Publication News

Gregor Hartmann has some great news: ““Heaven Looks Down on the Tomb,” which was critiqued here in 2014, appears in the July-August issue of Interzone. I’d like to thank Karl Bunker, Mike Canice, Allan Dyen-Shapiro, Robert Graves, Clint Spivey, and Katie Sweet for their comments.”

Congratulations, Gregor!

Writing Challenge/Prompt

The changes you see in the place where you live are gradual, and at first, you’re not certain those changes are real. Animals, birds, insects, even plants, look and act differently, grow faster and larger. At times you think they’re watching you and your neighbors. At times you think they’re planning something.What you don’t understand is how, or why.

Put a character in the middle of this scenario and write a story.

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).

Grapevine/Market News

Third Flatiron is open for submissions to their themed anthology Longevity from July 10- August 3, 2019. They are looking for stories between 1,500 and 3,000 words long, and pay rate is 8 cents a word. Full guidelines are here.

Miscreations is open to submissions and will close again August 31, 2019. They are looking for horror stories of between 2,000 and 5,000 words, and payment is 5 cents per word. You can find full guidelines here.

Deep Magic is now open for submissions and will close again on September 30, 2019. Payment is 6 cents per word  and payment is capped at 10,000 words. They also buy reprints at 2 cents per word. Full guidelines are here.

 

Editor’s Choice Award July 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 and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Snake Head by C.K. Attner

“Snake Head” drew me in this month with its examination of violence and what makes strength in an eerie, evocative, brutal little world. It draws a swift, sympathetic picture through implication, but doesn’t quite resolve in the final paragraphs—and the author’s notes aren’t sure about where to take the story next. So this month, I’d like to discuss building our capacity to figure out why a piece isn’t quite landing right: one way to diagnose which direction to move with a draft where it’s unclear what isn’t working.

The standout feature of “Snake Head” is definitely the atmosphere: Huey’s narrative arc isn’t precisely a new one, but the tiny universe he’s trying to escape drips and molders and curls around the edges, bolstered by the persistent use of physical, bodily metaphors: water that “smells like armpit”, the sun biting down. The snakeskin peeling like sunburn is palpable in my fingertips. “Muscles cocked” is just up to the line of potentially overdone, but in context, it really works: a body like a weapon. The effect is that the entire seaside world of “Snake Head” feels like a human body: humid and vulnerable, breakable down to parts, a site for hurt.

That reinforces the slow accretion of details and incidents that build up to the choice Huey makes—and fails. There’s a sense in which the quiet of this story both underscores and balances out, at the same time, its brutality. Taken together, Able’s winced-away-from sexual coercion, Uncle Pete’s violent wolverine stories, and parents who keep having children just because slaves are too much trouble—because slaves fight back—paint a horrifying picture. But the way that information is dripped out even over a rather short piece, the emotional quiet with which Huey conveys it, help keep that brutality from being a full-on slap into readers’ faces (or at least, it did for this reader).

There’s a concern in the author’s notes about present tense, but for me, that choice also works well. Tense and person choices are fundamentally, when we break them down, about whether the basic effects and associations readers have with that tense work with or against the kind of story we’re trying to tell. One of the big pluses of present tense can be a sense of immediacy and vividness; “Snake Head” capitalizes on that feeling with its imagery, its slightly shocky emotional tone, and centering around a question of ethical choice—what will Huey do in this moment? That means the present tense is working with the other elements of the story, not against them: what it brings to the table resonates with, backs up, and strengthens what other aspects of craft are trying to create.

The key here is how these elements reinforce each other: the metaphor set in agreement with the emotional tone and thematics, the narrative style in agreement with the core question about ethics and kindness and power, the tense agreeing with the tone. All those points of craft, every choice that was made about them, are pulling as a team toward specific goals.

Where “Snake Head” isn’t firing on all cylinders yet, I think—and this is the diagnostic!—is where elements aren’t pulling with that team, or are pulling away from it, diverting focus.

There’s a small confusion as to the supernatural element—or lack thereof—in “Snake Head”: if there’s a power in Fayt’s gaze or if he’s functionally just the first basically kind person Hugh’s ever met, and Hugh’s desperation to know why all the violence of his family doesn’t seem to touch this man is less about the supernatural than emotional strength and different systems of power. I think it’s not precisely a weakness to have that slightly unclear, but it’s enough of a small confusion to help create a split in the story’s focus.

That split grows into an open question of what “Snake Head” is centred on: whether it’s the idea of the snake head—something that can still poison even dead, a relic of violence, violence’s reach—or the image of the gaze, of the idea of being seen, the eye. Those ideas aren’t exactly in competition, but they’re the elements that I think aren’t yet working in tandem in the ways the present tense does with the imagery and thematics. They fork instead, and as I reader, I’m not sure which one is the one to put weight on, to make the central image in my head.

That’s why the last lines fall flat for me. It ends on the eye, but I’m not sure “Snake Head” was built on the eye. I’m told, as a reader, this was the way to go, which makes me wonder if the early symbol—prompted by the title!—was the wrong thing to centre.

I think it’s thoroughly repairable, and probably without too much rewriting: the only thing that needs doing is to find a way to make the central image of “Snake Head” pull together with all the other elements of craft—unify it, and unify the story with it. It’s possible to not choose one or the other, but both, here: there’s already the ghost of a link between the snake heads—”lizard eyes”—and the silver-gold eyes of the Geemoh people, and that might work too, because it finds a way to get both those elements back on the team.

But largely this is a question of decision-making: sifting through what the early draft has to find what the finished draft wants to say, and how. It’s the diagnostic process—asking people for eyes, yes, but also charting which bundles of ideas go in the same direction—that can help identify that message, and the ways to get it out that are already building themselves within the story.

Best of luck with the piece!

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

On The Shelves

Portals edited by Patrica Bray and S. C. Butler, with stories by Ian Tregillis and others. (Zombies Need Brains, June 2019) 

The lure of an open doorway is hard to resist. What lies beyond? Where will it take you—and how will you be transformed? Will it lead to paradise…or a living hell? You’ll never know, unless you have the courage to take that first step.

In this anthology you will find sixteen stories of portals to exotic destinations, whether it’s a doorway in the desert that appears out of thin air, a fairy ring of mushrooms in the backyard, a crack in the road, or a train headed straight to Hell. Science fiction and fantasy authors Nancy Holzner, Esther Friesner, Ian Tregillis, Jacey Bedford, John Linwood Grant, Kate Hall, Gini Koch, Violette Malan, Juliet Kemp, James Enge, Steven Harper, F. Brett Cox, Jaime Lee Moyer, Jason Palmatier, Andrija Popovic, and Patrick Hurley invite you to step through a host of doorways to other realities with infinite possibilities, some horrible, some comic, and some just plain weird.

So take my hand—not too tight!—and let’s journey into another world. The door is open. The portal awaits.

Editor’s Choice Award June 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 and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

The Way Of Lightning And Fire by J. S. Bradley

 

I’m doing something a bit different with this Editor’s Choice. After I selected it, the author reached out to let me know he had completely rewritten the piece. The revision is here.

That’s the one I’m going to focus on, and that’s the source of the quotations below, though my review (because of the way the system is set up) is tied to the original version.

The revision does one major structural thing I would have recommended if I’d only had the first version to work with: it replaces summary and synopsis (what the author in his note calls “narrative”) with a trio of dramatized scenes. This is a wise decision. It tightens the focus of the story and brings its events and characters to life.

I have questions about the ordering of the scenes in the revision: chronologically, they’re presented as 1 – 3 – 2. We experience the revelation of Milica’s fate along with Kresnik, then we circle back around to his final moments with her before he went away to become his competent and confident adult self. The last line seems meant to pierce us with its irony.

It does, to a degree, but I need more clarity as to what happens when, and why it’s being told in that particular order. Some connection, a segue from the one scene to the next—perhaps a line or phrase that shifts Kresnik from his adult self back to his childhood.

It might help also to have a bit at the beginning of the middle/adult scene which clarifies why he’s come back—something to suggest that there’s more going on in Kresnik’s mind and memory than we’re initially told. At that point in the story we don’t know about that night in the barn, but Kresnik does. If there’s a hint of it in the early part of the scene, we may not pick up on it when we encounter it, but it will resonate when we have the full context.

It’s certainly a powerful story, and the revised version twists the knife in multiple ways: Kresnik’s innocence in the beginning, his mature self facing the consequences of what happened on that terrible day, and the interaction with his sister that shapes and colors his reactions—and ours—to both. Because it’s so powerful, and because the story is so short, the prose needs to be finely tuned and highly polished. It wants to be; it tries for unusual effects and strong images. In both the original and the revised version, it’s not quite there.

One suggestion I would make would be to think about the prevalence of rhetorical questions. It’s part of Kresnik’s thought process, his internal monologue.

What in all of creation was going on?

How could she leave him now?

He’d never make it that far though.  Would he?  Was it stupid to leave?  What if he regretted it?  What if he stayed, and Milica was hurt?  What if she was killed?   

Is it really necessary for him to ask these questions? Does the rest of the narrative convey his thoughts and feelings clearly enough? If not, are there other, more varied, and perhaps more concise ways to do it?

(Sidebar: I’m not an advocate of the death penalty for inserting two spaces after a period or full stop, but it’s gone rather firmly out of fashion. One space is the general rule in this decadent age.)

I’d further suggest paying very close attention to the nuances of words and phrases, and making sure they mean exactly what they need to mean in context. Watch for awkward phrasing, and look out for echoes and repetitions, for slack constructions and tautologies. Every word, every phrase should earn its place in the text, and every one should be just the right one.

For example,

a scowl dug trenches along the corners of the Marm’s thin lips

is vivid and unusual, but a scowl happens in the upper part of the face, the forehead, the eyebrows, and to an extent the eyes. By the time it gets down to the lips it’s a grimace. The choice of words is not quite as precise as it might be, while at the same time the level of detail, the digging of trenches, slows down the movement of the story and focuses it on the image rather than on what’s happening in the scene.

The meanings of words tend to slip, and images get confused or confusing:

A heartbeat contracted within his ear canals

It’s the heart that contracts, rather than its beat, and the heart is located in the chest, not in the ears.

At the corners of her eyes the crevices carved deeper in

It’s not clear what “the crevices” are, or what carves them, or what they signify.

And in the same sentence,

the eyes of his classmates showing an assortment of positions on the spectrum between boredom and interest

mixes the metaphor of eyes, emotions, and positions; it might be simpler and stronger just to say something like, “His classmates’ eyes ran the spectrum from boredom to interest.” Fewer words, more precision. Less confusion of meaning and image.

Sometimes images could be toned down, as well.

The Marm’s mouth fell open and her eyelids shot up, exposing the full circles of her dusky irises.  The tendons of her neck jutted outward like string beneath parchment. 

There’s so much going on here, so many disparate actions, so many similes and metaphors, that the reader loses the thread of the narrative. Think about choosing one of these images, the one that most clearly conveys the emotional impact of the moment, and leaving the rest to implication. If it’s the right image, the reader will pick up the rest.

One last note: the characters SHOUTING IN ALL CAPS. The usual convention for that level of emphasis is the use of italics. Even those are best used sparingly and may not be needed at all.

In general, especially in a story that relies so heavily on figurative language and stylistic flourishes, it can be useful to apply the principle of Less is More. Let the choice of words and the structure of sentences provide the emphasis, assisted by judicious bits of stage business. The story is strong and the characters are memorable. With some work and attention, the prose will take care of the rest.

–Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Award June 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 and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

The Dark Horizon Chapter One by Taylor Preston

This opening chapter sends good, solid space-opera signals: the spaceship on the wrong side of the law, the daring raid, the bits of background both technical and political. There’s one female protagonist in an otherwise all-male crew, but other women characters may show up later to even out the gender balance.

A couple of things might help make this a stronger, punchier opening, and they’re both related to the portrayal of the protagonist. The first is the handling of viewpoint, and the second is the art of writing active prose.

When we’re introduced to Zara, we get frequent reminders that she’s our viewpoint character. She stares, wonders, extends her faculties, knows, thinks; her pulse quickens, she’s on edge, she has trouble concentrating, and so on through the chapter. A favorite word crops up here—nervous; it will recur at intervals, and apply to other characters as well as Zara. (We all have a favorite word; when we revise, one of the first things we do is run a global search to see how many times we’ve used it.)

Viewpoint is important in this chapter. One of Zara’s jobs is to monitor other characters when they’re off the ship. She has to juggle multiple sets of sensory input, while also flying the ship and watching out for enemy action.

It’s a challenge for the author as well as the character to keep all of these balls in the air at once. In addition to frequent viewpoint-tagging, we get examples of Zara’s struggles with the level of multitasking she has to do. It’s a big job with a lot of responsibilities.

In revision it might be worth rethinking some of this. First, can some of these jobs be assigned to other members of the crew, or can some of them be done by the ship itself? If the ship is being flown by an AI, that gives Zara more mental room to monitor the mission on the Calypso. (And if the ship doesn’t have an AI or autopilot, that’s an important piece of worldbuilding; we’ll need a hint here as to why.)

Also think about Zara’s competence—her qualifications for the job. Is she performing in accordance with her pay grade? Are her struggles with multiple data inputs appropriate for someone who presumably was hired to do this particular thing?

Note how often she’s taken by surprise during the mission (surprise is another favorite word). If she’s being asked to do a job she’s not trained sufficiently to do, that’s a plot point, as well as a danger to the rest of the crew. Will this be an issue later in the novel? Has she padded her resume, or claimed qualifications she doesn’t have? If so, it might help to clarify this here.

If not, then again it’s rethinking time. What should Zara know if she is qualified to do this job? How should she handle the various responsibilities? If she struggles, what strong, plot-related reason can she have for not being able to do her job?

Zara’s struggles with her job are somewhat similar to the author’s struggles with establishing viewpoint. The frequency of viewpoint tags, especially in the opening paragraphs, not only reminds the reader that Zara is the protagonist, but also injects the author into the narrative. “You know what I mean? You get it? You sure?”

I’d suggest reducing the number of tags. Trust the reader to know who is telling the story. Provide at most one viewpoint word per paragraph, and let the rest happen without the filter of Zara’s senses. They’re still there in the background, but they only need to come to the fore when it’s particularly important to know that she’s doing the thinking and feeling.

In action-adventure fiction, the more immediate the reader’s experience, the more compelling it tends to be. The reader wants to feel as if she’s living the adventure with the characters. If she catches sight of the author behind the curtain, she may lose that feeling, and be thrown out of the story.

Strong, clear, active prose is particularly important in action scenes. Tight writing is key. No excess wordage. Whatever is there has to be there.

When we met Alex and Karl, for example, we get a description of each man. The scene is tense; they’re about to head off on a dangerous mission. But the narrative stops for a pair of visual snapshots. Do we need those particular details in that particular place? What one detail might sum up each character—a contrast, perhaps, between the way each one moves or talks or acts toward Zara? If that detail is relevant right then, it’s memorable. It sets us up for how the two crewmen will handle the mission, and it also helps establish how Zara perceives each of them.

During the mission, sharper, more concise writing will help build tension and enhance the suspense. For example, does Zara need to tell the men what they already know about the timing? Can a brief line of narrative replace the dialogue? Something like: They only had X minutes to get in and out before the AI caught on.

Likewise, do we need Zara’s extended description of what each man is feeling, with its repetitions of nervous and surprise and its passive verb constructions? Can each be condensed into a short sentence, one about how different Alex is inside than she thought, and the other about how accurately she’s always read Karl? It might even be possible to combine the two into one rapid and effective sentence.

Short, strong, active—keep those words in mind during revision. Think too about how much exposition and backstory the scene needs, and whether that, too, might be tightened and condensed and focused. What do we absolutely need to know right here and now in order to understand what’s going on, and what can wait until later in the narrative? Is there one specific detail that contains all the others, and can that be conveyed clearly and simply, with an active verb and minimal repetition of words? That’s the one to keep. The reader will pick up on the rest.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award June 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 and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Ginny Mambo by Michael Keyton

There are a lot of things to like in this submission. The idea of the old-style noir detective in a modern setting—I’ve always liked stories about time-traveling characters. The elements of voodoo, starring Baron Samedi. The dark, complicated plot with language to match.

The author notes that “Ginny Mambo” is the first installment in a series of short stories about Clay Cross, and therefore it “demands some backstory/context.” Backstory is good, and useful, and important. The trick is to figure out what constitutes backstory and what belongs in the foreground, and then to balance story-past and story-present in a way that makes sense to the reader and does justice to both.

With the first story in a series, it’s even more important to be clear about the main elements. One of these would be the fact that Clay is a literal anachronism transported from the Forties to the present. There is some mention of this, but it tends to get lost in the intricacies of the prose, between the atmospheric setting and Clay’s own verbal idiosyncrasies. It might help to have an additional reference or two to the era he comes from and the one he finds himself in—in so many words, with the kind of clarity and concision that marks the author’s note. Not a lot, not repeated over and over, but just a bit more to underscore who he is and how he got here.

Once we’re clearer about Clay, we may want to be clearer about Ginny Mambo as well. She’s talked about in every scene, and her minions make regular appearances until we get the grand reveal of the monster herself. What I as a reader am missing is a sense of direct experience. People are telling each other (and by extension me) about this powerful antagonist, and telling each other how dangerous she is, but the real danger happens mostly offstage.

I wanted a good, solid flashback in the first scene or two, maybe the time when Clay was encanted into the bottle, and the time when Ginny transformed from woman into reptile, with—even if just a line or two—a snapshot of the damage she did. If we see Ginny in an early scene, however brief, we have an investment in Clay and company’s mission. We know what they’re facing. Tension builds as her minions break through in scene after scene. Then the final scene hits with heightened force.

Talking about important events in general, rather than letting them happen onstage, is a technique best used sparingly. Somewhat paradoxically, conversations that don’t happen, such as this one,

Sheri was doing my job for me, asking questions. Jake had drunk here. He’d been one of the ‘characters’, those who others paid to laugh at and feel good about themselves. Only Jake had a secret, something worth killing for, and it had something to do with a detachable leg,

might work better if they’re written out as dialogue. It’s all about balance and story-movement and our word of the day, clarity.

Clarity is a crucial tool in the storyteller’s box, and clarity in language is as important as clarity in plotting and structure. Clay has unusual verbal mannerisms that are meant to contribute to his fish-out-of-water vibe, and they’re also aimed at a wry, noir sort of humor. This is cool and ambitious and can be very effective, but it needs careful and meticulous handling.

One particular device that shows up in multiple places is ongoing embroidery of thoughts and images.

I was talking about the book in her hand, not the small screen permanently on mute. Screens are for stumblebums grazing on chicken fry or breeding the new feral horde. Give me a book I can open or close, occasionally burn. In my experience screens regurgitate lies and salacious tattle from broads with more silicon than brain. Jeez. I like a broad with something to hold. I just don’t want to be knocked of my seat when they turn.

Sometimes words and phrases repeat.

Mind you, things could have been worse, like being trapped as a hairdresser or worse. Guess I was grateful. Like I said, things could have been worse.

There’s an incantatory rhythm in this kind of prose, but it tends to clog the gears of the story. While the character jumps from one thought to the next, sometimes cycling back through the same words and phrases, sometimes bouncing off on a tangent, the plot loses focus. It can’t move forward.

Combined with Clay’s unique figurative constructions—

her lips like two dark cherries holding a worm

A lot of water has flown under the bridge since then

She smiled and my brains turned to ice cream

the recursive style creates an unusual and suitably dark atmosphere with the occasional flash of gonzo wit. But a little goes a long way. When the same images repeat—the dress that can raise the dead, the brains turning to frozen dairy dessert—the repetition may weaken rather than strengthen the effect. Once is wow. Twice or more is Ya get it? Ya get it? HEY!

It might be helpful to weave in new images, or change the original ones in unexpected ways. Or simply let the image stand by itself and drop down to neutral narration for a bit before shifting back to figurative language.

The potential is there. I see it in this lovely passage:

The boy walked with a demure swagger, his body almost touching Clay’s. Flirtatious, I thought. Dangerous.

That’s the way to do it. Deft, clear, and perfectly to the point.

–Judith Tarr

Grapevine/Market News

Truancy is a semipro market for revised folktales, legends, myth, and retelling of traditional narratives. They are reading for issues 6 and 7 until September 30,2019. They pay 2 cents per word for stories between 1,000 and 3,000 words, and a flat $15 for poetry. Full guidelines are here.

Frozen Wavelets is an e-zine of speculative flash fiction and poetry. They are looking for flash no longer than 750 words, and poems 10 lines or less. Payment for flash is 6 cents per word and submissions open July 1st. Full information is here.