Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror
We've arrived at December and NaNoWriMo is over. To all the writers who participated, whether members of OWW or not, and whether you made the goal of 50k or not, great job. You should all be proud of yourselves. I know I'm proud of you.
Why? Because half the secret to being a writer is showing up. That's probably the number one lesson I learned in my years on OWW. Keep writing when you don't really feel like it, keep trying new things, striving, and taking risks.
A new writing year is just ahead. New stories, new ideas, fresh chances to try something that scares you. Keep showing up, and above all, keep learning. And until next month, keep writing.
We don't have a Spotlight article this month. Spotlights can be written by members on a topic of interest; they can be interviews (by OWW or members) of interesting writing-related people; or they can be articles by non-members whose stories, experience, or soapbox opinionating are of interest to writers. So send us your suggestions for who you'd like to see in the Spotlight in future.
And as always, contact us if you have any questions, publication announcements, or ideas for improving the OWW Newsletter.
Jaime Lee Moyer, newsletter editor
news (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com
Our inventive challenge maven Leah Quire and your intrepid editor -- me -- put our heads together this month to come up with this challenge: We've all heard the phrase "full of hot air," but what does that really mean? What exactly is hot air and how does being full of it change a person?
Think outside the obvious box for this one. Make the idea your very own.
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).
Greymatter Press is seeking horror stories about "the monster that is man," for their new anthology with the working title Monsters. Stories should be between 3,000-7,500 words and payment is 5 cents per word. Deadline to submit is January 30, 2015. Full details here.
East of the Web is looking for imaginative, idea-filled science fiction and fantasy short stories of at least 7,000 words. Payment starts at 5 cents per word. Full details here.
Crossed Genres Publications is seeking stories for Hidden Youth: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. They pay 6 cents a word for stories of 2,000-8,000 words set before 1935, and the submission window closes April 30, 2015. Full details 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!
SWORD AND HEART, Chapters 1 AND 2 by Christine Lynch
What drew me to Sword and Heart was the image of a woman on a battlefield, a soldier and a leader. I like traditional fantasy, and I like female characters in leading roles. This fantasy, though, has a long way to go before it's publishable material -- and since its current weaknesses are common ones, I'm going to go into them in some detail.
Let's outline what happens in these two chapters in broad terms. The first paragraph introduces a main character, Byshell, and the setting, a battlefield. This appears to be a battlefield in the aftermath of a battle, rather than during the actual fighting. The second paragraph gives an incomplete infodump about Byshell's life and her homeland. The subsequent lines of dialogue introduce a second character, a telepathic not-horse. Soon thereafter the reader encounters a flashback to the meeting and bonding of Byshell and Shalmar, her telepathic not-horse. The narrative returns to the present time, where we learn that Byshell is not only a soldier but also a queen (selected, not born), and that her troops are pursuing something to the south. There is an apparently-magic fog. A Bad Guy appears out of the fog and does some ranting. Byshell and her telepathic not-horse are translocated to a strange place and encounter two different groups of hostile people, whose language they do not speak.
This is a lot for the first six thousand words! It's structurally quite confused, as well: I would advise the writer to step back and consider what she is trying to achieve here. What's the important thing to begin with? What's the goal of these first two chapters? The first chapter serves an extremely important purpose: it's the reader's first encounter with the writer's characters and world, and like the early stages of any important relationship, it's a delicate negotiation between what you reveal up front and what you hold back for later. The second-paragraph infodump and the flashback are things that should be held back for later, or communicated in different ways. The reader needs to become accustomed to Byshell and to the world, to quickly become immersed in the moment where the narrative begins, and introducing too much information too soon gets in the way of that. That is one problem with these first two chapters.
The problem that is larger, and will take more work to fix, is the lack of voice. We mean a lot of things when we use the term "voice," some of them contradictory. Writers have voices; so too do individual works and individual characters. Voice can mean individuality or personality, but it also signifies a kind of narrative confidence that is difficult to quantify -- but when it's not there, it's a noticeable absence. And Sword and Heart lacks that narrative confidence.
Many writers, when they're starting out and for some years thereafter, don't have the experience to disentangle the story in their head into something that adequately conveys some measure of what the writer knows to the reader. Learning how to convey appropriately and with confidence? That's the real struggle, and a set of skills many writers spend their whole lives refining. You hear, for example, "Show, don't tell," and then you hear, "By the way, you can tell some things without showing" -- different techniques are tools for addressing different issues.
What's happening in the prose here is a classic example of failure to show, combined with an over-use of telling. We have lots of to-be statements (was this, were that) and verbs of action and of feeling. What we don't have is the kind of detail that sets a scene: physical cues and sensory cues, specific detail. It is warm: what does a person feel in the warm? Is it warm enough for sweat to stick your shirt to your back, warm enough that metal exposed to the sun will become hot enough to cause discomfort when touched? There are flies: what kind of flies? Big, fat flies, horseflies, the buzzing kind with glittering blue underbellies, or thin darting midge-flies that thrive in the damp? There are odors: what kind of odors? What does spilled blood smell like? What does violent death smell like? (Ever passed through a butchers' market or by a slaughterhouse in summer?) The not-horse smells "warm" -- but what kind of warm? Musky? Horse-y? The important thing is to be specific, and avoid, as much as possible, speaking in generalities. These details build up a rounded picture of the world and the characters in it.
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
XENOLOGIST conclusion (Chapters 26 and 27) by Zvi Zaks
This submission is the conclusion to a novel about a human xenologist responsible for communicating with (and spying on) sentient plant life on an alien planet. The author is polishing this draft for an interested agent, and has focused on fixing weaknesses in the plot and character development, which is always smart. According to the author notes, he's also concerned about the possibility of "too much anti-climactic material in the last few chapters."
Those concerns are well placed… but not because of any specific problem. On the contrary, this is a very worthy Editor's Choice, with clean prose, generally good structure, and a clear sense of what it's trying to accomplish. Even though I hadn't read the earlier chapters, I was able to come right in, understand characters and relationships, and enjoy the story. That's always a sign of good writing.
No, it's a well-placed concern because the last impression a reader has of any book is the ending. Many otherwise good books end up not connecting with readers because they don't stick the landing. The technical term for the end of a novel is the "denouement." The role of the denouement is not just to tie up loose ends and narrative threads. The most important role of the denouement is to create space for the reader to experience an emotional reaction to the work. And the final chapters of Xenologist can still do a better job of expanding passages and focusing on details that will let the reader experience those emotions.
Remember: the key here is the reader's emotions, not the characters' emotions, so melodrama and extreme character reactions can hurt more than they help. What helps are specific evocative details and beats -- or narrative spaces, the equivalent of a pause -- that let the readers have time to absorb something and react.
Chapter 26 opens with a paragraph that needs evocative details and a beat. Here's the beginning of that chapter.
Dreams of humans attacking plantums with clubs, and plantums spraying people unconsciousness plagued Manny's sleep. He awoke in a cold sweat and cried out, "No, stop it."
Nichole turned to him and shook his shoulder. "Honey, are you all right?"
He shook his head. "Just a bad dream."
I'm happy the writer tells us right off that this is a dream. (I'm no fan of dream sequences, even though I've used them.) But the dream is described clinically, absent detail. There's nothing sensory that lets us share the experience of Manny's unease. And by having him cry out, the story steals the beat. Manny has the reaction instead of giving the reader room to want the conflict to stop. Consider this slightly different version:
Dreams of humans attacking plantums with clubs, and plantums spraying people unconsciousness plagued Manny's sleep. The sounds of clubs striking trunks thumped like a heartbeat. People fell to the ground like branches in a strong storm. He awoke in a cold sweat.
Nichole was awake, staring at him in the dark. "Honey, are you all right?"
He shook his head. "Just a bad dream."
Don't focus on my specific words as much as the idea. By providing vivid, visceral details and evoking specific senses, the writer helps us understand and experience Manny's reaction for ourselves. By holding back -- just a bit! -- on Manny's reaction, the story creates more room for the reader to feel.
It's an art, not a science, but there are other opportunities to do similar things at key moments throughout these chapters. There is a similar moment at the end of the scene where Manny and Nichole find out that they'll have to take on extra jobs.
"But that's not why I asked you to come today," Andrew said. "I'm afraid the colony can't support your full-time research, so you'll have to work at least half time on jobs that will benefit the colony."
Manny and Nichole exchanged glances. Andrew's request was reasonable, but a bit disappointing?
This is another key emotional moment in the story, but we get that moment without any telling details and no room for the reader to feel, just the "disappointing" with a question mark. This passage could work better if we saw Andrew changing his posture or doing something to indicate him taking a more official position. And the story needs more from Manny and Nichole in order to evoke their disappointment in the reader. Again, consider this slightly different example:
"But that's not why I asked you to come today," Andrew said. He stood up straighter and put his hands on his hips. "I'm afraid the colony can't support your full time research, so you'll have to work at least half time on jobs that will benefit the colony."
Manny and Nichole exchanged glances. Neither one of them had expected this.
Nichole looked at the floor. "I guess that's a reasonable request."
Manny hesitated. His shoulders slumped. "Sure. That's reasonable."
Again, in this example, don't focus on my words, focus on the ideas. The right raw materials are here, in the right place, but help the story emerge. Give us a visual or other sensory clue that Andrew is acting authoritatively, maybe even unjustly. Downcast eyes and hesitation can show Manny and Nichole's disappointment, and showing rather than telling creates room for readers to have the emotional experience for themselves.
The juxtaposition of a character action and then character dialogue that contradicts or is different from the action is a great way to create space for a reader response.
There are other places in these chapters that would benefit from similar attention. For example, look closely at the wedding scene. Wedding scenes are a place where readers usually want to feel connected with the characters and have some "feels" -- that doesn't mean the scene has to be long or complicated, but, again, it has to include evocative details and room for a reaction. Do it in a way that's consistent with the novel and the characters.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editors' Choice area of the OWW site!
Guest Editor, Fantasy & Science Fiction
Author of the Traitor to the Crown series
"Anemones" by Shawn Scarber
"Anemones" caught my eye because of its strong sentence-level craft and willingness to tackle a very real, vital subject: the war between Israel and Palestine in Gaza. It's a story with ambition on every level. However, the more ambitious our work, the more we have to build strong foundations in order to follow through -- and this month, I'd like to talk about ambitious stories, how our worldbuilding and craft can make or break them, and committing to an ambitious story.
"Anemones" does a lot of things right, right off the bat. There's a good sense of tone and sentence-level flow throughout the piece, and the protagonist's exhausted cynicism sketches him in subtly while making the rest of his Gaza Strip feel worn-in and realistic just from his very world-weariness.
There are, notably, also some very strong worldbuilding tools being used in "Anemones," worldbuilding through the comparative being the one that stood out to me the most. The engine mounts they recalled years ago, the offhand reference to Barbara in China, their certifier; the standard Boston Dynamic android. The world of "Anemones" is described at first not by things on the page, but by how what's on the page is different from or similar to standard, more normal things that are off the page. It's an effective trick for instantly creating a world that's bigger than the here and now our protagonist sees: a world with instant history and depth, where things don't always work how they're supposed to or are complicated -- which is also a great piece of setup for the story's thematics and eventual plot reveal.
There's also a tie to an existing work in science fiction: one of the Twilight Zone's most famous episodes, "I, Robot." The role of the witnesses -- and the position this particular witness finds itself in -- is a direct tie to an idea readers of the genre will already understand, which is also an aid to worldbuilding. Being just enough like another work to create a firm foundation, yet just different enough to be fresh, is a huge benefit for a story that's working to discuss what we usually expect from the kind of story it is.
However, as always -- and especially when it comes to highly ambitious stories -- the craft elements that are a story's strength can also be its weakness when it comes to how they interact with the other aspects of a story. As strong as the role of the witnesses is in setting a tone for the reader, when they're held up to examine their plot logic, they fall apart.
How does an objective robot recorder have wants and what read solidly like emotional needs? How does a machine programmed to witness ethically muddy war zones experience an unforeseeable break in conscience, or if it's programmed that way, how is this so novel and new that they need to call our protagonist in? What does that reaction imply for its role in this situation? Why does it care about being damaging, or taking sides in a conflict it's designed to police as a strict neutral force?
Basically, what is a witness? How does it work? What are its limits and parameters? As the witnesses are explicitly set up as a mirror for our protagonist and his somewhat alienated neutrality in the war he's working around, this fuzziness leaks into the characterization: What are our protagonist's motives here? What are his ethical stances? Does he legitimately feel nothing about the war he's in the middle of? When it comes to his presence, emotionally speaking, on the page, where is he?
The viewpoints of both the witness and our protagonist are muddied, and frequently inconsistent depending on the needs of the plot. Once the layer of prose and the daring setting is peeled back, the plot and characterization in "Anemones" has trouble standing up to scrutiny. The finest logic breaks them apart -- even the story's most pivotal moments. Why would an Israeli soldier speak her last word in English for our protagonist to lip-read? In Hebrew, the word is calanit. It's Israel's national flower; she would know the word well.
Ultimately, "Anemones" leaves me wondering: What changes in this story? What is learned, gained, or lost? What truly happens? Ravid's speech about The Moral of the Story near the end highlights just how precisely "Anemones" does exactly what he accuses the reader of doing through the page: reducing a very human, very complicated cycle of oppression and threat and butchery and trauma and grief to a simple moral, and to scoring moral points.
"Anemones" is about a live conflict, where people are dying today -- this second, this hour, right now -- and it's reduced that to a story with a point. And this is where I'm hoping to discuss what it means to commit to an ambitious story.
Ambitious stories are well worth the writing. They advance our genre. They take risks. They say important things that need to be said, or (preferably) ask important questions that readers can keep asking themselves later. But the more we promise the readers in terms of scope, ambition, energy, and the new, the more of a disappointed backlash we can experience when we don't deliver as writers. But there are useful toolsets for thinking about how to prevent this backlash.
Think of an ambitious story as a balancing act, cliffside: Everything that's familiar for readers -- the worldbuilding, the genre conversation, what they know about the Gaza war, the realism of the protagonist -- is the foot firmly planted on the rock of the cliff, holding the story on stable ground. And everything new -- the witnesses, the particular future the story is part of and how that shapes the protagonist's dilemma, the act of setting a story during a live conflict and attempting to write it respectfully and thoughtfully -- is the foot in the air, dangling above thousands of feet of Wile-E.-Coyote-style drop.
These feet have to balance well, or whether it's forward or back, the story will fall over. And a story that falls backward is just as horizontal as a story that pitches forward over the cliff.
Right now, I think "Anemones" is falling backward: The familiar elements are much stronger, on the whole, than the ambitious ones, which seem to not have been thought through past their surface features. I'd encourage righting that balance with some serious, structural thought about how everything in this story works, and why -- and this will probably require a rethink of its basic plot to make it function within a strict science-fictional logic (sorry). But a story with ambition demands rigor to match it, and it's because they're worth telling that we go back in, put in that rigor, and see where the new parameters take us.
Best of luck!
Author of ABOVE
"The Guests" by Carrie Naughton
It may seem like the longer a piece is, the harder it is to write. But in many ways, the opposite is true: creating a satisfying reading experience becomes harder and harder as your word count shrinks. Writing flash fiction is one of the most difficult challenges a writer can face. "The Guests" successfully meets this challenge in many ways.
The opening paragraph raises a compelling question, creating suspense. We learn that the main character, Rawley, has decided to sell his business after a particular job. He's no longer taking calls, and his employee is giving him "weird looks." So we wonder, what happened on that job? And with the second paragraph, the story begins to answer that question. This makes us eager to continue.
The story also has some strong description, as of the house where Rawley goes to exterminate some wasps and the afghan on the bed where the wasps have made their nest. These provide us with some vivid images and help us to feel like we're there.
While a flash piece must be efficient and concise, the story builds suspense carefully as Rawley enters the house, approaches the room, enters the room, and sees the wasps. The pacing works well.
The suspense, description, and pacing combine to build an atmosphere of foreboding. We feel something horrible is about to happen. So many things in the story are working well.
I think there are two key areas that could be improved. The first involves the use of showing and telling. Sometimes the story tells when it would be better to show. Telling takes fewer words, so that's always a temptation in a flash piece. Telling is also easier than showing, so many writers use it too much. In short, to show is to use concrete details that appeal to the senses. To tell is to use abstractions and judgments. Here are a couple examples of telling in the story: "A nest bigger than anything he'd ever seen," "His mind couldn't quite process what his eyes saw," "he had to fight the urge to flee," "he could only stare, amazed." These leave me without any concrete sensory details to experience. I am held at a distance from what he's going through rather than experiencing it along with him. Instead of "A nest bigger than anything he'd ever seen," one might say, "A nest the size of a full-grown man." This gives me something concrete to picture. Instead of "he had to fight the urge to flee," one might mix showing with the telling to write, "he took a step back, then forced his leg muscles to clench, refusing to flee."
The telling distances us from events and makes it hard to feel what Rawley is feeling. This becomes a critical problem about three-quarters of the way through the story, when Rawley has a strong emotional reaction to the nest that I can't share.
Sometimes the story shows, but the showing is inconsistent. The sound of the wasps is described as a "hum," "droning," "buzzing," and "whirring." These are used as if they are interchangeable, but they're not. I think humming and droning could work together, or droning and buzzing, but not all of these.
We are told that the sound of the wasps is so powerful that Rawley still hears it the next day. But we aren't shown that. This is an opportunity to use a type of showing that many writers don't consider. Since words represent sounds, words themselves can provide sensory input to the reader. If the character is constantly hearing the drone of the wasps, then the author can use words with long "o" sounds to make the reader subconsciously hear that droning throughout the story.
The other area that I think could be improved is the emotion/atmosphere of the story. As I mentioned, the story builds strong foreboding and an expectation of horror. As a reader, I am expecting something horrible, and I'm excited about seeing whatever it is. But this expectation is not satisfied. Instead, we learn Rawley feels compassion for the wasps and guilt over killing them. This is a wrenching shift in emotion that we're unable to follow, in part because Rawley's experience has been told to us rather than shown, but in part because what has happened seems insufficient to warrant this response. This is a fairly common weakness in the stories of developing writers; having the character change near the end of the story when the events haven't seemed sufficient to cause such a change.
While the author doesn't always have to satisfy reader expectations -- in fact, most endings need to surprise us, so they can't be exactly what we were expecting -- if she doesn't, then she needs to provide something even better and more satisfying than what we were expecting. I'm afraid, for me, a horrific wasp experience promises to be much more satisfying than a sad wasp experience, and swapping one for the other leaves me disappointed. I feel cheated out of what I was promised.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editors' Choice area of the OWW site!
--Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey
Resident Editor Leah Bobet has happy news: "It's a pleasure to announce that, after a short-fiction hiatus that's lasted way too long, "Mountaineering," a story about a boy and a ghost and the South Pole, will appear in Start a Revolution: QUILTBAG Fiction Vying for Change, an anthology from Exile Editions releasing in Spring 2015. The rest of the table of contents is absolutely stunning, and it's a book I feel very privileged to be a part of." Excellent news, Leah!
Aliette de Bodard has exciting news! Her novel The House of Shattered Wings will be published by Gollancz in August of 2015, and there will be a sequel at a later date. Ten times awesome, Aliette!
Alum Carole Ann Moleti has great news! "A novel I put through the workshop a few years ago, The Widow's Walk, part one of a three-book series, was just published by Soulmate Press. Thanks to all of you who gave me essential feedback to reach this point. The series was also part of the submission package workshops." Congrats, Carole!
Alum Fran Wilde wants everyone to know she sold a story to Tor.com: "This story/prose poem/sea chanty called 'The Ghost Tide Chanty' got its start (a very early, very strange start) on the OWW as 'The Three Ships,' a short story critiqued by B. Morris Allen, Joe Essid, Gio Clairval, and several others. GO TEAM OWW -- this one's FTW."
The Reviewer Honor Roll is a great way to pay back a reviewer for a really useful review. When you nominate a reviewer, we list the reviewer's name, the submission/author reviewed, and your explanation of what made the review so useful. The nomination appears in the Honor Roll area of OWW the month after you submit it, and is listed for a month. You can nominate reviewers of your own submissions or reviewers of other submissions, if you have learned from reading the review. Think of it as a structured, public "thank you" that gives credit where credit is due and helps direct other OWWers to useful reviewers and useful review skills.
Visit the Reviewer Honor Roll page for a complete list of nominees and explanatory nominations.
[November 2014] Honor Roll Nominees
Reviewer: Christian Crowe
Submission: Ara seeks Agapor by Mitchell Stokely
Submitted by: Morgyn Star
Of Bone and Thunder: A Novel by Chris Evans (Gallery Books, October 2014)
In the distant nation of Luitox, which is wracked by rebellion, thaumic users copilot mammoth armored dragons alongside fliers who do not trust their strange methods. Warriors trained in crossbow, stealth, and catapult are plunged into sudden chaotic battles with the mysterious Forest Collective, an elusive enemy with a powerful magic of its own. And the Kingdom's most downtrodden citizens, only recently granted equality, fight for the dignity they were supposed to have won at home while questioning who the real enemy is.
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This month's featured article from our Tips and Advice section:
Nebula Award winner Nicola Griffith on observation, description, and avoiding clichés
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