Member News Of Note

Finalists for the 2019 Locus Awards have been announced, and OWW alums are in the running.

C. L. Polk’s novel Witchmark is nominated for the First Novel Award.

Alliette de Bodard’s novella The Tea Master and the Detective is nominated for Best Novella.

Elizabeth Bear’s story “Okay, Glory” is nominated for Best Novelette.

N. K. Jemisin’s stories “Cuisine des Mémoires” and “The Storyteller’s Replacement” are both nominated for Best Short Story.

And N. K. Jemisin’s short story collection How Long ’til Black Future’s Month? is nominated for the Collection award.

Winners will be announced during the Locus Awards Weekend in Seattle WA, June 28-30, 2019. Congratulations and best of luck to everyone nominated!

 

Spotlight on Anna Kashina

World building in fantasy and science fiction

 World building is hugely important in any fiction genre. Effective world building enables us to create a setting, in which the reader can relate to the characters not only visually, but also in terms of their own sensory experience. A realistic world is essential for a believable story, and it can make all the difference in engaging the reader. Thus, I tend to think of world building tends as the essential first step when starting out a new book.

Authors of science fiction and fantasy face an additional challenge: we are creating a new world from scratch, building off concepts and settings other people are not familiar with. Of course, this is also additional fun. We have all the power in this brand new world, and we get to set all the rules.

So, why do we need rules anyway?

Any world we know contains boundaries, where some things are common while others are truly impossible. The same goes for any created world too. Rules and boundaries are essential to gain the readers’ trust, and think of your world as a realistic one. Watching the characters constrained by these rules makes them much easier to relate to. Without rules, the reader would not be able to develop any expectations following the events in the book. This creates an ungrounded feeling that ultimately prevents the reader from getting emotionally and intellectually invested.

As a fantasy author, I spend a lot of time building my worlds, and I have developed a process that helps me along. It can be tedious at times, but most of the time, it is so much fun.

When I approach the task of building a world, I follow several essential steps. As soon as the idea of a novel is in my head – definitely before I start working on the bulk of the text — I think through the following list of action items, in this order:

  1. The world map. This first step is actually also my very first decision. Is the whole story going to take place in a small village, a city, a country, or a single room? Are my characters going to travel around, and if yes, how far? Are they going to meet visitors coming over from distant lands? Are they going to stay confined and isolated?

 Some of these details can be left for later, but this major decision about the scale of the world has to come right at the start. In my case, I follow this decision by sketching a very crude map, and as I work through my story I continue to populate it with places, names, and key elements of the landscape. I am not an artist, so these initial sketches always look horrible, but they do help.

In everyday life, we use a lot of geographical references in our speech, without even noticing them. “Up north”, “back east”, “over in Cleveland”, “back in Russia”, “in Challimar deserts” – these are very telling details about the world and the characters that people tend to drop into their conversations, and if I have a map with geographical names in front of me when I write, it allows me to populate my characters speech with these references from early on. It really helps to make the world more authentic.

  1. The society. This follows my work on the map, so that the two become closely inter-related. I have a another check list for my work on the society, interrogating it through the following set of big-picture questions:
  • What is this society’s overall level of development? Medieval, Victorian, futuristic, alien? This decision is usually easy, and it is also key in defining the next level of details. In my case, I tend to settle on medieval, before the invention of the firearms, which allows me to devote a lot of attention to the finesse of the blade fights J.
  • What technology is available? Firelight or electricity? Cars, steam engines, horses or spaceships? Guns, swords, or laser blasters? This list can go on, but the major questions like energy sources, transportation, and weaponry, tend to come first. My list is normally fire, horses, and swords, but there could be some cool variations here.
  • What type of housing is typical? Castles? Tents? Apartment buildings? Spaceships? Hives? It could be different for different nations in my world, but it is good here to understand the range.
  • How did this society originate? Are these human settlers on another planet where the traveled from Earth? Is this one of the ancient civilizations that has been here for thousands of years? Are these conquerors that settled here by defeating the locals? Are they a small group of survivors after a major cataclysm?
  • What is the societal hierarchy? Is it a kingdom, a religious order, an oppressed mass under an alien tyrant, or a democratic republic? Again, this could be different for different parts of the world.
  • What is the family structure – if different from ours? Well, I usually include elements of romance into my stories, so I tend to stick to traditional families (and, occasionally harems), but this is something I can definitely imagine playing with at some point.
  1. Elements of everyday life. These, in my initial list, include overall appearance of the characters, clothes, types of housing, common household items, tools and weaponry. And of course, food. The possibilities of food-based world building are endless. In my case, I tend to develop an entire recipe book for each world, even though only a few of these dishes are actually mentioned in the book. Once can tell a lot by what people eat.

 Going deeper into this, I usually also think through the languages people speak. In a multicultural world it is often helpful for everyone to speak some sort of a common language, but it is also fun to give language flavors to different groups of people — e.g., an accent, or differences in pronunciation. These are great details that can add authenticity to the story – but they should be used very lightly. If not, they can easily overwhelm the readers.

  1. In every land, people have certain beliefs – or had at some point. These beliefs tend to factor not only into lifestyles and moral values, but also into speech and customs. (e.g., we all tend to say “my God” even if we are atheists). Curses and swear words are actually very important to the story, and can also be a great tool in characterization and creating some vivid personality traits. Most authors choose to use commonly known curses, but they need to be defined upfront. Some of my characters tend to swear a lot, so I settle on the swear words very early on.

I find it useful to utilize known concepts and elements. For example, a lot of my worlds have Middle Eastern elements, because these fascinate me and I really enjoy writing about them. I also freely draw from my Russian background. Using some obvious elements from known cultures often helps to ground the reader, by drawing on the details they already know. Too much unfamiliar can be off-putting and detract from the story. But it is, of course, very cool if you can come up with something truly original!

In the end, the process of world building in science fiction and fantasy can have a lot of similarities with the process of doing research for a historical novel – except that in science fiction and fantasy, the author is the one to set all the rules.

Only after this initial work do I feel ready to work on the bulk of the main text. But my world building does not end until the book is complete. As I write, I continue to interrogate each setting and each scene for additional details that can help further define the world.

And here is the hardest part. Having gone through all this work of creating a brand new, incredibly cool world I know everything about, the temptation is to tell the readers as much as I know, as soon as possible. How much should I put on the page? How much do I leave unsaid?

In deciding these things, it helps me to remember that any story is first and foremost about characters. In thinking of how much detail to put into the book, I get into my character’s head and try to see the world through their eyes. Even if the world they live in is new and cool to me, it is usually very familiar to them, and the details they would notice first are not necessarily the ones that would stick out to someone seeing this world for the first time. It becomes lots of fun to identify these details, and showing them actually does volumes to highlighting the background that is not explicitly shown at all.

The golden rules I go by here are: “Less is more”, and “Show, don’t tell”.

I took the liberty of including the opening paragraphs of my new novel SHADOWBLADE, which can show examples of some of my world building:

Gassan heard the shouting from all the way down the narrow stone passageway leading to the entrance of the serai. A woman, her voice raising to a near-scream and eventually dissolving into sobs. He broke into a run, noting in passing the slanted crescent of the waning moon peeking in through the narrow window overhead. Not the average hour to expect visitors in the Daljeer command center, disguised as a scholarly hall.

The door at the end of the curving passage stood ajar. Gusts of cool night air washed through the entrance hallway, filling it with the scents of desert rosemary and creosote. As Gassan skidded around the last bend, he caught a view of the moonlit path outside, winding to the city down below. Dark shapes loomed along it, outlined against the white sand. Boulders? Odd. Just yesterday, when he arrived here from the empire’s capital for the celebration of the Sun Festival, the path had been clear. He peered closer, a chill creeping down his spine as the objects began to take shape.

Bodies. Dear Sel.

About the author: 

Anna Kashina writes historical adventure fantasy, featuring exotic settings, martial arts, assassins, and elements of romance. Her “Majat Code” series, published by Angry Robot Books, UK, received two Prism Awards in 2015. She is a Russian by origin, and a scientist in her day job, and she freely draws on these backgrounds in her writing. Her newest novel, SHADOWBLADE, is upcoming from Angry Robot Books in May, 2019.

You can learn more about Anna at her blog:

https://annakashinablog.wordpress.com/

 

 SHADOWBLADE:

 

A young sword prodigy must impersonate a lost princess and throw her life into a deadly political game, in this kinetic epic fantasy novel by the author of the award-winning Majat Code series

Naia dreams of becoming a Jaihar Blademaster, but after assaulting a teacher, her future seems ruined. The timely intervention of a powerful stranger suddenly elevates her into elite Upper Grounds training. She has no idea that the stranger is Dal Gassan, head of the Daljeer Circle. Seventeen years ago he witnessed the massacre of Challimar’s court and rescued its sole survivor, a baby girl. Gassan plans to thrust a blade into the machinations of imperial succession: Naia. Disguised as the legendary Princess Xarimet of Challimar, Naia must challenge the imperial family, and win. Naia is no princess, but with her desert-kissed eyes and sword skills she might be close enough…

Editor’s Choice Award

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.

Collapse Noise by Kate Ellis

“Collapse Noise” caught my attention this month with its precise, chilling prose; the way it pairs a tour through an NPD relationship, beginning to end, with the observer effect, Henry James, and thriller novels; and the way it deftly slides through three subgenres, muddying its trail through each of them—and all to reinforce the story it’s telling. So this month, I’d like to talk about resonance: what we achieve when we make multiple elements of a story sing together.

It’s appropriate for this story, I think, that “Collapse Noise” delicately and deliberately spends time muddying its own standing, in terms of subgenre. It transforms from a very specific subgenre of realist fiction—a tonal anatomy of a relationship, and through it, comment on something wider—to hard SF, to broad hints that this is horror fiction, and ultimately is structured like a thriller: on a third read, the “‘Sounds like you’re trying to catch someone out,’ you said” line is a howl-worthy clue. There is a great deal of work being done in a very short space in this draft, and not just on the genre level; the opening image of Narcissus is surprising, pragmatic, funny, and a little vicious, and establishes the narrative voice and the story’s tone instantly. The clues as to the partner’s nature pop out, thoroughly visible, in the rearview, and they’re blackly hilarious while still offering a chill.

It’s highly efficient work, and it’s resonant work: every piece of the construction is giving a clue, like the Carol Dean comment, on how to read this story, right now.

The prose is also in a great state for what’s marked as an early draft: it’s well-crafted but transparent enough that an intricate story stays quite readable. Lines like “class snobbery ground down to silicate” drop like elaborate icicles into the text, not detracting, just exquisite.

The piece also demonstrates a great eye for telling details, and ones that don’t just sit on the page but group to form motifs. The “gnawed finger nails, split-ends, and a burned out vibrator in a shoebox under the bed” line doesn’t just hit three solid, specific concrete details, but builds each one off the other—here are three kinds of dry, split, broken things, creating a resonance between them—to apply a deeper, more specific, and wryer metaphor to the protagonist’s state of mind. It’s a perfect analogy for the adding-up of details the protagonist does: three small things that themselves are nothing, but together are something big. Again, the text is teaching readers how to read it, how to catch on, while it’s already in flight.

It’s that resonance that ultimately feels like the key to “Collapse Noise”: the way each event on the plot layer is about both relationship and experiment, alive cat and dead cat—more like one light beam seen through two prisms than an actual bifurcation—until the effect is of one unified, urgent, consuming, tantalizing mystery. “Collapse Noise” is one thing, but visibly slides puzzle pieces between each version of the thing it’s being—between the literalism of a science fiction story about physics and the metaphoricness of a literary story about relationships, and then layers in more iterations with Turn of the Screw, thriller novels, the second-date horror movie—until it just reinforces both things it’s about: quantum physics and narcissistic gaslighting. It ultimately, slippery and clockwork, feels like both.

But what clinched this story’s effectiveness for me was that it is not just a deeply cleverly constructed puzzle, it’s one to which the answer is both relevant and urgent. It’s a plausible failure mode for short fiction to construct our puzzles well, and forget that there has to be an emotional weight to the answer, but “Collapse Noise” has asked a hard emotional question, and posits a real answer by its echoing analogies to the observer effect: “Some people think you can’t answer questions about what you can’t see […] just stop worrying and do the math.”

Because of the difficulty of the real-world questions it’s tackling—physics and gaslighting both—the complexity of “Collapse Noise” doesn’t feel put-upon or artificial, but appropriate. This is hard. The form of tackling it, narratively, will be hard too. It’s another resonance between form and content that makes this story work.

I do have some small suggestions for a next draft. I’d clarify the “‘Corral is going to shit,’ I say” line, personally—the supervisor hasn’t been mentioned before, and since “going to shit” is readable as something going down the tubes or so on, the sentence muddied for me considerably.

Likewise, I’d introduce a touch more clarity into the final paragraphs: not a total fixity, but just one more clue. There’s a state of suspense throughout that drives my readerly engagement, but I’m personally feeling the need for a touch more payoff to bring that down.

On the whole, though, this is smart, emotionally relevant, well-constructed, and ultimately passes the best test of a literary story or a thriller: it is rereadable, and delivers more depth and context and satisfaction after the first read. I think that with a little polish, this is set to find itself a good home.

Best of luck!

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

 

On The Shelves

The Red Stained Wings: Lotus Kingdoms, Book 2 by Elizabeth Bear (Tor Books May, 2019)  

Hugo Award–winning author Elizabeth Bear returns to the epic fantasy world of the Lotus Kingdoms with The Red-Stained Wings, the sequel to The Stone in the Skull, taking the Gage into desert lands under a deadly sky to answer the riddle of the Stone in the Skull.

The Gage and the Dead Man brought a message from the greatest wizard of Messaline to the ruling queen of Sarathai, one of the Lotus Kingdoms. But the message was a riddle, and the Lotus Kingdoms are at war.

Shadowblade by Anna Kashina (Angry Robot May, 2019)

A young sword prodigy must impersonate a lost princess and throw her life into a deadly political game, in this kinetic epic fantasy novel by the author of the award-winning Majat Code series

Naia dreams of becoming a Jaihar Blademaster, but after assaulting a teacher, her future seems ruined. The timely intervention of a powerful stranger suddenly elevates her into elite Upper Grounds training. She has no idea that the stranger is Dal Gassan, head of the Daljeer Circle. Seventeen years ago he witnessed the massacre of Challimar’s court and rescued its sole survivor, a baby girl. Gassan plans to thrust a blade into the machinations of imperial succession: Naia. Disguised as the legendary Princess Xarimet of Challimar, Naia must challenge the imperial family, and win. Naia is no princess, but with her desert-kissed eyes and sword skills she might be close enough…

Editor’s Choice Award April 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.

Herald Of Dawn Chapter 1 by Lucrezia Cenzatti

Writing a novel is hard, and in many ways the beginning is the hardest. The author has to set up the action, block out the setting, and introduce the characters. She also has to send the right genre signals to the reader. If those don’t hit the proper notes, the reader will leave.

Novels that fall between two or more genres face additional challenges. What works for one may not work for the other, and readers who come in with one set of expectations may not be happy to be presented with a different one. The author has to do her best to win them over, and to keep them reading.

When I made this Editor’s Choice selection, I accepted the author’s invitation to get in touch directly. I’m glad I did, because I was able to see several versions of this opening chapter. The submission we have here is the result of more than one round of workshopping, and it’s an intriguing combination of genres: urban fantasy with epic elements.

That is indeed a challenge. Urban fantasy tends to be fast-paced and contemporary, with a sharp, often snarky voice. Epic by contrast is big, scopey, relatively leisurely, and in general quite serious, though there may be moments of comic relief.

Readers who read the earlier drafts of this novel had questions about the genre signals. It wasn’t hitting enough urban fantasy notes, and the setting wasn’t well enough grounded for the genre.

This is the original opening:

For nine years, nine months and nine days, I went to bed and dreamt of Gabriel dying. A fitting punishment for the role I played in the death of my sodalis.

Nine years, nine months and nine days. A perfect cycle, according to mage traditions. After Gabriel died, I had walked away from magic, but its laws still bound me.

After nine years, nine months and nine days, I fell asleep, and I did not dream.

Quite different from the version on the site now, much sparer and less explicit about where and when. In its place we have a quick, witty line of dialogue, a careful structure of setting and backstory, and a scene that balances dream-logic, lush description, and sharply contemporary conversation.

There’s no question that this writer can write. The particular combination of elements—modern fantasy and Classical myth and legend, with special bonus Venice (one of my favorite cities in the world)—predisposes me to love it, and in both what it is and what it promises to deliver, I really rather do.

Since I am wearing my editor hat, and since I have also fought in the cross-genre wars, I have some thoughts about the submission as it appears on this site. There is another, later version, and I believe it works better while also being explicitly urban fantasy, but for this Editor’s Choice I’d like to talk about two versions we have here. One works better for me than the other, even though it’s not strictly following the “rules” of its primary genre.

The revised chapter is a sort of intermediary draft, what I might call Author’s Notes to Self. Exposition to the fore, with a number of experiments in voice—literally in the aunt’s lively aphorism and the child/Fortuna’s acerbic observations, but also in both the richness of description and the flatness of the expository passages. Overall it falls more on the side of synopsis than dramatized narrative, with everything spelled out up front, and no ambiguity about who the protagonist is or where she comes from.

That’s a perfectly acceptable way to write a draft. It answers the readers’ questions. It makes it clear the genre is urban fantasy. It pulls in the Classical underpinnings of this magic-rich world, and sets up who and what the narrator is.

It also prevents the story from starting. There’s a lot of information to process, a lot of background to absorb, before the reader has a chance to get to know the characters. Emotionally it’s rather dry and analytical. There’s wonderful story-stuff here, but it’s told in an almost academic voice.

I personally prefer the original opening, with its mysteries and ambiguities. It tells me just enough to keep me reading, and is well enough written that even so early, I find myself trusting the author to answer my questions. It’s powerful and poignant, and it has the strength of an incantation.

If I were to choose between them, I’d pick the earlier draft. The intermediate draft, emotionally and stylistically, is very nearly its diametrical opposite. The earlier version is not signaling urban fantasy, no, but there’s time to do that in the next scene or chapter. I would be happy with these lines as a prologue or a prelude, and then a shift to the main thrust of the story, with less exposition and more revelation through character action and interaction.

Mixing genres is a balancing act. Between the two versions we can see here, I could see starting with the near-poetry of the dream, then shifting to the bright light of the contemporary world. That might even become a narrative technique, shifting from one to the other, keeping a rhythm that defines the novel. Dream life, waking life. Past life, contemporary life. The distinction is already present in Ada’s estrangement from her family, and in her involuntary servitude to Fortuna. Two worlds, two lives, two narrative voices.

Whatever the author decides to do, I’d like to add one last rather contrarian observation, which is that the rules of writing—including the rules of genre signaling—are never actually set in stone. Certain conventions do apply, but if the author knows them well, understands them deeply, and makes a conscious decision to bend or break them, she may be able to get away with it. Yes, if an agent or publisher says Do Not Do This, you’re wise to follow instructions. But in general? Go with your author’s instinct. Do what works for your story.

This is especially true for work that crosses genres. Sometimes you can combine the rules and conventions, or you can find a workable compromise. Other times, you may have to make your own. If you do it well enough, and win over enough readers, you may find that you’ve created a new subgenre.

After all, what we think of now as urban fantasy grew out of other subgenres before it, accreted rules and conventions and became an established genre. Before it was its own thing, authors who wrote that way were “doing it wrong,” too—until others followed their example, and their way became the right way.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award April 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.

So Far From Home Chapter 7 by L. K. Pinaire

This submission has a lot of good things going on. The variety of aliens, the thought that’s gone into depicting their physiology and psychology as well as the human protagonist’s interactions with them, the acknowledgment that they all speak different languages and there’s no easy out via a universal translator. At the same time they find common ground through human cultural references, notably poker and sex workers.

I might ask whether alien species would necessarily be binary, or whether they would be inclined to buy and sell their reproductive rituals and if so whether it would be the females who were sold, but since this is a single chapter of a much longer work, it’s possible that question has been answered elsewhere. Here I’ll focus on the prose and the execution, on the way the chapter reads, and what I think might help it read more smoothly and clearly.

Often when we’re writing a draft, we get focused on what’s right in front of us, word by word and sentence by sentence. Human memory being what it is, especially if we’re writing in fits and spurts around our daily lives, we forget what we just said, even while we retain an overall idea of what we’re trying to say. It’s pretty common for a draft to pop up with word and phrase echoes—verbatim or near-verbatim repetitions within a sentence or two. This is a good example:

Ashee frowned and looked across the table. “Are we playing cards or talking?”

I dealt the next hand and looked around the table.

The word looked is a frequent flyer in this chapter. Characters do a lot of looking. When it comes time for the final polish, it might be worthwhile to think about varying not just the word but the action itself. What other things can characters do as they interact with each other and their surroundings?

Watch for odd images and visualizations that make the reader stop and back up:

The diminutive Dweller’s long scraggly hair hid his dark skin, pronounced forehead, bulging frogeyes, and high cheekbones.

That’s a lot of territory for scraggly hair to cover. Wouldn’t his skin color be visible elsewhere than his face? Can he see through his hair? Is it really important for us to know the exact details of his features, since they supposedly aren’t visible?

A little bit later,

Ashee pursed his lips under his bulbous eyes, like someone suppressing a grin.

Are his lips directly below his eyes? No nose or other facial features between them?

There’s some awkward phrasing, too, that could be smoothed and clarified in revision.

Facing forward, he turned his eyes back like a frog and might have been looking at the ceiling behind him.

It took me a minute to parse the sentence and figure out what he’s doing. Breaking up the clauses and separating the different actions into their own sentence-space might make the meaning clearer.

Here’s another sentence that made me stop and reread:

A sly smile worked its way from his tiny lips, forcing the corners upward.

I’m not quite sure about the logistics of the smile. It almost seems to exist independently of his lips—like the stet, which is a fascinating concept.

It is rather awkwardly described as his other half, the opaque, apparition-like portion of him, and the name has some odd resonances for editors and proofreaders, since it’s the word we use to refuse an editor’s change. It means “let it stand.” Is that intentional?

In any case that’s not the only action or reaction that seems to have independent existence:

He gave me a matter-of-fact expression

as if a facial expression were a solid object that could be given by one person to another. In the context of the stet it almost makes sense.

The habit of stating what a thing is, comma, then defining it makes for somewhat uneven, choppy reading.

Tiem stood and raised his grippers, the ones that were his equivalents of hands

might read more smoothly if it were tightened into something like raised his hand-like grippers.

Overall, the pacing of the chapter could be quicker. The poker game as a way of sharing a human cultural phenomenon and bonding with the disparate members of the crew is a good idea. With tightening and focus, smoothing and clarifying the prose, it could become a great one.

One thing to look for in revision is the way characters repeat the same actions and reactions in between chunks of exposition, often in the form of dialogue. Character asks a leading question, other character Explains Stuff.

Some spoken explanations can work well, but even a little too much can turn a conversation into a lecture. When that happens, the plot stalls. Shorter, more concise explanations and even a quick line or two of straight narrative containing the details that the reader needs to know at this particular point, can help get the story moving again, and moving along more briskly, too.

Another reliable plot-mover is variety. While a poker game does consist of a lot of repeated activity, in revision it can be useful to pick out different details in each repetition. That way the reader gets a more rounded, varied view of what’s going on. Think of it as changing the camera angle within the scene, showing different sides of the action.

There’s a lot of potential here, and some good ideas and worldbuilding. Best of luck, and happy revising!
–Judith Tarr

Member News Of Note

OWW’s own Aliette de Bodard won a British Science Fiction Association award for her non-fiction essay “On motherhood and erasure:people-shaped holes, hollow characters and the illusion of impossible adventures” published in Intellectus Speculativus blog.

Congratulations, Aliette!

 

Editor’s Choice Award April 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.

 

The Vampire Mystique by Steve Brady

The moments that stand out for me in this story juxtapose normal-sounding sentiments with violent, disturbing sentiments. As I read along with my guard down, coming upon these violent thoughts creates a powerful (and entertaining) shock; for example, “My casual-friendly voice is good, even though I plan to eventually torture him to death.” The sentence takes us from a person concerned about his tone of voice to one planning murder. That works really well. More than providing a shock, such moments reveal character and reflect the unique type of horror this character embodies (which I would describe as mundane horror, meaning horror intertwined with mundane, everyday elements). I really enjoyed this aspect of the story.

An area of the story that I think could be improved is tone. Some parts of the story create a dark, disturbing tone. For example, the description of the detained men castrating a fellow inmate is disturbing. Other parts create an absurd tone. For example, the opening scene feels absurd to me, with Darren thinking that putting a dead squirrel in a mailbox is a horribly evil deed. His actions there seem kind of pathetic to me. The disturbing tone and the absurd tone don’t work well together. Each weakens the other. If the story is meant to be disturbing and horrific, then we need those qualities throughout, and they need to grow stronger as the story progresses. If the story is mean to be absurd, then, similarly, we need absurdity throughout that grows stronger. If the story is mean to offer some sort of mix, then the two qualities need to be mixed in each scene rather than alternating, first one and then the other, so the story feels unified and we understand how to read the story.

As is, I don’t feel I know how to read the story. Parts of the story seem to indicate that the first-person narrator, Darren, is a threat. The two strongest pieces of evidence of this are his removal of the stop sign that leads to someone being killed and his plan to blow up burger restaurants. The only thing that seems to stop him from blowing up the restaurants is being arrested by the police because he happens to be driving a car owned by someone wanted by the police (this is not part of a strong causal chain–but that’s another topic for another day). Would he have gone through with it if he hadn’t been arrested? I think so, but then he doesn’t actually do anything violent in the story. So I’m left uncertain what I’m supposed to think about him and his violent tendencies. The story seems to be promising me (in places, anyway) a story about a very violent man–and I’m reading the story because I like horror–so I’m disappointed when there is no violence and the character doesn’t seem violent.

If Darren is supposed to be an unreliable narrator who thinks of himself as an elite, violent man but is actually a loser who plays little tricks on people, then that needs to be clearer. In this case, the burger restaurant plot doesn’t seem to fit. If he thinks about it, he should discard it because he doesn’t know how to make rockets and end up instead sticking a dead squirrel in a sesame-seed bun and putting in in the restaurant for someone to find. And if he removes a stop sign and someone dies in the resulting car accident, I think he wouldn’t feel good about that. He might repress it or explain it away somehow, rather than celebrating it. I feel pulled back and forth between the two tones and the two views of the character.

One place where I did get a strong sense of Darren as an unreliable narrator was when he thought, “I’ll research this thing about eyes once I get a chance.” But this implied to me that he was much more evil than he knew, lacking normal eyes and a soul. It didn’t suggest that he was less evil than he believed, which I think is what the story is ultimately going for.

One way to convey that, in addition to changing the burger restaurant plan and the reaction to the stop sign death, would be to have another character point it out. The lawyer, Clifford, could mention that he’s trying to negotiate freedom for Darren because Darren isn’t like the others being locked up for life; Darren is harmless. Darren could wonder what Clifford is talking about; of course he’s not harmless. But that could let the reader know that Darren is deluded.

The ending seems to be aimed at frightening us with the possibility that Darren will someday get free. But I’m not frightened, since Darren doesn’t seem like much of a threat. So the end fizzles for me. If the ending is intended to be humorous and make me laugh at Darren’s absurd, grandiose self-image, then the absurdity needs to be carried through more consistently, and Darren needs to be shown to be an unreliable loser. If the end is intended to make me to feel sad over his deluded view of himself, then the story needs to show how these delusions ruin a life that otherwise might have promise.

The other area I’d like to discuss is flow. When a passage flows, each sentence prepares us for the next. It makes us curious about something, and the next sentence discusses that something we’re curious about, so we’re pulled ahead through the text. The order and organization of information is critical in creating flow.

Most of the story flows pretty well. But there are a few places where the flow breaks down. Let’s look at this passage:

“Exhausted from helping her brother Jamie with his depression, she relied on me for support before the study. Still oppressed by the compassion disease, I earnestly sought not only to comfort her, but to connect with her brother. Grumpy and resistant at first, he succumbed month by month to my sincerity and gentle humor.”

The first sentence is about Rose (“she”). It makes me curious about how she is doing now that she hasn’t had the narrator’s support for some time. I’m expecting the second sentence to tell me more about Rose and how she’s coping. So when I read, “Still oppressed by . . .” I think that is describing Rose. It’s not until after the comma that I learn this phrase is about the narrator (“I”). When I get to that point and realize I have misread the sentence, I have to go back to the start of the sentence and re-read, now knowing it is about the narrator. The same thing happens when I start the third sentence. I think you are talking about the narrator and only after the comma discover this sentence is about the brother. So I have to go back and re-read. Part of the problem is the periodic sentence structure, which provides the subject later in the sentence. Part of the problem is that the idea discussed in one sentence doesn’t prepare us for the idea in the next sentence. The first sentence, as I mentioned, makes me want to know how Rose is doing. The second sentence makes me want to know what overtures Darren made to Jamie. So the passage makes me want to know things that it doesn’t then provide, and instead it feels like it’s tossing random bits of information my way, so I have to get re-interested with each sentence in something new.

Giving flow a little more thought as you revise could be very helpful. I have an essay here (http://blog.janicehardy.com/2019/01/uncovering-mysteries-of-narrative-flow.html) that discusses flow in a little more depth.

I hope my comments are helpful. I enjoy the fresh take on the vampire that you’re developing here.

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

Grapevine/Market News

Nightscape Press has several open submission calls for a short story anthology, a Best of New Weird 2018 Anthology, and the Nightscape Charity Line. Payment is different for each open call, as are open and close dates. Full details are found here. 

Paper Butterfly Flash fiction is open to flash stories of up to 1,000 words, from any genre, until April 30, 2019. Payment is a flat $10 CD. Full details are found here.

 

Publication News

Anne Wrightwell wrote to say that she had a horror/fantasy short story published as an ebook by Demain Publishing, a new Horror publisher, on 31 March 2019.  The story is titled “A Monster Met” and Anne used the pen name Liz Tuckwell for this story.