Writing Challenge/Prompt

One of the best writing challenges of all is to take a tried and true genre trope, and make it your own. Your challenge is to take the line– “Such a tiny dragon was easy to overlook.” –and write a story.

But first, rethink the concept and the trope of “dragons.” What would a dragon look like on a newly discovered world? Can you write a horror story starring a dragon no one would expect, or design a machine to fill the ecological niche a dragon might occupy?

Let your imagination wander, but most of all, have fun.

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 on the workshop 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).

Publication News

Peter S. Drang wrote to say: “Flame Tree Press purchased my story “Truth Fly, Don’t Bother Me” for their November newsletter, themed ‘dystopia’. This story was extensively reviewed at OWW and I appreciate all the great feedback. This is my third pro sale this year, and OWW was instrumental in all of those sales.”

Major congratulations, Peter!

Editor’s Choice Award November 2019, Short Story

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 month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Airbody by Sameem Siddiqui

“Airbody” caught my eye this month with its narrative voice—warm, cynical, self-reflective, and sweet—its careful attention to the impact, good and bad, of its science-fictional element on everyday lives, and the simple, humane lines of the story it’s telling. I love stories that take a less-worn approach to who would use science fiction technologies, why, and how, and take questions of a technology’s implications further. I do think, though, there’s room here to tighten, polish, and focus—it is an early draft! So this month, I’d like to discuss how to figure out what advances the narrative and what unfocuses or slows it in the kinds of stories that are about the power of smaller moments.

This story is deeply rooted in recognizing humanity, and it starts early and deploys that growth carefully. The line of travel from the first paragraph’s archetype-driven “Amazing how all Desi aunties are basically the same”—and a list of personalities that are mostly about really about the children, really about Arsalan—to a complex, whole person saying, “When you could live foolishly thinking you’d turn out to be something other than what you became in the end” is well laid out, and bolstered by subthemes and small details: the whole question of food and authenticity and memory, what the hints Arsalan drops about his habitual self-neglect, his childhood, and the roots of his habit of putting everyone else first say about care, caring for oneself, and being cared for.

There are deep waters being explored in “Airbody”, and what’s exciting is how well they all fit together—and fit the choice of science fictional element. The journey of “Airbody”—which is really thematically appropriate for a story about borrowing and commodifying bodies—is a journey from seeing people as things, people as how they’re useful to someone else into seeing people-as-people: unique, complicated, important. What Arsalan needed from others, and needs now; what Meena needed, and what Haniya needs.

The science-fictional metaphor being rolled out here absolutely fits, and “Airbody” is smart to not clutter that arc with digressions about the technology itself. It’s leaving room for the most powerful element of the story to shine, and that’s a real strength even though this is an early draft.

The voice is engaging from the first sentence, but it’s tangible how it softens near the end, as Arsalan recognizes his hunger and Meena’s as something the same, and the Urdu dialogue’s nested in such a way that what explanation is there feels organic, and a good deal of it is clear from context. Overall, this is deeply affecting, and has the potential to sharpen into a really powerful story.

The suggestions I have are mostly about pacing and focus: finding the places where the piece lags a little, or information doesn’t yet connect, and working out those rougher spots. This is something that might be a little more difficult in a story that isn’t aggressively events-driven; for those, the question “does this move the plot forward?” can get us most of the way there, but in a story that’s grounded in thematic questions, intimacy, character moments, and atmosphere, it can be trickier to step back and evaluate which of those moments are serving the overall piece better than others.

The method I would try would be to think about whether a line or moment works well by finding the centre of the story—in this case, I think, food, memory, the difference between using someone for something and loving them, sacrifice, and care—and seeing how strongly or weakly that line or event relates in any way back to the centre. Think of this as revising by Venn diagram! The stronger the tie, the more that line or scene is rounding out the whole of the story; the weaker the tie, the more it might need to be bolstered or trimmed. This is a bit like topiary, or trimming trees: the feeling of readerly focus in a short story isn’t too different from looking at a tree or shrub that’s kept in a tidy, cohesive shape—versus one that still has bits sticking out.

So specifically, I’d suggest attention on tightening up the middle of the piece. Meena and Arsalan’s banter and the whole cooking process note the passage of time and process, but they aren’t always feeding that complex nest of thematic questions, and where they aren’t touching at least one, the story feels a bit like it’s briefly spinning its wheels.

Likewise, the memories of Hafza and Karla aren’t tied as solidly as they could be into the question of Arsalan’s mother, of intimacy and what he’s after; all of them aren’t reflecting Meena and Haniya’s relationship all the way just yet. I can tell that parallel is important, but it’s not fully on the page for me yet, so the conclusion I’m supposed to draw—about what happened, or how I should feel as a reader—isn’t yet in focus for me.

I’m pretty sure once those things are snapped together, or brought out more, “Airbody” will be a really sweet, powerful piece—and I’m looking forward to seeing it find a good home.

Best of luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)

 

Editor’s Choice Award October 2019, Science Fiction

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 month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

A Child’s Crusade, Chapter 2, by Elizabeth Porco

I like the various concepts that appear and develop in this chapter. The nature and evolution of superpowers, the Zero-Crossing Arena, the family at the center of the story and the young protagonist who has to come to terms with both her cancer diagnosis and her new powers. These are all strong plot-drivers, with lots of potential for emotional arcs and conflict both physical and mental.

As I read this stage of the draft, I kept coming back to two basic elements of craft. One, the selection and development of scenes. Two, the art of transitions.

Real life has a way of just going on: the same things happen over and over, crises come and go, and there’s no distinct shape to any of it—except what our brains try to impose on it. What story does is impose order on the progression of events. It makes connections. It decides what’s important, and by extension, it minimizes or passes over everything else.

When a writer selects scenes, she’s establishing priorities in the story. She’s also practicing narrative economy. She keeps repetition to a minimum—if ideas or phrases or events repeat, they’re doing so for a reason. They’re telling the reader, Pay attention. This is important. When the same thing happens over and over, the author may refer briefly to this fact, then pick one scene that shows this thing happening, and preferably in some way that moves the story forward.

In this chapter, Alicia’s medical adventures are numerous and ongoing. Each one is a step along the way toward (everybody hopes) recovery. At the same time, she’s learning about her new powers and discovering how to control them. The hallucinations are a part of the process, as are her interactions with others: fellow patients, medical personnel, her family.

That’s all good, and it’s good story-stuff. What I think it needs at this stage is some stepping back and thinking about what the chapter wants to accomplish. Which elements are most important? Where does Alicia need to be at the beginning, and how will she have progressed (or regressed—character development can go either way) by the end of the chapter?

Once these questions are answered, I would suggest condensing the main ideas into two or three connected scenes. Alicia’s introduction to the cage, for example, then her experience inside it, and finally, the aftermath: one coherent scene that illustrates what has happened to her and how she is dealing with it. Thi s scene will lead toward the next chapter, and set up what’s going to happen there.

In the draft, a multiple things happen in the second half of the chapter. A lot goes on over an extended period. Characters both new and old and come and go.

There’s enough information here for multiple scenes and a number of chapters. Which of all these things is most important right after Alicia gets out of the cage? How do Alicia and the people around her handle it? How does it feed into the next important event in the story? What happens over and over, that can be condensed into a single reference or snippet of a scene? What contributes directly to the movement of the story, and what slows or halts that movement?

The guiding principle here is focus. Focus on what’s directly relevant to the story right here and now. What builds on what came before, and what leads clearly toward the next point in the plot.

Focus also on developing emotional arcs. Think about how various characters—and Alicia most of all—will feel about what’s happening. How do their emotions evolve? What progressions do they go through? Alicia’s father in particular will have a whole complex of feelings about Alicia’s cancer (worry, anxiety, fear, anger, frustration, love for her, and much more), and once she’s undergone treatment, those feelings will intensify and evolve. Now she has the same powers he has—how does he feel about that? Is he scared? Angry? Proud? What is going on in his head as he takes care of her?

One thing that may help with developing each scene, both within the scene and in moving from one to the next, is some work on transitions. In the draft, events tend to proceed at pretty much the same emotional temperature. We get time-stamps—the next two days, next, then, two hours later, after that. Characters come and go, in so many words. Someone comes in, someone is there, someone goes out.

The cumulative effect is almost static. Scenes run from one to the next without clear demarcation. Things happen in a steady sequence, with a fairly shallow rise and fall of narrative tension.

A very simple way to demarcate scenes and changes of viewpoint is to insert a line space whenever the scene or point of view shifts. That gives the reader a visual clue: Expect a change here.

Less simple but similarly helpful is to vary the ways in which time passes and characters move here and there. Instead of saying, each time, how many days or hours have passed, think about how to show the passing. Maybe there’s a clock on the wall, or somebody mentions that it’s been X number of days since they saw Alicia, or she stops to count the days or hours while she’s waiting for the next procedure. Maybe she’s losing track, or maybe she’s anxious for a certain amount of time to have passed.

Cutting back on the number of things that happen in the chapter, and rethinking the time frame for this chapter—making it shorter and more focused, or else moving more quickly from one key event to another—will help make the progression of time and events clearer, and make it easier to decide how to move from one event to another. It’s all about clarity, and about focusing on what’s most important to the story. Once that starts happening, the story should be easier for the reader to follow, and the characters will have more room to grow and change and evolve (or devolve—as I said earlier, events and people can regress as well as progress).

–Judith Tarr

Publication News

Elizabeth Tuckwell writes: “Just to say that I have a short story in the anthology, “Harvey Duckman Presents, Volume 3” being published on 31 October 2019 by Sixth Element Publishing.

The short story, “Tully and the Ghost” is a story that was reviewed in SFFOWW and I received some valuable pointers about how to improve the story.”
Congratulations, Elizabeth!

Editor’s Choice Award October 2019, Fantasy

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 month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Daughter Of Dragons, Chapter 1 by Jennifer Baylor

This chapter has a great hook and a strong closing line. There’s a lot in between to love: dragons, badass alligators, and a protagonist with magical powers she has to hide from ordinary humans. Plus a crisis in the workplace.

The plot comes out of the gate at a run. That’s a good thing in urban fantasy, which tends to like fast pacing and high personal and emotional stakes. Since it’s a draft, the repetition of information and the insertion of exposition into the middle of fast action scenes reads to me like the author figuring out where everything fits most effectively: trying out different placements, experimenting with the interweaving of action and exposition.

In revision, most of this would be cut; we’d get one or two mentions of magical powers, what Dragon Voice is and how it works, what Morgan’s job entails and what’s happening on this particular day, where Morgan comes from and what her history is with Bess, and so on. Morgan’s internal monologue would be trimmed considerably, too: rhetorical questions, extended reactions to what’s happening around her, pauses in the action while she reflects on backstory and personal issues.

For this stage of the draft, it’s all good. It’s the infrastructure of the plot taking shape, building the scaffolding and loading in all the elements that might be needed at some point. When it’s time to revise, the draft will trim down and focus on what’s directly and immediately important to the story. To resort to my own set of rhetorical questions:

What do we need to know right here and now?

What can wait till later?

Where does this piece of information most effectively belong? Can it wait for a later scene or chapter? Is it essential that we see it here?

As I read and enjoyed the story in draft form, I felt that there was a tremendous amount going on. Not just one rogue alligator but two. Not just two rogue alligators but a dragon. And this on top of Morgan’s job issues and an imminent invasion of kindergarteners and VIPs.

As with the prose and the flow of information, I wonder if the plot might benefit from a good trim. One alligator (I cast my vote for Bess and her eggs; there’s a whole world of emotion and plot-consequences there), one or at most two dragon passes, and woven through it, one human tension: either the kids or the VIPs. I’d vote for the kids, between the potential for chaos they represent, and the connection to Bess and her babies-to-be. Maybe trim the speaking roles among the staff as well. Really focus on dragon and magic drama, alligator drama, and imminent human drama.

The other thing to think about is the timing. The whole chapter takes place, we’re told, in under fifteen minutes. That’s a very short period for everything that happens. If the action pares down to half the original number of players and crises, that will help tighten and focus the tension.

So will a drastic pruning of Morgan’s internal monologue. She stops several times in the middle of the action to remember and reflect. When this happens, the plot stops. The tension snaps. We lose the urgency of the moment.

This might work if she has the power to stop time—and that might add some interesting complications to the story. But as she’s written, she seems disconnected from the action, and she’s missing major aspects of the situation. She doesn’t even see the struggle with Bess, though she’s bonded to that particular alligator.

Even if she is distracted by Burt, at her pay grade and with her powers, Morgan should be aware that there’s a second fight going on. I also wonder how she could have missed that Bess has been breaking out repeatedly—even if she’s office-bound, wouldn’t her connection with the alligator alert her to the fact that something’s not right? And wouldn’t she be informed that there is a problem, since it’s a huge safety issue for both staff and visitors?

This is what I call Thinking Things Through. The writer sets up a situation, develops it within the scene and chapter, and then connects it to the story as a whole. Actions, as they say, have consequences. It’s the writer’s job (and joy) to work out what those are, and to think about whole ranges of ramifications—then pick the one or two or three that does the most to move the story forward, develop the character, and keep the reader reading, eager to find out what’s next.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award October 2019, Horror

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 month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

A Woman’s Place by Murder Boy

I enjoyed the clean writing in this piece, the carefully chosen details, and the objective viewpoint, which is critical to the success of a story like this.  Shirley Jackson, author of “The Lottery,” had a great appreciation for objective point of view and an unerring sense for when to use it.  A good story for third person objective POV is one in which something mysterious and very intriguing is happening, something that we can understand by the end of the story through careful observation of the external, and something bigger than the perspective of any one character could convey to us.  Since this story is not about any one character but instead about the revelation of what’s happening and what sort of society this is, third person objective POV is the best choice.  Third person objective can be very tricky to handle, and this story uses it very well.  We understand the three women even though we don’t enter their heads.

The story also does a good job of building suspense through the objective POV.  Since a lot of information is withheld in objective POV, we are forced to gather clues from the text and put them together to understand this mysterious and intriguing event.  That suspense keeps me reading eagerly until the end.

Another strength of the story is the way it reveals the world to us through brief pieces of information that are worked pretty naturally into the text.

For me, the main weakness of the story is the ending.  This is one of the most common weaknesses in stories.  Endings are hard.  In this case, as I realize the three women are in a competition and I see them clutching and kissing their children, I immediately conclude (by the third paragraph) that the two losers of the competition will have their children killed.  At the end of the story, the eliminated contestant does have her child killed, pretty much in the way I imagined.  A climax should feel both inevitable and surprising.  This one definitely feels inevitable, but it does not feel surprising.  The only surprise is that only one child is killed instead of two, and for me, that’s a disappointment.

What the story needs to provide at the climax is a surprise that also feels “right” or inevitable.  We didn’t see it coming, but once it comes, we realize this is the only possible ending the story could have.

For example, in The Lord of the Rings, we might have this climax:  Frodo reaches the Crack of Doom and throws the ring in.  Since this has been his goal all along, this climax would feel inevitable but not surprising.

Or we might have this climax:  Frodo reaches the Crack of Doom and starts to throw the ring in, but Sam snatches it away.  Since Sam has been dedicated to helping Frodo destroy the ring, this climax would feel surprising but not inevitable.

Or we might have this climax:  Frodo reaches the Crack of Doom, but instead of throwing the ring away, he claims it for his own.  Gollum, who has been stalking Frodo, bites off Frodo’s finger with the ring and falls in the crack.  Since we know Gollum’s desire for the ring, and we have seen the ring tempt one character after the next, Frodo claiming the ring and Gollum taking the ring make perfect sense.  Yet we’ve been focused on the question of whether Frodo would make it to the Crack of Doom or not.  We haven’t considered (at least I haven’t, and no one I know has) that Frodo will claim the ring for his own.  Once it happens, we realize this is what had to happen.  But until that point, we didn’t consider it.  That makes this climax (which Tolkien constructed) both Inevitable and surprising.

So you can consider various possibilities and see which one might feel inevitable and surprising.

Another way to find the right climax is to consider the story’s theme.  I wrote a blog post about this, which you can find here:  https://writerunboxed.com/2018/11/12/unifying-your-story-around-a-meaningful-theme/.  A major theme in The Lord of the Rings is “Power is inherently corrupting,” and you can see that played out in the climax.

In this story, women seemingly staged a revolution that failed and are now controlled by men.  The competition, which judges women by their cooking skills, seems designed to reinforce societal standards in which women are expected to be satisfied with cooking and cleaning and having children.  A possible theme might be, “Tyrannical societies maintain control through oppression and fear.”  The current climax shows this, though I don’t know whether the death of Mrs. Irons’s child will help the society control Mrs. Irons.  She could become an even more outspoken enemy of the state.  I wonder if, instead, the three children might be somewhat older, perhaps five or six.  And perhaps the losing contestant is tied down while her child stabs her to death.  This would eliminate an enemy, traumatize a child, perhaps into being an obedient citizen, and strike fear into every woman watching.  It would also provide the missing surprise.  By changing some details of the story, this climax might also feel inevitable.

Anyway, that’s one possibility.

I hope this is helpful.  The simplicity and efficiency of the story make it striking and memorable.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust

 

Grapevine/Market News

Arsenika is open to both flash fiction up to 1,000 words, and poetry submissions until November 1, 2019. Payment is $60 for flash, and $30 for poetry. Full details can be found here.

Dark Moon Digest is a quarterly publication, and they are currently looking for stories between 1,500 and 7,000 words. Submission period is ongoing. Payment for original fiction is at the semi-pro rate of 3 cents per word. They also publish reprints at the rate of 1 cent per word. Full details can be found here.

Writing Challenge/Prompt

Everyone has a favorite story or favorite book. Think about what you love most about that story, what elements got under your skin.

Now think of what you’d change if that story belonged to you. Would you change the ending, the main character? The setting?

Then write your own story, with your own character, and compare the two stories.

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 on the workshop 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).