. Gifted with incredible powers, the young healer is about to embark on her first mission, visiting suffering cities in the far reaches of the war-scarred realm. But the airship on which she is traveling is plagued by a series of strange and disturbing occurrences, including murder, and Octavia herself is threatened. Suddenly, she is caught up in a flurry of intrigue: the dashingly attractive steward may be one of the infamous Clockwork Daggers -- the Queen's spies and assassins -- and her cabinmate harbors disturbing secrets. But the danger is only beginning, for Octavia discovers that the deadly conspiracy may reach the crown itself.
The Guild of Assassins: Book Two of The Majat Code by Anna Kashina (Angry Robot Books, August 2014)
Kara has achieved something that no Majat has ever managed -- freedom from the Guild! But the Black Diamond assassin Mai has been called back to face his punishment for sparing her life. Determined to join his fight or share his punishment, Kara finds herself falling for Mai. But is their relationship -- and the force that makes their union all-powerful -- a tool to defeat the overpowering forces of the Kaddim armies, or a distraction sure to cause the downfall of the Majat?
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This month's featured article from our Tips and Advice section:
Pacing by Carlos J. Cortes
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.