Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror
Not every writer is a novelist. Many writers are perfectly content to write short stories, or poetry, or even novellas, for the rest of their lives.
But for those of us who are novelists, the month of November holds a special place in our hearts. This is National Novel Writing Month, affectionately known as NaNoWriMo. For those who don't know, the stated goal for NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words by the end of November, writing as fast as you can, and without stopping to edit.
Not everyone writes 50,000 words by November 30th, but the final wordcount isn't as important as learning to turn off your internal critic/editor, and establishing the habit of putting butt in chair and writing. That's how you win the writing race.
Until next month, keep writing and keep winning.
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 very own challenge dictator Leah Quire has another skill-stretching idea: "Write the first or the last chapter of a book titled Plunger Dames featuring the character, Cactus Cleverscene (a.k.a. CC). Is it a comedy, a mystery, a drama? Sci-fi? Thriller? Or could it be a technical or medical journal? An owners manual? For authors, it's write or it’s wrong! So do it write now."
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).
A special issue of Lightspeed magazine, People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction!, opens for submissions on October 31, 2015. Guest editors Kristine Ong Muslim and Nalo Hopkinson are looking for science fiction stories of up to 10,000 words written by people of color. Lightspeed pays professional rates of 8 cents per word. Full details here.
Angry Robot Books has announced that the next Angry Robot Open Door opens December 1, 2015 and closes on January 31, 2016. They are looking for full-length science fiction and fantasy novels. You do not need an agent to submit during the Angry Robot Open Door. 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!
Son Of Prophecy, Chapter 1, by Hermina Boyle
This partial chapter caught my eye for the quality of the prose and the development of its voice. This is a piece that with more polishing could easily be suitable for publication -- though that, of course, rather depends on the rest of the novel.
In this chapter we're introduced to a young man who can see, in part, some of what others wish to keep hidden, by the change of colours in their auras, smells and tastes, and glimpses of past actions. It seems he's presiding over a hasty trial brought about when a maid accused a lord of murder. We learn that there is no secure evidence against the lord (Lord Miven), and eventually that the young man (Aderel) is some kind of king or prince -- dialogue refers to him as Majesty. When Aderel confronts Miven with what he has learned from his talent, at the close of the trial, Miven attacks Aderel, wounding him, and flees. Aderel then uses some sort of religious magic to heal his hand. He doesn't want it to be observed, but at least one person sees.
The writer asks three questions. I'll try to address them before making some more specific comments on the partial chapter as a whole.
Would I be interested in reading more? Qualified yes, though what there is needs polishing; the style and tone reminds me a little of Mercedes Lackey.
Does the mind-reading section make sense in present tense or should it be in past tense? It works well enough as it is, but it could go either way.
Is the protagonist likeable? Likeable is a chimaera. It doesn't really matter whether a protagonist is likeable as long as they're interesting. Sympathetic is a different thing: you can understand someone and sympathise with their goals without actually liking them. There's not really enough in 2500 words to get a proper feel for the viewpoint character, but Aderel isn't boring. He might present in a fairly simplistic "do-gooder" fashion at first, but he has room to grow.
A preliminary critique of this partial chapter needs to address three things: confusion of subject in the opening paragraph, awkwardness of explanation, and the matter of the fight scene.
The first name we're introduced to, in the first paragraph, is that of Lord Miven. It is not until the third paragraph that we first see Aderel's name. It's not initially clear that Lord Miven is not the viewpoint character. This is an unhelpful confusion when introducing a viewpoint character for the first time. It can easily be addressed by rewriting the first two paragraphs to introduce Aderel first, followed by Aderel's impression of Lord Miven. The simplest way to do this would be to reverse the places of the first and third paragraphs; personally I would advise rewriting this opening entirely to make it clearer that these are Aderel's impressions of Lord Miven and that what is visible to Aderel is not necessarily visible to anyone else.
I would also advise only sparing use of single-word paragraphs -- "Deception." "Murder." On an opening page, it feels rather like one of those Horatio Caruso sunglasses moments on CSI: Miami, a bit of an unsubtle hammer to the reader's face. You don't need a hammer when a paintbrush will do.
The explanation of how the characters have arrived at this point is awkwardly interleaved with the description of what is going on. We get an introduction and some talking about talking: "...he watched Miven deliver a well-oiled defense, watched the youth-smooth chin rise higher with each pointed remark."
(This is less effective than it could be: a couple of lines of dialogue and some more grounding detail about how Miven is making his defence, and how he is delivering it, would go a long way towards establishing the tone of the scene.)
This is shortly followed by three paragraphs of explanation:
Lillia, Miven's housemaid, brought the charges directly to Aderel early that morning as he and his entourage readied to ride out. He could have dismissed her plea. The son, dead three months had no bearing on his host's hospitality and Aderel needed to be in Benbriar by mid-morning. Her tearful sincerity moved him. His oath to Ka'elian justice obliged him.
He sent for the magistrate. Embarrassed, he told the astonished nobleman to assemble his defense. If the accusations proved unfounded, the maid might at least find closure.
Closure? The woman's case, lacking any hard evidence, had been shredded, her debts exposed, and her character ruined.
This has some tense confusion issues -- it should really be in the past completed (this may or may not be the correct grammatical term) the whole way through, I think, to differentiate it from what is happening in the narrative's present: "had brought," and so on. But it could also be briefer:
Lillia, Miven's housemaid, brought the charges directly to Aderel early that morning as he and his entourage readied to ride out. His oath to Ka'elian justice obliged him to give her fair hearing, so he sent for the magistrate and told the astonished Lord Miven to prepare his defence. But Lillia had been unable to bring forward any hard evidence, and Miven was in the process of ruining her character.
You don't want to dwell on the narrative past if what's happening in the narrative present is important!
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
The Fall, Chapter 1, by Seona Churchward
When you set up dramatic expectations, especially in the first scene of the first chapter of a new book, you’re making a promise to readers. When those expectations pay off, you establish trust with the readers and they’ll stay with you later if there are rough spots or slow spots in the story. But if you, the writer, don’t keep the first promises that you make, then readers are much less likely to believe in the story.
The Fall by Seona Churchward is a Young Adult science fiction dystopian novel. It’s got a strong, easy-to-communicate high concept: the older generation has used up all the resources and now civilization is choking to death in its own waste and pollution. It has a great protagonist: Kiah is a smart, capable 17-year-old who doesn’t want to sit around with her despairing parents and wait to die. And it has clean, easy-to-follow prose: the writer knows how to vary paragraph length and rhythm to give the story a good pace.
So these are all good things. And on top of that, I love the promise that the story makes in the opening paragraph:
"The rebreather pinged a warning, causing Kiah to glance down at the monitor on her wrist in concern. Twelve minutes left and no new canisters. If she didn’t make it in record time, she’d be spending the last few weeks of her existence, bedridden in a barely fuelled detox-chamber. "
This is a Ticking Clock Promise. Kiah has a problem--she’s almost out of air. She’s got 12 minutes to get to safety. There are stakes--if she doesn’t make it, she could be crippled. Ready… set… GO!
It’s also called a hook. And this is a good one.
What should follow next is a try-fail sequence. Kiah tries to get home, but she runs into an obstacle. A problem that she has to solve. She gets past that and runs into another obstacle. Now time is running out. And then she runs into her third obstacle -- either she overcomes that one too, or she has to find an alternate solution.
If you do this right, it’s not a formula, it’s an opportunity.
The try-fail sequence is a tool that lets you develop the story. Every obstacle reveals something important about the world, but in an active -- that is to say, non-expository -- way. Every solution reveals something important about Kiah’s character. The escalation of obstacle and solution creates plot. Most importantly, this makes Kiah an active character so that we’re more likely to care about her and identify with her. Do this well, in a way that feels organic and natural to the story, and you pull the reader into the book before they know it and you build trust that makes them keep reading. So how does this book keep its promise?
The next two paragraphs are Kiah being an observer as she walks. She passively notes exposition that the writer wants the reader to be aware of. And then there’s this:
"She glanced at her monitor once more. Ten minutes. Her pace increased."
"One minute. The door slid open as she approached, feeling more grateful than ever for the sight of home."
The story breaks its promise. The Ticking Clock added no real urgency. It could have been an hour’s worth of air or six hours, because nothing happens to Kiah along the way. We don’t learn anything new about the world as revealed through action. We don’t learn anything new about Kiah. Is she foolish for cutting things so close? Is she resourceful for solving her problems? Is she good with people or bad with people? What does she really care most about? We don’t know.
We don’t learn anything new about the plot of the book. Is the main problem for Kiah the environment? Is it the people who created this situation or those who support it? Is it her own lack of resources? Or her reckless wasting of them?
So this is a huge missed opportunity. If the first paragraph tells us “there’s an urgent, dangerous situation, with real consequences” and then there’s no payoff for that, we aren’t pulled strongly into the book. We don’t develop trust in the writer. If there’s not going to be a payoff for the Ticking Clock, then just cut it and start with the scene that follows. However, I strongly recommend against cutting it, because the next scene, at home, depends on a lot of internal tension and slow burner problems. Those are often more effective after we’ve read about some external problems that have urgency. The external action Chapter 1 and the slower paced internal conflict Chapter 2 are a pretty standard pattern in fiction. But if you aren’t going to keep the promise, you’re better off cutting.)
I really liked the rest of this chapter, with Kiah’s interactions at home. They provided a lot of depth to the world, revealed in details, like when they have to choose to eat vegetarian because they can’t afford meat or they have to turn off power to the doors and windows and operate them manually. If I wanted to intensify the story, and make it more powerful, I would recommend showing as much of this as possible. Make it external to Kiah’s head.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editors' Choice area of the OWW site!
Edtior, Fantasy & Science Fiction
"Last Chance" by Tyler Young
"Last Chance" caught my eye this month because of its interestingly anti-Bradburyan take on environmental science fiction -- notably the trope of the first trip outside on an atmospherically hostile planet -- and the way it manages to update that trope ably in a way that's quite relevant. The author's notes mentioned that while it's had a positive reception, it's not yet successfully connected with an editor. So this month, I'm going to share a few thoughts on what might get "Last Chance" into a shape where an editor can more easily say yes -- and talk about the importance of story length when we're hearing "close, but not quite."
"Last Chance" works emphatically well as an update to the planetary-fiction conversation rooted in stories like "All Summer In a Day." The descriptions of the planet's surface are evocative, and the choice of a teacher's point of view rather than a child's a deeply powerful one that grows up the story we're familiar with very strongly. With a little tidying to bring that theme into focus, "Last Chance" has an opportunity to say some very powerful and timely things about how science fiction usually portrays childhood (endless wonder) and adulthood (gray drudgery), in showing a society where you learn discipline and respect for resources as a child so you can be responsible enough to enjoy the benefits and perks of adulthood.
What's working less effectively is, I think, more a question of tinkering than wholesale rewriting -- the pacing and certain levels of thematics. The protagonist's very explicitly articulated doubts about the lies she's paid to tell the colony's children -- and her later-revealed pregnancy -- drive home the story's question -- how hard is too hard when we're bringing up our children -- in a way that's maybe too on-the-nose. Her role as teacher and guardian is a functional explanation for her having those worries without having to personalize the stakes; she's obviously affectionate toward and invested in the lives of her students. Escalating to "and now it's your child" ends up feeling somewhat like overstating the case, when there was already more than enough love to drive her ethical dilemma.
Thematics aside, I'd suggest that the majority of the residual issues in "Last Chance" are those of focus and pacing. There are three distinct acts to the story -- the trip outside, the student's illness, and the question of the protagonist's own unborn child -- and while they do in some ways lead into one another and connect, each storyline is stacked one in front of the other instead of overlapping, interacting, and meshing fully.
The overall effect is a story that feels somewhat too long for its plot, as one story's worth of content -- content that would normally layer over the same amount of fictional time -- is laid out consecutively instead. Which leads to some slightly tricky advice: I don't think there's a need to cut any of the events in "Last Chance," but I suspect it would benefit from stacking them differently. If the pregnancy worries and the question of pleasure vs. responsibility and what constitutes a life well-spent were stacked into the same scenes, into the same conversations, more tightly, each of those plotlines could streamline more effectively -- giving "Last Chance" a much brisker pace.
One of the important facets of the short story as a form -- one that is rarely discussed, but crucial to writing them -- is that they're very dense kinds of narratives. Just like in poetry, we're working an art of saying the most with the least space: packing a lot of meaning into the cracks and crannies between sentences. While there's a spread in novel prose that's functional because one has 80,000 words to tell a story, one of the most effective ways to evaluate a short story that's not quite connecting is to weigh the wordcount against the amount of story, and see if it's earning its words.
If not, consider where you can layer: Where can one scene do two or three jobs? Where have you functionally conveyed the same information twice? Does this action actually move the story forward in a plot-relevant direction? Trimming or combining pieces of narrative that aren't 100% pulling their weight is a great way to make sure our narrative decisions stay deliberate, and can get our work over a common slushpile hurdle: starting off interesting, and fading away.
I'd also suggest looking at the end of "Last Chance" and revising with an eye to bringing the denouement more in line with the rest of the pacing. While the end hits a thematic note -- a very different decision as to how this unborn child will be brought up -- the story itself stops somewhat abruptly. A few more beats when it comes to ending the story -- pulling the camera back, so to speak -- would likely help signal to readers that this is, yes, the landing, and eliminate the slightly jarring feel of the last lines.
Overall -- as those editors have said! -- there's a great deal of promise here, and with some attention to pacing and tightening, it's a story that should easily find a home.
Best of luck!
Author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (October 2015)
The Silent Apocalypse, Prologue and Chapter 1 by LCW Allingham
The opening of The Silent Apocalypse has some intriguing and exciting elements. The prologue draws me in with its vivid, unusual imagery of the shapes behind the veil and the strong foreboding that Sasha's actions will release some horrible force. The mix of fantasy, horror, and science makes the novel feel more unpredictable and less familiar (based on the opening, I'd put this in the category of apocalyptic fiction, similar to Stephen King's The Stand). Chapter 1 introduces us to an interesting plague, and we begin to feel urgency as we see the world deteriorating and realize this is a race against time. The mystery of why Ben recovered from the fatal disease engages us in trying to solve it along with Colleen.
Some other elements aren't yet as strong as these, and they distract me and hold me at a distance as I read. My biggest difficulty is believing in the character of Colleen and what happens to her. Colleen's initial interaction with her boss, in which she's fired, doesn't seem like a believable firing. There are protocols to be followed when a supervisor is firing an employee or forcing one to resign, particularly from a government job. I would imagine the supervisor would need to give Colleen several negative job performance reviews, or Colleen would have to do something catastrophically wrong (like infecting someone out of negligence) before being fired. Without that, the supervisor would be risking his own job as well as a lawsuit. I think this problem can be fixed and the character can be strengthened at the same time. Instead of having Colleen simply fail to produce good results, why not have her try something desperate? The plague is spreading, and it may well take years to produce any treatment through accepted procedures. I think she has plenty of motive to go against the rules, try some experimental procedure, and have the patient die. This would be the catastrophically bad action that could trigger her forced resignation. This would make her suicidal thoughts more believable and would also make her far more hesitant to team up with Ben, because she would be afraid of killing him or others. Authors are sometimes afraid to let their protagonists make mistakes or take negative actions. Yet these types of characters are often far more compelling (and sympathetic) than protagonists who are all good. And if the character starts out flawed and in error, you have a great launching pad for the character arc.
I also don't believe Colleen's second interaction, with Ben. That interaction feels manipulated by the author, who wants to get these two characters together. The fact that he has researched her and tracked her down, that he wants only to work with her, that he doesn't mind that she's just been fired, and that he has brought all his medical records seems way too convenient. Ben basically offers Colleen just what she needs to regain her purpose, which takes all the tension out of the situation. For her part, Colleen stops and has a conversation with this guy who has broken into her house, confides in him, starts to care deeply for him, and finally gives him her word that she'll do what he wants. I can't believe either character, because I feel the author's hand manipulating them like puppets. This is a common problem; the author knows where he wants the story to go and pushes the characters to make that happen. Instead, the author needs to think about what the characters would really do, and also what the most exciting, suspenseful, engaging option would be. In this case, one option would be to have Ben entering the CDC as Colleen is leaving. He could turn around and run after her, and she could scream that she doesn't work there anymore and peel rubber driving away from him. Later at her house, she could be ready to commit suicide when he rings the doorbell. She doesn't answer, so he breaks in. She thinks he's a thief and clonks him on the head with a frying pan. As she's about to call the police, she sees the patch of black on his arm and the folder of medical records (though he should not have had a full workup. It should be a struggle for them to figure out how to get an MRI, etc. for him without having the CDC catch on). She glances at the file, then rejects the idea of continuing to live and work. She drags Ben outside, drops the file on top of him, and secures the door he broke through. She returns to her suicide attempt. But now she's unable to go through with it. She keeps thinking of what she saw in his file. She opens the door, and there he is.
This is just one option, but it escalates the conflict, allows the characters to behave in a more believable way, and creates more suspense. If Ben actually started talking to the receptionist at the CDC before chasing after Colleen, then the CDC could be searching for Ben, and could show up at Colleen's house in short order, creating more conflict.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editors' Choice area of the OWW site!
--Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey
Rae Carson sent this message to all of us, and maybe the world: "Just learned that Walk On Earth A Stranger debuted at #2 on the NYT list and now I'm crying and WHERE IS MY CHAMPAGNE aaaaaghhhh!"
Heidi Kneale sent great news: "Thought I'd let you know I sold my novella "Marry Me" to The Wild Rose Press. It's coming out in February 2016 as part of their "Candy Hearts" series. Valuable thanks to fellow critters Mel Lievaart, Rod Michalchuk, Pat Blue, Heidi Wainera, Charlotte Noyen, Owen Richards and especially Allan Dyen-Shapiro who read the whole thing."
Jodi Meadows' 2016 novel The Mirror King was named on The New York Library's blog post "12 YA Books I Can't Wait To Read In 2016." You can read the blog post here.
Allan Dyen-Shapiro has more good news: "Hi, all. Just sold another flash piece. "I, Robocall" sold to AntipodeanSF. Thanks to all who critiqued it on OWW for the wonderful feedback that got it in shape to be salable. That would be Robert Graves, Rob Smythe, Tim Major, Zvi Zaks, Steve Brady, Amos Peverill, William Wood, and Elad Haber. This workshop is great. Thanks to all of you for your support, friendship, and advice." And the secret leaked that Allan also sold his story "She Tasted Salt" to the anthology From Florida With Love: Sunrise and Stormy Skies, published by Melange Press. Look for his story in summer of 2016.
Wade Albert White has major news to share: "My debut book, The Adventurer’s Guide to Successful Escapes, and its sequel, The Adventurer’s Guide to Dragons (and Why They Keep Biting Me), sold to Little Brown Books for Young Readers (to be published in Fall 2016/2017 respectively). My thanks to the many, many OWWers who commented on early drafts of the book: Aimee Blume, Ken Byars, Sarah Byrne, Laura Capasso, Senner Dan, Kit Davis, Sandy Fetchko, Jane Forni, Robert M. Graves, Mary Hallberg, Jeanne Haskin, Rita de Heer, Kathryn Jankowski, Michael Keyton, Katrina Oppermann, Dragon Paradise, L. K. Pinaire, Phillip Spencer, Sue Wachtman, and Kim J. Zimring. Your helpful critiques and words of encouragement were greatly appreciated!"
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.
October 2015 Honor Roll Nominees
Reviewer: Christy Moceri
Submission: SMALL INJURY, part 1 of 4, REVISED by Rod Michalchuk
Submitted by: Rod Michalchuk
Reviewer: Jeanne Cavelos
Submission: Centuries of Blood by Laurie Richards
Submitted by: Scott Beckman
Reviewer: Tyler Young
Submission: Desperate Measures by B. Morris Allen
Submitted by: B. Morris Allen
Reviewer: John Piebel
Submission: Son of Prophecy by Hermina Boyle
Submitted by: Hermina Boyle
Reviewer: Heidi Kneale
Submission: Dragon's Chronicle by P.C. Collins
Submitted by: P.C. Collins
Reviewer: Eric Rosenfield
Submission: The Young One by Charlotte Noyen
Submitted by: Charlotte Noyen
Reviewer: Myrtle Alton
Submission: A Wizard Deceived (Chapters 1 and 2) by Allan Kaspar
Submitted by: Allan Kaspar
WINGS OF SORROW AND BONE: A Clockwork Dagger Novella by Beth Cato (Harper Voyager Impulse, November 2015)
After being rescued by Octavia Leander from the slums of Caskentia [in The Clockwork Crown], Rivka Stout is adjusting to her new life in Tamarania. But it’s hard for a blossoming machinist like herself to fit in with proper society, and she’d much rather be tinkering with her tools than at a hoity-toity party any day.
When Rivka stumbles into a laboratory run by the powerful Balthazar Cody, she also discovers a sinister plot involving chimera gremlins and the violent Arena game Warriors. The innocent creatures will end up hurt, or worse, if Rivka doesn’t find a way to stop Mr. Cody.
And to do that means she will have to rely on some unexpected new friends.
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This month's featured article from our Tips and Advice section:
OWW alum Greg Byrne on how to make sure each scene advances the story
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.